Matthew Cobb battles with the faithful over my book

February 4, 2016 • 12:30 pm

Denis Alexander wrote a review of Faith versus Fact in the January 22nd Times Literary Supplement (TLS), and, to say the least, it wasn’t kind. But given his position as an evangelical Christian and the emeritus head of the Templeton-founded-and-funded Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, given his criticism of evolution as an “atheistic theory,” and given my repeated criticisms of his religious views on this site, to which he’s responded, I didn’t expect anything else. (Given his position and our history, though, I am surprised that the TLS religion editor chose him.)

I can’t link to his review as the TLS doesn’t have a free website, and I won’t really reply to it, as I adhere to Nick Cohen and Stephen Fry’s advice to never answer critics. But I’ll let someone respond: our own Matthew Cobb.

After reading Alexander’s piece claiming that my book was the most “consistently scientistic” book he’s read in a long time, and that there is indeed falsifiable evidence for religious claims (Alexander uses the Resurrection as an example), so that there are indeed religious “ways of knowing”, Matthew (unknown to me) wrote a letter to the TLS:


In Denis Alexander’s review of “Faith vs Fact” (22 January 2016), my friend Jerry Coyne’s claim that theology provides no ‘real knowledge’ is dismissed as a ‘scientistic raid’. I wonder if Dr Alexander, or indeed any reader, could provide an example of knowledge gained through theology, and above all tell us how they know that knowledge is true?

Matthew Cobb
Faculty of Life Sciences
Michael Smith Building
University of Manchester

In the next issue, Alexander responded, as well as another believer, and Matthew kindly transcribed the letters for me. First, Alexander’s (why are all the letters titled “Sir”? Are there no women at the TLS?):


Prof. Matthew Cobb enquires as to how knowledge is gained through theology. I am, like Prof. Cobb, a scientist, but I am happy to pass on what I infer through observation of theologians in their academic discipline here in Cambridge.

There are three types of theological enquiry. The first relates to reflection on the properties of the universe, a procedure known as ‘natural theology’. Inference to the best explanation points to a creative Mind underlying features of the universe such as its anthropic fine-tuning, its intelligibility (without which science cannot even get going), the mathematical elegance displayed in the properties of matter and energy, and the emergence of human minds by an evolutionary process that can gain some understanding of these properties. Theological knowledge here refers to interpretation not to description, but the scientific enterprise likewise involves much interpretation of data, so there are some interesting parallels, remembering of course that there are many ways of ‘knowing’.

Second, theological enquiry, at least within the Abrahamic faiths, involves historical enquiry and interpretation of their Scriptures. Christian theology includes textual analysis and study of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. For example, the belief of the early church in the resurrection of Christ, had it not occurred, could readily have been refuted by the discovery of the embalmed body of Christ in a Jerusalem tomb, easily recognisable by his family and disciples. The Apostle Paul clearly stated that his faith (and that of other Christians) was a waste of time if the resurrection had not occurred. Clearly we do not now have access to the data in the same way as the first century Christians, but again there are some interesting parallels here with scientific enquiry. The principle of refutation can apply (in some cases) to history as well as to science.

Third, theology (which means ‘knowledge of God’) also investigates religious experience, a widespread human trait. In the Christian tradition, knowledge of God is practiced through prayer, meditation, reflection, communal worship and, in some cases, ecstatic experience. There is no particular reason why personal knowledge of God should not be included as an important ‘way of knowing’.

Some scientists (I suspect a small minority) believe that the natural sciences provide the only reliable form of human knowledge. I suggest that this leads to an impoverishment of the human spirit.

Yours sincerely,
Denis R. Alexander
Emeritus Director,
The Faraday Institute,
St. Edmund’s College,

I will say one thing: I’m greatly amused by the scientific-ish evidence Alexander adduces for the Resurrection. Since we don’t have the embalmed body of Christ, Jesus must have risen! Think about that: Alexander’s “principle of refutation.”

UPDATE: Reader Pliny the in Between responded to Alexander’s new scientific principle with this cartoon on his/her website Evolving Perspectives:


My spirit must be impoverished. . .

