Why Dawkins disappoints

“An atheist is like the lion running for its dinner – victory is desirable but not crucial.”

Richard Dawkins stands accused of cowardice for refusing to debate with an Amercian theologian, William Lane Craig. He responds that he's too busy and that Craig is nothing but a professional debater.

Naturally, Dawkins is under no obligation to take part in someone else's publicity tour, but the allegation does have some force, not least because Craig has a reputation for eating atheists for breakfast.

Even Christopher Hitchens, it is generally conceded (even by atheists), lost his encounter with Craig on points.

Theatrical debates about the existence of God rarely change minds – least of all those of the protagonists – and William Lane Craig's undoubted skill as a debater may have little to do with the strength of his arguments. Nevertheless, it is regularly claimed that "new atheists" such as Dawkins are not intellectually outstanding. The critic Terry Eagleton, for example, though not a believer, has berated him for, among other failings, not having properly thought through "the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus".

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by Dawkins's lack of philosophical sophistication. He is, after all, a biologist. As such, he is well qualified to rebut the claims of creationists.

But the "argument from design" is only one of the usual proofs of God's existence, and the one most vulnerable to empirical assault.

Religious philosophers, moreover, have had centuries to perfect their arguments for the existence of God. Such arguments might not be successful, in that they don't convince atheists, but then there has never been a really convincing philosophical argument for the non-existence of God. There hasn't needed to be.

The default setting

Perhaps the atheists' collective failure in debates with skilled believers such as Craig is only to be expected. Essentially, they have to try harder.

An atheist is like the lion running for its dinner – victory is desirable but not crucial. Theists need better arguments – like the gazelle running for its life – because they need to, as the default setting of our society is now atheist, or at the very least agnostic.

Whatever the beliefs of individual scientists, science is a fundamentally atheistic endeavour. By which I mean that no single scientific theory – if one ignores the quasi-scientific concept of Intelligent Design – relies on or invokes God. An explanation of science that depended on God would not, in scientific terms, be an explanation at all.

But then no historian, searching for the root causes of significant events, considers divine intervention, either: even the Holocaust, which clearly raises questions for theology, does not raise theological questions for historians.

Trial by jury long since replaced trial by ordeal. It would be considered outrageous for parliament to legislate against adultery, homosexuality or witchcraft. And while American politicians, unlike their British counterparts, are notorious for frequently mentioning God, even they would not respond to – say – the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by praying. Religion, in short, has not so much been disproved as put firmly to one side.

For most of history, in most societies – in ours until a few centuries ago, in many parts of the world even today – religion has permeated the whole of life and the entire culture.

Before the Enlightenment, it would not have seemed strange to explain historical processes, the rise and fall of nations and of individuals, with appeals to divine providence. The belief that species were individually created by God formed the whole basis of biological understanding. Even Newton's physics depended on a philosophical God to set up the cosmic clockwork and keep it ticking over. Moreover, the greatest art, the greatest music, the greatest literature was steeped in biblical themes.

Assume the position

In such a culture, atheism was aberrant; God was simply assumed, incorporated unconsciously into areas of life and thought that we today would regard as wholly secular. Atheism, if it existed at all, was generally a private scepticism rather than a public platform. Even David Hume never claimed to be an atheist.

These days, by contrast, atheism is easy. It requires no special thought – indeed, it requires no thought at all – because it is perfectly possible for anyone to live a normal life without religion, and religion is the only domain in which God maintains any sort of meaningful presence. (Although there are theologians who would evict God even from there.)

Naturally, many people continue to believe in God, and their belief may cause them to advocate certain public positions – obvious examples being opposition to free abortion and support for marriage. Even such campaigners use secular or quasi-secular arguments, however, when trying to make their case.

What they do not say – as in a non-secular culture they might – is that abortion angers God, and that it should be banned because anyone participating in it will go to hell.

To articulate a convincing case for God in a society that functions almost entirely on the assumption of his non-existence is, therefore, no easy proposition. It requires intellectual flexibility, imagination, an ability to look beyond the obvious. As such, we should expect believers to win debates with atheists. Needless to say, it does not mean that they are right.

Nelson Jones runs the Heresy Corner blog. He was shortlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear