Richard Dawkins on the “simplicity” of God

August 31, 2023 • 11:10 am

If you’re able to read the post below on Richard Dawkins’s Substack site, you get three treats in one. First, he reproduces a scathing review he wrote for the 1996 Sunday Times of London about theologian Richard Swinburne‘s book Is There a God? (The answer was “yes,” of course, and Swinburne’s god was a “simple” one.) Second, Richard re-discusses the topic based on a debate he had with Swinburne and other religionists this June about whether God was indeed “simple.” Finally, both segments are written in Richard’s inimitable clear and humorous style, and so you get the third treat of enjoying his prose. (I’d love to be able to write like him; Richard and Steve Pinker are my models for clear and absorbing writing.)

If you haven’t looked at Richard’s site, the following might be free to access. Click on it to try. If not, either subscribe or just read the quotes I’ll give below.

The book review begins with a funny rebuke:

It is a virtue of clear writing that you can see what is wrong with a book as well as what is right.  Richard Swinburne is clear.  You can see where he is coming from.  You can also see where he is going to, and there is something almost endearing in the way he lovingly stakes out his own banana skin and rings it about with converging arrows boldly labelled ‘Step here’.

Yep, he stepped there.

Swinburne claimed that God has many powers. For example, as Richard notes, the esteemed theologian thinks that God has to keep every physical particle in line, for without God’s continual intercession, every electron would willy-nilly assume different and diverse properties.

[Swinburne’s] reasoning is very odd indeed.  Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence for so many to have the same properties.  One electron, he could stomach.  But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity.  For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other.  Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time, but would be expected to change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment.  That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs.  Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation.

. . . it is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now” (p 42).

Enter God.  God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralising their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation.  That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all, that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond.  It is because God is constantly hanging on to each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.

Oh, and in case you wondered how the hypothesis that God is simultaneously keeping a billion fingers on a billion electrons can be a simple hypothesis, the reason is this.  God is only a single substance.  What brilliant economy of explanatory causes compared with all those billions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

Not only that, but besides looking after the gazillions of electrons in the Universe (not just on Earth), God has to monitor the behavior and thoughts of every individual, human or nonhuman, and has complete knowledge of all of them. As it says in Matthew 10:29:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

The review is delightful, especially if you like mockery of Sophisticated Theology™, and Richard ends it this way:

A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe is not going to be simple.  His existence is therefore going to need a modicum of explaining in its own right (it is often considered bad taste to bring that up, but Swinburne does rather ask for it by pinning his hopes on the virtues of simplicity).  Worse (from the point of view of simplicity) other corners of God’s giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being.  He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer.  That would never do, for, “If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.”  And then where would we be?

If this is theology, perhaps Professor Swinburne’s colleagues are wise to be less lucid.

I feel like applauding when I read stuff like that.

After this, Richard quotes how theologians and believers went after him for his claim in the debate that God must be complex (his definition of “complex” is below), and that if you really understood theology, you’d know that its practitioners mean “simple” in a way different from both scientists and laypeople.

In the debate, Swineburne stood by his claim that God was simple, so the existence of God isn’t really a problem. (The “complexity” of any god would demand an explanation of how such a vastly complicated deity came about, an explanation that theologians aren’t prepared to give, as they don’t have one—except perhaps to claim “it’s gods all the way down”.)

In a loud, confident, articulate voice, Swinburne expounded exactly the same astonishing line as before, and I criticized it in the same terms. How can you possibly say God is a “simple”, “unitary” explanation for the universe and the laws of physics, given that, in order to create it, he needed to know a whole lot of physics and mathematics.  Plus, 4.6 billion years later, he now has the bandwidth to read the intimate thoughts of seven billion of people simultaneously, and, for all we know, the thoughts and prayers of even more billions of extra-terrestrial aliens.

It didn’t surprise me that Swinburne still thinks God is a supremely simple entity. He evidently uses the word “simple” in a special theological sense. What does surprise me is the number of others incapable of seeing the absurdity of his position. Several Twitter responses to the debate proudly proclaim “Divine Simplicity” as a thing in theology. But you can’t demonstrate that something is right merely by shoving the word “Divine” in front of it, not even if you attribute it to Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. What is the justification for invoking “Divine Simplicity in this context? Does it even mean anything coherent?

