A philosopher criticizes Faith Versus Fact for not addressing Sophisticated Theology

November 12, 2017 • 9:15 am

King’s College, formerly “The College of Christ the King”, is a Catholic school in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania with about 2300 students. On November 4, the school hosted the annual Eastern Pennsylvania Philosophical Association Conference, a one-day affair in which papers were given on all aspects of philosophy. (The keynote speaker was Massimo Pigliucci, who spoke about stoicism.)

Only one paper is listed in the College’s announcement of the meeting:

The conference also featured research presentations. [Gregory] Bassham was the first of nine presenters to speak at the conference. In the Walsh room of the Campus Center, he argued for the compatibility of science and religion in a refute [sic] towards philosopher and author Jerry Coyne.

“Coyne claims that science and religion have irreconcilable differences. However, Coyne relies on dubious definitions of naturalism and faith. Many religious believers agree with naturalism in science, but not in other areas of life. These believers typically do not regard faith as belief without evidence, contrary to Coyne’s sense of faith,” said Bassham.

Bassham is a professor of philosophy at King’s College with a diverse set of publications.

Well, my identification as “philosopher and author” isn’t quite accurate, but it would surely make Massimo bridle, as he claims I have no philosophy cred at all. (Actually, I do: I coauthored a peer-reviewed paper, as well as a five-page response to a misguided critic, with philosopher Maarten Boudry in a genuine philosophy journal, Philosophical Psychology. If you want a copy of “Disbelief in belief: On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs,” give me a shout.)

Reader Michael actually found Bassham’s paper presented at the conference, which you might be able to download free from academia.edu (otherwise, I have one); it’s apparently an unpublished manuscript called “Coyne’s case for the incompatibility of science and religion.”  It’s a double-spaced 18-page critique of my book Faith Versus Fact, and, while making some fair points, completely fails to refute my main point. That point is this: religion and science are both engaged in discerning and asserting truths about the cosmos (statements about “what is“), but religion lacks the methodology to adjudicate or convince the bulk of rational people of its truth claims. (I recognize in the book that of course religion is about more than just making statements about God, his nature, and the factual assertions underlying faith. But few faiths do not make truth claims, and without those claims, religious dicta about behavior and morality have no underpinning.)

The difference between science and religion is shown by the palpable fact that scientific research converges on truths (provisional truth, of course), and that adjudicating those truths is independent of the researcher’s nationality, religious belief, or ideology. In contrast, religion, whose “investigative tools” are limited to faith, dogma, and authority, has no way to decide which claims are “true.” That’s why we have thousands of religions on this planet, many making conflicting and incompatible claims. If religion made reliable truth claims, there would be only one religion.

Bassham is apparently a believer, and I say this based on his defense of religiously based truth claims, which of course turn out to be Christian ones. I won’t address what I see as his more minor criticisms, but concentrate on the main thesis I described above. I do note, however, that Bassham agrees with me that doing science does erode religious belief (why is that?, I wonder), and that religions do indeed make truth claims. He just thinks that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond science that can confirm these claims. He also admits that Biblical literalism is out: that Sophisticated Theologians™ don’t accept much of what the Bible says, so my critique of “unsophisticated” religion practiced by creationists, most Americans, and Muslims bears no weight. (Bassham, however, doesn’t say which parts of the Bible are literally true, since he appears to accept the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, and so on.) I’ll present only three of Bassham’s criticisms of my book, but they’re ones central to my thesis.

1.) Yes, religion does give empirical evidence for the supernatural.  This is what Bassham says, first attacking philosophical naturalism, the idea that naturalism is all there is. 

Two things should be said here. First, Coyne’s defense of philosophical naturalism is skimpy and unconvincing. The three factors he cites—scientists’ ingrained skepticism, the success of methodological naturalism in science, and the failure to find empirical evidence of the supernatural—are insufficient to support philosophical naturalism without a further premise: the failure of apologetics to provide rational grounds for religious belief. Coyne is scornful of apologetics, claiming that it is a farrago of obfuscation, fallacious reasoning, and wishful thinking. But this is something that must be shown, not gestured at with a few derisive pot-shots. For this is a critical point in dispute in the science-religion debate: Are there, as most contemporary theologians would claim, good reasons for adopting methodological naturalism in science, while rejecting philosophical naturalism as a general worldview?

In fact, I don’t just “gesture” at the fallacies of apologetics; I go into them in detail, addressing things like theodicy, explanations for why we don’t see God these days, the concept of Original Sin, and so on. In fact, philosophical naturalism is the proper underpinning of methodological naturalism (the view that nature and the laws of physics are all there is), because we simply have no evidence for anything acting beyond naturalism. As Sean Carroll emphasizes repeatedly, the models of physics are sufficient to explain all observed phenomena, and give no support to the supernatural. The success of naturalism and the failure of supernaturalism to help us make sense of the Universe is a very good reason to adopt philosophical naturalism.