There’s one other letter, too—from a pastor:


In response to Matthew Cobb (Letters 29th Jan): Medical skill and science brought me through cardiac arrest and major surgery, yet in themselves offer nothing to live for. Theological language – passion, faith, hope, love, grace, glory – addresses why it is worth being alive. The truth of value-knowledge is lived, not “known”. It enables one to be deeply grateful and to appreciate the wonder of factual knowledge.

James Ramsay
St. Barnabas Vicarage
Browning Road
London E12 6PB

Clearly religion offers us the only way to see why life’s worth living!

My formal response to these two letters is thus this:  “Oy! And double oy!”

95 thoughts on “Matthew Cobb battles with the faithful over my book

    1. “…the belief of the early church in the resurrection of Christ, had it not occurred, could readily have been refuted by the discovery of the embalmed body of Christ in a Jerusalem tomb, easily recognisable by his family and disciples.”

      Jewish people in the time of Jesus did not embalm their dead, but left them for a time (about a year) for the flesh to disintegrate and then put the bones in an ossuary. If an embalmed body were found that was purported to be Jesus, you would know it was a fake.

      Additionally, the notion of Jesus’ resurrection was not present in the earliest stages of the Jewish religion that subsequently was called Christianity. (There were major divisions of belief among the Jewish people, some of whom believed a person died and that was it, and others who believed in life after death for the dead). And, when this form of Judaism became known as Christianity, throughout the early centuries there were numerous different beliefs about resurrection, just as there were about other elements of Christianity . There still are.

      This is all known by religionists who study
      “the historicity of Jesus” and other aspects of Christianity.

  1. I hate to come off sounding smug, but it often seems to me that the best “evidence” of the non-existence of a deity comes directly from those attempting to provide evidence of the existence of a deity.

    They make it too damn easy!

    1. This is quite literally true. Nothing was so shattering to my faith than attending an apologetics class in college. Before that I sort of presumed that someone had some really good evidence to back up such a massive enterprise. Sitting through the apologetics class disabused me of that notion.

  2. Here is a theological truth – all life is sacred and men shall not intervene. Using such sophisticated theology, our wise brethren [yes they are virtually all men]in Christian and Jewish leadership in Colorado have led the charge against legislation that would allow physician-assisted suicide. Of course the Republican majority in the House did not need much convincing, even after listening to many heart-wrenching pleas from the terminally ill. The Jewish leader simply said “lach haim” as if that was the sole justification for opposing the bill. What really pisses me off is that most in this shameful coalition support capital punishment and wars of choice.

  3. “Oy” is indeed a splendid and widely usable word.

    For years I’ve been hoping that someone called Maria will say something really silly to me, so I can reply “Oy vey Maria”.

  4. Just another Woo expert who did not even come close to answering your question. He really gets complex when defining theology. Means knowledge of g*d and that means way of knowing.
    So simple, why didn’t I think of it.

  5. Alexander and Ramsay. Snowflakes melting.

    They did not answer Mathew’s question. And, no, it is not a minority of scientists who “believe that the natural sciences provide the only reliable form of human knowledge”, it is a growing majority.

    1. Bingo. Cobb asked for examples of knowledge. Alexander responded with hypothetical methods of acquiring knowledge. (The unreliability of which everyone here can elucidate.) The closest we get to knowledge claims are: 1) that an unspecified “Mind” can be inferred from observing the natural world. But scientists haven’t come to this conclusion and they are the experts at observing the natural world. 2) that belief in Jesus’s resurrection is evidence that it happened. But most people in the world, to say nothing of creditable historians, don’t believe this.

      1. I was really expecting him to reply with lists of olde time scientists who were also devout. You know, Newton, and Sir Richard Owen. A better case could be made that way.
        But no…

  6. I’d like to ask Alexander how many computers, heart transplants, planetary voyages, airline flights, polio vaccines, Blu Ray devices, AIDS treatments, or launched telecommunications satellites have been made possible by all that religious knowledge.