And then Dawkins explains what he means by simplicity and complexity, which is the same way scientists (and everyone else, if they could articulate it) understands complexity. It’s a nonmathematical version of “Shannon information.”  Here I have to give a longish quote:

Here’s what I mean by simple. I suspect it captures what most biologists mean, if not most scientists. It can be quantified using an intuitive, verbal version of Shannon’s mathematical measure of information. Simple is the opposite of complex. The complexity or simplicity of an entity is the minimum number of words (more strictly bits – binary digits in the most economical re-coding) you need to describe it. A centipede and a lobster both consist of a train of segments running from front to rear. The centipede is simpler than the lobster, in the following sense. To describe the centipede, you admittedly need a special description of the front and rear segments, but the many segments in between are the same as each other. Just describe one segment, and then say “Repeat repeat repeat . . . some large number of times” (it might literally be 100 times in some species.) But you can’t do that with the lobster because most of the segments are different from each other. If you were to write a book called The Anatomy of the Centipede and another book called the Anatomy of the Lobster, the second book would come out a lot fatter. Assuming, of course, that the two books go into a similar level of detail, which is an easy assumption to police.

From this you can see that simplicity/complexity is measured not just by number of parts but also by what Julian Huxley called “heterogeneity of parts”. And we have to add that the heterogeneous parts themselves, and the way they are connected up, are necessary to the definition of the entity concerned. Any old heap of junk has a large number of heterogenous parts but neither they, nor their particular juxtaposition, are necessary to the general definition of “a heap of junk”. You can shuffle the parts of a  heap of junk a million times, and all million will answer to the definition of a heap of junk. The heterogenous parts of a lobster, and their mutual arrangement, are necessary to the definition of a lobster. So they are to the definition of a centipede, but fewer of them are different from each other, and you can shuffle (most of them) into any order.

There’s more, but I’ll just give some funny bits in the form of social media rebukes Richard got (in italics) and his answers (in plain text):

“Richard, stop embarrassing yourself. Stick to science.

With all due respect – and I have a lot of respect for you – watching you switch lanes from science to philosophy is like watching Michael Jordan switch to baseball.”

I’ve become ever so slightly irritated by the suggestion that you need some sort of special training to think clearly. Philosophy is just thinking clearly. Does one not need to think clearly to do science? Or history? Or any subject worth studying. Perhaps not theology, where thinking clearly might even be a handicap.

and this:

For evolution’s sake stop trying to do theology.”

I am not trying to do theology, not least because I have grave doubts as to whether theology is a subject at all (I don’t in any way impugn the fascinating work done in university Departments of Theology on the Dead Sea scrolls, comparing ancient Hebrew texts, and similar honest scholarship). I’m talking about theology in the (I suspect but could be wrong) obscurantist sense epitomised by “Transubstantiation” and the “Mystery” of  the Eucharist, the “Mystery” of the Trinity, the “Mystery” of the Incarnation, and “Divine Simplicity”.

I am not trying and failing to do theology, Swinburne is trying and failing to do science. The question of why all electrons and all copper atoms behave as others of their kind do is a purely scientific question.  And the question of why we exist, which was the topic of the London debate, is fairly and squarely a scientific question. It is possible that science will never ultimately solve it, though I think it will, and the possibility of failure is no reason to give up without making the effort. But if science doesn’t solve it, no other discipline will.

And, finally, this:

“Stick to biology.”

Thank you, I intend to. Biology uses language honestly and solves real problems. In 2,000 years, what problem has ever been solved by theology?

In that short last sentence, Richard sums up what I try to say in my lecture on the incompatibility of religion and science. There I talk about all the scientific advances in just the last century, and then ask this: “How much more do we know about the nature and will of God since the writings of Augustine or Aquinas?”  The answer, of course is “nothing”, for theology is not a discipline in which one can investigate and test various propositions.  We still know nothing about God—least of all whether He/She/It even exists.

h/t: Daniel

More Sophisticated Theology: a religious scholar ponders whether Neanderthals had immortal souls

August 10, 2023 • 8:30 am

Lest you think that Sophisticated Theology™ has fallen on hard times, here we have an article pondering at great and tedious length the immensely important question, “Did Christ die for Neanderthals?” That can be rephrased, according to author Simon Francis Gaine, as “Did the Neanderthals have immortal souls?” (The “OP” after his name stands for Ordinis Praedicatorum, meaning of the Order of Preacher in the Dominican sect of Catholicism.)