But let’s leave that aside, for the most bizarre aspect of Bassham’s defense of religious epistemology is his arguments for why we know that religious truth claims are valid (my emphasis below):

Second, most theologians and informed religious believers today would reject Coyne’s claim that that there is no empirical evidence for the supernatural. Though some would dispute it, I agree with Coyne that science has failed to find credible evidence of such allegedly supernatural phenomena as ESP, reincarnation, miracles, psychic channeling, near-death experiences of a heavenly afterlife, or the healing powers of prayer. But this is a far cry from saying that there is no empirical evidence for God or some higher power or transcendent realm. Few contemporary theologians would claim that belief in God is a non-rational or even contra-rational leap of blind faith. They point to phenomena such as the order and beauty of the world, the consciousness of objective moral obligations, the natural desire for eternal happiness, the “fine-tuned” nature of physical constants, testimony of miraculous events, fulfilled prophecies, the credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine, the literary beauty and spiritual power of the Bible, and various kinds of religious experience as providing an evidential grounding for acts of religious faith. Coyne offers brief rebuttals to some of these evidentiary arguments, but a great deal more would need to be said to support his claim that there are irreconcilable conflicts of philosophy between science and religion.

Can anybody not already marinated in faith accept this as “evidence” for God? Order and beauty of the world, such as it is, has more parsimonious explanations, at least for order.  Those include the laws of physics and natural selection. As for “beauty”, well, that’s in the eye of the beholder, and if you think that the Atacama Desert is evidence for God, I can’t help you. (E. O. Wilson has explanations for why we find some things beautiful—”biophilia”—but that’s just a hypothesis. And of course we find some things scary and repulsive as well, like snakes and spiders, and we have good non-supernatural reasons for that!)

As for as the “consciousness of objective moral obligations,” there is no evidence that consciousness requires God, since we are now making progress in understanding it through fully materialistic means. Further, there are both social and evolutionary explanations for “moral obligations,” as I’ve said before, and I deny that any moral obligations are “objective.” Are Muslims who kill apostates, gays, and adulterers, or who favor that behavior, showing “objective moral obligations”?

“The desire for eternal happiness” is, of course, wishful thinking, and is surely not evidence for God.

As for the “fine tuning” of physical constants, we don’t know why they are as they are, but again, why fill our ignorance by saying that this is evidence for God, much less the Christian God? And, as others have pointed out, the nature of the Universe, as well as some of the physical constants, are not consonant with the idea of a God—at least the kind of god that even Sophisticated Theologians™ accept.

Miracles? None have baffled scientists to the point that we have to take the supernatural seriously. If God cures people, why does He never restore missing limbs or eyes? Every “miracle cure” is of a disease known to be curable by modern medicine (often applied, as in the case of one of Mother Theresa’s saint-confirmatory “miracles”), or subject to spontaneous remission. And “fulfilled prophecies”—which ones are Bassham talking about? I am aware of no Biblical prophecies that were fulfilled in real life, and many that weren’t, like Jesus’s promise that he’d return in the lifetime of his contemporaries.

And as for “the literary beauty and spiritual power of the Bible,” how, exactly, is that evidence for God? Does the beauty and power of Crime and Punishment, or The Dead, also give us evidence for God? How much of the Bible’s “beauty” was put in by the translators of the King James version? And is this kind of evidence characteristic of SOPHISTICATED Theology™? If it is, it’s not very sophisticated, but simply a combination of credulity and confirmation bias.

2.) Coyne doesn’t define “faith” right: it’s far more than “belief in the absence of convincing evidence.” Here Bassham trots out the Clydesdales of Sophisticated Theology™ (my emphasis):

Second, Coyne’s argument relies upon a conception of faith that few contemporary theologians would accept. In defining faith as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence,” Coyne commits a strawman fallacy that Richard Dawkins and many other vocal critics of religion have also perpetrated.  There are many widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief. Among these are the Catholic “propositional” view of faith as assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer; the Calvinist conception of faith as firm belief in key tenets of the Christian faith as a result of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit; the modern Protestant “voluntarist” view of faith as interpretive trust in the self-revealing actions of God within human history; and the modern “Existentialist” conception of faith as an attitude of commitment, acceptance, and “total interpretation” made by the whole person. None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition.

Seriously, dude? These count as evidence?  Do you really want to claim that “assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer” has the same epistemic status as experiments showing that the human immunodeficiency virus is the cause of AIDS? That the “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit” is as dispositive for God as fossils are for evolution?

All of these forms of evidence come down to authority, dogma, and revelation: the bases of “faith”. This paragraph, and the one above, clearly display the intellectual weakness of “evidence” used by even Sophisticated Theologians™—the kind of evidence relied on by people like Alvin Plantinga. So even if Bassham accepts my contention, as he does, that most people’s religious beliefs are incompatible with science, he fails to make a case that the evidential standards of Sophisticated Theology™ make it far more compatible with science—i.e., powerfully able to discern truths about what exists.

3.) The use of different methods by religion and science doesn’t make them incompatible.  Bassham:

Third, while it is true that religion and science generally use different methods, it is far from clear that this makes them incompatible. If it did then one would have to say, implausibly, that science is incompatible with historiography, political science, legal theory, philosophy, and literary theory, for all of these disciplines make claims about empirical reality that are frequently “incorrect, untestable, or conflicting.” There are many “ways of knowing” that cannot, and do not, employ the rigorous methods of science. This makes them different from science but not necessarily incompatible with it. Historiography, like religion, relies heavily upon appeals to authority. Philosophy, like theology, relies strongly on appeals to intuition, reasoning, and critically defended interpretations. Yet it would be odd and implausible to claim that either historiography or philosophy was “incompatible” with science.

