Marilynne Robinson again embarrasses herself with an attempt to harmonize science and theology

December 5, 2022 • 10:45 am

I used to like Marilynne Robinson‘s fiction (she won a Pulitzer for her novel Gilead), but over the years she’s increasingly pushed her Christianity into her fiction and, more notably, into her essays. (See here and here for her rants on “scientism”.) And she is a pious Christian; as Wikipedia notes, she even preaches:

Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism, and her interest in the ideas of John Calvin, have been important in her works, including Gilead, which centers on the life and theological concerns of a fictional Congregationalist minister. In an interview with the Church Times in 2012, Robinson said: “I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker.”

And now she’s in the New York Review of Books (NYRB). This magazine, under editor Bob Silvers, used to be a paragon of literary thought and quality, but since he died it’s come down in the world—though for some reason it always published Robinson’s lucubrations. In the article below (if it’s paywalled, join free for a short time), Robinson tries to derive a theology from science. She fails, not only because you can’t do that, but because she really doesn’t understand science. It’s embarrassingly bad—”dreadful” is too kind a word!

Not only is it really a sermon, not an essay (it’s full of passages from the Bible), but it’s very poorly written—surprising for a Pulitzer-winning novelist.

Her goal is to “rehabilitate” the antagonism she sees between science and religion. She appears to effect this reconciliation by adducing the wonders of science and evolution as evidence for God, though she spurns the idea of even needing evidence for God (she is of course a believer, but doesn’t need no stinking evidence). She also appears not to understand science.

Her using biological complexity and consciousness as evidence for the Divine comes perilously close to Intelligent Design, though she rejects that idea, too. After all, God doesn’t need to be buttressed with evidence of any sort. But then then proceeds to give that evidence—drawn largely from evolution and quantum mechanics—for many boring pages.

I could quote her at length, but I don’t want to damage your brain.  Here are the first three paragraphs laying out her thesis (bolding is mine):

I have been interested for a long time in theology and also in science. These two brilliant fields of thought have been at odds, supposedly, since the rise of what might be called the modern period, say, beginning in the nineteenth century. For the next one hundred years and more science flourished, applying its model of rationalism to every question, while increasingly religion struggled to find any way to justify its existence in the face of triumphant demystifications of reality. Then an odd thing happened. With one brilliant advance after another, science burst out of the constraints of rationalism and found itself in the terrain of quantum theory, which everyone says no one understands, but which is very robust and has been put to all sorts of practical uses. Rationalism had been choking out religion for generations as it proposed etiologies for the creatures to refute creation myth and ethics for human beings that often ran directly counter to the traditional teachings of religion. For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

More recently certain stalwarts of nineteenth-century truth and reason were sure they would at last deliver the death blow to religion. But they lost heart or retired or went to their reward before that mortal blow was struck, if it ever could have been. They may have noticed that science as it advanced did not much resemble their conception of it, but their views never moderated. In the meantime religion was damaged and science was, too, so far as their reputations are concerned. Religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven, science as atheistic and arrogant. It is not unusual for people and groups to embrace the harshest characterizations that are made of them, as seems to have happened in this case. This is one more reason why we should speak more generously of one another.

In light of the fact that science and religion are two major pillars of our civilization, it seems there should be some effort at rehabilitation. I haven’t noticed any. Science has felt the consequences of all this in budget cuts and controversies in schools and the refusal of important segments of the population, in critical matters of public health, to accept the views of scientists as offered in good faith. Religion, meanwhile, has been largely overtaken by a belligerency darker and cruder than obscurantism, the very antithesis of theology, whatever it might have to do with faith. At the end of this hard-fought and meaningless struggle nothing was resolved, but there was grave loss on all sides.

First, theology is not a “brilliant field of thought”—not unless you consider embellishing fairy tales a “brilliant” exercise.  My contention is that theology hasn’t “advanced” since the days of Augustine the Hippo (yes, I know the name is a joke). By that I mean that although Biblical exegesis has become less literalistic and more sophisticated, has changed, and has even gotten more “inclusive”, it hasn’t brought us one iota closer towards understanding the nature of God and the divine, much less giving us any evidence for God’s existence or true nature. How could it? It’s all MADE UP STUFF. Science, on the other hand. . . . well, you know what it’s accomplished.

Look at the first paragraph above, where Robinson mentions “etiologies for the creatures” that refuted creationism with rationality. “Etiologies” here means EVOLUTION, but for some reason she doesn’t say that. She’s trying to show off, I guess. In the next sentence, Robinson just gets things wrong:

For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

In fact, nineteenth-century versions of evolution became highly modified as our understanding grew, and took a great leap in the 1930s, when the Modern Synthesis fused the young science of genetics with evolution.  I’m not sure what the “sundry determinist implications” are, either.  Evolution is no more deterministic than is physics; that is, it is deterministic save for any truly indeterministic quantum-mechanical influences (perhaps in mutation?), but I don’t think that’s what she’s talking about.  And Robinson is just dead wrong in assuming evolution is less subtle than “physics, genetics, and other fields”, but she’s not even wrong when she says that evolution survived in the face of findings of other fields. In fact, evolution incorporated genetics soon after it was rediscovered in 1900.  Truly, I don’t think Robinson knows what she’s talking about here. What is the sweating writer trying to say?

She’s right in saying in paragraph two that “religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven”, though not all religionists are fearful; but if science was damaged by being seen as “atheistic and arrogant”, I haven’t seen it. In fact, as belief in God is waning, public confidence in science is increasing. Below are some data from a 2019 Pew poll. Compare scientists on the top line with “religious leaders” on the bottom. Scientists win!

Science is practiced as an “atheistic” discipline—that is, one that doesn’t need or invoke the supernatural in making explanations—but is it really seen as “arrogant”? It surely is by Robinson, who’s been banging on about “scientism” for years, but if science’s reputation is eroding because of that, well, religion’s is eroding faster.  And nobody is more arrogant than someone like Robinson who strongly believes in the Christian God, and claims to know His nature—without a lick of evidence!  At least scientists can test other scientists’ claims and then show them to be wrong. What would convince Robinson that there was no God, or a god but not the Christian God she worships?

Robinson is, of course, making up a scenario here: there’s no evidence that the public has less trust in science than in religion, and to say that theology isn’t obscurantist is wrong. In fact, Robinson’s whole piece is obscurantist, as is most modern theology (try reading Alvin Plantinga or getting a lucid explanation of why God allows innocent people to suffer physical evil).

Below, Robinson raises the something-rather-than-nothing question to buttress her harmonizing of theology and religion, but then denies that the question constitutes “proof” of God. Again, bolding is mine:

Science has pondered the evolution of the eye as a special problem. In the case of the scallop, that morsel so much a staple of our menus, the emergence of the eye seems to have happened twice—once as a fringe along the shell for ordinary scallop business, and again as two stalks that look straight up so that the creature can find its way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest. This is charming. This is delightful. A courtesy, a solicitude. What an uneconomic deployment of possibility. But that phrase could be applied to humankind, to the whole of creation. After all, why is there something rather than nothing?

First, I didn’t know that scallops evolved eyes twice independently, particularly as two stalks that “help them find their way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest”.  Five minutes on the Internet yielded no verification of this, but I’ll let readers see if she’s right there. What’s more important is her last question: a staple of “sophisticated” theology.  Why is there something rather than nothing? Clearly Robinson thinks that means that there’s something because God wanted something, but this question isn’t evidence for God, much less of her Christian God (see Sean Carroll’s take here). And even if it were, then we would have to ask,  “Well, why is there a God rather than no God?” Theologians will do some fast-stepping there!

But Robinson quickly explains that she doesn’t need no stinkin’ proof of God. I’m wondering why she believes in the first place, then:

If I seem to be proffering a version of intelligent design, I want to make it clear that I reject any argument that presents itself as a proof of God’s existence. I think there is a degree of irreverence in the very idea of proof. At the same time, whether or not His existence is a factor in the nature of the world, there is a glory in creation to which the hyperbolic celebrations of Scripture are uniquely appropriate. The Book of Job describes creation as the moment when “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” In the long final speech from the whirlwind, God names the beasts and the natural forces and luxuriates in their power and strangeness, in overwhelming reply to the questioning of His justice. Granting that this is a difficult teaching to absorb, it can only mean that the world, the cosmos, in its infinite particularity, should be seen as a joy to God Himself. Let us say, therefore, that it is recommended to our attention. And it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention, as the arts and the sciences have demonstrated.

She says she’s not offering proof, but she sure as hell is adducing “evidence”! She just euphemizes “proof” with other words: “let us say that it is recommended to our attention”, and “it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention.”  What she’s saying is that the natural world, and our ability to understand it, points towards God.

I really can’t go on further, as I can’t figure out what the sweating author is trying to say, and her essay is so poorly written that I wonder why the NYRB, once a bastion of good writing, printed it. After all, it’s not a thoughtful analysis of anything, but is simply a sermon couched in what Dan Dennett calls “deepities”.

I’ll just leave you with her quantum woo. She reads into quantum mechanics, which we don’t fully understand nor have a good physical picture of, some divine mystery that also points towards  God. Physicists may be amused by her invoking the observer effect (which I think is pretty much defunct) and other quantum stuff that she incorporates into theology. If this is Sophisticated Thelogy®, it is obscurantist, wordy, and impenetrable.

Popular ideas of God have often been essentially anthropomorphic and have tended to limit their conception of His awareness by a standard of the possible that imagined a vastly heightened but basically humanlike consciousness. Now we know that the nature of things is negotiated moment by moment at the level of quantum indeterminacy, that from a subatomic point of view the clay is still in the potter’s hands. We know that an observer, literal or other, can effect this openness to possibility, can cause the indeterminacy to de-cohere, to become one version of the array of possibilities present in any instance. This underlies what we experience as a great constancy.

. . . Then again, if the hypothesis is correct that time and space emerge from quantum phenomena, which are therefore in some sense prior to them, then I find myself failing to imagine Being that is not spatially or temporally local and yet is generative of these conditions for and of our existence. I find myself thinking of the intuitions of the ancient people that there was a time when the world came into being. In Babylonian mythology the god Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat, a giant, raging serpent. He slices her corpse in two and uses half to form earth, half to form sky. Scholars have claimed to find evidence that a tale like this lies behind the serene, magisterial creation in Genesis. And there are glimpses in the biblical creation of the suppression of a primordial chaos, tohu va-vohu in Hebrew, “without form and void” in English. The prophet Isaiah says God will punish “Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

In the end, Robinson’s views are risible, and an embarrassment to both her and the NYRB. And to think that she won a Pulitzer Prize before she went off the rails and began writing stuff like this!

How low the NYRB has sunk!

A check-in with BioLogos

August 8, 2022 • 9:45 am

I used to write a lot about the BioLogos organizqtion, particularly after Francis Collins and Karl Giberson founded it with the help of Templeton funds. Its mission was to persuade evangelical Christians that their faith was not at odds with science, particularly evolution.  Since one of my avocations is studying how people reconcile faith and science, I paid close attention to BioLogos for a while.

