A confab with the faithful

January 30, 2011 • 7:29 am

People like Elaine Ecklund are always urging scientists to “dialogue” with the faithful, expecting that it will benefit both of them.  (What people like her really want, of course, is not benefits to science but more tolerance of religion.)  I haven’t been averse to such dialogue. Although I certainly don’t think it’s going to improve my science, and have no illusions that I’ll convert religious people in a short conversation, it is a learning experience.  And I just had one yesterday, participating in a discussion group at the First United Methodist Church of Chicago.  A while back, senior pastor Phil Blackwell emailed me that the church’s reading group would be discussing Why Evolution is True, and invited me to join in.  I did so gladly.

The church itself, located in the Loop of downtown Chicago, is pretty amazing. It’s actually a skyscraper about twenty stories high, with a steeple on top!

I’ve never seen a building like this.  The church itself, the oldest Methodist congregation in Chicago (founded in 1821), now occupies a couple of floors in the building, renting out the rest of it for office space.  Scopes lawyer Clarence Darrow—a vociferous atheist—once had his office on the sixth floor!  And Phil and his family live in the steeple—what a great job perk!  There’s also a “sky chapel” at the top, said to be the highest place of worship in the world.

As I said, the discussion was supposed to be about my book, so I expected to talk a lot about evolution. It didn’t turn out that way.

The discussion group actually has a topic: the interface between science and religion.  And that’s what we talked about.  (It always turns out that discussions of my book, when not rigorously guided away from the topic of religion, always wind up dealing with science and faith.  That’s been my experience talking not just to laypeople, but also to college and high school classes.  That’s fine by me, for thanks to the Gnu Atheists religion is on many people’s minds, and I welcome the chance to speak my mind.  Besides, I’ve given elebenty gazillion talks on my book and it’s boring.)

Before I showed up I had resolved to keep pretty mum about my views on religion—after all, I was addressing twenty religious people who were kind enough to buy and discuss my book. But that resolve lasted only about thirty seconds!  How could I sit by when people made the familiar arguments that science and faith are separate magisteria, that atheism and science were responsible for Nazi Germany, that parts of the Bible were metaphorical fictions while others weren’t, and so on?  To not say my piece would have been intellectual dishonesty.  But, to be sure, I tried to be calm and respectful.

The discussion lasted two hours, and while a rapprochement obviously wasn’t reached, I did learn a lot.  Here are some of my outtakes:

  • Because the church members were liberal, urban Methodists, apparently well off, they were obviously not raving fundamentalists.  Their approach to faith was far more “nuanced” (I hate that word!) and circumspect.  Several of them struck me as being a hairsbreadth from atheism, seeing God as some kind of distant entity who neither concerns himself with the world nor was even involved in creating it.  In fact, they spent a fair amount of time denigrating  fundamentalists like Southern Baptists, reassuring me that they disliked those folks more than I did!
  • It was obvious that for these folks, one of the most important aspects of church membership was a sense of community—and the opportunity to do something to help other people. The church has various intellectual activities (like the reading group), outreach programs like an ecology group, and it feeds the homeless.  All of this is obviously good: this is one of those churches for which it’s hard to say that, on balance, they create more harm than good.  But the question, as always, is this:  is the doctrine that brings these people together really true? I think for some of them it doesn’t matter, but I wonder how many of these people would even belong to the Church if they knew absolutely that Jesus was not the son of God and that the Resurrection never happened.

All atheists recognize that one of the vital functions performed by churches is social—to bring people together and make them feel part of a movement greater than themselves, or simply to be part of a community whose members care about each other.  It also enables them to work together to help others. I appreciate this function, and realize that—as Phil Kitcher always emphasizes—any viable atheist community must somehow satisfy the need for this kind of social interaction.  In the discussion, several people implied that religion was the only way to provide that. I responded that Europe is doing pretty well without religion, and that Europeans have somehow met the need for community without a need for God.  (Greg Paul’s work suggests that simply having a secure society, one with medical care, social security, low crime, and the like, serves to dissolve the need for faith.)

  • With respect to the inevitability of religion, a couple of people claimed that “religion will always be with us,” since it’s been part of humanity ever since the Neandertals buried their dead with ornaments and ochre pigments.  I think the idea was simply that religious belief is inherent in the human brain (having either been directly instilled by evolution or as a byproduct of our complex brains and intelligence).  My response was that, of course, much of the world is not religious.  The work of Phil Zuckerman, surveying belief around the world, shows that in many countries the incidence of atheism is between 40% and 85%.  Countries like France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Japan can be taken as largely secular, and they’re not appreciably more immoral or insecure than America.  I pointed out that religion appears highly correlated with both poverty and insecurity, and perhaps reducing those will help “get rid of religion”.
  • One of the discussants asked me how I’d deal with a fundamentalist who simply rejected evolution outright because it contravened the Bible. I said that in such a case that there was nothing to do.  My own strategy for promoting evolution, I said, had evolved into trying to “get rid of religion,” which is the source of creationism, and far worse things besides.  I believe that statement shocked some folks, but I hastened to add that the types of religion I was most concerned with eliminating were those that promoted Biblical literalism or had invidious effects on society, like promoting suicide bombing, repression of women, and prohibition of birth control.  I doubt that these Methodists fit into those categories!
  • The discussion was generally pleasant.  The only distressing part was one woman who insisted that Hitler and the Nazis could be directly traced to prewar Germany’s emphasis on science and math, and its pervasive atheism. I made the standard counterarguments: that Hitler really wasn’t an atheist, that math and science are big in Japan and Denmark but there aren’t any Holocausts there, that the persecution of the Jews can be traced directly to religion, and so on.  The woman was apparently one of those folks who see religion as a bulwark against immorality and persecution.  My response was simply to point again to modern Europe.  When I got home last night, I found an email from one of the other discussants, thanking me for my presence and adding, “I beg of you, please do not write that Methodists believe math and science led to Nazi Germany!”  So let me add that only one person espoused that view!
  • The “different ways of knowing” trope arose several times.  One person compared religion to poetry (i.e., an emotional response to the world) and science to prose (a rational and empirical approach to the world).  I mentioned—and this was difficult to say before such a group—that I didn’t think that religion was a way of knowing anything: that different religions had different dogmas and different answers to questions like “What is the proper place of a woman in society?” What, then, is the “knowledge” to be gained? If any of the church members read this post, and I suspect some of them will, I’d ask them to consider what religion really helps us “know”, and how can Methodists be confident that what they “know” is true while the different things “known” by Muslims, Hindus, and Southern Baptists are wrong.
  • The same lady who blamed science and math on Hitler raised the point that there was a commonality to the “truths” of faiths—they were monotheistic.  I pointed out that many faiths, like Hinduism, were not monotheistic, so even that is not a “truth”.  Moreover, when you get beyond the “one god” idea, faiths rapidly diverge in their other “truths”. Yes, they all pay lip service to the Golden Rule, but clearly Muslims don’t treat all other Muslims as they want to be treated themselves! And religions diverge on many important issues like sex, birth control, and treatment of gays and women.
  • To me, one of the most interesting parts of the discussion involved interpreting the Bible.  One gentleman claimed that, of course, stories like Genesis were metaphorical fiction, an attempt of preliterate people to make sense of the world without empirical tools for studying it.  I agreed with him (adding that he  probably also believed that Adam and Eve and the story of Noah were metaphors), but pointed out that he may have been treating the Bible unequally.  Why are stories like Genesis and Noah so obviously fictional, and yet stories like the divinity and resurrection of Jesus are seen as true: the bedrock foundations of Christian belief?  To me, this is the most difficult question for liberal religious folks. In fact, one woman asked Pastor Blackwell to respond to this point.  Phil basically confessed, I think, that he didn’t have good reasons to think that Jesus’s divinity and resurrection were true in a literal sense, but that even if they were fictional they did not (and I quote him here) “affect the timeless and boundless truths around the life of Jesus.” Of course I’m not sure what those truths are, but so be it.
  • Finally, one thing that impressed me very strongly about the group was its sense of doubt.  Just as we scientists can’t be absolutely confident that what we discover are timeless and unalterable truths, so several of these Methodists said they weren’t so sure about the “truths” of the Bible, or, importantly, about the nature of God.  (The difference between scientific and religious doubt is, of course, that scientists have good ways to resolve doubt.)  While this doubt was not ubiquitous, I’m sure I wouldn’t have sensed it in, say, a confab with Southern Baptists.

In the end, it struck me that the harmful and destructive nature of faiths may be correlated with how much doubt resides in their adherents.  These Methodists, unsure about the nature—or perhaps even the existence—of God, are certainly not wreaking much harm on the world. Indeed, with their outreach programs, help for the poor, and so on, their net effect on the world may be positive.  (Also, they seemed like nice people—people trying to live their lives according to the morality they derive from faith). This is not the kind of faith that I spend a lot of time attacking, even though I consider their religious beliefs—insofar as they even have religious beliefs—largely irrational.  And I’m not sure how much their own belief enables beliefs of more harmful faiths, like Islam or fundamentalist Christianity.  My impression is that most of these people are not enablers in that sense.

The destructive nature of faith stems from certainty: certainty that you know God’s will and God’s mind.  It’s that certainty that leads to suicide bombing, repression of women and gays, religious wars, the Holocaust, burning of witches, banning of birth control, repression of sex, and so on.  The more doubt in a faith, the less likely its adherents are to do harm to others.  These Methodists seem riddled with doubt, and that defuses potential harm. But though they may doubt the nature of God and the truth of scripture, they do not doubt the value of helping others, and that prompts their many charitable acts.

At the end, I was asked by Pastor Blackwell to provide a “topic sentence,” a short precis of my view on the discussion.  I said something like this:  Everyone claims that a dialogue between scientists and the faithful will be useful to both of them.  I’m not sure I agree.  Certainly my own scientific research is not helped at all by talking to religious people.  How could it be?  And while scientists do have something of value to say to the faithful, that is only our empirical research that disproves religious dogma.  Nevertheless, these discussions are of value, if only to inform each other where we stand.  I, for one, learned some useful things about liberal Christianity and was glad I went.

Thanks to Pastor Blackwell and his group for inviting me! If any church members read this, do feel free to comment below; you can do so anonymously if you wish.

237 thoughts on “A confab with the faithful

  1. Excellent post! Methodists appear similar to the United Church of Canada, with which I am familiar. Decent rational and reasonable, listen to arguments, pose well-thought-out counter arguments, behave in a civilised manner. No wonder they never make the news, or PZ’s blog!

    1. Let me assure you that not all(or even most) Methodists are like this particular group, or like the congregation in San Francisco that regularly feeds several thousand poor people monthly and has been wide open to homosexuals – including pastors – for decades. Here in rural and small urban Pennsylvania, most Methodist congregations are largely as homophobic, anti-intellectual, evolution-avoiding and closet racist as anywhere else in the country. One or two swallows do not make a spring.

      1. This became my principal gripe with liberal Christians in “mainline” churches. Yes, they often hold progressive values and often reject homophobia, sexism, etc. — but they fold like wimps when it comes to confronting their less enlightened brethren.

        I think the reason for this is that both the Bible and Christian history better support the oppressive positions. The liberals are nervous about being accused of being “unChristian”.

        1. No, we don’t fold when confronted with wildly irrational people because we are afraid. We do sometimes give up – as Mr. Coyne said in his talk with us on Saturday, there is nothing you can say to someone who refuses to accept evidence. I confront them to make a moral point, but I do not argue – it’s a waste of breath.

          1. It may be difficult to discuss the truth with the ignorant. It might even be painful. But it is never a waste to discuss the truth. Who knows what pair of ears are over-hearing the discussion?

            One of the best things that ever happened to me, was overhearing my own Dad being corrected once. Keep that in mind.

      2. I am one of the participants in the group that met with Dr. Coyne. And we are not “one or two swallows.” I am 59 and have spent my life in the Methodist church, and have always encountered the same attitudes. I grew up in rural southern Ohio, not a bastion of progressive thought, but our Methodist church taught me to love and treasure knowledge in all forms.

    2. As with most any Christian denomination, the beliefs and behaviors of one particular church don’t necessarily reflect the beliefs and behaviors of the sect as a whole (as pointed out already by lamacher). George W. Bush is a methodist and, without delving into a discussion about the costs and benefits of his particular policies, it cannot be said that he was, for example, a bulwark for gay rights nor that he displayed a healthy capacity for doubt.

  2. I’m not so sure that it’s the difference between certainty and doubt that matters. Neither of us have any doubt, for example, that the Earth is an oblate spheroid, and I’m sure we’re both certain that said oblate spheroid is about 8,000 miles across and about four and a half billion years old.

    Rather, the problem is with the different ways of knowing — and, more specifically, with granting equal confidence to both.

    The scientific method vastly dwarfs any other “way of knowing” humanity has ever used. The religious “way of knowing” reached its peak with Plato and hasn’t done any better since. Indeed, modern religious thought isn’t even as sophisticated as Plato was; he, at least, I’m sure, would see right through the nonsense of vindictive judgment gods with their guts literally spilling out of gaping chest wounds.

    Equating Platonic introspection with Popperian methodology — and, worse, equating the outcomes of both — is what’s creating all these messes in the world.

    Religious people have much to learn from science and scientists — beginning with how to know about and understand the world we find ourselves in. Pretty much everything that science has to learn from religion any more is restricted to the fields of anthropology and psychology.



    1. Yes, this was a really interesting post, sort of like reading an anthropologist’s field notes. But I think Professor Coyne and Ben have both got it right–when it comes to truth, and to ways of discovering truth, religion simply has nothing. While there might be disagreements among scientists about certain truths, there are ways that we can use science to come to a consensus about such things. What of the various sects of the various religions? I wonder what some the members of this church think about this issue. I also wonder what their response to Professor Coyne’s accurate statement that when it comes to learning about the world, to adding to the store of knowledge and information, religion is simply a waste of time. Yes, sometimes there is community, service, etc., but of course we can get these things in other ways (as Sam Harris likes to say, at best religion gives us bad reasons to do good things), but religious knowledge/truth does not add anything new to our understanding of the world. Do these folks disagree with that or do they just find it more important to have a community of people doing good things?

      1. Yes, it does add something. It adds an explanation of entire realms of human experience that science fails to explain. Science cannot be considered a complete tool for understanding the world as long as it is unable to explain and interpret the phenomena of religious experience.

