From Australia: People who choose God over reality

July 31, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Here we have another science-versus-religion piece—this time by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—whose take-home message is that there’s no conflict: the two are compatible. Similar to the the last accommodationist piece I discussed, from the Voice of America, it uses me as the starting gate to trot out two scientists who assert that science and religion are not only compatible, but mutually reinforcing. 

And they make the same old insupportable arguments for compatibility. It’s short, so click below to read it:

First, the mean old Dr. Coyne disses compatibility, allowing the “religion and ethnics reporter” to call on the dissenters:

“Science and religion are incompatible,” argues biologist, Jerry A. Coyne, in his 2015 book, Faith Versus Fact.

“They have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.”

Coyne believes science and religion are diametrically opposed, locked in an irreconcilable “war between rationality and superstition”.

For others, however, science and faith go hand in hand.

Some have even left a career in science to answer a call from God.

Well that must show that science and faith are compatible, no? In fact, faith is stronger!

The first is Reverend Benji Callan, who got a Ph.D. in molecular biosciences in Adelaide and went on to work in nanotechnology. But then God called him:

. . . . Reverend Callen realised he was different. While he “enjoyed the intellectual rigour and creativity” of working in science, he “always had this sense that something wasn’t quite right”.

So, when he and his pregnant wife returned to Australia, he applied for a role as youth pastor at his old church.

He got the job and started studying for a Bachelor of Theology in 2005.

The unease he had felt throughout his lab career vanished.

“I did feel a little sense of sadness or loss,” he acknowledges.

“As soon as you step out of science, particularly research science … it’s really hard to get back into the game. I knew that there was no turning back.”

Reverend Callen is now the minister at Adelaide’s Burnside City Church, after spending eight years as a minister in the fishing town of Port Lincoln.

More power to him—though it won’t come from God. But this is just an anecdote. And his attraction to science is the same one promoted by the Templeton Foundation:

Like Reverend Edwards [see below], Reverend Callen sees science and faith as “complementary” not contradictory.

“Science does a great job of the ‘how’ of life, answering those ‘how’ questions – ‘How do cells work? How do stars work? How does gravity work?’ – but it does a pretty rubbish job at the ‘why’ questions – ‘Why are we here? Why do we have hope? Why do we love? Why do we hate?'”

As I’ve said before, science can indeed answer some “why” questions insofar as they’re empirically tractable. Why are we here? We know that one! Because of the Big Bang and evolution. Why do we love? Probably because it’s an emotion that promotes pair-bonding and hence reproduction. Why do we hate? Evolved xenophobia could be one reason, combined with ambition (a surrogate for reproduction) and the accompanying dislike of others whoget what we don’t have.

But that’s not the kind of answer Reverend Callen is looking for. All of his big questions are answered with one sentence, “Because God wants it that way.” Other religions, though, may have other answers. The difference between science and religion is that science can actually answer some of its questions and make progress in understanding the universe. Answering “because God” just pushes the question back to “what’s the evidence that there is a god?”, and there all questions must end.

Having disposed of the misguided Rev. Callen, let us pass on to Reverend Ann Edwards, once a speech pathologist and now Priest-in-Charge at St Mark’s Anglican Church at The Gap.

Despite the satisfaction she derived from speech pathology, Reverend Edwards still felt a call to God.

“I had this real sense of pull into ordained ministry,” she says.

In 2014, she followed the call and began training as a priest.

She felt the skillsets she developed in her life as a speech pathologist, manager and researcher would be of great use in the practical business of running a church, particularly in improving disability inclusion, an issue she was passionate about and the focus of her theology thesis.

. . . Reverend Edwards believes her scientific training is good preparation for the challenge of adapting ministry to a digital world, a prospect she finds exciting rather than daunting.

She sees no conflict between her “absolute belief [in] and love of science” and her faith. “My faith is informed by science,” she says.

At Christmas, she delivered a sermon on the religious and scientific conceptions of creation and “how beautifully the two work together — it’s almost like a tapestry”.

“The [Bible] stories have so much depth,” she says. “They still speak truth if we don’t hold them literally, and we hold them as they were meant to be.”

