A religious scholar goes after my book “Faith Verus Fact”, mainly because I didn’t deal with Sophisticated Theology®

An academic named Gregory Bassham has written a longish critique (18 double-spaced pages) of my 2015 book Faith Versus Fact. It apparently isn’t published (yet), but you can find it on the Academia.edu link below if you are a member (no fees, though you may have to sign in with Google or Facebook).  Click on the screenshot below, and if you can’t get access to the manuscript, email me for a pdf.

Bassham used to teach at King’s College, Pennsylvania, formerly called The College of Christ the King (a name change was clearly indicated!). It’s a Catholic school, but I don’t know whether Bassham is a believer, though I suspect you’d have to be to be hired there. His biography from Academia.edu is below:

Gregory Bassham is a former Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (Pennsylvania). A native of Oklahoma, Bassham received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Oklahoma, and his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. Among his nine books are: The Philosophy Book: 250 Milestones in the History of Philosophy (2016), Critical Thinking (6th ed., 2018), The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy (2010), Basketball and Philosophy (2007), The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy (2003), Original Intent and the Constitution: A Philosophical Study (1991), and C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics (2015). He is currently writing a textbook on environmental ethics. A long-distance runner, Bassham has twice run the Boston Marathon.

And the critique:

Bassham takes issue with nearly everything I say, and I’ll leave you to read his piece. I want to highlight just one of his beefs, which goes after the most important argument I make in the book. That argument is this: science and religion are incompatible because they both claim to be methods of ascertaining truths about the Universe, but only science has ways of adjudicating, refining, and deepening our understanding. (Religion, of course, does other stuff as well.) Religion’s ways of ascertaining “truth”, which involve Scripture, authority, revelation, and other things subsumed by the rubric “faith”, are not reliable, and that’s why there are so many religions making conflicting claims. We have less certainty about God than we do, say, about the reproductive behavior of the lobster.

Moreover, I argue that theology has not “advanced” in the past several millennia. What I mean by this is that although theology may have gotten more convoluted, and corrected some of its earlier errors (for example, by admitting that creationism is false, which Bassham does—but 73% of Americans don’t), it still hasn’t advanced in understanding the divine. How many gods are there? Is God all-powerful and all-loving? Was Jesus the divine son of God, a prophet, or didn’t he exist? Did God give us free will, or are we predestined? Are you saved by faith alone, or by works? Did Joseph Smith really get those golden tablets that told of Jesus’s visit to America? There are millions of questions like this, not including the question of whether there actually are any gods, but nobody—including Bassham and his much-admired Sophisticated Theologians®, can answer them. We are as ignorant as was Aquinas, Maimonides, or any other theologian in history.

It is this point—whether religious knowledge can tell us empirical facts (Bassham argues that it can)—where we part most strongly. And I have to say, Bassham’s argument for the different “ways of knowing”, whereby religion apprehends such facts, is unconvincing. Here are a few excerpts from his paper:

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.

Yes, I should have written two books—or perhaps a big, fat, boring disquisition on religion aimed at theologians. That was neither my purpose nor my audience.

So here’s Bassham’s sophisticated evidence for God:

  • The world is orderly and beautiful (it’s also disorderly and ugly, and what order there is can be seen as resulting from natural processes)
  • We feel we have moral obligations (“objective” is a red herring here; nobody but philosophers worry about whether moral truths are objective)
  • People want eternal happiness (what people “want” is no evidence for what’s true; this is pure confirmation bias)
  • The “fine tuning” of physical constants (they say God, science says “they may not really be fine tuned by God, but a showing the weak anthropic principle or perhaps some underlying physical linking of “constants”)
  • Testimony of miracles. (SERIOUSLY? Has he read the even more sophisticated David Hume?)
  • Fulfilled prophecies (yes, and the Bible was redacted to make prophecies seem fulfilled. And which prophecies weren’t fulfilled, like Jesus promise that he’d return before some of his followers died?)
  • The credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine. WHAAAT? How is that credible, given that there’s no convincing evidence that a Jesus person, much less a divine one, ever lived)
  • “The literary and spiritual power of the Bible”.   Yes, and the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, and the Mahabarata have similar power. As does much of Dostoevsky. Which religion, pray tell, is true: the one with the most powerful scripture?
  • Religious experiences.  This is The Argument from William James, and can be dismissed by citing the many kind of experience, like UFO abductions, seances, and the like, that many people take as showing truth.