        1. Religious experience, like any other sort of experience, is something that happens in the brain, and is therefore just as susceptible to scientific explanation as any other brain-based phenomenon. If we don’t have detailed cognitive theories of religious experience in hand just yet, I would suggest that’s largely due to strong social taboos against that sort of research, and not due to any inherent inability of science to address those questions.

          1. Religious people are often accused of making a God-of-the-gaps type argument. You have just made a science-of-the-gaps argument, which claims that of course something is true even though we have no evidence for it. It’s a big gap, all right, and when and if I see evidence, I will accept it. But I haven’t, and neither has anyone else.

            1. In fact there’s a great deal of evidence from neurology and cognitive science that all varieties of human experience — including religious experience — are physically based in the brain and not supernatural. You’re the one claiming that religious experience requries a different, non-physical explanation. It’s that claim that lacks supporting evidence and should be rejected until such evidence is forthcoming.

              1. Wrong. I’m not making that claim. I am simply saying that I have an explanation, open to question like any other, and that you don’t. I know the evidence from neurology and cognitive science and have seen nothing even remotely convincing.

              2. Very well, then; present your explanation of religious experience and let us question it. If it turns out to involve supernatural entities, then I don’t see how my statement above was wrong.

              3. This is for Donald Pennington regarding deafening silences. First of all, I have said already that I have found nothing convincing in the neuroscientific evidence. Second, you apparently missed my post of last week in which I said that I was withdrawing from this conversation because I have 80 hours a week of work and I can’t take this time on it. It is an interesting conversation, but it will have to take place without me. Sorry.

          1. Well, I was urged to reply to this and so will try, but it isn’t easy. Throughout history thousands of men and women have experienced a sense of the reality of something which transcends themselves and all physical, earthly knowledge. It’s too widespread, and too multi-cultural (by which I mean not necessarily Christian at all) to be denied. You simply can’t tell thousands or millions of people that they haven’t experienced this when they have. I am a very scientific sort of person, with six college degrees. But all that knowledge pales by comparison with feeling oneself in the presence of something beyond human description. Sorry, that’s the best I can do. It’s kind of like asking me to describe how I love my husband. I can’t do that either.

            1. Nobody denies that religious believers can have profoundly moving experiences. But the point is that while such experiences may tell us a great deal about the mental and emotional state of the people having them, and about the brain mechanisms that underlie them, they tell us very little about external reality. The great lesson of science, from which it derives its power, is that subjective impressions are a poor guide to what’s actually true. To obtain real, verifiable knowledge about the world requires utmost skepticism and painstaking efforts to minimize subjective bias. “It’s true because I feel it in my heart” is simply not a persuasive argument.

              1. Circular reasoning. You have defined “true” to mean that for which external evidence can be adduced, and then turned around and said I can prove that isn’t true because you have no external evidence. That’s obvious, but it’s also a meaningless tautology.

            2. Thank you, Beth. As I was the one who asked for your reply here, I feel as if I should respond, but I don’t want to appear to be just trying to have the last word!

              And basically, Gregory has spoken nicely for me, as well. I would just add that what I’m unclear about is how you make the leap from a very broad feeling of transcendence to embracing (some of) the precepts written down by a certain group of first century middle easterners? At some point things seem to go from the very broad and vague to the very narrow and specific, and I don’t know how one makes the choice of whom to believe. And why is it that your deity was so apparent then and is so undetectable now?

              I’m not really demanding you answer these queries; only trying to explain why I just can’t see the parsimony or even the logic of making such huge leaps from such a nearly ineffable (which is how I understood your description) feeling.

              1. I think the important thing here is to set the limits of knowledge. I don’t know much. You don’t know much. We all don’t know much. Most of all – after years of reading epistemology – we don’t know how we know. I am far from thinking that God as posited by first century Middle Easterners is the one and only answer. I don’t think Rev. Phil, who invited Dr. Coyne to speak to our group, believes that either, given that we have Muslim speakers in church and an interfaith Thanksgiving service which includes literally every imaginable religion. What I do believe, and that firmly, is that my experience of the ineffable is real and has just as good a claim to being a form of evidence as do particles under a microscope. That I call that ineffableness (I’m sure that’s not a word) the Christian God is mostly a product of when and where I grew up. It does not matter. People to whom it does matter that they have the one and only RIGHT God are generally either pathetic or dangerous. But it is important to see that this RIGHT God can be called science or rationalism or any of a variety of other things which are not even remotely theistic. All of them represent the same thing: a search for one basic principle on which to base everything else. What matters is to know that your choice of a basic principle is just that, a choice. Dr. Coyne has chosen science in just that way. I personally believe that one ought not be too single-minded about what to choose. Most likely Dr. Coyne has an accurate picture of some aspects of reality and I have one of some other aspects. Why not just be humble? And on that note I am going to bed!

              2. @Beth : “my experience of the ineffable is real and has just as good a claim to being a form of evidence as do particles under a microscope.”

                You have a subjective, non-repeatable experience. You can’t invite someone else to have the same ineffable experience as you, whereas I can share my microscope or write up the results so that someone in another part of the world can repeat the experiment.

                Calling Science a god entirely misrepresents the character of scientific enquiry. You can choose to believe in your God over rational scientific enquiry, but the latter is many times more successful at describing the world around us than any belief in the ineffable.

            3. “A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it.”
              — Sam Harris

            4. Beth Jacobs writes: “Throughout history thousands of men and women have experienced a sense of the reality of something which transcends themselves and all physical, earthly knowledge. It’s too widespread, and too multi-cultural (by which I mean not necessarily Christian at all) to be denied.”

              Read Carl Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World” for a good scientific explanation. The same quite un-supernatural phenomena of sleep paralysis and dream states that gave rise to reports of demonic, angelic and divine visitations in past centuries have turned into the stuff of alien kidnappings, “recaptured memories” of molestation, etc., when contextualized in accordance with a contemporary cultural background.

            5. If that feeling of transcendence could be produced in the lab via pharmacological means or neural stimulation, would you be more sceptical that it represents something actually transcendent?

              1. Ah, yes, transcendent experience. As a dancer for 25 years and now a practitioner of tai chi, I have had occassional moments when things were “interesting”. It is a trainable exercise; ask the Eastern traditions how to do it. They are better at it than the Western religions. They are more consistent in their results. But it is purely a human event.

            6. So how do you know the religious explanations for those experiences are accurate explanations of what is happening?

              And how do you determine which religious explanation is most correct?

        2. If you think the phenomena of religious experience is good, you’ll love the experience after finally accepting that there is no god! Explaining how those experiences occur is being provided in more and more detail through science.

          Is there something of substance that christianity has contributed? Gosh, it seems like forever since christianity provided..Oh, I remember now, christianity provided one guy and his rib in collusion, to start the process of our escape from some tyrannical sky creature. Wow, I’ll bet that guy and his rib weren’t thinking it would take this long!

          1. Well, I don’t know what you contribute to the world, but I and the organization I run feed, clothe, and provide medical and spiritual sustenance to 120 homeless persons here in Chicago every week. When I see the Atheist Homeless Ministry taking shape, I may become convinced that atheists contribute more to the world than Christians. But there is an odd (or maybe not so odd) lack of such an atheist ministry.

            1. Respectfully, Beth, that is because atheists are not an organization. We are individuals who volunteer and contribute in many of the same areas you do, but we do not do it under the banner of an ideology.

              FWIW, here is one list of non-theistic charities:


              IME, we often volunteer with religious efforts, if those are the ones handy to us. I know atheists who routinely work with Habitat for Humanity, for instance.

              1. I know there are good and honest atheists who volunteer – my daughter is one of them. But precisely in their having no organization around a principle lies the problem. Individuals have to have their own idiosyncratic reasons for doing so. Love thy neighbor as thyself is not an individual choice – it is a moral command. Nothing commands atheists.

              2. With all due respect, Beth, if your only reason for being good is because some authority commands it, that’s not morality; that’s an abdication of moral responsibility. True morality comes from within; it’s not imposed by fiat from above.

              3. Beth, I suspect you, as well as I, do what we do to help others out of an innate compassion, an empathy that is part of the human condition for most of us. I am sure you’re aware that atheists tend to also be liberal in their politics, another arena in which we can all (religious and not) work toward a better society.

                How interesting that your daughter is an atheist. 🙂

              4. For Gregory Kusnick (hope I spelled that right). First, I agree that morality should come within. But it needs a starting point, a why. I have a Master’s degree in ethical philosophy, and never in all my studies did I see an answer to that. Second, most people don’t and won’t ever have the wherewithal to think all the moral commands through on their own. You may not like to hear that – people generally don’t – but it is true nonetheless. People need help. To say otherwise is utopian fantasy.

              5. For Diane G. If compassion is innate, why do so many people have none? It seems to me often to be the exception rather than the rule.
                My daughter worships at the altar of science and math (she’s a PhD student in math). It is for her a FAITH – we have had numerous debates on this – and she cannot say why take science as primary. It’s okay with me that this is her faith, but I wish she would realize that you cannot get to the premise that reason is the basis of everything by reasoning without engaging in a very circular argument. But we don’t debate any more – I got tired of it. She’s almost 30 so she may still grow up. 🙂

              6. Beth, I can certainly indentify with having discussions with adult kids!

                There are sound biological hypotheses about the existence of altruism and empathy, some of which have been kicking around biology for decades. It is late here and I am going to have to quit till tomorrow, by which time others may have replied with better responses (and certainly more detail!). Before I forget, though, I wanted to point out that many of those who are exposed for lacking compassion turn out to at least profess religion…naturally, since our country (sorry for the US bias here, non-USians) always polls around 85-90% religious…

              7. @Beth Jacobs:

                But it needs a starting point, a why.

                So does religion. Why should you accept God’s existence, or his commands? Your philosophy degree should have tought you that too.

                People need help.

                Sure, and it’s provided to them by other people. Not by some abstract notion of God.

              8. @Beth Jacobs,

                I don’t see how a belief in a God is an organizing principle, nor do I see how God’s laws are necessarily moral or even good.

                If we have some objective standard for evaluating moral statements then we can say “love thy neighbour” is good or bad, in which case whether or not it came from God becomes superfluous. If you are actually saying that we have no moral standards except those rules which come from God then we have no basis for rejecting any laws, no matter how seemingly cruel or arbitrary.

                The fact that you chose a moral statement which is kind and charitable and not, say, “observe the sabbath day and keep it holy” says a lot. I think that we all have a moral sense which evaluates these statements independent of the bible which lets us select statements which resonate and discard those which do not. No belief in a God is necessary.

                And thinking of “love thy neighbour” and “do unto others”, Jesus also said “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” Do you know anyone that takes this seriously? If not, why not?

                I think a big problem is that these commands (as you call them) are not explained or justified. They don’t say why we should do something nor how they will improve our lives (beyond staying out of Hell) so we’re stuck with a set of arbitrary rules with none of the organizing principles that you say are so essential. Responding to this, Christians form their own principles and then highlight those passages which support their views and ignore those which do not.

              9. Beth:

                My daughter worships at the altar of science and math (she’s a PhD student in math). It is for her a FAITH – we have had numerous debates on this – and she cannot say why take science as primary. It’s okay with me that this is her faith, but I wish she would realize that you cannot get to the premise that reason is the basis of everything by reasoning without engaging in a very circular argument. But we don’t debate any more – I got tired of it. She’s almost 30 so she may still grow up.

                Please describe her “worship”. I’ve never seen a scientist or mathemetician perform any “worship.”

                Exactly how is it (science/math) her “faith”? (You can capitalize it but that doesn’t make it so.)

                I’ve had may Chrisitan apologists try to equate the assumptions of science (e.g. that consciousness isn’t a computer simulation, that the physicial laws behave with continuity through space and time, the rules of logic) with the assumptions of religion (e.g. there is an all-powerful God, he cares about what we do, there’s an afterlife, that they know what this god cares about, that their religion is correct and all the others are wrong.) This is a fallacious equation.

                Exactly what does she have to have faith in without evidence? Faith is only required where evidence is lacking. Where is the evidence for the world as revealed by science lacking? Without the (tiny, well-defined) assumptions of science, neither you nor I can make any perceptual progress. The assumptions of religion are superfluous to understanding the world.

                I can’t let this one go by: “She’s almost 30 so she may still grow up” Which of you still believes in a book of folk tales?

                As Dr. Coyne and most of the others here have commented: No one says religion never does good. I’m sure you are doing good. More power to you! But your metaphysics aren’t needed for that.

                My position on the believer is: Do whatever you wish, just don’t: Try to impose your religion on me or anyone else (I would include your 30-year-old daughter), don’t try to get it taught in public schools, don’t try to impose your religious beliefs on our laws. Don’t block valuable stem-cell research. Don’t try to prevent desperate women from accessing legal birth control or abortion. (I’m not saying you’ve done any of these, I’m explainging my position.)

                Based on what Dr. Coyne stated, your church appears to be a group I could easily live and let live with.

                I wish Dr. Coyne had asked the assembled group, “how would you feel if your son/daughter married an openly atheist spouse?” That might have been interesting to know.

                All the best, JB

            2. That wasn’t the question. He didn’t ask what your organization contributes to the wordl, he asked what do the beliefs of Christianity provide to the world.

              1. Your comment assumes that the experience of transcendence can be separated from what we do in the world. This is untrue. It is the experience of transcendence that gives me the strength to spend many hours a week on the needs of the poor. Otherwise I would lack the ability to pile 20 hours a week of homeless work on top of 60 hours a week of work. It is NOT based on an arbitrary set of commands, but on an experience of the universe.

              2. Again, that doesn’t answer the question. Christianity is not an “experience of transcendence”. It is, as you said, an explanation of that experience.

                That aside, how do you know you wouldn’t have the strength to spend 20 hours a week helping the poor if you hadn’t had an experienc of transendence? Doesn’t the existence of people who work to help the poor who haven’t had such an experience indicate that such an experience is not necessary to motivate people to help the poor?

              3. Beth:

                “Your comment assumes that the experience of transcendence can be separated from what we do in the world. This is untrue.”

                The first sentence is trivial. Nothing in our experience is separable from what we “do” in the world (i.e.: our experience.)

                You are proposing a “transcendent” experience that privides some special truth to you. (I think?)

