Does religion need evidence?

September 6, 2010 • 6:45 am

In a strange Opinionator piece in today’s New York Times, “Mystery and evidence,” Tim Crane announces that, in insisting that religious belief rests on evidence in the same way science does, Gnu Atheists are misguided.

Give him one thing:  Crane, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, at least recognizes—unlike “sophisticated” theologians like Karen Armstrong and Mark Vernon—that religious claims are at bottom claims of fact:

It is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims. When Saint Paul says “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain” he is saying that the point of his faith depends on a certain historical occurrence.

Theologians will debate exactly what it means to claim that Christ has risen, what exactly the meaning and significance of this occurrence is, and will give more or less sophisticated accounts of it. But all I am saying is that whatever its specific nature, Christians must hold that there was such an occurrence. Christianity does make factual, historical claims. But this is not the same as being a kind of proto-science.

So then why are Dawkins & Co. so misguided when they point out the absence of evidence for these historical claims? First of all, because existence claims aren’t scientific claims:

Speaking for myself, it is because I reject the factual basis of the central Christian doctrines that I consider myself an atheist. But I do not reject these claims because I think they are bad hypotheses in the scientific sense. Not all factual claims are scientific hypotheses. So I disagree with Richard Dawkins when he says “religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”

This is bizarre.  Why aren’t religious existence claims scientific?  Crane has a very strange view of science, saying that it’s a “very specific and technical kind of knowledge,” requiring “patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability.”  He contrasts this with religious belief, which “does not require years of training”, and is “not specialized” and “not technical.”  This is a curious argument, since science is surely just a subspecies of rational inquiry.  Whether or not it takes math to prove the existence of a resurrected Jesus is irrelevant: it takes the same kind of rational, evidence-based inquiry that all scientists and anthropologists use when reconstructing the past.

But the main reason Crane sees religion as unscientific is because no matter what the evidence shows, the faithful will always cling to their beliefs:

When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.

It’s a mystery, and the faithful like it that way, for that mystery imparts meaning and purpose to their lives.  So, although they’d greedily cling to evidence if it supported their beliefs, they disregard counterevidence:

Religion, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of the world by seeing a kind of meaning or significance in things. This kind of significance does not need laws or generalizations, but just the sense that the everyday world we experience is not all there is, and that behind it all is the mystery of God’s presence. The believer is already convinced that God is present in everything, even if they cannot explain this or support it with evidence. But it makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning. . .

I have suggested that while religious thinking is widespread in the world, scientific thinking is not. I don’t think that this can be accounted for merely in terms of the ignorance or irrationality of human beings. Rather, it is because of the kind of intellectual, emotional and practical appeal that religion has for people, which is a very different appeal from the kind of appeal that science has.

Crane is wrong in saying that scientific thinking isn’t widespread, at least if you construe “scientific thinking” as “the species of thinking that demands evidence for assertions.”  People trust their doctors to have evidence for their treatment, they trust their plumbers to find a leak using principles of hydraulics rather than faith, they expect journalists to have ascertained the facts, they fix their cars using principles of physics and engineering, and when you tell them their wife is cheating, they want evidence.  And not all believers, as Crane implies, will cling to their faith regardless of the facts.  There are many, like Dan Barker, who realize the empirical poverty of religious dogma and abandon their faith.  But Crane is on the mark in explaining religion’s appeal.

Viewed this way, religion is not wholly unscientific.  It’s not oblivious to fact:  as Crane notes, Christianity would founder if people absolutely understood that Jesus wasn’t resurrected. Rather, religion resembles bad science.  Like creationism, it makes claims about the world that are immune to refutation.  In that sense—how they view the value of evidence—religion and real science are incompatible.

But maybe the argument about whether religion is “scientific” is a semantic one. What’s not semantic is that they use incompatible methodologies and philosophies in arriving at “truth.” As Crane says “religion and science are very different kinds of attempt to understand the world.” Another incompatibility is incompatibility itself: there is only one science, but dozens of religions, all making incompatible claims about what is true. In this sense, religion is demonstrably not a way to find truth.

This is why science and religion can never have the constructive and fruitful dialogue so beloved of accommodationists and so heavily funded by Templeton.  Religion has nothing to contribute to science, and the only thing science can contribute to religion is the falsification of its claims.  But that has no effect on most believers.  (It does, however, force the more sophisticated ones to fine tune their theology.)

Crane’s piece is a curious one.  It doesn’t say much that’s new, or have a new take on the issues.  After all, we all know that showing fossils to creationists doesn’t change their minds, and we know that’s not because they’re somehow unable to understand evidence.  And although Crane is an atheist, and insists that he’s not arguing “for religion,” if you read his piece in its entirety it looks like nothing other than belief in belief.  And that’s surely why the Times published it.

