Douthat: Science gives us more reason than ever to believe in God

August 15, 2021 • 9:30 am

There are some posts I’m compelled to write even though I know that they’ll make me angry, take a lot of time, and won’t stimulate my brain in the least, for they involve religious arguments that have long been refuted. This is one of those posts.

I’m always puzzled when people who show reasonably high intelligence confess that they’re religious—even deeply religious. These people include Andrew Sullivan, NIH head Francis Collins, and NYT columnist Ross Douthat. Though I usually disagree with Douthat and his conservative views, at least they’re based on data, however misinterpreted. But his deep faith (pious Catholicism), which he displays in embarassing detail in his new NYT essay, is beyond my ken. For here Douthat not only advances some of the common and unconvincing arguments for God (many taken from Intelligent Design), but also makes many of them, and says that they’re based on science itself.

But none of his claims will convince the skeptic. Further, Douthat fails to deal with arguments against God—especially the argument from physical evil (tsunamis,childhood cancers, and so on).  He doesn’t answer the question of where God came from, nor how we decide what beliefs about God are are true in the face of conflicting faith claims—though he does mention these issues. He punts on the question about why he’s a Catholic instead of a Jew or a Muslim. Is this just his preference, or are there facts about the world that vindicate Catholicism? Douthat doesn’t say.

As I began to write this summary and critique of his arguments, I felt more and more that even very smart people are willing to accept dubious claims if it makes them feel good. In other words, they lack well-tuned organs of skepticism and are ridden with confirmation bias. If you have other answers (e.g., God gives us answers to questions we can’t solve—another of Douthat’s “reasons”), weigh in below. And I remind readers of Michael Shermer’s relevant book, Why People Believe Weird Things.

But first click below to read and weep:

In this long piece, Douthat makes five arguments for God that I’ll summarize and discuss briefly. But first lays out his claim: that, in fact, believing in God, especially these days, is the most parsimonious thing to do. Atheism is less parsimonious than faith. And, even though science has advanced and explained via naturalism a lot of things once imputed to God, Douthat sees these advances as simply confirming God’s existence even more strongly.

A couple of introductory quotes. He first dismisses two reasons to at least pretend to believe in God: it can give you a communal system of ethics and philosophy, or, if you act as if you believe, perhaps eventually you will believe, and then you’re home free. Douthat doesn’t like those reasons, though, as he’s a true believer:

But there’s another way to approach religious belief, harder in some respects but simpler in others. Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.

The “new atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote a book called “Breaking the Spell,” whose title implies that religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly. But what if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?

In that case, the title of Dennett’s book is actually a good way to describe the materialist defaults in secular culture.

And this:

. . . there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.

Dennett gets bashed a couple of times, and I hope he’ll respond. But after recounting several reasons why medieval people believed in God, and claiming that they’re still good reasons (e.g., our consciousness, which allows us to observe ourselves from the outside, leads us to believe that we’re clearly made in the image of the Creator—which isn’t an argument at all), Douthat moves on to how modernity has only buttressed the case for a divine being. I find five reasons in his essay.

1.) The fine-tuned universe proves God.  Here we have this argument again, which physicists have refuted repeatedly. And even if Douthat’s answer be true—the multiverse leads some universes to be suitable for human life—that is an argument against God, not for him. For if God wanted to simply create life, with humans as its apotheosis, why did he go to all the bother of setting up multiverses, many of which don’t allow life?  Here’s Douthat:

The great project of modern physics, for instance, has led to speculation about a multiverse in part because it has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.

In other words, the multiverse explains why the laws of physics in our universe, though not in others, allow life to exist.

Are you kidding me? That’s an argument for God? The multiverse hypothesis posits not that the laws of physics are calibrated for life, but that they differ among universes, and in at least one universe (ours) those laws allow life to exist. (This, of course, assumes that the laws of physics really are “fine tuned” for life, and life couldn’t exist under any variants of those laws—a claim which itself is dubious.) Now we can’t test whether a multiverse exists, but if it does, and the laws of physics vary among them, then the “fine tuned universe” is in fact an argument against God and for naturalism.

2.) The “hard problem” of consciousness proves God.  Oy gewalt, my kishkes are already in knots.

Douthat:

Similarly, the remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened the “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, from the simple experience of color to the complexities of reasoned thought. So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions. Thus the self that we identify as “Daniel Dennett” doesn’t actually exist, even though that same illusory self has somehow figured out the true nature of reality.

This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.

What “leap of faith” is he talking about? I suspect it’s that naturalism hasn’t yet explained consciousness (or other stuff), and therefore God is a more parsimonious explanation. But, as Hitchens noted, that still leaves you with all the work ahead of you, for what explains the pre-existence of such a complex God? How did such a god get here? Saying he always existed is not an answer, for one could say that the multiverse always existed, or that single universes pop in and out of existence because “‘nothing’ is unstable”. And if God’s main aim was to create humans to worship and obey him, what was he doing before he made the Earth. And why use evolution to get to hominins rather than poof them into existence? After all, the Bible explicitly contradicts evolution.

Here Douthat simply offers the Argument from Ignorance: because there are hard problems that we can’t explain, we should default to the God Theory. You’d think that, observing the history of science and seeing that one argument for God after another has fallen in the face of naturalism (evolution, for instance, replaced the most convincing argument humanity ever had for God: creationism), Douthat would have some proper Catholic humility. But no, he claims that, with consciousness (and other phenomena described below),science has reached the end of the road. Ergo, God.

I beg to differ. Naturalism is the one route to understanding the universe; it’s the only game in town. Scientists, as Laplace explained, have discarded the God hypothesis because it doesn’t help us explain anything. Further, naturalism is already helping us understand consciousness: the parts of the brain that are necessary for the phenomenon to appear in our species, the chemicals that can take it away and bring it back, and so on. As with Patricia Churchland, I believe consciousness will be explained when we know all the parts required, and how they interact, for a being to become conscious. (Yes, I do realize how hard that endeavor is.) Beyond that, there’s no “hard problem.”

As for the “ultimate” explanation for consciousness—whether it’s a phenomenon favored by evolution or simply an epiphenomenon of the brain—I have no answer, but I could think of possible reasons. But let’s move on to Douthat’s next reason for God.

3.) The comprehensibility of the Universe itself is proof of God.

Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.

But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”

This again is not a new argument, and has been made for centuries. It involves two connected claims: that the Universe is comprehensible because God made it that way, so that it obeys laws (let’s leave the annoying lawlessness of miracles aside), and that God forged the human mind so that it could understand those laws, thereby appreciating God’s greatness.

As to why there are physical laws in the first place, we don’t know, but it’s likely there could be no universe to observe unless there were physical laws. They may differ among different universes, but if laws changed within a universe, what would we have? We wouldn’t have planets orbiting the Sun according to the laws of gravity, we would not have matter, whose existence depends on many regularities, and so on. In other words, we could posit a “weak anthropic principle” for physical laws.