As for not saying enough about this, I wrote a trade book, not a tome on theology for scholars, and deal with both Sophisticated Theology® and the “theology” held by most believers, which isn’t Sophisticated.

So where does religion find its evidence? Bassham gives a few ways:

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.

Umm. . . if faith is truly a “way of knowing”, and reveals empirical truths, as Bassham avers, then how can these “conceptions of faith” possibly tell is what is true? They can tell us what to believe but they can’t confirm it. Or if he’s simply saying that there are conceptions of “faith” that don’t align with my definition of “belief in the face of evidence”, he runs into the same problem: how do these ways tell us which beliefs are true?

As for “ways of knowing”, Bassham seems to ignore my discussion when he lists the “ways of knowing” other than science:

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 claims that either historiography or philosophy was “incompatible” with science.

In fact, I deal with these issues at length in the book, and show that insofar as “revealing facts about the world and Universe” goes, empirical investigation (“science” writ large), is the sine qua non, and historians can’t declare truth by fiat. They need evidence, not authority. Philosophy deals with logic and rational contemplation, not empirical truth, though philosophy can contribute to finding empirical truths. Insofar as any of these disciplines declare what is empirically true, but not by using empirical methods (like “appeals to authority”), they are in conflict with science.

At the end, Bassham ignores the fact that I deal with, explain, and take apart Steve Gould’s NOMA idea, so I do not overlook or understate “the many ways in which science and religion are playing quite different ballgames.” I’d argue, in fact, that my analysis of NOMA is the most complete one in print.  Of course science and religion do play different ballgames, but some of the innings overlap, and that is where the two areas become incompatible.

Fourth and finally, in saying that religion and science “are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe” (xvi), Coyne overlooks or understates the many ways in which science and religion are playing quite different ballgames. In large measure, religion deals with questions of meaning, value, significance, purpose, beauty, finitude, guilt, anxiety, and ultimacy that science does not address. Moreover, the “tools” that religion uses (e.g. revelation and personal religious experience) are not necessarily faulty simply because they are unscientific. If God, as religious believers typically claim, wants to be known but not in ways that are overtly obvious or coercive, what “tools” would he provide so that even pre-literate peasants could have warranted beliefs about his existence and will? Presumably something very similar to the tools that believers claim that he has provided.

Note, too, that in the last three sentence Bassham admits that religion uses revelation and personal experience as reliable ways of knowing. The last two sentences make a virtue of necessity: we see no evidence for God, so Bassham argues that God deliberately made Himself hard to find, ergo only revelation and personal experience, things that can happen to even “pre-literate peasants”, constitute evidence. I guess the same goes for UFOs, Sasquatch, and leprechauns.

I tried to find a picture of a bass and a ham, and came up with these bass and ham cakes, whose recipe is given in Field & Stream. I don’t like the idea of fishcakes with ham, but I’d find them more palatable than Sophisticated Theology® any day! And Sophisticated Catholic Philosophy® is among the worst species in the genus.

 

 

49 Comments

  1. A C Harper
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I recall a joke from my schooldays which showed there were hardly any schooldays in a year. Here’s a more up to date version from Aha! Jokes:

    Want a day off work?
    So you want a day off. Let’s take a look at what you are asking for. There are 365 days per year available for work. There are 52 weeks per year in which you already have 2 days off per week, leaving 261 days available for work. Since you spend 16 hours each day away from work, you have used up 170 days, leaving only 91 days available. You spend 30 minutes each day on coffee break which counts for 23 days each year, leaving only 68 days available. With a 1 hour lunch each day, you used up another 46 days, leaving only 22 days available for work. You normally spend 2 days per year on sick leave. This leaves you only 20 days per year available for work. We are off 5 holidays per year, so your available working time is down to 15 days. We generously give 14 days vacation per year which leaves only 1 day available for work and I’ll be darned if you are going to take that day off!

