Why theological challenges to science resemble conspiracy theories

October 2, 2019 • 10:00 am

My friend the philosopher Maarten Boudry called my attention to a fairly new paper by Taner Edis, a professor of physics at Truman State University and frequent critic of religion and creationism. I’ll let Maarten tell you about it in this post. His take is indented, and we’ll both give you links and ways to read the paper.


Maarten Boudry

My long-time collaborator, the physicist Taner Edis, has a cool new paper in which he draws analogies between religions and conspiracy theories. In dealing with challenges from modern science, theologians have often resorted to conspiracies, involving both the “scientific establishment” and God himself (or Satan). As Edis writes in the abstract:

“Theological responses to scientific challenges can usefully be compared to conspiracy theories in order to highlight their evasive properties. When religious thinkers emphasize hidden powers and purposes underlying a seemingly material reality, and claim that these hidden purposes are revealed only through special knowledge granted to initiates, they adopt conspiratorial attitudes. And when they charge mainstream science with corruption or comprehensive mistakes, so that science becomes a plot to conceal the truth, the resemblance to a conspiracy theory deepens. Theologically conservative denial of evolution often exhibits such features, but some liberal theologies also border on conspiracy theories. Intelligent design creationism, however, is sometimes less conspiratorial.”

In some respects, according to Edis, the responses to evolutionary theory developed by liberal theologians are MORE (not less) conspiratorial than those of their conservative, fundamentalist counterparts. Since liberal theologians want to evade conflicts with science as much as possible, their conception of God tends to be that of a “Deus absconditus”, a God who choses to remain hidden and does not interfere with the natural order. For example, liberal theologians like John Haught believe that God is secretly meddling with quantum processes to bring about the right DNA mutations needed to fulfill his creative plan. All biological evidence points toward processes of pure chance and necessity, but in reality, according to Haught and others, God is tweaking atoms and molecules in statistically undetectable ways. It’s like a casino operator who cheats, but only very rarely, as Edis writes. This is nothing less than a giant, cosmic conspiracy in which God, for whatever inscrutable reason, is pulling the strings behind the scenes, though always making sure to cover his tracks.

More conservative theists, by contrast, want to attack certain parts of modern science head-on. As a result, they tend to believe in a God who massively interferes with the natural world. Young-earth creationists, for example, believe that the evidence for Biblical miracles such as the Flood and the Resurrection of Jesus is all around us. Or take the infamous example of ID creationist Michael Behe, who claims that he has found empirical evidence of design in the ‘irreducible complexity’ of the bacterial flagellum and the blood-clotting process. This is not a God who covers up his tracks, but one who leaves his fingerprints everywhere in plain sight.

Initially, ID creationists were also less likely to invoke conspiracies involving the scientific establishment (the other type of conspiracy discussed by Edis). They believed that scientists were just wrong or misguided, but not that they were actively hiding some truth. As a result, ID advocates were also pretty optimistic about the prospects of Intelligent Design in the scientific world. After all, they found irrefutable evidence for design! It was only a matter of time before Darwinism would be toppled. As the scientific community turned against them, however, and no cracks appeared in the Darwinian paradigm, ID creationists resorted to conspiracy theories to explain their defeat. It was all part of a secret plot by “dogmatic materialists” to keep God out of science.

This is what often happens when a belief system is threatened with counterevidence. Even though many pseudosciences did not start out as conspiracy theories, sooner or later many believers resort to conspiratorial thinking as an immunizing tactic, to explain away defeat or to evade confrontation with reality.

The paper’s link is in the screenshot below, and if you aren’t a member of ResearchGate, judicious inquiry will yield you a copy.

And I’m told the paper is in this book that was published last December (click to go to Amazon link). The book has no reviews on Amazon yet, perhaps because it costs £120!

30 thoughts on “Why theological challenges to science resemble conspiracy theories

  1. The apologists and your pals at the Disco Institute will love this.

    Though I’m not sure which should take greater offense from the comparison — the religiosi or conspiracy-theorists.

    1. I suspect conspiracy-theorists will not be too troubled by this. They will just lump Boudry and Edis in with the ongoing conspiracy and dismiss them without much thought.

      1. That’s the great thing about conspiracy theories! Anyone who refutes them is just part of the conspiracy. The theory can never be refuted.

        1. Anyone who refutes them is just part of the conspiracy. The theory can never be refuted.

          Yet another way religion resembles conspiracy theories.

  2. I’m not sure I agree with the contention that creationists are _less_ prone to conspiracy theorising than moderate believers. That seems counter to most of the arguments I’ve had with creationists and moderate believers regarding science.