This sounds good but the center doesn’t hold. In fact, insofar as any of these disciplines attempts to discern objective truths about the cosmos, if they do so without using “science broadly construed”—the empirical toolkit involving examining nature, making and testing hypothesis, holding doubts, demanding independent confirmation, and so on—then they, too are incompatible with science. As I say in my book, philosophy and math do give us “knowledge” in working out the consequences of a set of assumptions, but they don’t tell us what is true about the Universe. Appeals to authority and intuition, reasoning, and critical defense are not substitutes for “science broadly construed”, and if these methods claim to discern objective truths about our Universe, then yes, they too are incompatible with science as a way of finding out what’s true. 

To me (and of course I’m biased) Bassham’s arguments are weak, and certainly don’t show that Sophisticated Theology™ is perfectly compatible with science. If that theology is so watered down that it makes no empirical claims at all, then yes, it can be compatible with science in one sense, but much Sophisticated Theology™ still makes truth claims—about the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection, the dictation of the Qur’an to Muhammad and so on—that aren’t adjudicated scientifically.  As many of us know, Sophisticated Theology™ is often gussied up bits of Biblical literalism (“no, there was no Adam and Eve, but of course there was a divine Jesus”), or a word salad so confused (deliberately, so, I think) that you can’t figure out what it’s saying. What, for instance is the Ground of Being? Is it a testable claim about God? If so, then it’s in conflict with science. If not, then it’s just mental wheel-spinning and we have no call to accept it.

It’s characteristic of Bassett that he pulls the Courtier’s Reply Fallacy at the end of his article:

To summarize and to conclude: Coyne claims that there are “intractable incompatibilities” between science and religion. He defends this claim by offering a few preliminary indicators of conflict (in the Preface and Chapter 1), and then offers more developed arguments in Chapter 2. His central claim is that there are deep and irreconcilable conflicts between religion and science with respect to methods, outcomes, and philosophy. As we have seen, while some of his arguments are effective against certain popular forms of religions, such as Biblical literalism, they have very little force against more sophisticated modern forms of religion or theology. In particular, Christians today who are science-friendly, reject Biblical literalism, and refuse to view Scripture or the Creeds as “competing” with science in the task of describing physical reality have nothing to fear from Coyne’s overstated and theologically uninformed arguments.

“Nothing to fear from me”—that’s what believers love to hear, and of course that’s Bassham’s preordained conclusion. But if you want to see how strong his arguments are, simply reread his paragraph on the kind of “evidence” that religious people—and presumably Bassham himself—accept as showing that there’s not just God, but the Christian God.

And of course it was accepting science, and evolution, that weaned many religious people away from their faith. Why do you suppose that happened?

59 thoughts on “A philosopher criticizes Faith Versus Fact for not addressing Sophisticated Theology

  1. Listening to the evidence, lack thereof, from the Theologians is kind of like listening to our great leader, Trump and his love of everything Putin. They both have this infatuation for a power they can never obtain. Makes no difference if the power is real or not. The object of the power would not have it if not for the followers.

  2. He is making a Sophisticated Point: people who believe without evidence don’t always admit it. This refutes you!
    Analogy. You assert politicians say things they know are untrue. Sophisticated Refutation: Ask them, they will deny they do so. This refutes you!

  3. I’m always intrigued when apologists can be tied down (something they do reluctantly) to outline why their beliefs are ‘evidenced’. Because, of course, they aren’t evidence. I’m not actually sure what they are; observations perhaps? ‘The sun rises in the morning, therefore there’s a God’ isn’t any such thing (apart from being simply a matter of perspective in ‘rising’). Even if we good find an example of a genuinely extraordinary, apparent miracle, say a medical recovery, that had no apparent explanation, it wouldn’t be evidence of God, it’d be something unexplained. That’s it.

    I’m with Richard Dawkins in saying I can think of no evidence that would convince me otherwise.

    1. and yet, a god who wants a personal relationship with you and who is all-knowing and/or all-powerful would know exactly how to convince you.


  4. Many of these arguments miss the point and that is the supporters of religions now are all wielders of religion as a controlling device. The elites use religion to control the behaviors of the masses (primarily to create wealth and leisure for the elites). The whole basis of the Old Testament is Yahweh saying “Worship me, properly, or else.” over and over and over. The New Testament ups the ante by inventing Hell, so now the primary message is “Obey, properly, or burn in Hell … forever.”

    Without Original Sin, Christianity wouldn’t exist. Original sin always puzzled me because why did god punish Adam and Eve for making a decision they couldn’t make correctly as they had no knowledge of good and evil (that was what eating the fruit gave to them). It makes sense now, now that I see religion as it truly is; it was not a decision that Adam and Eve were to make, they were to obey, just obey and the price of disobedience was the wreck of the entire human species.

    The message is not subtle, it is not unclear, and the discussions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or whether science and religion are compatible are essentially Trumpian in their mistaken focus. If we aren’t obeying, spinning around in confusion about total nonsense is acceptable.

  5. It’s a shining example of how “invested” people become in their “beliefs”, especially when those beliefs don’t map onto reality in any way, shape or form. Taking away said beliefs is like taking a doll away from a child. They like their toy. They want their toy, and fear of not having it rules.