Well, Collins resigned when he became director of the NIH, and Giberson left as well (he’s now “a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he presently serves as Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.”) Giberson also writes stuff for Templeton.

The new President of BioLogos is Deborah Haarsma, who was an astronomer but now apparently writes on the compatibility of science and faith.

I lost interest in BioLogos when, as part of its mission to harmonize faith and science, it got heavily involved in arguments about whether Adam and Eve were literal people: the ancestors of all of us. This is a touchstone of Christianity, as that belief is the very source of original sin, and were BioLogos to claim that they were only metaphorical people promulgating a metaphorical sin, it would drive away their audience. Therefore, despite ample evidence from population genetics that two contemporaneous people were NOT ancestors of all of us (indeed, that there were never just two specimens of H. sapiens on the planet), BioLogos twisted itself into knots trying to figure out how Adam and Eve could be real. (After all, some claims of Christianity aren’t negotiable.)

I gave up at that point, realizing that the science-y people at BioLogos had surrendered to the goddy ones—and to erroneous claims of Christianity. This shows my contention that every Abrahamic faith, and many others (e.g. cargo cults, Scientology) do depend on factual statements, and when science disproves them, this creates a conflict. You do have to choose: a literal Adam and Eve or the data from population genetics.

This morning I went back to BioLogos just to see what was up, and I see they’re involved in the same mishigass, not having made much of a dent in causing evangelical Christians to accept evolution and the rest of science. (That was always a fool’s errand.) Here are just two examples

First, a two-minute movie that conveys the tired old message. It’s just down from the top on the main BioLogos Page, so I can’t give you a direct link. But click on either screenshot below and look for the header:


The message is old: science answers the empirical questions, while faith (i.e., Christianity) answers the Big Questions. Here are some of the Big Questions that science can’t answer:

  1. What matters most?
  2. Is the purpose of the human soul mapped in their DNA?
  3. What is the atomic number for joy?

Presumably Christianity can answer them (well, maybe except for the third). The answer to all the Big Questions is always the same: “because that’s the way God wants it, and our job is to serve God and Jesus.”  Here’s the last sentence of the video:

Science can tell us how the world works, but only in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus do we see what it all means.

They don’t deal with Judaism, Islam, or other faiths because the audience of BioLogos is evangelical Christians. But one would think that thoughtful Christians would ask themselves two questions:

a.) Well, are those other people who believe other things (and not in Jesus as God/son of God) simply wrong? After all, their belief is as strong as mine!

b.) How do we know that the “answers” that Christianity gives us are true? Science, after all, has independent ways of checking what is true, while the “answers” given by faith are all contained in a single self-contradictory book written millennia ago. And books from other faiths say different things.

But perhaps the terms “thoughtful evangelical Christian” is an oxymoron.

The other piece you can read (click on screenshot below), is a soothing paean to the harmony between science and religion by Deborah Haarsma, BioLogos’s President:

First, Haarsma coughs up some statistics I’ve mentioned before—statistics that show the increasing secularization of America. One reason for the waning of religion in America is that it  truth claims of religion seem increasingly irrational and insupportable.


In research over a decade ago, Barna asked millennials who grew up in the church why they left. Although respondents gave several reasons, 29% said “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” and 25% said “Christianity is anti-science.”

In 2018, Barna surveyed the next generation (GenZ), the teenagers currently attending church, and science was an even larger concern: 53% agreed that “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” And in 2019, Barna surveyed young people all over the globe, asking them why they doubt things of a spiritual dimension, and found that “science” was one of the top reasons they doubt, second only to “hypocrisy of religious people” and even greater than “human suffering.” Science is a growing factor in people leaving church, doubting God, and dropping away from their faith altogether. With the increased polarization over science during the pandemic, I fear this trend will only grow.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way! Christian beliefs can actually support the investigation of God’s creation, and discoveries in the natural world can build up one’s faith. The problem is that most young people aren’t hearing this message.

Nope, they’re not hearing it, despite BioLogos spending a lot of money to get that message across. And the rest of her piece explains how Christian beliefs (including the Resurrection, original sin, and presumably the End Times) can be made compatible with science and the disaffected young folk indoctrinated in this view.

By the way, Haarsma didn’t come by her Christianity through empirical investigation or study of other faiths: she was brought up that way—indoctrinated.

In the 1970s and 80s, I grew up in a wonderful church in the suburbs of Minneapolis. This was a white evangelical church, back when “evangelical” meant an emphasis on evangelism, not politics. This community grounded me in the faith, giving me a bedrock conviction that God exists and loves me. My Sunday school teachers and the Bible quiz team fostered in me a deep knowledge and love of the Bible. When it came to science, people at church encouraged me in school, and the parents of my church friends included an engineer and a math professor.)

But she did have an epiphany at her Christian college when she encountered John Calvin’s phrase, “All truth is God’s truth,” which of course presupposes a Christian God in the first place. And so she had the Big Revelation that the Bible should be read as an extended metaphor, not as a textbook of science. (What she means here, of course, is that “parts of the Bible aren’t really true, but I know which parts are true”.):

. . . For the first time I heard about the culture of the ancient Near East. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians believed that many gods were involved in creation, and they pictured a flat earth with a solid dome sky with water above it (a “firmament”).

I realized that in Genesis chapter 1, on the second day of creation, God takes credit for making this firmament. That means God didn’t try to correct their misconceptions about the natural world; it would have distracted them from the larger message. God had other goals in mind.

I concluded that if God didn’t put modern science into Genesis, I shouldn’t be trying to get modern science out of Genesis. Instead I should focus on God’s primary message: that there is one sovereign Creator (not a pantheon of gods), that creation is good, and that humans are made in God’s image.

Note how they slyly call the factual claims of the Bible “science”, so that they can evade them by saying “the Bible isn’t a textbook of science.”

It’s curious how these people know what God’s primary message is, and it’s not in the least literalistic. But where in the Bible does it say, “This book is largely metaphorical. The message it intends to convey is this  ______________.” After all, the message Haarsma says is God’s primary message could easily have been conveyed to people two millennia ago. It doesn’t need to be tricked out with stories about creation, Floods, exoduses, crucifixions, and resurrections.

And so she tells us how to get people to accept her message, a tactic she learned from Elaine Ecklund at Rice University, who’s made a career twisting the facts to show that science and religion are compatible:

Thus, I came to understand how I could accept the scientific evidence without leaving God behind. This is a key point for many people. Research by Elaine Howard Ecklund in 2018 (Religion vs. Science, see p.139) found that, across multiple science issues, people of faith are open to science as long as they hear two important points: 1) that there is an active role for God in the world and 2) that humans as God’s image bearers hold a special place in creation. No matter the issue, believers need to know that learning scientific findings won’t remove God from the picture or make humans insignificant.

But how are you going to convince people of a theistic deity who cares about you, as well as about the uniqueness of humans made in God’s image? You can do this only by appealing to their confirmation biases (“I want this to be true”) or by propaganda. There is no independent evidence for them.

And this is why I say that in one sense, at least, people must choose between being a pious religionist or accepting science (naturalism, really). Either you have good reasons for what you believe or you don’t. That’s why my book on this topic is called Faith Versus Fact.  Sure, you don’t have to choose if you see nature as god, or embrace a watery deism that makes no factual claims. But that’s not the message BioLogos is pushing.

At the end, Haarsma says that the key to getting believers to accept science is to show them scientists who are believers, and ignore those nasty atheists who mix godlessness with science. But what you cannot do is tell the questioning young people that Christianity must be wrong. Let them question, by all means, but also “hold to the core of our faith”:

This was in the 1990s; in the decades following, the militant atheist movement made it even harder for Christians to trust what a popular scientist had to say, because authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, Coyne, and others were regularly saying that science rules out God and smart people aren’t religious. But in Portraits of Creation, I found chapters by Christian geologists and Christian astronomers, who explained the scientific evidence for the age of the earth and how they reconciled it with their faith. I came to see the Big Bang not as an atheistic alternative to God, but as a scientific model describing God’s work in creating the universe. Learning about science from Christian voices I trusted made all the difference.

Well, science does rule out some aspects of Christianity, like the Great Flood or the existence of a couple, Adam and Eve, who were ancestors of us all, but my main message that science absolutely rules out Christianity, but that it gives is no evidence for Christianity (or any such faith), and why should you believe—without good evidencee—something so important to your life (and afterlife) as Christianity?

Just hold onto your faith when you talk to the young people. Don’t let them bother you with questions like, “What evidence is there that Jesus was resurrected besides the contradictory stories in the Bible?”

We can all help the next generation. Let’s come alongside young people in their questions, rather than giving simple answers. We can wrestle with them on the secondary issues, while showing ways to hold to the core of our faith. Let’s point to believing scientists as trusted voices who can explain where the scientific evidence is rigorous, show which pieces are scientific speculation or atheist add-ons, and tell their own stories of following Jesus Christ. And whatever the issue, let’s tell the larger story.

Explaining the scientific evidence is not enough. We can show how God has an active role and how humans have a special place in God’s creation. We can come alongside the next generation as they reconstruct a strong, Christ-centered faith, and become gracious, faithful, and informed leaders on the difficult questions of today and tomorrow.

If you want the full version of this argument (if it be an argument), Haarsma makes some of these points in a 50-minute talk at the 2022 BioLogos conference. You can see the talk here.

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

What does the Webb telescope reveal about God?

July 27, 2022 • 9:15 am

A few days ago, a reporter for the Voice of America‘s website called me and said she was working on a piece about the compatibility of science and religion, all prompted by some religionists’ claim that the Webb Space telescope revealed the handiwork of God.  I guess she interviewed me because I’m an advocate of incompatibility, and it was clear she was looking for voices on both sides (I suggested that she contact some accommodationists, including Ken Miller at Brown, who features in her piece).

You can read the article below for free (click on screenshots):

The article begins with a tweet by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who clearly saw the Webb’s first images as, well, you can see what he said:

Author Mekouar notes that Rubio’s post got pushback on social media from those saying that it was science, not God, that not only provided the images, but would analyze them. She then begins quoting from the dueling interviews.

Unfortunately, I’m the only one quoted arguing that science and religion are incompatible. In contrast, three people (four, if you count Georges Lemaître) argue for compatibility of science and faith. As for “equal time,” well, a crude count on my part showed that in an article whose content was about 1150 words, 214 came from opponents of compatibility (i.e., me) and 753 from the four who see no incompatibility. That’s a ratio of 3.5 words from incompatibilists to words soothing accommodationists.

To me that seems unbalanced, both in terms of space (which doesn’t concern me so much) but especially in terms of  the”experts” consulted. The ratio is four to one against atheists. Where are the other scientists who see an incompatibility between science and faith: people like Richard Dawkins, Steve Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss—or even Carl Sagan? These people wrote and spoke far more eloquently than I about the science/faith incompatibility.  They are not mentioned, though two of these (and a passel of others) could have been interviewed. So it goes.

I’ll put the entirety of what I said below and some quotes from the accommodationists, along with my comments. All indented quotes are from the article.