84 thoughts on “Does religion need evidence?

  1. As an article attempting to make a point, Crane’s “Mystery and Evidence” is completely beside the point. He ends up, rather disastrously, with this:

    Stephen Jay Gould once argued that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria.” If he meant by this that religion makes no factual claims which can be refuted by empirical investigations, then he was wrong. But if he meant that religion and science are very different kinds of attempt to understand the world, then he was certainly right.

    What on earth does he mean that religion is an “attempt to understand the world”, when, in fact, he acknowledges that the religious simply dispense with evidence? It makes no sense. And, in any event, religious people don’t — or at least don’t want to — dispense with evidence. Most Christians claim that the resurrection really happened, and that there are good reasons for believing so. Of course, there aren’t, but that doesn’t stop the claim being repeated ad nauseam.

    Clearly, you are right when you say that the reason the Times published it is because it doesn’t say anything negative about belief in belief, but it fails entirely to account for what religious belief is like. Religious people may like mystery, whatever that is, but they want to have good reasons for believing the things that they do, and they go to extraordinary lengths to “suppport” their beliefs. The fact is that science has driven a wedge between religious belief and evidence, and it’s hard to get a purchase on it anymore.

    However, the point about mystery was not simply to dispense with evidence, but to take us, on the basis of evidence, as far as evidence could take us, and only then say, “You see, from here on, it’s mystery.” Trouble is, they can’t get the project off the ground any longer, so, apparently, we simply start off with mystery, and then say its a way of understanding. The claim won’t wash. Tim Crane is arranging words on the page. He hasn’t really said anything with them.

    However, it is worth pointing out that the non-statement that Crane makes is, in fact, the reason why fundamentalism is so rife today. If you really don’t have any evidence — as religion has assumed it could provide until recently — and some, of course, still assume it — all you have to fall back on is doctrine and dogma. And then you just hang on for dear life. What else can you do, if you want to persist in belief? But to call it a way of understanding is stretching the meaning of that word until it has snapped.

    1. …& of course if you rely on dogma, you are down to the question of WHOSE dogma. When Crane says “Religion, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of the world by seeing a kind of meaning or significance in things”, what he does is confuse ‘sense’ with ‘nonsense’. As Hamlet (& Rumsfeld) said, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”…

    2. One only has to look at the immense popularity of the “Evidence” and “Case for” apologetic books to see that religious folks care a lot about evidence — even if they have very selective filters with which to view it, and often aren’t above making up some whoppers when “evidence” isn’t avaialble.

      When no evidence is available at all, beleivers often resort to the unfalsifiable: “You can’t disprove it!” But I’ve never seen a religious person who didn’t leap to embrace any bit of evidence, real or imagined, that supported his or her belief.

      1. In my experience, these apologetics are not meant to be the source or foundation of a religious faith but are rather just minor tools to be used. One job that the tool is used for is when a believer begins to experience a smidgen of doubt and skepticism – an argument that confirms ones previously held belief is often persuasive even if it is invalid.

        Also, there are many believers that will look at those books as assurance that their faith has good intellectual foundations but will never actually read the books. The church that I was dragged to had a small library (really just some bookshelves) that contained all the books used for Sunday school. It had a section devoted to apologetics and, honestly, I don’t think that, aside from an occasional browse though by a curious kid, they were ever touched.

    3. I would say that it depends on which religious tradition you are talking about. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and there was nary an attempt to defend any of their pronouncements with evidence. In fact, in one sermon the pastor dismissed attempts to prove the existence of God as irrelevant – all that was important was to believe.

      Freeman Dyson once said (after receiving a Templeton Prize) that he did think of religion as containing facts to believe in but as an activity to experience. I guess, he means that religion is a performance art piece.

      1. Well, perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps that just had to do with the difficulty of the books. Apologetics takes people into strange fields, like philosophy, biology, quantum mechanics, historical theology, etc. It’s hard to get one’s mind around. But sermons are often, in my experience, apologetic, giving reasons, proposing evidence, countering doubts. This is all a part of religion. In many ways, it is the lifeblood of religion, because it serves to buttress people’s faith, and faith is, after all, an unstable thing, and it needs constant supervision and control. And when doubts come — which they always do — the first thing out of the starting gate are the apologetic arguments, the evidence, the conviction that the scriptures are the real thing and record real history, and have real authority, because the come from the source. There is no way that religion could sustain itself without an appeal to evidence. No, long-term historical project like a big organised religion can persist without it, and it is really dishonest of Crane to suggest that this is otiose. Well, it’s not, as every minister of religion can tell you. Believers don’t live in a vaccum. They hear arguments, doubts expressed; they read the newspapers; they know when an atheist is at the top of the charts for months. You need evidence to counter this kind of thing, and that is what they get. Religion is only performance art for those who don’t take it seriously.