  6. Excellent post. Kind of a Sunday Sermon for nonbelievers. Do you inform people whose writing you critique of your posts? I’m always curious about their reactions to your posts, which I find to be quite convincing as they reduce their arguments to a heap of rubble. And in this specific case, it would be nice to know if the students of Kings College have been notified of your post (in the interests of a college’s quest for Truth, of course).

      1. I just e-mailed Professor Bassham, and cordially invited him to post a response here, presuming that I would not be the only one interested in such a response.

        And, in the past I’ve often had the same questions as DrDroid: “Do you inform people whose writing you critique of your posts? I’m always curious about their reactions to your posts, which I find to be quite convincing as they reduce their arguments to a heap of rubble.”

        1. Umm. . . you shouldn’t have done that. He can post a comment so long as it’s not too long (responses tend to be huge), but I’m not giving the dude 2000 words to respond, which is usually what they want to do.

          If I critique a friend’s post, I let them know out of courtesy, but I don’t make a point of emailing someone I don’t know to tell them I’ve attacked them.

          I will post links to critiques on sites like the Guardian or HuffPo, and presumably the author could find out about it that way.

          1. Sorry about that. I thought that your response to DrDroid just above meant that it would be OK, and I really would like to hear what he’d say. It would not be the first time I’ve misunderstood!

            In any case, my opinion about apologetics (of which I engaged in not a little in my time), is that it is all begging the question–that the point to be proven is always somehow smuggled into the premises. Or, as Sastra put it at #14: “Assuming that I’m right, then I’m right to assume I’m right.”

            Professor Bassham sent me a quick note stating that he would check out your critique.

          2. It would be interesting to hear Bassham’s response, but it would be even more interesting to know if he has directed students from his classes to Jerry’s post. Isn’t a college supposed to be a place where students learn about different views and how to critique them?

  7. I’ve been watching the series spin off of The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon. I found it amusing when the main character questions religion in church and the pastor goes for Pascal’s Wager (which is named later in the episode as such). At around 1:12, Sheldon says that God is Faith and Science is Facts, I choose Science, which I think is a nice introduction of this debate to the general public. I hope the general public watches this show.

    1. I have not seen that show, but I probably should check it out. Adult Sheldon and his mother regulary engage in similar conflicts in the B.B. Theory. Not always Sophisticated Humor™ but surprising anyway.

  8. It’s a great life being an academic philosopher! Trips to Hawaii, St. Andrews, Oxford, Amsterdam, Cocoa Beach, Honolulu & ‘Potterfest’ at Edinboro Uni, to flap ones gums philosophically about Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, C.S. Lewis & baseball. Does one pay ones own way?

    See under ‘Selected Presentations and Other Scholarly Activities (Since 2003)’

    Yes, I’m just jealous 🙂

  9. Honestly, the evidence list is a series of non-sequiturs. Not a one of them counts as evidence on its own. It always requires the hidden premise that nothing but a deity could possibly explain them, usually by capitalizing on the fact that a lot of the phenomena haven’t been fully explained by modern science.

    In short, it’s desperately empty, and an exemplar of Dawkin’s “Argument from Personal Incredulity” at its laziest and most intellectually dishonest. Basically, they all reduce to “Goddidit”, which is simply a failure and a refusal to explain anything.

    That said, the one about “the credibility of Jesus being divine” is especially ludicrous to the point of insanity, requiring as it does an extreme and desperate gullibility and partisanship in favour of dead men’s scribblings. I cannot adequately express my contempt for this list.

      1. Ooh! That’s my favorite: “The fact that I find Jesus believable proves that Jesus is believable.” It’s open and shut.

  10. Few contemporary theologians would claim that belief in God is a non-rational or even contra-rational leap of blind faith. They point to phenomena such as …

    And when none of those phenomena are best explained by a supernatural hypothesis, that’s when they wheel in bad analogies and compare weak conclusions to strong morals. “Believing in God is like believing in love.” The sophisticated and unsophisticated have been pulling that one in every era.

    Or, alternatively, it turns out they’re not trying to make a persuasive case; they’re only begging for skeptics to be lenient and allow that believers are allowed to believe.

    … widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief. Among these are the Catholic “propositional” view of faith as assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer; the Calvinist conception of faith as firm belief in key tenets of the Christian faith as a result of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit; the modern Protestant “voluntarist” view of faith as interpretive trust in the self-revealing actions of God within human history …

    On, come on. In other words, “Assuming that I’m right, then I’m right to assume I’m right.” Question-begging as a virtue.

    Yet it would be odd and implausible to claim that either historiography or philosophy was “incompatible” with science.

    And it would apparently be awkward and inconvenient to take out the secular aspects of religion and simply examine the fact claims on their own merits. This is like defending astrology by pointing out that psychologists often do personality analysis and make behavior recommendations. We don’t call therapy “unscientific!” Leave horoscopes alone then. If they share characteristics, then they’re kinda the same thing, okay?

    Apologetics: clarity, coherency, and consistency are not Your Friends.

    1. “compare weak conclusions to strong morals.”