                I’ve had a wide variety of mental experiences induced by, for instance, drugs, exercise, exhaustion, joy, exhiliration, numinousness (at the beauty of a view), danger, and fear. None of these require or imply a supernatural explanation. Brain chemistry and electricity will do.

                If your “transcendent experience” is your standard of truth, then how do you discern that your experience is true and the Hindu’s, Buddhist’s, Sufi’s, Shaman’s, or Druid’s is not the truth? How could you know? Why does this appear not to bother you?

                If personal experience is used to define truth, then truth is simply whatever you like. It becomes a trivial and useless concept.

                The sociopath’s transcendent experience tells him that the true path to joy is through torturing others. If truth is defined by personal experience, how can you tell him his is wrong? You are forced to appeal to an external reference. And the actually moral parts of Christianity predate it and are common across almost all cultures: They are evolved along with us as part of being an intensely social ape.

          2. Notagod, I think we should remember that Dr. Coyne specifically invited the Methodists he spoke with to join us here…(And BTW, doesn’t “one guy & his rib” predate Christianity a little? 😀 )

            Beth, I would be interested in your response to truthspeaker’s questions.

    2. I can agree with Ben on this point: “Pretty much everything that science has to learn from religion any more is restricted to the fields of anthropology and psychology.” Science works without religious input in general. Especially for physical parameters like the shape and age of Earth, I’ll go so far to say science is the one true way of knowing™.

      But for morality, I don’t see a one true way of knowing™ — instead I see people approaching morality with some methods M to get some opinions O they hold with some degrees of certainty C. For argument, I could live with someone rolling dice as their method M, making random opinions O, as long as their hold their opinions with a low degree of certainty C.

      Or as Russell Blackford wrote: “Fanatical moral absolutism is a far greater danger to us than any sort of nihilism that really deserves the name.”

  3. Fascinating read.

    I would like to have been there. I hope that the people who were will comment here; I’d appreciate reading their thoughts about the discussion, too.

    1. Look at my several posts. I was there and I am here. (I am also the person who in our discussion with Dr. Coyne said about fundamentalists “Those people are deluded!”)

  4. Sounds like an interesting meeting! I haven’t had any conversations like that with religious folks, unfortunately. Most often, the conversations are more them telling me what I believe (or don’t believe) rather than actually having a dialogue. It’s gotten so predictable that I don’t even have to think about my responses.

    Thanks for sharing this with all of us. As another commenter said, I also hope that some of the other participants will stop by and share their thoughts.

  5. I think these would count as the sort of “genuinely moderate” Christians Brother Blackford often mentions — not really Part Of The Problem. It’s also a lot like my experience in the United Church of Canada (I think both denominations came out of the same liberalizing movement of 80 or so years ago). Adherence to the creedal statements is pretty much optional — faith is what each member makes of it for themselves (heck, we even had a study group on one of Spong’s books). Or just come for the music, the social group, and the volunteer opportunities.

    Liberal religion: Mostly Harmless.

    1. Both Churches are Methodist in origin. In Canada the Methodists united with the Presbyterians in the 1920’s all the Methodists churches joined the United Church a significant number of Presbyterian churches defected from the union.

      On the one hand the United church has been a progressive liberal Christian organization. A route for Christian Socialist thought into practical politics. Many of the founders of the New Democratic Party, Canada’s social-democratic party came from the United church.

      On the other hand the United Church was as bad as the Catholic and Anglican churches in the abuse carried out in Canada’s racist and genocidal Native Residential Schools program which was primarily administered by these churches.

      The were also a major force behind the push for prohibition as I guess the Methodists were in the US.

      Pass me a beer Jerry.

  6. Excellent post, as usual. I think this shows the problem with points of view such as Philip Kitcher’s, much as I appreciate what he is trying to do. There is clearly a range of religious belief, from dogmatic certainty at one end, to doubting faith at the other, which shade off into destructive fanaticism at the dogmatic end, to atheistic belonging at the other.

    But it is clear — at least to me — that atheistic belonging is parasitic upon more straightforward types of believing. In one sense, if it were possible to shift religions towards the atheistic belonging end of the spectrum, we would end up with forms of secular humanism which were in some sense narratively or culturally continuous with what were once religions, as for example, humanistic forms of Judaism seem to be.

    But could we have these secularised forms of religion without more straightforward types of believing congregations or communities? I, for one, doubt it. Encouranging this type of secular religion, however, may be the only way that we are going to transform religions from being the dangerous kinds of thing they are today to being the kind of benign religiousness which would fulfil Kitcher’s ideal where, to quote from his Living with Darwin unreasoned acceptance gets to the point where “the religious attitudes adopted are so confined and restrained that they have no implications for consequential moral decisions.” (149)

    My problem is that I can see no way in which a religion could survive which had no consequences for moral decision. Your Methodist congregation seems to be composed of thoughtful people who lean towards the secular humanist end of the spectrum, but could they exist as a religious congregation if there were not congregations which were not composed of people with this kind of questioning or even doubting “faith”? I think I know the answer to this question. In fact, it is what I am going to spend the next few days discussing on my blog.

    1. Thanks for the heads up about your upcoming blog posts.

      I mostly enjoyed my years as a liberal Anglican, but finally I grew weary of spending so much time in rituals and liturgy that just made no rational sense to me anymore. And I’ve never understood how people can recite the “I believe” creeds for propositions that they don’t actually believe.

      1. I remember hearing Bart Ehrman say something to the effect that he realized it was time to leave the church when he reached the point that the only part of the creed he believed was “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried”.

        At least in his case it would seem that he was thinking about what he was saying. It’s hard to believe that he’s the only one.

          1. If he’s like me (only somewhat smarter, probabably), unbelief came in stages, with the miraculous stuff the first to go. The crucifixion of Jesus is at least possible, although as you say there’s really no evidence that it happened.

            1. But even from a religious/theological perspective, that’s a terrible reason for concluding that it did happen!

              1. Well if you considered that something started Christianity, the existence of a charismatic Jewish preacher who made a minor stir and was executed by Romans makes more sense than anything else proposed. His followers after ladled on the mythology, and, it somehow took hold.

              2. This is a reply to Erp because we’ve run out of reply buttons. No it is the best explanation. Read Earl Doherty’s website “The Jesus Puzzle” or one of his books. You will discover that it was a myth in the beginning and Jesus only got an earthly existence later on. It took a while to catch on starting at the end of the first century and being the dominant view by about the end of the second century.

              3. I lean toward a mythicist position myself, but at least some version of the “historical Jesus” is possible and somewhat reasonable.

                Resurrection and other miracles: impossible.

              4. At the cost of dissing a local guy: Earl Doherty (whom I heard speak in Montreal) is still only one guy, and I don’t believe that any scholarly question is settled by a single opinion in history any more than it is in science. My problem with the “historical Jesus” (unlike, eg. evolution vs. creation) debate is that I really have no idea what the accepted standards of evidence and argument are in the field, so as to tell the mainstream from the mavericks from the outright cranks. That there was some real guy at the kernel of the Christ legend doesn’t seem a priori unlikely, but I don’t know if the historical record is fine-grained enough to say yea or nay.

              5. I don’t know about Doherty, but a posteriori all religions supposedly “historical persons” bear all the hallmarks of known or supposed myths. There are no corroborating independent sources, noted down generations after and vast distances from the fact, noted down at the time of first writings in the area, and laboring under impossible “miracles/predestinations”.

                So to pick out one specific myth and insist that it is a “person” isn’t, what is the word, persuasive. In fact it is downright dopey. From a testing viewpoint, the fact that it “could happen” (without the damning miracles/predestinations/charisma/stir/executions that now somehow are to be separated from the myth) and still doesn’t leave a testable corroborating record weakens the hypothesis. Because “extraordinary claims” could happen and require “extraordinary evidence”; but if a pathway is taken to be likely and doesn’t show “ordinary evidence” for that it is failing.

              6. This is a reply to Marella and everybody. I am a trained historian, and there is actually quite a lot of historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, not from Christian sources. If you believe anything Doherty says, you really do embrace mythology.

              7. Beth, you don’t like Doherty, how about Mack, Ehrman, Carrier, Price, Avalos? (they have different views but all are consistent with no historical Jesus).

              8. hazur: Ehrman has come out as a mythicist? IIRC he pretty much ignores the question in Misquoting Jesus and also in his lecture series on early Christian history, in a way which to me implied he’s a historicist.

              9. Eamon, the answer is no (same for Mack I believe), however he protested in (I think) Jesus Interrupted that he had been misinterpreted as saying so before, so I tried to find what argument he had on the contrary on JI … not compelling at all. I think he is sentimentally attached to it.

              10. Eamon – last I knew, Ehrman was still pushing his “apocalyptic prophet” idea and engaging in ad homs on mythicists.

                Beth – I’d love to hear all about this actual, real, historical evidence of a historical Yeshua. Considering the bias towards historicity in scholarship, I’m not surprised that people think there is. I’ve yet to see any, though.

                The best so far is Tacitus (just repeating what he has heard), Josephus (widely accepted as forgery or interpolation), and some 2nd+ century “history”. Can you give something better?

                Doherty’s new book is a hard slog, but he makes some real good points (esp about Paul) – I’m maybe a third of the way through so far. Have they proven their case – not yet (and they may never), but the arguments they are making have not been answered by those who want to claim historicity. I’d argue that the default position should be “there may or may not have been, we just don’t know” rather than one way or the other – for now, at least. Too many people say “there must have been a real human being”, I’d argue more from cultural reasons than any actual look at evidence. There is some evidence that Mohammed was originally meant to be Jesus, but I have yet to hear more on it, so I just toss that out as one more point towards mythical creators – if true (Islamic higher criticism is still basically starting out, so give them time).

                Time and scholarship have been showing that a lot of the “historical” figures in the bible never existed (Abraham, Moses, Solomon perhaps, others) – yet people draw the line at Jesus – the idea that something so vast could have been started by simple mythology is a bit too wild for many people. There has to be a human Jesus, just like there has to be a human Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, Yama, Buddha, Thor, Odin, Zeus, Herakles, and thousands more…right?

                To me, the default “if it was recorded in history and we have no evidence against it, it must be real” idea is flawed. All history should be tentative, just like other knowledge. (off topic – sort of – reminds me of George Nouri – Coast to Coast AM host – who said that since he has heard so much, he’ll believe anybody unless someone can prove it false! Totally bass-ackward.

              11. Beth: What is this historical evidence?

                I’ve read The Case For Christ by whats-his-name. I was completely underwhelmed. It was smoke and mirrors!

                The Romans were good historians and very keen. They kept good records. Do you really think they wouldn’t have recorded the events purported by the Chrisitan Gospels? This is a glaring lack of confirmation.

                The accounts of the supernatural events in the first four books of the NT have no evidentiary support.

              12. JBlilie: I don’t think anyone (not even Beth) in this thread is arguing for a supernatural Christ a la the evangelicals. It’s really more of an academic discussion over whether the evidence points to a historical (but natural) Jesus-stratum beneath the heavy overlay of theological Christ-myth.

              13. Eamon K:

                Maybe; but she said:

                I am a trained historian, and there is actually quite a lot of historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, not from Christian sources.

                Maybe I missed the flavor from earlier in the thread. I’ll re-read. (But her statement seems pretty straight-forward.

                I have read (Lee Strobel’s!) book The Case For Christ where he appears in the pose of a journalist and supposedly presents the objective evidence for a historical Jesus (that matches the Bible.) He enlists the help of numerous scholars in presenting the data (I can’t speak to their scholarship). I’ve had numerous Christians recommend this book to me as pursuasive evidence for Jesus.

                It’s hard to describe the book as anything other than absurdly lame. Only a true-believer could make the leaps Strobel proposes. The evidence presented is amazingly weak. This is their best shot?

                Beth says there is, “quite a lot of historical evidence” but never presents any of it. Sounds really familiar to me. Reminds me of Polkinghorne claiming, in essentially the exact same words, about there being (“quite a lot of”) evidence for God (his God) — again without presenting any of it! What are they waiting for?

              14. I’m also a trained historian, and I know of exactly zero evidence from non-Christian sources for the existence of Jesus.

                Now personally I find the evidence from Christian sources enough to conclude that a man named Yeshua probably existed and had a small cult of followers who were viewed as dangerous by the authorities. Whether Pilate was actually one of those authorities, and whether Yeshua was executed, and if so, if it was by crucifixion, well that’s another story.

                And to a certain extent the debate is irrelevant: somebody wrote those words and put them in the mouth of a character called Yeshua. The text of “Romeo and Juliet” stays the same whether or not the author was really William Shakespeare.

            2. Perhaps the point should be that it doesn’t matter. The historicity of Jesus/Yeshua is irrelevant, just as the historicity of Joe Smith’s tablets, the Buddha, etc, are irrelevant. We have texts that we can try to understand or ignore.

  7. Very interesting, thanks.

    Re. science causing the Holocaust: I’m currently reading the book ‘Hitler’s Gift’, about German Jewish academics who fled the country after being kicked out of their jobs in the early 30s. One particular quote, which Hitler apparently said to Max Plank in response to a request that they be allowed to keep their positions, really got to me:

    “If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years.”

    I thought I couldn’t be any more offended by Hitler’s actions, as a descendant of one of those evictees but also as a decent human being. With those words though he managed to offend me as a scientist as well!

  8. I suspect we god free people accept the ‘religious model’ of doing good too easily even though we think there is no god.

    Undoubtedly some religious groups do good, and they benefit by sharing the ‘God’ brand. But there are plenty of other ‘do good’ models around.

    Examples include charities, fraternities, societies, trade unions, credit unions, cooperative societies, youth clubs, book clubs, investment clubs, humanism organisations, lodges and orders of various types. Some have religious roots but many have always been fully secular.

    It would be interesting to total measures of the amount of good carried out (rather tricky to measure) between religiously ‘branded’ efforts and the unbranded efforts.

    I suggest that we have been to quick to accept that only the religious do good, or control marriage, or divorce, or solstice feasts, or even social order. That’s the power of ‘branding’.

    1. I’ve been thinking about that issue as well. I think humans can and should do better at addressing social issues than the christians have done and am a bit skeptical that using christian structure as a foundation is optimal or even much better than the present circumstance. The foundation needs to be strong but flexible, so that people of future generations hopefully won’t need to go through the pain of rebuilding it.