    4. When they talk of “understanding the world” what they mean is “make the world make some kind of sense to myself, whether it is based on reality or not” – not what we mean by understanding. It may make some kind of sense, but it involves (in most cases, perhaps all) a denial or rejection of reality (or, at the least, an addition of things that are unjustified through lack of evidence).

    5. The “attempt to understand the world” always infuriates me. It is an obviously failed attempt then, so why don’t people realize this and abandon it? It’s a meaningless phrase that panders to the bullshit of religion.

      1. It’s not really an attempt to understand the world, it’s an attempt to make the world less frightening. You’re provided with an all powerful ‘heavenly father’ to look after you so can be safe. They ignore the fact that he’s an arsehole who doesn’t give a damn and does nothing to help.

  2. I hope Cthulu eats all philosophers last.

    Do philosophers not at least run their lame arguments by other philosophers to see if they hold water?

    Shorter Crane: I don’t know what science is, so I can make up my own definition so that the great unwashed masses can feel comfortable in their own delusions.

    1. Do philosophers not at least run their lame arguments by other philosophers to see if they hold water?

      Of course, most philosophers do run their arguments by other philosophers. But you never hear about the religious-favoring philosophical arguments that got run by another philosophers, because they don’t make it past that stage.
      But the religious need the appearance of philosophical support, so they keep looking for it until they find those philosophical arguments which were never subjected to close scrutiny. And these they trumpet all out of proportion to their worth.
      We encounter bad philosophical arguments in this culture war because our opponents adopt indefensible positions, not because philosophers normally construct bad arguments.

      1. I’m interested to see if you know of any recent philosophical writing on religion that can’t be destroyed in less than the time that it takes to read it.

        I’ve been looking for new sophisticated arguments the support either the concept of the existence of a deity or the place for religion in modern society. For several years, I’ve been disappointed. Karen Armstrong? Merely a restatement of Anselm (god is the godiest thing you can grok, therefore its god). Craig? HA!!! He’s what I call a half-cooked spaghetti philosopher — throw a half-baked idea up against the wall and see if it sticks.

        I’m not a professional philosopher. Heck, I’m not even an amateur philosopher. But I can pick apart these lame arguments in a nanosecond.

        There are, at best, 9 arguments for the existence of god. Then there is this current argument that the existence of god doesn’t matter because religion provides something (what? pot luck suppers?) that people can’t get elsewhere. Or that our brains are hard-wired to believe in magic (I guess mine didn’t get that memo), so we ought to just go with the flow; never mind the consequences.

        That’s it. Every philosophical argument falls into one of 10-11 categories; and they’re all bullshit.

        I, for one, just want to shake them all and shout “WAKE UP!!!!!”

        1. Karen Armstrong doesn’t do “philosophical writing on religion” so she’s not even in the running. She seems to pretend to do “sophisticated” theological writing on religion, but she’s not a trained theologian, so even that pretense is dubious. It’s hard to know what to call what she does. It’s basically journalism, but of a tendentious variety. She doesn’t argue though, she just asserts.

          1. The trouble with Karen Armstrong’s books is her god is more like the force in star wars, I was too old to get into the star wars thing (I was 19 at the time) though my younger brothers loved it. Though even they were put off by the pre-sequels, maybe all the Jedi’s on the UK census forms were being honest. The force is the new god but then how many new Darth Vaders do we have to put up with?

        2. The problem seems to be that you first have to strip the apologetics arguments from all the sophistry and obfuscation that make them almost impossible to understand. But once you have done that, you often almost immediately see what’s wrong with the argument. It’s usually either begging the question, circular reasoning, or reversing the burden of proof.

          1. Right. And with just a little practice, you start catching on to the little tricks they all use.

            Like changing definitions of a term in mid-thought.

            Once, just once, I’d like for a theist to start their argument with the following:

            1. Because of the lack of direct evidence in its favor, assume god doesn’t exist.

            If they can reach a logically coherent “therefore, god” conclusion from that starting point, I’d be impressed.

    2. There is SO much of what Tim Crane wrote that is just plain wrong and nonsensical. I am finding that a non-insignificant percentage of philosophers have their heads screwed on backwards and especially some professors of philosophy have theirs up their ass.

    3. “Do philosophers not at least run their lame arguments by other philosophers to see if they hold water?”

      Of course not! Have you ever known 2 philosophers to agree on anything? It’s almost like getting any of the 2 evangelists to agree on anything. This is why the Nicaean Creed is so short – despite the length of the gospels, there are few points of agreement.