    The point is that while each step in the calculation seems legit the switches between calendar days and 24 hour periods, some double counting, and some questionable arithmetic result in a plainly absurd result.

    I suspect sophisticated theologians and some philosophers do a similar thing. They start out with a particular set of axioms, run through a complicated set of disjointed arguments and hand waving, and arrive at their pre-determined goal. I’m not sure if they are fooling themselves or intending to fool others.

    • Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Suspect? Equivocation and other rhetorical chicanery are every theologian’s bread and butter.

  2. kraeuterbutter
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Sophisticated Theology?

    My goodness, the argument was already very weak when Richard Dawkins “God Delusion” came out. Gregory Bassham seems to have learned nothing in the last 14 years.

    • Publius
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      “Sophisticated Theology” An oxymoron if ever there was!! Bassham’s arguments and “evidence” have made no sense since Copernicus figured out that the earth rotates around the sun, since Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion, etc. through to Darwin, Einstein, Hubble etc. Before Bassham writes about the laws of thermodynamics again, someone should show him where Victor Stenger’s books are located in the library.

  3. Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    It’s amazing, isn’t it? Bassham is obviously a smart guy, an educated, literate person, yet his screed is overloaded with the most basic, obvious, newbie logical fallacies: Circular reasoning. Confirmation bias. Willful ignorance.

    • JezGrove
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Very nicely put, as always Peter.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      No matter how sophisticated the religious philosopher this always happens when they start talking religion. Reading the most highly regarded theologians was a serious eye opener for me. I made better arguments in grade school.

      Sure, the writing styles and terms sure can seem sophisticated, if you are into that kind of thing. Or reading it can feel like pushing your head through mush. But when you trim back all the flowery rhetoric and look at what they’ve said it makes you wonder how they get away with this shit. How does somebody get a good secure job and earn acclaim as a scholar of note by conceiving and writing this stuff?

      • Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        That may be the bigger mystery here. I don’t hold myself up as being any “smarter” than Dr. Prof. Bassham — I only have a high school education! — and yet I am almost certain that this emperor has no clothes.

  4. Dawn Flood
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    An open question to Professor Gregory Bassham:

    “Professor Bassham, Why won’t God heal adult amputees? And, is it wrong for such individuals to pray to God for such a healing?”

  5. darrelle
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    All of Bassham’s sophisticated theological definitions of faith are prettified re-phrasings of “belief because of evoked emotions.” This couldn’t get any more opposed to science. The primary purpose of science is to derive useful information in spite of all of the human behavioral and cognitive characteristics that are always getting in the way, like the human penchant for giving feelings too much weight when deciding what to believe.

    The disconnect with people like this accredited philosopher is that he believes that feelings are not just valid evidence but that they are the most reliable evidence. At least when it comes to religion. It’s malarkey.

  6. DrBrydon
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Most theologians wouldn’t agree? That’s hardly shocking or persuasive. I am intrigued, though, about what Bassham thinks philosophy can teach us about Harry Potter and basketball. I see his chapter in the book on basketball is titled “Hardwood Dojo: What Basketball Can Teach Us about Character and Success.” Sounds more Tony Robbins than Kant.

  7. chris moffatt
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Why would a deity who is supposed to love all people and want to join with them and have them know it and, especially, love it make things so complicated that only “sophisticated theologians” could understand it? Seems more likely to me that like all the priestly class they want to impose a complex and obfuscatory doctrine on the masses that only the theologians can interpret and dictate to the masses. After all, as the priests of baal and all their ilk down the ages discovered, skimming a percentage off the top and calling it an offering to the deity beats working for a living.

  8. Roger
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Allow me to quote, if I may, the great thinker Ronald Reagan.

