What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?

October 12, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.  The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”

Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance.  And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.

And, as a kicker, you can always ask them how they came to think these things were true.

I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot.  After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.

87 thoughts on “What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?

  1. I’ve actually had some experience with this, but surprisingly, she said she believed in actual ghost-in-the-machine-type souls. I haven’t asked her about the resurrection and other things, because I’m much more interested in dualism than in theism more generally, and souls are the least obvious claim that is also easily disproved.

    Granted, we’re still both undergrads (she’s in biochemistry), but I think it’s an interesting anecdote nonetheless.


    1. Seems like, in science, on the physics — biology continuum, the closer one gets to physics and the further from biology, the easier it is the justify one’s religious faith.

      1. I think that’s true. Physics allows for all kinds of quite abstract and counter-intuitive possibilities, and clever motivated reasoning can use its ideas to sort of provide “possible” explanations for some things, e.g. Frank Tipler’s “The Physics of Immortality.” When you study much biology, though, Darwin’s “Devil’s Chaplain” sure makes it quite hard to convince yourself that any kind of at least benevolent deity is running things.

        I guess Francis Collins must just be particularly good at compartmentalization and auto-sophistry, but I haven’t read his book to try to see what his “arguments” are from the horse’s word processor, though I’ve encountered some second-hand. They haven’t been particularly impressive.

      2. Hmm. It doesn’t seem that way to me. I remember the stats saying that theism peaks in chemistry on that continuum.

        Physics is about the universe as a huge, complex game of chess with impersonal rules. Biology shows you how suffering is necessary for life to come about.


  2. “take the Theological Fifth”

    That is a great expression!

    I think when that happens, it is the sound of someone thinking and hopefully changing their mind… in addition to observing a hole in the argument.

    1. Too bad we can’t force “theological immunity” upon them, the way prosecutors and courts can compel testimony from contumacious witnesses.

  3. The religious people I have questions about some of their beliefs are not scientist or highly educated religious people but then that would be the majority of us. Just regular people but then, after all, those are the people we need to change as they are doing all the damage. The few scientist that are religious are a very small part of the overall population I think. One of my sisters is a person who has always grabbed hold of religion and being a life long atheist it puzzles me. She rejects evolution because her religion tells her to. However she also knows almost nothing about it. She would no more read your book than fly to the moon. Evidence does not seem to be a requirement for anything in this belief. It is all simply pounded into the brain like slabs of concrete and nothing moves it. Any conversation about any of it are short and lead to nothing.

  4. I had to cover for a colleague lecturer last week: a class on David and Goliath, and the covenant between David and God. I was reviewing the material and, in the presence of a computer science lecturer asked: “Who believes in this BS, anyway?”

    Well, he did, he told me.

    I was flabbergasted. This genial and IT literate teacher believed in the literal veracity of the Bible.

    It’s matter of private conscience, of course. Which is where I let it rest. Not because of any ‘shame’ I might cause him. But because his belief is so personal to him, any critical probing would amount to gratuitous intrusion.

    If God is your personal agenda, and limited to private thoughts, I’ve no beef with that.

    1. Yes. There’s a point where probing reasons for belief begins to look like a personal attack which endangers a personal relationship.

      In my case, my wife went from being a somewhat nominal Catholic to a keen Falun Gong adherent and I was obliged to repeatedly read aloud with her an English translation of the leader’s Chinese talks, the twin aims being to improve her English and to convert me.

      My occasional queries and exasperated comments were met by variations of: how do you know it isn’t true / there are more things in heaven and earth etc / and what I now recognise, thanks to PCC(e)’s verbal invention, as the Theological Fifth.

      1. “How do you it isn’t true?”

        I don’t. I just don’t see the evidence. Not every claim is automatically considered true, is it?

        Also, your religious claims contradict the religious claims of the person across the street. So how do you tell whose “faith” is the correct one?

        These have been my go-to answers when these situations come up over the years (it’s actually quite rare that they do).

        The second response in particular is interesting, because the religious person will often try to understate the differences between religions. It’s at that point that I’ll just ask them flat out, if they’re a Christian, then do they believe that Jesus was divine, and if so why are all the non-Christians religious wrong?

        Usually that results in a retreat into vagueness and something like “well, I really just believe in some higher power…”, which at that point I no longer press the issue, as such a person is harmless.