And he gets paid to write stuff like this; his biography gives his bona fides, include a degree from Oggsford:

Fr Simon is currently assigned to the Angelicum, Rome, where he teaches in the Theology Faculty of the Pontifical University of St Thomas. He lectures on the Theology of Grace and Christian Anthropology, and oversees the Faculty’s Doctoral Seminar.

Fr Simon holds the Pinckaers Chair in Theological Anthropology and Ethics in the Angelicum Thomistic Institute, of which he is also the Director. He is a member of the Advisory Board of Blackfriars’s Aquinas Institute, the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas, Rome, and the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.

He studied theology at Oxford, and completed his doctorate in modern Catholic theology before joining the Dominican Order in 1995.

Click on the screenshot for a paradigmatic example of Sophisticated Theology™. The paper appeared in 2020 in New Blackfriars, a Wiley journal that’s apparently peer reviewed.

Here’s the Big Question:

 I have no expertise in any of these sciences, but have tried as best I can to understand what they have to say, in order to take account of what they have to say within a theological framework. Today I am going to look at the Neanderthals and their relationship to us from a theological perspective in the Catholic tradition, asking what a disciple of St Thomas Aquinas should make of them. Are they to be counted among the humanity God created in his image and likeness and which fell into sin, or are they to be counted instead among the other animal species of our world represented in the first chapter of Genesis? Or are they something else? While creation itself is to be renewed through Christ at the last, according to Christian faith Christ is said to die for our trespasses, for our sins. So did Christ die for Neanderthals?

This comes down to the question, says Gaine, of whether Neanderthals had immortal souls, so we have to look for evidence of that. If they did, then they could be saved by Jesus, though since the Neanderthals’ demise antedated the appearance of Jesus by about 40,000 years, their souls must have lingered in somewhere like Purgatory (along with the souls of Aztecs and other pre-Christian believers) for millennia. Gaine does not take up the question of whether other hominins, like H. erectus or H. floresiensis, much less the Denisovans, also had souls.

Since we have no idea whether Neanderthals had immortal souls (indeed, we can’t be sure that anybody else has an immortal soul, since it’s like consciousness), we have to look for proxies for souls. The question is complicated by the fact that Neanderthals interbred with “modern” Homo sapiens, so that most of us carry some a few percent of Neanderthal genes in our genome.

To answer his question of whether Neanderthals are “theologically human” (i.e., whether they had immortal souls), Gaine turns to his hero Aquinas:

So were Neanderthals theologically human or not? I think the only way we can approach this question is to ask whether or not Neanderthals had immortal souls, as we do. But, apart from Christian teaching, how do we know that we even have such souls? We cannot just have a look at our immaterial souls, and Aquinas thought that we only know the character of our souls through what we do. Aquinas argues from the fact that we make intellectual acts of knowledge of things abstracted from their material conditions, to the immateriality of the intellectual soul. Our knowledge is not just of particulars but is universal, enabling pursuits like philosophy and science, and the potential to be elevated by God to supernatural knowledge and love of him. If human knowing were more limited to a material process, Aquinas does not think our souls would be such subsistent, immaterial souls. Finding evidence of intellectual flights throughout the history of sapiens is difficult enough, however, let alone in Neanderthals.

. . .  What we need to look for in the case of Neanderthals is evidence of some behaviour that bears the mark of an intellectual soul such as we have.

And so an “intellectual soul” then becomes a proxy for the immortal soul, which is itself the proxy for whether you can be saved by Christ. Did Neanderthals have these? Gaine uses several lines of evidence to suggest that they did.

  • Neanderthals buried their dead (religion!)
  • Language. We don’t know if Neanderthals could speak, but they had a vocal apparatus similar to that of modern H. sapiens. Gaine concludes that they had language, though of course that’s pure speculation. But since when have Sophisticated Theologians™ bridled at usupported speculation?
  • Neanderthals made cave paintings and may have adorned themselves with feathers and jewelry: signs of a “material culture” similar to H. sapiens.

And so he concludes, without saying so explicitly, that Neanderthals had immortal souls and were save-able by Christ. This supposedly allows us to use science to expand theology:

How though does any of this make a difference to theology in the tradition of Aquinas? If Neanderthals were created in God’s image and saved by Christ, this must expand our understanding of Christ’s ark of salvation and raise questions about how his saving grace was made available to them. Because the Church teaches that God offers salvation through Christ to every person in some way.  theologians have often asked in recent times how this offer is made to those who have not heard the Gospel, members of other religions, and even atheists. It seems to me that, just as modern science has enlarged our sense of the physical universe, the inclusion of Neanderthals in theological humanity must somehow expand our sense of human salvation, given that it was effected in the kind of life Neanderthals lived.

