Day one of the religion debates in Kentucky

October 11, 2011 • 8:05 am

The KentuckyKernel (the daily student paper of the University of Kentucky) reports on the first day of the three-day series of debates about religion that I’m involved in at the University of Kentucky.

Last night’s debate featured Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman and David Hunter, a professor of literature, language, and culture, debating whether faith is compatible with history.  The paper reports:

Ehrman said three steps led him to his current position as an agnostic and away from being a fundamentalist Christian.

“I was a fundamentalist,” Ehrman said. “No ‘fun,’ too much ‘damn’ and not enough ‘mental.’”

The three steps were his study of the early manuscripts of the Bible, his historical investigation of the Bible itself and his historical critical study outside of the Bible.

“I could no longer believe that there was a loving, all-powerful God in control of this world,” Erhman said.

David G. Hunter, a professor at UK in the department of modern and classical languages, literatures and cultures, took the opposite side of the debate as person of Catholic faith.

He discussed faith as “a particular way of looking at the world,” saying faith and unfaith were “different interpretations of reality.”

Hunter began his discussion addressing the topic of whether faith and history are compatible.

“Faith and reason can never be in complete conflict,” Hunter said, giving the explanation that they were of different perspectives.

“Faith and unfaith are different interpretations of reality”? What doublespeak! They are conflicting and incompatible interpretations of reality.  Or rather, unfaith—I presume this means science and rationality—tells us what reality is, while faith tells us what people want reality to be.

As for the old canard “faith and reason can never be in complete conflict,” think about that for a minute. Why couldn’t they be in complete conflict—at least with respect to their philosophy, methodology, and what “truth” they tell us about the universe?

And they are in conflict in all these areas.  A worldview that relies on revelation, dogma, and acceptance of those things that you want to believe must necessarily be in complete conflict with a worldview that relies on evidence, doubt, empiricism, and acceptance of only those things for which there’s evidence, whether or not you want those things to be true.  What Scripture tells us is true (I’m not referring here to moral prescriptions) is almost wholly in conflict with what reason and science tells us is true.

Feynman, of course, best characterized the reason why science and faith are incompatible, giving perhaps the pithiest explanation I’ve seen of how science works:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.

In contrast, the first principle of religion is that you must fool yourself, finding in the universe only those things that support your beliefs, and harmonizing all possible observations with what you want to be true. Evolution?  That’s God’s way of bringing about His Creation! The Holocaust? Evil is simply an inexorable and unavoidable byproduct of God’s gift of free will.

Theology is merely an intellectual game of self-foolery. And many theologians are very good at it.

69 thoughts on “Day one of the religion debates in Kentucky

  1. I actually am really interested in what a religious literary professor has to say about the Bible, and the various issues that textual criticism has brought up. Does he feel that the Bible was assembled under God’s hands, even the hands of the people that forged letters in Paul’s name, inserted whole stories and sentences in the book, or discarding other books? Or does he think that the Bible we have now is a corruption of the true book that we should be working to restore through literary analysis?

    It always seems like more an issue of sunk costs rather than reason. People have believed their whole lives and don’t want to admit to themselves that they’ve wasted a good chunk of it.

    1. Sajanas – Erhman has written at least two books for laymen which are about textual criticism. I’d suggest you pick them up if you’re interested in the subject.

      Not to put words in his mouth, but my reading of his books is that Erhman falls squarely on the side of thinking the Bible is a work of humans, not the divine in any sense (not written by, not inspired, etc…)

      1. I was actually thinking more of how the other guy was justifying his beliefs… I’ve read several of Ehrman’s books. More the mystery to me is how people learn all about how the Bible was written and then ignore it every Sunday.

        1. To be honest, Sajanas, when I was at Sunday school, church etc, I was never taught “how” the babble was written, or by whom. We were taught that it is god’s word and written by god.

          Complete bollox of course – it was written by lots of people, some claiming to be someone else and then a collection of the “best” books were bound into what we now call the babble. Some Catholic council or other did the judging. Everything else had to be destroyed – in case it went against the decided “way” of JC and god etc.

          So, all these people who put their faith in the babble are bonkers and delusional.


        2. Actually, Hunter didn’t really disagree with Ehrman that the Bible is a human work that contains mistakes and the historical point of views of the authors. All he really did was wave his hands around about a vague kind of faith that is similar to love, without ever explaining why he knew what to have faith in.

          1. Well, that’s disappointing, but expected. Ehrman’s talks a lot in his books about how disappointed he is that the various brands of Christian clerics don’t pass along any information at all to their flock, and I’m rather interested in how they justify it. I guess Hunter seems to accept the knowledge as real and then pretend as if it doesn’t matter, much like how people accept evolution but pretend that its just as good as special creation.

