An alert reader brought to my attention a 13-minute video that Baptist theologian and debater William Lane Craig—known for his approval of Biblically-based genocide—made in response to my piece in USA Today arguing that science and faith aren’t compatible. Craig has two main responses: first, that I don’t understand religion, and second, that science, like religion, is based on faith. He also faults me for tone, saying that my piece is imbued with a “bitterness and anger” toward religion that he finds puzzling. I contend that my piece is neither bitter nor angry, and that I have plenty of reasons to oppose religion so my behavior is hardly puzzling.
Here’s Craig’s response:
His main points are these:
- I conflate religion and faith, which are really different things. He defines “religion” as “a body of doctrine and practice that has to do with God,” and sees faith as “trust or commitment in something.” Because we can have faith in stuff other than God, I shouldn’t be using the terms interchangeably. Granted, one can have “faith” (which I define as “belief without evidence”) in stuff other than God—like homeopathy. But it’s clear in my piece that I was using “faith” as a synonym for religion, so his complaint is irrelevant.
- He argues that the purpose of religion is not “an explanatory enterprise,” but rather mainly a “prescriptive” enterprise: one that tells us how to live and behave. That, of course, is bogus. Theologians have always argued that the purpose of religion is to give us answers to the “Big Questions” about life, and that’s explanatory. Here, for example, is Catholic theologian John Haught, from his book Deeper than Darwin (p. 133; we’ll hear a bit about Haught this week because I’ll soon be sharing a platform with him, and have been reading him as an exemplar of “sophisticated theology”):
“What’s going on in the universe? Is there any point to it all? Why are we here? How should we live? Does God exist? Where did the universe come from? Why does anything exist at all? Why is there so much suffering? Why do we die? Do we live on after death? How can we find release from suffering and sadness? What can we hope for?”. . “It is the main business of religion to answer the big questions.”
I would argue, of course, that although theology asks the big questions, it has no way of answering them—or at least determining answers that are correct.
So yes, I think most theologians, save Craig, think that religion’s main value is to explain why we’re here and what our “purpose” is. Those are explanations, not prescriptions. I would not for a minute, however, deny religion’s prescriptive (moral) function, though I’d maintain that insofar as morality comes from religion, it’s either based at bottom on secular reason or (as in Craig’s own justifications for Old Testament genocide) pernicious.
- In an unintentionally humorous assertion, which really shows that Craig doesn’t understand science, he claims (4:55) that religion has made inestimably important contributions to science. These include “the plan of salvation” and “how to find eternal life”. It gives us a “moral code” for living. What these have to do with science escapes me. He also claims that the framework of modern science originated in religion (especially Christianity), for religion produced the notion of a world separate from God and subject to rational investigation. That’s a common claim, but I don’t think the advance of science had anything to do with its being pushed by Christianity. It’s based on simple human curiosity, and would have arisen whether or not the Church was around. Further, the Church has often discouraged rational investigations of the world if they threaten scripture; evolution is but one example.
- While I argue that faith is “belief without warrant,” Craig says this is simply not true, for many faiths are based on historically verifiable events. Christianity, for example, is rooted, says Craig, “in events that actually happened, people that actually lived, things that actually went on.” And he says that religion can come within the purview of the historian, and that “Professor Coyne” maintains that as well. What I have maintained is that certain claims that accompany belief in a theistic God can be tested, like the efficacy of prayer. Further, some of the miracle claims of the Bible are either palpably false, like the Adam and Eve story, or so improbable that, using Hume’s criterion, they’re almost certainly made up (e.g., the Resurrection). But certainly the major events of the life of Jesus, like the virgin birth and Resurrection (some would even say Jesus’s existence) don’t pass any credible scientific test, since they are documented in only one book that is known to be largely fictitious. Nevertheless, Craig argues that we have tons of evidence for the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and those come from the very credible Gospels.
- Craig argues that science itself is permeated with assumptions about the world that cannot be scientifically justified, but are based on faith. One of these is the validity of inductive reasoning: “Just because A has always been followed by B every time in the past is no proof at all that A will be followed by B tomorrow.” To suppose the latter requires faith. I wonder if Craig worries every time he gets on an airplane, or whether the sun might not rise tomorrow. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that the assumption that things will operate in the future as they have in the past has always worked (as Hawking says, “Science wins because it works”), and so the assumptions are not mere faith; they are justified by their results. If the assumption wasn’t justified, for example, we couldn’t send people to the Moon.
Craig cites three other articles of faith accepted by scientists, articles that can’t be proven:
- We assume that the velocity of light is constant in a one way direction, but all we can measure is the round-trip velocity of light. Therefore, light could go out at one speed and come back at another, with the round trip velocity always being the same. I would find it extraordinary if this were true. The assumption of constancy is based on parsimony, and to me doesn’t seem equivalent to believing in the Resurrection, for which there’s no parsimony explanation, but simply tons of counterevidence that dead people don’t come back to life.
- Another article of scientific faith is the assumption that there is indeed a real external world that can be described accurately by our senses. We could, after all, be brains in vats, or creatures in some giant simulation run by aliens. This is a very common tactic used by the faithful equate science and religion; Haught also makes this claim. My answer is that every bit of evidence shows that we have evolved to detect realities in an external world, and those senses help us survive. This argues for the reality of an external world that is at least somewhat accurately perceived by our senses, and other of other creatures. After all, if we don’t run when we think we perceive a large, angry felid coming toward us, we will perceive that we get eaten. As Dan Dennett argues, “such an appeal to the power of information-gathering organs would be in danger of vicious circularity were it not for the striking confirmations of these achievements of natural selection using independent engineering measures. The acuity of vision in the eagle and hearing in the owl, the discriminatory power of electric eels and echolocating bats, and many other cognitive talents in humans and other species have all been objectively measured, for instance.”
- Finally, Craig argues last-Thursday-ism: that it’s an article of scientific faith that the world has had a real past that we can discover, rather than having been created only five minutes ago with all of our memories of our lives, and knowledge of the past, created as well. I have two counters here. First, even if that’s true, we can still find out stuff about how things work now from using information about that supposedly fictitious past, and make verifiable and verified predictions based on that information, so in some sense it doesn’t really matter. Second, for a religious person like Craig to believe this entails not only the notion of a deceptive God, but also one who created the illusion of Jesus and the events of the Bible for reasons that we can’t fathom.
Clearly we’re going to hear more about science’s reliance on philosophical naturalism as being an “article of faith” equivalent to belief in the divinity of Jesus. This is an increasingly popular argument among both religious people and accommodationists, so I’d like to hear readers’ responses.