Here we go again with the shamefully duplicitous claim that the Bible was written as a metaphor and was never meant literally. That’s why science is so compatible with faith: science actually tells us what those who wrote the Bible (presumably inspired by God) actually were trying to say.  No, the authors of Genesis didn’t actually mean that God created the world and its inhabitants, or that there was a Noachian flood. These things were just metaphors, and what they were trying to say, “as they were meant to be”, was that there was a Big Bang followed by billions of years of evolution.

That is hogwash. If the Bible was meant to be metaphorical and not literal, why did nearly two millennia of religionists, including church fathers like Aquinas and Augustine, not to mention Pope Paul V and the Inquisition, take the Bible so literally that punishment was ordained for those who contradicted the literalism? Believers claiming that it’s clear that the Bible was intended to be taken as metaphor, not truth, are undercutting thousands of years of theology, all so they can maintain the fiction of metphor. Where in the Bible does it say that “Warning: the stories in this book are not to be taken literally”? Yes, Aquinas and Augustine thought that Bible stories could be read as metaphorical, but only on top of their literalism, which was taken as truth. Read Faith Versus Fact if you want further evidence.

Oh, and don’t forget that a full 40% of Americans are young-Earth creationists, believing that God created humans in our present form within the last 10,000 years. Doesn’t that show an incompatibility between science and religion. (Another 33% think that God guided evolution, so that nearly 3/4 of Americans think that the presence of life on earth required supernatural help.)

Clearly, Reverend Edwards is deceiving herself so she can maintain the fiction that the Bible works “beautifully” with science. But starting with Genesis, it doesn’t.

But wait! There’s more:

Reverend Edwards finds affirmation of her faith in the natural world. Observing a “tawny frogmouth standing so still that you couldn’t even see it in the tree – that was a thing of awe and wonder for me,” she says.

Reverend Callen says, “To be a good scientist, you need to have a sense of awe and wonder and curiosity about the universe.”

He believes worship requires the same qualities. “For me, going into the lab and discovering something new about the universe was my meditation and prayer. It was my awe and wonder.”

I’m not sure that to be a good scientist you have to have those “spiritual qualities”—I’ve known many who are basically grinds, obsessively focused on their research. I’m not speaking against that, and you could always argue that “well, they have a sense of wonder about [Organism X].” But to say that having a sense of wonder makes religion compatible with science is bogus. The scientist’s sense of wonder, more often than not, is about how amazing the universe is and how it’s all the product of physical law.  As Darwin, who did have a sense of awe, expressed it at the end of On the Origin of Species, comparing the “laws” of biological evolution (most likely adaptation via natural selection) with the laws of physics:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Forget about “breathed into a few forms”, which is a sop to believers. Darwin was at best an agnostic. He certainly wasn’t religious in the way that Revs. Edwards and Callen are.

Why doesn’t the ABC, or anybody for that matter, write an article about scientists who have left religion because they find that science makes a lot more sense? I don’t think I’ve seen such a piece in the mainstream media.


h/t: Joe

55 thoughts on “From Australia: People who choose God over reality

  1. ” Why are we here? We know that one! Because of the Big Band…” I’d go for the Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington bands, but there are those who incline toward Tommy Dorsey/.

  2. Observing a “tawny frogmouth standing so still that you couldn’t even see it in the tree – that was a thing of awe and wonder for me,” she says.

    There’s a why question science can answer: why does the Tawny Frogmouth stand so still? So it doesn’t get ripped apart and devoured by a predator, because that’s the way the all-loving god wants the world to work.

    1. Yes, one notices how the goddies pick and choose when it comes to the “beauty and grandeur of nature”. Never hear much about the lifecycle of the malaria parasite…

      1. The life cycle of the malaria parasite is magnificently beautiful. That of the parasitic flukes even more so.

  3. Regarding Edwards, Callan, and their ilk, credunt quia consolans.
    IRT scriptural metaphors, I’m waiting for a reporter to ask these reverends why the Christian metaphor is true and correct when compared to the metaphors of other religions. For example, the Indian myth of Vishnu’s dream is, IMO, a better fit with current scientific findings than the ancient Mesopotamian creation story that made its way into the Bible. I guess I’ll have to wait a long time for such a follow-up question, because, as Garry Wills pointed out years ago, most reporters are woefully ignorant of religion.