As for why humans can investigate and understand those laws, we don’t need to posit God. The blind and naturalistic process of evolution, for which (unlike for God) we have evidence, will suffice. And if God gave us brains to comprehend the universe, why didn’t those brains include a universal belief in the real God—the one that Douthat thinks exists. All scientists worth their salt accept the inverse square law of gravity and the existence of evolution, but different populations of the world have very different concepts of God—or no god at all. Did God intend to punish atheists by withholding from them the ability to believe in God while still vouchsafing them the mental ability to detect gravity waves? I’m puzzled.

Now note that if you combine arguments #2 and #3 you get this result:

When there’s stuff we don’t understand, that’s proof of God
When we do understand stuff, that’s proof of God, too.

This means, of course, that Douthat has a watertight argument for God that can’t be disproven.

4.) Demonic visitations, near-death experiences, and other numinous phenomena prove God. This is truly bizarre, especially given Hume’s postulate that one should take a parsimonious view of such occurrences, accepting them as real only if a naturalistic explanation (including deluded observers) is less parsimonious.

Here’s Douthat, whom I’ll have to quote at length (there’s a lot more than this!):

Read the British novelist Paul Kingsnorth’s recent account of his pilgrimage from unbelief through Zen Buddhism and Wicca to Christianity, and you will find a story of mysterious happenings that would fit neatly into the late Roman world in which Christianity first took shape. (Except back then he would have probably been a Platonist rather than a Buddhist.) Or read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Living With a Wild God,” a memoir by an inveterate skeptic of organized religion, which describes mystical experiences that came to her unbidden, with a biblical mix of awe, terror and mystery.

“It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once,” Ehrenreich writes. “One reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”

So the bolt from the blue still falls on nonbelievers as well as on believers. The nonbeliever is just more likely to baffled by what it all might mean, or more resistant, as Ehrenreich remains, to the claim that it should point toward any particular religion’s idea of God.

Likewise with experiences that seem like hauntings and possessions, psychic or premonitory events, or brushes with the strange “tricksters” that used to be read as faeries and now get interpreted, in the light of science fiction and the space age, as extraterrestrials. In the 21st century, as in the 19th or the 14th, they just keep on happening, frequently enough that even the intelligentsia can’t completely ignore them: You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker.

. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.

. . . Maybe they are all just mental illusion (even if some of their features are not exactly easy for existing models of brain function to explain), the result of some evolutionary advantage to feeling peaceful at the brink of death. But just conceding their persistent existence is noteworthy, given how easy it is to imagine a world where these kinds of experiences didn’t happen, where nobody came back from the threshold of death with a life-changing account of light suffused with love or where the experiences of the dying were just a random dreamlike jumble.

Let us first note that a. there are reasons why people would want to take these phenomena as evidence for a God, for who wants their life to end at death? But the phenomena, which can be reproduced with drugs, chemicals, meditation, and so on, are not themselves evidence for any kind of divine being. Anyone who’s ingested LSD or other hallucinogens will experience all kinds of bizarre things, including great and ineffable beauty that eludes us in our quotidian life, and perhaps a sense that we’re all part of one Universe.  But just because we can reproduce mystical experiences with chemicals is no proof that non-chemical experiences of the numinous are evidence for God. In fact, people who are severely mentally ill often have such experiences, including the sense that they themselves are gods! Douthat is incredibly credulous about human experiences and what they mean.

And no, an evolutionary explanation for “nonhuman minds” is NOT making “a concession to religion’s plausibility”; it’s a scientific/sociological attempt to explain why people so readily buy religious claims. Pascal Boyer’s explanation, for instance, that “agency detection” would be of evolutionary advantage, does not give even an iota of credibility to religious claims. It’s simply an attempt to see why people so readily impute unknown phenomena to God. It’s arguments like this one that makes me think Douthat is either not as smart as he seems, or, more likely, is deeply blinded by his will to believe. He hasn’t the slightest idea why evolutionary biologists seek explanations for religion, or what that seeking means. We want to know why so many people believe stuff that’s unsupported by evidence. The only concession that people like Boyer or Dennett make when they study how religion might have come about is that religion exists, not that it’s plausible !

5.) Finally, because evolution leads us to believe in things that are real and true, ubiquitous belief in God must give us greater confidence that God exists. I’ve already discussed a bit of this claim, for it’s in this bit of Douthat quoted above:

. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.

I mentioned above the fallacy of asserting that evolutionists’ study of religion gives the content of religious beliefs—including God—more plausibility. Now I’ll address the idea that evolution tells us what’s true about the world. This is often the case, for an individual who thinks a lion is harmless, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt him, is less likely than others to pass on his genes. But, as many have pointed out, evolution has also endowed us with faculties that can be fooled. Optical illusions are a good example. But there are many more, and here I’ll quote from Steve Pinker’s excellent essay, “So how does the mind work?”

Members of our species commonly believe, among other things, that objects are naturally at rest unless pushed, that a severed tetherball will fly off in a spiral trajectory, that a bright young activist is more likely to be a feminist bankteller than a bankteller, that they themselves are above average in every desirable trait, that they saw the Kennedy assassination on live television, that fortune and misfortune are caused by the intentions of bribable gods and spirits, and that powdered rhinoceros horn is an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction. The idea that our minds are designed for truth does not sit well with such facts.

One would imagine that Douthat could have talked to more evolutionists before he started making The Argument for God from Evolution.  But the man is clearly beset with confirmation bias, and his willingness to make the fivefold assertion that modern science proves God more strongly than ever testifies to that bias. And because of his personal issues, we get this wretched essay that’s come from his word processor.

I’ve alluded to Douthat’s evasion of the issues of evil, and of the problem of many and conflicting faiths, and you can read for yourself how he punts on these issues, which actually are critical ones. Just one quote here:

But wait, you might say: Given that Hinduism and Christianity are actually pretty different, maybe this attempted spell-breaking doesn’t get us very far. Postulating an uncreated divine intelligence or ultimate reality doesn’t tell us much about what God wants from us. Presupposing an active spiritual realm doesn’t prove that we should all go back to church, especially if these experiences show up cross-culturally, which means they don’t confirm any specific dogma. And you haven’t touched all the important problems with religion — what about the problem of evil? What about the way that institutional faith is used to oppress and shame people? Why not deism instead of theism, or pantheism instead of either?

These are fair questions, but this essay isn’t titled “How to Become a Presbyterian” or “How to Know Which Faith Is True.” The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.

Well, at least he admits the problems, but doesn’t face the fact that these are arguments against God—especially if you use his own claims! He thinks his arguments are so strong that niggling worries about how many gods there are, or why little kids get cancer, can be ignored or put off for some other time. I, for one, look forward to Douthat’s explanation of those issues.

h/t: Tom and several other readers.

