Sunday, 22 June 2014

Dr John Oakes needs to practise juggling his world views

John Oakes

Dr. John Oakes is a professor of chemistry at Grossmont college. 

I recently attended one of John's lectures on the scientific evidence for god, the Christian one. Hosted by King's College London I did not know what to expect. Honestly, I found the experience of being a member of his audience to be an interesting mixture of surprise, bewilderment, frustration and one that left with a feeling of being horribly violated from start to end.

His portrayal of materialism, atheism and of science was deeply disturbing. As a result my resting heart beat was well over 100 bpm for the two hour talk. Surprisingly, I was successful in managing to sit patiently and to anticipate the Q&A without shouting over nearly everything he said.

The audience itself was particularly interesting for me as this was the first time I had seen someone preach inside of a university campus lecture hall. The crowd all knew each other and probably sensed the non-believers in their midst as soon as my motley crew bowled in. I must say the atmosphere was pleasant and that this Christian group obviously expends a lot of energy ensuring the happiness of everyone present in order to refresh its community feel. Commendable. However when my friend (who is an active member of the group) introduced us to one of the event organisers, I could not help myself from speculating on how useful such charming charisma from an "it's so amazing to meet you" type of American sounding chap would be for suckering in new recruits. 

Perhaps slightly too cynical there, but it definitely felt like I was being given a once over by the chap to see if I would be a prime candidate to recruit in order boost the organisations numbers. However the particularly striking feature of the lecture was the audiences participation. Completely different from the manner one acts in during an academic presentation. A significant majority of the audience acted as John's bloody backing vocals. Periodic and synchronised loud expressions of agreement were noticed. Plenty of 'Amens', 'praise jesus'' and 'mmm-hmmms' provided the stark contrast to the behaviour of the people that would typical make up a King's College lecture halls clientèle

My bemusement of the crowd was interrupted by the talk itself. It was so violating to someone like myself, who celebrates the ideas championed by the enlightenment and scientific inquiry, not because of his absolutely outmoded critiques of Dawkins i.e. 'Look at how stupid this is. Richard Dawkins believes that a tornado could create a Boeing 747 from a scrap heap'**, but because his scientific case for god boiled down to: 

1. Stuff in the natural world is really complicated, god did it.

2. I see some things about the universe that are conducive to life, god did it.

** He does not believe, or has ever implied this idea as plausible. Actually Dawkins spends a great deal text in a couple of his books describing why this argument is ridiculous, in the Blind watchmaker for example (despite doing so, I feel an overwhelming need to not point this out). 

Despite the stereotypical position of an vehement unbeliever, like myself, being one of "lalala, I can't hear you!", I was genuinely looking forward to hearing some convincing arguments for an eternal loving father to the universe, in the flesh. As you may be able to tell, saying that I was underwhelmed by the propositions put forward to me would represent a vastly inflated overstatement. I honestly engaged with the lecture but his arguments all boiled down to just that, stuff is complicated and phenomenon X is useful for life to occur (i.e. He described earths magnetic core protecting the earth from all sorts of the suns nasty radiation): god did it. 

Pitifully lame.

He also seemed to be guilty of juggling two world views within one head. Some of the time he demonstrated how inelegant he was at doing so. To illustrate, I have described an example from the Q&A. Whilst answering a question along the lines of "what do you think of young earth creationists", he literally asked the audience whether he could be allowed to walk over to the other side of the room to "talk as theologian for a minute" before walking back over to where he originally stood in order to "talk as a scientist". This brilliantly exemplified his need to go home and practise his juggling skills. 

"Talking as a theologian" he describes how sure, it's fine to take the bible literally (earth is 6000 years old) if you care to, but he as a theologian he doesn't regard genesis as a scientific historical account (lol?). Then after crossing the divide in his mind during his brief walk back to his scientifist speaking spot, he describes how several lines of scientific evidence all point toward an old earth (4.5 billion) and that is what he does believe. Fairplay, he actually demonstrated his intermittent scientific aptitude for the audience. I will respect anyone who can support a proposition by demonstrating evidence pointing towards it suggests that therefore it is likely possible or reasonable to assume that this evidence provides to some sort of representation of reality (despite what some stone age peasants in illiterate barbaric parts of the middle east may think). Brilliant John is awarded 1 point for reason.

He doesn't get let off so lightly though. I had the chance to ask a question. Writing on my card "Neuroscientist & Athiest: Tell me why I don't believe that we survive death." He started off by declaring to the hall that "Yer, neuroscientists are typically the most atheist of all scientists. This is because there is absolutely ZERO scientific evidence that we survive death, absolutely none." At which point the frustration that had been building up over the course of Johns talk burst out of me and resulted in my enthusiastic clapping and inadvertent declaration to the hall that I am someone that agrees/celebrates with his own mortality?! John responded to the rash outburst by asking whether I was the questions author. "Indeed I am" I reply. He then proceeded to describe the case for life after death by evidencing the story of Jesus. He did however acknowledge that someone like myself would not find this argument convincing. He was not wrong.

So the Q&A really demonstrated to me that when something John Oakes does not consider absolutely critical to being a Christian conflicts with science then, hell! Who cares?! I can downplay the whole genesis thing and the whole creationist movement by saying how you interpret the opening chapter is up to you, "I consider genesis metaphorical", and still manage to go ahead and eat his cake by jumping over to the other side of the room and exploiting the wealth of scientific evidence that completely disagrees with the bibles first chapter. 

John is a scientist when the impact of the scientific evidence is grander, in his mind, than the importance of the discussed aspect of faith (in this case the age of the earth).

John is a Scientist = Aspect of faiths importance < Impact of scientific evidence 

Conversely, when John Oakes describes the aspects of faith that are completely integral to validating the Christian story, like surviving death, then the impact of science providing no evidence to support the notion (making it hugely unlikely that we do survive death) makes John Oakes happy to take the word of the bible over the evidence of reality so that being Christian can make sense to him.

John is a theologian when the the importance of the discussed aspect of faith, in his mind, is grander than the impact of the available scientific evidence (in this case the likelihood we survive death).

John is a Theologian = Aspect of faiths importance > Impact of scientific evidence  

Overall the aspect of my experience I found most harrowing was that John does have impressive credentials as a scientific chemist and lecturer at Grossman College. He presented in a friendly and convincing style, that I feel that would easily strengthen the faith of a non-scientifically minded member of the audience. I just can't see his arguments being listened to for more than 5 minutes if he were to present the lecture to an academic audience (regardless of the audiences theological outlook). However he is going around the UK meeting up with almost exclusively Christian groups where he will continue to have the support of his backing vocals and be free from critique. 

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