      1. I was amused by your distinction between ‘humans’ and ‘Christians’ – has Ben Goren’s zombie god got to the latter?

        1. Ha! I resemble that remark!

          Although that would be consistent with my MO as I tend to emphasis errors in christian mythology and practice. Which I do because christians tend not to recognize that problems with religion in general, are also inherent within christianity. (I wouldn’t want them to feel left out or unacknowledged.) 🙂 In this specific case, my intent was to include them as humans (out of respect for Dr. Coyne’s mostly favorable report) but my writing skills are sadly lacking.

          Its all part of my “You can be better than jesus!” christian outreach program. Sponsored by “Its YOUR god, please don’t make everyone suffer for It.”

    2. Precisely. Actually, of course, the biggest player in the welfare (broad sense) realm is the secular US government. Funny that so many of the religious rail against those programs while touting their own, similar but way less effective, efforts.

      This article, while dealing with one specific area (hospitals) is also a good example of how to “reframe” the issue to recognize secular influence:


    3. Our local YMCA does rgea work with kids and is (at least overtly) non-religious. The letters have lost their meaning (it’s not just for the young, for men, or Christian).

      1. At least in Canada the YMCA seems to have become a-religious to the point where you have to consciously parse the acronym to recall how sectarian it must have been originally: young, male and christian – no one else need apply.

        1. Oh heck, our Humanist/CFI group was holding meetings in the local Y last year (down the hall from the fundamentalist church that rented the gym). However, some of the historical displays dotted around the walls remind one of a much more churchy past.

    4. For most of us, we’ve been culturally conditioned into accepting the religious model as the base, and anything else as the outsiders. It strongly affects our thinking. We need to change that, as has happened in various places around the world (notably places within Europe).

      Religions have had thousands of years of indoctrination to sink their tentacles in our brains via acculturation, while secularism is only a few hundred years (practically) – it’ll take time, but it’s something that needs to be done.

    1. Exactly. At least from Jerry’s account, it was a polite and productive discussion even though Jerry was uncompromising on his views and declined to mouth the expected platitudes about other ways of knowing, etc.

    2. If showing the members of the discussion group at the First United Methodist Church respect by refusing to pretend that he respects their ideas and that they are mature enough to handle criticism is being a dick then so be it.

      1. He respected them enough to speak plainly and honestly, instead of disrepecting them by coddling their beliefs.

        I think honest people prefer the honest approach.

      2. IMO the “respect” question turns not upon whether you tell someone forthrightly that you think they are wrong, but on whether you insist on calling them a poopy-head while doing so. I realize that the latter is the default mode in on-line discourse ;-), but really it doesn’t need to be that way all the time.

        Note also that there is a distinction between respecting persons and respecting their opinions.

        1. Well, “burn forEVER” or poopy-head, which would you prefer? They don’t need to say it, its written in a book they idolize.

            1. Well sure if they don’t go in for the bible but, that kind of makes the claim of christianity invalid.

              To your point though, so you’re thinking they don’t like what the bible has in it. I suppose we could reinterpret any book to make it seem to be whatever we like but that doesn’t change the foundational problems with the text in the christian handbook. What you are suggesting just makes christianity multi-classed which is what we already have. The problems with christianity will not have changed.

        2. Actually, here it is more like “potty head” since they allow dogma and their pushers to take a dump in their most valuable property.

          It all revolves around religious special pleading running fallaciously and rampant, where calling a group potty heads (poor thinkers and/or entertaining poor thinking) suddenly becomes calling _individuals_ potty heads without the intention to do so.

  9. It was obvious that for these folks, one of the most important aspects of church membership was a sense of community—and the opportunity to do something to help other people. The church has various intellectual activities (like the reading group), outreach programs like an ecology group, and it feeds the homeless.
    Whatever. OKC Atheists do that too, plus and minus a few things.

    We do all the ‘good’ stuff without shoving our beliefs down the throats of those we are ‘helping’, nor do we skim any of the $$$$ off the top to pay ourselves/buy copies of ‘The God Delusion’ to hand out/etc.

    We also do all the ‘good’ stuff AND actually do real, fun, social activities. Not forced smiles creepy church ‘social activities’, but ‘lets all go bowling or get pizza or get drunk and sing karaoke’ activities.

  10. My favorite rebuttal of the “Hitler atheist” non-sense is two word: Julius Streicher. This Nazi criminal was tried and hange after the war. During many years he ran a newspaper that had nothing in it other than antisemitic rants and incitements. The banner of this paper was “the Jews are the blight among us”.
    A quote from Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation. I doubt they’d like all so much to hear this at a Methodist church.

  11. In fact, they spent a fair amount of time denigrating fundamentalists like Southern Baptists, reassuring me that they disliked those folks more than I did!

    I wish they’d be more vocal about it, publicly.

    1. Right. I think that reality calls into question Jerry’s assertions about the innocence and non-objectionability of this church and others like it.

      They may not be too much a part (or in fact an intentional part) of the problem, but it sure doesn’t look like they spend much energy being part of the solution.

    2. No kidding.

      It seems like whenever these liberals get time in front of the microphone they spend it attacking atheists.

      If we judge by actions and not words then the message is clear: liberals ally themselves with the fundies over atheists.

  12. It’s tempting to say that this kind of belief is okay but the problem in my mind is that it still considers Faith a virtue. If Faith is a virtue then those with doubts are less virtuous than those without and they tend to defer to literalists when push comes to shove. I’d be more impressed if I saw regular denunciation of literalists by so-called liberal Christians. As it stands now liberal Christians seem to just be used by apologists as something to point to as “real Christianity” when asked tough or embarrassing questions.

    I’d be very interested to know what members of the congregation think of politicians who espouse a literal interpretation of the Bible.

  13. I was raised methodist, and yes, many methodists are very liberal. The old joke about the methodists is that they think all you have to do to get to heaven is bring a covered dish.

    But as another commenter pointed out, not all of them are so progressive. One not-so-liberal methodist that comes to mind is George W. Bush.

    1. George Bush’s religious beliefs, as he expressed them while president, leaned towards universalism. Universalism appears to be common among American presidents, its convenient for foreign relations given that nations have different religious orientations.

      Bush said “I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. That’s what I believe.” “And I believe people who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives aren’t religious people …”

      CHARLES GIBSON: Do Christians and non-Christians and Muslims go to heaven in your mind?

      PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, they do. We have different routes of getting there.

      1. That’s inclusivism. Universalism is a belief that ultimately, everyone will be saved. Bush doesn’t believe that; I don’t even believe he really meant what he said in the quote above. He’s had arguments with his mother about whether or not non-Christians can get into heaven.

        He was just being a politician and a liar for Jesus.

  14. Terrific post (and terrific job representing Gnu Atheism), Jerry. Big kudos.

    Re this, though:

    [T]his is one of those churches for which it’s hard to say that, on balance, they create more harm than good.

    I’m willing to assert that they do. Regardless of how many “intellectual activities, outreach programs,” and soup kitchens they sponsor, their public face shores up the privilege that religion—all religion—enjoys in our society. They can go on about “dislik[ing]” fundamentalists all they like—but without the tacit support of churches like First UMC for the concepts of blind faith and religious authority, the more directly destructive strains of religion would be vastly easier to isolate, marginalize, and defang. Religion remains powerful and destructive in large part because well-meaning and generally inoffensive believers like the ones you met refuse to allow a serious societal conversation about the legitimacy of religious thought as such.

    [Rev.] Phil [Blackwell—hey, Jerry, you mention three different guys named “Phil” in this post!] basically confessed, I think, that he didn’t have good reasons to think that Jesus’s divinity and resurrection were true in a literal sense….

    Wow! (This discussion may have been much more uncomfortable for Rev. Blackwell than it was for Jerry. I wonder a little if we’ve stumbled upon one of Dennett’s “Preachers who are not Believers.”)

    Something tells me that Blackwell doesn’t say things like that in Sunday services. Hell, there are certainly churches, and not all of them theologically right-wing ones, in which a clergyman professing not to “have good reasons to think that Jesus’s divinity and resurrection were true in a literal sense” would be clear grounds for swift termination.

    Finally, one thing that impressed me very strongly about the group was its sense of doubt. Just as we scientists can’t be absolutely confident that what we discover are timeless and unalterable truths, so several of these Methodists said they weren’t so sure about the “truths” of the Bible, or, importantly, about the nature of God. (The difference between scientific and religious doubt is, of course, that scientists have good ways to resolve doubt.) While this doubt was not ubiquitous, I’m sure I wouldn’t have sensed it in, say, a confab with Southern Baptists.

    That’s nice and all, but where exactly are these Methodists broadcasting their all-too-important doubt to the world? I don’t see any doubt in the triumphant architecture of the picture on top of this post. I’d hazard to guess that it’s not evident in any of the church’s publications, or their worship services, or their other non-Coyne-related programs, either. That church, like effectively all churches, stands as a monument to and advertisement of Religion and (perhaps more to the point) Faith as legitimate enterprises—with no overt attention paid to the doubt that in fact knocks the legs out from under both of these.

    The Methodist church, like so many liberal religious bodies, unavoidably shores up the power and privilege enjoyed by religious institutions in our society. Fundamentalists (within more than one religion), sheltered from serious challenge by precisely that power and privilege, use the opportunity to punish humanity for their own illusions.

    Liberal Methodists like the ones you talked to certainly don’t have the bad intentions their nasty brethren do, but the former are not as innocent as they think. They block the forthright critical conversation about the problems with religious faith and authority that we need to conduct.

      1. All right—touche. That is indeed more “modest” than even the (mainline/liberal Protestant) church I grew up in.

        I still see some air between that line and “I don’t have good reasons to think that Jesus’s divinity and resurrection were true in a literal sense,” though.

  15. The more doubt in a faith, the less likely its adherents are to do harm to others.

    Iono – ‘Mother’ Teresa had plenty of doubt, and all it did was send her off doing even more harm.

    Some of the worst homophobes seem to have doubts about their own sexuality, which leads them to do more harm. Admittedly they do that in the pursuit of certainty.

    1. I was making a tentative generalization here, so citing a couple of deliberately sought-out exceptions doesn’t constitute disproof. I may be wrong, but your argumentative strategy doesn’t convince me of that.

      1. There are some data regarding “When in Doubt, Shout!” 🙂

        See: Gal, D., and Rucker, D. (2010). When in Doubt, Shout!: Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610385953

    2. ITSM it depends on whether the intellectual and social structure of the group values certainty and orthodoxy. If strict creedal adherence is not a group shibboleth, or is not being used as rationalization for emotional reactions to other people’s sexuality, then doubt is likely to be benign (and may even come to be explicitly embraced as a value).

  16. ###
    I’m impressed & heartened that the First United Methodist Church of Chicago invited an atheist scientist/author to discuss his book on evolution.

    I can’t imagine my local Methodist church including WEIT in their book reading group. I think I will ask them about it.

    I hope that any “liberal Christian” reading this thread will think about this:

    Is it sufficient to do good works ?
    Shouldn’t a “liberal Christian” speak up against the many varieties of illiberal Christians ?

    NOTES: Over here in the UK I know plenty of Methodists – all decent people & yet I hear not one word spoken by them against the beliefs, activities & self-serving greed of other ‘brands’ of Christian. When I ask my Methodist friends about this they reply that they are more interested in building bridges between all the faiths rather than causing friction. The preferred option is to create a ‘dialogue’.

    My view is that the Christians here in the UK & in Europe have noted the decline in church attendance & they realise they must ignore each others ‘foibles’. Don’t rock the leaking boat…



    1. When I ask my Methodist friends about this they reply that they are more interested in building bridges between all the faiths rather than causing friction. The preferred option is to create a ‘dialogue’.

      This is the reason I don’t altogether trust “progressive” evangelicals, like Jim Wallis of sojourners. Wallis is a wonderful man who has done more to help the urban poor than I will ever do, and he probably doesn’t think we’re all going to hell (although I’ve never heard him declare himself one way) or the other, but he wants to bring the fundies to the table; I’ve heard him say as much. He deludes himself by allowing himself to believe they’re capable of dialogue. “Dialogue”, to a fundie, means, “I’ll sit here and pretend to listen until it’s my turn to tell you how wrong you are”.

      I’ve felt for years that if cornered, the “liberal” and “progressive” evangelicals will side with the fundies, who are their “brothers and sisters in Christ” – something we can never be.

      I have a higher opinion of the truly liberal, mainline denominations – but, as I said above, I wish they’d be more vocal, publicly.

      1. I’ve felt for years that if cornered, the “liberal” and “progressive” evangelicals will side with the fundies, who are their “brothers and sisters in Christ” – something we can never be.

        I’ve even had some more or less admit this. They also know that atheists are for more dangerous to their beliefs than other Christians are. After all, atheists will use arguments aimed at the very basis of their beliefs – their reliance on notoriously unreliable revelations, absence of empirical evidence, lack of method to validate their beliefs, problem of evil, Eurythro dilemma, etc etc – which other Christians will hardly ever bring up in their mutual disagreements.

  17. I’m just waiting for an “Exhibit B” post over at “The Intersection” as a dozen sudden converts to raving fundamentalism turn up to reassure Chris Mooney that his hunch about the behaviour and results of gnu atheism was correct.

    1. Sounds like you treated these people like grown-ups. How, I wonder, would these church members have benefited from such a discussion if their interlocutor had been a faithiest/accommodationist? I’ll bet they probably got a helluva lot more out of someone being honest with them than they would have from someone kissing their butts and waxing poetic about how science is “a kind of” spirituality.

      Glad to see you pushed back on the Hitler stuff, too. That’s one we should never let slide.

        1. It helps if you know some of the background to this story. The “new” atheists, such as Jerry and Christopher Hitchens, are intellectual lightweights who delight in wallowing in their own ignorance. Atheism itself is not at all new, and if you look back over the centuries, the annals of literature and philosophy are bursting at the seams with great intellects who have stated the principles of atheism much more elegantly and coherently than any modern imitator. And yet these pipsqueaks have the gall to strut and preen and call themselves “new” atheists, even after Mary Midgley wrote a whole book showing just how ignorant they are.

          Hence, “gnu” atheism gently chides these pretentious buffoons with a pointed reminder of the unthinking herd animals they really are.

          1. They don’t call themselves new atheists, that name was applied to them. Hitchens and Coyne have acknowledged previous atheists. I myself am a fan of Diagaros of Melos.