The skeptical comments are emblematic of the long-standing, ongoing debate about whether science and religion can be reconciled.

“There are a gazillion religions, each one making a different set of claims about reality, not just about the nature of God, but about history, about miracles, about what happened. And they’re all different, so they can’t all be true,” says Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

Coyne, who likens religion to superstition, wrote a book called, “Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.”

“The incompatibility is that both science and religion make statements about what is true in the universe,” Coyne says. “Science has a way of verifying them and religion doesn’t. So, science is based on this sort of science toolkit of empirical reasoning or duplication experiments, whereas religion is based on faith.”

Coyne says he was raised a secular Jew and became an atheist as a teenager.

“Scientists are, in general, much less religious than the general public. And the more accomplished you get as a scientist, the less religious you become,” he says.

A 1998 survey found that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the U.S., don’t believe in God.

I’m happy with what I said. (I think the “duplication experiments” will be changed to “duplicating experiments”).

The rest of the article is about scientists who see science as not only compatible with religion, but also buttressing religion. One of these is Ken Miller, who first explains, to his credit, that people see an incompatibility because religion is sometimes hostile to science. (He says there are other reasons, but this is one, and I’ve seen it cited in surveys assaying why young people are becoming “nones”.)

“I personally think there’s a couple of reasons for that,” says Kenneth Miller, a devout Roman Catholic and professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry at Brown University in Rhode Island. “One of them, to be perfectly honest, is the out-and-out hostility that many religious institutions or many religious groups display towards science. And I think that tends to drive people with deep religious faith away from science.”

Later, however, Miller explains why science has actually buttressed his Roman Catholicism. First, though, we have a STEM person from Boston University explaining the supposedly reinforcing nature of science and faith:

“Science actually underlines the importance of religion because God told us that He created the Earth and the heavens,” says [Farouk] El-Baz, who is also director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. “And the heavens, there are supposed to be all kinds of things out there. And scientific investigations have actually proved that, yes, there are all kinds of things out there.”

Maybe God told El-Baz that, but he forgot to tell the rest of us doubters.  He argues that “scientific investigations have actually proved that, yes, there are all kinds of things out there”, but what kinds of “things” constitute evidence for God? El-Baz doesn’t say (or maybe he told the interviewer). And yes, of course there are things out there that we don’t understand, like dark matter, but why on Earth would that be evidence for God? That’s the Argument for God from Ignorance.

People like El-Baz are not objective about their faith: they’re looking to the Webb photos—and the rest of science—as evidence to reinforce religion. It’s confirmation bias, and not very good confirmation bias. One could argue, for instance, that the vast, lifeless emptiness of most of space is evidence not for God but for the laws of physics.

Miller reappears:

Miller argues that the perceived conflict between scripture and science comes from those people who take the Bible literally:

Miller accepts the theory of evolution and says much of scripture is metaphorical, an explanation of the relationship between Creator and His creation in language that could be understood by people living in a prescientific age.

“[The book of] Genesis, taken literally, is a recent product of certain religious interpretations of scripture,” Miller says. “In particular, it’s an interpretation that became quite influential in the latter part of the 19th century among Christian fundamentalists in the United States. And the reality is that much of scripture is figurative rather than literal.”

Can Miller tell us exactly which bits of scripture are figurative rather than literal? Yes, Genesis is metaphorical, but what about the miracles of Jesus—or the existence of Jesus himself?  And what about the Crucifixion and especially the Resurrection? Are those literal phenomena or figurative? (Some think the person of Jesus has no historical basis, and certainly not all Christians think that even a real Jesus was both the son of God/part of God and came back to life after he was crucified.)

What about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, or the Census of Quirinius , which supposedly drew Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem? These are not metaphors, but simple errors, as neither assertion is true. This is exactly what you’d expect in a book confected and written by humans. All the “evidence for God” adduced by Christians simply comes down to assertions from the Bible, which, as Miller notes, isn’t literally true.

Miller—and I emphasize that he’s both a nice guy and has done good scientific work, as well as writing definitive textbooks—is also a remarkable theologian, as he’s able to winnow the metaphorical from the true, all in a single book written by humans. He also seems to know that science itself has told us what kind of God we have, even though there’s no evidence for a deity:

In Miller’s view, the concept of God as a designer who worked out every intricate detail of every single living thing is too narrow a vision of the Creator.

“The God that is revealed by evolution is not a God who has to literally tinker with every little piece of trivia in every living organism, but rather a God who created a universe in a world where the very physical conditions of matter and energy were sufficient to accomplish his ends,” Miller says. “And to me, that conception of God creating this extraordinary process that nature itself allows to come about is a much grander vision than a God who has to concern himself with every little detail.”

This is a god for which there is no possibility of disconfirmation, because everything that science tells us—stuff like evolution that used to be taken as evidence against God—is now seen as evidence for God. (That’s an idea that John Haught has been pushing for years.) The idea that the more we learn about science, the grander God becomes, winds up as a non-starter of an argument. If we’ve learned everything about the universe, and it all comports with the laws of physics, does that make God the most grand of all? This is an Argument for God from Science!

El-Baz uses the same dodge:

El-Baz says some people fear that science will reduce their religiosity, but the reverse is true for him.

“We understood through God’s guidance that humans evolved from other creatures, and evolution is still going on, and there’s absolutely no conflict between what science and religion are informing us,” he says. “It’s very easy to consider that a creator, or a force of creation — God or whatever faith you have — that it’s a force that put all of these things together, that created all of this.”

It’s interesting that the “design” of organisms was once seen as some of the strongest evidence for the existence of God. Now that we know that this design arises via the naturalistic process of natural selection, well, now it’s even stronger evidence for god.  The religionists can’t lose!

The article also quotes Accommodationist #4,  intellectual historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, who says this, among other things:

Jewish tradition also accepts evolution, according to intellectual historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, who suggests that the rise of the religious Christian right in the United States also influenced more observant Jews to harden their position against evolution.

“Medieval Jewish philosophy basically followed the Muslim paradigm,” says Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University. “The Muslim theologians and the Muslim scholars showed Jews how you can integrate a monotheistic tradition together with Greek and Hellenistic science … and showed how scientific knowledge is always a tool that enables you to understand the divinely created world better.”

She too, has bought into The Arguement for God from Science.

The line taken by all three quoted accommodationists thus takes the same form, which I characterize this way:

“We know the universe was divinely created, so the more understanding of that universe brought to us by science, the greater the glory of God, and the better we understand Him.”

Of course, we also know from science that this God kills many innocent people that he could have saved were he either all-loving or all-knowing, and we also know that God loves empty space, which is why the Webb scope show us the huge, fantastic theater that serves as a backdrop for the puny history and aspirations of humans!

The fatal flaw of all of these scientists and historians is this: None of them give us evidence for God in the first place.  Everything comes from the Bible and Qur’an, and nothing from extra-scriptural evidence. Combine that unsubstantiated assumption with the argument that scientific understanding must always reinforce the glory of God, and you have an airtight case for accommodationism—there can be no conflict between science and religion.

I suspect that if you read this article, on balance you’ll find that it supports the case that science and religion are compatible. But judge for yourself.

Frank Wilczek, the newest Templeton Prize winner, talks about science, religion, and their relationship

May 20, 2022 • 9:15 am

The Los Angeles Times has a long interview with Frank Wilczek, polymath and physics Nobel Laureate who recently nabbed the $1.3-million Templeton Prize. As I wrote a couple of days ago, Wilczek doesn’t fit the mold of those who’ve won the Prize over the past decades, as he professes no belief in a personal god (he’s a pantheist), and emphasizes the power of science versus faith. It is the case, though, that the prize, which used to go to believers like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, is increasingly being conferred on scientists.

My main impression of the article is that the paper is subtly pressuring Wilczek to admit to some belief in the numinous, but Wilczek won’t bite. He does say a few strange things, but on the whole Wilczek seems to be one of us “nones”: a “pantheist” who rejects the idea of a personal God. Instead, he sees the whole of nature as “God”.  Well, I could say that, too, professing that I see all the panoply of evolution as God. Does that qualify me for the Templeton Prize?

Originally I saw no harm in giving the prize to someone who is, in effect, an atheist in the sense of being an “a-theist”—someone who rejects any conventional notion of gods. But several readers noted that giving Wilczek the Templeton Prize enables the Foundation to enfold him into their stable of faithheads and, to some extent, justify their aim, which the L.A. Times says involves extols “the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” The very notion of a “purpose” for humankind immediately conjures up the notion of God. And those readers may be right: Wilczek’s acceptance harms science.

Click to read:

Here are some statements by the Times and by Wilczek that struck me. First, the paper tries to draw a connection between Wilczek and belief in God:

As a theoretical physicist, Wilczek has been peeking under the hood of our perceived reality for more than 50 years. His insights and ideas have led to several revolutionary scientific discoveries, as well as an almost theological perspective on the nature of the world and our role in it that he shares in his myriad articles, books and talks for a general audience.

And yet, Wilczek has said some stuff that can be used to claim that he believes in a God, even though he’s a pantheist (in my view, a humanist). Here’s a quote from him given by the paper:

You’ve written that “in studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” So, what do you think God is?

Let me lead into that by talking about two of the greatest figures in physics and their very different views of what God is. Sir Isaac Newton was very much a believing Christian and probably devoted as much time to studying Scriptures and theology as he did to physics and mathematics.

Einstein, on the other hand, often talked about God — sometimes he used that word, sometimes he said “the old one” — but his concept was much different. When he was asked seriously what he meant by that, he said he believed in the God of Spinoza, who identified God with reality, with God’s work.

That was Einstein’s view and that is very much closer to my spirit. I would only add to that that I think God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be. So, to me, God is under construction. My concept of God is really based on what I learn about the nature of reality.

Now I think that the quote in bold (from the Times’s question) is poor, and clearly leads to misinterpretation.  The “God” of Wilczek is not the kind of God that nearly any believer accepts. Later on in the article, he emphasizes that. I’m still symied, though, by Wilczek’s statement that “God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be.” What does he mean by that? Even as a pantheist, how can you take as God a reality that doesn’t even exist? And how should the world be?

But here again, the L.A. Times tries to imply that there’s a more conventional religious cast to Wilczek’s views. From the paper:

In addition to groundbreaking discoveries, Wilczek’s work has also led him to some of the same conclusions shared by mystics from all religions: the myth of separateness and the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

As he wrote in “Fundamentals,” “Detailed study of matter reveals that our body and our brain — the physical platform of our ‘self’ — is, against all intuition, built from the same stuff as ‘not-self,’ and appears to be continuous with it.”

Other spiritual insights from his decades of scientific study include the idea of complementarity — that different ways of viewing the same thing can be informative, and valid, yet difficult or impossible to maintain at the same time, and that science teaches us both humility and self-respect.

The quote given by Wilczek is far from “spiritual”: it argues that the stuff of our body and brain obeys the laws of physics, be they deterministic or indeterministic. That’s NOT “spiritual!  (He also more or less rules out a “soul.”)