98 thoughts on “Douthat: Science gives us more reason than ever to believe in God

  1. “These are fair questions, but this essay isn’t titled “How to Become a Presbyterian” or “How to Know Which Faith Is True.” The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. ” – A total cop out from Douthat and just one more reason not to take him seriously, for me at least.

    1. Speaking of cop outs, there are two points that are clearly missed here. 1) Secular monist worldviews have used the same argument (“if you act as if you believe, perhaps eventually you will believe”) for around 120 years in various hypothetical and pseudo-scientific academic pursuits including Marxist critical theory, Freudian/Psycho-analytical critical theory, Feminist critical theory, and now Critical Race Theory. These ‘theories’ were all advanced in order to persuade students to ‘act’ as if they believe something without diligently vetting it, primarily the metaphysics of dialectic materialism that forms the base level of all current secular ethical views. Unfortunately, that view was invented prior to understanding scientific realities like the actual mechanism of DNA, General Relativity, and the expansion of the universe, so to invoke a metaphysically monistic and therefore ontologically nihilistic worldview, and then criticize everything else from that errantly formed view is just another ‘stupid human trick’. 2)The second problem is, you can’t scientifically or logically prove a negative, including the simple argument that ‘There is no God’. You can reject a hypothesis, such that there was a God that created the world in 7 days, as being non-falsifiable and impossible to prove by observation, but you just cannot prove a negative and demonstrate it observably. If I argued, along the same lines, that there is no such thing as ‘Peace, Justice, or Equality’, or any other highly abstract ideal, I would be exactly as wrong. However, if I instead I argued that Peace, Justice, Equality, etc.,. exist, but only in the abstract imagination of individual humans, which have an observable consciousness unique from any other observable life form, one which we call ‘sapience’. Because of this abstract consciousness, I could argue successfully that no secular materialist governing system, whether you call it ‘humanism’, ‘communism’, or ‘socialism’ could ever manifest such outcomes in reality, given that nature itself is completely amoral and in which outcomes like ‘Peace, Justice, and Equality’ have never naturally occurred. I would be in a stronger position arguing against the pseudo-science involved in secular political systems than any atheist trying to legitimately argue that ‘There is no God’ because ‘childhood cancer is evil’. I would argue diligently applied science has proven that childhood cancer is just nature being chaotic and imperfect, as it has always been, and evil is just an emotional description that comes from within our sapience. I would argue that there is no good reason to believe that socio-economic mumbo-jumbo perpetrated by hacks in France and Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries, those that believe ‘religion’ is the opium of the people, put us in any stronger position to pursue a ‘common good’ than religious faith is doing today. The delusional argument that surrendering our free thought to authoritarian social planners in order to pursue a ‘common good’ is ludicrous, given that the ‘common good’ itself is as unquantifiable and unqualifiable as the very God that you can neither prove or disprove.

      1. You’re right. You can’t prove that there is no god. However, I doubt whether anyone here thinks we should try. Instead, it’s the responsibility of the believer to prove there is a god, assuming they want to convince others or defend themselves against a charge of self-delusion.

        It’s an interesting philosophical question (to me anyway) as to why the burden of proof lies with the god-believer. I believe it’s because the default is to assume something doesn’t exist unless we have evidence that it does. It isn’t something from formal logic. I can certainly see the religious asserting that this rule may apply to ordinary objects but doesn’t count for god.

  2. Jerry’s in top form.

    Some additional thoughts:
    1. The Fine-Tuning Argument:
    Poor set-up. When you pick out a target which already exists, and go back and consider all the ways it might not have existed, it will always look like an Outside Force was guiding history in order to select it. You became the Outside Force when you made the selection, and the chain of events in the fait accompli “guides” from the wrong direction.
    In this case, we play God and select ourselves, and then marvel over the fact that we managed to choose something that was already here.

    2.) Consciousness Argument :
    If mind precedes matter, why the evolution of increasingly complex brains coordinated with increasingly sophisticated minds? To fool us into thinking it’s invariably connected? To allow us to ignore it all and exercise faith? Not where you wanted to go, is it?

    3.) Comprehensible Universe Argument:
    Can’t have it both ways. If all our attempts to unlock the mysteries of the universe proved fruitless, this would be taken as evidence for the existence of God. Saying that the opposite situation — and any situation in the middle — would ALSO point to God’s existence means this whole argument is a bust.

    4.) Spooky Experiences:
    Oh, please. Consider the sloppy human mind.

    5.) Common Belief Means What Is Believed Must Be True:
    See #4

    1. Just to add to the fine tuning point (which, I might say, is as complex as it needs to be – we don’t need multiverses), Douglas Adams’ puddle exposes the paucity of the reasoning;

      “ This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”

    2. Concerning 3), it should be pointed that every time something happens that is not easily explainable by referring to the traditional picture of God, a good believer will say “the ways of God are inscrutable”.

      Moreover, all points neglect the fact that God, as traditionally depicted, should be able to manifest him/her/itself directly. None of Douthat’s arguments offer any justification as to why Jesus had to come on Earth approximately 2021 years ago and never again (to stop wars conducted in his name, for example) or why God doesn’t put a panel in the sky affirming his/her/its existence in bold letters. This is not comprehensible, so it must be inscrutable.

    3. I thought there was little to add to Jerry’s arguments, but you managed to put it quite succinctly.

    4. Always appreciate your comments, Sastra! 🙂

      Some additional points I’d like to raise:

      1) If fine-tuning is evidence for a god, then an un-fine-tuned universe is evidence against it, and vice versa. I don’t know about you, but I find it much more likely that there is a god if we lived in an environment physically incompatible with our physiology. Therefore, fine-tuning is evidence against gods.

      5) I’d like to refer Douthat to Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism” and have the two of them duke it out. It would be an interesting debate.

    5. 3.) Comprehensible Universe Argument:
      Can’t have it both ways.

      And yet, that’s exactly what Douthat does in all his other arguments! Comprehensible observable universe events – therefore God; incomprehensible ones – therefore God.

      Rev. Bayes would be scandalized.

  3. I am soooo glad you wrote this. As soon as I read it, I thought, Jerry needs to respond to this drivel, much of which, as he points out, is nothing new. Douthat needs to take time off and rethink things.

  4. I don’t think you need to go to the multiverse to challenge “The fine-tuned universe proves God” and “The comprehensibility of the Universe itself is proof of God”. Given how evolution produced us, it would be a surprise if we didn’t think that the universe is finely tuned to our existence. After all, we are finely tuned to the universe in which we evolved. The two are flip sides of the same coin.

    The comprehensibility of the universe is, to strain the metaphor, a third side of that same coin. We comprehend the universe with the mental tools that evolution gave us. There may be other interpretations but we can’t see them because of limitations in the way we perceive and think. If we ever make contact with an alien intelligence, it will be interesting to see if they view the universe differently. I suspect they will in some ways and not in others. After all, there’s only one universe … maybe.

