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A match made in . . . heaven?

03 January 2012

Is this debate edifying, wonders Hugh Rayment-Pickard

Objecting to God
Colin Howson

CUP £50 (hbk); £17.99 (pbk)
(978-0-521-76835-1 hbk)
(978-0-521-18665-0 pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £45; £16.20

Gunning for God: Why the new atheists are missing the target
John C. Lennox

Lion £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

FOR anyone who has still got the stomach for it, here are two more books telling us why we should or shouldn’t believe in God.

The books could hardly be more starkly opposed: John Lennox (an Oxford mathematician) is an ardent believer, and Colin Howson (a professor of philosophy) is a passionate atheist. But, strangely, the authors resemble each other in their opposition. From the outset, each is utterly convinced of the intellectual strength of his arguments and the obvious idiocy of the opposition. And each appears genuinely astonished that any intelligent and honest person could hold a view different from his.

Howson cannot understand why people still believe in God, when David Hume demonstrated “very clearly”, 250 years ago, that theism is illogical. Lennox thinks that the evidence for the resurrection is so blindingly obvious that even the mighty Richard Dawkins is afraid to discuss it.

Each author is appalled by the moral character of his opponents. Howson thinks that criticism of Professor Dawkins has become so vitriolic and unpleasant that it is now “an international blood sport”. (Yes, that really is his phrase.) Professor Dawkins is, Howson says, a “tireless and gifted” scientist who has been “mocked, judged and — metaphorically — crucified.”

Lennox says of Professor Dawkins that he has completely abandoned “any pretence of scholarly thor­ough­ness” and displays “abysmal ignorance”, and that he and his fellow-atheists are guilty of an “ill-tempered onslaught” on God.

After putting these books down, I was left longing for the courteous tone of St Paul before the Areopagus, arguing for God by appealing to the moral and intellectual integrity of his listeners.

For two books that agree on absolutely nothing, they match each other perfectly in shifts of tone and register: by turns belligerent as they set our their case, then incredulous at the stupidity of others, then appalled and saddened at the deficiencies of the opposition. Both agree at least that debating with the opposition is like talking to a brick wall. “Many people will never be convinced, however good the arguments,” Howson says. Lennox despairs of the “sheer closed-mind prejudice” of the atheists who refuse to engage with the biblical evidence.

The shared assumption behind these books is that the question of God can be settled by logical analysis. But the very existence of these books, one arguing for the logical necessity of theism and the other for its logical impossibility, shows that logic settles very little. Brilliant arguments, it seems, can be raised for both positions — a point that Hume made when he quipped that reason is able to furnish invincible arguments against itself.

If these books are anything to go by, there is a need to shift the debate about God on to a new terrain, far away from this unedifying and arid mental contest. However this happens, much more listening needs to take place.

It is worth remembering that the case for God has always been made most powerfully through acts of sacrificial love. And the earliest Christians argued their case

through martyrdom. The belief in God is a decision to love, and, like all decisions to love, is not made simply by weighing evidence and applying logic — which is not to say that the consideration of facts and reason is irrelevant. It is just that these sorts of argument can never be decisive.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of 50 Key Concepts in Theology (DLT, 2007).

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