I attended Christian evangelist John Lennox's talk last night here at the University of Waterloo. Rather than produce a polished critique -- which I can't do for lack of time and other reasons -- I'll just record some notes about what he said and add some brief rebuttals. Statements of Lennox that seem particularly misleading and/or egregiously false are marked with *; the more stars, the more egregious the claim. Exact quotes are rendered to the best of my ability and are set off by "...". Paraphrases are set off by
'...'. My comments are in brackets.
If you missed the talk, you can get practically the same experience by watching Lennox's videos on Youtube. Lennox used the same examples, the same stories, and the same jokes, often word for word. In particular I recommend
Once you've seen these three, you've gotten something like 90% of the content of last night's talk. Originality is not one of Lennox's vices.
Lennox's main rhetorical tools consisted of jokes, anecdotes, ridiculing his opponents as stupid, dishonest, or both, and appeals to emotion. There was very little science or mathematics or logic or reason involved. I go to the Pascal lectures as often as I can in the hopes that someday someone will present some good arguments for Christianity, but thus far I have always been disappointed.
"Militant atheism": [Lennox started with this cliché, which I've discussed before. It's a good bet that if you hear somebody say "militant atheist" you're dealing with a propagandist or shoddy thinker.]
* 'Peter Higgs (atheist) and Bill Phillips (Christian) both won Nobel prizes in physics, so science can't be incompatible with religion': [This does not follow at all. When we say 'science is incompatible with religion' we don't mean that no scientist holds religious beliefs; we mean that the beliefs themselves are at odds. People hold all sorts of inconsistent beliefs. After all, Lennox argues elsewhere that Christianity decries violence, despite the fact that there are thousands of examples of Christians committing violent acts, from the Crusades to the present day.]
"Science is Christianity's gift to the world; it arose from belief in the rationality of God": [I think this is an unreasonable extrapolation. After all, we can trace the roots of modern science to the ancient Greeks, such as Archimedes, and some say the first modern scientists were actually Muslims such as Ibn al-Haytham. If Christianity were solely responsible for modern science, then why did it take 1600 years of Christianity for it to start?]
"Atheism is a delusion: a persistent false belief despite countervailing evidence" [No evidence provided for this assertion]
He repeats his familiar jokes; the person who met him at University and said, "Do you believe in God? Oh, of course you do -- you're Irish"; his riposte to the remark that "Religion is for people who are afraid of the dark" is "Atheism is for people who are afraid of the Light". [As I remarked before, a lot of Lennox's schtick consists of his recounting his bon mots and
relating how much the audience (or the Internet) appreciated them. The man definitely has an ego.]
"Germany's leading psychiatrist, Manfred Lutz": [Another typical creationist ploy: credential inflation. Everybody who agrees with them is "eminent", "world famous", "world-class", etc. ]
'Atheism is just a projection, to never be held responsible for bad conduct': [Except that atheists are sometimes more ethical than theists. See, for example, R. E. Smith, G. Wheeler, and E. Diener, Faith without works: Jesus people, resistance to temptation, and altruism, J. Applied Social Psychology 5 (1975), 320-330.]
"Atheists are confused about who God is." 'When Michael Shermer showed me a list of gods and said I was atheist with respect to them', Lennox thought, "What spectacular intellectual ignorance! He obviously knows nothing about the gods of the Ancient Near East"; 'they were descended from the heavens and earth, but the Christian god created the heavens and earth': [Another typical Lennox ploy: all the people he argues against are 'ignorant', 'deluded', etc. Much of his schtick consists in stories about how stupid everyone else is and how smart Lennox is. For my part, I think Shermer's point is quite good. There are, after all, other monotheisms, and I suppose Lennox does not adhere to them. The fact that the Christian god has some supposedly unique attributes does not detract from Shermer's point; every god has some unique attributes not shared by others.]
"In the first line of Genesis, God creates spacetime" [Not true; it says nothing about the modern conception of spacetime. Another typical example of Christians taking credit for something undeserved.]
** "The more you know of the universe, the more you admire the genius of the God who did it." [Maybe Lennox admires the Christian god, but I don't. Any god that creates the rabies virus and the Trypanosoma brucei protozoan is obviously morally depraved.]
* 'When we see water boiling, and ask why, a scientist will explain about heat conduction and the boiling point of water, and so forth, but the real reason is because I want a cuppa tea' "Scientists can't admit personal agency and intentionality as an explanation." "Professors can't grasp it because they think the scientific explanation is the only one". [On the contrary, personal agency is used as an explanation in all sorts of scientific endeavors, such as archeology. It is rejected in biology because (a) we have no evidence of any 'person' that was involved in terrestrial biology before people existed and (b) we understand mechanisms such as mutation and selection that can explain the biological diversity we see. "Agency" as an explanation in the absence of evidence for an agent was addressed in an article of Wilkins and Elsberry, which Lennox could fruitfully read.]
"The question, who created God?, doesn't apply to an eternal God, it applies to created gods": [Misleading, because the question 'who created God?' is a rejoinder to the common Christian assertion that 'everything that exists has a cause'. If you can say the Christian god existed eternally, why not say the universe did so, too?]
