Richard Dawkins, Irrationality, Goedel’s Ontological Proof and Why Religions are bad, but Religion is Not

A Caveat

The last section (concerning Goedel and modal logic) of this blog is a lot to process, and took me a while to sufficiently understand and reduce to a simpler form in my mind when I first learned of it many years ago. I bring it up – and everything else that will be delineated below not to try and prove that a God exists, or to persuade non-believers to my way of thinking – I am not religious or a follower of a Christian denomination so it is not in my interest to proselytise. I am also not writing in an attempt to refute the beliefs of atheists like Dawkins or suggest that atheism has no basis or even that they are wrong to dispute the existence of a God. My piece is a reaction against the haughtiness of men and women like Dawkins, who believe they are on a higher intellectual plain, that they are privy to the secrets of the Universe simply because they believe something different, something which recognises only the physical as a basis for reasoning – which in itself is somewhat unscientific. As far as I am aware we do not know definitively whether a higher power exists or not, and likely never will, but it will always be no less fun to deliberate.

And So It Goes

“Richard Dawkins is such an idiot”

A refrain that some who know me are used to hearing me spontaneously break out into when there is a lull in the conversation. I don’t say it to antagonise it is just that when I am left to my own thoughts even for a moment, I am reminded of the fact. The man can be as belligerent, dogmatic and insular as the religionists he berates and ridicules. Like most atheists, he is unaware that the liberal frame of mind he has adopted was beget by the values and traditions of Judeo-Christian faiths, while at the same time he is negligent of the fact that his liberal rationalism is dependent on an article of faith, especially where making sense of the world and deciphering its meaning is concerned. But most of all he is like most atheists he is selective in his scrutinising of religion – disregarding many of the examples of the positive functions and deeds of religion through the centuries – which is why he has constructed a false enemy of evil (religion), to be defeated by the unquestionable force of good (science and rational thinking). But there are two errors in his dichotomy. Firstly, his venom is directed at the wrong opponents; he castigates ideas, abstractions, metaphors, myriad conceptions of how society should conduct itself. Here we find the source of the problem, Dawkins – as a man of science – reads the Bible and other religious texts in a completely literal manner, like the religious fundamentalists and jihadists who terrorise populations all over the globe.

The problem is one of hermeneutics, religion is not the enemy: it is religious leaders, extremist zealots who, like Dawkins, take what they want from Scripture, only in their case it is misappropriated in the name of power and self-interest rather than to glorify God/Allah and carry out His will. Dawkins conflates religious fundamentalists with religion proper, and has his cross hairs set on the latter. The Bible needs to be taken for what it truly is: an epic poem of symbollism and fables. In the case of a large portion of the New Testament it is a furtive diatribe directed against Rome for its decadence and persecution of Christians. Depending on the version, translation or font size used by a publisher, the Bible can be over 1300 pages in length. Most of the text extols the virtues of love, fraternity, devotion, temperance, courage, austerity, altruism. But this is all negated because some choose to focus on isolated verses and passages that demonstrate intolerance of certain behaviour and choices. It’s such an insular and biased way to appraise a written document – especially by a scientist like Dawkins.

How well do you know your Bible?

Although I am more concerned with the God debate rather than religion and religious texts, the following is included in this blog to convey the specious reasoning employed by some atheists, and their superficial and selective reading of the Bible in order to decry religion and what it supposedly ‘teaches’, thus servicing their agenda. Assessing how homosexuality is treated in the Bible is just one way to accomplish this. There are just seven mentions of homosexuality throughout the Bible (four are non-specific). In the New Testament, Jesus makes no mention of homosexuality. Because of the nature of Scripture and the cultural issues that are central to a true interpretation, only a scholar of theology, Hebrew and Ancient Greek can possibly arrive at anything resembling a correct exegesis of Biblical texts. The Bible addresses sexual matters in euphemistic and vague terms, and this is compounded by the lack of understanding of how the people of the time used and understood those terms. There is also a human element at work here. The religious texts were written, gathered and compiled by ordinary people. It is reasonable to believe that individual opinions on such matters, like homosexuality, could have influenced how the supposed ‘Word of God’ was written. The progenitors of the Bible were also at the mercy of linguistic restrictions and styles of the era, not realising that the language they chose to use to illuminate a parable or moral message would have hermeneutical ramifications. Now, even when one takes these considerations on board it is hard to argue, when read in a literal manner, that the verse: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination“. (Leviticus 18:22) is hazy, and saying anything other than homosexuality is a mortal sin. However, this is one line secreted in over 1300 pages; the Bible does not make the denunciation of homosexual acts a priority in its voluminous body, so why should atheists exaggerate its importance in order to denigrate religion? Well we owe the preponderance of prohibition of homosexuality in Catholic Church doctrine to unscrupulous religious leaders and their perverse interpretations – which were conditioned by the context of the temporal times among other things – who placed such an incongruous emphasis on the matter when looked at against the evidence of the content of the Bible itself.