    It is impossible for me to believe a liar or charlatan could have had the effect on mankind that he has had for 2000 years. We could ask, would even the greatest of liars carry his lie through the crucifixion, when a simple confession would have saved him?

    Now, you got to admit, that’s a big fat checkmate, atheists. (I’m afraid I’ve run out of sarcasm tags so here is a puppy instead. 🐶)

    • Roger
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Seriously though, wasn’t it great when Presidents could write sentences?

  9. GBJames
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    oy

  10. Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Actually, those bass and ham cakes look pretty good. I’m sure bass and ham are more compatible than faith and fact.

  11. Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I would describe the argument that “people want eternal happiness” as simple wishful thinking, or an appeal to consequences.

  12. Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    “…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.”

    That’s hilarious. Muslims and Hindus say exactly the same things (except for the name of tehir book) about thieir very different religions.

    • davelenny
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Ahhh – the old literary beauty and spiritual power trick.

      Based on my incomplete reading of the Bible, I would apply Twain’s and Rossini’s comments about Wagner.

      “I am told Wagner’s music is much better than it sounds.”

      “It has wonderful moments but dreadful quarters of an hour.”

      • eric
        Posted May 29, 2020 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        Speaking of literary beauty being evidence for things, and Twain’s triting, and Twain’s writing being a vehement, outspoken paeon against religion at times…

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Bass and ham cakes are a new one on me, but the ones in the picture look pretty tasty — kinda like the salmon patties my moms used to make.

  14. Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Not sure if this was published in an academic journal, but anyway Jerry, you yourself are a published academic philosopher, you should submit a rebuttal of this twaddle 😉.

    He seems to have written another article arguing your conception of science not relying on faith is wrong, too! https://www.academia.edu/33741369/Coynes_Confusions_Why_Science_Does_Depend_on_Faith

    It might not be worth your time, though I think responding to someone who has more than one long piece attacking you would be worth it, just to show them up for their silly arguments and pseudo-sophistication.

    • Greg Geisler
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Agreed! That’s the kind of thing I come here for!

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      This article conveys the old chestnut that science rests on “faith” in such philosophical presuppositions as the following:
      “(1) The existence of a theory-independent, external world; (2) the orderly nature of the external world; (3) the knowability of the external world; (4) the existence of truth; (5)the laws of logic; (6) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties” …And so on.

      Prof. Bassham unaccountably omits the religious faith, professed by all small children, that if you touch the hot stove again it will hurt you again.

  15. Posted May 29, 2020 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    For a subject without an object, Sophisticated Theology sure has a lot to say about nothing!

    • Posted May 29, 2020 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      I like calling it “sophistrycated theology”.

    • Janet
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      I found the history of the definition of sophistication quite interesting! Especially the early 15c definition (found at https://www.etymonline.com/word/sophistication)
      sophistication (n.)early 15c., “use of sophistry; fallacious argument intended to mislead; adulteration; an adulterated or adulterating substance,” from Medieval Latin sophisticationem (nominative sophisticatio), noun of action from past-participle stem of sophisticare “adulterate, cheat quibble,” from Latin sophisticus “of sophists,” from Greek sophistikos “of or pertaining to a sophist,” from sophistes “a wise man, master, teacher” (see sophist). Greek sophistes came to mean “one who gives intellectual instruction for pay,” and at Athens, contrasted with “philosopher,” it became a term of contempt. Meaning “worldly wisdom, refinement, discrimination” is attested from 1850.

  16. Steve Gerrard
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “Presumably something very similar to the tools that believers claim that he has provided.”

    I haven’t heard this one before, but this sort of circular argument makes me think that the author is not trying to win over atheists, but rather is trying to buttress the faith of believers.

  17. Nell Whiteside
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    How about bass and ham cakes with word salad?

    I live in a heap of religious nutcases. I wonder daily why these people display a complete lack of intellectual curiosity and know, without a smidgeon of doubt, that they will have eternal life and that Jesus will be returning ‘soon’?

