Gibersonia: who’s befouling the sandbox?

May 25, 2010 • 5:47 am

Forgive me if I’m not playing well in the sandbox, but I want to point out two errors and a slur that Karl Giberson made in the articles I mentioned yesterday.

First, over at BioLogos, Giberson chastises me for my theological unsophistication:

Caricaturing the [theodicy] argument Coyne writes:

Evolution by natural causes in effect emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer… No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings … No longer need we blame a Creator God’s direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts. Instead, we can put the blame squarely on the agency of insentient natural evolutionary causation.

Coyne concludes: “If evolution is to become a “welcome partner” to religion, the faithful will have to accept that evolution and natural selection were God’s plan for creating life.

There’s a slight problem here.  The quote in italics, attributed to me, is not mine.  It is in fact a quote by John Avise in the PNAS article that Giberson is praising, “Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome”
(you’ll find it on p. 7 of Avise’s piece). So hurt is Giberson by the atheists’ refusal to play, and so eager is he to rush his criticisms of the New Atheists into print, that he doesn’t even notice that what he claims is my “caricature” of  theodicy is actually the argument that Avise is making and that Giberson himself is defending.

I know Giberson reads this website, so I expect him to fix this forthwith.

And, while we’re fixing the record, let’s look at one statement Giberson makes while playing nice with Dan Dennett in the USA Today piece:

Tufts University philosopher and leading atheist Daniel Dennet no doubt finds all this mystifying, since he thinks seminary education should ultimately terminate one’s faith: “Anybody who goes through seminary and comes out believing in God hasn’t been paying attention,” he told The Boston Globe.

Now let’s forget that he misspells “Dennett” (and it’s not a typo, because he does it in the next sentence, too).  Here’s what “Dennet” told the Boston Globe:

DENNETT: It’s true, here are these young people in seminary, they have come with the purest of hearts and the noblest of intentions and they’re going to devote their lives to God. And one of the first things they learn is textual criticism. They’re looking at all the existing papyruses and scrolls and so forth and learning about the recension of the texts — the tortuous and often controversial historical path from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the books of the Bible — and all the Apocryphal books that got rejected — to the King James Version and all the later English translations. And that’s not what they taught you in Sunday school. That’s the joke that we often provoke from people when we talk about this: Anybody who goes through seminary and comes out believing in God hasn’t been paying attention. [My italics.]

Yes, Dennett said it, but it’s clear that he’s describing other peoples’ reactions.  This quote in fact comes from p. 23 of the study by Dennett and Linda LaScola, “Preachers who are not believers,”  (download it here), examining the curious case of active clergy who don’t accept God:

A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles. . .  Every Christian minister, not just those in our little study, has to confront this awkwardness, and no doubt there are many more ways of responding to it than our small sample illustrates. How widespread is this phenomenon? When we asked one of the other pastors we talked with initially if he thought clergy with his views were rare in the church, he responded “Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!” Surely an overstatement, but a telling one.

This statement was made not by Dennett but by a pastor, and although that’s not completely clear in the Globe piece, what is clear is that the words don’t represent Dennett’s own thoughts—in fact, he and LaScola characterize them as an “overstatement” in the original article.  I guess Giberson didn’t read that.

And finally, there’s this little bit of nastiness from Giberson’s USA Today piece:

Sam Harris described Collins’ personal religious journey, unfolded in his best-seller The Language of God, as an account of “nothing less than an intellectual suicide.” Harris, who finally completed his Ph.D. in neuroscience at UCLA, apparently believes that neurons used for religious belief simply won’t work if applied to science.

Finally completed his Ph.D? What’s that all about?  It can be nothing other than a slap at Harris for taking too long to get his doctorate. Absent the intent to slur, the word “finally” is superfluous.  But jeez, Dr. Giberson, given that Harris is producing big books, running a website, writing a lot of popular articles, dealing with a new mouth to feed, and doing graduate work, all at the same time, it’s amazing that he could get a Ph.D. at all.

Since Giberson is playing Joe McCarthy, accusing New Atheists of being “un-American” in their criticism of faith, let me play Joseph Welch: “Have you no sense of decency, Dr. Giberson? At long last, have you left no sense of decency—or scholarship?”

27 thoughts on “Gibersonia: who’s befouling the sandbox?

  1. First, over at BioLogos, Giberson chastises me for my theological unsophistication.

    As in ‘you’re not superstitious enough’?

    1. The post is The Win, but either it left me woozy or this comment is trying for 2nd place.

  2. The seminary thing… Totally true. I was training to be a preacher in a Christian sect where the preachers came from the laity and were not paid professionals. That is, you did it because you “wanted to” not because you wanted to make a boat load of money and rip on people for their “failings” (like, as far as I can see, most of the evangelicals).

    Anyway, five weeks in and I was well on the way to being a card-carrying atheist. Like Bart Ehrman and so many others.

    What set me off was how badly the Gospels didn’t agree. You could NOT have a “every word is true” religious text when there were clear conflicts. And when it was clear Luke was a total load of hearsay copied from other sources.