And the idea of “complementarity” clearly refers to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics: an electron can behave as a particle and a wave at the same time. We don’t understand quantum mechanics at its most basic level—does it correspond to any reality?—but our lack of understanding doesn’t promote spirituality, any more than our failure to understand what dark matter or dark energy are constitute “spiritual insighta.”

The Q&A with Wilczek tells us more about him. The stuff in bold is the paper’s questions (my comments are flush left):

Do you consider yourself an atheist, agnostic? Do you have a definition you’re comfortable with?

Not affiliated with any specific recognized church is certainly part of it, but I’m more comfortable saying that I’m a pantheist. I believe that the whole world is sacred and we should take a reverential attitude toward it.

What, exactly, does he mean by saying the “whole world is sacred”? We can have a “reverence” towards it because it’s amazing and yet still comprehensible, but that’s not the same thing as believing in God. It would have helped had Wilczek defined what he means by “reverential” and “sacred”. In fact, I’d love to interview him myself.  These answers, of course, involve words that would put him into the running for the Templeton Prize.

Are science and religion in conflict with each other?

No, they are not in conflict with each other. There have been problems when religions make claims about how the world works or how things got to be the way they are that science comes to make seem incredible. For me, it’s very hard to resist the methods of science which are based on the accumulation of evidence.

On the other hand, science itself leads to the deep principle of complementarity, which means to answer different kinds of questions you may need different kinds of approaches that may be mutually incomprehensible or even superficially contradictory.

He’s just admitted that they ARE in conflict with each other! For there are very few religions—none of them Abrahamic—that don’t at bottom rest on certain empirical assumptions about the world and Universe. He’s also admitted that science is based on evidence (but omits the obvious addendum: “and religion is based not on evidence but on faith”). The “deep principle of complementarity”, by which I assume he means quantum complementarity, is baffling but doesn’t show there’s anything wrong with science, much less that the answer involves the numinous. By saying “on the other hand,” though, he implies that “complementarity” is immune to scientific evidence.

You’ve written that “in studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” So, what do you think God is?

Let me lead into that by talking about two of the greatest figures in physics and their very different views of what God is. Sir Isaac Newton was very much a believing Christian and probably devoted as much time to studying Scriptures and theology as he did to physics and mathematics.

Einstein, on the other hand, often talked about God — sometimes he used that word, sometimes he said “the old one” — but his concept was much different. When he was asked seriously what he meant by that, he said he believed in the God of Spinoza, who identified God with reality, with God’s work.

That was Einstein’s view and that is very much closer to my spirit. I would only add to that that I think God is not only the world as it is, but the world as it should be. So, to me, God is under construction. My concept of God is really based on what I learn about the nature of reality.

Here again Wilczek admits that he sees God as “reality”, not as something supernatural. The Gods of Einstein and Spinoza were not goddy gods, but simply physical reality, and wonder before reality is not religion. Einstein, of course, rejected the idea of a personal God, and I don’t believe ever said that “reality” is “God’s work” (but I’m willing to be corrected). As far as I know from my reading of Einstein, he was a straight-up pantheist, and any palaver about what God did or wanted (like “not playing dice”) were mere musings about the nature of reality.

Does that God have a will?

Not a will as we would ascribe to human beings, although I’m not saying that’s logically impossible. I would say it’s really a stretch, given what we know. The form of the physical laws seems to be very tight and doesn’t allow for exceptions.

The existence of human beings, as they are, is a very remote consequence of the fundamental laws. One thing that [the physicist] Richard Feynman said really sticks in my mind here. He said, “The stage is too big for the players.” If you were designing a universe around humans and their concerns, you could be a lot more economical about it.

Of course a god with a will is not logically impossible, but it’s clear that Wilczek doesn’t buy it. And of course he must know that Feynman was an atheist, and appears to share Feynman’s view that the universe doesn’t look as it it were constructed with humans in mind.

There is more Q&A, but I’ll just give one last exchange:

While I was preparing for our interview, I came across a statement by the Catholic Bishops of California that said science cannot answer our deepest and most perplexing questions like, “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of my life?” “Why have I suffered this loss?” “Why is God allowing this terrible illness?” They said these are religious questions. Do you agree?

Science doesn’t answer those questions. On the other hand, you ignore science at your peril if you are interested in those questions. There’s a lot you can learn from science by expanding your imagination and realizing the background over which those questions are posed. So, saying that science doesn’t have a complete answer is a very different thing than saying, “Go away, scientists; we don’t want to hear from you, leave it to us.”

Now here Wilczek missed a shot, but it’s a shot that would have made Templeton revoke its Prize. What he should have said is this: “Science doesn’t answer those questions (though it can inform them), but religion doesn’t either.” He’s cleverly avoiding dissing religion.

The problem with softball interviews like this is that nobody ask Wilczek the really hard questions, or at least questions that would lay his disbelief out clearly. Example: “what exactly did you mean when you said that “the world is ‘sacred'”? And so on.  What’s clear is that Wilczek doesn’t adhere to the notion of God shared by the vast majority of religious believers around the world. Instead, he sees God as physical reality, pure and simple.

The only remaining question is, “With Wilczek’s views, why did Templeton give him the Prize?” There are many possible reasons, but, thank Ceiling Cat, I’m not on the board of those who have to weigh the factors.

On the origin of the specious: Jesuit magazine says that Darwin was both an evolutionist and an advocate of “intelligent design”

February 23, 2022 • 10:45 am

The article below (click on screenshot), is from the magazine America, a “Jesuit Review”. and it’s by Christopher Sandford, a writer who, while he may be religious, is certainly no padre. Here’s his bio from MacMillan:

Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Imran Khan, Harold Macmillan, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, and Roman Polanski. He is also the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over 20 years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him “the pre-eminent author in his field today.” Sandford divides his time between Seattle and London.

But the article below, with its provocative title, suggests expertise in the history of science. Sadly, little is evident in the piece, as Sandford is setting up a straw man and then burning it down.

Click on the screenshot to read:

What he means by saying that we’re reading Darwin “all wrong” is that we read Darwin as an icon of atheism, a man who had no truck with any species of the divine, and deliberately designed his works to demolish the idea of God. As I’ll show below, that’s not true. Darwin simply didn’t care much about God so long as he could explain biological design by a theory that didn’t invoke God.

Sandford also states that, after writing the Origin, Darwin had two ideas in his head at the same time: a materialistic evolution but also one mixed with some intelligent design.  This is not true. Insofar as Darwin thought of “intelligent design,” he merely suggested in passing that perhaps the “laws of the universe” were designed. He rejected the idea of God held by his contemporaries (see below). We know this because Darwin told us this. He was at best an agnostic.

But he was also canny: he knew very well the implications of evolution for the religious—the implications of giving a purely materialistic explanation for phenomena that for several millennia had been seen as the strongest evidence for God: design in nature. This is why Darwin devoted only a single weaselly sentence to human evolution in The Origin: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

But then he put his cards on the table in 1871 with the publication of The Descent of Man.  But his continuing reluctance to discuss the theological implications of his theory is simply because he wanted his theory to be accepted, and accepted by people who were Bible-believing Christians. This reluctance has been interpreted by some as equivocation, but is seen by Sandford is seen as Darwin believing both in evolution and “intelligent design.”

Sandford’s thesis is summed up in a paragraph near the end (my bolding):

For many people today, Darwin has become a sort of secular deity, an icon for atheism who at a stroke swept away the antediluvian superstitions of his age and ushered in an invigorating new era of scientific logic and rationalism. A close reading of On the Origin of Species, however, strongly suggests that the work was not only an argument against the concept of miraculous creation but also a theist’s case for the presence of intelligent design, broadly in keeping with Albert Einstein’s subsequent aphorism that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Well, those who see Darwin as an icon for atheism have some justification, for he is an icon for atheism by having replaced divine explanations with materialistic ones. But the last sentence, implying that there was intelligent design in the universe, is not justified by Darwin’s writings. He rejected the idea of a personal God, and as for a Higher Power who created the laws of Nature, Darwin was pretty mute. This letter to Asa Gray in 1860 shows that while Darwin rejected a beneficent God, he just didn’t know if there was any higher power. Bolding in the quote below is mine:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Now one could, as Sandford apparently does, take the words “designed laws” as evidence for a higher power who designed those laws. I’m not so sure, for in the next sentence Darwin famously punts, saying that he gives up on the whole subject as “too profound for the human intellect”—”a dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton   . . ”  (That’s an excellent sentence!) I think Darwin just didn’t want to discuss the theological underpinnings of his theory because he wasn’t interested in theology and couldn’t come to any answers about gods.  In that sense, he was a true agnostic, and it’s proper to read him as such.

And, as we see below, while Darwin still believed in “laws” towards the end of his life, the idea that they were “designed” laws seems to have disappeared.

Yet Sandford makes several game tries to show that Darwin was more than just a straight-up agnostic. For example, Sandford says this:

To take another example: Charles Darwin himself would almost certainly not have endorsed the views of many of his spiritual heirs today that the biblical story of creation and the evolution of the physical universe are mutually exclusive rather than twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation.

Note Sandford’s claim that Darwin wouldn’t have seen “the biblical story of creation” and the “evolution of the physical universe” as mutually exclusive. That’s almost certainly wrong: Darwin’s Origin was “one long argument” against the biblical story of creation. Time after time he compares what one would expect to see in the biological world if biblical creationism be true, and he shows that you don’t see that: you see what you’d expect if evolution be true.

As for “twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation,” I don’t know what that means. Either the Biblical story is true or it’s not. It’s not, and, as far as we know, Darwin’s theory of evolution was true. And how did “a possibly divine origin of the laws of physics” suddenly turn into an acceptance of “the biblical story of creation”?

Sandford also, for some reason, lays at Darwin’s feet the use of his theory by eugenicists, particularly Hitler:

“With savages,” Darwin wrote, in perhaps the most striking passage in the text,

the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The aid we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy.

This passage is not perhaps what most modern adherents of Darwinian thought have in mind when extolling their hero’s rigorously materialist approach to evolutionary biology. Nor, to be fair, is it entirely representative of 1871’s The Descent of Man as a whole. Even so, this was the partial reading of Darwin’s theory seized upon by Adolf Hitler and his like-minded crew of genocidal fanatics in their quasi-scientific musings on the evolutionary process.

Here is Hitler, for instance, speaking at Nuremberg in 1933: “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.”

Nope. Hitler rejected Darwinism, and his views on Jews, genocide, and the superiority of Aryans were derived from elsewhere—certainly not from Darwin! To see an expert refutation of this claim, read my colleague Bob Richards’s definitive article, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” And here’s Richards’s answer:

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Sanford mentions that Darwin had a quote in the frontispiece of The Origin that was sympathetic to religion. Well, actually, there are two quotes in that frontispiece that are both sympathetic to religion:

. . . [Darwin] acknowledged the intellectual debt himself by opening On the Origin of Species with a quote from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise about the consistency of scientific evolutionary theory with a natural theology of a supreme creator establishing laws:

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

Indeed. And there’s another religion-friendly quote there, too!:

“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

BACONAdvancement of Learning.