. . . But even if Neanderthal inclusion does not pay immediate theological dividends, at least for apologetic reasons it seems necessary for theology to take account of their discovery. Unless theologians do, they risk the appearance of leaving faith and science in separately sealed worlds, as though our faith cannot cope with advancing human knowledge, leaving it culturally marooned and seemingly irrelevant to many. That is exactly the opposite of the attitude of Aquinas, who, confident that all truth comes from God, in his own day confirmed Christian wisdom by integrating into it what he knew of human science.’

But why stop at Neanderthals when you’re “expanding your faith through science”. There are lots of other hominins that must be considered (see below).  Can we rule most of these out because they might not have had language?

From the Encyclopedia Brittanica

And what about other mammals? In 2015 the great Sophisticated Catholic Theologians™ Edward Feser and David Bentley Hart argued about whether dogs can go to Heaven. (Hart said “yes,” while Feser said “no”, both of them furiously quoting Church Fathers like Aquinas to support their positions.)

These are tough questions, and of course to answer them theologians have to construct confected arguments based on casuistry. What amazes me is that people get paid to corrupt science with such ridiculous theological questions. It is unsupported speculation about unevidenced empirical assertions.

h/t: David

A religion-addled reader writes in denigrating atheists

June 9, 2023 • 9:15 am

Yes, I get these emails quite frequently, but this one was so full of repressed anger that I had to post it. This morning’s emailer was one “Ian Coombe”, and though you can find that name all over the Internet as an author and “decision-making strategist,” I’m not sure this is that guy.  But I do think it’s his real name because his gmail address (not given) includes it. (While I don’t reveal real names of commenters here without permission, I don’t adhere to that for personal emails, especially if they’re aggressive and nasty.)

At any rate, Mr. Coombe’s email was headed “Lennox bashing,” which I suppose refers to my quarrels with John Lennox, including a post about his pathetic attempts to reconcile science with his Christianity. At the previous link I reproduced Lennox’s bona fides from Wikipedia.

John Lennox is a Northern Irish mathematician, bioethicist, and Christian apologist. He has written many books on religion, ethics, the relationship between science and faith (like his books, Has Science Buried God and Can Science Explain Everything), and has had public debates with atheists including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

I presume the peevish Mr. Coombe had read the post I mentioned (there are others, too), and was out to set me straight about my misguided criticism of religion and accommodationism.

I submit his email for your approval (or, more likely, disapproval):


There are many people in this world who derive strength from their religious faith especially today with so much suffering and lack of civility. We have lost our compass.
Perhaps your band of shallow atheist followers could develop a little empathy and or compassion for those who are not as sure of themselves and are content to grasp beliefs that work for them.

I always found the arrogance of Hitchins and others of his ilk astounding.

Perhaps the ‘evolution’ of quantum physics, quantum eraser and the fascination of quantum entanglement will reduce your followers smug out dated convictions and suggest new possibilities that would take them out of their sad black hole. It’s all plain sailing for them until personal tragedy strikes and then they search for a parachute, imaginary or otherwise, that doesn’t exist for them.

At the moment our world needs help from a source other than our own over blown egos and you’re not helping.


This is the old “you have to respect/embrace religion because it makes people feel good”, coupled with the old saw that “atheists turn to God in rough times.”  The first was handily refuted by George Bernard Shaw, who said this:

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”

Or, as Richard Dawkins said in his interview that I discussed yesterday, “I think that truth actually is a genuine value. I believe that a true scientific outlook on the world would actually be best for the flourishing of humankind.”  Religion is, to anybody with two neurons to rub together, a belief system lacking evidence, or, as Dawkins called it, a “delusion.”

Sadly, Mr Coombe conceives of atheism as a “conviction”, but it’s really not—except for diehard atheists who declar “I know that there’s no god.” If atheism is a claim, it’s simply a claim about evidence: “I don’t think there’s a god because I see no evidence for one.”

As for all of us atheists clinging to a “parachute” in times of personal tragedy—a parachute “imaginary or otherwise”—that’s a red herring.  Yes, we all seek consolation in hard or tragic times, but I prefer to look to reality than to fiction. When a friend or relative dies, I am not consoled by thinking, “Well, he/she is with god, and I’ll meet them again someday.”  That’s not only a false consolation, but one I find impossible to believe given my nature. Rather, we can be consoled by truths: that we had some good years with the person, that the person will persist in our memory, that the world may have been a better place because of that person, and so on.

