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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The Daily Mail’s reaction to Tom Daley’s baby is a reminder we’re not all equal yet

Columnist Richard Littlejohn seems to find it hard to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness.

Seeing as it’s LGBT+ history month, you would be forgiven for thinking that, just maybe, Britain could make it through 28 short days without a homophobic media controversy. But sadly, where optimism appears, the right-wing British press too often follows.

After the news that British Olympic diver Tom Daley and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance-Black are expecting their first child via a surrogate, radio station LBC quickly found itself in hot water. The station asked Twitter users whether, in their opinion, there is anything “sinister” about the woman carrying Daley and Lance-Black’s child being absent from the majority of media coverage. While there has long been a debate about the ethics of surrogacy, there are plenty of straight couples who have also turned to this option, and many nuances depending on the context, so the timing and wording of the question seemed pointed. LBC subsequently apologised for the “badly worded debate”.

But meanwhile, the printing presses were whirring.The main course to LBC’s starter, the Death Star to its Vadar and the hot dog to its mustard was springing into action. Otherwise known as: The Daily Mail.

Seemingly unable to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness, the paper employed its most un-lethal weapon, Richard Littlejohn, to put things right. In a piece entitled “Please don't pretend two dads is the new normal”, the columnist condemned the pair’s social media announcement, before expressing his discomfort at women being treated as “breeding machines” (again, note the sudden interest in the surrogacy debate). Next he takes aim at the media, lambasting them for covering this news just like any other baby announcement. Littlejohn then asks a series of erratic questions in quick succession. “Is Daley or his husband the father? Was it Bill, or was it Ben? Or neither of them?” Like a GSCE candidate who failed to revise for the exam, he soldiers on: “More pertinently, never mind Who's The Daddy? Who's The Mummy?”

By this point, you can practically picture Littlejohn, sweaty and misshapen, frothing at the mouth as he pummels his keyboard. Sensing that he’s out of material but still has half a page to fill, he haphazardly directs his hostility towards a trans woman who appeared in the news earlier this week, because why bother being homophobic when you can be transphobic too? Concluding the piece on a crescendo of awfulness, he “jokes” that he’s looking forward to the pictures of Daley breastfeeding, because apparently you can’t be a parent if you don’t breastfeed.

I suppose I should thank Littlejohn for proving, yet again, that the best way to transform male right-wing columnists into strident feminists is an opportunity to remind gay or trans people that they’ll never be seen as equals. Pre-emptively defending himself against accusations of homophobia within the article, Littlejohn claims he supported civil partnerships (but notably not same-sex marriages) long before “it was fashionable” to do so. Yet in 2004, the year that civil partnerships were introduced, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde dedicated an entire column to tracking his obsession with LGBT issues. “In the past year's Sun columns, Richard has referred 42 times to gays, 16 times to lesbians, 15 to homosexuals, eight to bisexuals, twice to 'homophobia' and six to being 'homophobic' (note his inverted commas), five times to cottaging, four to "gay sex in public toilets", three to poofs, twice to lesbianism, and once each to buggery, dykery, and poovery.” She writes, concluding: “This amounts to 104 references in 90-odd columns.”

The reaction to Littlejohn's latest piece was quick. Several organisations pulled out of advertising in the Daily Mail, a signal that the days of men like Littlejohn may soon be over. But whether published or not, this brand of homophobia is still prevalent in Britain. It appears when people claim not to have a problem with LGBT+ people, until one of their children comes out as gay or has a gay friend. It appears every time a person starts a sentence with “I’m not being homophobic, but…” It appears when gay parents, even those who have won Olympic medals and Academy Awards, are still only seen as a marginally better option that children being left to, as Littlejohn puts it, “rot in state run institutions where they face a better-than-average chance of being abused”.

As I suspect Littlejohn knows, no one is claiming that two dads is the new normal. Two gay parents is still a relatively new image for media and the public to digest, which has enabled this “debate” to happen. When 58 per cent of gay men are too afraid to hold hands with a partner in public, the idea that gay relationships are accepted enough to be considered anywhere close the “new normal” is ridiculous.

Yet Daley and Lance-Black’s announcement has revealed that, while homophobia is still mainstream enough to make it on to major platforms in the UK, it does not go unchallenged. We might not know what the tomorrow’s “normal” will be, but relics like Littlejohn represent the very worst of the past.