    4. I hope Cthulu eats all philosophers last.

      You may be out of luck. Apparently Hawking’s book on why the universe is self-contained, “The Grand Design”, also comes with another interesting claim that hasn’t been discussed here yet: “philosophy is dead.”

      I don’t know of it is a part of his argument, his analysis or merely his opinion. But my own opinion of the man increased considerably.

      [I don’t know what a census of scientist’s opinions would show here. Many seem to find the subject non-relevant to science, or at least practical science.
      Others have delusions of philosophic grandeur, or seem to see it as a “retirement” project.

      It is the later group that makes itself seen, so when an authoritative scientist comes forward and (seemingly) speak against the not-so-self-reflective practice, it feels great! As great as it once was to find like minded atheists on the web.]

  3. What a dick Crane is.

    No, really.

    In his misguided attempt to make nice with everybody, he insults the religious by telling them they’re too dumb to look at the evidence that’s as plain as day in front of their noses — evidence that he himself knows is powerfully obvious. And he insults the rationalists by telling them that the religious are every bit as rational as they are, not merely despite the fact that the religious value knowledge founded on misinformation and illogic, but because the religious value knowledge founded on misinformation and illogic.

    Is there anybody whom Crane manage to miss insulting?



    1. Shhh … being a patronizing asshole isn’t the same as being a dick. If you tell the truth, as you do, then *that* makes you a dick!

  4. This reminds me of an emeritus chemist I know, who wants to paint the same broad picture that religion has something to contribute to science. If ever I argue with him again, I’ll have to ask him to cite a single paper that was improved by the inclusion of religious ideas. I’m certain I can find a few that were ruined by it.

  5. I gotta add — I find it profoundly astonishing that we’re even having this discussion.

    The only significant evidence for any of the Biblical events is in the Bible itself, and the Bible is a fourth-rate zombie snuff porn fantasy anthology. If anybody came to you telling you that any other ancient text was the literal truth and you had to believe that fact and do what the book says or dire consequences would ensue, you’d laugh yourself silly. Yet people do exactly that with these select few texts, and we’re supposed to take these people seriously…because why, exactly?

    Oh…that’s right. Because, once upon a time, resulting from an accident of power politics in the Iron Age, failure to do so would result in a Centurion sticking his spear through your belly — thus starting a millennia-long tradition of pretending that the crazy people with the weapons aren’t really crazy but instead brilliant visionaries (lest dire consequences indeed ensue).



  6. Strangely i find no big problem with his article. Actually he puts it quite well in my view.
    Some glitches with the factual claims statements but otherwise ok.

    The problem is rather that obviously some atheists here already have trouble putting themselves behind the mindset of religious people.

        1. He is referring to religion being childish (magic based), not something that exclusively children believes, obviously.

          Now who has trouble putting themselves behind mindsets?

    1. Stanley you have put your rendition of cold fusion quite well in my view. Perhaps you can convince a mor[m]on woo-woo swallower to backup your claims.

      Some glitches with the factual claims statements but otherwise ok.

      WTF is that?

  7. He contrasts that with religious belief, which “does not require years of training”, and is “not specialized” and “not technical.”

    I know a few theologians who would vehemently disagree with that. You know, the ones who claim that Dawkins couldn’t possibly comment on religion, because he lacks the training.

    But the main reason Crane sees religion as unscientific is because no matter what the evidence shows, the faithful will always cling to their beliefs

    That’s insane. According to his reasoning, the belief that homeopathy works isn’t a scientific claim either. There are plenty of people who won’t consider the evidence for that either.

    He may well be right that believers don’t treat the existence of God as a scientific claim, or a claim that requires evidence of any kind. However, that doesn’t address the question of whether it is a scientific claim, or whether believers should treat it as such.

  8. So, “seeing the significance in things” despite not “knowing” the reason or seeing the “evidence” for this significance = a type of knowledge?


    I mean, considering human beings are creative and susceptible to allusion and reference, anything can mean anything to us. It sounds like this guy wants to unravel the whole concept of “knowing” things.

    Anything to make religion relevant, I guess.

    1. That’s been the most effective tactic for those who defend religion. The whole “ways of knowing” meme has become fairly widely accepted by the mainstream. The result is, as you say, the watering-down of what knowledge is (and what it is not).

    2. Yes, it does stink of philosophical relativism. No one’s wrong, everyone’s right. No one can or should tell anyone else that they’re wrong.

  9. “Why aren’t religious existence claims scientific?” — Is the claim ‘In 49 bce Caesar crossed the Rubicon’ a scientific claim? Lot’s of people agree that its true, but being true doesn’t suffice to make a claim scientific. I believe that a cheese sandwich would taste nice right now. That’s probably true. But It’s not a scientific claim.