  7. The problem is that Matthew Cobb asked for examples of theological knowledge, and Alexander responded with controversial theological claims and the way they were arrived at. It’s the equivalent of an astronomer asking a New Ager for examples of knowledge gained through astrology and getting an answer that involved an explanation of the zodiac and how its meaning is derived and applied to people’s lives.

    Yes, dear, we know. But tell us something which isn’t wrong.

    Of course, Alexander also confuses the issue by casually throwing in some theological areas which intersect with their secular counterparts, such as literary biblical exegesis and the historical antecedents and interpretations of the times. Same with examining religion as religion. Someone in Religious Studies could write a fine book on Aquinas or give thorough descriptions of the different ways people around the world pray or go into trances.

    To carry my first analogy along, this part would be like when the astrologer takes out the star charts and starts talking about the intricate movements of the planets. Okay, true enough — but not unique to astrology. They can’t claim that.

    Nor can theology/religion claim fine feelings as their exclusive territory. If possible, this is even more nasty and frustrating than when they try to co-opt morality. Everybody recognizes emotions and ethics. Just because you think your explanation is correct doesn’t mean that the side with a different explanation doesn’t have what is being explained. Get over yourselves. Tch.

  8. Only one of the four points made in response actually tries to answer the question. Matthew asked for ‘knowledge gained through theology’ and to paraphrase the answers, he got:

    1. I infer design empirically. (My answer: well…then that’s not theology, is it?)

    2. Theological claims about Jesus could in principle be refuted (Answer: so what? Understanding that a hypothesis is falsifiable in principle is pretty weak tea. And technically, that’s not knowledge that comes from theology, it’s knowledge that comes from a much more standard “reading comprehension” type of analysis of what the hypothesis says).

    3. Personal knowledge of god through prayer etc. counts as knowledge. (Answer: well at least this one tries to answer the question. But I bet most Christians wouldn’t say we know about the existence of Vishnu through Hindu prayer. IOW, not even religious people accept religious experience as knowledge…unless it’s theirs).

    4. Things other than knowledge are important (Answer: okay…but not an answer to the question.)

    I award them half a star out of four.

    1. re #3: When I read a book it gives me a kind of direct experience. I now have “knowledge” of the Harry Potter universe, for example. That “knowledge” has certain effects on me personally… joy, sadness.. inspiration (I want to be more like Harry or Hermione). My personal world is different, and larger, after reading. In that sense, religion also conveys a direct experience to the participant: stories, characters, imagery, social experiences, and as he says, even ecstasies and so on. In that sense he is right that it is not “nothing” that is there. To insist on external evidence for what you personally directly experience seems to them to demand too much.

      But a slight of hand has happened, he’s shifting from the direct apprehension of some experience to “knowledge” of the object of that experience. No matter how real Harry Potter feels to me, and I confess he feels pretty real to me, that has no bearing on his reality outside my head.

      A Christian friend of mine who was discussing with me the idea that he believes in God because he feels like he has a close personal relationship with God paused… then added, “Then again, I sort of feel like I have a close personal relationship with Homer Simpson.” That about sums it up. It’s a real experience, but it’s not about something real.

      1. Yes. Theology certainly gives knowledge about the content of the subject titled “theology,” the same way reading a Harry Potter book gives knowledge about the fictional world in which the Harry Potter story takes place. However I don’t think Alexander was saying only that, he’s trying to say personal experience of god gives knowledge of an external object/referent. To which I reply: to be consistent you must then accept other equivalent personal experiences as giving equivalent knowledge. This quickly leads to one of three outcomes: (1) we are forced to say we know many mutually contradictory things, (2) we reject mere experiencing being sufficient to claim knowledge, or (3) we just select an arbitrary bias and say some experiencings [cough Christian cough] count as knowledge while others [cough those nasty heathens] don’t.

