Unbelievable Project: God Delusion debate – Deluded by Dawkins?

8/24/07 – God Delusion debate – Deluded by Dawkins?

As part of the Unbelievable Project, I am taking notes and “arm-chair” responding to each of the Unbelievable podcast episodes satisfying a set of simple rules.

For a full RSS Feed of the podcasts see here.

Description of Episode

  • Full Title: Unbelievable? 25 Aug 2007 – God Delusion debate – 25 August 2007 — Deluded by Dawkins?

    Andrew Wilson’s new book claims to have debunked Richard Dawkins’ arguments against God. He goes head to head with atheist Gordon Livesey as they discuss The God Delusion and whether people are really being deluded by Dawkins’ arguments.

Download mp3.

  • Justin Brierley – Christian Moderator
  • Andrew Wilson – Christian
  • Gordon Livesey – Atheist


Andrew – many things I agree with Dawkins. Religions should debate their points, and not be immune from criticism. I agree with his criticisms of extreme versions of Christianity, although it seems as if Dawkins goes out of his way to find the most extreme and illiterate unconvincing examples of religious conviction.

Andrew- problems,
1. implied trajectory of religiosity
2. stridency of the book

Me – 35 minutes into the show so far, and there hasn’t been an actual challenge to a claim of Dawkins. Only criticisms of tone, and perceived insinuation. I find this is typical of many of the criticisms of the “New Atheists” – people complain about the tone, and not the actual content of the arguments. I find it helpful to focus on the actual claims, and not the tone. Everything else is a distraction.

Gordon – one of the strong statements of Dawkins is on the subject of theology, which he says really isn’t a subject at all. it is not based on science, and is simply based on old texts. Dawkins relates a story where the physics professor, when asked about what started the Big Bang, threw a sop to the theologian and suggested that the chaplain would be better able to answer. Dawkins’ response was like, “Why would the chaplain know anything about this? Surely a physics professor should know more. “

Andrew – that explains a lot. if you don’t have any respect for a field, then you will be much less likely to read the actual work, and will make errors (Dawkins mistakes Matthew for Luke when relaying the wise men story, mistaken on a contradiction of the birthplace stated in Matthew and Luke, mistaken on Thomas Jefferson referring to the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc…)

Andrew – We can ask questions like, why did the jews of the first century which didn’t believe in the two stage resurrection start referring to Jesus’ resurrection? There might be secular responses to questions like that, but we have to take them seriously and not simply dismiss them.

Me – That’s history, not theology.

Gordon – theology just doesn’t stand up when compared to physics, chemistry, history, etc…

Andrew – anti-supernaturalism perspectives, by definition, cannot have any miracles. origins, infinite improbability of god.

Me – I don’t think that Andrew understands Dawkins’ argument for the improbability of God. Essentially, any probability that you assign for the the universe because of its complexity must be greater than the probability you assign for the necessarily more complex creator of the universe.

Gordon – I do believe that miracles could not happen, and they never have. Much that was attributed to miracles is explained by science.

Andrew – Lack of belief in miracles is not new. Some say in the New Testament, that the people who believed in the Resurrection were mad. Dawkins implies that Hume put the death nail in.

Andrew – an atheist friend said “If I accepted that miracles occur, then I’d have to change the entire way I view the physical world” (this is in response to a story of a miraculous healing of a women’s hearing at a prayer meeting). Dawkins is the same way – he is just unwilling to believe.

Gordon – No, Dawkins doesn’t say this – he always insists that if you can show him good evidence, then he’d believe.

Justin – but whatever evidence you bring forward, that looks just like a miracle, Dawkins will write off that there must be an alternative explanation.

Gordon – he’s going on previous evidence, making further miracle claims unlikely.

Andrew – Some people made some wrong claims about X, therefore X cannot be true. (Gordon – unlikely to be true) Some people made up a ridiculous story of a “miracle” of an elephant drinking milk, therefore miracles cannot happen, therefore the Resurrection didn’t happen, therefore there is no God – shaky foundation. We should look at at the historical evidence, without prohibition against miracles.

Andrew – I don’t assume the Resurrection. I don’t assume miracles, but I have seen healings, so I believe based on the evidence. We should be open to miracles as an explanation, and not dismiss them entirely “by definition”.

Me – I think that we have to separate the idea of an observed phenomenon and the cause of that phenomenon, to be clear. When saying “miracle” we conflate the two. We can possibly test an effect, even if we can’t test a supernatural cause.

A number of examples were discussed, mostly faith healings. Now, I believe that Andrew would agree that not all miracle claims are true, and not all faith healings are legitimate. The question then becomes, how can we tell the difference between true and false claims? How are false claims produced? The way we can tell is if we can repeat them, or have some independent verification. Every attempt I have ever seen to carefully study faith healings has come up empty. Now, some diseases can disappear on their own or have completely subjective symptoms. Other diseases cannot – missing limbs, removed/damaged organs, etc… There is not a single case of a regrown limb or organ in all of the faith healing literature. Every case is indistinguishable from no effect. Take, for example, the story of the suddenly hearing woman. How do we know that her hearing didn’t come back the previous week, and she only pointed it out at the healing mass? How do we know that she had actually lost her hearing? This could easily be the case of a pious fraud – she interprets an increase in hearing around the time of a prayer meeting to being caused by the prayer meeting. It could easily have been fabricated too. How could we distinguish these explanations? The only way is through objectively obtained evidence, the exact kind that we do not have in any of these cases.

Here’s a suggestion – I’d be convinced of a miracle if it can pass the JREF test. Since none have, I am well within my rational grounds to immediately dismiss any such claims as miraculous until such time as they pony up the evidence.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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