Saturday, 19 September 2015

CFI UK Debate - Does God Exist?

God and the Bible was the title of an all day event held by CFI UK at the Conway Hall in London.

A morning talk was given by Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou on what she called The Real Religions of the Bible, or The Uncensored Bible. The theme of this talk was those bits of the Bible that are rarely mentioned. Most likely because they are rather priapic, or, at least, that is how it seemed, as the 'penis' references moved into double figures. The God of the Old Testament used to put it about a bit, it seems, and it's not at all clear how immaterial he was. Stavrakopoulou was very articulate and, to every issue raised, thoughtful and nuanced.

In the afternoon Professor Stephen Law and Professor Keith Ward debated whether God exists. This being the CFI, it was clear where the sympathy of the audience lay, and it wasn't with Professor Ward. His presentation was familiar to many of us who have read liberal theologians; his God is a mutable, vague beast that seems to be specially designed to reify the art of goal-posting moving, so that wherever one shoots, one is bound to miss. A couple of things, at least, defined this concept: first, that his God could not do anything he felt was immoral; and second, that his God concept could not run counter to scientific facts. In this way he inoculates his belief from attack, I suppose, because his God is bound to conform to his (Ward's) moral beliefs, so no awkward silences when the Canaanite genocide is mentioned, and if science shows some aspect of his belief to be factually wrong, he will simply change his belief, so no awkward silences when talking snakes are mentioned.

The panel, with some minor celebrity spotting thrown in.

Obviously this means that as Ward's moral sensibilities change during his life, so does his God, and as science changes our view of the universe, so does his God change. I got the impression Ward is distinctly relaxed about this, seeing it as an enlightened approach. I think it is to be encouraged amongst believers, because it seems to be almost the opposite of dogmatic, and comes close to the Humean ideal of proportioning one's belief to the evidence. But I suspect that few Christians would find this Will 'o the Wisp deity satisfying, and, as Stavrakopoulou pointed out, it lacks magic.

Later, in response to the problem of evil, Ward renounced omnipotence as a feature of his God, which puzzled many in the crowd who assumed Ward was a Christian. Someone asked him outright if he were, and his reply was that he was a priest in the Anglican Church. 'Not enough information!', I shouted.

In the end it seems there is something about Ward's experience of the world that renders him a believer; a sense of the noumenal, morals and beauty were mentioned.

Stephen Law did not specifically address Ward's talk, but presented his excellent Evil God challenge, which, briefly, points out the empirical fact that no-one (? Satanists?) believes in an evil god, although practically all (if not all) the arguments for God do not give us any clue to His goodness. If a theist can see that belief in an evil god is ludicrous (and they seem to), they should likewise agree with atheists that belief in God is too, since the arguments for both are effectively the same (although often mirrored).

I think here Ward falls back on his subjective experience; in a discussion of HADD, for example, which Law was citing as a defeater for Ward's belief in a hidden agent, Ward said he thought he had HADD, but it was given to him by God so he could sense Him! How could one argue anyone out of these sorts of beliefs?

An interesting debate, but I think I would have liked to have heard more from Ward about why he doesn't give up his God's benevolence, as well as His omnipotence, given Law's Evil God Challenge (or, indeed, His existence!). Presumably he just has an undeniable intuition that this thing he senses the existence of is good. That may be, but it seems a wholly unsatisfactory response to anyone who does not have that feeling.


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