      That’s exactly it, and one of the things that makes religious and supernatural partisans worse than merely factually incorrect: the hidden but repulsive conviction that a tendency towards such belief is a sign of good character. Oh, she might be dopey, but she’s nice. His beliefs might make no sense, but he’s heartwarmingly spiritual. Their whole basis for ritual might be more rickety than a rope bridge made of cards manufactured out of tissue paper, but by Jove, where would we be without such optimistic, joyful, purposeful, deep, richly pleasant people?

      And inevitably, that leads to the flipside. That skeptics are jackasses. That people who don’t believe in magic are cold-hearted bastards. That even the politest, friendliest, nicest, and most thoughtful of doubters has a teeny bit of tarnish on their souls. Because who’d want to hang out with Debbie Downer when Spiritual Stacey’s not the one raining over our parade?

      It’s not even hard to imagine how this state of affairs comes about. When wishful thinking and unconscious biases conspire, anyone who disables them is automatically making their owners unhappy. Never mind that the purpose of questioning and challenging such unevidenced belief is realistic honesty, even pragmatism. Never mind that wishful thinking is a problem, and unconscious bias a way of making it a harder problem. PR demands the doubter is to blame, because they make us unhappy about our pet theories.

      And then you get the “religion is the opium of the people” school of thought, where the little people need their comforting delusions to get through a hard universe and not, e.g. an actual plan to make the universe not-so-hard.

      Chuck in some blarney about how wonderful and mysterious experiences are linked to spiritual beliefs, and you get the list of “evidences” above, which includes such transparent nonsense as “the universe is beautiful, ergo God”.

      Wishful thinking has a LOT to answer for.

    2. I have said for decades: yes, philosophy can be incompatible with science. If it is, however, so much the worse for it. (It in general should be discarded, though from time to time be revised.)

  11. I, like our esteemed host, hold a PhD.

    The “Ph” is for “Philosophy” so I guess we are all philosophers, like it or not!

    The “D” of course is for “Doctor,” so I’m a doctor as well. However, in the one instance where I was on a flight where the pilots asked, “Are there any doctors on the plane?,” I decided to remain quiet.

  12. ‘As for the “fine tuning” of physical constants, we don’t know why they are as they are,..’ We don’t but if they were different the cosmos would be radically configured and I doubt we would be here to know it.

    1. To me the fine tuning argument is very weak. It basically says something like this:

      The laws of physics make creating a universe such a difficult problem that only a god could solve it.

      Any worthy god would of course just change the laws of physics to suit their needs.

      If you claim that god created the laws of physics and then solved the puzzle, fine tuning is no longer an argument.

      If your god was stuck with the laws of physics as they are, what or who made the laws of physics? How can they be the boss of your god?

      1. My impression is that it is another “design” argument, physical laws are sometimes in such a relation that they appear “just so”.

        But as Victor Steiner has shown, parameters of laws inhabit a multidimensional phase space with lots of volume between those squeezed ratios, so maybe it is akin to evolution’s “appearance of design”, an interpretation in the eye of some beholders. More problematic is that the religious finetuning argument – as opposed to the physical finetuning observations – has to rely on a bait-and-switch between subjective prior probability of “that is odd” and objective posterior likelihood of “that works for us”.

        And of course the current cosmology predicts many pocket universes in an eternal inflationary space as baseline outcome. The phase changes towards matter fields as those cools does not need to be related at all (c.f. string theory, say), so an anthropic statistical distribution – selection bias of habitable universes – is likely.

      2. That’s a very interesting and original argument, but I don’t think it works as given. The theist doesn’t care if the laws of physics made it difficult (conditionally improbable) or easy to fit life into the universe. The probability that God creates life, given those laws, is still around 1. But the atheist does care. If the probability of life is tiny, given the laws, then that fact is Bayesian evidence against the natural origin of life.

        The theist views laws as changeable (by God), and he *thinks* the atheist views laws as unchangeable. And that’s kinda right, but still misses the mark.

        Maybe the atheist does view the laws as unchangeable *within one universe*. But if the laws can vary between different universes, and if our scientific theory allows different universes, the “problem” goes away. The appearance of “fine tuning” is then just observer bias, as Torbjörn Larsson pointed out.

    2. I find “fine-tuning” to be an absolutely terrible argument. What it’s claiming is that we can survive in this universe therefore it’s made for us, when in fact we evolved in this universe so we must be suited to it.

    3. Worse, the answers to the pseudoproblem of fine tuning have been available now for *decades*. Anyone who brings it up casually as if there was still a problem seems to me to desperately need a literature review, to put it mildly.

      (In the case of William Lane Craig, of course, he’s been told directly, so his mentioning again and again as if it were new makes him, amongst other reasons, a charlatan. But I will give the “newcomer” a *slight* benefit of the doubt.)

  13. Sophisticated Theologians are not imbeciles. And yet, they are unable to grasp what is obvious, common sense, agrees with every data, and is consistent with everything else we know.


    First, that religious beliefs have their own ideas history, with a starting point, a development over time and which is branching off to various traditions, sects, cults, demoninations — well over 30,000 for Christianity alone.

    Secondly, that the starting point is always shrouded in mystery, sometimes deliberately, badly or not all documented, or lost in time. It contains and requires zero supernatural intervention. Each and every instance is completely explainable using conventional, mundane, and naturalistic explanations; from psychological conditions, shizotypy, fabulation, fraud, rationalization, tradition, narrative, need for explanation and so forth.