  5. In regard to the soul, Richard Dawkins advises asking more specific questions that pertain to monozygotic twins. (1)Do such twins share a single soul between them, or do
    they each have a soul of their own? (2) If the latter, at which exact stage of embryonic development do they receive their individual souls?

        1. And if they’re appalled by the lost souls of aborted zygotes and fetuses, what about the millions that are spontaneously aborted and miscarried naturally? Does the soul of a zygote go to heaven? What’s a microscopic soul do in heaven? And if the embryonic soul does go to heaven, why is that a bad thing?They have escaped the evils of sin and the flesh and got a detour straight to heaven! Lord be praised! The rabbit hole has no bottom.

            1. Limbo must be a place that the god of the gaps tends. It’s a very serious question and I’ve never heard a serious answer. Numinous only. If the soul springs into being when sperm fertilizes ovum, then we have a microscopic soul of sorts (have to real twist the imagination for that one). Where the hell does an uncorrupted and unexperienced soul go if it never reaches viability? It’s the chimpanzee in the room, and no religious person that I know will ever bring it up. Even prompted, it’s regarded as a rude venue of inquiry (as others have noted in this discussion).

              It would be an interesting line of inquiry to our new SCOTUS nominee though. Trump and McConnell et al. and their antics to get RBG’s repugnant replacement on the court in record speed is beyond shameful; then to expedite and augment the executive branch’s power in this matter is shattering. I get very anxious when I think about our lives being litigated by fools who think evolution is an evil “theory” and has the potential to corrupt society. And with that kind of worldview, forget about climate change. These fools who put faith before country are dangerous, full stop.

              We’re facing a very sad state of affairs in American politics right now. Stating the obvious, I know. So far, in terms of early voting, it seems the zeitgeist’s intensity against Trump’s infant regime mirrors my own. The nation’s hate for Trump is almost palpable. We’ll see how far the cheating gets him…

  6. I think there are two things going on here…

    One, cognitive dissonance. They really haven’t thought about these questions, because it’s too obvious that the foundational claims of their religion simply don’t stand up to any kind of objective examination. So they have always shied away from it, finding it easier to trust in their priests’ weekly assurances that there are answers out there somewhere, that “the mystery of faith” is a feature and not a bug, and, in more extreme cases, that doubt is the voice of Satan, to be resisted no matter what. They just haven’t ever thought about it.

    Two, religious faith is a sort of badge of tribal association that they can normally wear with little social cost. “I’m a Catholic (or Mormon, or Muslim, or take your pick) because my parents were Catholic, Catholics are good people, as a Catholic I have to hold to these beliefs, so I guess I hold them.” Most of the time they can get away with it, because in our society it’s considered downright rude to challenge people on their “firmly-held beliefs”.

  7. I’ve always felt that many educated people know better, but want to show a religious public face. This can be either for their own feeling of comfort with ritual and community, etc., or simply to avoid offending their close friends and family. I could be wrong, but it’s hard to know.

  8. “The Resurrection
    The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
    The Virgin Birth
    An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
    If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense.”

    I think it’s important to distinguish between things that one believes in based on sheer faith (e.g., in revelation or as a doctrine of one’s religion) and things that one intuits to be true based on personal experience. Of Jerry’s example, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and transubstantiation fall into the first category, whereas a belief in the soul (including whether animals have souls) and even in an afterlife might well be examples of the latter. In both cases, however, one’s willingness to admit one’s beliefs may depend on whether the question is asked in good faith or as a prelude to ridicule.

    1. For most of modern man’s 100k to 200k year existence, people intuited it to be true based on personal experience that the earth was flat and the sun moved across a stationary earth’s sky.

      Left to our own, personal devices (which is to say, absent the scientific method, broadly construed) people would intuit this to be true still.

      Personal intuition has never proved to be reliable source of accurate information regarding the universe.

      1. “Personal intuition has never proved to be reliable source of accurate information regarding the universe.”

        Hi, Ken. Always nice to have you chime in. I wasn’t positing that personal intuition is accurate, only that it’s different in kind from faith absent personal intuition, as in things that some religion or Bible-thumper foists on one.

        Also, I wouldn’t consider the long-held flat-earth belief to be an intuition, but merely a wrong conclusion based on observation of the best data available. I would consider belief in the soul or a spiritual force in nature to be intuitions, though I’m aware that you and others here might well consider these mere “feelings.”