But I digress. If you have a response to the email above, I’ll send it to Mr. Coombes tomorrow. Simply put it in the comments below (especially if you’re an atheist), and I’ll send him the link to this whole post tomorrow.

God will save King Charles—with pieces of the True Cross

April 19, 2023 • 10:30 am

If all the wooden relics alleged to be parts of the “true cross”—the apparatus on which a supposed Jesus was said to have been crucified—were genuine, you could carve Mount Rushmore out of them. They are, one and all, phony.

Yet people treat them as real and revere them. In fact, when Charles and Camilla are crowned as the King and Queen of England on Saturday, May 6 (they’re already in effect King and Queen), the ceremony will receive God’s blessing—from a relic donated by the Vatican. Click on the BBC screenshot below to read.

From the article (bolding is the BBC’s):

Fragments said to be from the cross on which Jesus was crucified will be included in a newly made Cross of Wales used at the head of the coronation procession in Westminster Abbey.

The relics of what is known as the True Cross were given to King Charles by Pope Francis, as a coronation gift.

The cross uses Welsh materials such as slate, reclaimed wood, and silver from the Royal Mint in Llantrisant.

King Charles hammered the hallmark onto the silver used in the cross.

The announcement about the new cross is a reminder that, alongside the pomp and pageantry, the coronation on 6 May will be a religious ceremony.

Of course that’s why they cry, “God save the King/Queen”, for they assume that God will hear. But of course he doesn’t hear, and that was proved by SCIENCE.  In the first test of the efficacy of intercessory prayer, Francis Galton—a cousin of Charles Darwin—determined the longevity of Britain’s royals and compared it to the longevity of people in similar situations of well being. He figured that since millions of people pray each week for the health of the King or Queen, they should on average live longer than, say, landed gentry.

Nope. As this article notes,

Just for the record as examples of [Galton’s] data, the 97 cases of members of the Royal family were recorded as having an average life span of 64.04 years, the 945 members of the clergy in his sample having an average lifespan of 66.49 years and the 1,632 members of the gentry a life span average of 70.22 years. While we can detect a satirical flavour to Galton’s study and despite obvious individual exceptions such as Queen Victoria, or to bring the cases up to date, the Queen Mother and the present Queen, it is hard to avoid the inevitable conclusion that this form of stylised prayer of petition does not always get the desired result.

Since then there have been other studies of the power of intercessory prayer, including one on recovery of cardiac patients that was funded by the Templeton Foundation. The results of all of these? Nada, zip, zilch. Prayer doesn’t help kings live longer nor people recover from surgery or illness.

The conclusion? Petitionary, intercessory prayer doesn’t work, either because God isn’t listening, is listening but doesn’t care, or, most likely, doesn’t exist. (This must have severely disappointed the people at Templeton.)

Yet the charade goes on. From the BBC again:

The cross, made by silversmith Michael Lloyd, is inscribed with the words of St David, patron saint of Wales. It is a gift from the King to the Church in Wales.

The coronation will be an Anglican service, but the prominent inclusion of a gift from the head of the Roman Catholic church reflects how other denominations and faiths will be represented.

Set into the silver cross will be two small wooden shards, originating from what is claimed to be the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

Such relics of the True Cross have been venerated for centuries, with pilgrimages made to churches where they are held.

At least the BBC adds this caveat:

There has also been long-standing scepticism about the volume and authenticity of such relics and whether they could all come from a single cross.


Well, the first thing they should do is some carbon dating on tiny bits of the “true cross”.  It should be at least two millennia old, but that’s just a start, because we can get wood that old from several species of living trees, or from pieces of wood known to be ancient. But no, Charles plays along, even participating, as in the picture above, in the invasion of knavish Popery into the coronation.

The King will then be anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (an Anglican), and that’s supposed to be the Holy Moment when the face of God smiles on Charles III:

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who is conducting the service on 6 May, has highlighted how the heart of the coronation is a religious ceremony, likening it to the ordination of a priest.

In a newly-published official souvenir programme, the archbishop says that in the middle of all the “magnificence and pomp” is a moment of “stillness and simplicity” when the King is anointed with holy oil.

The archbishop says the anointing will see the King in a simple white shirt, rather than “robes of status” and he says the King will be “in the full knowledge that the task is difficult and he needs help”.

