Ed Suominen reviews FvF

August 12, 2015 • 9:30 am

Ed Suominen was once an adherent to Laestadianism, a hyper-conservative Lutheran sect with some truly bizarre dogma (they think, for instance that only the roughly 60,000 members of that faith will go to heaven, and that everyone else will burn in hell).  But he abandoned that faith after realizing the value of evolutionary biology when it became useful for his computational work (Salon recounts his deconversion story and includes an interview). Ed is the author of An Examination of the Pearl, which describes his abandonment of faith, and is co-author, with Robert Price, of Evolving out of Eden, an engaging examination of Christianity’s unsuccessful attempts to reconcile itself to evolution. Here’s what Ed says about the latter book in the review I’ll mention in a minute:

In the concluding pages of Evolving out of Eden, Dr. Robert M. Price and I reflected on the mindset of the Christian fundamentalist, a place I myself had still been uncomfortably occupying not long earlier. Things get difficult for him, we wrote,

” . . . if he peers outside the safety of church society and “healthy” reading materials to glean some awareness of the many other theological problems lurking in the tall grass of science. He may recognize himself (and Jesus!) as an evolved primate, and Original Sin as an absurd doctrine built on unscientific sand. The very rationale of the atonement collapses, along with all those ‘sins’ his pastor carries on about, which come to look like natural, even healthy traits that allowed his ancestors to replicate and eventually produce him. The God of all Creation he once praised while musing over every tree and sunset goes quiet and cold, fading into an impersonal set of laws and forces that forms life out of randomness shaped by countless acts of suffering and death.

It should be no surprise to see so many Eden dwellers turn away from all this and scurry back to retrenchment and denial, the burden of intellectual dishonesty and cognitive dissonance still lighter than the terrifying alternative. The only other options are to water down one’s faith with accommodationism, which brings its own dishonesty and dissonance, or abandon it altogether. But science has set forth the flaming sword, and the Garden cannot remain occupied for long.”

Now a firm nonbeliever, Suominen wrote me to say that he just reviewed Faith Versus Fact on his website, which bears the overly self-deprecating title of Ed Suominen’s Shitty Little Blog. And he also told me the circumstances of writing the review:

Yours [the review] occupied the better part of two days of writing, plus some enjoyable hours I spent outside reading the book (often somewhere out in those woods with Frisky II [his cat] standing guard nearby), tabbing pages, and making notes.
Based on the photo below, it looks more like “tabby pages”!
Ed’s review, “Faith vs. Fact: Two opposing sides of the Coyne,”  is indeed a long and detailed piece, and I much appreciate it. It’s lavishly illustrated with pictures of Frisky as well. Here’s one that also shows the care with which Ed read the book:

Now Ed notes that he’s not unbiased, as we’ve met, had friendly chats about religion, atheism, and cats, and he gave me some information about his former faith that I put in the book. I’m adding that information because his review is a long and favorable one: it has, in fact, 29 footnotes! I’ll give just his verdict and two quotes.


See Jerry Coyne’s book page for more information about Faith vs. Fact, a highly recommended read. If you are wrestling with doubts about a religion that you’re not sure is true anymore, and science has any part in that struggle, give yourself a few days with this work. Reality can be difficult, but the pain of trying to deny it when you know better is far worse.

And the quotes:

It’s not just that religions are incompatible with science, Coyne says. Unlike science, whose many different disciplines “share a core methodology based on doubt, replication, reason, and observation,” religion is splintered into countless varieties that are incompatible witheach other. Yet “this incompatibility wasn’t inevitable: if the particulars of belief and dogma were somehow bestowed on humans by a god, there’s no obvious reason why there should be more than one brand of faith.”

This argument resonates with me for a reason Coyne probably never thought of when he made it: patent law. I’ve obtained over a dozen patents, for commercially successful technology. What those pieces of paper give you is the right to exclude others from making and using what you’ve invented, a right that you can then license and sell to others, or exercise yourself to avoid competition during the 20-year patent term. Now, an omnipotent God has the ultimate patent. He could just squash everything but the One True Religion that he supposedly invented, and that would be that. But that doesn’t happen, because there is no such patent holder.