        1. And the idea that there’s not a soul is based on observation of the best data available as well (weights, no way that immaterial objects can affect material ones from physics, etc.) Or do you think that my intuition that there are fairies flying about to be “evidence” for fairies.

          As Victor Stenger said, “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence if there SHOULD be evidence.

          1. “As Victor Stenger said, ‘Absence of evidence is evidence of absence if there SHOULD be evidence.'”

            Re Stenger’s point, if we’re talking about physical beings (e.g., Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster—to use your examples from Faith vs Fact), then yes, there SHOULD be physical evidence. But I don’t see why we should expect to find physical evidence for spiritual phenomena.

            But to your point: I made no claim that intuition is “evidence” for anything. I simply tried to distinguish between belief in something based on intuition and belief in something based on indoctrination. Now, one can believe in God for the same reason that one believes in the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth—or, for that matter in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny—namely, because one has been indoctrinated to believe these things. But one can also believe in God because one senses a spiritual presence in the universe, whereas no one believes in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny because they sense their presence in the universe. And if one does intuit a spiritual force in the universe, then one feels a need to account for this, which a materialistic (or naturalistic, if you prefer) world view fails to do. Atheists, in this regard, are off the hook.

            So that’s all I’m saying—not that intuition of spiritual reality is “evidence,” but only that belief based on intuition is different from belief based on indoctrination, and that the difference is important.

            1. Why should we find physical evidence for spiritual phenomena? Because theistic gods are supposed to INTERACT WITH THE WORLD. That’s what theism is. And if there’s interaction, there’s potential physical evidence.

              I won’t go into detail about why materialism can lead people to intuit a spiritual force in the world; tons of stuff have been written about that (try Pascal Boyer).

              The problem here is that “evidence” based on intuition or on indoctrination is NOT EVIDENCE.

        2. You seem to be assuming, Gary, that mankind has some mental “intuitive” faculty that is different in kind from reasoning based on observation.

          Is there any evidence to support this assumption, and — if so — any evidence demonstrating that this hypothesized “intuitive faculty” produces more reliable information than reasoning based on observation?

          1. “Is there any evidence to support this assumption, and — if so — any evidence demonstrating that this hypothesized ‘intuitive faculty’ produces more reliable information than reasoning based on observation?”

            The “intuitive’” faculty is imagination, which I definitely consider to be different in kind from reasoning based on observation. This distinction, incidentally, is the underlying theme of the movie “Groundhog Day”: The Bill Murray character—partly because he’s a weatherman—assumes that all he needs to win the girl is to accumulate more and more “reliable information” about her tastes and personality. It’s only when he gives up and let’s his intuition take over that he achieves his goal.

            I have to assume this is what Einstein had in mind when he said, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am.” Or Darwin: “If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

            More reliable? It depends on the context.

            1. You are talking about two types of imagination here: pure fanciful imagination (Groundhog Day) and imagination that involves reasoning and observation, i.e., Einstein’s. And even Einstein’s theories were not taken as a representation of reality until they were shown to comport with the facts. Darwin’s quote proves nothing about how you discern the “truth” trough imagination.

              1. “You are talking about two types of imagination here.”

                Actually, what I’m positing—and I’m by no means the first to posit this—is that imagination and reason are two separate faculties. Which is why intelligence has very little to do with creativity and why intelligent design has very little to do with creationism. But I’m happy to drop the discussion for now. Thanks for your replies.

  9. Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

    Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious

    I have an alternative theory which is mine. That theory is that the scientist knew that Jesus did not rise from the dead but was refusing to acknowledge it because the fact is in conflict with his faith. Saying it ut loud makes it seem more real sometimes.

  10. This is only tangentially related to this issue, but I couldn’t quickly locate PCC(E)’s email address to share it, but on Saturday, Sabine Hossenfelder posted a nice article/video about free will: http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2020/10/you-dont-have-free-will-but-dont-worry.html (or on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpU_e3jh_FY&feature=emb_logo). She deals with the concept of free will in her inimitable, no-nonsense fashion, and I thought that everyone here would enjoy it, and it DOES at least vaguely apply to this post’s subject.

      1. I can’t see any holes in her or your arguments.
        I think the sort of cognitive dissonance people have about dubious articles of faith such as listed above is very similar to people’s attachment to the notion of free will.