This is a moment not previously seen by the public, and did not form part of the television coverage at the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

There has been speculation about whether or not it will be visible for next month’s ceremony, but current expectations suggests it will remain a private moment in the coronation proceedings.

In fact,  the British public appears to be against government funding of the coronation, which is indeed largely funded by the state:

Alongside some opposition to the coronation from anti-monarchy groups, a survey on Tuesday raised questions about the level of support for public funding of the occasion.

The coronation is a state event, but a YouGov poll of 4,000 adults found that 51% were against the government paying for it, compared with 32% who supported state-funding, with the rest saying they “didn’t know”.

Among 18-24 year olds, 62% thought the government should not fund the coronation.

And this:

The amount that it will cost the government will not be revealed until after the event.

Of course! We don’t want people grousing about how all that pomp is coming out of their pockets. We want them to think that faith is playing a substantial role in the ascendancy of Charles to Britain’s throne.

Tish Harrison Warren interviews an Anglican bishop who says the Resurrection was real, and he has evidence

April 9, 2023 • 9:30 am

In today’s Easter edition of the NYT, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren interviews the Jesus expert and Anglican bishop, N. T. Wright, introduced this way:

Perhaps no one on earth has studied that event [the Resurrection] and the subsequent responses to it more than N.T. Wright. He serves as senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and is emeritus professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews. He has written over 80 books focused on Jesus and his first followers. He is also a Christian and a former bishop of Durham in the Church of England. One of his books, “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” is an exhaustive dive into the scholarship and debates around the resurrection of Christ. I asked Wright to speak with me about his research and this baffling, world-altering claim of resurrection. This interview has been edited and condensed.

So what about the Resurrection? Did it happen, or is it only a metaphor? (We’re leaving aside the dubious claim that a Jesus person ever existed). Click to read.

What’s printed below is from the emailed newsletter I got—for some masochistic reason I subscribe to Warren’s lucubrations—so it isn’t yet up on the NYT site. When it appears, I’ll attach the piece to the screenshot below. This also explains the weird spacing below.

While Warren makes no statement about her own belief in a real Resurrection (I’m betting she’s a believer), she draws out Bishop Wright, who absolutely believed it happened. Although in his youth he was a doubter, he got convinced that Jesus really did rise from the dead by none other than that Theologian for the Masses, C. S. Lewis. That tells you something about the nature of the “evidence” for this miracle.  And although the entirety of Wright’s “evidence” rests on conflicting stories within a single book, the New Testament, that doesn’t daunt the man at all.  He’s a diehard Anglican to the point where he might as well be a full-on Catholic.

The first exchange dispels the Sophisticated Theologians’™ claim that the Resurrection really wasn’t a miracle but a metaphor. For those atheist-butters or accommodationists who argue that religion isn’t really about empirical claims, but morality and a sense of community, this will make them sit up. Warren’s questions are in bold, Wright’s answers in plain type. Text from the article is indented, text that is flush left is mine.

There’s a funny line where you write, “The discovery that dead people stayed dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.” That’s obvious, of course, but we sometimes assume that skepticism is a recent phenomenon. How would ancient Jewish audiences and Gentile audiences think about the apostles talking about the resurrection?

Early Christianity was born into a world where everybody knew that its central claim was ridiculous, and the early Christians knew it themselves. It’s not that they thought resurrection might just happen to a few people here and there. But they said it had happened in this case.

This claim seemed absolutely crazy. Ordinary, sober people knew perfectly well that dead people don’t get raised up again.

Many Jewish people for two centuries before Jesus and on for at least the next century believed that in the end, all God’s people would be raised because they believed that the God of Israel, the Creator God, would remake the whole world. But this is about one person being raised from the dead ahead of everybody else.

In the non-Jewish world, there is no evidence that anyone is expecting dead people to come back again. There’s lots of speculation about other places they might go. The Platonic speculation about going off to the Isles of the Blessed and having lovely conversations about philosophy all day. The Stoics believed that there would be a great Phoenixlike conflagration and the whole world would then be reborn.

But most people knew that when you died, that was basically it. That’s why when Paul, in Athens, said this had happened, most of them laughed at him. It didn’t fit their worldview. That’s crucial because you can’t fit the resurrection into the existing worldviews that we’ve got. The resurrection brings its own worldview with it and says, if you’re going to understand the way things are, you start with this and work out. If Jesus really has been raised, then everything is different.

Got that? Note that yes, he thinks it really happened. Later Wright says this, which he realized after reading C. S. Lewis:

But the truth of the resurrection is a truth about something that actually happened in history.