That’s a theological twist I haven’t much pondered: why does God, if he/she really is the god of One True Faith, allow other people to follow so many false gods? Is that some misguided byproduct of having granted us free will? If so, is the virtue of our having free will reason enough to exclude so many people from salvation?

Finally, Ed tells it as it is, and remember that he was a former fundamentalist Christian (his emphasis):

At this point in my review, and in my life, I have the blessed freedom to offer the real answer to that dilemma, for those uncomfortable pew-sitters reading this who are suffering through the churnings of doubt: Revelation without observation is bullshit.

The last section of his review, “Facing Facts,” which deals with faith, ecology, and global warming, is beautifully written, but I’ll let you go see for yourself.

35 thoughts on “Ed Suominen reviews FvF

  1. I knew a Laestadian when I was in Tromsø – the sect is/was popular in Saami communities. I feel sorry for young people brought up into such a narrow self-righteous outlook – they either end up narrow-minded bigots themselves, or get rejected by their families for leaving the faith.

    1. I LOVE this bit from the Wikipedia page – says it all about religionS!
      “The leaders of the two largest Laestadian sub-groups, the Conservative Laestadians and Firstborn Laestadians, have for decades excluded each other and all other Laestadian sub-groups from the kingdom of Heaven even though the denominations’ core doctrines are nearly indistinguishable”

      1. It’s clear from this that one of the motivations for religion is the opportunity to enjoy the arrogance of superiority, while pretending humility.

      2. Yet another example! I keep noticing that often people save their biggest vitriol for groups that are not *quite* like them. Think Sunni/Shiite, the wars between Catholics and Protestant, Orthodox and less so Jews (particularly in Israel), the infighting amongst various anarchist traditions, Democrats and Republicans (where as addressing, say, Libertarians, socialists, liberals (in the non-US senses) is beyond the pale), etc.

        1. I’ve read that one of the major reasons for this has to do with a basic folk analysis of the level of threat: a believer is more likely to modify their belief than throw it out completely. So it’s more probable that a Catholic Christian will become a Protestant Christian (or vice versa) than that they’ll become a Muslim, Hindu, or atheist. If adherence to ideological purity/truth is highly valued — either reasonably as in science or irrationally as in religion — then most of the attention will focus on the area which will cause the most people to abandon the Tribe.

      3. And it’s absolutely true, Dominic. When I’d really started doubting my childhood faith (after learning about evolution through some engineering work), I visited a service at a Firstborn (OALC) Laestadian church an hour or so away from where I live. We weren’t supposed to visit “worldly” churches, of course, especially not the “heretics,” but I had tasted the forbidden fruit already with Darwin and was ready to disregard a church norm that was obviously based on the its own insecurities.

        The service was a fascinating experience for me. Seeing those people participating (if anything, more earnestly) in the same exact “forgiveness of sins” ritual that we carried out as a distinctive point of our faith, and with evident emotion, was very powerful for me. As Jerry says in the book, “Given that most religious people acquire their faith through accidents of birth, and those faiths are conflicting, it’s very likely that the tenets of a randomly specified religion are wrong. How can you tell if yours is right?”

        Of course, you can’t, and I certainly couldn’t, sitting there watching all that.

        If you’re interested in more about the splinter groups within Laestadianism, you might take a look at Section 4.1.6 of my first book (free online). All this sectarian squabbling is not unique to my old church, of course. Quoting Jerry again: religion is indeed “splintered into countless varieties that are incompatible with each other.”

        1. Thanks! it is all so strange… the Church of England is in many ways so inclusive as to be banal. They tie themselves in knots over wanting to have women bishops & at the same time NOT wanting to have them, while retaining the umbrella of Anglicanism, which, as they say, covers a multitude of sins.

    2. “I knew a Laestadian when I was in Tromsø[.]”

      Great opening line for a novel. I’d keep reading that book.