    Third, completely in accord with the former two points, each cultural-religious tradition follows migration, spread of believers, cultural influences through conquest, colonialism and trade. Christianity follows in the footsteps of Judaism, and Islam follows from both. For example, it would be more impressive if Mohammed was an oceanic islander who could have had no contact with the Middle-Eastern mythological traditions.

    Before going into the sophisticated weeds, I suggest to challenge these people with this “extradiegetic argument” (i.e. we ignore for now the content of the fairytale, religion or myth and look at how it is situated in reality, how it came to be, and importantly “how do they know, what they claim to know”)

    1. Sub. It would benefit many of these people to study the history of Christianity to realize how very many changes have taken place in several thousand years. The divinity of Jesus had many different versions, only one of which became authorized by the Catholic Church. All others were/are heretical. What is deemed heretical has changed over time and in various places. How can one “prove” such inconsistencies?

      1. I once asked a (modestly young earth) creationist what he thought convinced people that they were wrong about biblical-derived ages of the earth and why it was successful. No answer other than “I don’t know”. I wonder if this could be adopted into a new tactic for some purposes.

  14. I do think that sophisticated believers put themselves into a bind when they start using facts about the world to justify their faith. This is because, as Stephen Law has pointed out, there is almost nothing about the facts of the world that would lead anyone to conclude that there is an evil god; yet this same evidence is supposed to lead us to conclude that there is a good god – God.

    The challenge then is for them to justify their credulity in God and their incredulity in evil god – a difficult circle to square. William Lane Craig is so discombobulated by the argument that it has led him to contradictory statements about the evil god, first denying that any evidence allows us to rule out an evil god, and then citing evidence to rule out an evil god:


  15. I love King’s College assertion that Bassham’s work is “research”. Sorry, I don’t see it.

    Good deconstruction by Coyne. Could anyone be wrong in more ways than Bassham is here?

  16. I admire your will to face such a obvious demagog.

    Recently I read quite intelligent presentation of “christian” believes in “Pagan Christ” of Tom Harpur, who did not attack anybody but looked for the source of his own believes in comparative religious
    analysis of common religious mythology leading straight to primary source – primitive naturalism of our ancestors…
    I think maybe in the future, science and religion might converge again – as they departed from each other in the past, as different explanations to the same natural phenomena…
    Only honest discussion free from dogma can make it possible, like Spinoza and Kant, looking for roots of reason were daring to ask questions, which gave us new world view and courage to test interpretations… and emotional uncertainty.

    Thank you for your patience.

  17. A prior comment characterized this post as “kind of a Sunday sermon for nonbelievers.” It is that, but I found myself reading the Sunday Funnies. And Aneris writes that “Sophisticated Theologians are not imbeciles”; however, I respectfully disagree; if not imbeciles, they’re surely morons (a cut above imbeciles in old-school psychological terminology) because this man’s arguments are IMHO prima facie fallacious by any acceptable standards of proof, and that he persists in advancing such arguments outside the realm of the seminary or pulpit is moronic.

    Having no idea what “Sophisticated Theology™” is, I had to look it up, and in the process learned of its surprising origin — all roads lead back to PCC(E), so I learn from Rationalwiki https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Sophisticated_theology. I pledge never to use the term without the trademark.

  18. If someone in this ballpark wants to openly state that religious belief is a guess or a gamble that lacks the reliable and publicly verifiable methods of science, then okey-dokey. (This is, I think, William James’ position in “The Will to Believe”.)
    One is then left with the question of just how much, cumulatively, of the evidences of God, is enough to be convincing.
    (Alvin Plantinga is correct that no single argument for God is convincing, but his claim that the cumulative weight of all of them is more telling is more problematic, and seems to contradict is own claim that God is a “properly basic belief”.)

    What can NOT be justified by arguments like this is any notion that belief in any creed is necessary to be “saved” or otherwise been in the good graces of any deity. Once arguments like the fine-tuned constants are joined with this kind of draconian and wicked theology, then your jig is up.

    I have a pretty good idea of what is meant by calling God the “Ground of Being”, but this could be an unnecessary hypothesis (like the proposed “ether” for propagating light rays), and is a bit hard to reconcile with the God of the Moses story.

  19. Bassham’s defense of religious epistemology

    ‘Religious epistemology’, now there’s an oxymoron in the making.

  20. I must thank Bassham for making me understand that theology has no more claim to know facts than religion:

    “There are many widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief. Among these are the Catholic “propositional” view of faith as assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer; the Calvinist conception of faith as firm belief in key tenets of the Christian faith as a result of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit; the modern Protestant “voluntarist” view of faith as interpretive trust in the self-revealing actions of God within human history; and the modern “Existentialist” conception of faith as an attitude of commitment, acceptance, and “total interpretation” made by the whole person. None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition.”

    So like religion there are many mutual claims to ‘[evidence based] facts’. We can conclude that none is correct and that theology knows as little about religion than religion knows about nature.

    And then _Bassham_ has the temerity to call non-believers observational, statistically inference view of religion for “strawman”!

    This needs a contemporary update though:

    philosophical naturalism, the idea that naturalism is all there is.

    But we have had a self consistent theory, process description, of “all there is” for over a decade now, with universal and robust laws. Moreover we now have a sufficiently complete description of normal matter – many times tested by now – where all possible interactions would be observed as efficient fields, that we know any random miracles would be too insignificant to matter. See Sean’s video.