    1. Even more to the point, IMO: If *some* of the bible stories are metaphorical, but others are “literal,” then how can anyone know for certain which are which?

      If the Noachian flood is “metaphor,” for example, then how can Christians be so certain of the literal “truth” of the barely-less fantastical tale of Jesus, the god-man who was incarnated by himself in payment for a “sin” committed by two pitiful humans with no knowledge of good or evil countless generations earlier and subsequently applied to **every one of the estimated 100 billions of humans who have lived since***?

      The basic setup of Christianity (and all religions, IMO) is just bunkum, pure and simple.

      1. Yes. Reporters should ask your question as a follow-up, too.
        In my experience, when pressed, liberal, intellectual Christians just cannot give up the belief that Jesus was real and that he was some kind of unique, superior human, whether they conceive of him as God, Messiah, or perfect person.

      2. You make a very good point about A&E lacking any prior capacity for evil intent. I guess their pre-original sin was being insufficiently-loyal toadies.

  4. Why do these sophisticated believers never tell us exactly which bits of the Big Book of Magic Stuff are to be taken literally, and which bits metaphorically, and how they know which is which? And indeed how they explain away the many bits of it that demonstrate the Invisible Magic Friend to be, as RD says, “the most unpleasant character in fiction”.

    Part of the answer is that believers only read the nice bits of the BBoMS, the bits that confirm their biases. It’s often said that the best way to turn a Christian into an atheist is to make her read the Bible from start to finish. It is certainly a most unpleasant experience if you try it.

  5. Nonsense, of course. Religion makes many empirical claims that are inconsistent with the results of science. And, religionists invoke the “metaphor” argument post hoc to explain away the inconsistencies. If the two world views really were compatible, religionists wouldn’t need to explain the discrepancies away by defining them out of the realm of consideration. Do these folks really believe what they say? Some probably do. But what about the others—those who continue to make false claims after they’ve been shown to be false? I’m not so sure.

    Darwin’s last paragraph beautifully describes a biological world that runs of its own accord—without Divine intervention. He softened the tone with his “breathed into a few forms” but he clearly gave the nod to a mechanistic view of life’s history. Just as the Newtonian universe envisions the planets cycling endlessly according to fixed laws, Darwin saw life evolving through the eons according to the law of natural selection, a law that continues to evolve new species even today.

  6. Jesus, that piece by Nicola Heath is shallower than the shoal on the Great Barrier Reef where Capt. Cook ran aground.

  7. “The [Bible] stories have so much depth,” she says. “They still speak truth if we don’t hold them literally, and we hold them as they were meant to be.”

    The depth is coming from the interpreters. So are the strange combination of reasonable-but-inchoate definitions of “God,” (Being) “Faith,” (Hope) and “Spirit,” (Sense of Wonder.)

    It’s fun to try to think of any story, doctrine, or prosaic fact which couldn’t be helpfully manipulated into being meaningful, rich, deep — and not at all to be taken literally— by intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive people raised to believe it was all those things, and more.

    “It is in The Little Engine That Could that the most sublime elements of Existence are to be found.”

    “The Nationalist Socialist Doctrine of the Teutons of the 20th century was never meant to be taken literally, but understood metaphorically on a higher, cosmic level.”

    “The meaning of Life, the World, and Everything lies within every slug: study, pray, question, and believe.’

    1. The same should therefore be true of other mythologies like Norse or Greek etc. Equally as valid as repositories of Truth as revealed by gods.
      Religion is just all bollocks!

    2. PCC(E) : “… the shamefully duplicitous claim that the Bible was written as a metaphor and was never meant literally.”

      The old riff goes :

      “Hey – you weren’t there, how would you know?”

      ‘Course, they weren’t either.