            But it doesn’t take an intellectual heavyweight to realize the vacuity of religious claims. There’s no evidence, therefore gods don’t exist. It’s pretty straightforward.

            1. I myself am a fan of Diagaros of Melos.

              To save other readers the fruitless searching I did for the above misspelling of the name, I’ll note here that truthseeker is referring to Diagoras of Melos.

              Having read about him, now I too am a fan. Thanks!

  18. …said to be the highest place of worship in the world.

    Obviously they don’t mean literally the highest altitude; that honor would go to someplace in the Andes or Himalayas.

    But even if you take it to mean something like “longest elevator ride” or “farthest from street level”, I’m guessing there are still some remote Tibetan monasteries accessible only by ladder or bucket-and-pulley that could seriously challenge that claim. Or a mosque atop some kilometer-high hotel in Dubai.

    1. Well, the Potala Palace is around 12,000 ft. (3,700 m) up. And there are Buddhist (and all sorts of other religious) places and spaces throughout the Himalayas, including from Base Camp all the way to the peaks of Everest and K2. Lest this not be evidence enough, I’m sure we all remember the slinky scene from the beginning of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

    2. Why am I reminded of the building at 55 Central Park West featured in Ghostbusters ?

      Built by a mad doctor and cult leader named Ivo Shandor, who designed the building to act as a spiritual magnet to summon Gozer and bring about the end of the world.

  19. This indeed is a fascinating read, the experience of Jerry at this discussion group and the follow-up comments by the group.
    I am repeating my comments from other threads, but I do believe the unspoken dialog that must take place at such opportunities as this Methodist church confab, regards, “What happens when you die?”
    No matter how closely these believers in the supernatural edge away from religious dogma, they invariably hedge their bets with the old “insurance policy” that goes, “If there is no god, then when I die, I’m gone, blackness, over-and-out. But what if the slightest, smallest possibility exists, that there is a heaven and hell? So, I will continue to believe, worship, pray, as “insurance” against the tiny possibility of heaven, hell, and eternal life. Why not pretend to believe, even if it’s obviously not true??”

    The short answer to this, of course, is the a priori belief that any god would prefer worship to the truth held within the individual; what if failure to follow the truth is a god’s biggest matter of judgment, and “fakers” are condemned??

    My own personal preference is to avoid any supposition about supernatural judgment, and focus on the brain. The recently-published book, “101 Theory Drive” by Terry McDermott, while not about afterlife, supernatural philosophy, provides much information about the incredible intricacies of the brain (e.g. “Twenty percent of the energy produced by the body is used by the brain, and much of this is used to continuously manufacture the phosphate groups, combinations of phosphorous and oxygen atoms, ensuring their availability whenever needed. Attaching a phosphate group to a molecule is a humdrum biological occurrence-it happened dozens of times while you read that last sentence-but the local effect of phosphorylation is often dramatic, the equivalent of an on-off switch for the protein.” page 198). To be conscious, to have memories, are all properties requiring chemical reactions. Those activities die when you die; no separate “spirit” can possibly replicate the vast, vast, electrochemical array that is you. If a “spirit” existed, you could not be put unconscious, then regain consciousness, with relatively-simple drugs.

    No afterlife, no spirit…why worship?

    1. You know, I dead forgot to bring up the afterlife. Religion isn’t just “poetry” when its adherents think that they’re going to live on somehow after their corporeal death.

    2. Your point re the afterlife is quite important. I recently wrote elsewhere that as long as religions have a much higher regard for the afterlife than for this one, fanatics will continue to emerge. Why bother caring for the environment, for anyone different than oneself, ad nauseum, in this life when the next one will be hunky-dory if you play by the “sacred rules”. Many liberal xians end up here: http://www.atheistchristian.com/

      1. The Economist magazine contained an article (mid-1980s?) about suicide rates around the world. It began with a slight detour describing how in the first centuries of widespread christianity, most adherents overwhelming led miserable, brutish existences, so wretched that their current life on Earth held vanishingly small rewards. The Afterlife was promised in such glowing terms (eternal, too!) that “suicide groups” would form and people would cheerily cut short their miserable tenure on the planet. The rate of deaths was alarming, and so christian church leaders hastily patched in suicide as a “sin” where it previously had not been mentioned or discussed in early doctrine.

          1. Islam actually has a very strong proscription against suicide, but some imams made up an exception for suicide bombings, saying that dying in a suicide bombing that kills enemies is equivalent to being killed in battle by the enemy.

            1. Such an inescapable symmetry here…

              Only slightly tangentially, we’re mostly so used to the machinations some Christian sects go through to justify killing in “just wars” that we seldom think of the hypocrisy. (Isn’t the other side going through the same machinations? Inscrutable guy, that God…)

        1. christian church leaders hastily patched in suicide as a “sin”

          Ah, yes, Christianity 1.1 — it did squash that bug, but the whole thing was still seriously a mess. And the later fork of Protestantism 1.0 didn’t really help.

  20. Very nice post!
    First of all I must say I’m impressed with a church bookclub that reads WEIT. That’s nice.
    Secondly, I think you’re a good sport Mr. Coyne. It would be easier in so many ways to just stay at home, but my guess is that your visit at this methodist bookclub has helped move more thoughts around in more heads, than if you hadn’t said yes to their invitation.
    And thirdly I must say, that I think it is so, so, so important that the – maybe to some of us trivial – reasoning behind being an atheist, is spelled out loud to as many people as possible, as often as possible. I know there are a lot of lost cases out there – but that meeting may mean more to some of the participants than 100 sermons. At least I hope so.

  21. So I guess that ship has sailed, but it’s funny how often we let the claim that Christianity is purely monotheistic pass without challenge. I’m as guilty as the next gnu; it usually only occurs to me to point out that Christianity has notable similarities to the hierarchical polytheisms when I get a chance to analyze statements from a rhetorical distance.

  22. Thank you, Professor, for carrying the flag in such a constructive and human manner. Ironic that a known strident Gnu could be so patient and effective…hmmm…

    Another problem with liberal sects is that they won’t necessarily stay that way. 40-some years ago the RCC in the US was fairly copacetic, politically, but look at ’em now…scary…

  23. Great post. My experience when in these sorts of science/faith discussions with so-called religious moderates is that a good chunk of time is spent with them distinguishing themselves, for my apparent benefit, from their fundamentalist cousins down south.

    Mind you, it’s also always the liberal moderates who accuse Gnu atheists of behaving just like these militant fundamentalists.

    For religious moderates their faith is framed as largely metaphorical when atheists come by asking questions and far more superstitious and literal when among their own. And if you insist that you’re not a biblical literalist but believe in Immaculate Conception, healing of the sick, death and resurrection and accession into heaven then you must be hopelessly confused or a hypocrite.

  24. I am wondering which particular part of mathematics was responsible for the Holocaust. There is room for some debate here, but I bet it was the Cauchy integral theorem.

      1. As I pointed out to a jewish friend of polish background (his family got out of Poland before the 2nd world war), just think, my grandfather could have thrown stones through your grandfather’s shop window.

    1. Eigenvalues and eigenvectors — it even sounds German. And all that ugly integral calculus that goes with signal processing sure made me feel like going on a killing spree when I had to take it….

  25. Dr. Coyne,

    Thank you for coming by. It was a pleasure to discuss aspects of the book with you, though I would have much more preferred to talk about your book than some of the tangents that had resulted. I too will write a blog, but in the meantime, I offer this comment on how religion can interface.

    Well, perhaps religion is not the word to use but theology instead. In the science that I have known, there is a certain reductionist approach. Find protein X in a disease, knock it out, see what it does, etc. The pharmaceutical industry relies on this to make effective drugs.

    Theology on the other hand is a systematic way of thinking that can not be purely reduced to one “component.” The same can be said about God and about experience. Theology and its application in religious communities works as a system that is dynamic. Experiences change, beliefs change, and at least for this commenter, concepts of God change. All of this is tested in the higher-order arena of community, and becomes what religious people “know” to be “true.” In this respect, there appears to be a similarity between science’s peer-review and ratification of religious belief. Here, a top-down system exerts influence on bottom-up components. (I cannot help but add here: How many times have scientists questioned the quality of research in a publication, only to find a big name in the author list, or whether the paper was “fast-tracked”?) What about biological systems?

    Of course science does realize the complexity of networks, protein-protein interactions, etc., but the focus of science usually comes from the bottom up instead of top down. That, despite the recognition that processes work together in a disease, the inhibition of one part will collapse the disease. I offer Alzheimer’s disease as an example. Although science has tackled the many components–plaques, tangles, calcium regulation, cholinergic regulation–the best science has to offer at the moment is symptomatic relief that is not very efficacious.

    Can there be a way to use a more systematic way of approach? Can a top-down causality be useful for science if it cannot be directly tested? Maybe not, but perhaps it will in the future. The fact that evolution is a process already entails a systematic nature. Or maybe, that’s just my interpretation based on my “religious” thinking. In any case, I perceive a benefit for scientists to think top-down rather than always bottom-up.

    Thank you again for coming to FUMC Chicago Temple.

    1. Twelve of Twenty,
      I am an enthusiastic armchair “hobbyist” regarding the human brain, and human consciousness, especially memory. Though neurologists have identified “plaques” and other such phenomena to be associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, the disease is far from “tackled”. Every assertion regarding Alzheimer’s is open to critique, and new posits show up monthly. The conclusions that there is even “symptomatic relief” by one treatment or another are proving to be unsupported by evidence. When you consider the attributes of the human brain this is not surprising.

      The human brain is the most complex electrochemical system in the universe, and scientists cannot approach much of an accurate description the complex, totally ion-driven processes we call “memory” are formed, discarded, somewhat erased, erroneously recalled, accurately recalled. We know neurons are involved, but consider:

      The thickness of a piece of copy paper is equal to 25 neurons stacked one upon the other.

      Typically the brain holds about 100 billion neurons, with a surface area of 25,000 square meters (equal to four soccer fields).

      Total number of sodium pumps for a small neuron: one million. They are essential (along with calcium ions) for forming memories. None of those pumps go anywhere when you die.

      From Gerald Edelman, “Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992) page 17: “Each nerve cell receives connections from other nerve cells at sites called synapses. But here is an astonishing fact–there are about one million billion connections in the cortical sheet. If you were to count them, one connection (or synapse) per second, you would finish counting some thirty-two million YEARS after you began…”

      You state that “beliefs change” in theology, but really they cannot, or that theology will devolve and be cast aside. Where are the believers in Roman Gods, Greek Gods, Zoroastrians, Gnostic christianity? Their end came when these earlier theologies were compared to a newer belief system that was more appealing, held more rewards, and was (very importantly) supported politically.

      Once it is amply demonstrated to the public and accepted widely that who each person is, their memories, cannot “fly off” when they die to some eternal realm…that physically, those memories (the “individual”) dies when they die, then christianity will become like the other mythologies (Norse, Greek, etc) that previously were the theology of their day. Simultaneously, we will change our outlook and regard the specialness that each individual embodies, and our praises, care and worship will be for each other rather than some fictional being.

      1. One correction, there are still Zoroastrians around though at most perhaps some 200,000.

        Also I would quibble with “The human brain is the most complex electrochemical system in the universe”. At most it is the most complex system we are aware of and for all I know some other animal brains out there might be more complex.

    2. Twelve of Twenty,

      You have described a false dilemma between science as “reductionist” and theology as systematic.

      First, the systematic description of the world as dynamic, with changing experiences that you called theology, is actually the world that science describes. Science, if it has taught us anything, has shown that reality is complex and dynamic from the human body, to entire ecosystems to the universe. Reductionist approaches help to understand how factors are working with one another, but systems are still understood to be quite complex. So I think your understanding of science’s view of reductionism is misplaced.

      Second, the “peer review” you described of confirming and even “testing” beliefs and concepts about God through community is what we know as “Confirmation Bias.” It is a common tendency of individuals to only notice events that appear to confirm their beliefs, while not noticing countless events that would actually disprove their beliefs. This is only magnified when done by a group that shares a particular belief of emphasis, such as a religious community.

      Science seeks to systematically remove biases like that in order to collect accurate information and then apply genuine tests, emphasizing exactly what conditions would consists of a failed test. Then those results are further scrutinized by other experts with differing views (this is real peer review). These are things that theology certainly does not do. I hope you don’t REALLY think that theology consists of some sort of “tests” of its claims. If you do, can you give an example?

      Regarding Alzheimer’s disease. Has theology cured that? Or made an inch of progress in doing so? Does anyone expect that it will in a million years of trying? There are valid reasons to criticize the methods of science in terms of how it may not achieve this or that. But certainly it will be science (if it is anything) that will cure diseases like Alzheimer’s.

      Lastly, the general top-down vs bottom-up approach you describe is I think quite interesting. But I think your sympathy for top-down is just not evidenced by anything we have ever discovered about reality. The way that complex life forms are created with tiny unguided step by step processes is clear evidence for a bottom-up understanding of life. The same is true of our complex planet, the whole universe, and even our own consciousness. The only things that appears to have a top-down process are those things that we humans design and create. The bottom-up design is everywhere else.

    3. Thanks for your thoughts, Twelve of Twenty.
      I suspect you will find some disagreement, however, with your interpretation of the different approaches of science and religion.
      Science does indeed take a bottom-up approach to details (or facts about the natural world) but it also takes a top down approach. This top down approach is seen in scientific theories – such as the theory of evolution or the standard model of physics, both of which require detailed facts about nature that are, in turn, used to work out the most accurate model of the world.
      As for the peer review of religion?
      Well I can see two ways that this happens. First through the influence of secular forces (Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Hubble etc), that eventually forced a rethink on the literal meaning of particular parts of sacred books.
      Second there is the type of “top down” rethinking of religion. In this way you could perhaps say that the top down peer reviewed form of Christianity is called Islam. What exactly do Christians gain from such disagreement?
      The essential problem that all religions face is the question that science has done the most to address – “how do you know if you are wrong?” The most useful peer review of religion is coming from secularists, not from the religious themselves. Most ‘sophisticated’ religious people will be able to say they accept things like evolution, the big bang and the standard model of physics due to the knowledge we have gained through science. They will also admit that some sacred commands (“thou shall not suffer a witch to live”) are wrong for the reason that, through science, we now know that there are no such things as magical witches. This thinking has now become incorporated in some religion with the result that that religion becomes more rational, more based on reality and more ‘moral’.