  9. There is a video of a “dialogue” between Larry Moran and Denis Alexander that occurred January 29, 2016.

    This Denis Alexander is quite the weasel, in his interminable 30 minute introduction (Larry did not get to make an intro) he attempted to restrict the “dialogue” to forbid discussion of actual evidence for his god and when Larry Moran refused to play that game went squealing off to the moderator to shut that part of the “dialogue” down.

    Well now we know what evidence he would have adduce if forced into a corner.

    Seriously, is the lack of a smoking body the best that these bozos can come up with ?

    1. ‘lack of a smoking body’

      What? Spontaneous Human Combustion? They had it then?

      (Could account for the empty tomb, if it was thorough enough. ‘What’s all this grey powdery stuff, then?’ ‘Ah, just dust’.)


  10. May I be the first to point out that by this standard, not only is the Loch Ness Monster real, but it has also clearly been kidnapped by aliens.

    I mean, if it wasn’t true, the aliens would have denied it by now, no?

    1. My aunt is convinced that she has seen Nessie from when she lived on the shore of the Loch. That destroyed the credibility of the idea for me (which I was very dubious of before I hard her claim).
      Oddly (given the family), she’s also religious.

  11. “why are all the letters titled “Sir”? Are there no women at the TLS?”

    This is a convention in some of the older & more serious British (& Irish) papers & journals. The letters are addressed to the editor personally, “Sir” if the editor happens to be male, “Madam” if the role belongs to a woman.

  12. The friends and family of Jesus would have recognized his body? Is Alexander sure? Didn’t the Bible note that Mary Magdalen didn’t even recognize him when he had just arisen from the dead (John 20:14)? She mistook him for the gardener, for Chrissake!

    I say the Romans took his body to prevent it from become part of a martyr movement, and his followers crowned a random gardener as the risen Christ.

    This is, I think, a prime example of theological knowledge.

    1. I say that some guy made the whole thing up and claimed that it all happened fifty years ago so that no one could check.

  13. For example, the belief of the early church in the resurrection of Christ, had it not occurred, could readily have been refuted by the discovery of the embalmed body of Christ in a Jerusalem tomb, easily recognisable by his family and disciples.

    Given that the first clear-cut claim of a living-as-a-human Jesus being resurrected was made in the gospel “Mark” and given that that was clearly written after AD71, and thus at least 40 years after the supposed events, how exactly is one supposed to produce a 40-yr-old body that could be recognised?

    1. And even if the body had been produced, is Alexander not familiar with any believers at all?

      “So? That doesn’t mean anything. I don’t have to prove anything to you or anybody. I know what I know. It’s faith. Stop trying to impose your reality on me!”

      (Btw Richard Carrier argues that the original belief was in a crucifixion and resurrection taking place on a spiritual level, and he may be correct.)

      1. Richard demonstrates very persuasively with rock-solid evidence that the early beliefs about Jesus were entirely non-corporeal — or, at least, the stuff of the heavens above.

        But, even if the earliest Christians sincerely believed that everything was really real, so what? The Raelians sincerely believed that aliens were hiding behind a comet to take them home.

        The significance of Richard’s work is that he goes beyond merely analyzing the beliefs of early Christians to analyzing the actual evidence. And his analysis makes it so painfully obvious that Christianity is every bit as fantastic and unreal as any other ancient Mediterranean religion that it’s impossible to come away even pretending to take it seriously any more.

        If somebody started blathering about the significance of Perseus’s fulfillment of Delphic prophecy, you’d worry about that person’s mental condition, right? Jesus’s fulfillment of Biblical prophecy is no different.


        1. I’ll agree that Carrier’s case is surprisingly strong ( I heard him debate on the topic at the last Atheist Alliance convention and he more or less ran over his poor opponent like a truck.) But I do wish that speculation about the “mental condition” of the religious wasn’t so often so unscientific.

          If someone started blathering about the significance of Perseus’ fulfillment of Delphic prophesy I’d probably first assume that I was dealing with a modern-day adherent to ancient paganism and would think them no more or less sane than people who belong to more traditional religions. Religious believers are not all psychotic and a lot of people are attracted to novelty.