* Lennox objected to the word "faith" used to mean "blind faith". He claimed the word had been "redefined" and this redefinition was a "willful and deliberate twisting" of the "real definition".
[Well, tough, Prof. Lennox. Just go a dictionary and you'll read definition #2 of faith: "Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof". That is not a "redefinition" or a "twisting", but just one of the ways the word can be used. If you object to words having different meanings, maybe you should brush up on your linguistics.]
* Lennox went on to equate the word "faith" with "belief system". He describes how he bested Peter Singer in a debate when Singer asserted that "atheism is not a faith" by replying, "Why, Peter, I thought you believed in it!" [It is foolishness to assert that a word with well-accepted multiple meanings must be used only one way. Lennox's equation of "faith" with "belief system" is merely one of the meanings of the word "faith"; in one dictionary, that would be definition 2.2: "A strongly held belief". Under definitions 1, 2, and 2.1, it is not correct to describe atheism as a "faith"; under definition 2.2, it might be. And even that is subject to debate, because atheism can more reasonably understood as a lack of belief in something, not a belief in something.]
* "Faith in Christianity is exactly the same as faith in science". [No, it isn't at all. This is a completely ridiculous claim. Christianity asserts all sorts of truth claims, like the existence of a supernatural deity, the effectiveness of prayer, and (for example) the fact that "true believers" can "drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them". I don't see many Christians testing these claims in a scientific fashion, and I certainly don't see Lennox testing this last one.]
'Einstein and Polkinghorne said that faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe is a prerequisite to do physics': [I don't agree. I don't think the universe is necessarily "rationally intelligible" and I don't think you need this assumption to do science. Rather, you attempt to find and describe regularities and often you fail.]
"All schools are faith schools because they're all based on a world view." [Word games. I already pointed out that this is true only under definition 2.2, not other definitions.]
"If the mind is the end result of a mindless unguided process, can you trust it?" [In fact, we don't trust it. Modern science has revealed numerous ways in which people make cognitive mistakes. More importantly, there is no reason that a mindless unguided process can't result in correct decision-making.]
*** "Two world-class philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel" have raised this point [above]. [Well, the high regard that Plantinga and Nagel are held in is itself very good evidence for something quite wrong in the academic practice of philosophy. If you can't find the errors and bogus assumptions in Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism", then you haven't tried very hard. (For the lazy, you can read the devastating critiques of Plantinga by "world-class philosophers" Paul Churchland and Geoff Childers and Feng Ye. I wonder if Lennox has read any of these.)]
* "You can't explain the semiotics of the words "roast chicken" in terms of paper and ink." [Well, no, but nobody would claim that you can.] "You need intelligence." [But "intelligence" isn't supernatural.] "The explanatory power of chemistry and physics doesn't extend to semiotics." [Asserted but not proved. For a detailed explanation of the meaning of "roast chicken", you need to understand the evolutionary history of humans and chickens and the social evolution of language and food and cooking. It doesn't have a one-line explanation.]
** "Whenever you see language you infer intelligence." 'You see "roast" in English and you infer intelligence. Then you see the 3.7 billion letters of DNA and you don't? What's wrong there?' [What's wrong is conflating natural language with DNA. DNA differs in many ways from natural language, one of the most important being the lack of compressibility. We know how DNA evolves through processes like mutation, selection, recombination, genetic drift, and so forth, so how its information is accumulated and changed is not that mysterious. Typical creationist ploy.]
"Information itself is not material. Information is not reducible to physics and chemistry." [Asserted but not proved. What is an example of information not in a physical medium?]
** "The default position in society is atheism and naturalism - you can do that in public if you want, but not Christianity" [Utterly ridiculous. While I write this I am watching an episode of the TV show "Chicago Fire" where a minister is saying things like "We're not operating on God's timetable, are we? We don't understand God's plan -- how can we? And let me tell you, this is where faith comes in. Faith can help us see His message in our lives." Until quite recently, you'd never see an atheist on TV depicted as sympathetically as this minister. Religion, and Christianity, absolutely pervades every aspect of society in North America. How many atheists are members of Congress? Or MP's in Canada? What national holiday is coming up here in Canada? But this is just the usual Christian trope about how they are victimized, persecuted, etc. by the evil secularists.]
'Scientists who are Christians' "have been silenced by their colleagues". [No real evidence provided. And isn't it just a little ironic that this claim is being made by a Christian evangelist who is being given space for three public religious lectures sponsored by a public university? The exact same claim was made four years ago by Mary Poplin in her Pascal lecture. Maybe the series should be retitled "The Christian Victimhood Lectures".]
"I believe in the full inspiration and authority of Scripture". [Well, then he's not acting as a scientist. Scientists don't believe in the full inspiration and authority of any book. In science, truth claims are subject to debate and can fall with the weight of evidence.]