    A problem I see is whether rationality is the same as scientific. The difference I’d say is one of sensitivity to evidence.

    Take the early Church disputes about the nature of Jesus: Athanasianism vs. Arianism vs. Monophysitism vs. Homoousians. It’d be hard to argue that these weren’t incredibly clever and smart debates followed by highly intelligent people. It’s would also be hard to argue that these same people were very sensible. The difference is that all four positions were perfectly compatible with all the known facts. Rational enquiry, insensitive to evidence.It’s a bit like an argument between four people disagreeing about whether the universe began 10 minutes, 10 days, 10 centuries, or 10 billion years ago.

    One can just insist that rational enquiry by definition must be evidence sensitive. The problem with this is that mathematics and logic don’t pass this test. There is no evidence for or against the axiom of choice, for example. Maybe one could argue that theology can be, though usually isn’t, like that.

    1. By your arguments, history is not a science. “Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE” definitely is a scientific claim. If true, you would expect to see certain types of evidence, like written accounts. Other evidence would falsify it, like written accounts that place Caesar one a different continent.

      Whether your cheese sandwich tastes nice to you is also in principle a scientific claim. It can also potentially be falsified. We can observe your facial expressions when you eat it. We can get your spoken opinion on its taste. We could theoretically do a brain scan and see if your pleasure center is stimulated by eating the sandwich.

      In short, your definition of science is way too narrow.

      The claims about the nature of Jesus, on the other hand, are completely unfalsifiable. I wouldn’t even be so sure to call this debate rational. I don’t think that being really good at sophistry is the same as using rational inquiry.

    2. But that is beautiful! It seems to be the same position as that held by Massimo Pigliucci and Michael de Dora, as far as I now believe to understand it after months of going in circles (I am still not sure – they argue with such eloquence and sincere conviction that I constantly find myself asking: maybe you are just too obtuse to get the real argument? Surely they cannot just mean that?)

      But as far as I seem to understand it, it is exactly the same as has been made by Crane in the relevant article, which has the advantage of being so clearly and candidly written that the weakness of the two underlying arguments is much more visible.

    3. mathematics and logic don’t pass this test. There is no evidence for or against the axiom of choice, for example.

      Logic is too simple (first-order theory in math parlance), but mathematics is ‘sensitive to evidence’ as it should be: proofs and proof development is largely heuristic, and arbitrated by peer review.

      What you do with an empirical tool as math is another question, axiom systems can be inconsistent relative each other, but they may find their use. For example, the three basic geometries of elliptic, flat and hyperbolic manifolds are all useful.

      The difference is that all four positions were perfectly compatible with all the known facts.

      Well, so are the different theories (interpretations) of quantum mechanics. As long as they can’t be invalidated, you can use any of them, despite their _resulting insensitiveness_ after testing for QM predictions. (Not quite the same as being insensitive in the regular sense, mind.)

      I think you are on to something, but it is poorly expressed. Testing (falsification) for example explains the difference between science and philosophy, we can tell which science theories doesn’t work but can never tell on philosophy where anything (self-consistent) goes.

  10. I think there’s some truth in what he says. I don’t think he’s arguing for “belief in belief” either. He points out that religious believers don’t care either way whether there’s evidence for their beliefs. That’s a factual claim and one I think is mostly true. He also points out that religious believers don’t take their assertions to be scientific hypotheses. I think that’s also obviously true. Believers just don’t treat religious language as scientific hypotheses. I would argue that they don’t see their beliefs as being knowledge claims at all.

    I think his characterisation of science is weird, though, and his claim about rejecting Christianity on the basis of certain factual claims, given what he said, is odd. But I often think we need to come to terms with the weirdness inherent in religious language rather than trying to treat religious believers as really bad pseudoscientists. Much religious language is obviously meaningless or contradictory anyway and therefore can’t be subject to refutation (because it’s neither true nor false).

    Here’s my guess as to what is going on…

    We all have to acquire certain concepts before we can understand knowledge claims or make hypotheses or seek evidence. This is obvious. To even know what evidence is, you need the concept of a person, of the world, of belief, or truth and falsity, of justification. These concepts can differ according to our culture. Religious believers are brought up in a world which, for them, is infused with religious significance. Religion is included as part of the background of their capacity to make knowledge claims, find evidence, etc, and therefore cannot itself be subject to refutation and does not itself require evidential support.