          Even Richard Carrier agrees that the debate on the historicity and corporality(?) of Jesus is far from over because his great big freakin’ monster of a book is only now undergoing the peer review of serious, qualified scholars of the period. It doesn’t matter what’s “painfully obvious” to non-experts like you and me. Until the community of secular historians have been overwhelmingly persuaded, Christians who skim through Dr. Carrier and remain unconvinced are well within their rights — even if he’s really right.

        2. I believe you’re referring to the Heaven’s Gate cultists, who killed themselves in 1997, not the Raelians, who are still with us.

    2. The oldest manuscripts of Mark don’t even show talk about a resurrected Jesus. There’s just a dude sitting in his tomb who claims that Jesus has arisen. The women then run away afraid. Maybe the dude was lying to them.

  14. Has James Ramsay met and talked to anyone who does not believe in his religion to find out if they have nothing to live for? He may need his religion to give his life meaning but he must live a very insulated existence if he isn’t aware that there are people who do not.

  15. Good Grief! Can’t these folks come up with anything new??? I mean…JEE-sus!

    I am hereby establishing the FANEWHOPPER PRIZE, awarded to the believer who can come with at least one frigging new argument we haven’t heard before. Doesn’t have to be a good argument, just new.

    1. And I get so tired of the “fine-tuning” argument. Don’t these people know that the universe is almost entirely vacuum? Have they ever tried breathing vacuum?

      If a creator deity wished to create somewhere to be lived in by a certain organic species, surely he/she/it/them could have made a better job of it than a universe where

      a) most of the universe is vacuum;
      b) less than 5% of the mass-energy of the universe is normal matter;
      c) 75% of the normal matter is hydrogen;
      d) almost all the normal matter is concentrated into stars or spread out as interstellar gas clouds;
      e) most of the remaining matter is in gas giant planets;
      f) of the rocky planets of which we have any real knowledge (i.e. excluding exo-planets), only one is suitable for life;
      g) on that single planet, only a thin layer (in proportion, like a film of moisture on a football) can actually support life;
      h) less than 30% of the area of that layer (excluding oceans, ice-caps, deserts, mountain-tops) is suitable for human life.

      If that was created specially for us, are we not in the hands of a complete incompetent?

      1. Quite so. I also look at this the other way around. What would really impress me as a miracle would be if we found ourselves thriving on some frozen, airless rock. As I read somewhere once, life exists on the only planet where atheism is completely justifiable.

      2. In a sense, the paucity of life-friendly zones is irrelevant. As bacteria quite ably demonstrate, life is a pollutant that will arise anywhere it gets a chance.

        (I can visualise the great God of the Cosmos muttering “bloody lifeforms, you can’t keep them out”)


  16. Oy, indeed!

    Inference to the best explanation points to a creative Mind underlying features of the universe

    Pure assertion backed by nothing more than self-imposed idiocy. “I can’t imagine how the gumballs in the gumball machine could possibly have stacked themselves so neatly unless the Wise Gumball Stacker personally supervised their stacking; ergo, the Wise Gumball Stacker is real.” Jumping straight to your conclusion without even pretending to consider alternatives is what children, idiots, theologians, and conmen do. And where’s the predictive power or other utility in this one? And how do you distinguish a creative Mind from a bored Teenager with a cosmic simulator game on his iPhone 42?

    Christian theology includes textual analysis and study of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Jesus has the exact same historicity as Hermes, Osiris, Mithras, and all the other ancient gods of the Mediterranean: none whatsoever. Thinking that a lack of Jesus’s bones proves his bodily resurrection is as asinine as thinking that a lack of wingèd horse skeletons proves that Bellerophon really did ride Pegasus into the heavens.

    In the Christian tradition, knowledge of God is practiced through prayer, meditation, reflection, communal worship and, in some cases, ecstatic experience.

    Those are well-understood phenomena that, though unquestionably powerful and significant, have no more connection to other realities than peyote ingestion. Might as well claim that Yoda is real and can levitate spaceships with the power of his Mind because you saw it with your own eyes in the movie theatre.

