When brilliant people say stupid things.

John Lennox is a math professor at Oxford.  He’s undoubtedly a clever guy.  However, he recently gave a talk at a prayer breakfast which affirmed one of the primary reasons I loathe religion: it makes clever people say and do unfathomably stupid things.

He urged Christians to have “the courage to create public space” for the discussion of “a biblical worldview”, as he pointed to the example of Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English 400 years ago and would eventually be executed.

Yes, the courage to create a public space where a biblical worldview can be discussed.  Or, as I like to call it, “everywhere”.  Seriously, find me an inch of American soil where a biblical worldview cannot be discussed without penalty.  How much courage does it take to create something that already exists?  Next Christians will battle for the right to breath the same oxygen!  The unspoken implication here is that incoming criticism when outrageous claims are made (and subsequent mockery when they are not adequately defended) somehow prevents people from discussing their beliefs.  It doesn’t.

And yes, William Tyndale was executed…for heresy, by Henry VIII hand-in-hand with the Catholic Church.

Dr Lennox, who has been an outspoken critic of “God Delusion” author Richard Dawkins, blamed new atheism for the “moral drift” in society.

Details about what changes constitute this “moral drift” are conspicuously absent from the article.  Does he mean grown adults deciding to not let Christians dictate which consenting adults they love?  Yeah, I’ll give atheists credit for that.  I’d be honored to be responsible for that.

Does he mean that religion can be more freely and openly criticized?  Yeah, I’ll take credit for that one too.

More sex education?  Less inequality for women and gays?  Less tolerance for religious institutions getting exceptions for whatever laws they don’t want to follow?  Guilty, guilty, guilty.  Proudly so.

He also dismissed the common assumption that science and religion are not compatible.

“There is no necessary conflict between science and God, the real conflict is between worldviews, atheism and theism,” he said.

Tell me more about how people rising from the dead and walking on water are compatible with science.  All you’ve got to do is just imagine the laws of the universe that we use to reach scientific conclusions stopped working for a few days, right?  Then they’re perfectly compatible.

“God is not the same kind of explanation as science is. God is the explanation of why there is a universe at all in which science can be done.”

It’s the old non-overlapping magisteria argument and it always makes me think of this Jesus and Mo panel:

While we know there is a what and how to the operation of the universe (the what is obvious, and the how is indeed given to us by science), who says that there must be a why or a purpose?  What evidence do we have for these things?  Sure, religions make assertions about them, but without evidence that’s all they remain: mere assertions, no more credible than any other assertion made in the absence of evidence.

Dr Lennox admitted his fear that the contribution of Christianity to the moral foundations of British society would be forgotten in the prevailing climate. This could be seen already, he suggested, in the parliamentary expenses scandal and the Leveson inquiry.

Ask William Tyndale about the moral contributions of Christianity to British society.  As for Christianity’s contributions to present moral standards (which were forced upon believers by a socially evolving society), what are they?  The golden rule is in the bible the same way the concept of “genocide is bad” is in Schindler’s List.  Yeah, they’re good ideas, but those books didn’t come up with them.  Neither did Christianity give us the idea that stealing or killing is wrong.  How could it with all the killing advocated by god in the bible?  And Christianity sure as shit didn’t give us the idea of religious freedom (see William Tyndale).

“If we teach people that morality is an illusion, they will begin to believe it. Many already have with the result that our institutions are awash with scandal, families are increasingly fractured, people are lonelier than ever and trust is at an all-time low. We have sown a wind and are reaping a whirlwind.”

The fact that morality is a human construct, created as a way to maximize societal well-being as well as our own, does not mean that it’s an illusion.  Acknowledging that humans create the moral rules (rules like don’t kill people for working on the sabbath) does not result in fractured families or loneliness.  You don’t get to just point to bad things and ascribe them to your ideological opponents.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Jasper

    “blamed new atheism for the “moral drift” in society.”

    Strange…because here I was blaming people like you. Or LinkDaddy.

    • Jasper

      And I say that as a distinction between atheism and new atheism.

      • baal

        When we have rabid anti-theists (‘new atheists’) in the Senate putting holds on major bills for not kowtowing to them (like the immigration bill being held up for allowing gay spouses to count for immigration (nb solved regardless due to the DOMA decision:)), we can start making blame the new atheists arguments. Until then, this complaint makes Dr.Lennox look foolish.

  • invivoMark

    “If we teach people that morality is an illusion, they will begin to
    believe it. Many already have with the result that our institutions are
    awash with scandal, families are increasingly fractured, people are
    lonelier than ever and trust is at an all-time low.”

    [citation needed]

    Steven Pinker certainly wouldn’t agree with this, and neither do I. There’s no evidence whatsoever that moral standards are decreasing, and a whole lot of evidence to the contrary.

    But sure, go ahead and ignore reality if it lets you keep believing the insane garbage that you do, Dr. Lennox.

  • Zinc Avenger

    They say we’re the immoral ones and hold up their book which endorses slavery as justification.

  • erin.nikla

    His comments on morality don’t surprise me, coming from a mathematician. A lot of the debates around existence of mind-independent* morals center around exactly the same abstract concepts as the debates over existence of mind-independent* of mathematics, and most mathematicians (speaking anecdotally) are realists or platonists (whether or not they realize it.)

    • smrnda

      I am a mathematician, and I am a formalist because I am a materialist (in the sense that I don’t believe in the existence of a reality apart from the physical universe, not that I’m trying to load my closet full of stuff.) The few open platonists I’ve met just seemed to need to find a way to feel superior to people in the sciences, as if they were *better than* an empirical disciple.

      I’m not really sure what % of mathematicians are in which camp, though I’m always happy to claim Alan Turing as another formalist and an atheist as well. Perhaps I run across more formalists since I tend to encounter more logicians.

      Your diagnosis seems correct with this guy though – he’s looking at morality as if it were a problem to be solved with mathematical, axiomatic reasoning, and the absence of universally accepted axioms troubles him. I think morality is better approached as an engineering problem – how do we all inhabit the same planet without destroying each other or the planet we live on. If we engineer a product, we have to take into account a variety of user preferences, none of which are seen as totally wrong or right.

      • Kodie

        morality is better approached as an engineering problem – how do we all
        inhabit the same planet without destroying each other or the planet we
        live on.

        “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”

      • NeoLotus

        Axiom: do or do not do to others what you do or do not want done to yourself. Human relations are based on moral reciprocity. Repay kindness with kindness, repay evil with justice (not vengeance, justice).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

    Remember William Shockley? He won a Nobel prize in physics for the transistor. Then he got into race relations. Maybe he should’ve stuck with what he was good at. Similarly, I think Lennox should stick with math.

    I keep looking to smart Christians for something new and intriguing that pushes me off balance, but I haven’t found it with Dr. Lennox.

    The Childish Faith of John Lennox

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/ Q. Quine

    Thanks for including that frame from J&M. It cuts directly to the heart of the matter and needs to be pushed in the face of all the NOMA supporters.