    God is, if you will, a particularly pernicious and parasitical concept that inserts itself early in our development and infects those parts of our conceptual scheme that are prior to the ability to make and assess empirical claims. Doubting religious belief is then, for the believer, much like entertaining Cartesian skeptical doubt. They can doubt these beliefs but the results appear obviously absurd. As when I try to doubt that the world or other minds exist. This is why religious believers say things that seem so bizarre to us like, “How can I be moral without God?” or that we can only know and understand the world, etc, because God makes it “intelligible.” For them agency is written in the world at its most basic level and their concept of knowledge is built on top of their concept of there being some sort of agency in the world.

    Now, obviously, some of us are raised in a secular environment and never internalise these concepts. Still others are raised in a religious environment but, for whatever reason, religious concepts don’t take. And it may be possible to move from one position to another, although it wouldn’t involve simple evidence claims, but a deeper change (the rejection of a “form of life” in Wittgenstein’s jargon).

    Sometimes I think something like this is true but other times I look at astrology, homeopathy, UFOs, cults, ghosts, etc – things that all look to me (as an atheist) to have similar qualities to religion but to not be in need of such a grand explanation – and I just think people are stubborn assholes instead.

    1. He points out that religious believers don’t care either way whether there’s evidence for their beliefs.

      Yes, but he’s using that as an argument that the claim itself isn’t scientific. He’s using it as an argument that others (atheists, or scientists, say) shouldn’t treat them as scientific either. But why can’t the believers simply be wrong to treat the claims as if evidence doesn’t matter? He doesn’t seem to explain that.

  11. As the old joke goes, philosophy departments are less costly than math departments because philosophers don’t need waste baskets. They just publish their discards in the New York Times.

  12. The whole thing seems to rest on a really silly false dichotomy – which is an odd thing to say about a Cambridge philosopher, but I suppose even philosophers can want to please their audiences more than they want to…be fair.

    Crane makes it a choice between “science” and this special kind of religious thinking. It’s not a scientific question whether Jesus was resurrected, even though it is (he says himself) a historical, factual one, therefore it gets to be a special kind of religious thinking question.

    But why? Why the hell? Why are those the only choices? Why isn’t it a historical question? Crane seems to be suggesting that historical questions are fuzzy in the same way that religious ones are. Tell that to a historian! Go find Richard Evans, who is right there at Cambridge; ask him. Historical claims rest on evidence too, and if the evidence is not there, or doctored, or enigmatic, then that makes a difference. Duh!

    Crane just steps right around this obvious fact. Why?

    1. I don’t know what Crane’s motivation is, but he’s using the same trick that people like Josh Rosenau and Massimo Pigliucci do – simply assert that a claim is “supernatural,” and since “the supernatural” “can’t” be investigated by science, science has nothing to say about it.

      There are no criteria for deciding what qualifies something as supernatural; merely claiming it to be so is sufficient. Virgin birth? You might think that was an actual claim about the physical mechanics of reproduction. No. You merely label it “supernatural,” and all of a sudden, poof, sperm, eggs, and ovaries are irrelevant.

      1. He does it in a different way though, and a very odd way. He admits (or agrees) that religions do make factual claims, but then promptly veers off into the not entirely relevant point that religion is not science, as if that somehow answers the obvious objection that there is no evidence for the historical claims that religions make.

        He can’t be silly enough to be doing this by accident, so he must be doing it on purpose, so……..well really.

        1. Ah, good point. It is baffling. Frankly, I have a very hard time crediting anyone -regardless of their academic stature – anymore with pure motives when they engage in this kind of waffle. I’m pretty well convinced it isn’t intellectually honest, but that it’s a deliberate attempt to position themselves as “likeable,” as NOT Gnu atheists, with groups they believe they should be in good graces with.

          I simply do not believe that people as educated and obviously intelligent could possibly mean what they say.

  13. To put it another way –


    Christianity does make factual, historical claims. But this is not the same as being a kind of proto-science.

    Isn’t it? It’s (“it” being the making of factual, historical claims) certainly not radically discontinuous with science. It’s empirical; it relies on evidence; it’s falsifiable; if the evidence is shown to be bogus, then the claim collapses.

    1. No no no, you obviously don’t get it. Let’s take another example which is *not* religion – say Homeopathy.

      Homeopathy makes factual claims, but is not a proto-science (or a pseudo-science for that matter) therefore, Homeopathy works.

      Get it yet?

  14. I don’t think he’s aiming for a ‘constructive and fruitful dialogue’ exactly — I think he’s trying to prepare the ground for a better understanding of religion by the nonreligious.

    Perhaps it’s not so much about ‘understanding’ the world, as ‘settling on how to feel about the world.’ A language of pungent, connotative abstractions, operating by certain rules with which we ourselves are unfamiliar. Why not try to grasp them?