  11. I work with many Christian scientists or engineers. Basically:

    • Most will say they believe everything (possibly even Noah living to be hundreds of years old) but they do not act on their beliefs (not Monday-Saturday). What is belief really if there is no action that comes from it?

    • Second most prevalent attitude/belief is the “What if you’re wrong?” answer. Their belief in souls/God/transubstantiation is not important. What is important is they think it’s more likely there is a God than not. Oddly, they take the seemingly casual step and assume a deity is the Christian one.

    Bottom line is scientists and engineers take an unjustified leap from Deism to Christianity (or orgnized religion).

    1. I am always (or used to be, I’ve grown accustomed) amazed when I find a colleague (engineer) who is a true believer.

      Engineers make a pretty good approximation of typical USians, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the prevalence of believers.

    2. I think Ricky Gervais has a great reply to the “what if you’re wrong,” question. He responds “What if you’re wrong about vampires? It wouldn’t be much trouble to hang garlic cloves over all of your doors and windows — why don’t you do that?”

  12. Another pessimistic way to look at this is, it’s very likely most any scientist received their religious propaganda long before they became scientist. So if they still believe the faith, whatever it is, this only shows how powerful the early indoctrination can be. All those average and below average people out there have no chance. One has to get away from religion as early as possible, from the beginning would be best.

  13. All of the things listed came from other religions thousands of years ago originating in the ancient near east and yet surely no one indoctrinated in modern religious sects would
    believe any of it. Reading history gives you a good perspective on what really happened.

  14. This reminds me of a recent discussion I read on a different forum. The topic was how theists, Christians in particular, are more trustworthy than atheists because they believe in supernatural punishment.

    There are a subset of Christians that many of us have encountered who ask “What’s stopping you from murdering, raping, and stealing if you don’t believe in god?” I agree with the usual response to such people: If that’s the only reason you don’t murder, rape, and steal, I’m not going to try to convince you your god doesn’t exist. That these people are clearly not trustworthy is obvious.

    For others, though, particularly the “sophisticated believers” mentioned here, I find the ability to compartmentalize a major red flag. These people spend most of their lives using what PCC(E) calls the “scientific method broadly construed” (from memory). They follow their doctor’s recommendations. They research stocks before investing. They look both ways before they cross the street. Then when it comes to their religion, all of their rationality flies out the window. A new set of rules apply, faith is elevated over facts, and umbrage is taken at any criticism.

    I can’t trust someone who demonstrates that capacity for capriciousness. The rest of us are one case of indigestion interpreted as a communication from god from being considered a threat that must be eliminated.

    1. Thing is, in the U.S. at least, religion is so pervasive that even your doctor, financial advisor, and traffic cop are likely to be religious. That is, they profess supernatural beliefs even if they don’t live them in their daily lives.

      As for what stops the atheist from murdering, raping, and stealing — heh. I volunteer in a prison and I know people who have done all that stuff! Also child pornographers, drug dealers, and more sedate felons such as embezzlers. Every last one of them is a hard-core Christian! I know way more Christians in prison than I know out the outside!

      1. You are reminding me of a passage from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. I don’t have the exact quote. He traveled to Peoria Illinois to speak, and it was difficult to find anywhere he could stay. Not at the preachers’ homes, but someone else offered hospitality, and Douglass wrote this showed there was just as much good outside of the church as in.

    2. Religion is mostly a social phenomenon. Having very specific beliefs as those codified by the Vatican is not typical; and the moderate believer should thus not be misunderstood as insincere.

      Christians could be more trustworthy to the extent that their church adherence signals conformity and conscientiousness. If a church excludes never-do-gooders, belonging to it might show you are above average. Perhaps atheists are more interesting, but what you often prefer in life is reliability.

      Apart from that, religion does not make people much better or worse. Good religious people like to credit their faith for their good deeds, but when you consider their basic character traits that is dubious. And the fact that criminals and their communities are significantly more religious than law-abiding people and homeless shelters are overrun by crazed fundamentalists should make you doubt that belief correlates with moral superiority.

    3. “What’s stopping you from murdering, raping, and stealing if you don’t believe in god?”

      My half-assed answer is, I don’t know but have notions. And I don’t believe in god. And I don’t do horrendous things. So where does that leaves us–that is, you and I–with regard to living a morally decent life?