‘Death of the Author’

The traditional interpretation of Bible teachings, by high religious leaders and puritanical scholars, is that homosexual acts are abominable sins. In recent years, this interpretation has been challenged: “It is often pointed out that there was no concept of a loving, consensual same-sex relationship in Biblical times. Neither was there an awareness of an innate sexual preference.  Homosexual acts were viewed as a violation of the ‘holiness code’ of Leviticus which separated the Israelites from the conduct of the pagan peoples of the world”. (Achtemeier, et al. & H. Marshall, et al.) So are consensual homosexual acts violations of Biblical teachings, or did the Bible passages apply to “homosexual acts involving idolatry, rape, prostitution or pederasty?” Consensual homosexual acts are not specifically dealt with in the Bible, but it has been assumed that they were condemned under the more general prohibition against ‘sexual immorality’ (inc. adultery), but the Bible again does not give an explicit list of what is immoral. So the question is left open. The Catholic Church’s odd preoccupiation with homosexuality and gay marriage – as set out by the arbitrary religious leadership – becomes all the more strange when one realise that no mention of ‘sexual immorality’ (except for adultery) is made in the Ten Commandments. Therefore one can, at best, arrive at the conclusion that the Bible’s mere seven verses on homosexual acts, refer to homosexuality as a minor sin. There is also the argument of the context of the time, which is too complex to do it an admirable service in the scope of this blog entry.

The Role of Socialisation and Personal Attitude

The fact is our attitudes to these questions – and other controversial matters addressed in the Bible – are shaped by personal opinions, which is why verses in religious texts that appear to preach intolerance and hate should be treated with scepticism, especially when we consider the human element in the creation of these works and that these passages constitute just single bricks in an enormous edifice. We don’t discredit the entire philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche because of his insanity in his later years, or because Hitler misappropriated aspects of his thought (much like religious leaders and fundamentalists do with the Scriptures) and used it for evil. We don’t deny Mark Twain’s genius just because he made prolific use of the ‘N word’ in his novels and stories. We instead acknowledge the context of his time and other variables to explain its inclusion. We do not often attempt to reach that kind of contextual understanding with regard to religion.  The evil, bellicose, selfish, egomaniacal religious leaders of our post have blurred the boundaries between religion, religions and religious authorities. Like any other piece of literature the Bible is open to many different interpretations. In fact even moreso given its age, language, translations, employment of linguistic devices etc. It transcends several societal and cultural epochs; it is a book, like all religious materials, that should not be understood in a purely literal sense. I do not adhere to any organised religion, and one big reason, of many, is the heterogeneity that is innate in the text. So many disparate and conflicting views have come from its reading that no single Christian denomination can claim ownership over it, or profess to interpret it correctly. Unfortunately there are, and have always been, rewards for those who, through cunning, coercion and manipulation, can convincingly lay claim to a true understanding of the ‘Word of God’.

The Enemy Without

It is these men, that I mention above, who Dawkins should shake his fist at. Religion is not the evil that oppresses minorities, non-believers or ‘sexual deviants’. All one has to do is take a moment and one is reminded of examples in recent history that show just the reverse to be true. Tens of thousands more young Jewish children would have been murdered during the Holocaust had it not been for Catholic nuns risking their lives to protect people who were not even of their faith. Why? Because of a Christian duty and imperative to protect the vulnerable, the poor, the forgotten. Despite what the Catholic Church might represent to some today, Christianity as a whole has, historically, done more to ameliorate poverty and privation than any liberal secular democracy. It has provided comfort for those who are confronted with their own mortality, and it has given hope to those who are paralysed by news of a terminal illness, or a family tragedy. I don’t believe in the Bible or in the necessity of organised religion, but I do believe the Bible is a text that propounds brotherly love, egalitarianism and tolerance above all else when dissociated from its perverters and the Machiavellian opportunists. It says more about the person who formulates a hateful and intolerant understanding of a story or verse which he extracts from the Bible in order to use it to further selfish ends, or reinforce his pre-existing prejudices, than it does about the concept of religion itself and the ideas attached to it. These malefactors should be attracting the disdain of atheists like Dawkins, not the pure ideas of religion contained within Scripture. One more thing I wish to put to you is to imagine a world without Descartes, Hume, Lacan, Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, Foucault, Heidegger even Subcomandante Marcos among others. How much would we have lost from the Intellectual and Philosophical Bank of Mankind? There is a reason i ask this question and choose these particular figures. There is one thing that connects them; A shared experience that was significant in their intellectual development. They were all educated by Jesuits. Far from being inherently evil and contributing nothing of value to humanity, religion and religious orders have educated many of the cerebral giants of history: men and women who have been principal actors in the advancement of human learning and acquisition of knowledge.