    Anyway, yeah, believing in God after you first foray into textual criticism is pretty tough. Takes a crap load of denial.

    1. Our UU minister trained in a Christian Seminary forty years ago and had no trouble with her studies even though she is a non-theist. Once the students and faculty understood her calling to religion and not theism, she had a wonderful three years.

      An exception, of course, but the search for unitary knowledge within science can be a distraction when viewing those drawn to religion being of a single mindset.

      The problem with many Religions, especially Christianity, is that following your deepest beliefs is possible, but only in a monastery. It’s unfortunate because the Christian community loses its brightest through departure or accommodation.

      Another acquaintance teaches Gospel classes at a Jesuit University and has no trouble with students or faculty in his teaching current views on the historical Jesus, although he does have problems with parents who are shocked by what their children are learning.

      Contemporary Christianity is a strange community. Once a significant provider of research scientists, the Religious “leaders” stifled that. I noted that Copernicus finally got his well deserved “hero burial” five hundred years late.

      There are religious groups fully engaged in the secular world, but they gain no notice from organized religion and none that I know from the anti-religious.

      I refer to the Westar Institute, the Sea of Faith Network, Unitarian-Universalism, the Society for Ethical Culture, many humanists.

      Our connection is with a faith community which is non-creedal and makes no demands as to dogma except to live a meaningful life helping as we can and not hurting if we can avoid it.

      The current discord between evolutionists debunking creationists is not only welcome by us, but fully supported. It’s just that we would rather live as part of a faith group that offers us opportunities for community involvement and inquiry into “right” behavior… whatever that is.

      Thanks for posting the links of evolution deniers. It makes my browsing easier.

      BTW, I’m a big fan of Daniel Dennett, although my doc has advised me to lose some weight, and enjoy reading most of his writing. In this case I have personal experience which is counter to his view. In the main, he is right on.

  3. This is also a test as Gravatar is having some fun with me:

    Giberson, – another quisling in the science camp.
    After fouling the ‘sandbox’ for nearly two millennia, the xians are to be given considerations they never afforded anyone else till they were forced to?
    And all they are exposed to is well deserved ridicule for their superstition, and being told the fact that religion is the dichotomy of science.

  4. “Have you no sense of decency, Dr. Giberson? At long last, have you left no sense of decency—or scholarship?”

    Jerry, did you expect decency, morality or ethics? They haven’t had any for thousands of years. Why would they start now? They are comfortable as liars.

  5. It is telling that KG thought it was appropriate to use a child’s plaything, a sand box (yeah, I know some of you adults like playing in one!) as an analogy!!!!!!???????????

    I first I thought he was implying that we are just misbehaving kids, but he is also implying that religious believers know how to play well in a sand box and that being adults mean that we use the same tactics/strategies that we learned playing in a friggin’ sandbox.

    Really, what do I expect from a habitual sloppy thinker and apologist like KG? Exactly what he writes. Very banal stuff.

    All he is doing is giving us even more reason to do what he is asking us not to do. Is that what religion does to your brain? Makes you a groveling idiot while thinking you are showing wisdom, consideration, and good sense?

  6. Jerry:

    You are completely correct. I apologize for the misattribution and I have rewritten the blog. It should appear shortly. Thanks for alerting me.

    As for misspelling Dan’s name, what can I say? I have read his books, met the man, even been on a radio show with him. But I can never keep the double consonants straight. I am acquiring a son-in-law with double consonants this summer. I suspect I will get his name wrong too.

    In any event, I am pretty sure Dan believes that education will erode theism–in fact, polls show this–so I don’t think I misrepresented his views about the likely outcome of a seminary education.

    I am in Venice now with David Sloan Wilson and we have had some lively conversations about evolution and religion.

    1. Well, ‘Rev’ Karl, you really have to do a little better than this. Correcting the ‘misattribution’ is one thing, explaining the misattribution is another. You have suggested that the “New Atheists” need to learn to play politely in the sandbox, but what you have written is so deeply biased, and the biases show in such nasty ways, that it seems clear that you are not following your own rules. Others must play nicely, but you get to play the bully. That’s offensive.

      For example, it may be true that Dennett agrees with the pastor who suggested that seminary students who don’t have problems with belief by the end of their studies haven’t been paying attention, but it is still a careless use of sources, also demonstrated in the quote from John Avise, attributed to Jerry Coyne. And what about the deliberate slur on Sam Harris’s name?

      This goes to the heart of your article, and you should acknowledge that you wrote in haste, but now are refusing to repent at leisure. This refusal to apologise for your nastiness, in an article which accuses others of nastiness, is indicative of a much deeper problem. You simply don’t like people criticising faith. You just don’t, so there!

      However, you have not demonstrated that the so-called “New Atheists” are a noise machine. Indeed, for all the accusations of stridency and shrillness that religious people have made, there have been very few examples produced. Produce a few. Show us how they are different from your own offensiveness, and then, perhaps, you’ll have a case. So far you’re just emoting rather foolishly. You should know that others can see this, even if you can’t.