  2. Very good. The point that there are numerous incompatible religions and incompatible subdivisions within those religions is a telling point about the errancy of all religions.
    I have been wondering about the shock that the early European explorers would have felt when they encountered distant populations of humans who never heard of Yahweh. Did that shake anyones’ belief?

    1. Nah; that’s just proof the bible is right about Satan corrupting people into a fallen state. Pretty much any inconsistency between the bible and observation can be explained as the work of Satan.

  3. “Revelation without observation is bullshit.”

    In case I run into an uncomfortable pew-sitter, I’ll commit that to memory.

  4. That’s a theological twist I haven’t much pondered: why does God, if he/she really is the god of One True Faith, allow other people to follow so many false gods?

    This has occurred to me before. To rephrase it, not God exists who can and will provide a clear message to all of humanity about who He is and what He wants from us.

    1. Not only that, but the varieties of God are often distributed around the Glob according to geographical and cultural boundaries. What gives?

    2. It is pretty similar to John Loftus’s outsider test of faith. It is a testament to just how deep indoctrination runs when one considers that many faithful never ponder such questions seriously, or entire sects repress it so much that they forbid contact without outside heretical viewpoints. But, the question is one that naturally arises out of human curiosity. I remember my first seeds of doubt around the age of 7 or 8 after I’d made my First Communion and asked my dad how we know Catholicism is the right religion when there’s so many others. That question has never been sufficiently answered by any faith, because there’s only one known element that could possibly be a deciding factor–evidence.

  5. You may not be aware that the new prime minister of Finland is Laestadian. Just today we got the budget proposal for the next year, and the extremely conservative values are written all over it: Heavy cuts to education and universities. Less aid to developing countries, more money to the military and domestic security.

    Since religion plays no part in the Finnish politics, the voters don’t even count adherence to a dubious sect against you.

    1. I guess this is where the “don’t care” sort of secularlism comes back to haunt you. Shades of people not caring about S. Harper in Canada at first! Hope it doesn’t go that bad for Finland, mind.

  6. why does God, if he/she really is the god of One True Faith, allow other people to follow so many false gods? Is that some misguided byproduct of having granted us free will?

    The Free Will defense doesn’t work as an excuse here any more than it works as a theodicy for the existence of Evil. A clear perception of the situation doesn’t interfere with your capacity to choose: it enhances it. Otherwise, parents would take care to ensure that their children were never sure about what rules they should follow — or even who their parents were — so that their choices will be better.

    I think the real problem with this issue isn’t so much what it says about God, but what it forces the believer to believe about people. If you assume that God is all-powerful and that it really matters which theology people believe in, then you’re left with the conclusion that people in other religions wouldn’t choose the right one even if they KNEW it was right. Every single one of them is so irrational and/or wicked that no amount of evidence could possibly sway them. God “allows” so many false gods because a clear, strong, completely persuasive proof that they ARE false would make no difference whatsoever.

    In other words, the friends, neighbors, and public which you esteem capable of listening, thinking, and changing their minds immediately turn into something very much like a cartoon villains the minute they fail to respond to the apologetics of your particular faith. God doesn’t send more convincing arguments because those who are not convinced by your arguments wouldn’t be convinced by anything. They’d look God in the face and deny what they know to be true. This is a perversity which goes down to the fundamental heart.

    God allows other people to follow so many false gods because other people aren’t really people like you and me. That’s the ultimate message.

    And it’s a deeply disturbing one. Look at it too closely and it will disturb. When fundamentalists shut down the argument, they’re compartmentalizing you from them. That’s why I think the urge to go out and “debate” nonbelievers rationally as part of their conversion techniques is a modern day sword of the Enlightenment which will eventually end up cutting them in pieces. It assumes a common ground instead of this caricature world of Us and Them. They get cocky, they forget faith isn’t rational and their views aren’t really reasonable. Bam.

  7. …why does God, if he/she really is the god of One True Faith, allow other people to follow so many false gods?

    Yep, you’d think that an omnipotent, loving God — especially one who from time to time grants intercessory prayers to cure psoriasis and scurvy — would do mankind the solid of making it known, for all to hear, which was the one true path to salvation.