What really can be considered irrational?

I woke up one morning to a stream of Dawkins tweets and retweets. Nearly all of them were the source of a logical fallacy – either a ‘straw man’ or blowing a perceived tenet of the Christian faith to ridiculous proportions for the purpose of mocking it and making it appear absurd. It is a curious tactic for a man of science; someone who professes to have the entire arsenal of reason, rationality and empiricism behind him, attacking an institution in such an asinine and insular manner.  There are much more adroit methods to reveal the folly in some of the extraordinary claims and beliefs of all the known religions -most of which are taken seriously only by the overzealous (again this is an example of Dawkins being selective and trying to portray crackpot evangelists or the blindly pious as ordinary adherents of a religious order). But this is not the aspect of Dawkins’ aversion to religious fervour or contemplation of a God with which I take umbrage. It is the fact that with all the complexities of the Universe: how it is ordered, the natural laws that govern it, its provenance, things we cannot see, but science and experimentation tells us are there, thinks we cannot see but science suspects may exist in theory; the Universe’s infinite galaxies containing infinite possibilities of which science knows little. And yet it is, oddly, the belief in an existence of a Supreme Being (in any form, whether a transcendental creator force, or a God akin to the deist or pantheist interpretations) that Dawkins finds most ‘irrational’, and he has decided to expend all his energy on ridiculing and destroying. Of all the possibilities of the world, why, and on what basis, is it this one which is so offensive and absurd to him and others? It is no more fanciful to believe that we are all travelling toward the ultimate culmination of ‘God’s plan’, than it is to believe that we exercise unconstrained free will and create our own destiny. It cannot be argued beyond reasonable doubt in either case.

Dawkins also neglects, or is not aware, that during the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, scientific minds much more brilliant than his, especially Sir Isaac Newton, used their new discoveries of the Universe and natural laws to glorify God and as proof of his existence and his hand in their design and formulation. He also neglects that present-day men and women of science are paradoxically drawn toward religion, or at least God, with the more they learn about the Universe – its complexity and perfection – because often the only way they make sense of their discoveries and knowledge is through the existence of a Supreme Being. It is important to remember than science fails to explain so much about the physiology of organs of our own bodies let alone of the Universe. For example, a cosmologist,Paul Davies, has likened the ‘multiverse theory’ to God: in essence, it – like belief in God – requires “a leap of faith”. Science, and its independent but related disciplines, has many untestable hypotheses and theories, and many are accepted as Gospel. But even many which can be tested or ‘proved’ often only result in explaining how A becomes B, but rarely can it elaborate on WHY.

Incidentally, I wonder what Dawkins’ answer is to the fact that the provenance of the Big Bang Theory lies not in the hypothesizing of twentieth-century physicists and cosmologists, but instead resided in the mind of a thirteenth-century English bishop named Robert Grosseteste. Like many medieval ecclesiastical figures, Grosseteste was a scholar and man of supreme intellect. Theology has given us many philosophers, academics and statesman, but it may surprise some to know that it has also brought visionary scientists to humanity. Grosseteste played a vital role in the development of scientific method: introducing the notion of controlled experiment, to the West, and relating it to demonstrative science. He was the first of the scholastics to fully understand Aristotle’s vision of the ‘dual path of scientific reasoning’. In his treatise De Luce (On Light) he explored the nature of matter and the cosmos. Centuries before Newton postulated gravity and before the Big Bang Theory as we know it today, Grosseteste described the birth of the Universe as derived from an explosion of light and crystallisation of matter to form the stars and planets we see in spheres surrounding the Earth.

New > Old?

Now I don’t subscribe to Newton’s beliefs behind his discoveries, or the sentiments of some scientists who struggle with the questions raised above. But they serve to illustrate the point that the new does not always trump the old. You see, mean like Dawkins believe that because we know more now than we did 200 years ago, it automatically means that we know better, and that 21st-century beliefs regarding the world and how it works are inherently more valid just by virtue of being ‘new’. This is a tactic Dawkins employs because it does not necessitate him, or any other atheist, having to properly substantiate or validate his claims and beliefs (again I must point out I am not addressing the creationists vs evolutionists debate in this blog). It is programmed in our language, and our understanding thereof, that ‘new’ is better than ‘old’. This engenders a false notion of inevitable progress in ways of thinking and ways of conceiving the world around us, as we travel forward through time. This is simply not always the case.

Kurt Goedel and Modal Logic

It may surprise many who read this,  but logic has been used to prove the existence of a Supreme Being since the eleventh century. It originates with St Anselm of Canterbury, and in its simplest form the argument follows this course:

God, by definition, is that for which no greater can be conceived. God exists in the understanding. If God exists in the understanding, we could imagine Him to be greater by existing in reality. Therefore, God must exist.