      1. Ooh, nice call on the most modern and up-to-date of all major religions!

        [Makes you wonder what the next iteration will be – I hear satanism (“not hating the traditional, but loving the odd”) is popular around here. LOL!]

        1. Mormonism is a more recent revision of Christianity, although there are newer religions out there (such as Scientology or many of the Pagan reconstructions – is Wicca older or younger than Scientology, now that I think of it?).

    4. You are trying to imply that there are a) problems with science (quality, systematic) b) something lacking with science.

      For a), we can simply observe “eppur si muove”. There is quality, say as tested predictions, and there is systematization, say as making predictions to test.

      As for b), you fail to present a convincing case. What you do present, “top down” (“a top-down system exerts influence on bottom-up components”), is a conflation of processes.

      Science does admit local (“components”) and global (“systems”) influences, and does so in a systematic way.

      Technically: It happens at such a basic level as math models, say when you can express a dynamical system in local (differential) form and in global (integral) form. The local components influence the global system (say, how a part of a membrane responds to a drum beat – expressed by differentials) and the global system influence the local components (say, how the drum beat resonates across the whole membrane – expressed by integrating over differentials).

      If you didn’t follow all detail, it is not so important. What it amounts to is that science has a local-global systematization that builds on and necessitates reductionism.

      You can’t understand the resulting behavior of the system without understanding the behavior of its parts, and you can’t understand the resulting behavior of the parts without understanding the behavior of the system. So: to conquer, you divide.

      So much for causality and its relation to reductionism. When we come to the accepted meaning of bottom-up and top-down within science it is actually a description of reductionist analysis, or so I have always understood it.

      You can either start with the parts in the bottom and try to derive the systematic at the top, say understanding the characteristics of operations of a computer by understanding that it operates with binary numbers in its transistor gates – binary operations imply round off errors will be binary. Or you can start with the system at the top and try to derive the characteristics of the parts in the bottom, say understanding the binary operations of transistor gates by understanding the characteristics of operations of a computer – binary round off errors imply operations are binary.

      Ironically your example of biology displays most top-down behavior of sciences and correspondingly displays the most powerful top-down analysis of them all. Population behavior is what unifies biology by way of evolution processes. And the phylogenetic trees that Darwin realized is the unavoidable outcome of such processes are necessarily analyzed by top-down reductionism due to their contingent and historical nature.

      Now what you really meant with “top down” vs “bottom up” was probably causation by agents vs causation by process. That is a completely different area than basic science! It is derived science, to the max.

      All observed agents are predicted and tested to be natural. I hate to hammer this point from elsewhere, but it is a natural hypothesis which can be tested by binomial testing – we need ~ 250 000 biological populations to see beyond reasonable doubt that this type of agents is all there is. And there are millions of species.

      (Actually, last year the LUCA tested as a fact by something like 1:10^2000 or so! This is _the_ best tested fact of all science observation – agents are _all_ natural, to a bacteria.)

      So causation by agents that obeys natural processes, or causation by natural processes, it is basically the same thing.

      It is a human, or perhaps humane, mistake to believe that we are special. However in science there is no room for special pleading. It wouldn’t “muove” if we did so – been there, done that, it was called religion and it sucked to explain, well, anything.

      Btw, thanks for having Coyne!

      1. Hi Torbjörn

        Your post intrigued me ~ very interesting, but I got stuck halfway through from the point where you used the word ‘agents’…

        Can you please define ‘agents’ ? (I’m a science-orientated layman)

        Cheers !

        1. As a lay person myself, I think a good working definition of “agent” in that sense is “an entity capable of action”.

          So Torbjörn is contrasting causation by such entities versus causation by processes.

    5. Twelve of Twenty:

      Thanks for adding a comment. I admire your courage in wading into this pool!

      I think you will attract quite a bit of opposition in several areas:

      1. As has been said already, science hasn’t tackled Alzheimer’s Disease yet. Well, sure, there are plenty of things that we don’t know yet. Is there any reasonable expectation that religion will find a cure for Alzheimer’s and while science won’t? (Of course not.)

      2. Religious discussion and theology are not very analogous to scientific peer review. Science has standards against which to test assertions. As Dr. Coyne has pointed out: Religion has displayed no method for reconciling various (and they are very widely various) religious claims and/or practices. In science, further experimentation shows who is correct. Where is the similar process in religion/theology? None exists. What passes for peer review in theology is an echo-chamber.

      Experiences change, beliefs change, and at least for this commenter, concepts of God change.

      Not so much, in my opinion. Religions claim to have all the right answers and they claim (generally) that these do not change, “it is written!”

      As Dr. Coyne noted, the members of the FUMA Chicago seem to be very liberal in their beliefs and readily acknowledge (parts of!) the Bible as metaphor / story-telling. This makes you highly unusual amongst the mass of the religious around the world.

      Theology on the other hand is a systematic way of thinking that can not be purely reduced to one “component.” The same can be said about God and about experience. Theology and its application in religious communities works as a system that is dynamic. Experiences change, beliefs change, and at least for this commenter, concepts of God change. All of this is tested in the higher-order arena of community, and becomes what religious people “know” to be “true.”

      Your language in this passage is very suspect to any skeptic. It’s typical of theology and religious apology: Vague, ill-defined, and important-sounding. Contrast your language in the above passage with any passage in Dr. Coyne’s post above or any passage in hiw book, WEIT. The natural conclusion from such a contrast is that you are trying to obscure your real meaning through fuzzy generalizations or that there is no meaning to be obtained.

      For instance: Exactly how is “[the] arena of community” “higher” in any sense than scientific investigation?

      How exactly does this sort of community review result in “truth” that is “known” (verified, confirmed in some way)? This is, as Bryan pointed out, confirmation bias at work, not verification. Religion presents a lot of feel-good talk; but where is the substance behind it?

      Theology always claims that its understanding of (what?) is somehow “higher” or “deeper” than that of ordinary inquiry that all people use everyday and that science has systematized into a very sharp tool for discovering real truth. (And there certainly is no more systematic approach than science! It need take a back seat to no other mode of inquiry when it comes to be systematic!) All this talk of “higher” and “deeper” just sounds like marketing.

      Top-down bias has proved, again and again, to be the wrong way to approach finding real truth about the world. As science has shown in every arena: The world is made of interacting small bits than, given time and perseverence (and the development of better tools), can be understood in a way that allows accurate predictions to be made at the large scale. I don’t expect the human brain to be any different in this way. We’ve made huge strides in understanding how the brain works and how it generates what we experience as consciousness. We have a long way to go.

      Your example of Alzheimer’s is one I often use as a counter to the claim of there being a soul that is separate from the brain (dualism). All the data from neurology support the understanding that the consciousness is a phenomenom of the electrical and chemical activity of the brain. The damage induced by diseases such as Alzheimer’s is some of the strongest evidence we have showing this to be true. As is the simplicity with which consciousness can be turned on and off through anesthesia (as was pointed out above in this thread).

      All the best, and apologies for the length of this comment.

    6. All of this is tested in the higher-order arena of community, and becomes what religious people “know” to be “true.”

      I would expect then that all the religions of the world should be converging on the same answer, which is demonstrably not true.

      And many of these “truths” are barbaric in the extreme, from female genital mutilation to Sharia based blasphemy laws to opposition to stem cell research.

      Compare and contrast to science where the answers do converge no matter where the science is done or by who.

      One only has to look at endeavors like CERN or the human genome project to realize that this is how the truth is arrived at, with disparate groups of humans beings labouring to understand reality in the most non-sectarian display of cooperation that our fractured planet is currently capable of.

      the best science has to offer at the moment is symptomatic relief that is not very efficacious.

      Eagerly awaiting a cure for Alzheimer’s disease being announced by the “higher-order arena” of the religious.

      How many times have scientists questioned the quality of research in a publication, only to find a big name in the author list, or whether the paper was “fast-tracked”?

      Yes, the work of science is done by scientists who are (currently) constrained to be humans.

      It should come as no surprise that scientists behave in much the same way as the general population.

      That some scientists would accept the truth of a proposition based on authority or dogma is a human failing, but one that the scientific method detects and corrects for.

      I always find it interesting that one of the harshest criticisms that the religious hurl at the atheist is that atheism is like religion. It’s like you haven’t thought this argument through to it’s logical conclusion.

      I also find that sort of comment stunningly ignorant and condescending and this line of thought usually segues into the “hitler was an evilutionary atheist” canard.

      1. I always find it interesting that one of the harshest criticisms that the religious hurl at the atheist is that atheism is like religion. It’s like you haven’t thought this argument through to it’s logical conclusion.

        I think it’s supposed to be an assertion about a kind of atheist hypocrisy, or even tu quoque. “You atheists are so opposed to religion and faith—but guess what: atheism is a religion, and it takes faith! Nyah nyah nyah, hoisted with your own petard.”

        It’s pretty stupid, of course, but I don’t think it actually represents an equivocation regarding the value of religion and/or faith.

      2. I’m going to trot out my standard explanation of why atheism is not religion:

        Atheism is not a religion, although believers will sometimes assert that it is. Atheism fails to possess the key characteristics of religion:

        1. It is not a system of beliefs (which is the reason why it’s almost impossible to get atheists to agree.) One factor alone determines atheism: lack of belief in any God or gods. Disbelief in any gods doesn’t constitute a religion any more than disbelief in fairies or trolls does. Of course, you may have some very vociferous and outspoken atheists who exhibit the metaphorical sense of religion: “he was religious in his rejection of all things supernatural.” Everyone understands this sense of the word to be a metaphor: derived from the fervor and ritual conformity exhibited by many religious people throughout time for long enough for the characteristic to become recognizable and memorable to all.

        2. Atheism does not include belief in anything supernatural (“beyond nature.”) If a religion does not entail belief in something supernatural, then metaphysically it is simply an acceptance of the natural world as fact. It makes no sense to call such a thing “religion.” It would rob the word of any meaning. We use the word religion to indicate belief in the supernatural: that is its function.

        3. Atheism does not involve worship of any sort. It does not imply any worship.

        4. There are no “priests” or “church” hierarchy in Atheism. There are admired atheists; but their pronouncements are not taken as “holy writ” as in religions. Rather, they are subjected to the same scrutiny and skepticism as anyone else. A casual look at any on-line atheist discussion board immediately shows how quickly prominent atheists attract (often vehement) criticism from their fellows.

        5. There is no training or “confirmation” needed to be an atheist. One doesn’t even need to know they are an atheist: if they simply fail to believe in the supernatural, they are an atheist. No action is required by the atheist.

        6. There are no: creed, catechism, holy books, oaths, or liturgy associated with atheism in any way. Again, simply failing to believe in any supernatural entities makes one an atheist by default: No action is required.

        7. There are no rituals, rules of conduct, taboos, ceremonies, or any other social hallmarks of atheism, as there are in religions.

        8. Atheism doesn’t splinter into multifarious “sects” of atheism each devoted to their own particular opinion on the correct way to not-believe in the supernatural, each denouncing the others and perhaps even killing each other over fine points of disbelief. No one is starting groups of people who fail to believe in any gods in new and different ways (Re: Mormonism, Scientology, Crystal “power”, etc., etc.)

        Any dispassionate assessment of atheism can only conclude that it is not religion. It is often grouped with religion simply because it is the main (only?) alternative to religion. This is convenient in book stores and libraries; but it says nothing about the actual nature of atheism. Atheism has only one thing in common with religion: It says something about gods – that there aren’t any.

        People who accept the heliocentric configuration of the solar system, as revealed by science, do not have a religion of heliocentrism or a religion of anti-earth-centrism.

        The atheist/skeptic looks at the evidence for any gods, and concludes there is none and therefore the only logical conclusion is that there is no god(s). That’s it. Nothing else is implied.

        1. I was with you until your last paragraph – the old absence of proof = proof of absence argument. Concluding that there is no god is different than finding no evidence that would support the existence of god[s]. A while back there was a discussion about what kind of evidence could convince Dr. Coyne and others that some sort of god exists, which leads me to think the logical conclusion is that theists and atheists alike are all agnostics.

          1. “Concluding that there is no god is different than finding no evidence that would support the existence of god[s]”

            How is it different?

            1. There are many examples in science where the claim was made that absence of evidence proved nonexistance of “x” e.g. the ADA claim that there is no evidence that mecury is released from amalgam and thus it is harmless. Well, folks showed that it does get released, and the claim was changed such that there is no evidence that such small amounts cause any biogical effects, and thus harm does not exist. Then folks showed that the small amounts can have biological effects……..

              1. But in all cases, their conclusions were reached based on the evidence that is available.

              1. Except that in this case, suspending the decision generally includes acting as if the answer were “No”. (I mean, how many atheists deliberately refrain from drinking, fornication, swearing etc, solely because God might exist, so best to be on the safe side?). Epistemologically, the neutral position exists; practically speaking not so much.

              2. Eamon: The answer to your parenthetical question is “none”.
                People who behave as if God might exist and call them to account someday are operationally agnostic, not atheist (regardless of how they self-label).

              3. I understand suspending a decision when you know there is data you don’t have access to. That’s why I can’t conclude there is no life elsewhere in the universe, even though there is currently no evidence that there is – I know there is a lot of data I don’t have access to.

                In the case of the existence of the gods posited by most of the world’s religions, I have no reason to think there is data that I can’t access that would bear on the question, so it seems safe to me to reach a provisional conclusion based on the evidence at hand.

      3. Here some comments:

        “I would expect then that all the religions of the world should be converging on the same answer, which is demonstrably not true.”

        You are correct. All world religious are not the same. This is obvious. Such is the current state of world religions. However, “religious” people does not necessitate ALL religious people. Furthermore, the community that I speak of does not mean the entire world. I see no reason why ideas about theology cannot be discussed within groups and be distinct from other groups. Will at some point ideas converge? Maybe. This is really a matter of time and of the future, of which I have no knowledge. By contrast, science has hindsight to see disparate groups unite, ie. Is light a particle or a wave?

        “Eagerly awaiting a cure for Alzheimer’s disease being announced by the “higher-order arena” of the religious.”

        This is a common thread of multiple responses, so let me be clearer. At no point did I say that religion itself will offer a cure. Nor did I quote Scripture. I only offered an opinion on methodology, a point that others here have critiqued. Theology is not medicine.

        “I always find it interesting that one of the harshest criticisms that the religious hurl at the atheist is that atheism is like religion.”