Knowing Darwin’s own views at this time, it’s nearly impossible to believe that these quotes are there because Darwin really thought there was not only a divine creator establishing laws—that’s a dog speculating on the mind of Newton—but that one should also diligently study “the book of God’s word” or “the book of God’s works” (does he mean biological works?).  I suspect, and I’m not alone in this, that Darwin knew perfectly well that the book following these opening quotes would hit Christians in the solar plexus, and these quotes are there to leaven his arguments—to make people think that Darwin saw the Bible was the word of God, and that world showed the Works of the Word.

Here’s one last passage from Darwin’s Autobiography showing, over his life, how his disbelief in the conventional idea of God increased (again, my bolding):

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;—I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.1

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. 

1 Mrs. Darwin annotated this passage (from “and have never since doubted”…. to “damnable doctrine”) in her own handwriting. She writes:—”I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E. D.” Oct. 1882. This was written six months after her husband’s death, in a second copy of the Autobiography in Francis’s handwriting. The passage was not published. See Introduction.—N. B. [Nora Barlow, the editor]

Note that in the last sentence the “fixed laws” are NOT imputed to God. So, at the end, we have no indication that even the “fixed laws” were of God’s devising. Note as well that the Autobiography was published five years after Darwin’s death. We can take it, then, as the cumulation of his views.

In the end, we are reading Darwin right so long as we realize that:

a.) He did not believe in the Christian personal God, a good God, that was prevalent in his day.

b.) He did not accept the Biblical story of creation. The “design” he saw in nature, which his predecessor Paley thought was strong evidence for God, came instead from evolution by natural selection.

c.) He was not an antitheist, nor an atheist in the sense of one who says “the evidence for a divine being is almost nonexistent”.  He was an agnostic who thought, “I don’t know if there’s a divine power and it’s beyond my ken to figure this out.” (Some people would call this atheism, but I don’t.


d.) Darwin’s views may have been coopted by eugenicists, but not by Hitler, and few people fault Darwin for eugenics laws and acts after his time. Darwin, of course, wasn’t responsible for the misuse of his ideas.

Sandford’s claim that “we’ve been reading Darwin all wrong” is, in the end, a strawman argument. It depends, of course, on who “we” represents. Most people have never read a word of Darwin, and get what they know about him from rumor, so they can’t have been “reading Darwin all wrong.”They might have been getting Darwin wrong, but that’s not Sandford’s argument, which seems to be directed at scientifically-minded laypeople.

For those who do read Darwin, those familiar with his books and letters could never conclude that he saw harmony between his theory of evolution and any form of “intelligent design”. For even if you accept (and I don’t) that Darwin thought that only the laws of nature were designed, he still saw the evolution of life as the result of deterministic processes operating on material protoplasm. By and large, the views that most modern people have about Darwin, and I refer to people who have read Darwin, are correct.


h/t: Karl, Andrew Berry

Three ideological confrères produce a questionable piece of accommodationism

February 16, 2022 • 1:30 pm

The Heterodox Academy has a subgroup, Heterodox STEM, which deals with “heterodox” views of STEM—most of them being criticisms of the new “woke” initiatives that are invading the sciences. Heterodox STEM has a Substack, too, where you can see a number of people standing up against the “successor ideology”. A splendid example of that is Ilya Revakine’s recent post, “On Cancel Culture and Anti-Semitism in Academia”, a defense of the opprobrium that descended on Anna Krylov et al. after they posted an honest-to-good reviewed critique, “Scientists must resist cancel culture” in the chemistry-news journal Nachrichten der Chemie. In fact, most of Heterodox STEM seems dedicated to resisting cancel culture in science, and I’m pretty much on their side.

I was thus surprised to see an accommodationist and pro-religious piece on the site, which you can read by clicking below. You’ll recognize the last author, Dorian Abbot, as our University of Chicago professor of Geophysical Sciences, whose “heterodox” views on DEI got him into trouble with his department here (the administration stood by him), and then, because of his views, he was disinvited from a prestigious invited lecture at MIT that had nothing to do with DEI. That caused a huge kerfuffle that even made it into the New York Times. Abbot was badly treated then, and it’s brought a lot of shame on MIT.

Here, though, Abbot espouses accommodationist and religious views in a piece written with two co-authors: Daniel Selvaratnam, a Research Fellow in autonomous systems at the University of Melbourne, and Wesley Farrell, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the U.S. Naval Academy. (Farrell recently wrote another piece on the site, “Cancel Culture in Science is Real.”)

It’s in the spirit of collegial debate, then, that I offer a critique of their piece, a piece that tries to show that both religion and science offer valuable methodologies to contribute to our understanding of the universe. I would normally tell the authors to read my book, Faith versus Fact:Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, as well as my 2013 piece in Slate, “No Faith in Science“,  but what fun would that be?

Since “heterodox” means “going against accepted opinion or beliefs”, and because accommodationism really is the norm in America (though not necessarily among scientists), I offer a critique that is both heterodox and, I hope, constructive.c

The piece makes a number of claims that I’ve discussed in my book, but let me lump them into three categories. The bold headings are mine, while the arguments of Selvaratnam et al. (henceforth “SFA”) are indented—with the exception of my quote from Slate given further down.

Claim 1. Science answers the “how” questions and religion answers the “why questions.” SFA:

At a fundamental level, science is a methodology for the discovery of knowledge about the natural world designed to answer the question, “how?,” which is the true question the young boy on the beach was asking. But science cannot, even in principle, answer the deeper question of the grown man: “why?.”  As Bishop Robert Barron has argued, “though the sciences may be able to understand the chemical compounds that make up paper and ink, the sciences will never understand the meaning of a book.” We can investigate the physical properties of the book using science, but the ideas within it, the meaning of the symbols, the eternal truths or errors that may be held within those pages, simply cannot be reduced to an arrangement of molecules. The same is true for art.  We can explain with basic physics how the violin makes noise of a certain pitch, but are completely at a loss when we attempt to explain why Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is beautiful using the scientific method. Nor can science provide us with a framework to tell the difference between right and wrong.  Consider Fritz Haber.  A German scientist, Haber won the Nobel Prize for his role in the development of industrial synthesis of ammonia, a revolution that has saved billions from starvation. Yet this same invention was used to manufacture munitions, and Haber also used his scientific talents to develop poisonous gasses that led to the slow and painful deaths of hundreds of thousands in the First World War.  Science did not provide an ethical or moral framework for Haber because it cannot: it is merely an amoral method we can use to increase our knowledge about nature.

. . . All of this is to say that, not only is there no inherent conflict between science and Christianity, but the Christian worldview actually motivates and supports the scientific enterprise. Both science and Christianity are systems of thought based on logic, reason, and evidence which complement and build off each other. How much greater is the believer’s wonder at creation given its tremendous magnitude and complexity that have been revealed by modern science? How could science work without the axioms that flow naturally from Christianity, and what ultimate motivation could we have for doing it? Whereas science excels at answering “how?” questions and has dramatically improved the physical conditions under which we exist, Christianity deals with “why?” questions, motivates the fundamental assumptions necessary to do science, and provides us with a reason to continue existing at all.

As you’ll see, SFA tout Christianity as being able to answer the “why” questions, and so we have two nonoverlapping magisteria, or NOMA as Gould called them. Religion and science can snuggle together happily, after all.

But in fact this is not the case. As I show in FvF, religion does ask “how” questions, as many religions are grounded on factual beliefs—beliefs that in principle could be tested and, if they can’t be disproven, there’s no reason to accept them. In fact, the faith extolled by SFA, Christianity, makes many statements of fact: Jesus lived, he was divine and the son of/part of God, he was crucified and then resurrected, and by accepting this fact and taking Jesus as our saviour we are vouchsafed eternal afterlife. Indeed, you can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t accept those “truths”.

And here are some “how” issues that are empirical claims, and are even mentioned by SFA:

The Bible makes two profound claims that are relevant to science. First, that the universe was created by a good, powerful, and wise Creator, who endowed it with structure and beauty, and constantly upholds it by his power.

. . . The second Scriptural claim is that man is both flesh and spirit. We are flesh, and so our bodies are subject to the laws of physics. But we are not only flesh. As spirits, we have a God-given ability to reason, to search for truth, and to discover the God who made us in his image. This worldview provides truly fertile ground for robust scientific inquiry. Within it, our five axioms are no longer arbitrary. Science has flourished in the West, not in spite of its Christian foundation, but precisely because of it.

Let’s leave aside the dubious claim that Christianity kick-started science (in fact, it impeded science for centuries, and, in the form of creationism, still does so). Neither of the claims above can be tested, and, if you’re a Bayesian, you might even claim that the priors of Christianity are low, for there’s precious little evidence for a “good, powerful, and wise creator”. (The world is a mess, and little kids die all the time for no discernible reason.) Likewise, there’s no evidence for “spirit”, which is undefined except that it seems to have something to do with our ability to reason, which of course can be explained by evolutionary biology.

Further, religion doesn’t answer the “why” questions, for every religion has a different answer to questions like “why is there physical (or moral) evil in the world.” Why did humans appear? Why should we behave morally? In the end, all of these “why” questions have a simple answer: “Because God wanted it that way.” But that’s no answer.  For it leads to other “why” questions like “why is there a god” and “why does God want us not use contraceptives?” Further, if you ask for evidence for such a God, accommodationists punt, saying, “We don’t need no stinking evidence, we have faith.” But more on faith later.

Many philosophers have shown repeatedly that religion is not itself a source of ethical beliefs but a filter for them. As Plato showed in the Euthyphro Dialogue, asserting that “God is good” raises the questions, “Is God good because everything he dictates is good? Or is God good because he decrees a set of values and actions that seem to us a priori good?. And the latter was Plato’s answer. We have a pre-God-ian idea of what “good” is, and have constructed our god to comport with that.

Yes, you can derive ethics from whatever dictates your God has, but every religion has a different species of morality. If you’re a Catholic, you see homosexual acts as a grave sin that will send you to hell, Not so for many other faiths. If you’re a Muslim, you’re morally obliged to kill apostates and to many sects, women must cover their bodies lest they excite the lust of men.  Religious “morality” dictates what you eat, what you wear, what you eat, and who and how you have sex with. The alternative—humanistic morality, or simple secular ethics—is not even considered by SFA as a valid way of addressing “why” questions, and even there we have the problem that all morality is, at bottom, subjective, based on what you see as desirable or undesirable. But those who argue that religion is our fount of ethics seem unaware of the long history of secular ethical philosophy going back to the ancient Greeks and through Spinoza to modern philosophers like Grayling and Rawls.

In the end I’ll say this:

Religion doesn’t answer the why questions, it addresses them. Religion has no way to answer “why questions”

In contrast, science can and does answer the how questions.

I don’t think I need to list the “how” questions science has answered.  I’ll give just one: “how can we immunize people against Covid-19?”

Claim 2. Both science and religion are based on “faith”. ASN:

Some believe that science is a superior alternative to faith. But if we peer a little deeper, we see that the scientific method actually requires a great deal of faith before it can even get off the ground. For example, here are five axioms that every scientist (often unconsciously) believes:

  • The entire physical universe obeys certain laws and these laws do not change with time.
  • Our observations provide accurate information about reality.
  • The laws of logic yield truth.   
  • The human mind recognizes the laws of logic and can apply them correctly.
  • Truth ought to be pursued.

