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Debate between Alister McGrath and Peter Atkins


A special debate between Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, author of “Dawkins’ God” and “The Dawkins Delusion” and Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, well-known atheist and supporter of Richard Dawkins. As seen on Channel 4’s “The trouble with atheism”.

This event was organised jointly by The University of Edinburgh Philosophy Society and The Christian Union. It was held in George Square Lecture Theatre which seats 500, however was overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to attend, over 300 people had to be turned away.

The audio echos a little at first, but improves. These two start out with cordial presentations, but it heats up about mid way through. Some humor comes into play, and Dawkins supporter Atkins just has to bring the orbiting teapot analogy … Go here:

McGrath seems to have taken a position that biological complexity probably can arise as the sole consequence of unguided natural unintelligent processes. In this debate it seemed to me that he defended his faith on the basis only that he believes it to be true and that it works for him. Atkins says atheism seems true to him and it also works for him. From those positions, it is difficult to bridge the gap between science and faith. ID provides such a bridge. idnet.com.au
I thought McGrath came off much better than Atkins, but I was a little disappointed that McGrath let Atkins get away with so much. For example, at Atkin's repeated authoritarian insistence that there are no limits to science, I wish McGrath would have said, "What scientific data and experiments do you have to support that claim?" motthew
For the life of me, I cannot conceive of how someone like Atkins might try to escape that circularity. I've only heard comments from Dawkins, for example, like "Scientists are working on it," which is really funny. TRoutMac
TroutMac: "Science, by Atkins’ own definition, CAN NEVER explain how the natural universe came into existence because he needs the natural universe to select a natural explanation FROM!" Thank you for putting it that way. That's a concept that can be difficult to explain sometimes. russ
mentok, As my granddaddy used to say, you don't know what you don't know. In other words, we cannot know the extent of our ignorance. Induction is bunk. Useful, but still bunk. mike1962
Doesn't McGrath believe in Darwinism? I read one book by someone very critical of Dawkins but it was only on his take on religion and not on the science. jerry
While I do think that McGrath won the debate in so far as he has the correct position, the TRUE position, it seems to me that he permitted Atkins to get away with quite a bit. I should say I couldn't listen to the entire debate… the audio, particularly when Atkins was speaking, was too poor. At one point Atkins says that "Why" questions are nonsense, that we should not ask them, but rather we should ask "How?" Well, if you rewind the video, you'll find Atkin's himself asking things like "Why should I…?" I think that McGrath did play into Atkins' hand too much by making it appear as though concluding that there is a God gives us security, a feeling of importance, etc. And certainly Atkins capitalized on this and while McGrath's responses were reasonable, at that point it was too little, too late. I am struck, of course, by the unbridled arrogance of Atkins' position. And I wish that McGrath could have done a better job of laying out the stark limits of science for all to see… to do so doesn't strike me as being all that difficult. Science limits itself to naturalist explanations for things… or so Atkins would have us believe. I would love to hear someone ask a man like Atkins "How you can have a natural explanation for the existence of that which is natural?" This is a clear case of circularity and in my mind anyway, clearly exposes this limitation of science. Science, by Atkins' own definition, CAN NEVER explain how the natural universe came into existence because he needs the natural universe to select a natural explanation FROM! TRoutMac
Atkins is trying to point out that "science" can be used to explain everything. The simple answer to that is why then isn't everything known? If science can explain everything so well then why do we find so many knowledge gaps in the various fields of scientific endeavor? Atkins claim is really what he complains about from theists. He claims that theists "cop out" by using God as an explanation stopper, he uses science as an explanation stopper. He tries to present reductionism as an absolute truth in a philosophical sense when in truth science has so far been very limited in what it can explain in detail from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. Atkins also takes a hard stance on atheism not being a faith. But if you believe that there cannot be an extra or unknown dimensional substance which we cannot perceive with our blunt 3 dimensional instruments then that is indeed faith and nothing more. An example is the discovery of x-rays and microwaves or infrared light. Just because before there was the technological ability to perceieve those substances nobody believed them to exist, that still doesn't mean that they did not exist. So if someone theorized that there might be unknown substances like microwaves long before they were discovered, and then you claimed not to believe they exist because no one has proven them to exist, and then claim that your non belief is not faith but acknowledgement of no evidence to the contrary, then you would be wrong. It would be faith in your belief, not a scientific fact. This is because ignorance cannot stand as a cause of truth. What you don't know cannot be the basis for a scientific grasp of objective reality. Ignorance leaves one with a subjective viewpoint which is faith based regardless of what it seeks to understand. To claim that atheism is not faith but rather just the acknowledgement of having no evidence, doesn't change that belief into something other then faith in your belief that your current level of scientific understanding has given you objective illumination into all the secrets of all the possible dimensions which surround us and envelop us in our vast and ancient universe. Atheism is faith that you have the ability to know everything there is to know about the workings of the universe, how else can you claim that god does not exist? It is simply foolish arrogance. It is faith that our mental and physical limitations in our limited time and space in our tiny speck of the universe has given us all knowledge of all space and time. Atheism is faith in ignorance. mentok

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