        At what point did I even mention atheism?

        “I also find that sort of comment stunningly ignorant and condescending and this line of thought usually segues into the “hitler was an evilutionary atheist” canard.”

        I think you unfairly draw a caricature of who I am. By my NON-statement on atheism, you seem to extrapolate a regression line and include me as some data point high on ignorance and presumptions on Nazism. No doubt, your R-squared value is close to 1 and based on a 95% Confidence Interval I fit within that line. Well, please consider me and other who think like myself as your outliers if you must. Btw, now I’m being condescending.

        1. By contrast, science has hindsight to see disparate groups unite, ie. Is light a particle or a wave?

          No, the difference is not hindsight. Science has experiments to see whether light is a particle, a wave, or both (or neither).

          And even if you’re right, you’d still need to answer why theology doesn’t have such hindsight. Why didn’t theology come to some agreement about whether God is one or three as well? If you come up with an answer, you will see why theology is not just like science.

    7. In my view, the real difference between science and religion is not bottom-up v. top-down. It’s reasoning forward rather than backward. Good science starts from observable facts and follows them without prejudice wherever they may lead. Religion, in contrast, starts from revealed “truths” based on wishful thinking (e.g. the idea that human consciousness can survive death) and then tries to coerce the facts to fit those presumptions. That’s not a paradigm that has anything useful to teach science.

    8. Twelve of Twenty, you are making the common mistake of using “know” as a synonym for “believe” and “truth” as a synonym for “opinion”.

  26. The Methodists, at least in my lifetime, have always been interesting folks. The evangelical groups hate the Methodists and Uniting Church more than any other groups on the planet – I guess that’s why they tend to poo-poo the Southern Baptists.

    The Japanese may not have had something quite on the scale of the Holocaust, but they also had their death camps throughout Asia during the war and there are still a few people alive from that era still demanding a public admission and restitution from Japan. China’s government is still very sore about a number of events leading up to and during the war and I suspect no political meetings between China and Japan go by without someone bringing up the war.

    1. Ah, I know someone who will LOVE that statement, as he’s fixated on the protruding intestines of Jesus.


    1. Yeah, I saw Rosenau’s post. It’s very bizarre. Among its many problems are these:

      1. Josh appears not to realize that “accommodationism” is simply the view that science and religion can be reconciled. Period. Has it ever been defined otherwise? And I certainly did not espouse that view at the Methodist church; in fact, I said just the opposite–and very clearly, too. Only a fool can claim that what I said was “accommodationist.”

      2. Josh seems to think that all of us Gnus advocate being nasty and in-your-face to religious people. That’s crazy; nobody has ever advocated that, least of all myself. So if I talk to religious people and am civil, that certainly doesn’t abrogate my views about religion. Why does Rosenau see that as some kind of hypocrisy?

      3. Josh seems to think that we Gnus argue that the NCSE shouldn’t address religion. He’s wrong again: I, at least, think the NCSE shouldn’t take the theological position that faith is consistent with science. And the NCSE should limit its discussion about faith to saying that there are a variety of views about the consilience of science and faith and somebody in conflict should consult his/her minister. People like Larry Moran, P.Z., and I have been saying this for years, but it doesn’t seem to have penetrated Josh’s consciousness.

      4. Most of us concentrate our anti-religious efforts on the inimical effects of faith, particularly on those faiths that do real damage in the world. It’s not hypocritical to say that some faiths are better than others, and do more good things than others.

      5. Clearly, when I said that religion was on peoples’ minds because of the Gnus, I meant people’s minds in general–not religious people’s minds! What I said was this:

      . . .thanks to the Gnu Atheists religion is on many people’s minds, and I welcome the chance to speak my mind.

      That’s why, I think, that when I talk about my book before students or the general public, everyone wants to know if evolution (or science) can be reconciled with faith. I think that’s largely attributable to Gnu Atheist writings.

      Josh’s post is so muddled, so confused, so willfully wrong, that I’m stymied. I can’t figure out if he’s just completely muddleheaded or if he’s intellectually dishonest. Or maybe both. . .

      1. Exactly my thoughts too. It does take a generous amount of muddled thinking and a wee dash of dishonesty to quote someone so very correctly and then go on to infer something so very absent in the quote.
        And he promises even more of his unique brand of reflections on this matter. The horror!

        1. Snort.

          This idea that not being personally rude to religious people is a conversion to accommodationism is just ridiculous, and irritating. Gnus have been saying all along that we don’t get in people’s faces, and gnu-haters have kept insisting that we are adamant about the virtue of getting in people’s faces. Jerry says what Gnus have been saying all along, and that means he agrees with accommodationism.


          1. What you have to understand is that accommodationists can see the deeper spiritual truth of the “Tom Johnson” story, which persists regardless of its inconvenient lack of any actual factual basis.

            True faith, ain’t it grand!

      2. I can’t help but take a step back and look at what’s happened here: A gnu atheist discussed religion with a group of believers, and the event didn’t turn into an episode of the Jerry Springer program. Imagine the cognitive dissonance that must be dancing about the mind of the average accommodationist/gnu basher. That is NOT how it’s supposed to go. But that’s how it did go. According to your account, it seems like it was actually kind of cool, a spirited but ultimately pleasant event. No one stormed out of the room crying. No one came at Jerry with a pitchfork. And so accommodationists like Josh feel obliged to explain this most unusual turn of events (though no one asked him to). The best explanation, to Josh’s mind, is apparently that the event, and Jerry’s reaction to it, is some kind of vindication of accommodationism—yeah, that’s the ticket! Coyne’s really a closet accommodationist! See?

        That’s not even confirmation bias. It’s just hallucinatory.

  27. Dr. Coyne’s blog on this particular occasion has a lot of the sound of either puzzlement or fear. He says that doubt is a good thing, but I see no doubt in his assertions at all. He has a moral certainty which is far greater than mine, and I have been a practicing Christian since I was old enough to understand simple sentences.

    1. Can you point to examples of puzzlement or fear that he had, rather than that he detected in others?

      I think you are concerned because he doesn’t doubt the non-existence of your particular god.

      Given the wild contradictions of the Christian bible, I don’t see how it can give anyone moral certainty.

    2. Christians have had 2000 years to come up with evidence for the existence of their god. When that much time passes and no such evidence is forthcoming, you can understand why Coyne would express certainty about its nonexistence.

  28. Jerry, I really enjoyed this post, but seeing the response from Josh (then others) has blown this way up into something much greater than a nice story.

    I was shocked to read Josh’s take on your post. His reading and analysis was so different from my own. I began to wonder if I’d read yours with some sort of bias–I had not.

    I think your post needs to be the first thing that those discussing “gnu atheism” should see after saying the gnus are strident.

    Has this post and Josh’s ridiculous reply come too late to get people to disengage “new” from atheism? I hope not.

    1. Josh and other accommodationists have a very specific view of what a gnu atheist is. So when gnu atheists do not live up (or down) to this view it surprises them. Apparently Josh deals with this surprise by concluding Jerry is an accommodationist.

      Also, its nice to see that accommodationist now means simply to have civil discussions with religious people. (Of course it means much more than that, by for the purpose of including Jerry in the accommodationist fold, we’ll ignore all the other parts.)

      1. Don’t we usually hear a similar argument by those attempting to compare thoise who “believe in” science and those who believe in religion?
        Redefinitions to bring everyone to their level.

  29. This is now such a large discussion it is hard to summarise why I am making this comment as it involves lots of points made throughout not only this thread but also Joshua Rosenau’s, Sean Carrol’s, Larry Moran’s etc.

    Joshua Rosenau makes this somewhat overblown statement in his second post on this subject:

    “The question Coyne seems to be asking himself is: are the members of First United Methodist of Chicago in need of deconversion? Asked another way: if every religious person were religious in the manner of the Methodists he met, would he still be justified in seeking to eradicate religion?”


    And this reminded me of Richard Dawkins’ fascinating discussion with Father George Coyne from the Vatican Observatory –


    Father Coyne consciously rejects the idea of God having any role in providing certainty, or proof, or knowledge.

    My view is that Gnu Atheism isn’t necessarily about eradicating religion, it is about showing how there is no empirical basis for people to make strong statements about the world based on their religion faith.

    Father Coyne seems very much to agree with this – though he fudges terribly the reality of Jesus and his relationship with any idea of God!

    If religion makes no claims on the world on the basis of the supernatural and only relies on empirical ways of knowing then I think this religion can be “accommodated”, but in this case I really can’t see any difference between this idea of a religion and moral philosophy.

    I therefore think Josh’s point is irrelevant to the debate and so far away from the reality of most current religions to be irrelevant.

    Father Coyne’s ideas are striking, but even here he seems to have faith in ideas concerning Jesus and God which cannot be based on evidence or reality.

    It is that central kernel of belief in the supernatural which Gnu atheists wish to challenge and ask what it is based upon.

    If the answer is blind faith – well what can we do, Gnu Atheism isn’t totalitarian in stopping people believing things, but I think it does what them to be honest in saying they believe these things for reason of dogma and nothing else.

    Getting the faithful to acknowledge that would be a victory.

  30. This topic had broadened. I am going off a little further. To religion as a mechanism for a cultural evolution. Instead of looking at religion as instances of abuse of power in particular instances (as in the Spanish inquisition) but as an over all influence of human development over centuries. Has Jesus’s example and message of love and acceptance or Budda’s message of enlightment or Confucious’s social responsibility significantly changed the condition of humanity?
    Are the cultures significantly more “morally mature” today than they were 3 thousand years ago? Perhaps we are a bit short sighted when looking at the mechanism of religion. I wonder if it is because of the evolution cultures that allowed or even at times encouraged science to become what it is. Perhaps indirectly Religion has contributed to science more than we think.

      1. This one

        There are a couple of comments referring to deleted comments. To be fair, Pete Enns ha made some reference to off-topic comments earlier in the thread.

  31. This will be my last post, not because I don’t find this fascinating but because I simply have a life to live and a LONG list of things to do, and they aren’t getting done while I answer all these posts. I can’t. But I will try to set out what I believe as straightforwardly as I can and leave it at that.
    First, Dr. Coyne hit on something when he said that many of us in last Saturday’s meeting had a lot of doubt. Doubt, not certainty, is the essence of honest religion. It is a doubt that anything at all that humankind says or does can, or ever will have, answers. Science makes small and pitiful attempts at answers. So does theology, and its answers are no less small and pitiful. Real religion is the experience and acting on of that which transcends humanity’s small and pitiful store of knowledge. We not only can doubt; we must. We must know that the statement “Jesus was the Son of God” is an approximation of a large truth, just as scientific statements are approximations of large truths. It does not matter to me that it be literally true – I’m not even sure I would know what “literally true” would mean in such a context. It matters that I believe that someone, somewhere achieved so high a level of transcendence that He could see levels of beauty and truth that have so far eluded me, and probably always will. That is a goal for which to strive. Very few (maybe no) “facts” about religion matter in this sense. What matters is that we have the understanding and humility to doubt, and to know how tiny and partial our bits of knowledge are. Religion is in this sense the denial of hubris; if I object to anything about atheism it is hubris. The answer to the question of why I said Dr. Coyne sounded puzzled or frightened lies here: faced with religion which did not meet his predetermined categories, he could only claim we were proto-atheists. That is so wildly untrue as to be absurd, but he has no other way to explain us, because he thinks that nonsense preached by fundamentalists is true religion. Fundamentalism, like racism, is an ideology based on fear. That’s not religion.
    At its most basic, what I believe (philosophically) is the logical proposition that everything starts from premises. You can’t prove your premises: if you could, they wouldn’t be premises. The only way you can get to first premises is to choose them, and that choice is based on your history and experience. That experience can – and in my case does – rest on experiences which lie outside the realm of scientific explanation. Those experiences can be either direct experiences of something beyond reach or they can be miracles. I have experienced both, and there is about as much use telling me I haven’t as telling me that this chair in which I am sitting is not real. (Philosophers have tried the latter move, too, and in my eyes merely made themselves ridiculous.) But let’s not get in an argument about miracles (the number one miracle in my life all the atheists call “coincidence,” which is pretty lame as an explanation). Some of you have said that these experiences are not evidence. They are – but you have set the rules to admit only certain sorts of evidence. I could do that too, and if I did I would “prove” you wrong. But I’m too honest to do that.
    What matters is premises. Premises must be selected, and there cannot – in logical principle there cannot – be any reason for selecting them. If there were a reason, it would be prior to the premise, and would be a premise itself. At some point you come back to a point where you just decide: one thinks the basis of all truth is reason, or the scientific method, or transcendent knowledge of something beyond, or whatever. Why people decide what they do is somewhat mysterious, and I am far too imbued with humility to claim that I know. I am fairly sure of what it is NOT: I do not think I am religious because I have different brain chemicals, neurons, or whatever from those of you who are not. I think I chose. I am passionately dedicated to both science and religion (as are most of the people in that meeting with Dr. Coyne on Saturday). Footnote: I do believe passionately in brain chemistry, as I am afflicted with epilepsy, depression, and bipolar disorder, all of which are successfully treated with little pills which turned my life around. But they changed no fundamental beliefs.
    Why, then, am I a Christian and not a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jew? That’s perfectly straightforward. I grew up in Commercial Point, Ohio, a town of 298 people with one Methodist church to which everyone except the town drunks went. My father was a lay preacher and my mother the organist. What else would I be? But I could have rejected it – I did for a while, didn’t go to church for about 6 years. But I found, even in those years, that I believed in something I couldn’t name. My daughter has rejected it more absolutely. I don’t know why (though I have a pretty good guess and it certainly isn’t for any of the logical reasons she claims). What matters, in a case like my daughter’s, is that I have argued her to first principles and she can’t say why she believes in Reason (she talks as though it should have a capital letter). As I said above, no one could. It’s faith – that’s what faith means: that in which you believe without reasons
    Does it matter whether the transcendent, that in which I have faith, is called God, or whether Jesus rose from the dead, or any of that? No, not really. It would be painful to give that stuff up, but that’s tradition, not fundamentals. It matters that the transcendent has the same reality as atoms. To love the transcendent one has to give it a name, and the Christian name is God. I’ll settle for that. In the face of the ultimately mysterious nature of much of reality, those with humility do a lot more settling and a lot less absolute statement of facts.
    Meanwhile, feed the homeless, visit the prisoners, help women who are victims of abuse, give to the Red Cross. If I were to say there was an absolute “must believe,” it would be that. Not to do so makes someone a person I don’t want to know. But also celebrate. Atheism has no version of Handel’s Messiah. That’s a loss that can’t be made up, like a loss of immune system or bone mass. It leaves one open to reductionism and positivism, both of which are terrible for the human spirit. They leave one impoverished. Christianity does celebration well: I happen to think better than the other religions I know.
    That’s about it. Remember to be humble and to know how little we know, and to love thy neighbor as thyself. Leave room for a lot of mystery, because there is a lot of it. Don’t get wedded to any doctrine – science, Methodism, or anything else – so that you can’t be pried loose if evidence arises that necessitates such prying. If you find yourself in a position in which you say there is no evidence that could pry me loose, then you have become a fundamentalist of whatever sect (and science is not immune from fundamentalism). Fundamentalism is very, very bad. And LEARN. Always keep learning. Science, philosophy, history, theology, all of it. You can’t learn too much. Keep fighting for truths that you learn, like evolution. The paradox is to keep fighting for them while realizing that they could be disproven (because anything could be). All of it makes the experience of the ultimate richer, and that’s the name of the game. Love. Remember that I love all of you, or I wouldn’t waste time and energy doing this. That’s the bottom line. Blessings to all. Farewell.