  5. Thanks Jerry for your patient and thorough dismantling of Douthat. His arguments are so bad one wonders what epistemic common ground there is to argue with him on. That he’s a pretty smart guy only makes this question more pressing. The Times needs to publish an equal and opposite piece on naturalism and why, if you’re rational and evidence-based, you can’t take the supernatural seriously. Not holding my breath, obviously. Thanks again!

    1. Hah. Time to retire that metaphor. What’s a good substitute?

      This could be part of a worthwhile project. Let’s identify all the goddy figures of speech, find non-goddy substitutes, and promise never to use the goddy ones again.

    2. It doesn’t matter. I’ve sent it to others who may call it to the attention of people who aren’t in the choir. Besides, I needed to write it in the same way that I need to eat and breathe.

    3. I’ve wondered what would happen if some people who regularly comment at WEIT converted to religion. Would they stop commenting? Or would they start arguing? The latter would be far more interesting, but I doubt that they would get any further than Douthat 🙂

    4. Not necessarily directed at you, but I was struck by the phrase; atheists and people of faith. Isn’t atheism also an act of faith? The conviction and absolute certainty that what exists is all there is.

      1. No, atheism is not an act of faith, it’s simply the refusal to believe in gods. Is a-fairyism, the refusal to believe in fairies, an act of faith, too? Faith is believing in something without evidence, atheism is not believing in something because there is no evidence.

      2. In your last sentence Brad you appear to be describing gnostic atheism and appear to assume that this is the only position held by atheists. But I and many atheists, I suspect most atheists, are agnostic atheists. If a person is an advocate of scientific skepticism then you don’t place absolute certainty in a claim. Acceptance of a claim is provisional and based on the preponderance of the evidence. I for example, am not 100 percent certain there is no god. But the essentially complete lack of credible, compelling and convincing evidence does in this case bring me quite close. To be intellectually honest about it I must concede a small amount of room for the possibility that evidence may eventually come in that demands a revision of my currently held conclusion that existence of any god is exceptionally unlikely.

  6. I don’t think Douthat is saying anything new. Dilute the concept of explanation and attribute what we can’t figure out to god. You can justify all kinds of nonsensical ideas this way. What progress have they made for the last 2000 years?

  7. I suspect you could simplify a lot of the assertions and debunking into a contrasting pair of statements.

    a) There’s a lot of stuff we cannot explain, therefore god(s) or
    b) There’s a lot of stuff we cannot yet explain, therefore more research is required.

    So, as an example, I expect that ‘consciousness’ is not a hard problem, but it may arise from a complicated collection of simple parts (many of which we can’t see through introspection). Asking a well formed question would help too.

  8. Nice take-down Jerry.

    Douthat like many of the religiously addled is playing the “what if” game, and we can play that game forever and get no where.

  9. Regarding the fine-tuning argument, there is a very good recent video (of length 8:46 mins, transcript is available) by the German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder:
    Was the universe made for us? Jan 2021
    https://backreaction.blogspot.com/2021/01/was-universe-made-for-us.html

    This is how she starts: “Today I want to talk about the claim that our universe is especially made for humans, or fine-tuned for life. According to this idea it’s extremely unlikely our universe would just happen to be the way it is by chance, and the fact that we nevertheless exist requires explanation. This argument is popular among some religious people who use it to claim that our universe needs a creator, and the same argument is used by physicists to pass off unscientific ideas like the multiverse or naturalness as science. In this video, I will explain what’s wrong with this argument, and why the observation that the universe is this way and not some other way, is evidence neither for nor against god or the multiverse.”

    1. I watched that one a couple weeks ago, and watched it again just now. I like her posts, and this one was of special interest. For me the key point is a bit after 4 minutes where she explains that even if you postulate a range of physical constants, there will be a range in there that still allows for life. Its the ‘universe is fine-tuned’ people that pick singular constants that do not allow for this result, while there are other constants that apparently do.
      I think this aligns with what Victor Stenger says in his book The Fallacy of Fine Tuning, where it looks like he makes the same point. There is a swath of physical constants that do allow for conditions for life.

      She also has several music videos (!), and they are actually decent. A very interesting person.

      1. For me they key argument was that the statement that “the constants in our world are unlikely” is scientifically meaningless because we can’t calculate their probabilities. So the fine-tuning argument must assume what it sets out to show. It’s circular, an instance of begging the question. Ouch!

    2. I have a particular dislike of Hossenfelder because she passes off her opinion as objective fact. E.g. that offhand comment about naturalness and multiverses being “not science”.

      1. Multiverses and some other things (string theory being a big one) are often pointed out as not being scientific, since they are elaborate … lets’ say hypotheses … that are not based on observations. Nor are they really testable and possibly they are not disprovable.

        1. What you say about multiverses is true but I still think they are valid science, at least for now. Just because we don’t know now how to test a theory, doesn’t mean we won’t ever. Postulating them puts physics in a different light and may inspire new science. Of course, anyone who claims that multiverses exist merely because it sounds cool is not doing science.

          1. You contradict yourself. The notion of multiverses is just that – a fanciful NOTION that “sounds cool.” THAT ain’t science.

            1. No contradiction. Perhaps you should reread my last sentence. Next time, perhaps you could try adding to the discussion. No one cares whether you like multiverses or not. That’s just snark.

        2. I know they are often pointed out as such, but the critiques are either over-general such that they accuse all of theoretical physics of being unscientific, or are based on a, shall we say, misunderstanding of the theory.

        3. To Paul and vampyricon (or whoever): the thing of course is how one wants to define science in the first place. If you want to define science broadly so that it includes hypotheses that have explanatory power but are not observable or testable (but may one day be observed and tested), then sure the multiverse and string theory can be in the same tent as the rest of science. But couldn’t one then make the same argument for claims for special creation, heaven, hell, and angels? I see some rebuttals coming my way on that one ( 😉). But we do need to define some boundaries for what is science and what is not science.
          To be clear, I like the multiverse hypothesis, and am happy to consider it to be ‘science-adjacent’ and in good standing. String theory I know next to nothing about.

          1. I am not trying to include unobservable or untestable hypotheses in science proper but recognizing their role in the scientific process. Kekulé supposedly had a dream about carbon rings which led to an important discovery but it would be unfair to say that he made dreams part of science. We shouldn’t prevent ourselves from considering crazy theories as they can sometimes be right or lead to some new way of looking at things. What isn’t testable today may be testable tomorrow. What is not science is sticking with the crazy theories way past the point where they have value in the scientific process. That’s subjective of course.

            As far as the multiverse is concerned, the idea that it is untestable by definition is just wrong. I suspect it comes from our everyday definition of “universe” as encompassing everything that exists. By that definition, it is logically impossible for anything to exist and not be in our one universe. Of course, that’s not a reasonable definition in physics. Instead, it should start us thinking about what exactly we mean by “universe”.