    We won’t really understand religion until we can predict how a religious person will react to what we say, what sorts of statements and beliefs will mesh satisfactorily with those they already have, which ‘win out’ in different circumstances. Why not seek that understanding? I think it’s time we tried, rather than just berating them all the time.

    1. But what is there to understand? They believe a lot of nonsense and the vast majority of them have been a victim of these lies pretty much since birth. The claim that we do not understand them is a lie in itself – it is offered as an excuse for us to not challenge the lies of religion. “Don’t try to educate them, you don’t really understand them.”

      1. Can you predict how they’ll react to statements you make towards them? What additional beliefs they’ll accept, and which they’ll reject? What they’ll feel is an apt articulation of their, for lack of a better word, faith? Can you predict the impact that life experiences will have on the answers to these questions? How the answers change in the life of the believer?

        We have no model for how belief plays out in the emotional life of a believer, nor for how this relates to the abstractions they employ, nor the rules by which these abstractions operate.

        Dismissing this is like saying “what is there to understand about the motion of the planets? They just swerve drunkenly around the sky.” Or “what is there to understand about the way a car works? You turn the key, and it runs, except when it doesn’t.”

        I still think my style of mind is superior to theirs; I’ll still argue for it when it falls to me to do so. But there’s something going on in theirs that we don’t understand, and I think it behooves us to circumscribe it.

        1. Eh?

          Can one predict anything about people with the sort of confidence with which astronomers can predict what planets will do? No; so not being able to predict what religious believers will do is hardly like shrugging off the laws that govern planetary motion.

        2. I think you are being overly dramatic here. Accurately predicting behavior on an individual basis in any context is a very low probability exercise. So, no surprise there. On the other hand, there are a large number of people that in the past were firmly religious and have since become nonbelievers. And many of these people have shared their experiences, at length. And many of these people are amongst the group of people that you are directing your comment to.

          Now, improving our understanding of all aspects of religion, including the cognitive functioning of the religious mind, is an important and useful endeavor. But to suggest that “we” can not imagine, or have no understanding of what it is like to be a religious believer is a bit hyperbolic.

          1. Point taken; I took a few comments out of context. What I mean to suggest is that, though most of us have some experience with belief, I’ve never seen anyone really articulate its mechanics. Most of us have been through thunderstorms; none of us are meteorologists. And our dialogue shows it.

            The NYTimes article offered nothing, but at least worked in that direction; the comments here walked it back. Isn’t it worth following up on?

            1. Yes, if you mean figuring out how to better understand the religious mind, I agree it is worth following up on.

              Someone like me would probably not have the temperment for doing that though.

        3. So what’s that got to do with things? The religious themselves cannot say they understand the religious in that way, so to say that godless people should understand religious people that way is a pretty damned stupid thing.

          1. I’d just like to add that I can manipulate most religious people I’ve met – I used to do it for fun. Get them to believe one thing then try to get them to believe that it’s not right after all. It’s especially fun if I get them to believe the opposite of what they claim to believe, then get them to say that they don’t believe it after all. It’s an old carnival trick; I can’t even claim to have invented it.

        4. Mordecai: “Can you predict how they’ll react to statements you make towards them?”

          You base this on the unjustified assumption that religious belief systems are consistent and coherent.

  15. Claims of existence can be addressed by science. On the obvious side, we can actually prove that someone existed in the past – if we’re lucky enough to have the evidence. The Roman emperors are not myths, nor are the Etruscan kings. People have even found various ancient records and deciphered a long gone language and writing system from ancient Egypt. The same goes for Babylon. On the not-so-obvious side we can state that there are no perpetual motion machines.

    Anyway, the Etruscan kings whom we know a bit about and many of the Roman emperors whom we know much more about lived long before the mythical Jesus. There are multiple historical accounts which are in agreement and traceable to about the right era – certainly within a generation. We even know about the abduction of the Sabines – a long gone tribe in the region now known as Italy.

    Now along comes a Jew claiming to be a god – he healed the sick (people today still believe the nonsense that homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture etc. work), raised the dead, and so on and yet there are no credible sources of information about this miracle worker. Worse still, the various accounts disagree on vital information. Even worse, many claims are provably false – for example the claims about Herod (“oh, people got the name wrong, it must have been someone else”) having all first-born Jewish sons murdered (“of course no one will write about such an event – no one cares for the Jews / it was such a common thing that no one wrote about it”).

    I imagine that faith healers were a shekel a dozen (or was it a denarius) at the time and sensible people saw them as frauds. If there were any who were not mere hucksters like the innumerable televangelists, faith healers, homeopathists, naturopathists, accupuncturists, and so on that we have today, surely people would have recognized that and written about it – I mean people other than these alleged “evangelists”. After all, it is trivial to test the claim of restoring eyesight to the blind! Equally trivial to test the claims of raising the dead.