            1. I suspect most of them know they would get fired and replaced by a pastor who was willing to tell the flock what they wanted to hear. Some of them probably think staying on and being dishonest is the lesser of two evils. They’re doing their congregation a favor by enabling their delusion.

              I call it the methadone approach to preaching. You don’t think your congregation is ready to quit cold turkey, so you offer them a version of Christianity that is less toxic than others, even though you know none of them are true (or real).

  2. He discussed faith as “a particular way of looking at the world,” saying faith and unfaith were “different interpretations of reality.”

    I’ll actually agree with this. Faith being an unreasonable “interpretation of reality” and unfaith being a reasonable “interpretation of reality”.

      1. Yep, faith being a personal, subjective, arbitrary interpretation of reality and “unfaith” being a common, objective (or, at least, inter-subjective), demonstrable interpretation of reality.

        And, daveau, yes, reality does need to be interpreted. Our best scientific models are only arbitrarily close approximations to reality, not reality itself.


        1. What is reality?

          I know what you mean, but I don’t need someone else to tell me that I just drank a glass of water. Or what it means.

          1. Well, someone of faith is unlikely to dispute that.

            But someone of unfaith, say Feynman, might see things differently: Why did you drink a glass of water? What is water? What is (a) glass? Why is one fluid and the other solid? &c. &c.

            So, indeed, what is reality?


            1. Really? Of course I’m intellectually curious. I appreciate Feynman as much as the next guy, but if you did that all the time, you’d die of thirst. What I’m saying is that I don’t look for deeper meanings like “Why did God give me this glass of water in response to my thirst?” And technically, glass is an amorphous solid. 😉

              1. Oh, yes, slaking your thirst should come ahead of scientific (or theological) inquiry! 😀

                And “glass is an amorphous solid” prompts a lot of interesting, unanswered questions!


              2. What you experience as feeling thirsty and drinking a glass of water is your brain’s interpretation of the stimuli it receives and all the memories it has. It’s as close an approximation of objectivity as you need to survive. With tools like science we can get even more detail about what the glass is made of, how it was made out of raw materials, what’s in that glass of water, why you need water to survive, and even how your body gets itself to drink water when it needs it.

                But even that is still an interpretation of reality. Your brain is part of reality looking at the rest of reality from the inside.

                What matters, though, is that some ways of interpreting reality are more reliable than others. Trying to get as close to objectivity as you can has proven to be more reliable at allowing us to navigate reality than just making up stuff that sounds good.

              3. Feynman DOES tackle the issue of when to stop thinking about it and just do something, with his wonderful “whole universe is in a glass of wine” analogy from Book I, Chapter 3 of the Feynman Lectures on Physics:

                “A poet once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe.
                There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it!
                If in our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts – physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on – remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let us give one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!”

        2. Our best scientific models are only arbitrarily close approximations to reality, not reality itself.

          But they can’t “be” reality, so that can’t be a useful claim. (Wasn’t this Kant’s shtick?) More useful is how faithful our theories are.

          And they seem very faithful indeed. Hardly arbitrarily, but converging over time.

          As an example, we can nowadays see atoms. Of course, seeing is not “knowing every minute detail”, but “knowing _a_ detail (exist)”.

          In which case theories are more than just so interpretations, more like structural equivalents.

          Of course one could say that glossing over details and facilely filling in the gaps are “interpretations”. I would prefer to call them methodical props and scaffolds though.

          1. Hmm… structural equivalents… which allow us to interpret reality! 😉

            By “arbitrarily” I meant that we can‘t say, ab initio how close to reality our models are. Newtonian gravitation looked to be asymptotically close to reality for a good while…

            But I don’t disagree with you significantly.


      2. Reality always requires interpretation just at different levels for different events.

        Peer review is a form of interpreting novel bits of reality.

        Also be careful not to draw attention to a glass of water to philosophy students (or theologians for that matter) There is a slight danger they could die of thirst pondering if and when and what realities are involved.

  3. Under the category: If Only

    Yes, this comment is the work of a lazy rationalist Intellectual. Some things can’t be helped.

    There can be only so many arguments, irrational as they may be, supporting creationism/ belief in a god, etcetera. As I am admittedly lazy, has anyone collected all these arguments, composed rational counter arguments, and posted them to be available for the lazy? -Stephen

  4. I wonder if Hunter was able to articulate in what way religion is a different way of looking at the world from science. How does faith look at the world? And how can that way be expected to yield results that are mostly compatible with reason? And what if they are in conflict (I note that he didn’t say they could never be in conflict), which one should be primary?

    1. I imagine a Terminator red screen where everything is labeled “God made this” or “Part of God’s plan” and every dialogue option is “Praise Jebus”.

    2. Yes, my question exactly.

      They’re all about a “different way of knowing”.