            1. By the narrower and more conservative definition of science, Kekulé did science from at least very nearly the beginning. Although having an idea from a dream is unusual, there are similar examples of new discoveries from similar beginnings. Wallace reportedly came up with his evolutionary theory while in a delirium caused by malaria. The thing is, both of these ideas were to a degree observable and testable (and falsifiable) from the very get go. So they fall under the more narrowly construed ambit of science.

              “What is not science is sticking with the crazy theories way past the point where they have value in the scientific process.” That is exactly a rebuttal I expected 👍. This is why scientific creationism or astrology are not science. They were considered part of science long ago, but they are no longer scientific.

              I guess we don’t agree about the multiverse. Here is my lame attempt to argue for my side with a link to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse. So there are heavy hitters that say the multiverse is not a proper scientific theory. But to be fair, one can gather that there is a similar team of cosmologists that do say its science.

              There is regular confusion about what we mean by “universe” in the first place. I want to use what I think is the usual definition: The universe is this particular bubble of stuff that appeared 13.8 billion years ago in a hot Big Bang. In this version, the hypothetical multiverse is all of the universes — ours and supposedly an infinite number of others. The link goes into the various classification schemes of universes and multiverses. I’m perusing it now. It’s trippy.

              1. “So there are heavy hitters that say the multiverse is not a proper scientific theory. But to be fair, one can gather that there is a similar team of cosmologists that do say its science.”

                A charitable take on those heavy hitters’ claims that the multiverse is not science is just their way of saying that lack of testability is a problem for the theory which, of course, it is. If they are disinviting the multiversers from conferences, they are going too far.

        4. There does seem to be a difference of some significance between the god hypothesis and multiverse hypothesis. The first is a supernatural explanation whereas the second is a naturalistic explanation. I think that the multiverse is a naturalistic explanation makes it reasonable to incorporate the multiverse idea into the category of science.

  10. 1) Western thought fails to repudiate the metaphysics of Plato: anything perceived by the senses is illusion, true reality is in the noumenal realm.

    2) Auditory hallucinations from the right brain, in the form of imperatives, reinforce the duty to believe in authority rather than the evidence of the left brain.

    3) The urge for life — for survival, prospering, joy, love — floats in a sea of endorphins; evolution has selected for individuals who feel it, seek it, and extoll it. It is “the good.” The feedback loop of self-awareness, introspection, and inevitability of death fuel the striving. This has been exploited by by the shaman, who declares that The Good emanates from a powerful being who can only be propitiated by the shaman. It is a terrifying leap of faith for individuals to embrace the truth that Good comes before — and in spite of — God, that one must trust only the evidence of one’s own mind.

    All of this boils down to giving power to emotions over reason.

  11. One of Douthat’s arguments for god is the resilience of religious experience. He writes: “The disenchantment of the modern world is a myth of the intelligentsia: In reality it never happened.” Well, tell that to social scientist Ronald Inglehart. See his latest book: Religion’s sudden decline (2020, Oxford University Press). Douthat can multiply his anecdotes of unexplained occurrences. Yet the systematically gathered data say the contrary of what he claims. Religion is declining.
    How does Douthat explain the decline of religious belief? For him it just seems to be the prejudice of the intelligentsia against religion that has amazing (unexplained) power over the masses.

    Ronald F. Inglehart: Giving up on God: The Global Decline of Religion. Foreign Affairs, September/October 2020, pages 110-118
    The article and two documents with a correction are available here:
    https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSNewsShow.jsp?ID=421&ID=421

    1. Add to that Douthat’s claim that people want religion because it imbues society with empathy and makes for a better world. One of the main reasons religion is declining is because religion’s hypocrisy is increasingly being revealed. The churches have had thousands of years to demonstrate that they improve civilization and have utterly failed. Whereas science and rational thought have vastly outperformed it in just a few centuries.

    2. As religion further declines, we will have to suffer even more whines like Douthat’s. There will be plenty of kicking and screaming from religious folks as more and more people abandon religion. I would not be surprised if some of the American right-wing militia groups eventually turn into Christian versions of the Taliban.

  12. I, for one, look forward to Douthat’s explanation of those issues.

    I know you do, I know you do. But I’m afraid we look forward to a lot of things that are not going to happen.

  13. So, God fine-tuned the universe to create life because he loves us so much, but SARS-Cov-2 was created by the laws of physics alone, God has nothing to do with it, right?

  14. I read it last night and wanted to leave a comment on the NYT, but it seems they shut down the comments sooner than usual on that piece. But I knew Jerry would get to it, and of course he didn’t disappoint!

    It was hard to know what to comment on given the plethora of fallacious arguments, but I’d decided to seize upon this in the comment I was going to leave:

    Douthat: “Now consider why your historical self might have been religious: not because “the world is flat” or “Genesis is an excellent biology textbook” (claims you will not find in Augustine),”

    I wanted to point out that no one should fall for this old trope that “sophisticated believers ™” especially Catholics, use all the time to distance themselves from the “crude literalist strawmen.”
    The argument always goes “taking genesis literally is a modern artifact of a subsection of Protestantism. Our team, represented by great thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine, knew early on the bible was not to be taken literally. They had much more nuanced interpretations!”

    They do this by cherry-picking a few parts of of Aquinas and Augustine, but what they NEVER tell you
    are all the parts where those guys clearly took much of Genesis literally. Aquinas took the Adam and Eve story literally, plus the creation of species, among other things.

    And then there’s Augustine’s City Of God where he defends his literal interpretation of the Ark story: Read it and you’ll see Augustine working out the ages of the historical characters, the timing of the flood, size of the ark, how it could have been constructed etc, defending it’s literal account against contemporary skeptics exactly like a regular bible-belt YEC literalist! It reads like something plucked directly from Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis!

    It’s galling how the “sophisticated” Christian writers try to pull the wool over the eyes of other Christians and skeptics with this repeated claim that their great thinkers were above making some of the very naive literalist interpretations as your garden-variety southern fundamentalist preacher.

    1. I, who was raised a Roman Catholic and went through twelve years of sophisticated instruction in the faith by Franciscan sisters and Benedictine monks, testify that I was taught that Adam’s Sin; the Flood; the Exodus; the Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus; and the miracles of the Saints really happened. Long story short, I left the Church and its fables behind when I was nineteen.

  15. “…there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.” – Ross Douthat

    Let’s take a look at the idea of God:

    “That God is a person, yet one without a body, seems the most elementary claim of theism.”

    (Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. p. 101)

    Have “the progress of science and the experience of modernity” given us any reasons to believe that there are or can be bodiless, immaterial persons? I don’t think so—on the contrary! There are important ways in which modern science has entirely discredited the preposterous idea of immaterial persons or nonphysical substances with mental properties (pure souls/spirits).

    1. Back in the 17th century Thomas Hobbes was arguing that God could not be incorporeal, since there were no incorporeal entities. This is partly why people at the time began calling Hobbes an atheist.