    It is my considered opinion that people in this category have not accessed the rational aspect of their brains. How else to explain it?

    • chris moffatt
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      do they ever ponder how boring eternal life would get?

  18. rickflick
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    If God, … wants to be known but not in ways that are overtly obvious or coercive.

    But why would that be the case? Doesn’t that make God wicked and sadistic? Matt Dilahunty makes this point well and often. Remembering that for most Christians you are condemned to burn in hell for eternity(worse than having shingles or a bad sunburn) for not getting with God’s program, yet he makes it impossible for an rational person to make that work. That’s close to a definition of pure evil. But, as Gorge Carlin says, “…but he luuuuuves you.”

    • Dragon
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      And he always needs money!

  19. Filippo
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    sub

  20. Dean Reimer
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    It always strikes me that the more “sophisticated” the theology, the less necessary it is to believe in it. The Sophisticated Theologians always downplay the coercive aspects of religion (believe or burn in hell) in favour of “planes of being” or somesuch, to the point where there is so little left to be gained from belief that you may as well not.

    They twist themselves so much in the attempt to buttress religious belief in the complete absence of evidence, to the point they talk religion right out of relevance.

  21. eric
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    if faith is truly a “way of knowing”, and reveals empirical truths, as Bassham avers, then how can these “conceptions of faith” possibly tell is what is true?

    I had to laugh at Bassham’s citing of four conceptions of faith that view different types of revelation or authority as evidence. Given that they all disagree on what counts as evidence and they all reach different theological conclusions, this rather supports JAC’s larger point rather than refuting it.

  22. eric
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    if faith is truly a “way of knowing”, and reveals empirical truths, as Bassham avers, then how can these “conceptions of faith” possibly tell is what is true?

    I had to laugh at Bassham’s citing of four conceptions of faith that view different types of revelation or authority as evidence. Given that they all disagree on what counts as evidence and they all reach different theological conclusions, this rather supports JAC’s larger point rather than refuting it.

    It’s like someone said “We DO TOO use evidence! Alice uses revelatory evidence to conclude JoBu is real. Bob uses different revelatory evidence to conclude JoBu is false, Gandalf is real. Charlie uses revelatory evidence to conclude Alice and Bob are both wrong, but there’s an invisible dragon living in his garage. See? There is LOADS of evidence-use in religion.”

  23. Posted May 29, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    “We are cited to a great number of learned men, men of genius, who are very religious. This proves that men of genius can have prejudices, can be pusillanimous, can have an imagination which seduces them and prevents them from examining objects coolly.”

    -― Jean Meslier, Superstition in All Ages (1732)

    “No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.”

    -― Robert G. Ingersoll, The Gods, 1872

    “Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [astronomy, biology, geology, etc.]; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. … Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.”

    -— Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), The Literal Meaning of Genesis

    “There is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it.”

    -― Cicero, De Divinatione

    • Revelator60
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad to see Jean Meslier mentioned! He was a village priest who wrote what might be the first modern book of atheism, a “Testament” found after his death in 1729. That devious deist Voltaire re-edited the text for publication to remove the outright atheism, but a modern and complete English translation can be found here:
      http://www.amazon.com/Testament-Memoir-Thoughts-Sentiments-Meslier/dp/1591027497/

      Meslier laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment expression of materialism and atheism by La Mettrie, Diderot and the great Baron D’Holbach.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Peter! Very salutary and well worth remembering!

    • Posted May 29, 2020 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      I love that Ingersoll quote most of all! What an eloquent chap he was!

  24. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just started a re-read of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (every summer my older daughter and I pick a book to read “together”, even though we live 2,000 miles apart, and we just picked this one). Although nearly all the issues here have already been amply treated and replied to by both Dr. Coyne and the members of this website, Sagan’s particular expressions are well worth repeating. In his preface, titled My Teachers, he first asks, “How can you tell when someone is only imagining?” That would be a good question for Mr. Bassham. He provides no objective evidence; what he does provide is easily seen to be, as Peter N put it in #3 above, as “Circular reasoning. Confirmation bias. Willful ignorance.”