    The towering edifices of godless, scientific misconduct they confabulate as you argue with them are stupendous: evolution is a hoax*, the fossil record is made up by atheistic geologists, all biologists work together to suppress the evidence of god’s existence and to keep creationism out of journals…it’s not moderate believers who come out with this stuff.

    …Perhaps you could say that moderate believers portray a conspirational god, while creationists portray a conspirational scientific establishment.

    1. Yes, a conspirational God, versus a conspirztional scientific establisment. You nailed with that neat distinction.

  3. “irreducible complexity”…goddamn I really hate that term. It’s like whack a mole…it keeps getting debunked then continues to show its silly head.

  4. …but in reality, according to Haught and others, God is tweaking atoms and molecules in statistically undetectable ways

    I wonder if any of these philosophically-inclined theists have an explanation of why god takes such care to keep his work hidden from evidence-based methods of understanding.

    Is there a reason for this, or is it just bad luck for evidence-based thinkers?

    1. They have hundreds, thousands of reasons, none of which make any sense. One of the most common is that if he showed himself to us, then believing in him wouldn’t take any faith. And the whole point of religion is faith.

      So logically, the more irrational your belief in god, the more impressed he is(he’s an epistemological pervert).

      Heaven must be crammed full of the kind of people who buy a speedboat because an on-screen pop-up tells them they’ve won the lottery.

      1. Yes I’ve heard the faith argument from less sophisticated believers, but not from book writing, “deep thinking” theists (not that I keep up with those “deep thinking” theists).

        I wonder if those deep thinking theists can explain why the most important knowledge in all of existence has such a limited pathway to understanding – it requires not just faith, but also advice (from fellow human) on the proper idea on which to apply faith.

        1. I suppose it has a kind of folk-logic to it: we expect valuable things to be difficult to attain. It’s a rule of thumb we use pretty often.

          People with OCD demonstrate what it’s like when this rule of thumb goes haywire – if there’s something they desperately want to attain, something very valuable to them, and they end up getting it quite easily…they often feel deeply uncomfortable, like they’ve cheated the universe. They didn’t suffer enough in the process of getting what they wanted.

          As a result, sometimes they will perform tedious, masochistic rituals as a way of balancing things out, as a way of ‘paying back’ the grind and suffering that they avoided.

          I reckon the same mental systems might be operating in religious people when they rationalise the weirdly tiny array of ways in which god presents himself to us.

          They’re thinking ‘of course it’s hard to find evidence of god, he’s offering us the greatest gift in the universe’. That kind of weirdly primitive logic

          1. “I suppose it has a kind of folk-logic to it: we expect valuable things to be difficult to attain.”

            I was following and even agreeing with you up to this point. Accepting something on faith—e.g., because you trust the source of the information—is much easier than withholding assent until you’re presented with empirical evidence. You make it sound as if the person who accepts on faith is going to spend long hours searching for empirical evidence, which is simply not the case—why would he bother? It’s the people who need empirical evidence as a basis for acceptance that have their work cut out for them–especially when, as in this case, there is none to be found.

            1. No, that’s not what I was implying at all.

              I’m saying it(the idea that good things should be difficult to attain) is a rationalisation that some people use to explain why evidence for god is essentially non-existent; they tell themselves that the more valuable and desirable something is, the more difficult it tends to be to attain it. That’s a regular rule of thumb people live by. (It’s why people are suspicious when offered something for nothing.)

              So they tell themselves that it’s only natural that god’s existence will have little to no obvious evidence in support of it, and it’s only natural that his existence will be difficult to demonstrate. Because the reward of god’s love/eternal life/etc. is so great.

              The stuff I wrote about OCD is from personal experience. It was meant to be a way of showing how innate is the belief that _great rewards should be difficult to attain._
              That belief can go haywire in people with OCD and lead to severely masochistic tendencies.

              Some people I know would experience a piece of good fortune out of nowhere and then, as a way of making it ‘stick’, spend eight hours tapping door handles and saying a particular thankyou phrase a thousand times to themselves. Otherwise they thought, in some vague way, that the piece of good fortune would vanish.
              They didn’t accept that rewards came without some kind of suffering or hard work. I think everybody feels this deep down, instinctively. It hums away in the background.

              “You make it sound as if the person who accepts on faith is going to spend long hours searching for empirical evidence”

              Where did I imply anything like that? Of course they don’t spend long hours looking for empirical evidence.

              What they do do though is even more extreme, and even more tediously masochistic: look at the lives of nuns, priests, Trappist monks; this is what ‘long hours searching’ looks like in the religious world. It’s similar to the OCD behaviour I was talking about.