    Some scientists (I suspect a small minority) believe that the natural sciences provide the only reliable form of human knowledge. I suggest that this leads to an impoverishment of the human spirit.

    The impoverished human spirit here is the religious one, the one that willfully blinds itself to the magic of reality. Who more fully enjoys the rainbow: the child who sees pretty colors, or the scientist who sees pretty colors and the effects of refraction and the physiology of the human spectral response and the geometry and the sociological and historical and cultural significance of the rainbow and and and and and…?

    The more you understand the Universe as it really is and not as you childishly wish it were, the better your own internal reflection of the Universe becomes. In a very real sense, the approach of the scientist is to perfectly mirror the Universe. Achieving that goal — an hopelessly impossible task, to be sure — would make one the type of god the religious claim to worship. We already know there are no such gods…but why should we not strive to such heights, ourselves?

    Nor is this hubris. The priests themselves keep telling us that the gods are the ultimate examples of virtue and so forth that we should strive to emulate. So why wallow so in ignorance and hopeless powerlessness, rather than build and climb a stairway to the heavens?

    …the answer, of course, is obvious. The priests have invented false gods for themselves and set themselves up as their official spokesmen. They jealously guard their authority by cloaking their words in the unquestionable language of the gods. They know full well that they’re parasites, worse than useless, and that honest inquiry into reality reveals their true nature and strips them of their usurped power.

    Be the author of your own story. Don’t let the priests write it for you, unless you wish to submit to being a slave of the puppet-gods the priests dangle to lure unwary victims.



  17. My Kink the Cat is a god because he can make me do things using only teleology. Terrible things! Qat Snax in the middle of the day. Sleeping in my comfy chair. Four cold feet in the back at night.

    No other explanation.

  18. So basically Alexander defended his claim that FvF was wrong by claiming that FvF was wrong.

    Well, that learned us all something, I’m sure!

  19. “There are three types of theological enquiry. The first relates to reflection on the properties of the universe, a procedure known as as˜natural theology”
    I imagine this type of reflection is tremendously aided by the wonders of modern chemistry, although our first nations did quite well with peyote.
    “We didn’t find Jesus’ body so he must have disappeared by magic.” Occam’s Razor says there are many possible solutions, all simpler than a magical resurrection from the dead.

    1. Let’s name a couple just to be concrete:

      a) The whole story is made up, there was no Jesus

      b) It’s mostly true, but Joseph sobered up and had second thoughts about having the state criminal Jesus’ body on his property and drug it away to the paupers burial site outside of town. When the disciples/women surprised him before he was finished cleaning up (tomb open, etc.) he just feigned ignorance, “I don’t know where he is..” and the wishful disciples filled in their own story.

      c) Physics be damned, a man came back from the dead.

      Things like a and b are so completely common.. how many bodies have been disposed of during human history? Millions? How many stories have been made up and are believed? Millions also? Tens of thousands of obviously BS stories live on right now. So the odds of just a or b vs c is like a google to one. And there are probably a thousand other hypothesis one could spin that are as plausible as a or b.

      It boggles.

      1. Right. Those who would defend the third option must explain why they choose that over the first two. Extraordinary evidence. Unsubstantiated eyewitness reports are not extraordinary.

        1. And of course none of the people who wrote anything down were eyewitnesses anyway.

          And Paul, the earliest writer to mention the resurrection (it was NOT Mark), speaks of “witnesses” of post-resurrection Jesus but includes himself in the list, even though by his own admission he had only had visions of Jesus. This suggests Paul makes no distinction between people hallucinating and people seeing real physical beings. Worse, as Carrier emphasizes, some of Paul’s writing strongly suggests that for him, Jesus’ resurrection was purely in the spiritual realm (ie hallucinations).