None of these can be proved by science; they must be assumed in order to do any science at all. They are articles of faith. The fourth point especially bears elaboration. Our ability to think rationally must be assumed before any of our thought processes can be trusted. [JAC: See Pinker’s new book, Rationality, as a refutation of this argument.] Without this assumption, we can get absolutely nowhere. Though every human must make it, critically, not all worldviews are capable of supporting it. Consider that no other rational species exists on Earth or has yet been found in the entire universe. Clearly evolution cannot be relied on, or even expected, to produce rational beings. Moreover, if all our thoughts are simply the product of chemical reactions, governed solely by the laws of physics, then there is no reason for them to have any correspondence with the truth. Assuming that we can think rationally, the atheist’s account of our origins offers us compelling reasons to doubt the validity of that very assumption.

This discussion is familiar to me, and because I saw it so often I wrote the Slate article nearly a decade ago to clarify the difference between the usage of “faith” in science and “faith” in religion. I’ll quote myself here:

A common tactic of those who claim that science and religion are compatible is to argue that science, like religion, rests on faith: faith in the accuracy of what we observe, in the laws of nature, or in the value of reason. Daniel Sarewitz, director of a science policy center at Arizona State University and an occasional Slate contributor, wrote this about the Higgs boson in the pages of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals: “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

Such statements imply that science and religion are not that different because both seek the truth and use faith to find it. Indeed, science is often described as a kind of religion.

But that’s wrong, for the “faith” we have in science is completely different from the faith believers have in God and the dogmas of their creed. To see this, consider the following four statements:

“I have faith that, because I accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will join my friends and family in Heaven.”
“My faith tells me that the Messiah has not yet come, but will someday.”
“I have strep throat, but I have faith that this penicillin will clear it up.”
“I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I will receive 72 virgins in Paradise.”

All of these use the word faith, but one uses it differently. The three religious claims (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, respectively) represent faith as defined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Indeed, there is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and scripture to support the religious claims above, and most of the world’s believers would reject at least one of them. To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

In contrast, the third statement relies on evidence: penicillin almost invariably kills streptococcus bacteria. In such cases the word faith doesn’t mean “belief without good evidence,” but “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.”

You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

To reiterate: religious faith is based on scripture, religion, and authority, and is impervious or immune to empirical verification. Mark Twain put it bluntly: ““Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” To be charitable, I’ll amend that to “Faith is believing things for which you have no evidence, but that belief satisfies your emotional needs.”

Science, on the other hand, starts with assumptions that are tested over time to see if they help us understand the cosmos in a way that comports with other people’s understanding. There’s only one kind of science, which is based on assumptions that have been justified because they provide further empirical understanding. Or, as Richard Dawkins said, “Science works, bitches!”

In contrast, there are a gazillion religions, no two of which have identical beliefs, truth claims, and moralities. There’s no way to know which one is right. But there is a way to know whether the continents move or are static, whether infectious diseases are caused by airborne “humors” or microorganisms, and whether a molecule of benzene has six carbon atoms or eight. That way is science. There is no way that religion can tell us the truth about reality, and, in fact, theology has not advanced an iota in the last millennium. Do we know more about God than Aquinas or Augustine did? Not a whit. We just have a lot more fruitless lucubrations that have provided employment for theologians.

SFA, then, seem misguided when they assume that the “faith” we have in science (assumptions that bring confidence when they are repeatedly justified) is the same thing as the faith they have in religion (beliefs that are neither evidenced nor justified).

As for Science Faith Claim #5, “Truth ought to be pursued”, that differs from the other claims because it’s an “ought” rather than an “is”. I’d argue that that “ought” is justified by utilitarianism—that if you want to cure diseases and improve well being and understand how the planets move—you have to pursue truth. Science works, bitches.

Finally, the last claim, which can be disposed of easily:

Claim 3. Science and religion are compatible because there have been famous religious scientists. SFA:

The assumption that God’s creation is not random and chaotic, but rather orderly and rational, was necessary for scholars to begin to pursue knowledge via what is now known as the scientific method (see Theology and the Scientific Imagination by Amos Funkenstein).  Even atheists today implicitly make use of this fundamental assumption.  And it also explains why so many deeply religious people have been among the most important scientists historically.  For example, Galileo, despite his differences with the Church, was a pious Catholic. Newton, although certainly not an orthodox Christian, was nevertheless a believer.  James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin were both devout Presbyterians, with Kelvin commenting that “[t]he more thoroughly I conduct scientific research, the more I believe science excludes atheism. If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all religion.” Gregor Mendel made some of the most important contributions to the theory of genetics, and was also an Augustinian friar.  The Big Bang was first theorized by Belgian priest Georges Lamaitre. Examples abound.  The view that science and Christianity are incompatible is not only incorrect, it is disproven by history.

Yes, and you can argue that science and pedophilia are compatible because some famous scientists were pedophiles (Schrödinger is the latest one accused of this). The fact is that humans can hold two incompatible ideas in their head at the same time, and that fact does not make those ideas compatible. When Maxwell went into the lab, he discarded his religiosity and practiced science, as all good scientists do, as an atheistic discipline, with no need to consider gods or the supernatural. But when he went to church, he suddenly accepted a bunch of palaver that even small children can see through. Does that fact make science and religion compatible? I don’t think so. But you can read a fuller discussion of all of these questions in Faith Versus Fact.

Finally, why am I taking issue with three colleagues whom I’ve joined in a campaign to keep STEM free from ideology? Simply because I think faith is also a bad “ideology”. It does bad things to the world by misleading people, setting group against group, and, most of all, making people think that they can apprehend reality through revelation, authority, and scripture. Faith and science are not only incompatible, but opposites.

Does science need religion because only faith gives us “meaning and purpose”?

January 31, 2022 • 10:30 am

You already know the answer. But let me blather a bit.

I don’t read Patheos much, but an alert reader told me about an article at it’s sub-site Public Theology—a name that would normally make me click away immediately. I’ve read enough theology in my life that my craw is full of it, and I can consume no more.  But of course all of us want to see how our names are used.

It turns out that the article from last fall below (sent to me because it mentions me) is simply a rehash of old ideas, particularly those of Steve Gould.

First, the author’s bona fides:

Ted Peters is a pastor, professor, and author of both fiction and nonfiction. He is emeritus professor of systematic theology and ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. His fictional thrillers feature an inner-city pastor, Leona Foxx, who courageously challenges the structures of political domination that are buttressed by the latest in science and technology.

Click on the screenshot to read this. TRIGGER WARNING: Theology!

For the entire piece Pastor Peters  (also identified as a professor at the Graduate Theological Union) simply lays out the same mantra over and over again (the points below are my own characterization):

1.) Science and religion are compatible.
2.) In fact, they are inseparable if one wants to lead a complete life.
3.) This is because science can give us the answers to factual questions about the cosmos: the “how” questions”
4.) But only religion can give us the answers to the “why” questions, telling us the purpose and meaning of life, how to be moral, and where the laws of physics come from.

Only line 3 is true, and I’ve written about this so much (especially in Faith Versus Fact) that I don’t feel the need to dilate on the other topics. That book dispels assertions 1, 2, and 4, but I want to concentrate a bit on claim 4: that religion is the only way to answer questions about life that science can’t address.

If you read Steve Gould’s accommodationist book Rocks of Ages, which I reviewed very critically in the Times Literary Supplement (inquire for a copy, as it’s no longer online), you’ll recognize the so-called harmony of science and faith summarized by the “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) trope. In my review, I described Gould’s solution of how science and faith could find harmony:

This principle leaves both religion and science with important but distinct tasks: Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.

Gould grants these “magisteria” equal status and asserts that we must accept the values of both. He calls for intense dialogue between religion and science, not to unite them, but to encourage greater harmony and mutual understanding.

Here are some quotes from Peters that underlines this erroneous thesis. First, accommodationist Denis Alexander’s restatement of NOMA:

Is there room for science in Christianity? Yes, according to biochemist Denis Alexander, founder of the Faraday Institute at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. “The scientific and religious accounts of reality provide us with two complementary narratives. Both narratives are important, and are impoverished if one is considered without the other….Conflicts occur when there are boundary disputes between the two domains of knowledge” (Golshani 2021, 25). As long as science and religion remain within their boundaries, then they may enjoy peaceful coexistence.

Religion is not a domain of knowledge, of course. It’s an irrational stew of superstition, with some morality that’s been gleaned from secular ideas.

Let’s pass on to another theologian (my emphases).

This split between fact and meaning gets reiterated by renowned cosmologist George F. R. Ellis. Since 1990, Ellis has served as Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “Science cannot deal with values and issues of meaning that are the concern of religion….The themes [science] can deal with are measurable quantities such as mass, velocity, distance, force. It cannot cope with purpose” (Golshani 2021, 134). Science cannot cope with purpose, Ellis emphasizes. Purpose is the contribution of religion to the larger society.

Like many acccomodationists, Peters likes to quote religious scientists to buttress his thesis.  But, like Gould, they don’t think very hard about the incompatiblities of science and religion, and, in an effort to be conciliatory, always distort what religion can really accomplish, which is mainly to herd the sheep and fill its own coffers.

Take the last bolded sentence above. “Purpose is the contribution of religion to the larger society.” That’s bullpucky. Yes, some people find “purpose” in religion, but they also find it without religionIn a very popular post here in 2018, our many atheist readers here were perfectly able to describe and discern what they construe as “the meaning of purpose of life”, which generally boils down to “doing what gives one satisfaction.” You don’t need religion for that, and, in fact, religious “purpose” always turns out to be something like “we should serve God or Allah” (a waste of time), or “we should be good” (something you can derive from secular ethics and philosophy).

What people like Peters and Gould always forget is that religion is one source of meaning and purpose but:

a. It is not the SOLE source of meaning and purpose in life; humanism is another (and a better one).

b. People in countries that are nearly completely atheistic, like Iceland or Denmark, do not seem to be stricken with ennui because they don’t have religion to give them meaning and purpose. They get what they need from secular sources.  I’d rather hang out with a bunch of Danes than with a bunch of American theologians any day.

c. Most important, religion doesn’t answer “why” questions in any agreed-upon way. Yes, an individual can find “purpose” in slavish worship of Allah, but that’s a personal answer, not a general answer. In fact, all answers to the question are subjective and personal, and usually don’t come from religion though they may be buttressed by religion. What it boils down to is this: “the answers religion provide to questions of meaning and purpose all involve God’s will.”  And there’s no evidence for what God’s wills, much less for God itself.

But wait! There’s more!

How should the public theologian think about this? If science sticks to the facts and religion to the meaning of the facts, the two together could enrich civilization. Right?

Yes, says Skeptic Kendrick Frazier. “Science is concerned with understanding the natural world, religion with humanity’s moral, ethical , and spiritual needs….If science and religion kept to these separate domains, there would be no conflict” (Frazer 1999, 22). Science gives us data, and religion gives us the meaning of the data. That’s a recipe for peaceful cooperation. Right?