Kurt Goedel, a twentieth-century Austrian mathematicianstudied a more elaborate version of this argument, one which was put forward by Gottfried Leibniz, in his attempts to clarify his ontological argument. Goedel had a fourteen point system behind his philosophical belief; the most pertinent, in relation tot he ontological proof are:

4. There are other worlds and rational beings of a different and higher kind.

5. The world in which we live is not the only one in which we shall live or have lived.

13. There is a scientific (exact) philosophy and theology, which deals with concepts of the highest abstractness; and this is also most highly fruitful for science.

14. Religions are, for the most part, bad—but religion is not

The argument proceeds from the following axioms and definitions:

Definition 1: x is God-like if and only if x has as essential properties those and only those properties which are positive

Definition 2: A is an essence of x if and only if for every property B, x has B necessarily if and only if A entails B

Definition 3: x necessarily exists if and only if every essence of x is necessarily exemplified

Axiom 1: Any property entailed by—i.e., strictly implied by—a positive property is positive

Axiom 2: If a property is positive, then its negation is not positive

Axiom 3: The property of being God-like is positive

Axiom 4: If a property is positive, then it is necessarily positive

Axiom 5: Necessary existence is a positive property

Axiom 1 assumes that it is possible to single out positive properties from among all properties. Goedel comments that: “Positive means positive in the moral aesthetic sense (independently of the accidental structure of the world)… It may also mean pure attribution as opposed to privation (or containing privation).” (Goedel, 1995). Axioms 2, 3 and 4 essentially state that positive properties form a primary ‘ultrafilter’.

From these, and other, axioms and definitions, the theorems below are proven:

Theorem 1: If a property is positive, then it is consistent, i.e., possibly exemplified.

Corollary 1: The property of being God-like is consistent.

Theorem 2: If something is God-like, then the property of being God-like is an essence of that thing.

Theorem 3: Necessarily, the property of being God-like is exemplified.

[The ontological proof is formalised and expressed symbolically at the following link: http://www.logic.at/staff/bruno/Papers/2013-GodProofAbstract.pdf ]

The thereoms and axioms that Goedel includes in the ontological proof are assumptions and cannot be proven if they stand alone, but because they can be expressed as mathematical equations, this means that they can be proven.

Goedel’s ontological proof was received with ebullient fanfare because, in the scientific community, the real newsworthy component was what could now be achieved in scientific fields using computers, for example, not that mathematical logic had proved the existence of a Supreme Being. This is largely because, as mentioned above, the argument of God’s existence through such similar methods was not new. Of course, I do not believe this will convert atheists, and nor should it, but it just illustrates the point that belief in a Supreme Being is not as ‘irrational’ as people like Dawkins will have you believe. Its possibility is supported by mathematics and to an extent can be given credence with observation in the context of what science can and, more importantly, cannot tell us.

To finish I would like to ask you to again forget the whole creationism vs Big Bang and evolution, because i feel i should recapitulate that I am only arguing for the existence of a Supreme Being (and a non-creator one at that). I can understand the scorn and derision aimed at those who still preach the ‘God created the world in six days’ narrative, and therefore I am not interested in cosmology, but purely concerned with theism vs atheism. I have a problem with the way atheists argue their corner and the methods they employ to belittle the beliefs of others, and can sometimes bully and pillory such believers. Atheists, and many theists too of course, seem reluctant, even resistant to acknowledging the validity of both sides of the debate. A lot of atheists and repudiators of religion will not be aware of much that has been delineated above, but they will be less inclined to accept these observations and historical facts which seriously contest their strongly held assumptions. I think their struggle is an example of cognitive dissonance – as much as it is for some religious theists who occupy the other side of the coin – but is also due to the fact that it is now so difficult to extrapolate the sensible arguments in favour of the existence of a Supreme Being from the religious fairy tales that so many Christian fruitcakes take literally and steadfastly clutch on to. This fusion of the credible and the fanciful has caused atheists to reconstitute the science vs religion argument as a ‘Facts vs Superstition‘ argument, which isn’t the case at all when you subtract the crackpots and fundamentalists. I think it is time to redress the boundaries of the debate and eliminate the atheists’ lazy logical fallacies and predilection for ridiculing notions of a God that are based on superficial readings and understandings of Scripture and exaggerating the importance of marginal aspects of religious teaching for the purpose of further denigration on specious grounds.

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About johnny3wishbone

University of Bristol alum Follow me on Twitter @DanielAdshead25 A few of my favourite things: International development, human rights, justice, wildlife conservation, primates, politics, literature, music, catharsis, theatre, my fiance, history, environment, current events, writing, reading, running, fundraising, campaigning, activism, travel, Prague, Bristol, Mexican food
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