    1. Thanks for taking the trouble to explain your position. I know this is meant to be your last post, but let me leave you with one final question: is there any evidence that could pry you loose from your apparent certainty that religious experiences “lie outside the realm of scientific explanation” and that “the transcendent has the same reality as atoms”? For all your talk of humility and doubt, these are the points on which you seem least prepared to budge, and on which most of our disagreement has centered.

      I’ll also add that the premises of science are not chosen arbitrarily. They’re chosen because they work. We can’t prove that the universe is governed by regular laws, but assuming that it is turns out to be a very productive strategy for arriving at useful results. So it’s not really our “faith” against yours; it’s our pragmatism against religious dogmatism.

      1. I can’t say any specific evidence that would pry me loose – don’t know what that would look like – but if it were to come along, yes, I would change my mind. Is that true of you?

        1. I like to think so. If, for example, people who experience what you’re calling the transcendant were to emerge from such experiences with new, verifiable information about the external world that they could not have acquired otherwise, that would certainly suggest that they were in touch with something outside themselves that would warrant further investigation. However given our species’ long history with such experiences, and the lack of any unambiguous evidence of this sort, I’m comfortable with my (provisional) conclusion that such experiences are purely internal and reflect deep brain mechanisms rather than a deeper or higher reality.

          1. This really is my absolutely last post. But you got to where I wanted this conversation to get: you are comfortable with your evidence, I am comfortable with mine, and both of us agree that if other evidence became available we would change our minds. In my view this tolerance and flexibility represents the best of all possible worlds – so long as those who believe in something else take care of their duty, however derived, to take care of the less fortunate in the world.

    2. “We must know that the statement “Jesus was the Son of God” is an approximation of a large truth”

      But WHY do you think it’s the approximation of a large truth?

      1. To expand on this – being certain that “the transcendent has the same reality as atoms” is no different from being certain that Jesus literally rose from the dead. You can think you’re better than fundamentalists all you want, but your beliefs are every bit as ludicrous as theirs.

        1. It’s quite different. I experience the transcendent. I did not experience Jesus rising from the dead.
          Also, I do not think I am “better than” fundamentalists, and I do not call your beliefs “ludicrous.”

          1. You experience emotional states, which you interpret as being experiences of “the transcendent”. Making that distinction would clear up your thinking a little.

    3. “It matters that the transcendent has the same reality as atoms. ”

      But how do you know this? Do you ever doubt it?

      “But also celebrate. Atheism has no version of Handel’s Messiah.”

      Rush’s “Moving Pictures” comes pretty close.

      “It leaves one open to reductionism and positivism, both of which are terrible for the human spirit.”

      Evidence? How do those things impoverish the human spirit?

    4. Beth: You may not post further; but maybe you can read further. (By the way, are you from Minneapolis area? I suppose there are plenty of Beth Jacobs’s out there!)

      “Religion is in this sense the denial of hubris”

      This is not how religion looks to an outsider. (I was raised in the ALC and I know liberal, Midwestern Christianity pretty well.) Religion claims to have the answers to the deep questions in life. It claims special knowledge of a God: Such as what that God wants from humans. How are Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or the Pope (absolute authority for the RCC) in anyway denying hubris? This does not make sense.

      As to atheism or science being hubristic: I consider that absurd on its face. The atheist, at least the ones I know and communicate with, look at the evidence for any gods, find none, and, applying the rules we apply everywhere else in life (buying a home, making investments, choosing a career, deciding on a course of medical treatment) to conclude that there are no gods. This is very far from a hubristic action. In science, people are very acutely aware of what the don’t know. It’s a critical discussion in any paper: The limits of what the evidence presented are. Our ignorance is what provides the very grist for the mill in science. If science thought it had all the answers, it would immediately cease to function.

      “ … the statement “Jesus was the Son of God” is an approximation of a large truth …”

      Those would be fighting words to nearly every Christian I’ve spoken to. That Jesus was divine is central to the dogma of Christianity.

      “Fundamentalism, like racism, is an ideology based on fear. That’s not religion.”

      This is a typical tactic taken by all apologists: Those nutty people don’t have real religion. You must realize that they think the exact same thing about you. Especially about you: Who takes Jesus divinity as a metaphor (unless I’m reading your other comment incorrectly.) It’s hard to support a statement that stricter adherence to your holy book (fundamentalism) invalidates itself as religion.

      “Those experiences can be either direct experiences of something beyond reach or they can be miracles. I have experienced both, and there is about as much use telling me I haven’t as telling me that this chair in which I am sitting is not real.”

      No one is telling you that you haven’t had awe-inspiring or numinous experiences – almost all of us had. I certainly have had. However, you leap from the numinous or awe (as far as I can tell) to a God with specific features. These features happen to be the ones you were acculturated to. Note that you did not decide that Allah was the one true God or that the manifestations of Shiva were the correct answer or that Nirvana was to be found in the way of the Buddha. People who follow these traditions also feel just as certain as you do. They have had similar experiences (everyone agrees) and they interpret them as supporting their idea of God(s). Does this not bother you (as to the truth claims of your religion)? If your idea of God is not the correct one (if any feeling of religious transport is equally valid – as long as you believe in a higher power, you are correct, for you; let’s be super-ecumenical) then what does your religion really mean? Is it just feel-good thoughts and social conviviality? Or did Jesus really die for you and will make you live forever in bliss (and all these other people’s numinous experiences are just incorrectly interpreted)? How would you know which is correct?

      “They are – but you have set the rules to admit only certain sorts of evidence.”

      Yes, personal mental experiences are not considered to be solid evidence for anything, except themselves. You surely have vivid dreams? Are these indications of reality? This simple exercise should indicate to you how unreliable personal mental experiences are in finding truth about the world. The human brain is not that good at discerning reality. It has taken a long time for us to develop tools that reliably tell us how the world actually is (science.) These tools have proved to be correct: Computers work, vaccines work, surgery works, rockets work, we can send probes to the outer planets, bridges don’t fall down (except when people err). Whenever religion and science have been in direct conflict (and this has been frequent through history and includes more or less everything known about the world: It used to have a religious explanation), science has been correct, 100% of the time. This is a rather strong record in favor of science over religion in discovering reliable facts about the world. Why should I allow revelation as evidence, when it has never worked in the past?

      “I do believe passionately in brain chemistry, as I am afflicted with epilepsy, depression, and bipolar disorder, all of which are successfully treated with little pills which turned my life around.”

      Very strong evidence that your consciousness, your personality, are generated by the chemical and electrical activity of your brain. You said before that your personal inner experiences showed you that your religion is correct. Does not the chemical mediation of your most powerful emotional life experiences shake that conviction to its foundations? Experiments show very clearly that the numinous can be turned on and off at will in the brains of test subjects using either chemicals or electrical stimulation. I don’t deny you the comfort your religious beliefs bring you – great! – but it would be hard to support that they follow from any objective evidence.

      “Why, then, am I a Christian and not a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jew? That’s perfectly straightforward. I grew up in Commercial Point, Ohio, a town of 298 people with one Methodist church to which everyone except the town drunks went. My father was a lay preacher and my mother the organist. What else would I be?”

      Exactly: What else would you be? What else would the Hindu in Benares be? What else would the Muslim in Medina or Jiddah be? These are also strong evidence that religion is a cultural construct. These other people believe their inner feelings about their religion just as fervently as you do. Note that there is no such thing as: American science, Arab science, French science, Chinese science, Indian science, Tibetan science, etc., there’s just science, which cuts across all cultural boundaries because it’s based on objective evidence, not on personal feelings.

      “My daughter has rejected it more absolutely. I don’t know why (though I have a pretty good guess and it certainly isn’t for any of the logical reasons she claims).”

      You say that, “I don’t know why” but you also say that your “pretty good guess” is more reliable than the testimony of the person with the most direct access to the reasons: Your daughter! (“it certainly isn’t for any of the logical reasons she claims.”) Your daughter has expressed her personal inner feeling on the matter, which for your own religious feelings you claim are more reliable than the data of science, and yet you “know” your “pretty good guess” is more reliable than your daughter’s inner personal feelings. This is a very interesting way to discern truth! You must see how this looks to a skeptic. Please substitute a couple names in there and hear how it sounds.

      “Does it matter whether the transcendent, that in which I have faith, is called God, or whether Jesus rose from the dead, or any of that? No, not really. It would be painful to give that stuff up, but that’s tradition, not fundamentals. It matters that the transcendent has the same reality as atoms. To love the transcendent one has to give it a name, and the Christian name is God. I’ll settle for that. In the face of the ultimately mysterious nature of much of reality, those with humility do a lot more settling and a lot less absolute statement of facts.”

      This makes you extremely different from 95% of religious believers. Do you think Sunni Muslims are driving truck bombs into crowds of Shia over, “well, you call the transcendent one name, I call it another?” You think your version is True Religion™? Try preaching “different names for the transcendent” and “whether Jesus actually died and went to Heaven isn’t important” in Baghdad, Kandahar, Peshawar, Mumbai, Lynchburg TN, or Rome.

      Exactly what is so mysterious about reality? Consciousness is a puzzle; but I see nothing that indicates that it is not firmly grounded in regular old meat: Mammalian biology.

      “Atheism has no version of Handel’s Messiah.”

      Atheists don’t need a special version of Handel’s Messiah! We love the same music you do. To think otherwise is naïve and tells me that you think of atheists as somehow sub-human because we can’t jump from a numinous feeling to a specific set of religious assumptions. I love Bach above all other composers. I know full well that he was inspired by his religious feelings to compose. So what? It doesn’t change the music. Beethoven was very likely inspired by plain old pedestrian romantic love to many of his works. Does that make them somehow less worthy than Bach? Surely you see the absurdity of this line of reasoning. What inspires people is irrelevant to the work of art.

      The religious often point to Bach and others (Michelangelo, Handel, the cathedral architects, etc.) as evidence of … I’m not sure what; but it somehow is supposed to mean that religion is better than atheism and that means their religion is true. This just doesn’t follow. Remember that for most of western history, not believing the same thing as your sovereign was grounds for execution or at best imprisonment. Also recall that the churches of Europe amassed huge amounts of wealth, and spent it on aggrandizing themselves and their temples. And thank goodness they did (though they might have had a bit more concern for their suffering flock)! The art produced is wonderful. But remember that the church was usually the only patron who could keep a composer and allow them to spend their life composing. This says more about the political power of the church than about the truth of religion.

      “Meanwhile, feed the homeless, visit the prisoners, help women who are victims of abuse, give to the Red Cross.”

      Yes, indeed. And how about: Loudly, publicly denouncing the religious brake put on stem cell research, the Pope lying to the people of Africa about condom use and AIDS, the push to prevent women (even those dying of ectopic pregnancies or impregnated by rapists or incestuous relatives) from obtaining abortions (as Dr. Coyne and P.Z. Myers have done)?

      I give to the Red Cross (and give my blood). I support the Central Asia Institute, which educates women in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (I gave to the Salvation Army until I heard about their policies on gay rights.) Your holy-than-thou attitude about service is not very flattering. Just because your personal experience (do you have any? or is it just assumptions?) is that atheists don’t provide charity doesn’t mean that they don’t or that they give less than believers do. (Maybe they do, I don’t know.)

      “Don’t get wedded to any doctrine – science, Methodism, or anything else – so that you can’t be pried loose if evidence arises that necessitates such prying.”

      This is interesting, considering that you have just stated that nothing is going to shake you from your religious convictions: Not the chemical mediation of your mental state, not any demands for objective evidence (read your first couple of paragraphs). You appear to be completely impervious to evidence, as regards your religious convictions: Your personal mental feelings trump all. What evidence would shift them? I look calmly at the evidence suggested by believers for their God and find it woefully unconvincing. Your personal feelings are not persuasive to me at all.

      “The paradox is to keep fighting for them while realizing that they could be disproven (because anything could be).”

      Science lives by this. It is the meat and drink of science. Religion? Not so much.

      You are a very rare bird amongst the religious, who is willing to accept that their religious dogma might be susceptible to evidence and that they may have to alter their views. Form what you explain about your religious views (call the transcendent whatever you like – as long as it makes you feel, well, religious) it seems that science has stripped it all away (Christian dogma) except for a vague feeling of something bigger being out there. Well, great! If all religious people felt the way you do, then there really wouldn’t be any conflict between religion and science, and Dr. Coyne, P.Z., Dr. Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett and others wouldn’t have to spend their precious life’s time opposing the many, various, and wide-spread pernicious effects of religion – as it is really exercised in our world. We would love such a state!

      Thanks for commenting, thanks for your work with the needy (we certainly need that work!), and all the best, JB

  32. I have always been of the opinion that science and religion are like oil and water, they just don’t mix. To accept some of what Christianity or even Judaism teaches one has to take one huge leap of faith, and stretch their imagination beyond reason. To accept all of the miraculous tales that cannot be corroborated by science or archeology is in my view illogical and irrational. Religions are not going anywhere anytime soon, but it is nice to know that more people are starting to see it for what it is. You don’t need a belief in God to be moral, just, or compassionate toward your fellow man. That has to come from within yourself.

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