  20. If Be-Jesus did rise from the dead the scribes of the day would have been all over it like a rash.
    A post I have read here by a theology loving ninny said 500 witnessed this event. That number alone would generate plenty of records, perhaps they were all struck dumb or were all illiterate.
    Let us remind ourselves that in the middle ages they tortured and murdered people for far less than rising up from the dead.
    What makes Alexander or anyone for that matter think that a superstitious laden populous of the day would not have done the same. As I joked to that long gone above post they would have crapped themselves and ran for the hills or perhaps, violently made sure he was dead. This is excellent copy for the local scribes whatever their allegiance and may be, the forerunner to zombie culture.
    Oh but that’s right, this is the rosy picture of faith. The sun came out, flowers bloomed, wonderment filled the air and this once dead guy ascended towards breaking clouds and into golden rays of light.
    And now we ‘know’ all life is immortal.

    1. Don’t forget the resurrected saints high fiveing around Jerusalem. Surely that would have made it into some independent accounts.

    2. 500 witnessed this event. That number alone would generate plenty of records, perhaps they were all struck dumb or were all illiterate.

      Actually, if you walked through the forum/ bazaar/streets of Roman Jerusalem and did a literacy test on 500 random people … you’d probably only have come up with a couple who could read and write. And remember that the Roman civilisation put a relatively high value on literacy.
      I see where you’re coming from, but that’s a poor example.

      1. See my comment above about the “500”. That number came from Paul, and included himself, who only saw a vision of Jesus. So it openly counts hallucinations, and does not exclude the possibility that all of the experiences of the witnesses were like Paul’s, i.e. visions. You can find dead Indian gurus who have similar post-death vision counts. Also Elvis.

              1. Not pre-humously, so far as I know. 😀

                (Had he had, tho, I’m sure she’d’ve been a real pipperoo.)

    3. If you do a Google search for “Jesus appears in Africa,” you’ll see that it’s much like biblical times with Jesus was appearing to somebody somewhere on a fairly regular basis. (See, e.g., It’s interesting to think that that the lack of education and the prevalence of superstition in some of these rural African areas is probably not much different than it would have been in Israel in biblical times.

  21. I guess scientific discoveries pale in comparison to the lack of a discovery of Jesus’ body. I love Matthew’s inquiry! I wish more challenges were presented to the religious simply because they make many, many outrageous claims, yet have no evidence to back them up. Examples would be “Our government was founded on the Ten Commandments,” or “We are a Christian nation,” and my favorite, “The forefathers were all Christians.” Bunk!

  22. I was chortling with amusement that the lack of an embalmed body is seen as evidence that they got un-dead. I was seething to make a joke of it, but of course Pliny the in Between did the deed beautifully.

    1. Yes, the Jimmy Hoffa reference is good. We could also add Amelia Earhart to the list. Clearly she was raptured!!! In fact here is an entire list of potential resurrectees, according to Alexander’s “we didn’t find their bodies” criteria.

  23. It’s a strange response, since none of the ways of knowing written give any sort of warranted knowledge about the world. Response 2 comes closest, but only because it borrows from history (which would be covered under scientific inquiry).

  24. Well, I am late to this post, but I will just add that Alexander’s first claim about Theological knowledge rests entirely on scientific observation and proof. None of the examples he gives derive factually from religion (not, I should add, do his conclusions).

    On another topic, I do love letters to the editor in British periodicals. I have been a great reader of the London Review of Books, and the letters are always informative, and often amusing. They do always remind me of the joke letters Monty Python did, but none can ever beat this missive from that ultra-Englishman, Lieutenant-Colonel A.D. Wintle to the editor of the Times:


    I have just written you a long letter.

    On reading it over, I have thrown it into the waste paper basket.

    Hoping this will meet with your approval,
    I am, Sir,
    Your obedient Servant,

    AD Wintle

  25. The response conflated “faith as an epistemology” and “faith as a belief system”. All three examples aren’t instances of knowing through faith, but uses of the same epistemic tools that science (using it in the broad sense the book does) uses: 1. Rationality, 2. brute fact, and 3. personal experience.