  16. The sheer desperation of Douthat’s arguments (ghost stories in the New Yorker, ye gods!) confirm Ignatius of Loyola’s claim about the power of brain-washing during a child’s first 7 years. I believe
    that Andrew Sullivan has, in effect, conceded that his Catholic faith is likewise based on his own childhood. St. Ignatius thus explains the power of the Taliban, the Islamists in Iran and elsewhere, and other such enterprises—ones whose significance Douthat puts off to another lesson.

  17. Easy refutation of Dougthat et al: no science — none — includes supernatural entities into any of their theories. To write down: make a large O, for zero. More embarassing for him, this is not ruled out in principle. Clerical proto-scientists really did study nature to study God’s nature. It’s just one factoid.

    There are too many more Christians never answer; can’t answer. They are fundamentally dishonest folks, whose argumentation is wholly rhetorical, that is, all their appeals are solely about trying to persuade, without believing these arguments themselves, nor even trying to further understanding. They say random things they believe works in their mission.

  18. You asked for explanations of why intelligent people can believe in religious claptrap. How about its evolutionary value? Before science, humans sought explanations through superstition (otherwise known as religion). Among early humans, it was evolutionarily advantageous to go along with what your neighbors/family/clan believed, lest you be driven out or killed. It’s only in the last century or two that heresy ceased to be a serious liability, much too short a time to undo the damage. Is that a plausible explanation? (I’m honestly asking — it’s just a guess.)

    1. Well, yes, that’s the explanation for why kids believe what their parents tell them, but that’s because you’re benefiting from their wisdom. The problem with your explanation, which has some credibility, is that if it were true no beliefs would ever change, and ;they did change, even well before the last century or two. It’s clear that it was advantageous in our ancestors to be nice to each other within a group, and perhaps even to pretend to believe what they said they believed, but I’m not sure about believing what they believed. This is the difference between Dennett’s “belief in belief” and simple “belief” (or “faith”).

      1. I suspect it is more than that. A group that cohered as a society would be selected over a less coherent one. I know that sounds like the dreaded group selection but it isn’t, at least I don’t think it is. Groups in our long history likely shared genes much more than they do today and they often lived and died as a group from disease, famine, and war. What they chose to cohere around was language, culture, and an explanation of the world. Lacking technology, that explanation would likely be religious.

          1. Unless we’re severely underestimating the amount and complexity information being carried by these animals’ communication, their shared beliefs probably shouldn’t be considered a religion. Elephants seem to revere their dead but it is hard to imagine that they all share a story about elephant souls and what happens to them. Any religion worthy of the name would have something to say about the dead.

            1. I think you’re both talking about kin selection and in homo sapiens expanded that eventually to the group by widening the circle of reciprocity and cooperation. Trade, marriages, security, etc that type of thing.

    2. It seems acceptable that the tendency toward religious thought comes from our evolution. Besides the argument that it leads to cultural cohesion and therefore greater inclusive fitness, there is also an argument that Richard Dawkins wrote about in which proto-religious behaviors evolved in earlier animals. Imagine a little furry mammal that detects movement in the grass. The movement could be just the wind, or it could be a stalking predator. If the little mammal routinely concludes that the movement has agency, that is it is caused by a predator, then its chances of passing on its genes should increase even if sometimes the movement was only caused by the wind. So this behavioral trait that believing observed phenomena has agency – that its caused by something that has intentions – should persist in animals. One can see how this trait could later exist in early humans in the form of beliefs that the gods cause the rains to come, or that god granted me a successful hunt.

  19. Reading Douthat is like reading text written on a pretzel. Although I knew for decades that religion is nothing but fairytales, I’m forever grateful to the likes of Prof. Coyne and Richard Dawkins who have the credentials to expose the twisted logic of the Douthats and Ken Hams, and explain the reality of the cosmos. “There is grandeur…”

  20. “He first dismisses two reasons to at least pretend to believe in God: it can give you a communal system of ethics and philosophy…”

    Douthat therefore dismisses the most plausible explanation for the rise of religions like Christianity. The ailing Roman empire adopted Christianity in the hope that the bonds it created between cult members could be used by a centralizing state. Throughout history religion has been a means of social control too effective for rulers to pass up.

    Most people don’t adopt a religion by carefully weighing its attributes against those of other religions or ideologies. They belong whatever religious community they were born into. Douthat thinks he can kickstart a religious revival by telling the intelligentsia why it should believe in God. But the biggest argument for Christianity in the US are the social services provided by churches in states with high poverty and weak social welfare. If those services are eventually provided by the state or non-religious entities, than the US will go the way of Europe, and Douthat will be a cultist crying in the wilderness.

    1. “Most people don’t adopt a religion by carefully weighing its attributes against those of other religions or ideologies. ” At least one story (of doubtful authenticity) suggests an alternative scheme. In the
      mid-8th century, the chief or Kagan of the Khazars couldn’t decide which of the religions dominating nearby territories to align with. So, he invited holy men from Byzantium and Baghdad to explain to him the virtues of Christianity and of Islam, respectively. After hearing each of their presentations, he decided to become a Jew. Unfortunately, “Faith Vs. Fact” was not yet available at that time; if it had
      been, perhaps the Kagan would have aligned the Khazars with naturalism.

  21. Douthat has always been mush-brained, particularly as regards this topic. This piece may be the most egregious example of such gibberish yet.

    To argue for “the strange fittedness of our universe to human life” is sillier than arguing for the strange fittedness of Yankee stadium to have a hotdog wrapper blow through the bleachers during the seventh-inning stretch.

    It never ceases to amaze, the leaps of illogic an otherwise intelligent grown-up will go through to protect an infantile commitment to supernaturalism.

    1. “the strange fittedness of our universe to human life”…is just a bizarre take on the universe!

      Most of it is hostile to human life. Even much of our own planet is hostile to human life!

      Douthat’s take on this is like Trump’s kids saying “Our Dad Is The Best Guy In The Whole World!”

      Just a tad biased in overlooking evidence to the contrary.

  22. Lumpy-chubby, never-popular-with-the-girls Ross D. is a most annoying part of my regular Sunday mornings and I’m glad you pull him over to the side of the road and take his measure here PCC (E).
    With him its confirmation bias and hide the ball all the way down.

    He really juices up when he gets to the culture wars and women, though, and never fails to fall on his face logically when he does. THAT’S why I still read him.
    D.A.
    NYC

  23. Religion, per the sociological data, is a breeder cult. Traditional religiosity translates into TFR which translates into cultural influence and sometimes dominance. A crude evolutionary analysis would be that where you have an adaptation that increases the fertility of one population over other populations, their genes will be over-represented in the following generation, and you have an evolutionary adaptation that increases fitness.

    If this account is true, does this mean that religion is true, when it doesn’t matter if you are talking about Islam, Hinduism, Roman Catholics or Judaism? Or does it suggest fitness is no guarantee of truth, inviting skepticism about the rest of our evolved epistemological equipment, which evolved for fitness, not truth?