    Oh no, true evidence is the greatest enemy of religion. No, religion ignores evidence and selects irrelevant phenomena as “proof” of its claims. If you were in a war and survived while many around you were slaughtered: proof there is a god! Yet the mass murders are not accepted as evidence that there is no intercessory god as claimed in the bible. That is only one example of the multitudes in which religious people twist facts which point against the existence of their deity and claim instead that it is proof of their deity. *Most* of biblical scholastics throughout the ages (and even today) is about making shit up to be able to claim that the Bible is True when in fact it is obvious that it is not. It is an eternal struggle to find nonexistent mystical truths in the bible, and the results are not surprising: there are absolutely no tenable claims.

  16. Instead of this tired business about religion’s being an attempt ‘to understand the world’, it would surely be truer to speak of it as being an attempt to find (human) meanings in the world, or to impose such meanings upon it. David Lewis-Williams (sorry to bring him up again, but he’s important)proposes the interesting hypothesis that that one stimulus for religion lies in trying to account, without the necessary scientific tools, for the nature of consciousness, and particularly for its more anomalous aspects: visions, dreams, etc., which are understood as being ‘truer’ than everyday reality and as pointing to or manifesting a reality that is within or beyond everyday reality. Shamanistic religions, in particular, depend upon the artificial stimulation of visions, whether through privation, violent activity leading to exhaustion or drugs. The interest in visions, and the assumption that they are a window into the real, are of course not confined to ‘primitive’ religions: St John of the Cross, St Teresa, the cult of drugs in the sixties, the fascination with near-death experiences come to mind.

  17. I think some people on all sides imbue the words “religion” and “science” with too much extra baggage when it comes to these arguments about how the two differ in their methods of producing information about reality. Mostly people on the religious, faithiest and accommodationist sides, but some on the skeptic and atheist sides as well.

    The word science is just a word that we use as a label for a more specifically prescribed methodology of the basic idea that before you invest any confidence in a claim, you need good evidence that the claim is accurate. And that good evidence means valid observations of real world happenings.

    Religion’s prescribed methodology strips down to, evidence is secondary to belief. Faith in what the religious texts, and the religious leaders, claim is more important than real world evidence. Interpretations of reality must conform to foundational religious beliefs, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

    It is clear, in more ways than one, that one of these basic concepts about how to gather accurate and useful information about reality is more successful than the other. In one sense, by definition.

    1. Not if any religion was factual, when “illumination” et cetera would have worked well enough.

      In reality, they don’t have a prayer.

  18. Other matters on which science might, one perhaps naively thinks, have a bearing are annunciations, immaculate conceptions, virgin births, lepers being cured by a touch or a word, corpses coming back to life, resurrected bodies returning to earth complete with holes created before death (in which others stick their fingers)…

  19. I think he’s got the evidence thing entirely backwards. The problem with religion is that people use exactly the same standard of evidence for it that they do for most things. That is, someone they trust tells them it’s true so they believe it. This happens at an age when the intristic unlikelihood of the whole thing doesn’t strike them as they still believe in Santa and the tooth fairy. They don’t realise that such fantastic claims actually require a standard of evidence beyond that normally provided for such claims as ‘I know a good plumber’.

    The problem is not that skeptics want the same proof for religion they want for everything else, it’s that believers don’t realise that they need a better standard of proof for religious claims than they usually consider adequate for more mundane issues.

    1. Strange, my experience is kinda different. I’d rather say that the religious have a certain standard of evidence for mundane issues and then arbitrarily relax it when discussing their spiritual beliefs: “you simply cannot apply logic/science/evidence to that!” (Why not? Well, because!)

      The skeptic wants to apply the same standard of evidence across the board, not a better one, but the believer uses special pleading.

  20. I remember a few years back having a conversation with an Iranian lab colleague of mine about the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. There were a lot of protests in Tehran at that time about these cartoons and I asked him his views on the matter. To put the guy in context, he is mid thirties, very western in his outlook (he wanted to be a pop singer before he went into scientific research) and is a very calm and friendly individual – not obviously religious at all. He told me, however, that he didn’t like the cartoons and that it felt like someone was insulting a member of his family.
    To me, this explanation of religious feelings – the equation of feelings about religion with the natural feelings for family members – explains a lot of the ‘irrational’ way many religious people deal with questions of religious ‘belief’.
    To admit that what we are dealing with is an emotional bond rather than an evidence based structure is difficult for both religious individuals and those that ‘believe in belief’. Both types tend to obfuscate the emotional bond with either flowery theological language or descriptions of alternative “ways of knowing” when it is nothing of the sort.

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