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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war