  24. If you think about religion in the industrial era, you are boosting fertility that becomes surplus industrial labor and conscript soldiers in a nation-state. If you look at now, given boosts in productivity and increasingly capital intensive and automated warfare, with no need for conscripts, and add to it resource scarcity and the ecological impacts of human populations, it is not at all clear that there is a lot of social benefit from religion, especially the fundamentalist and ultra-fundamentalist variety (which are the most anti-science to boot). [Of course, these groups are well adapted to take advantage of liberal-democratic welfare states while remaining illiberal.] I think we are going to miss the skeptical Protestant 2.1 children version of Christianity, but you can’t bring that back, it was just the tide going back out. At some point, Western liberal democracies are probably going to have to promote/encourage some kind of traditional religion to stabilize their populations (when they realize that the new immigrants stop having babies too), but they would be wise to avoid ceding too much ground to the ultra-fundamentalists. You can look at what China is doing, as their fertility problem is worse than most of the Western world, and their political system is much more decisive. (Of course, China won’t do much with religion because they don’t want an institutional power center outside the CCP, but they are focused on a lot of traditional themes.) As the West continues its demographic slide, eventually a political consensus will emerge and you will get something similar to China in baby steps (no pun intended). Americans are quite critical of nations like Russia and Hungary, but they don’t seem to notice that both countries were coming out of a terrible demographic slide post-Communist, something which Americans have never had to contend with in their history until up to the last decade maybe. I give it another 10 years before Americans realize immigration is not a panacea and having an inverted pyramid population structure and a large entitlement system for the old is precarious way to do business.

  25. It has been tested beyond reasonable doubt that the universe is a result of a natural process, with no remaining room for magic such as religious, as observed in modern LCDM cosmology.

    On the specifics, multiverses and laws.

    1. Multiverses:

    In 1987, Weinberg proposed a radical approach to this problem using a minimal version of the “anthropic principle.” He reasoned that perhaps the vacuum energy could take on different values, and that if it were bigger than a specific minute size, an accelerated expansion of the universe would rip apart galaxies before they had a chance to form, leading to a structureless, empty universe — one devoid of people wondering about the size of the cosmological constant. Weinberg argued that this predicted a tiny but nonzero size for the vacuum energy. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, with the simplest explanation being the presence of vacuum energy at just about the size suggested by Weinberg’s argument. Weinberg largely avoided the many boring diatribes surrounding the anthropic principle that followed, contenting himself with having pragmatically used anthropic reasoning to make a correct prediction about nature.

    I also vividly remember reading his paper on the anthropic explanation for the cosmological constant, which had me walking around in a daze for a month. It took me many years to come to terms with this point of view, and eventually even to embrace it in my own research.

    [Nima Arkami-Hamed, https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-steven-weinberg-transformed-physics-and-physicists-20210811/ ]

    2. Origin of physical laws:

    Noether’s theorem or Noether’s first theorem states that every differentiable symmetry of the action of a physical system with conservative forces has a corresponding conservation law.

  26. Those of us who regularly check in on the WEIT site are only too familiar with the tired saws that were trotted out – much more so that Douthat himself, who seemed so self-satisfied with his locutions. The piece reminded me of what an AI would spit out if you gave it the Discovery Institute playbook – rehash of old hash. It’s disappointing because i usually think of RD as a thoughtfully moderate conservative, an endangered breed rarely spotted in the wild.

  27. I could spend time refuting a lot of this.. but it would be a very tedious exercise and people like the author are beyond persuading.
    .
    What I find more interesting is the author fails to consider that assuming there is no God then there is also no free will. That is our actions and thoughts would all be consequences of our neurophysiology. Our neurophysiology itself being the consequence of complex biochemistry and physics and influences by responses to our environment. We would amount to being a sum total of reflexes.

    The people who are “religious” are simply religious because of the sum total on environmental influences they have encountered and the reflex responses of their nervous system they have. By the same token the author is not religious not because he is smarter or more insightful or anything else but his nervous system has encountered a different set of stimuli and his neurophysiology responded to it differently.

    The whole affair has about as much meaning as insects responding to pheromones. It is curious that the author does not seem to notice this.. He is not using his own judgement etc.. he would be merely one complex reflex arc somewhat amusing because it thinks it matters in some existential sense.. Which of course it would not if the author is correct.

    I actually disagree with various things the author has said.. but at the moment my nervous system is not allowing a point by point refutation.. ( tip to the author by the way.. you are really really long winded…. you need to shorten this because you are making points lots of other people have made before.. but again by your logic I suppose you can not help this either…

  28. Have watched several debates on the topic, and more often than not the theistic interlocutor comes on top. I really found intriguing that many smart people can be so obtuse sometimes.

    For instance, the problem of natural evil has been dealt with by Plantinga, with a plurality of philosophers accepting his response.

    It just seems that Jerry is not very aware of these philosophical discussions… not to mention Plantingas’ evolutionary argument against naturalism.

    1. It seems that you are not very aware of my extensive readings of Plantinga, stuff I discuss in my book Faith versus Fact. And it seems you are not aware of the contents of my book. Plantinga’s argument is the justification of MORAL evil, not natural (“physical”) evil. His justification of the latter involves. . . wait for it. . . SATAN!

      A plurality of philosophers accepting his response to moral evil? I don’t think so, because most philosophers are atheists.

      And it seems that you need to go educate yourself on what I know–and have written about–and don’t know. Here you’re just making a fool of yourself showing your ignorance.

      Plantinga,like most “sophisticated” philosophers of religion, purveys nonsense. You are convinced by him, in all likelihood, because you’re religious.

  29. Science gives us no reason to believe or not believe in God. It certainly will never provide evidence that God exists. It does however, include at it’s base the belief that the Universe is rational, can be understood and, most important, that everything we see has a prior cause that can be understood, simplified and linked with other causative agents. So far, science’s adherents have done an admirable job. On the other hand, some of us are also interested in purpose and prime causes, only one of which science attempts to deal with, laughably badly so far.

    It’s particularly funny to read things like why Jesus doesn’t come back more, or stop wars, etc. It sounds like our scientist believes in God, but is just waiting for the one with correct credentials to show up.

    There are three main possibilities: God doesn’t exist and the universe created itself; God does exist and chooses not to communicate with us; God exists and does communicate with us. These three possibilities are all ludicrous from a scientific standpoint, but I firmly believe in the third choice.

    1. Sorry, but you don’t seem to know what you’re talking about. Science could conceivably provide evidence that god exists. This is shown by the prevalence of creationism, which before Darwin was the only credible explanation for the origin and development of the Universe and life.

      As for “purpose and prime causes”, religion give us no good answers. It just makes up answers, and every religion has a different explanation.

      I’d be delighted to hear why you FIRMLY believe that Go exists and communicates with us given that this is “ludicrous from a scientific standpoint”, i.e., there can be no convincing evidence for it. So why do you believe so firmly? Did Jesus speak to you, or did you inherit faith from your parents?