      Jesus had something to say about this, by the way: Don’t try to take the speck our of your brother’s eye, before you’ve taken the log out of yours!

    2. Dr Giberson,

      I, for one, hope you will also address the question of why you accused Jerry Coyne of “raking [you and Ken Miller] over the coals” in his New Republic review of your and Miller’s books when in fact he praised both of you in addition to criticizing the ideas in the books (which is surely allowable in a book review).

      Speaking as a “new” atheist, I find this kind of thing disappointing (to put it no more strongly) in an academic, in a scientist, and even in a theist. I also find it surprising in someone who is telling people to be nicer.

      Any thoughts?

        1. I’ll wager you Au$50 that he doesn’t answer to your satisfaction by, say: 2010-07-01

    3. Well, the commenters above me are much more polite than I would have been. My well reasoned response was shaping up to be much like The Otter God’s below. Except a bit more vulgar.

      I understand that even the best can have a bad day. And after they have had their bad day the best do the right thing, admit their errors, and make amends.

      So Dr. Giberson, should I hold my breath while I wait? Or, is your commitment to your world view and your image amongst your chosen peers so important to you that lying, hypocrisy and misrepresentation are acceptable burdens?

  7. I thought the Giberson peice was a typical “courtier’s reply”– the defensive reaction of believers (and those who accommodate them) when they fear their pet delusion is threatened.

    An eloquent outspoken atheist makes the believer aware that there are those who feel the same way towards his faith as he feels towards all those OTHER nutty faiths and myths of yore.

    Rather than consider the implications of that message, it’s much easier to denigrate the messenger via hyperbole, misattribution,and straw men.

    At the root of it all, I think there’s a primal fear believers have– the idea that their god really is vengeful and that “bad things” will happen if they question his existence and/or the good things in their life will be taken away.

    I’m reminded of the lottery slogan: “you can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket.” I suspect Giberson believes that “you can’t have your prayers answered if you don’t believe in god”.

    It also seems that theodicy is a problem for him– as it should be for all intelligent believers. It’s very hard to reason that dilemma away. Why would an all loving god even invent entities that can suffer?

  8. At least Dr. Giberson’s tone is pleasant here!


    Didn’t a wise, er, creature once say that “wars not make one great”? I think I’ll adapt it to “degrees not make one intelligent”. I realize that this isn’t news to anyone, but people like the good Dr. Giberson make the “dr.” in front of his name seem like an abbreviation for “deranged”. Hopefully it doesn’t hurt too badly when he collides with reality.

    1. Assuming that wasn’t rhetorical, and I’m taking some of this from memory, YMMV:

      On BioLogos (Vice-President) he is “a science-and-religion scholar” whose “primary research focus is the history and sociology of the creation-evolution controversy”, and “has been on the faculty at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass. since 1984, where he teaches interdisciplinary honors seminars and the history of science.”

      On Templeton (interview) he is “Ph.D. in physics”.

      On Wikipedia he has “PhD from Rice University”.

      On Google Scholar I found some papers of his (“KW Giberson”, Rice University) on optical pumping in lasers, seems like, stopping in about 1984-5.

      He isn’t a PhD in what he is specializing in, seems like. Giberson may in fact never have used his PhD – the liberal arts college he teaches in has placed him as in the department of “PHYSICS AND ENGINEERING”, yet he teaches “interdisciplinary honors seminars and the history of science”.

      Make of that what you will.

      1. How strange. Now I wonder how one goes from a PhD in physics to apologetics. Are physicists really that desperate for a job?

        1. ISI shows that he has 8 papers on closely related topics from 1982-1985 at Rice. In total, all of those papers got cited 82 times, with the most cited paper getting 32 citations.

          All in all, solid work for a short time period, but it abruptly ends there and never picks up again. I suspect he grew tired of research (or at least science research) and moved onto other things.

  9. Giberson thinks God is in the background “sustaining” the universe, cites medieval theolgian as reference, news at 11:00. Lol.

    1. Ooopp I didn’t know that video would be embedded. I thought it would just be a link. (Sorry about that.)

      1. Everything is “sustained” by him. Everything is “grounded in his being. God is “behind everything.”

        I guess it is now sophisticated and esteemed to talk fancily about things for which one has (and apparently does not need) evidence for.

        Gibberson’s God is a convenient hook upon which he he can hang gravity along with other forces and constants.

        1. Dammit, god is NOT gravity.

          Tiny fairies hold us to the earth. They are scared away by the loud noises jets and airplanes make. And, for some unknown reason, by the flapping of wings (including bat wings) but not by arms (except bat arms/wings).

          Gliders are clearly impossible. Nothing has ever glided. You are being deluded if you think so.

  10. Just a thought – did you know that Francis Crick “finally” completed his PhD in 1954, a year or so after his & Watson’s work on DNA. (I believe he started the Phd study in 1947.)

    So maybe Sam Harris is in good company!

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