              Eg. say you’re a normal person, with the innate belief that great rewards are necessarily difficult to attain…and some vicar or imam comes along and tells you that god exists and He’ll offer you eternal life in heaven. And you accept.

              …Well, doesn’t that seem a bit too easy? You get eternal life just for believing in god? What a sweet deal – an infinite reward for no work at all.

              But people don’t really buy that deep down, even if they accept the deal. They just can’t psychologically accept that such a huge, fabulous reward could come to them without them putting in a compensatory amount of hard work to earn it.

              …So they engage in rituals that are their way of doing the hard work that would merit the reward of eternal life. They go on brutal pilgrimages. They fast. They refuse to have sex, ever. They restrict what they eat. They take vows of silence. All because they implicitly believe that they NEED to face hardship, work hard, to get good things.

              …And that belief explains, in the eyes of some people, why god’s existence would not be put on an evidential plate for us. If god’s existence entails a great reward for us it should necessarily be hard to demonstrate.

              PS: if I could have made this post any shorter I would have, but there’s no way to boil it down to a ‘tl:dr’-style conclusion.

    2. With respect to John Haught – he isn’t one of your “philosophically-inclined theists”, in fact he doesn’t trust philosophy [he says] – the real reason Haught has a problem with philosophy is the rigour of that discipline shows how lame & ad-hoc are Haught’s own ‘beliefs’ [I don’t think he has beliefs, he has excuses to explain away the unexplainable – for example he says that suffering is necessary because it makes the world more interesting! He doesn’t supply a chain of reasoning for his pronouncements].

      Haught in public is careful today to address only theistic audiences who can get with his assertions, for that is all they are. He got spanked in a public lecture/’debate’ a few years ago by Jerry Coyne & tried his best to have the recording disappeared. He knows he’s not an intellect, but he wants the respect of being classed as a theologian – a particularly dim theologian.

      As to the idea of the “philosophically-inclined theist” in general – the only theologians I’ve heard of that use arguments from philosophy are careful to stay very old school – the ‘uncaused cause’ & all that pre-scientific baloney we’ve dispensed with – that’s where they’re at.

      1. I remember that debate – it was an absolute annihilation, the likes of which I’ve rarely seen. Haught got marmalised.

  5. This is why I think religion is extra dangerous (beyond inspiring wars and strife), because with religious beliefs allowed into the discussion (since they are sacred and everyone is taught to value Faith), it sets a precedent for hooey being an acceptable argument, and for evidence being unnecessary. And you end up with the Trump administration, who has slid so far down the slippery slope that truth is subjective.

    1. Well, Donald F. Trump has compared himself to god a few times now. I think he’d be very comfortable with a religion based on him.

  6. To me, the feature that is most conspiracy-think among the religious is actually not that a hidden force is secretly pulling the strings, but that despite all the secrecy and undetectable elusiveness there’s somebody who is “in the know” and derives authority from that super secret “special” knowledge.

    Like in conspiracies, the people “in the know” also receive ongoing information that is likewise a secret, which results in seeing omens. I assume there’s something going on like bisociation between the unconscious and the sign that stirrs up certain ideas which are interpreted as meaningful.

    Interestingly, religious people go a step further than typical conspiracy believers, because unlike them, the religious authorities claim to be in league with the hidden forces, while conspiracy believers typically see their hidden force as opposing and nefarious. This particular aspect was also a widespread feature recognisable in historical Christianity known as the “satanic conspiracy”, which exists today only in some fundamentalist denominations.

    It’s the idea that satan and his minions work against Christianity, cause damage and corrupt the youth. Historically, Christianity was a totally dualistic religion (not monotheistic) where Satan and the demons were mirror images of Jesus, angels and clergy. There was not just the famous “Anti-Christ” but also demon abbots and monks by the thousands that would attempt to counter the activity of the clergy. This is for example documented by the monk Richalmus, who believed that falling asleep during the mass was caused by demons pulling down his eyelids.

    1. More hidden evidence: new atavism found in fetal humans — a set of basal tetrapod finger muscles resorbed and replaced in later development. ID seems to have taken an indirect path to us, or perhaps Satan also leans in to help? [Diogo et al, Development 2019]

  7. Simple explanations are best (aside from the forbidden he/it ain’t there).
    Why does God hide himself, making it impossible for believers to prove his existence, thus driving them bonkers and exposing them to ridicule? Why do innocent babies get cancer? Why does the bible contain bad science, making life harder for believers trying to defend it. Why sickness, old age and death?
    What’s the simple, consistent answer they could use for explanation, if only they would embrace it?
    Why of course, Gods hates us, and gets his kicks from messing with and torturing us. Yeah God!