      [my ‘notions’ have to do with reasonable attempts of the brain/mind to analyze and synthesize the world, then attempt to construct an ethic of well-being both for ‘self’ and others and the earth. As the ineffable PCCE says, ‘I do my best.’]

  15. I was thinking about similar issues yesterday after driving past a big yard sign that said “VOTE THE BIBLE” (next to a tRump sign, are you surprised?) and I started to wonder why people cling to this nonsense or any nonsense really, be it in the face of contradictory evidence or absence of evidence for confirmation.

    But then I tried to think of a belief I might have that I would cling to. I couldn’t think of one but perhaps that’s my blind spot. Maybe I wouldn’t change my mind on something I hold true because I am oblivious to the reality of the belief, be it willful and conscious refusal or a deeper subconscious rejection. Or maybe it’s like body odor, everyone else’s stinks but mine…hypothetically speaking because damn, I know my funk could choke a donkey, but you get what I mean?

    1. “But then I tried to think of a belief I might have that I would cling to. I couldn’t think of one but perhaps that’s my blind spot.”

      If I might help out, you seem to have a belief that one shouldn’t accept something “in the face of contradictory evidence or absence of evidence for confirmation.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing this is a belief you would “cling to.”

      1. Perhaps but that would feel like a cop out if I said that. I might have a hard time accepting that certain heroes aren’t actually nice, like I’d Obama was actually a prick or Dawkins really was a racist islamiphobe. But then I loved Bill Cosby but accepted his perverse perfidy and I adored baseball players from the 1990’s but they were shown to be ‘roided up cheaters…I dunno. I don’t think I’m actively deceiving myself on anything, nor subconsciously, but then I’m the easiest person to fool. Maybe low self esteem and lack of self-confidence helps keep one honest. After all, I do often end my comments with: I reserve the right to be wrong or to have completely missed the point.

    2. I can’t even begin to understand why anyone would worship athletes with obvious criminal tendencies. That hero who died early this year, Kobe Bryant, was a rapist, for example. Sports fan baffle me.

      Where are my blindspots? I probably care a lot about brainpower and merit in general at the expense of agreeableness. If someone is an asshole but competent, I tend to give them a pass. This also is true when people hold views that I agree with, especially on politics.

    3. ‘Vote the Bible’ is perversely ironic. While the verb/noun ‘vote’ does not occur in the Bible, the nouns ‘elect’ and ‘election’ do: the selection by god of the VERY FEW people who will be saved. There is therefore only one vote, only one voter.

      And the Pleiades has NO VACANCY: it’s 144,000 full.

  16. Having been a nonbeliever who identified as Christian, I knew that I was not alone, although the other nonbelieving Christians I knew tended to be elderly (when I wasn’t especially!). For myself, I came to conclude that I had wanted the respect of believers, and it seemed easy enough to pretend that I was one of them. I do know, though, from having embarrassed myself by assuming that the person I was talking to was likewise a nonbeliever, that there are well-educated people who actually take to the supernaturalism. It continues to astonish me. How can you understand the history of humanity and conclude that, yeah, that myth’s actually fact?

    1. As I started reading your comments I was getting a head ache. A nonbelieving Christian. So then it was pretend. Do the pretenders go so far as to church as well and even throw something into the till. I would much prefer a straight atheist, no tricks.

      1. I lost my faith in childhood but, as a young adult, travelled in Catholic left circles. (I once had breakfast at Jonah House. Awful food, but those were really good people. Who, by the way, knew I was atheist and had no problem with it.) I beg you to understand that, when your personal association with Christians is with people struggling for justice, it may cloud your good judgment.

  17. I wonder if some people ‘hold religious beliefs’ because they consider them part of the individual and social rules they live by.

    So yes, you drive on the correct side of the road because it makes sense not to break the ‘rules’ (even though which side of the road is relatively arbitrary in different countries). You get your loved ones birthday cards and presents because those are the rules of our society (although some societies follow different rules). If you play games you follow the rules – even if you don’t know the reasons for them, they are just part of the game.

    So a scientist could ‘follow the rules’ as a social given, even although the rules are arbitrary and not reality based.

  18. I’ve found that such people practice extreme compartmentalization. They don’t want to talk about it because it would be stressful to do so. Such people have reached a fragile accomodation with themselves. And, because they’re intelligent, they are conscious of its fragility. And, I suspect, most such attempts by others to discuss such things are attempts at conversion to atheism or breaking down of their compartments.