* "The Big Bang ... was fiercely resisted ... the editor of Nature said that 'it'll give too much leverage to people who believe the Bible": [I am not an historian of physics, but as far as I can see, this is incorrect. In the 1950's and early 1960's there were at least two competing theories, the "steady-state" and "Big Bang" models, and there was evidence in support of both of these. The consensus slowlychanged in support of the Big Bang as new evidence emerged, but there were still holdouts. I see no evidence that it was "fiercely resisted". The "editor of Nature" referred to is John Maddox, and his editorial (behind paywall) never said anything like "it'll give too much leverage to people who believe the Bible". Here is what Maddox said (in part): "Creationists and those of similar persuasions seeking support for their opinions have ample justification in the doctrine of the Big Bang. That, they might say, is when (and how) the Universe was created. The reality of the event is accepted. The question of its cause, in the absence of time, is a matter for the imagination. Moderate creationists are no doubt content with that inference.
"Luckily for the rest of us, moderate creationists' more impatient (and noisy) brethren seem more concerned to demonstrate that the whole world began just a few thousand years ago, which is why they have impaled themselves on the hook of trying to disprove the relatively recent (and terrestrial) geological record. But, in the long run, the impatient creationists will have to retreat to the Big Bang..."
I leave it to the reader of this blog to decide if Lennox has fairly summarized Maddox's view.]
About evolution: "the question is: can this mechanism do what is ascribed to it? No, at several different levels". "A child ought to be able to see that evolution cannot be responsible for the origin of life"; that claim is "a complete bamboozling fog". [Yet another implication by Lennox that his opponents are either stupid or dishonest. I don't know anybody that says that the first replicator arose by "evolution". Lennox claimed that Dawkins said this, but I couldn't find it in Dawkins' writings anywhere.]
*** "From the perspective of theoretical computer science, you'll see that natural processes cannot produce life." [Well, this at least is in my area of expertise. I am a theoretical computer scientist and I've followed the creation-evolution debate fairly closely. I do not know a single claim from theoretical computer science that has this implication. On the contrary, there are many results from the field of artificial life that imply the opposite. Just to name one paper, see
Koza, J. R., Artificial life: Spontaneous emergence of self-replicating and evolutionary self-improving computer programs. In C. G. Langton (Ed.), Artificial life III, 1994, pp. 225–262.]
"Lawrence Krauss made a catastrophic mistake when discussed philosophy." "Stephen Hawking doesn't understand any philosophy". "Peter Atkins" said mathematics created the universe and Lennox responded "That was the stupidest thing I've ever heard." [Yes, all of Lennox's opponents are drooling morons, barely capable of reason. Christian charity in abundance!]
At this point the question and answer session began. [No live questions from the floor were permitted -- I suspect this was to avoid the embarrassment of tough questions from previous Pascal lectures. Instead, people had to submit questions via text. This is an excellent way to weed out tough questions, and indeed all the questions read were softballs.]
About existence of extraterrestrial life and its compatibility with the Bible: "Yes, it exists - it's God". [Oh, come on. Any reasonable person would understand the question is about the existence of life, similar to terrestrial life, existing on other planets. I dislike this kind of evasion.]
Self-creation of the universe is "logically false". [No, it isn't. Mathematical logic discusses the world of propositions, not physical events.]
* "A word-based creation is utterly profound. Hoyle was amazed that this was found in the Bible." [In the longstanding tradition of atheists and agnostics being "amazed" by claims by theists. I doubt very much that Lennox's account is accurate. No educated person in the Western world would be ignorant of John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Claiming Hoyle did not know this is absurd.]
"People become Christians and get peace": [proffered in support of the truth of Christianity. Sorry, but people get peace from all sorts of religions and philosophies, but that doesn't imply any of them are true.]
Quoting Andrew Sims: "The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally." [An evident exaggeration. Just google "spirituality and health" and you'll get 105,000,000 hits, including many articles in the scholarly literature on precisely this subject. By the way, among Christian sects, Mormons are particularly healthy. Does this suggest the truth of Mormonism?]
"You can come back in a year and find 500 people transformed by atheism and I'll give you 5000 people transformed by Christianity." [Well, considering atheists are outnumbered by Christians in Ireland, England, Canada, and the US, this should hardly be surprising.]
"Jesus claimed to die for people's sins and you can test that." [How? Design an experiment. Perform it. Publish your results. Then we'll talk.]
"The golden rule is found in all cultures, and you'd expect that if we were made in the image of God." [Doesn't follow; replace "golden rule" with "murder" and what conclusion do you get? BTW, you'd also expect it if it is a product of our evolutionary history. There is some evidence for this; see the work of primatologist Frans de Waal.]
*** "Christianity is not a merit-based faith, based on good deeds." [An evident misrepresentation, which refuses to acknowledge an old debate in Christianity: are Christians justified by faith alone or by faith plus works? Support for both views can be found in the Bible. To claim that Christianity is not based on good deeds, when substantial parts of the Christian world believe this, is intellectually dishonest. Perhaps Lennox would claim that those who disagree are not "true Christians", but this would be an example of the "No True Irishman" fallacy.]