    A bit later, in speaking of his parents, Sagan states “in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.” I’d suggest that religion never or almost never engages in skepticism toward its own tenets (it may do so with respect to those of other religions), and that the sense of wonder is pretty well squashed, especially in “sophistrycated” (thanks, Robert Elessar!) theology, which has abandoned the (biblical and koranic) doctrines of creation, heaven, and hell, and replaced them with…well, not much of anything. Certainly they can’t have substituted morality; after all, as Steven Weinberg famously pointed out, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” In any case, though, Bassham is just flat wrong when he says things like “most theologians and informed religious believers today” and “None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition.” Bassham needs to step out of his ivory tower, and attend a megachurch in Dallas; for every one “sophisticated theologian/believer” he can point to, I can introduce him to a thousand biblical literalists (and that’s not even counting the mormons or muslims); the proprietor of this fine website has often posted polls showing that half or so of all Americans, and a much higher percentage than that in muslim-majority countries, are creationists, believers in heaven and hell, adhere to doctrines such as the virgin birth and resurrection literally, etc. (substitute in, of course, corresponding muslim doctrines as necessary 😉 As Richard Dawkins so aptly put it:

    “You always attack the worst of religion and ignore the best. You go after rabble-rousing chancers like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer who teach the sort of religion I believe in.” If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell, or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them. The God Delusion (second edition), p. 15

    If I might be permitted my own small contribution (apologizing ahead of time for the length of this post, as well as for the fact that I’ve posted this once before, albeit very late in a thread, so probably not too many saw it):
    Everyone knows that science and religion teach different things as being true; that is, they have different contents.

    If I’m not mistaken, most everyone, at least here, also knows that science and religion have different way of obtaining that knowledge/content, that is, different epistemologies. I offer this brief précis; more in-depth analyses exist, notably in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and our own PCC(E)’s Faith vs. Fact.

    Science finds out about the world by using:
    Reason
    Empiricism
    Agreement. That is, you get the same results whether you are male or female, black or white, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, tall or short, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, etc. (I would have said it was culturally context independent, but that doesn’t begin with an “A”)
    Logic. No formal fallacies committed; no informal fallacies indulged in. Especially the argument from authority.

    Religion, on the other hand, gets its content from:
    Faith; in the biblical/traditional sense of believing things based on insufficient evidence
    Authority; whether clerical or scriptural
    Revelation; in supposedly inspired writings and prophets
    Tradition.

    So, I conclude that science is REAL whereas religion is an intellectual FART.

  25. revelator60
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    “God, as religious believers typically claim, wants to be known but not in ways that are overtly obvious or coercive…”

    If this is true, why did God send down his only son to perform party tricks and get crucified?

    Furthermore, why does God care so much about wanting to be known? Why does this silly egomaniac feel such a burning need to be worshiped by his creations? He sounds like a rather pathetic and emotionally needy deity. There is something sickly and disgusting in the masochism of people who really believe in such a God.

  26. Vaal
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Well, that was awful.

    (But then again, what should we expect by now?)

    I mean…this…

    “the credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine”

    THAT’s compatible with science????

    So, let’s see here, a scientist working on a vaccine understands that the number of variables involved, and the empirical demands for evidence and verification, entail that for teams of scientists it takes an average of a decade or more. The AIDS vaccine has been worked on for two decades, and it’s still not deemed successful. We have the entire world’s immunological community focused on a vaccine that people want NOW and even then it’s taking hundreds of teams to work on it, and we have to wait patiently because THAT’s what it’s like when scientists are being epistemologically responsible – they know how careful they have to be in controlling and ruling out variables.

    So, simply to conclude a well-known natural phenomenon – vaccine development – and to justify that it has even a modest effect on the human immune system, entails huge amounts of careful testing.

    But the same scientists can go home, open the bible, read ancient accounts of miracles and they can diagnose that a man rose from the dead?

    With no epistemic conflict at all?