      As regards literal v. metaphorical scripture, here’s quote I find intriguing from The Writings of John Burroughs, XI. Light of Day, p. 67 (copyright 1900, 1904 Houghton Mifflin – can be found on Google Books) :

      “How dormant and puerile man’s scientific faculties were during the early centuries of Christianity, when the foundations of the science of theology were laid, is well illustrated in a work called the “Christian Opinion concerning the World,” by the monk Cosmas,of the sixth century. Cosmas taught that the earth was literally a tabernacle, because St. Paul speaks of it as such, and that Moses exactly copied its form in his tabernacle. It is a flat parallelogram,
      twice as long as it is broad,roofed in by the sky, which is glued to the outer edges of the earth.It consists of two stories,in one of which dwell the blessed, and in the other the angels. It is from the type of mind that conceived such notions of the universe as this that we inherit our theology.”

      … haven’t looked up Cosmas yet.

  8. The fact that accomodationists feel the need to write such articles indicates their awareness of how shaky their arguments are.

    1. Yes. The smart ones surely know that their arguments have problems or are even wrong. Yet they persist despite that knowledge.

  9. Thank you for your courage in calling out the nonsense of compatibilists.

    I despair! Humans are supposed to be intelligent – but it is rare to encounter someone who can think for themselves.

    1. “Man is a rational animal – so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.”—Bertrand Russell

  10. “But that’s not the kind of answer Reverend Callen is looking for. All of his big questions are answered with one sentence, “Because God wants it that way.””

    Why does God want it that way?

    1. They make god into a super-human, just more powerful. They then suppose they can know the mind of such a being, whereas if there were, surely it would be totally beyond human comprehension. Like the Wittgenstein saying “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” Surely the same would be true of a god?

      1. One of their more transparent tricks: Asserting vigorously that doubters cannot possibly comprehend the nature, mind and motives of their god … then going straightaway to exceedingly confident explanations of its nature, mind and motives (all of which, by the way, almost always agree with those of the believer in question).

  11. So where are the metaphors supposed to stop? Are the several invocations about how homosexuality being a sin supposed to be a metaphor? Or about how sex before marriage? Apostasy? Women be having independence outside the home?

  12. To paraphrase an old truth, one is entitled to his or her own connotation, but no one is entitled to their own denotation. Keep up the good fight, Jerry.

  13. Being an Australian I can tell you that Oz is a highly secular country. Authors who pick out isolated examples of the opposite view and tout it as representative of the majority are dishonest. But I guess such behaviour goes along with belief with a giant invisible fairy, right?

  14. Dear Ms. Heath, Rev. Edwards, Rev. Callan:

    Which god? I believe all of your work is still ahead of you.

    Best Wishes,

    Mark Joseph

    1. I believe Hitchens used that excellent expression – which came up a few days ago here – it’s funny, but I searched for it, and a piece PCC(E) wrote on Hitchens’ last words came up.

      Sadly though, I still don’t have the source. Any help appreciated.

      1. I first heard Hitch use that sentence in a debate with Dinesh D’Souza. I can’t quickly come up with that particular source now, sorry, but if you have time to search, look for Hitch on the YouTube channels The Agatan Foundation and The Wonderful Truth.

      2. I know he used that turn of phrase a couple of times in debates. Once against Douglas Wilson, “Is Christianity Good for the World?”

        “But if you’ve established deism, you’ve got all your work still ahead of you to be a theist…”

        And again in a debate against Frank Turek, “Does God Exist?” At 6.35 in the following clip:

        1. Excellent work! Thanks!

          In the meantime, I had a chance to review some material from the mind of Hitchens.

    2. Indeed. In fact, if I thought there was much reason to believe in the supernatural, I would surely conclude either that there are a couple of gods, one good and one evil, battling it out (à la Manicheism, Zoroastrianism and others), with no sure indications of who might eventually win (if one ever will); or that there are a whole host of gods with equally numerous personalities, whims, foibles and appetites (almost all other religions other than the Abrahamic). Both would seem to fit our gagglefuck of a world (and the great majority our holy texts for that matter) much better than any single omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient god.

  15. “By a theist I understand a man who believes that there is a God. By a ‘God’ he understands something like a ‘person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe’. Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all in the above sense theists.”