Okay, so give me one example of “the meaning of the data collected by science” that all religionists agree on. The observation that animals and plants exist and are adapted to their environment? Fuggedaboutit: many Christians and Muslims say that the “meaning” is the working of a divine God. Other believers adhere to the naturalistic view of scientists. And that’s only the simplest example. The answer to that one comes solely from science.

Here’s another question that religions are supposed to answer for us: why is there physical evil in the world? Why do children die of cancer and thousands of innocent people get wiped out by earthquakes, tsunamis, and other physical event?  Try to get believers to tell us what that means? You won’t find an answer in faith—but a lot of gobbledygook and foot-shuffling. In fact, science does answer these questions, which are based on seismic movements and the slipping of tectonic plates, as well as mutations and viruses. So why, then, does god make things happen. As the Beach Boys answered, “God only knows”.

At least Peters sees that I regard this as a false reconciliation:

No, exclaims University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. Dr. Coyne declares war. After the war, only one can reign victorious. The victor must be science.

“Religion and science are engaged in a kind of war, a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true….I see this as only one battle in a wider war–a war between rationality and superstition. Religion is but a single brand of superstition (others include beliefs in astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing), but it is the most widespread and harmful form of superstition” (Coyne 2015, xii).

By declaring war, Dr. Coyne restricts himself to a worldview that is objective only. It is devoid of meaning or purpose. Now if Coyne were to ask his science to provide meaning or purpose, then he would be practicing theology without a license.

How the hell does Peters know my worldview? Has he read anything I’ve written about it? Of course religion doesn’t give me what “meaning or purpose” I have. These are personal constructs that most of us explain post facto as simply the distillation of what gives us satisfaction or pleasure. (“My purpose is to love and take care of my family.” Or, I find meaning in life by feeding ducks.”) I have a worldview, but it doesn’t come from religion. If you read this website regularly, you’ll learn big bits of that worldview, but I’m not going to explain it here.

Oh, the hubris of these sophisticated but humble theologians who have the temerity to tell us, in the face of millennia of secular philosophy and humanism, that we need religion to find “meaning and purpose”!  Isn’t it theologians who keep telling us that we need to be “more humble”?

Peters then drags Muslims and even atheists into the fray to support his argument:

Culture needs two wings to fly. Science provides one wing, and religion the other. At least according to Maryam Shamsaei and Mohn Hazim Shah. “Humanity needs to understand that science without religion is not moral and they are like two wings which required to function together to let a bird (human salvation) fly” (Shamsaei 2017, 883).

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. So how are northern Europe and Scandinavia able to fly? They’re missing a wing!  And do they lack culture? Not that I’ve seen.

But wait! There’s more:

So we ask: is there room in Islam for science? Is there room in science for Islam? Yes, indeed. At least according to the majority of Muslim contributors to the 5th edition of Golshani’s edited book, Can Science Dispense with Religion?

According to Majeda Omar at the University of Jordan, for example, “Science and religion are complementary concepts, not contradictory….science contributes to obtaining authentic knowledge of the physical world and its workings, and religion helps us in capturing the inner depths of reality, while providing perspective on the purpose and meaning of life” (Golshani 2021, 379). (Photo: Majeda Omar)

Once again, loose and flabby terms are used. What, exactly, are the “inner depths of reality”? If Omar means “God,” well then of course you need religion to find them? But he should define his terms. Maybe the inner depths of reality really mean what goes on at the particle level, in which case physics is answering that.

And—do I have to keep saying this forever?—philosophy provides a much better perspective on the purpose and meaning of life than does religion. For philosophy is a discipline of argumentation and rationality, while religion is a discipline of worship. obeisance, and irrationality. Only religion could produce the dictum that women should cover their bodies and homosexuals should be thrown off roofs.

Even poor Einstein gets dragooned into the war:

Let me offer a clarification. It’s quite clear that practicing scientists want to eliminate from their methods any appeal to supranatural causes, design, meaning, or purpose. This is OK, because religion provides those things to society. Might society benefit from both? Yes, indeed, according the legendary physicist Albert Einstein. “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind” (Einstein 1950, 26).

Does Peters not realize that Einstein’s “religion” was merely a sense of wonder about the world that gives us curiosity to move forward. Einstein was pretty much an atheist–or rather a pantheist who saw the cosmos as a god, but not a personal God. And even if Albert were an an orthodox Jew, just because he was a good physicist doesn’t mean we should bow down before his arguments about theology.

One more point. People like Peters are always calling for a dialogue between science and religion. The assumption is that each discipline can contribute to furthering the other. This is, of course, hogwash. Science can contribute to theology by testing (and always disproving) its assertions. On the other side, religion has nothing to contribute to science, for science is a discipline that does not need the numinous or divine. If there is to be a meeting of these disciplines, it will be not a constructive dialogue but a destructive monologue, in which science tells believers that they’re either wrong or have no evidence for their claims.

Finally, as if he hasn’t said this a gazillion times already, Peters bangs on about how science can’t give us a “worldview”:

Here is my tentative observation. Both Muslims and Christians recognize that the materialist assumptions of scientific research–which preclude at the outset any reference to divine causation let alone meaning or purpose–can only mislead us on the nature of ultimate reality. Muslims are less willing than Christians, by and large, to accept living with two incompatible worldviews, one scientific and the other religious. Despite this modest difference in emphasis, both Muslim and Christian theologians feel the deep impetus to formulate a single worldview that incorporates all that science can tell us about the natural world into a single comprehensive scheme in which everything in reality is understood in relationship to God.

Well, pastor Peters, first convince me that there is a god and then we’ll talk. By the way, you have to specify which god you’re talking about and the nature and characteristics of said god.

. . . Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy teams up with cosmologist George Ellis to make one point very clear:  any worldview constructed on the basis of science alone would be woefully inadequate. “The fundamental major metaphysical issues that purely scientific cosmology by itself cannot tackle–the problem of existence (what is the ultimate origin of physical reality?) and the origin and determination of the specific nature of physical laws–for these all lie outside the domain of scientific investigation” (Murphy 1996, 61).

In the face of science, Murphy and Ellis lay on the theologian’s shoulders “the reconstruction of a unified worldview” (Murphy 1996, 1) that includes “genuine knowledge of a transcendent reality” (Murphy 1996, 7).

What makes pastor Peters and Dr. Murphy think that religion can give us answers about the origin and nature of physical laws and of reality? Science in fact is giving us answers about some of these things, but religion is silent, or rather full of hot air. I would love to hear Murphy’s answer to the question, “why is the speed of light in a vacuum 299,792,458 meters per second?” Is she going to respond, “Because God decreed it”? For, after all, that’s all these theologians can say, and it’s a non-answer. (My riposte would be, “and how do you know that?”) Scientists may, as Sean Carroll has emphasized, never be able to answer such questions, and may have to wind up saying, “Well, the constants are what they for reasons we don’t understand.”

And that’s fine. At least scientists have the decency to admit when they don’t know something. Theologians like Peters and Murphy don’t: they always make up stuff, including dictates by an imaginary god.

I swear, when I read stuff like this I wonder how smart people can produce such gibberish. Do they really believe this “reconciliation”? Don’t they know that secular philosophers have been grappling with questions of meaning and purpose since the ancient Greeks?

I suppose the one thing that bothers me most about religion is that it’s an enormous waste of time, employing otherwise useful brains to analyze a gigantic fairy tale. And people pay them to do this! Every time you put a fiver in the collection plate, or donate to a religious charity, or pay the salaries of these people, it’s a complete waste of money. We already have therapists for those who need counseling. The rest is fiction.


More than half of Americans oppose the use of Arabic numerals!

December 29, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Just a bit of fun, but the headline below is true. The survey on which it’s based is reported in this article in from the Independent, which you can see by clicking on the screenshot:(you can register for free with email and a password if it’s blocked; there’s no paywall)

So, here are some results given in the article:

More than half of Americans believe “Arabic numerals” – the standard symbols used across much of the world to denote numbers – should not be taught in school, according to a survey.

Fifty-six per cent of people say the numerals should not be part of the curriculum for US pupils, according to research designed to explore the bias and prejudice of poll respondents.

The digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are referred to as Arabic numerals. The system was first developed by Indian mathematicians before spreading through the Arab world to Europe and becoming popularised around the globe.

A survey by Civic Science, an American market research company, asked 3,624 respondents: “Should schools in America teach Arabic numerals as part of their curriculum?” The poll did not explain what the term “Arabic numerals” meant.

Some 2,020 people answered “no”. Twenty-nine per cent of respondents said the numerals should be taught in US schools, and 15 per cent had no opinion.

John Dick, who happens to be the head of Civic Science, issued this tweet with the data in graphic form, which I’ve put below as well:

Now Dick thinks this is an example of bigotry—”Islamophobia,” I suppose. I’m not so sure. Although I am sure that many of us know that Arabic numerals are the numerals we use every day, some people don’t, and, this being America, it’s possible that nobody has told children that they are learning “Arabic numerals.” The 56% figure could thus represent ignorance rather than bigotry, although both could play a role.  But Dick seems wedded to the latter explanation. Regardless, if it is ignorance, it’s pretty appalling. After all, everyone knows what Roman numerals are!

But wait! There’s more. There was so much doubt about this survey’s results that Snopes had to investigate it.

In its headline Snopes says “It’s difficult to answer survey questions if you don’t fully understand the meaning.” I’m pretty sure, from following them, that Snopes is woke,but their assumption that there’s no anti-Arabic bigotry involved is just a guess.

You can read their analysis, in which they reluctantly admit that the claim is true, by clicking on the screenshot below.

But wait! There’s still more! You get this special grapefruit-cutting knife if you read on—for free!


Those were the results of a real survey question posed by the polling company Civic Science. John Dick, the Twitter user who originally posted a screenshot of the survey question, is the CEO of Civic Science.

The full survey doesn’t appear to be available at this time (we reached out to Civic Science for more information), but Dick has posted a few other questions from the poll, as well as some information regarding the purpose of the survey.

Dick, who said that the “goal in this experiment was to tease out prejudice among those who didn’t understand the question,” shared another survey question about what should or shouldn’t be taught in American schools. This time, the survey found that 53% of respondents (and 73% of Democrats) thought that schools in America shouldn’t teach the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre” as part of their science curriculum. Here are the results:

33% of Republicans, a whopping 73% of Democrats, and 52% of independents thought that Lemaître’s theory should NOT be taught.

Now this question is more unfair, because, really, how many Americans know what the “creation theory of Georges Lemaître” was? If you read about science and religion, or have followed this site for a while, you’ll know that, although he was a Catholic priest, Lemaître held pretty much the modern theory of the Big Bang and the expanding Universe. As Wikipedia notes:

Lemaître was the first to theorize that the recession of nearby galaxies can be explained by an expanding universe, which was observationally confirmed soon afterwards by Edwin Hubble. He first derived “Hubble’s law”, now called the Hubble–Lemaître law by the IAU, and published the first estimation of the Hubble constant in 1927, two years before Hubble’s article. Lemaître also proposed the “Big Bang theory” of the origin of the universe, calling it the “hypothesis of the primeval atom”, and later calling it “the beginning of the world”.