  8. “This is what often happens when a belief system is threatened with counterevidence. Even though many pseudosciences did not start out as conspiracy theories, sooner or later many believers resort to conspiratorial thinking as an immunizing tactic, to explain away defeat or to evade confrontation with reality.

    I agree with this and I think that what Maarten Boudry described here is more generally applicable. He’s describing an underlying behavior humans commonly exhibit when any of their beliefs are confronted. The degree to which people resort to this immunizing tactic varies depending on how strongly held and or how important the belief is to the person’s self-image.

    Another extreme example of this is Trump supporters. The degree to which they must employ all the behaviors of this immunizing tactic in order to justify their belief that Trump is not a malicious buffoon that doesn’t belong within a light year of dog catcher, let alone POTUS, has required them to become so detached from reality on so many issues that many of them can reasonably be said to be delusional. The degree to which they refuse to acknowledge factual, verifiable evidence about things that are not a matter of opinion or subjective feeling is frickin a-maze-ing. The enormous sunk cost, collateralized in face, that they have accumulated over the past 2+ years of the Trump Reality Show has become such a Sisyphean burden that the only way to save face is to go nuclear on the double-downing.

    Yes, I’ve just been reading some comments by some Trump supporters on another website.

  9. For example, liberal theologians like John Haught believe that God is secretly meddling with quantum processes to bring about the right DNA mutations needed to fulfill his creative plan. All biological evidence points toward processes of pure chance and necessity, but in reality, according to Haught and others, God is tweaking atoms and molecules in statistically undetectable ways. It’s like a casino operator who cheats, but only very rarely, as Edis writes.

    I don’t see the philosophic obsession with this, it is pretty straightforward physics today.

    Even if we consider the erroneous idea that religious magic agents exist, this is a dud. It is why we know there is no religious ‘soul’ or ‘afterlife’, the standard particle predictions of LHC wouldn’t work. However rarely they would constitute something fixed in perturbation theory, which we don’t see. (Or – if we *must* consider magic – be too weak to significantly affect biochemical machinery.)

  10. My take on ID is that it is similar to someone throwing down on the disadvantages of cars, and insisting on waiting for Muhammad’s flying horse to take them to the dentist.

    BUT, there is something conspiratorial about any authority structure in conflict with another authority structure.

    Take the ID crowd, they have a substantial group of people who take them seriously, they have money, institutions, and they have a theory that the central theory of mainstream biology is wrong.

    Now the same thing is true of the mainstream biologists, money, followers, institutions, and they don’t buy ID.

    So the dispute comes down to who is the real authority. So under all the rational arguments, there are allegations intended to undermine the integrity of the competing system of authority.

    You see the same battles with people trying to discredit psychometrics or global warming, although in these cases, they often have swaths of media supporting an anti-science agenda because there are real direct political consequences, rather than a long-term problem of what happens when you fill the heads of school children with nonsense.

    Likewise, the intersectional crowd are going to run amok until or unless someone stands up to them and directly attacks their authority and legitimacy (and their pecuniary interests in “social justice”), instead of the “yes, that is important but. . .” tact, which of course still results in someone being called nasty names, but hands moral legitimacy to the other side.

  11. Casting about to find something that would help a non-physicist (me), to get even a bit of the drift on how quantum physics is involved in the arguments pro and con about free will and alleged conspiracies, I came across this paper,”The super-indeterminism in orthodox quantum mechanics does not implicate the reality of experimenter free will” https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1742-6596/701/1/012005/pdf

    It’s immeasurably beyond my pay grade and in light of this post, I would like to know just what “‘…cosmic conspiracy’ theories,
    such as super-determinism…” (p.5) means. This must be a different kind of cosmic conspiracy theory — or no? Any help would be appreciated. Also the meaning of “metaphysical” in this paper.

    I have not, however, yet read the paper by Tanner Edis and must make a judicious inquiry.

  12. Science itself is the discipline of finding underlying hidden natures that can explain the appearance of the world as it is. Gravity is the hidden nature to explain why things move in predictable repeated ways, for example, while the adaption by natural selection is the hidden explanation for why organisms seem so stirred for their environment.

    The general problem of any theological explanation isn’t just that it’s hidden, but that it’s often an “ad hoc” hiddenness – where the move to attribute to a deity is done for theological rather than evidential reasons. This is something conspiracy theories tend to be guilty of too, and in that the comparison is appropriate. But really it’s just working backwards from a desired conclusion to make it fit with current evidence – and does that really need to be pointed out in yet another way?

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