So much for Gould’s NOMA hypothesis that religion is about morality, not empirical claims of truth.  Certainly there are many Christians that do take the Resurrection as a metaphor, but surely many (perhaps most) do. For without it, the possibility of salvation—the culmination of the whole Jesus story—disappears. I don’t think a lot of people who buy Gould’s separation of the religious from the empirical magisteria realize how important it is for many believers to accept that religious claims about empirical truths are really held deeply. If they weren’t, and everything’s a metaphor, you might as well be a secular humanist.

Note above that, in the last big of the first long quote, Wright’s evidence comes close to Tertullian’s claim, “I believe it because it is impossible.” Here’s what he says in response to Warren’s second question:

So we have another reason to accept the Resurrection: because it makes everything “different”. That is, it buttresses what Bishop Wright wants to believe.  But let’s give the man a bit more credit, he immediately adduces two pieces of “evidence”—both from Scripture, of course—that the testimony of the disciples about the Resurrection really was true:

You spend time in the book looking at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the Gospels. It seems that the disciples’ testimony about seeing Jesus matters to you. Why do you trust their testimony?

If you understand how people thought about death and life after death in the ancient world, you will need two strands of converging evidence.

On the one hand, there are extraordinary reports about people going to the tomb of Jesus and finding that there was no body in it. In that world, grave robbery was a common occurrence, so an empty tomb by itself says, “This is odd,” but we can tell some stories about this that are much more credible than the idea that he’s alive again.

However, if at the same time this person turns up and is seen and felt to be bodily alive and speaks to people and cooks breakfast by the shore, then that is totally unexpected as well. Those two things kind of interpret one another.

You need those two bits of evidence put together and then the testimony makes sense. Otherwise, empty tomb? Somebody has taken the body. That’s what Mary Magdalene thought. Appearances? “Oh, yeah, we know about those. Just go and check in the tomb. You will find there’s still a body there.” But if there isn’t, then we are into something different. So that’s why that evidence is so important.

The bishop’s “evidence” here seems to consist of this: “if two unexpected things occur but don’t comport with each other and also imply something weird, that weird thing must be true.” But that, of course, is hokum. What Wright’s really saying here is simply that if Jesus was crucified, his body put in a tomb, but then he reappears as a living person, then the Resurrection MUST have happened. But all he’s doing is re-describing the Resurrection story, pretending that there’s some train of logic in it, and then saying that this constitutes “evidence.” The man has no conception of what empirical evidence really is, so strong is his will to believe.

Finally, when Warren asks him why it’s so important that Jesus rose from the dead, Bishop Wright again emits nonsensical theobabble. He doesn’t mention that Jesus says in the New Testament that some of his contemporaries would still be alive when he returned, but of course he hasn’t. This occurs three times (all translations below are from the King James version):

Mark 9:1

And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.

Mark 13:30

Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.

Matthew 10:23

But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.

This look as if either Jesus was lying, made a mistake about the date of his return (off by two millennia!), or most likely, he never said this stuff but it was made up by the men who wrote the Scriptures. I’ll leave you to choose what is most likely.

Finally, Bishop Wright is asked about what I see as the Achilles heel of Christianity:  Why the world is still in bad shape, full of the suffering of innocents, if Jesus rose and was going to save people? Here’s a bit of his answer to Warren’s question (notice that, of course, she doesn’t press him on any of this):

Let’s say that what the Gospels claim is true: Jesus is risen. It seems that the world keeps going and there’s still oppression, suffering and grief. There’s still death. So what difference does it make that Jesus is raised from the dead?

. . . People regularly say, if there really was a God, if he really wanted to sort the place out, then he would come and, bang, it would be done. He would send in the tanks — metaphorically speaking, or perhaps not — and sort out the evil and wickedness in the world. But the Sermon on the Mount says that when God comes to sort out the world the Jesus way, he doesn’t send in tanks. He sends in the poor and the brokenhearted and the hungry-for-justice people and the meek and the people who are ready to suffer for getting the world sorted out. The way the Sermon on the Mount works is exactly the same way that the gospel of the resurrection works. Jesus, risen from the dead, is the planting of that great seed. And now the plant has spread in all directions.

Obviously bad things happen. Bad things happen in and through the church. We all know that. I know that as well as anyone. But all sorts of great and good things do happen. Healing happens, hope happens, and ultimately it all goes back to this single seed of the raising of Jesus from the dead.