    Just because they slap the label “religion” on this double-standard?

    Uh…not buying it. That’s like saying
    “I believe in fidelity to my spouse because it’s wrong to cheat” but on Sunday’s I have affairs with other women, and call it “another form of fidelity.” It’s just word-games.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 29, 2020 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

      Well said.

  27. KD
    Posted May 29, 2020 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    In physics, you can use mathematical models based on symmetries to solve problems, using polar coordinates when you have circular motions and Cartesian coordinates when you have linear motions.

    But the systems are incommensurable, you cannot analytically translate one system into the other, you can only get approximation (you can’t square the circle).

    The conceptual equivalent is world view, or perhaps you can talk about paradigms or narratives, but the point here is the conceptual framework precedes the ability to engage in a socially-mediated process like making a measurement (which assumes standardization and procedural norms). To put it differently, children learn to talk before they study carpentry, and learning to talk is this long socialization of a conceptual framework. [Probably why there is a high correlation between your parents being Sunni Muslims and you being a Sunni and not a Sikh.]

    If you think about physics, you first needed language, then you needed to develop mathematics, and likely some philosophy, and then you needed to develop forms of praxis like the scientific method, before you can approach anything like modern physics. It also helps if you have governments interested in blowing things up, and industrialization and currency as well.

    I don’t mean to reject critical realism, I don’t doubt there is some isomorphic parallel between mathematical models in physics and the “real world,” but there is a framework distinct from the real world which consists in arbitrary norms based on authority, rules of usage, rules of grammar, social etiquette, how calendars are organized, etc. Custom is King.

    Most of what is named religion amounts to world view, its not empirical. While I suppose there is something like a scientific worldview, and it does indeed contradict some religious worldviews, this incompatibility is not exhaustive because you have had plenty of scientists who were religious and good scientists. Hell, Newton was basically from a modern standpoint bat-shit crazy religious but he invented modern physics and calculus.

    That being said, I do think that there is something within the scientific worldview which has a tendency against faith, although I always find it interesting that the hard sciences and the STEM fields tend to have higher levels of believers than humanities and social sciences.

    • Hubert
      Posted May 31, 2020 at 12:07 am | Permalink

      “I always find it interesting that the hard sciences and the STEM fields tend to have higher levels of believers than humanities and social sciences.”

      Where did you get that idea? It’s completely wrong and, in fact, almost the opposite.

  28. David Anderson
    Posted May 30, 2020 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    Honestly Prof I don’t know why you bother with these Honkey Tonk Donkey Town Clowns – the fairy tale believers who are determined to hue to whatever mystical fiction they leaned as kids.
    Maybe you shouldn’t? Perhaps, as I argued – you can view religiosity as a mental illness
    https://themoderatevoice.com/an-atheist-perspective-of-our-current-illnesses/
    Keep your mask on, mate!
    D.A., J.D., NYC

  29. kyuss
    Posted May 30, 2020 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    “the “fine-tuned” nature of physical constants…”

    This is such an utterly ridiculous argument. Show me a universe where the physical constants differ from the measured values of our universe. Oh you can’t? Then you can’t actually demonstrate that the ‘physical constants’ can actually have values that differ from the ones measured in our universe.

  30. Hubert
    Posted May 31, 2020 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    “It’s a Catholic school, but I don’t know whether Bassham is a believer, though I suspect you’d have to be to be hired there.”

    This is not true at all. King’s College does not require any statement of faith, nor do they hire faculty on religious grounds. They hire highly competent faculty who are good at both teaching and research, regardless of their religious background, or lack thereof.

    I work full time at King’s College and teach in the STEM fields. I feel very comfortable at King’s and there is no religious pressure on me at all, from students, administrators, or other faculty.

    On another note, Greg is an acquaintance of mine, and he does seem to be a rather religiously based philosopher. He’s a very nice guy, but I have had strongly opiniated discussions with him about religion in the past (albeit not many). Not all philosophy professors at King’s lean this way, however:

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/experts/david-kyle-johnson-phd


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