    1. So to put it less charitably: They’re lying to themselves, they know it, they just don’t want to face it, and they’ll happily shoot the messenger.

  19. The allegorical reading of Genesis is almost as old as the hills. As Wikipedia points out,

    “Other Jews and Christians have long regarded the creation account of Genesis as an allegory – even prior to the development of modern science and the scientific accounts (based on the scientific method) of cosmological, biological and human origins. Notable proponents of allegorical interpretation include the Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, who in the 4th century, on theological grounds, argued that God created everything in the universe in the same instant, and not in six days as a plain reading of Genesis would require; and the even earlier 1st-century Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria, who wrote that it would be a mistake to think that creation happened in six days or in any determinate amount of time.”

    Other ancient Christian writers such as Origen went for an allegorical reading of Genesis. Indeed, that crusty conservative Augustine wrote an entire treatise entitled “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” suggesting this would be a mistake.

    So this is not a new thing concocted to be compatible with Darwin.

    1. Augustine of Hippo was as much a Biblical literalist as the current Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also reject the literal “six days” of creation.

      According to the priest José Morales, professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Navarra, Agustín “stands on what he considers to be firm ground of scriptural inerrancy (…) with his unconditional acceptance of the letter of Scripture” (‘Philosophy of Religion’, 2007, p. 49).

    2. Biblical literalism is only necessary once you have to face doubt about the truth of Christianity. Think of a machine: if you really trust it, why bother to read the manual?

  20. “It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious.”

    We need to remember that these scientists were almost certainly raised by believing families. Another likely reason for refusing to answer is that revealing your lack of faith would result in losing contact with and the love of relatives and friends who are ardent true believers. I have seen this happen.

  21. This question reminds me of Julian Baggini’s limited survey of believers aimed at finding out what Christians *really* believed. Baggini initially thought like Karen Armstrong that religion was more about praxis than dogma.

    He had to concede that the respondents to his survey, who you would think were fairly sophisticated believers, *did* believe some pretty strange things. For example, the vast majority agreed that Jesus performed miracles, such as the feeding of the five thousand, which no human ever could.

    An excerpt:

    [The survey] suggests that [atheists] are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs.


    1. Heathen’s Progress was quite the endeavor. Kudos to Baggini for trying to work this out. If nothing else, we now understand that Accommodation is either surrendor or nothing.

  22. Fear of death?
    This to me is the forgotten driver of the Theological 5th (great term) death is so uncomfortable and scary. We place high value on ourselves, remember when you were last insulted or humiliated, slighted, how was that? Not that that is the end all, it’s when it’s compounded by advertising (use product x be who you want to be) self help, self improvement narratives, streams of, we are our tribe, Rep vs Dem a vivid example, religion divided by gods, some with silk shoes, others bring a mat.
    Forms of status in this world are important, to place oneself. Science maybe something I do but it ain’t going to take care of ME, a Mega Entity.
    Given the, dare I say it, evolutionary psychological and societal path played by mystical, supernatural explanations plus power, afterlife is a real pleasant option to the fear of death and the evaporation of the hard earned self.

  23. Elk: The Theory by A. Elk brackets Miss brackets. My theory is along the following lines.

    Host: Oh God.

    Elk: All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much MUCH thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end. That is the theory that I have and which is mine, and what it is too.

    Host: That’s it, is it?

    Elk: Right, Chris.

    Host: Well, Anne, this theory of yours seems to have hit the nail on the head.

    Elk: And it’s mine.

    Monty Python:The Dinosaur Sketch

  24. Every theist I’ve talked to claims their belief is sophisticated. Which means they believe everything theists do, but do so in such a way that doesn’t fall prey to the basic arguments.

    The way I think of it is with evolution. If you asked someone whether they thought evolution is true, layman and biologist alike would agree, but the biologist would have a very different understanding of what this means compared to the laymen – even a layman that has spent time learning about evolution. The crude ways of understanding the processes don’t negate a proper understanding of it. Hence why arguments to design tend to convince those with some biological knowledge but not a lot of it.

    In the case of theism, what I take theists to mean is that they believe in God, they believe that Jesus is literally God, that they believe in the immortal soul, in heaven & (sometimes) hell, in the resurrection, and in God’s interest and meddling in our world. What they don’t believe in is the crude misreading that the Bible is the literal divine word or special creation, or that God is behind all things. The sophisticated believer has God in a more limited (yet no less profound) role, so those attacks on specifics are often missing the mark. It’s as much knowing when not to see God’s hand than it is to see it.