    It did not have to be that way. But it is: we can observe for a fact that _nature is all there is_. We should call it “observational naturalism” at the very least.

  21. insofar as any of these disciplines attempts to discern objective truths about the cosmos, if they do so without using “science broadly construed”—the empirical toolkit involving examining nature, making and testing hypothesis, holding doubts, demanding independent confirmation, and so on—then they, too are incompatible with science.

    I would agree that our judicial system counts. It uses empirical evidence to (attempt to) discern objective truths, but it’s methodological rules are incompatible with those of science. This includes things like (but not limited to) (i) what it counts as evidence, (ii) the methods it uses to arrive at conclusions, and (iii) how it defines the ethical obligations and conduct of the practitioners.

    So humans do sometimes use incompatible reasoning systems in different contexts. However, I don’t think this really helps theology. We understand why and when the ‘legal context’ is the right context – when you’re in a forced choice situation, where “more research” is not a viable option, and when the results are of extreme and extraordinarily personal importance to the participants as well as the government. For the life of me, I can’t think of why and when a ‘religious context’ would make us want to suspend scientific roles of evidence for claims about God, or souls, etc.

    1. Ha. I can’t help but think the judicial system harms itself by distancing itself from science. Quite apart from the scientific literature on how unreliable a lot of its psychological assumptions are, its traditional adversarial systems and over-reliance on eyewitness testimony, the jury system that basically demands unanimous verdicts regardless etc., are almost defiantly out-of-date.

      And is there a group of people more diametrically opposed to the principles of science than lawyers? Dawkins’ anecdote about one in Science in the Soul reveals what a preposterous partisan system it is.

      1. I’m an actual attorney who actually practices law. Specifically, I’m a litigator.

        You ask (I’m not sure how seriously), “[I}s there a group of people more diametrically opposed to the principles of science than lawyers?”

        You’re mistaking the practitioners for the practice. Of course I personally am not opposed–diametrically or otherwise–to the principles of science. But lawsuits are not and cannot be conducted in the way that the scientific enterprise is conducted. In particular, the judicial system is constrained by the need to resolve legal disputes fairly quickly.

        Further, many disputes do not concern matters traditionally considered to fall within the realm of science. For example, contract disputes concern the intention of the parties, often (although not always) as those intentions are manifested in written documents. I’m not at all clear on how the scientific method could be applied to these issues.

        I’m also not at all clear on how the scientific method could be applied to many tort claims. The method can sometimes help (e.g., in product liability cases). And, clumsy though the legal system is, in the United States the courts typically apply Federal Rule of Evidence 702, the Daubert standard (and the progeny of that case), or state analogues to FRE 702. Those various rules try to aid the courts to determine what constitutes a scientifically valid opinion. I won’t say that it works very well, and I’d love to see judges be educated more deeply in the scientific method. But that is at least a step toward incorporating scientific methodology into the law where it makes sense to do so.

        But liability often depends, not on questions to issues amenable to the scientific method, but on what some particular person said or did. The scientific method is not well suited to determining, for example, whether Harvey Weinstein said or did a particular thing at a particular time to some particular actress.

        This brings us to the issue of reliance on eyewitness testimony. Yes, we know that eyewitness testimony is flawed. I think that it might be appropriate, at least in some cases, to point out the flaw in eyewitness testimony. In fact, good attorneys try to do precisely that whenever the issue arises.

        But we can’t simply jettison eyewitness testimony. With what would we replace it? In many cases, if we don’t admit eyewitness testimony, we simply won’t have a case at all–on either side. Consider the recent allegations against Roy Moore. Let’s go back to the time when he allegedly molested the fourteen-year-old girl. Without eyewitness testimony, that case couldn’t be prosecuted against Moore, even if it were brought within the statute of limitations.

        In summary: Attorneys aren’t necessarily scientific illiterates. And the judicial system is a different system, generally aimed at answering far different questions and operating under vastly different constraints.

        1. Certain things strike me as salient in your response:

          1. Most obviously, the distinction between practitioners and practice is moot here. By way of comparison, scientists can be biased, sloppy, and motivated by clashing interests. But they carry out the practice, which means they (at least ideally) subsume these flaws in the service of the larger ideals. Likewise, an individual lawyer can be fully informed of scientific rigour but still subsume it in the service of the legal system.

          2. You seem to have an outdated idea of what falls under the purview of science, traditionally or not. Most obviously, psychology and linguistics matter heavily to those issues which you list, and both are sciences, though linguistics might not traditionally be considered as such.

          3. Likewise, your distinction between what science can address and what it can’t smacks of a limited view of the subject, most obviously in the equating of science to a particular “scientific method”. A particular incident can most obviously be sorted out by observation e.g. by recorded evidence in a security camera or wiretap. That’s a straightforward principle in science, properly calibrated and measured. Even eyewitness testimony is not beyond limits: compare the hypothesis that eyewitness testimony is 80% reliable (a likely common belief) and the hypothesis that it is scarcely better than chance. If psychological findings note that the latter is more plausible, is this really something the legal profession can just sweep under the rug?

