August 22, 2013

The God Debate: Shiner Versus Krauss

In the documentary Collision, Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens traverse the USA debating whether or not God exists.  University campuses, town halls, churches.  The conversation continues, amicably enough, in the car rides and plane trips the two must make together.  Wilson (Pastor/Theologian/Writer/Slightly Weird Guy) and Hitchens (Writer/Journalist/Critic) get on rather well, far better than their respective crowds seem to.  The most striking feature of the doco, however, is not their public debates, feisty though they are, nor is it their respect for each other’s opinion, abhorrent though they hold them to be, but a minor scene in which Wilson and Hitchens discuss the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Hitchens, who was educated in an Anglican boarding school in the UK, is intrigued by Wilson’s exegesis of the story, unpacking it for what it is: Jesus indictment of Israel’s endemic racism, in which they fail to understand God’s grace as it is extended to those who are different to they, and who are, in fact hostile to them. Hitchens is intrigued. “Really?” he says, “I thought it was just about being kind to your neighbour.”  It struck me there and then that for all Hitchens sophistication about many matters across the political/social/religious spectra, his understanding of the Bible was probably stuck at the prep school stage of a – probably – slightly beetle-browed, dampish, fairly liberal Anglican boarding school. For all  his towering intellect and strength of observation, it was as it he had glanced at the Bible when young, and, as youth are wont to do, decided that it was worth no more than that – a glance.

If I could sum up the excellent public conversation hosted by City Bible Forum at the Perth Town Hall last night between renowned physicist, best-selling author and celebrated atheist Laurence Krauss, and Rory Shiner, a local Perth lad, who is both friend, occasional colleague and a highly gifted preacher, writer and thinker, it would be that difference; the difference between glance and observation. It was much more than that of course, but for the sake of this post, that’s what I will focus on, for it’s an important distinction. But first some background.

The debate itself  (not a strict debate, more of a to-ing and fro-ing after a fifteen minute monologue each) was a spirited, but friendly affair, with a backdrop of the families having dinner together the night before, some bonhomie about kids, general niceties and some fun in that CBF’s gift to Krauss was a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, something, he wryly observed, would never be offered by Christians in his homeland, the US.  The town hall was packed with a thin centre aisle allowing as many chairs as possible.  Alas no ushers on the door asking “Friends of the Theist? Friends of the Atheist?”  It was moderated by Channel Ten news anchor Narelda Jacobs, and overseen by CBF’s Paul Whitfield and Leni McMillan. Top marks for putting on a good show. Krauss probably took the points in the parry and thrust of the post-monologue Q and A with his smiling assassin routine replete with grand flourishes and an ability to milk the audience. He is a populist thinker and there is good reason his books are global best-sellers – he’d be a great dinner party guest.   Rory, however, was quite simply brilliant – breath-taking even – in his fifteen minute monologue.  There was a depth of knowledge, a high level of literary and philosophical criticism, a winsomeness, and an oratory that made me proud to know him, and wonder how he got the time to come up with that, given his heavy schedule.

And that is where the difference between observation and glance comes in. Krauss’s overview of why there is probably no God, and no need for one, covered a lot of ground. It was, if not robust, rambunctious and quick to point out flaws in the Theist’s argument, piling up anecdote after anecdote about how, for example, Theism has been reduced from about 1000 gods down to just one as science and reason pulls the rug out from under their feet.  And if there is only one left? Well how long can he/she hold out in the face of science and the critical observer?  But what struck me about Krauss’s general argument was how on the surface it was.  It was obviously designed to be populist, but for a man who spends his life, and has made his reputation, on the powers of deep, deep observation, his critique of Theism was not that – it was in fact, more of a dismissive, surface, glance.  I have walked the streets of working class Midland and knocked doors and basically come away with the same bored and boring arguments against God,  casual, non-investigated glances from people who don’t really care about it, and probably don’t see how God has any point in their lives.  It seemed to be that Krauss, with all the confidence of being on the winning side of history on this one, didn’t need to wrestle with deep observation about God, because it’s obvious isn’t it?  After all, as he pointed out, for over thirty years he has gone into meetings with other scientists and the topic of God or his need to be included in the discussion has never come up, not once. He has no need to do more than glance. David Wells makes the observation of how God has become weightless in our culture, and Krauss simply confirmed just how much weight he has lost.

An example of the observation/glance issue: Krauss mentioned that every creation myth in history has a story about god’s dying and rising to life again.  Christianity has a story about a god dying and rising again. It’s just one of a long list of stories, the rest of which have fallen under the wheels of reason, and, by inference, it should too.  However, as Rory pointed out, it’s not “sameness” between those other myths and Christianity that is the point – it is “difference”.  He pointed out that no other such myth has ever allowed itself to be located historically, within time and space, and with the invitation to question witnesses.  In fact, as Rory said, to ask such a question of such myths “When did your God die?”, “Who was the king at the time?” would be met with a quizzical look. Such events are outside verifiable time and space.  Christianity, however, stakes its claim of being within this, and is happy, proud even, to make that claim, and be tested on it.  Krauss didn’t seem to recognise that it’s the “blip on the radar”- the small differences – that requires deep observation. It may not, at first glance, appear all that important, but it could well be the missile that sinks you.

I found it a little disconcerting, and not a little dispiriting for the future of Theism/Atheism debates that, with the burden of proof on the Theist, a few prep notes, plus the odd flourishing overstatement about religion in general, seem to be enough these days. A good scientist should worry and fret and niggle over difference among subjects that on the surface seem to be the same, however Dr Krauss did not seem to see the need for this.  Observation should be the friend of the genuine inquirer.  His call to the Theists was to keep exploring and not fear observation, but I do feel that with an a priori decision that God does not exist, there’s no real reason in the atheist’s mind to go back and re-explore that one. As a Christian living in a world in which God is rendered less and less plausible, believe me, my brain has to muscle up every day to counter the flotsam and jetsam flowing in the opposite direction (let alone the sinfulness of my heart which would push God to the margins when I so choose).

But then again, maybe that’s the point.  I got the feeling that there would have been few people there whose minds had not already been made up, and were there more to cheer for their man (I was!). Lines have been drawn, positions have been stated.  As an exercise in changing minds it is probably not going to be highly successful. It did, however, showcase that belief in God, and Christianity in particular, is credible and can more than hold its own.

Two minor observations: Atheists seem to snigger a lot.  At least the ones sitting around me did. Every time Krauss came up with a good line or observation they sniggered.  They sniggered at some things Rory said, and they especially sniggered when Rory was pausing to think about some curly question that Krauss or a questioner had raised. As a Christian versed in the language and approach of apologetics, if there is one rule to observe it is the “no snigger” rule. But they stopped sniggering at one point. In fact the whole room went silent.  The question of morality was raised, and the issue of consequences in particular.  Krauss made the comment that, even given the taboos towards it that have been raised by society and religion, he could not conclusively say that incest was immoral.  He postured that if a brother and sister loved each other and were sexually attracted to each other then, if they used contraception (to avoid the possibility of an evolutionary retrograde genetic mutation), he could not conclusively say that it was an immoral act if they had sex. No cheering at that point. No sniggering (One bloke jumped up and yell “Right on!”, but he was dragged out and sent back to the hills from whence he came – Ed). No, Laurence was on his own on that one. It seems like the “yuck” factor is still decisive – Theist and Atheist alike.  Just why would that be? Now that is something worth observing.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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