Yes, and Lemaitre did other science, including analyzing cosmology using Einstein’s theories of relativity. He was a smart dude, and should have gone into physics instead of the priesthood. There’s a photo of him with Einstein below.

Why did so many people answer that Lemaître’s theory, which is, as I said, is pretty much the current theory of the Universe’s origin, NOT be taught? Surely it’s because the question identified Lemaître as a “Catholic priest”. That means that people probably thought his “theory” was the one expounded in Genesis chapters 1 and 2—God’s creation. So they didn’t want a religious theory taught in school.

Two points: most Republicans didn’t mind as much as Democrats of Independents, and that may be because more Republicans are creationists than are Democrats. But why did so many Democrats not want Lemaître’s theory taught? Are they that much less creationist than are Republicans? Perhaps that’s one answer. Another is that they are more anti-Catholic, but that seems less likely. But underlying these data—as perhaps underlying much of the data about Arabic numerals—is simple ignorance. I, for one, wouldn’t expect the average Joe or Jill (oops!) to know what Lemaître said.

One final remark: Accommodationists sometimes use the fact that Lemaître got it right as evidence that there’s no conflict between science and religion. I’m not sure if Lemaître thought God created the Universe, but if he did, he might have thought that the Big Bang was God’s way of doing it. (He was surely NOT a Biblical literalist). So yes, religious people can and have made big contributions to science. But that doesn’t mean that religion and science are compatible—any more than Francis Collins’s biological work shows that science and Evangelical Christianity are compatible. I’ve explained what I mean by “compatible” before, and it’s NOT that religious people can’t do science.

In the case of Lemaître, Francis Collins, or other religious scientists, they are victims of a form of unconscious cognitive dissonance: accepting some truth statements based on the toolkit of science, and other truth statements based on the inferior “way of knowing” of faith. And that is the true incompatibility: the different ways that we determine scientific truth as opposed to religious “truth.”

But I digress, and so shall stop.

George Lemaître (1894-1966), photo taken in 1930:

From Wikipedia:

(From Wikipedia): Millikan, Lemaître and Einstein after Lemaître’s lecture at the California Institute of Technology in January 1933.

h/t: Phil D.

What did the Galileo affair say about science vs. religion?

December 26, 2021 • 11:30 am

Several readers sent me a link to this post by Patrick Casey on the Heterodox Academy blogs because I’m mentioned in it (and in good company too!). It’s an example of what historians of religion (who are often religious) write about all the time. Casey, like other accommodationists, most notably Ronald Numbers, maintains that:

1.) Religion and science are not continually at war with one another (a view called the “conflict hypothesis”), and

2.) The Galileo affair was not an example of the conflict hypothesis. A “nuanced” and complete analysis shows, says Casey, that other factors were involved, including history and philosophy.  This stance is often used to tout accommodationism: the view that science and religion are actually compatible. And it’s often held by people who want to make nice to religion.

I didn’t know of the author, Patrick J. Casey, but he is an assistant professor of philosophy at Holy Family University, a private Roman Catholic University in Philadelphia.  I can’t find him in the faculty directory, but I won’t worry about that; and I have no idea whether, even though he teaches at a religious school, he’s religious. But I won’t psychologize his motivations, I’ll just mention his arguments.

Now I don’t embrace the “simplistic” conflict hypothesis, characterized as arguing that science is continuously at war with religion(see below). Some people like Andrew Dickson and William Draper at the turn of the 20th century did pretty much embrace the “conflict hypothesis,” and I discuss this in Chapter 1 of Faith Versus Fact (p. 5):

The truth lies between Draper and White on one hand and their critics on the other. While it’s undeniable that religion was important in opposing some scientific advances like the theory of evolution and the use of anesthesia, others, like smallpox vaccination, were both opposed and promoted on biblical grounds. On the other hand, it’s a self-serving distortion to say that religion was not an important issue in the persecutions of Galileo and John Scopes. Nevertheless, since not all religions are opposed to science, and much science is accepted by believers, the view that science and faith are perpetually locked in battle is untrue. If that’s how one sees the “conflict thesis,” then that hypothesis is wrong.

But my view is not that religion and science have always been implacable enemies, with the former always hindering the latter. Instead, I see them as making overlapping claims, each arguing that they can identify truths about the universe. As I’ll show in the next chapter, the incompatibility rests on differences in the methodology and philosophy used in determining those truths, and in the outcomes of their searches. In their eagerness to debunk the claims of Draper and White, their critics missed the underlying theme of both books: the failure of religion to find truth about anything—be it gods themselves or more worldly matters like the causes of disease.

As I wrote on Christmas Eve:

My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.

Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and can use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.

So when Casey says that I am one of the promulgators of the “conflict hypothesis”, as below, he’s just wrong. Is he familiar with my writings?  I’ve put the statement in bold below because I’m chuffed to be lumped together with such thoughtful men.

But simplistic narratives like the conflict thesis aren’t innocuous — they can warp our understanding of history (for example, here and here the historians of science Stephen Snobelen and Seb Falk address the myth of the “Medieval Gap,” which is grounded in the conflict thesis, as promulgated by writers like Carl Sagan, Jerry Coyne, and A.C. Grayling).

Nor do I think that Sagan promulgated the simplistic narrative of the “conflict thesis”, and I’m not sure that Grayling ever did (he’s too smart to think that). For this is how Casey defines the “conflict thesis”:

Yet anecdotes about religion suppressing science are part of a broader cultural narrative of conflict where science and religion have been locked in a zero-sum struggle — when science advances, religion is forced to beat a hasty retreat. This view of the historical relationship between science and religion is called “the conflict thesis” (see hereherehere).

Note that all of these videos were made by believers, including the DoSER wing of the AAAS (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion), headed by evangelical Christian Jennifer Wiseman and designed to “to facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities.”

Now, the argument by Casey is that the Galileo affair involves politics and philosophy and religion, and is not as simple as the Pope accepting a Biblically-based geocentric solar system, Galileo touting a heliocentric one, and Galileo going on trial for contradicting the Bible and then being sentenced to lifelong house arrest. Galileo was not tortured, but none of us believe that anyway; he was threatened with torture if he didn’t recant. And of course Galileo insulted the pope by putting the geocentric arguments in the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which surely pissed off the Pope.

Here’s the most important “nuance” that Casey adds to the argument

The Pope was a better scientist than Galileo, for he realized that there were arguments against Galileo’s hypothesis, and he just wanted Galileo to do good science and not assert he had “proof” of heliocentrism. 

I quote Dr. Casey (my emphasis):

In addition to a reasonable desire to keep with the Church’s previous ruling, the pope had a fairly sophisticated philosophical justification for his instruction — one that foreshadows what is now called “the underdetermination thesis” in the philosophy of science. The pope argued that whatever evidence Galileo may have had for heliocentrism, it couldn’t amount to a demonstration or proof of its physical truth, since it is possible for God to bring about whatever was observed through means other than heliocentrism. At the time, an obvious example would have been Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric system, which readily accounted for Galileo’s new observational evidence without needing the objectionable hypothesis of a moving Earth.

In taking this position, the pope was standing in a long tradition in natural philosophy that maintained that the job of astronomers was not to determine what the world was physically like but only to provide useful models for predicting the motions of planets. Stated charitably, the pope was instructing Galileo not to go beyond his evidence.

I love that last sentence: it’s more than charitable; it borders on dissimulation. And it’s FUNNY. And the tradition that astronomers are just supposed to make models and not find truth has long fallen by the wayside.

But Casey goes on.

Unfortunately, when Galileo published his Dialogue, he argued adamantly for the physical truth of heliocentrism, “clearly, though not explicitly” (in the words of Peter Machamer and David Marshall Miller), while sometimes making his opponents seem like idiots. To make matters worse, Galileo foolishly put the pope’s argument about the difficulty of ascertaining final scientific truth into the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which many have taken to be an insult to the pope. The pope was enraged by Galileo’s apparent deceit in defending the physical truth of heliocentrism as an established matter of fact, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to stand trial.

But Casey does admit that there was a conflict between Catholicism and Galileo’s arguments:

For better or worse, the trial of 1633 was not the site of a renewed debate about the status of heliocentrism. Rather, the trial focused on whether Galileo had violated the Church’s instruction not to argue for the physical truth of heliocentrism. In the end, Galileo was forced to recant and sentenced to house arrest at his villa in Florence for the rest of his life.

Is that not a conflict between science and religion? Galileo argued for a physical truth that the Pope didn’t want to hear, ergo he was found guilty.

Casey’s last resort is to deny that the conflict hypothesis predicts eternal enmity and war between religion and science. But that’s a straw man:

Third, and most important, even if this were a clear case of conflict, one incident wouldn’t by itself justify the grand cultural narrative of inexorable conflict between science and religion. Historians of the era have repeatedly pointed out that the Galileo affair was not representative of the norm.

But in the last 80 years or so, nobody said that this kind of conflict was the “norm”. Rather, people like Sagan and I argue that the method of finding truth in science is incompatible with the method of finding “truth” in religion, and this occasionally leads to clashes. The church doesn’t argue against the existence of electrons, or claim that benzene doesn’t have six carbon atoms, or argue against most of science in general, because most of science isn’t relevant to the Bible.

But there’s one important part that is: the story of creation. In particular, the first two chapters of Genesis, which 40% of Americans take literally—with another 33% thinking that God guided evolution. (Total percentage of those thinking God helped create life: 73%.) Only a measly 22% of Americans accept naturalistic evolution (including of humans) the way that we teach it in college. That’s about one in five.

And all modern creationism is, at bottom, rooted in religion: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as other creationist faiths, including Hindusim. There is no creationist or Intelligent Design organization that is not based on religion. And I know of only a single creationist who isn’t religious—David Berlinski (and I have my suspicions about him).  Is this not, then, a palpable conflict between science and religion? Of course it is! I look forward to Dr. Casey’s explanation of why the battle between creationism and evolution in American is much more nuanced than the simplistic narrative that evolution contradicts the Qur’an or the Old Testament.

Why do people like Casey feel compelled to repeat the same old narrative about Galileo? Well, they’re partly right: more than science is involved and lots of misconceptions (e.g., the Church tortured Galileo) litter the field. But I also think that this kind of accommodationism often comes from religious people who admire science, and fear that the “conflict hypothesis” will drive people out of religion since they feel they’re being forced to choose between science and religion.

That’s not the way it works, though.

If you talk to former creationists who became atheists because of science, it’s not because a scientist told them that “they had to choose.” No, you hear that they were curious about science and evolution in particular (often because the subjects were banned), and learned about it. They finally realized that evolution is true and Genesis is false, and, like Samson, this brought down the edifice of their faith. Plus they realized that there’s simply no good evidence for God—far less evidence than we have for the existence of atoms or the fact that infectious diseases are caused by microbes.