      OK. Knowing what? Exactly. Please be very, very specific, and how religion was the only way to reach that particular point of knowledge, and how, precisely and exactly, this knowledge either comports with or does not with empirical evidence. And why then we should rely on the religious “knowledge” in contradiction to empirical knowledge.

      Crickets. Chirping.

  5. The “is faith compatible with history” question seems like a nonsequitur. History is full of faiths.

    I get the gist – they really mean something like the theodicy problem. I.e., “are mainstream Christian beliefs compatible with the events of history.” But they really could’ve phrased it better.

    Phrased the way they have it, any sort of omphalos-style faith – Christian or not – is compatible with history, almost by definition. And a wide variety of non-christian faiths are compatible, in that they don’t necessarily have a theodicy problem.

    1. Surely what is meant is this: ‘Is faith compatible with the scholarly discipline of history?’ To which the answer is ‘No.’

  6. “In contrast, the first principle of religion is that you must fool yourself…”

    Yes, as I think of it, “Science cannot survive with self-deception, religion cannot survive without it.”

    1. “Science cannot survive with self-deception, religion cannot survive without it.”

      That’s a great line!

  7. So “faith and reason can never be in complete conflict”?
    It should be easy to debate someone using words like “never”.

    “Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom … Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism… She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.”
    Martin Luther, Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142-148

    There, they can be.

    1. Further crimony – after all that, she should just be banished to the closet? I might keep a lot of junk in my closets, but I wouldn’t consider keeping something so odious under the same roof.

      Perhaps there’s an archaic definition of closet that I’m unaware of? Searching only comes up with this, which suggests that a closet was a place for private meditation and prayer.

      My father once considered buying a house with an astonishingly low price. He finally found the reason: no closets. Not a single one. Perhaps built by a Lutheran of that stripe?

          1. You might also consider the fact that Luther was not writing in English, so the word quoted may be a translation of a German slang term meaning much the same thing.

            I’m sticking with “outhouse”.

              1. Maybe closets were where the scullery maids were?

                I’m trying to find the quote in the German edition but my German is so rusty it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack with the verb at the end.

  8. With Hunter, crimony! That argument again. Do you sometimes feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day*, doomed to repeat the same thing over and over again.

    *Never saw more than some clips of it.

    But if Ehrman punched some good holes in the historical aspects, pls post.

  9. Why couldn’t they be in complete conflict—at least with respect to their philosophy, methodology, and what “truth” they tell us about the universe? […]

    What Scripture tells us is true (I’m not referring here to moral prescriptions) is almost wholly in conflict with what reason and science tells us is true.

    The problem being, of course, that the only rational and evidential explanation for the near as absolute conflict as making no difference being: these texts are fictions which are nowhere near facts.

    Religious and agnostics can’t have that option on the table, which is why they absolutely refuse to put it there.

    1. From his Catholic logic, Hunter is correct: an individual who adheres to the faith cannot allow reason to contradict faith diametrically, at the peril of complete breakdown. If faith is to be held on to, rational processes must always at some point be reined in.
      But is the fundamental incompatibility of faith and reason still worth debating? Methinks: accommodationist whitewash.

  10. That Feynman quote is one of my all time favorites. It succinctly demonstrates why faith and science (applied skepticism, when you think about it), are doomed to be in conflict. For all the griping about how the New Atheists never address “sophisticated” theology, I’ve never seen a theologian seriously and honestly address the tension between these competing epistemologies.

    Faith is a way of deliberately deceiving oneself, or as Twain said, a way of “believing what you know ain’t so.” Demosthenes recognized the allure of self-deception way back in the 4th century BC: “A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.”

  11. Religion is not a “particular way of looking at the world” since every religion (and most religious people) see the world differently when filtered through religion. No, religion is merely a peculiar (and insipid) way of looking at the world.

  12. Two thousand years ago, a Jew was tortured and murdered by the Romans as a metaphor, to expiate the metaphorical sin committed (or not) by a woman who symbolizes the attainment of conscience and reason by primates. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s essentially the faitheist and modern believer’s justification for Xtian spirituality in the face of all evidence and reason to the contrary.

    1. The best description comes from Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

      “It was more or less two thousand years after one man was nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be if people were nice to each other for a change.”

      A funny way to express the root of the western calendar system.

  13. As an atheist do you consider yourself totally rational?

    Do you smoke knowing that it is not good for you?

    Do you eat fast food knowing that it is not good for you?

    Do you purchase lottery tickets?

    Do you ever show any sign of emotion? Knowing that emotion is not rational do you still pursue emotion?

    This is what I see in those of “unfaith” or whatever term is preferred. The assumption is that those with any spec of faith are “irrational”. Rationality has got to be the weakest argument for atheism. It’s normally done in a hateful judgmental way frothing with emotion.