          4. The insistence that eyewitness testimony be kept in seems to be made regardless of such liability. There is nothing wrong with admitting that evidence is just not conclusive, yet the system of justice demands a binary yes/no answer. I can think of no greater indictment of the legal profession than this wholly outmoded and clunky relic.

          Lastly, I’d like to elaborate on that anecdote I alluded to. Dawkins notes how a lawyer found evidence in favour of her client. He asked her what she would have done if the opposite outcome had been reached. Her answer? Ignore it and let the opposition find its own damn evidence.

          This uncooperative, sabotaging response, coupled with the generally disgusting rhetorical jury-playing noted elsewhere, is precisely why I find the justice system so contemptible. Especially compared with the no-nonsense demands of scientific epistemology, it is a system badly in need of updating. Attorneys might not be necessarily scientific illiterates, but their profession practically forces them to be, and so my sympathy for them is limited.

  22. the propositional (assent to revealed truths), firm belief (internal instigation), voluntarist (interpretive trust), modern Existentialist (commitment, acceptance, total interpretation).

    They’re all the same:
    assent to revealed truths
    firm belief in revealed truths
    trust in revealed truths
    acceptance of revealed truths

    I know because I know and I’m sure I’m right. Infantile.

  23. “Sophisticated theology” = “apologetics with words containing more than two syllables.”

    Seriously. The spouse recently dragged me to a Christian music event at a church, and I amused myself by counting the number of words with three or more syllables in the lyrics of each song. On my fingers. Rarely needed to go to a second hand.

    How some people breathe and walk at the same time amazes me.

  24. Hi folks. Greg Bassham here, the author of the conference presentation Professor Coyne critiques. Thanks to Mark Joseph for alerting me to Coyne’s blog, and for inviting me to respond. I’d like to make just two brief comments.

    First, Coyne’s piece is slipshod and sadly fails to display the “criticality” that he rightly sees at the core of science. Besides getting my name wrong (Bassham, not Bassett), he wrongly assumes that I am a religious believer and an advocate of faith-based approaches to inquiry. In fact, I am an agnostic and the lead author of a very pro-science critical thinking textbook. I have been teaching courses on science and religion for nearly twenty years, and always in a very science-friendly way. Anybody who bothers to browse through the many scholarly papers I have posted on my Academia.edu can see that I reject common arguments for the rationality of religious belief. My target in the conference paper is therefore not science but weak arguments that give science a bad name.

    Second, while Coyne concedes that I make some “fair points,” he never actually mentions any. In my paper, I point out a great many faulty arguments Coyne advances in his book. I would simply encourage readers of this blog to read my paper on Academia.edu and judge for themselves whether the objections I raise are good ones. (Readers might also be interested in another paper I posted on mu Academia.edu site titled “Coyne’s Confusions: Why Science Does Depend on Faith.”)

    Thanks again for the opportunity to respond.

    1. Dr. Bassham uses as an initial example of my lack of “criticality” the fact that, out of about fifteen times that I used his name, I misspelled it ONCE. Well, that’s what happens when you write on a website, and I’m sorry about that one type. But one typo doesn’t mean “uncriticality.”

      As for his agnoticism, I apologize for assuming he was a believer; all I can say is that his strong defense of supernaturalism and the “empirical methods” of faith was so wacky, so in line with what religious people believe, that it was natural to assume he was one also. But that makes it even worse, for while apparently not espousing belief in God himself, he accepts the faith-based religious methods of inquiry that have led his colleagues to believe in God. If he’s rational enough to not accept God, how can Bassham be irrational enough to think that things like the “credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine” (seriously?) and the “beauty and spiritual power of the Bible” count as ANY evidence for God?

      Which brings us to his main problem: Bassham never credibly dents the main claim of my book: that both religion and science make claims about the nature of the universe (which he admits), but that only science has reliable ways to give us the truth (which he rejects). Bassham apparently thinks that faith-based “evidence” is just as reliable as the methods of science, but if that’s so, why do all religions make different truth claims? It is this difference in methodology and outcome that is at the heart of the incompatibility between science and religion. They both make truth claims; but only science has a way to judge them. Science can falsify religious claims; religion has no way to falsify scientific claims. That’s incompatibility as I define it in the book.

      Finally, when I said Bassham made “fair points”, I meant ones that people could argue about, not ones in which I think he’s right (e.g., whether one should take religion to be the form in which “Sophisticated Theologians” take it, or, instead, how people practice it. These are issues that have no bearing on the major issue mentioned above. So long as Bassham continues to say nonsense like what I put below, he won’t convince me that his argument for religious “ways of knowing” has any validity”:

      Few contemporary theologians would claim that belief in God is a non-rational or even contra-rational leap of blind faith. They point to phenomena such as the order and beauty of the world, the consciousness of objective moral obligations, the natural desire for eternal happiness, the “fine-tuned” nature of physical constants, testimony of miraculous events, fulfilled prophecies, the credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine, the literary beauty and spiritual power of the Bible, and various kinds of religious experience as providing an evidential grounding for acts of religious faith.

      The proper response to that–what Bassham should have said but, teaching in a Catholic school, can’t bring himself to say–is “These theologians are deluded, for these aren’t ways to give evidence for God!” But Bassham can’t say it because he’d alienate his colleagues. Or perhaps he even believes it. For someone who claims to be an exponent of “criticality”, he’s remarkably credulous about religion.

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