‘The Trouble with Atheism’

The National Secular Society says:

Former Today editor Rod Liddle is set to launch a broadside against atheism in a programme for Channel 4 entitled The Trouble with Atheism – which will be broadcast on 18 December. Mr Liddle says he will demonstrate how similar atheism is to religion.

Sounds interesting. However, this is the guy who recently wrote, in the course of a Spectator interview with Richard Dawkins:

Which brings me to the difficult stuff — and Darwinism. It is a creed to which Dawkins cleaves with the fervour of the fundamentalist, the true believer. And it is the real chink in his armour. For example, because Darwin showed us that life forms progress from the simple to the complex over hundreds of thousands of years of gradual modification, it therefore follows (according to Dawkins) that there cannot have been a divine being present before the amoebae swam in those soupy oceans at Earth’s toddler stage — because he would have had to be more complex than those organisms which followed him. And that doesn’t fit with the theory.

What? Aside from the dubious characterisation (which is contradicted by the next paragraph anyway) I don’t think anyone’s ever argued that a deity couldn’t have existed at the primordial soup stage because it would have been more complex than that which followed it. That’s a strange argument, and there are indeed multiple problems with it. I’ve never heard it suggested that evolution actively disproves deities, it’s more that evolution provides an explanation for probably the largest evidence for the existence of a deity, namely that the natural world looks like it’s been designed. A deity becomes superfluous, so why believe in one? It’s possible he’s simplifying a superficially similar argument to do with the rather large question of the beginning of the universe, but that’s still to do with the probability of an inherently complex deity versus a simple process, not that it wouldn’t be possible due to increasing evolutionary complexity (not that evolution necessarily makes beings more complex, anyway).

Mr Liddle seems to have misunderstood the issues to the extent that he thinks the entire basis for disbelieving in a god hinges upon Darwin’s theory being entirely correct:

But what if the theory, in its entirety, doesn’t hold — as Dawkins concedes might be possible? Even now, a century and a half after Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the notion of gradual, cumulative change in every case is being challenged (most recently by the evo-devo school, which believes that sudden change can occur within species within a single generation). Like all scientific theories, Darwinism will be amended — perhaps beyond recognition. Perhaps it will be discarded entirely. Either way, disavowing a divine being because it doesn’t quite fit in with another here-today-gone-tomorrow theory seems a tad peremptory. The question Dawkins can never satisfactorily answer is: what if Darwin was wrong? And yet, as a scientist, he must be aware that the likelihood is that Darwin was wrong here or there. In which case, where does that leave his philosophical argument?

“[T]he notion of gradual, cumulative change in every case is being challenged”? Ok, maybe, but it’s a long way from overturning current theory, and there’s more to evolution than just gradual changes. I don’t know all that much about the evo-devo school, but I’m pretty sure it still works on the basis of natural selection, no matter how large the generational mutations. But even if Darwin (and modern theory) somehow turned out to be wrong, it would make little difference to atheistic arguments because they’re not built upon evolution in the way Mr Liddle thinks. Sure, you’d have to find another explanation for the life’s complexity, but it would have to explain the vast amount of evidence showing ‘evolutionary’ lineages, and there’s no reason to immediately turn to a deity for this.

You also can’t just say that because scientific theories are continually revised – or ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow’ if you like – anything that follows from them (which the non-existence of god doesn’t anyway) is unreliable. That’s getting it backwards. The point is that predictions can be tested, and the theory is altered, supported or even discarded accordingly. By revising theories science hones in on the truth, and that’s very different from the “things change therefore there’s no point making predictions” attitude that Mr Liddle suggests. If all the evidence fits with a theory, it’s perfectly reasonable to come to tentative conclusions based upon it.

The whole article is really quite odd. I’ll watch the atheism show, but if it’s anything like the above I don’t hold out much hope.

Update on 19/12: I’ll update this when I’ve actually watched the show, but anybody looking for responses could do worse than see here (and not just because somebody in the comments linked to me), here and the comment thread here.