  30. In general, I like Douthat a lot and often find his writing very interesting. But when he writes on religion, the topic that seems most important to him, he becomes unreadable. The argument that “God made the world beautiful to please us” is so old and tired that I recall Hitchens essentially taking pity on it when referring to a well-meaning teacher who used it when he was a child. Of course we have evolved to appreciate our surroundings, and not the other way around. If a dung beetle could think such thoughts, it might consider the beauty of animal feces to be proof of the existence of God.

  31. The un-caused cause is one of the frequent arguments for a belief in God or as supporting the existence of God. I see this refuted – as you did here – by asking “then what caused God?” This misses the point. Someone who believes in God believes in a God which by definition is out of the bounds of naturalism. It doesn’t need a cause; that’s the whole point. God is a being which ends the chain of searching for the immediately preceding “cause.” In fact, most of the refutations of arguments such as Douthat’s rely on a naturalist philosophical base. It’s sort of like claiming that “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is irrational reasoning because it’s physically impossible. Metaphorically, the point is clear and doesn’t require physical verification. There can be no naturalistic proof of God. You can consider it a valid viewpoint, if you wish, the same way you might tell your friend he needs to pull himself up by his bootstraps. We don’t need science and reason for every part of life. We are spiritual beings, even if you are able some day to explain with equations how I am conscious or how I think.

    1. Well, then why can’t the universe cause itself? After all, that’s what some physicists argue: an endless series of endings and beginnings. And to say that God needs no cause, simply because that ends the argument, begs the question in the real sense. And by what right can you say that “God doesn’t need a cause” beyond saying that that assertion is simply convenient. And yes, as I said, there can be naturalistic proof of God; I give one scenario in Faith versus Fact.
      Am I a “spiritual being”? How do you know?

  32. Fascinating how much ink is spilled here, how much bile is fermented, and how much derision, anger, and outright hate is expressed about others’ beliefs. In most advanced countries, religion is a choice, no one forces you to believe anything. Many commentators posted here about their departure from organized religion, well good for them; their conclusions are their business, but that is not what I find interesting at all. Why is there a need to broadcast it and in many cases demean those who choose to believe? Are they basically trying to find affirmation through others agreeing with them? Hmm, so we are seeing here thinking that actually mimics that of believers. If you are secure in your disbelief, you need not be here to affirm it by attacking those who do.

    1. Well aren’t YOU better than everyone else? Give me a break. You don’t seem to realize that dissing religion is not a personal hobby; that religion has severe downsides and criticizing it is not only free speech, but a useful exercise in dispelling harmful delusions. Do you think we should leave the Catholics alone for not punishing pedophiles, or ignore the Muslims’ oppression of nonbelievers, gays, and women, or the Orthodox Jews treatment of women as breeder cattle? I guess you do: we shouldn’t “attack those who believe”. And all those behaviors are predicated on ancient superstitions that have no evidence at all behind them.

      Pardon me, but yes, there are good reasons to go after religion. All you’re doing here is giving a fantastic display of ignorance about why people do that, and trying to show how virtuous you are.

      I suggest you go comment at sites like BioLogos rather than here, where we can discuss whether religious ideas are harmful or not.

    2. Why is there a need to broadcast it and in many cases demean those who choose to believe?

      The question could well be vacuous. There need not be a ‘need’ to ‘demean those who choose to believe’. So the question of why could be vacuous. Some people may choose to criticize; some may choose to demean. I am not saying that it is a good or bad thing to demean other people for what they believe; I am merely pointing out that there are some things people choose to do. Whether they need to or not is another matter.

      Are they basically trying to find affirmation through others agreeing with them?

      I don’t know. I can’t speak for everyone, but once again, it need not be the case. Personally, when I talk about religion face-to-face, it has mostly been with religious people who started off by disagreeing with me.

      If you are secure in your disbelief, you need not be here to affirm it by attacking those who do.

      One need not. But one could choose to do so. Once again, I am not saying that it is a good or bad thing. I am merely pointing out that is possible to be quite secure in your thinking while, at the same time, criticizing (attacking if you want) other people’s ideas.

  33. Pope John Paul II once said things should be viewed in the shadow of eternity. (The thought being if one is reflecting on their existence in the existence of God eternity is part of the equation).

    Most people would agree getting a mosquito bite would not be a sound foundation for not believing that there is a God.

    As mentioned in this article tremendous suffering is much more challenging when considering the existence of God.

    When viewing tremendous suffering throughout one’s life through the shadow of eternity, it is given some perspective. If one believes that they’re going to spend eternity with God, 50 years that really stunk amortize out to not being very significant from an eternal perspective.

    1. The problem is that there’s no evidence that we’re going to spend eternity with God. Besides, isn’t God kind enough to spare us those 50 years of misery. What is to be gained for having life on Earth being miserable, even if we’re happy n our cloud. Is God some kind of sadist?

  34. What causes an otherwise intelligent person to be “deeply blinded by [the] will to believe”? This does appear to be the most likely explanation for an unfortunate phenomenon. Is it upbringing, cultural immersion, emotional imbalance? All seem likely factors. In these individuals, and many less intellectually capable people as well, there seems to be an emotional imperative, however created and perhaps subconscious, to override their rational faculties in favor of a predetermined answer that addresses the emotional need. Their attempts at coherent, rational argument in favor of religion are, as has been amply demonstrated here with respect to Douthat’s piece, embarrassingly inadequate, but more often than not they just try to double down. All humans are emotional to some extent, and each of us has emotional needs, there’s nothing wrong with that — except when it induces a person to believe that which is not true, or at least for which they cannot assemble any legitimate evidence. Some people are able to keep this principle in view, others.. are like Ross Douthat.

  35. I stumbled on this article through RealClearScience.com and am not a regular here (but maybe in the future), but thought I would comment as someone who enjoys thinking about the intersection of faith and science when I get a chance.

    It seems to me the argument is not necessarily that fine-tuning proves God (to comment on that particular argument). At the base/beginning is what C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce – his overarching metaphor – “There are those who say to God, Your will be done, and those who say to God, my will be done”. Thus those who posit a God who created the universe and “fine-tuned” it for humans and other life to exist are at a certain gulf with those who say the opposite. They are able to look at the wonder of the universe and say, “God’s creation is amazing” while others look at it and say “This universe we live in is amazing”. I think we can all agree that the physical universe and all it encompasses is incredible – worthy of inquiry and life-times of thought. The difference between those like Douthat and Cone is that Douthat has chosen to believe in God (Your will be done), and Cone has chosen not to (my will be done), just as Lewis pointed out. Both look at the other and think “how can they think that despite all the evidence!?”
    This may not add much to the conversation but I believe helps answer your (Mr. Cone’s) wondering/puzzlement over how intelligent people can believe in God.

    1. The “empirical” evidence for God has not stood up to scientific examination. Therefore, my questioning of the evidence for God is more telling than believers’ claim that nature is evidence for God (and what kind of God).

      My name is COYNE, not Cone, for crying out loud!

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