  8. There is a Hindu ‘solution’ to the problem of many religions. They will often co-opt evolution, while at the same time rejecting it.
    There is an evolution of consciousness and not of bodily forms, with the soul either progressing or regressing according to its karma.

    For each level of consciousness there is a corresponding form of religion. Then you can claim that your particular sect’s dogma is the highest understanding.

    It can work quite well in proselytising as you don’t have to reject the faith of any possible recruit; just flatter them and tell them that the reason they are questioning is because they have gone as far as they can with the religion of their birth and are ready to advance to a greater understanding.

    I think this thinking comes easier to a culture with a polytheistic background. It is also a reworking of the kind of reasoning used to excuse the caste system.

  9. Particularly as someone who, three yrs after retirement, is listed (for the first time ever) along with three others as an inventor on a patent application filed a couple wks ago, I particularly like the God-as-patent-holder argument.

  10. I can thoroughly recommend Ed’s book ‘ Evolving Out of Eden’. It really puts under the microscope the view of some Christians that God’s hand has guided ‘creation’ along an evolutionary path. It examines both the theology and the science of such a position.

  11. Sastra commented…

    “…they forget faith isn’t rational and their views aren’t really reasonable”

    I do not concur with Sastra on this point. Most of faith is very rational, and that is the problem. But it is made-up of the application of reason to silly
    Assumptions. The first bad assumption is that we live in an intentional universe. From that blunder all the religions are derived. In applying reason to rubbish assumptions, the clever theologian is taken upon a never-ending journey of rationalisations, involving gods and magic.
    But why should young people come to the conclusion that we live within an intentional universe? Yes, it is true as far as a toddler is concerned and whereby the parents control the toddler’s world. But why are religious folk unable to get-over that childish blunder, and begin to appreciate the great indifference of the universe to their particular little life?
    I believe (at present) that it is to do with the formation of the brain in adolescence. The human brain is not developed by evolution to apply intelligence to problems it faces (The Tooby-Cosmides hypothesis). And nor is it a repository for well thought-out truths of the world. The brain requires maquettes or frameworks to steer the child through adolescence, and so is vulnerable to seemingly random genetic inheritance, and mostly to cultural beliefs. And so religion is not a matter of indoctrination; it is a matter of absorbing crackpot beliefs around at that time.

    This is a tiny part of a very large explanation of ‘The Origins of Belief and Behaviour’ freely available on the internet.

    1. “The brain requires maquettes or frameworks to steer the child through adolescence,”
      That would explain a lot.

    2. Most of faith is very rational, and that is the problem. But it is made-up of the application of reason to silly

      It goes further than that though. If you haven’t watched the William Lane Craig/Sean Carroll debate, I highly recommend it. Carroll continually ripped Craig’s arguments to shreds by demonstrating that they’re being applied to a domain where we have no reason to believe they apply. The First Cause argument, for example, has elements of logic and reason, as you point out, but it’s smuggling in the Fallacy of Composition (we know there are causes in the Universe so the Universe has a cause) on top of applying it to a separate domain altogether.

      I see a third problem with most apologetic arguments that derives from the above two…they’re using logic in a domain that isn’t necessarily logical, at least according to the rules we know. Many of our logical rules are derived from the evidence we have that they are true. Take the Law of Noncontradiction. It’s easy to imagine a theoretical world where this doesn’t hold. Theologians are taking logical rules derived at least in part from our observations of the Universe and applying them outside of the Universe. Carroll does go into this quite a bit with regards to time and eternal Universes, but his point holds with logic in general as well. How can anyone say something like Modus Tollens applies in a place outside the Universe where the theologian already declared by definition does not adhere to the laws we observe? It’s not illogical, it’s Not Even Wrong.

      1. Actually it can be worse than this. There are many, many logics. (I don’t even know how one count them.) Anyway, Plantinga’s popularized modal logic version of the “ontological” argument smuggles into its “premisses” the fact that the ambient logic is one particular modal logic. So I tell people, if you’re going to present Plantinga, please tell me how much logic you’ve done. Otherwise it is an exercise in futility.

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