    The question one must ask is whether those arguments warrant the faith. If so, then a belief in Christianity is no different to any other belief we have about the world. If not, then it must be asked on what epistemic grounds a belief in Christianity is held. In other words, we need to distinguish what evidence and reason can say about God’s existence and what people believe. It’s only after doing this can we see faith as an epistemology. That is, it’s taken as a gap between the warrant of conventional epistemology and the tenets of the belief.

  26. Madman–

    In response to James Ramsay (Balderdash 3rd Feb): Religious BS and theology brought me to cardiac unrest and major irritation, yet offer nothing to live with. Scientific language – data, evidence, theories – address why we are alive and religion is worthless. In truth, value-knowledge is not “lived” but known. It enables one to wonder if another can appreciate facts at all.

    St. Barnabas Blitherage

  27. Third, theology (which means ‘knowledge of God’) also investigates religious experience, a widespread human trait. In the Christian tradition, knowledge of God is practiced through prayer, meditation, reflection, communal worship and, in some cases, ecstatic experience. There is no particular reason why personal knowledge of God should not be included as an important ‘way of knowing’.

    Prayer, meditation, etc. are best studied (investigated) as behaviors. I don’t see any direct way of studying someone else’s “experience” except symptomatically (e.g. fMRI). This phrase “way of knowing” irritates me. It assumes that everyone in the discussion is using the same definition of knowledge. I think the usual inference made by those who like the term is that these different ways of knowing lead to different “truths.” I’m not concerned that there is a difference between mathematical truth and scientific fact (although deductive reasoning is used in both). I’m concerned that some think there is “spiritual truth” as well, which could include the “truth” of the existence of God.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone argue specifically that God’s existence is not a scientific truth, but it is a spiritual truth. Still, some theists behave as if that is what they think. Not all theists think that, otherwise we would have the ID crowd trying to show how nature proves the “designer.”

    As far as I can tell, “spiritual truths” are just something people tell themselves are true because it makes them feel good to believe it. “True for me” or “It’s true because I believe it” are NOT “ways of knowing.” In my view, if something is true, it is true whether I believe it or not.

  28. D.Alexander is a fool to the point of joining an Noah’s Ark expedition in Turkey a dacade ago.

    You’re granting him too much credit

  29. It is always most curious when Christians claim that their “empty tomb” is evidence. They still can’t agree on where this tomb is or what it might look like. Christians have lost what should be the most holy site in their religion, which certainly doesn’t look very good in that whole claim that their god is so very interactive (of course, when it’s not being overwhelmingly for free will).

  30. Christian theology includes textual analysis and study of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Yeah like that one time when Jesus went mountain hopping with the oogie boogie Devil.

    For example, the belief of the early church in the resurrection of Christ, had it not occurred, could readily have been refuted by the discovery of the embalmed body of Christ in a Jerusalem tomb, easily recognisable by his family and disciples.

    Yeah I’m sure evidence would have refuted hokey woo-woo cult beliefs as it always does without fail of course

  31. I am reminded of a quote, sort of like “the more I study religions, the more I am convinced man is only in love with himself”

    Alexander should be getting an invitation from Oprah in no time.

  32. I’m glad that Jerry was amused witn Mr. Alexander’s reply, because I was spitting wine out my nose reading it.

    PCC(E), your restraint is admirable. I assume that is one of the many personal characteristics that has allowed you to interrogate the universe so admirably and so well, and to make you such a formidable and lucid communicator.

    And to the estimable Mr. Cobb… Well played, sir.

  33. “Medical skill and science brought me through cardiac arrest and major surgery, yet in themselves offer nothing to live for.”

    surely they do, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the surgery.

  34. “Inference to the best explanation” – I am sick of theologians (and amateur equivalents) throwing around philosophy without seeming knowledge. (A. Plantinga has a lot to answer for.)

  35. To Pastor Ramsay
    Sir –
    Medical skill and science (and a whacking great dose of technology) identified my dodgy heart valve and brought me through cardiac surgery almost painlessly, without which I would currently be dead. I have plenty of things to live for, but religion is not among them.

    ‘The truth of value-knowledge is lived, not “known”. ‘ I am trying to figure out what that means.


Leave a Reply