    Anyone can have a rational moment. Live up to your own rationality and simple allow others to be wrong. Those who say you are wrong (regardless of side) are simply irrational.

    1. Please point to a quote by an ‘evil atheist’ that makes the claim to be totally rational; the Feynman quote says the exact opposite.

      Poor reading comprehension and such binary thinking seems to be a major problem with theists/faitheist.

      1. When I buy lottery tickets I don’t lie to myself that I have a reasonable chance of winning anything.

        When I smoke a cigar I don’t lie to myself that it’s not bad for me.

        That’s the difference.

      2. ‘such binary thinking’

        ”evil atheist”

        The first is an actual quote by you.
        The second is a false quote you attempted to attribute to me.

        Is it such binary thinking pointing out lies and venom? Not every comment on the article is venom, but many are. You shouldn’t need such displays of irrationality to defend a rational view point.

    2. Of course we’re not totally rational. But subscribing to a set of beliefs that isn’t committed to testing itself, presenting any evidence, or even capable of to hearing criticism is not going to make one more rational.

      And its not like religion isn’t rational to a point… a lot of the ideas in Christianity were derived fairly logically from the Bible, but the resultant arguments with other logically derived ideas involve no evidence, and can only be resolved with rhetoric or suppression by authority. And none of them question whether its rational to even use the Bible as holy scripture in the first place.

  14. Can I just say – this website is getting BETTER and BETTER – the posts and the subsequent discussions in the comments section are just wonderful. Thanks Prof Coyne and thanks commenters

  15. Faith and unfaith are different interpretations of reality

    Possibly more informative to say that “faith” and “rationalism/science” are different ways of expressing experience. In the same way that the sound track and the images are different perceptions of a movie. Or better, the way the choreography and the score are different ways of invoking the intended experience of a ballet. Different, but mutually reinforcing, to the patron in the loges. Intimately related, but not in a “thump your foot in time to the music” sort of way: something more abstract.

    1. In the same way that the sound track and the images are different perceptions of a movie.


      which part is faith then, and which not?

      how can you tell?

      for the part you equate with sound or images, how does that work, exactly?

      1. Marshall, if you are going to talk about the arts, you might at least attempt to begin to understand them. Scores and choreography are not different ways of evoking some ‘experience’ that exists independently of an actual performance of a ballet, but notations of the elements that go together to make up a performance of a ballet. Somebody who is experienced in ballet can read the score and the choreographer’s notes and understand what is intended to happen in the theatre, just as a good actor or director reads a play and immediately sees it in his or her mind as a play, something which untrained people are usually unable to do well. And none of this has anything whatsoever to do with faith and science supposedly being different ways of expressing experience. Perhaps you could inform us as to how you think faith ‘expresses’ experience.

        1. What is the “real” ballet? Is it the performance, the experience of watching the performance, a recording of the performance on a DVD, the director’s intent, the director’s notations, or what? I would say there is something of which all these things are instances. Popper had somewhat to say about this. We can talk about “the ballet” without reference to any particular instantiation … I would take the experience of attending a performance to be the canonical instantiation, as I think the central point of being a human is that I have a particular experience. People create ballets for people to watch/listen to. The audience is the thing.

          My point was exactly that the choreography and the the score work together to define an inclusive whole. Both are required (to be a ballet), although each has its own internal logic that doesn’t necessarily owe anything to the other. As performed they relate to each other, but not in any simplistic way. You can’t tell the dancers what to do using musical notation, and you can’t tell the musicians what to play using choreographic notation. I don’t mean “separate magisteria”; the elements are fused in “the ballet”.

          Perhaps you could inform us as to how you think faith ‘expresses’ experience.

          Science describes or expresses experience by removing the observer and the particular, as far as possible, whereas religion is attempting to give the individual tools to deal with particulars. Ie, the “problem of theodicy” attempts to address the felt unfairness of life: subjectivity. For the objective rationalist, “that’s just how things are”, and the “problem” vanishes.

          which part is faith then, and which not? how can you tell?

          Indeed, how can you tell?

  16. Hunter:

    “Faith and reason can never be in complete conflict,”

    Since faith quite often conflicts other faith, this assertion cannot possibly be true. When faith propositions conflict, at least one of them is wrong.

    As Jerry notes, faith also conflicts with reality just about everywhere we can compare them. There’s no reason to suppose that faith is right in those few areas where it cannot be checked.

  17. JAC:

    Theology is merely an intellectual game of self-foolery. And many theologians are very good at it.

    Them’s fighting words! How can you dare to comment on theology unless you’ve read [insert any number of useless books and authors here]?!!!

    But I think you’ve already scored a KO, even if our theologian friends haven’t realised it quite yet.

Leave a Reply