    1. The difficulty I’ve found is because they tend to think their view is more nuanced, they won’t accept that the criticisms of the things they believe along with the layman theist would equally apply to their belief. I remember one theist who was going on about his nuanced belief challenged me to show the 5 best arguments against God and he would show why they were all “hopelessly flawed” (his words).

      So I did.

      What I found instructive from the exercise was that he was unwilling to engage with the arguments but simply to dismiss them as not what he believes. When I challenged him on that, he admitted that he believes in what I said, but that I didn’t address his particular way of how he knows God. His theism was effectively the same as other theists, but all that was sophisticated was the story he told himself of how he knew it was true – his emotional reaction when he thinks on the idea of God. He thought that would overcome the conceptual contradictions and implausibilities I had laid out. Instead they went unaddressed.

      Maybe there are some theists whose idea of God does away with the traditional or classical notions of theism that pervade culture and academia, but really I don’t think I’ve found any in the “sophisticated” believers I’ve read or come across. Mainly it’s finding ways of saving traditional aspects of theism by finding ways to abstract them away from the superstitions that normally accompany them.

  25. I have never met a “sophisticated” Christian believer, ever, and don’t believe they exist. I argued many times with various Christians and it’s always about to the “leap of faith” eventually, which is a well-documented feature of Christian faith.

    Whether you consult the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, or chief evangelical reformer Martin Luther, you always come across a fundamental rejection of reason when it comes to faith. Loyola called the tenet “sacrificium intellectus” ((Sacrifice of the Intellect), which itself is founded on a long tradition. Luther wrote such things as, if you want to be a Christian, you better “gorge out the eyes of reason” (“steche der Vernunft die Augen aus.”) and repeatedly described reason as of the devil.

    Not only are Christians categorically not sophisticated, they are also prototypically unreasonable about it. First, they’ll use the tools of reason, suggesting that our reasonable mental faculties are foremost weapons to persuade others. Their argument then switches to rhetorics (appeals to emotions and other tools in that formidable arsenal), and eventually retreat to the “Leap of Faith”. I never witnessed a different order, though they might skip a step. Nobody ever comes out with the leap of faith first, saving everyone a lot of time.

    Germany’s famous astroscience popularizer Harald Lesch is also a believer and not too shy about it. When asked about it, his God is one of mathematical structures. But he is also a Christian, and appeared as a speaker on religious gatherings. The same is true for him. He puts out the sciency motte when discussing this with a general audience (the supposedly “sophisticated version”), and then happily comes out to the bailey when talking to fellow Christians (faith that is clearly Christian, irrational, with bells and incense).

    Martin Luther, Gesamtausgabe in 25 Bänden, hrsg. Von Johann G. Walch, Concordia Publishing House St. Louis 1880-1910, Band V, S.452

    1. I agree. In the sense that sophisticated would be descriptive of the actual religious beliefs they hold and the reasons they believe them, there are not any sophisticated Christians. This became clear to me when I made myself read some of the theological arguments by some of Christianity’s self proclaimed most sophisticate believers, like Alvin Plantinga. I was really astonished by how simplistic and juvenile the arguments of their best rationalizers were. It’s comical.

      What is sophisticated about sophisticated believers like Christianity’s best thinkers are the labyrinthine, gratuitously convoluted sophistries they construct to rationalize and justify the simple, crude beliefs of their religion. They’re like carnies targeting themselves as the mark.

      1. “SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman–what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women–that the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman? Certainly she has never allowed herself to be won; and at present every kind of dogma stands with sad and discouraged mien–IF, indeed, it stands at all!”

        F. Nietzsche

  26. “I’ve got my potato” I’m fine. The reformed potato church of course not those hooty tooty Holy orthodox potato church!

  27. ‘possibly even Noah living to be hundreds of years old’

    Hell, that ain’t nuthin’!

    ‘Methuselah lived 900 years
    Methuselah lived 900 years
    Who calls that livin’
    No gal will give in
    To no man who’s 900 years!’

    ‘Course this was sung by a fellah named ‘Sportin’ Life’ & he was a bad ‘un. . . .

Leave a Reply