    (Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. p. 1)

    What the theists are doing is explaining “obscurum per obscurius” (*, i.e. something obscure by reference to something even more obscure, because by explaining events such as the Big Bang in terms of a God, they presuppose the intelligibility of the concept of a bodiless person or spirit, be it divine or nondivine. But this very concept is extremely obscure!

    (* “an explanation which is harder to understand than what it is meant to explain” – Oxford Lexico)

    1. I shall steal that one.

      Annnd I found another:
      “When a scientific claim is falsified, it’s thrown into the garbage bin. When a religious claim is falsified, it’s turned into metaphor.” — Jerry Coyne.

    2. Exactly. Here’s more evidence if you have a strong stomach……Lex Fridman podcast with Bishop Robert Barron

    3. But of course god does “have” a body. How else would Adam be created in his image? How else would Moses get to see his behind (you know, since you can’t see his face and all)? And his body is described in many other passages as well. Oh, right. Metaphors. Sorry.

  16. To be fair you don’t see stories about scientists turning away from religion because of the old journalism aphorism “You never read about a plane that did not crash”.

  17. I’m not sure why Reverend Callan is being touted as an example of the compatibility of science and religion. He did feel the need to make a choice between them.

  18. I’ll read this in a minute, but I hope it isn’t what I think it is. The ABC is the gvt funded, say, PBS equivalent. I hope they haven’t gone religious. Jesus! Such an atheist country, thankfully.

    *former Australian

  19. Two unrelated thoughts on this topic: For scientists: what role, if any, does/might a spiritual belief or tradition play in evolution? How does a belief in a god or a religious tradition affect the ability of the believer’s DNA to transfer to successive generations? If a tradition such as a religious tradition isn’t helpful to evolution, why does it persist for so many generations? For folks in a persuasion frame of mind: binary frameworks aren’t always very helpful. Good or bad, true or false, and the why for those judgements, while useful frameworks in some contexts, aren’t very useful when trying to understand someone’s perspective as a prelude to a deeper conversation.

    1. I don’t know the answer to your questions. Why don’t you answer this: why has homosexuality persisted for so many generations? You are victim of the idea that a trait that hangs around for a long time must have some advantage by natural selection, but, particularly, for cultural traits, this need not be true.

      Finally, if you’re trying to tell me that giving people a binary framework isn’t helpful, I disagree. To argue with creationists by saying that both evolution and creation can be true is nonsense. Same with the idea of God. And why would I want a “deeper conversation” with either creationists or theologians. That just leads to endless fruitless discourse.

      But go ahead: try changing the mind of a Biblical creationist by saying that both creation and evolution can be true and are not a binary.

      1. Just a question, to clarify: Is your question regarding homosexuality intended to imply that homosexuals don’t (generally) have biological children, so that they would not tend to pass on their sexual inclinations to those children? I ask because I know of several gay people with biological children of their own. But I don’t really know how common it is for people of same-sex attraction to have biological children. (Obviously my question implies that these gay people with biological children are either bi, or not entirely gay, and/or the victim of some sort of coersion, etc.) I did a bit of googling, and it seems to be not at all uncommon. (See, e.g. Table 2 in this piece: I don’t know if there are any studies on the question from the evolutionary standpoint. I’ve often wondered.

    2. Two points: A spiritual “belief or tradition” isn’t a trait which stands alone. It contains elements which may fall under broader categories such as tendencies towards social agreeableness, optimism, problem-solving, self-soothing, sense of control, power, status, obedience to authority, etc. It’s easier to imagine why genes which gave animals those qualities may have outcompeted genes which did not. (I’m not an evolutionary biologist & may be wrong with this suggestion.)

      A conversation may not get very deep if it muddles forever in puddles of gray. Even multiple possibilities involving true, mostly true, kinda true, and “metaphor” means something. I think that our perspective becomes clearer under questioning. If it gets murkier, that’s not a good sign.

    3. I believe the ‘binary framework’ was actually frowned upon by the church – the Manichaean Heresy.

  20. The “why are we here” question does have an answer: to either succeed in putting all rationality aside and choosing to believe in things not evidently true and in things evidently not true, or suffer unimaginable torture for eternity for failing to have the aforementioned faith.

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