In other words, people suffer because the Bible says that suffering people will usher in the return of Jesus. But I have news for Bishop Wright: people have been suffering for two millennia, and yet Jesus hasn’t come back! Where is he? Two millennia of starvation, war, the Black Death, kids with cancer, earthquakes, and all manner of suffering. For crying out loud, how much suffering does it take before the Jesus seed sprouts?


As a palliative, I recommend this free article from Michael Shermer at his Substack site Skeptic (click to read).

Shermer dismantles all the mythology around Jesus’s life and resurrection, and then raises what I call The Argument from the Jews:

. . . . . a challenge to the resurrection miracle that I often employ is that Jews do not accept it as real, neither in Jesus’ time nor in ours. Think about that: Jews believe in the same God as Christians. They accept the Old Testament of the Bible like Christians do. They even believe in the Messiah. They just don’t think Jesus of Nazareth was him. Jewish rabbis, scholars, philosophers, and historians all know the arguments for the resurrection as well as Christian apologists and theologians making the arguments, and still they reject them. Why? If the arguments and evidence for the resurrection is so solid, in time the community most expert in that field would reach a consensus about it. They haven’t. Christians believe it. Jews don’t.

He then refers to an interview he gave to Ben Shapiro, which I haven’t watched, to explain why Jews don’t accept the Resurrection:

Ben Shapiro explains why here, in our conversation on his Sunday Special show.

Happy Easter!

In which I push atheism on Bored Panda

February 28, 2023 • 9:15 am

How could I resist promulgating religious nonbelief on a site that gets 120 million views per month? I couldn’t, so when Bored Panda wrote me asking me to comment on a story a story from Reddit about religious indoctrination of children, how could I refuse?

The original story describes how a teenage girl’s aunt kept pressuring her to adopt Christianity, even though her parents believed in letting children choose their own religion.  After the pious aunt secretly made an appointment with a priest to get the girl’s younger brother baptized, and apparently went through with it, the girl was incensed and decided to “baptize” her aunt as a witch and the wife of Satan. Here’s that bit of the story:

After my brother told my mother about the incident (which my aunt told him not to do), she confronted my aunt on her next visit. My aunt proudly confessed to having “saved” my brother and a screaming match ensued. As I already mentioned, my parents strongly believe, that everyone should be able to choose their own beliefs and not join a church until one is old enough to make an informed decision.

To summarize my aunt’s words: she could not believe that our mother was wilfully condemning us to hell and that it was no wonder I had become a satanic witch. She HAD TO act because my mother obviously couldn’t be brought to her senses and someone had to save the boy.

In a moment of anger, I went to my room to get one of my pots (I have one pot in the shape of a skull) and filled it with water. While they were still screaming at each other, I poured the water over her. Then I declared her to be now baptized a witch and the lawful wife of Satan. I will be honest, I enjoyed the expressions of shock and then panic on her face. She told me to undo what I did. I refused.

Once she realized, she could not convince me, she stormed out of the house. Now, she told the whole family about it and my grandparents and other relatives have been bombarding my mother with hateful messages. My mother says she understands why I did what I did, but that I need to “undo” it to keep the peace. I am supposed to make a show of “de-baptizing” her and declaring her Christian again.I am just tired of everybody constantly talking about religions and fed up with my aunt and everybody’s endurance of her. If she can just go around and baptize my brother, why can’t I do the same to her?

The girl’s question to Reddit readers:

AITA if I do not comply with my parent’s wishes? [JAC: “AITA” means “am I the asshole”].

So author Adelaide Ross of Bored Panda asked me to act as an “agony aunt” as the Brits call it, sending me to the Reddit story and then asking me to answer four questions:

1) What are some of the issues that come from adults indoctrinating children into their own religions?

2) Are there any appropriate ways to introduce children to religious ideas without pressuring them into believing certain things?

3) Is there anything you would like to say or explain to devout religious adults who feel the need to indoctrinate children into the same belief systems?

a) Is there anything else you’d like to add?

At first I thought I’d give this a pass as Bored Panda is generally a clickbait site, but then I thought, “Wait a minute: the site gets 120 million views per month. How can I pass up this chance to give my views?”

And so I did. You can find them embedded in the Bored Panda article below. Click to read:

Their intro:

Getting baptized is a very special moment in many people’s lives. Some are baptized as babies, while others make the choice to experience this rite of passage later on in life. But for those of us who don’t identify with some form of Christianity, this ritual can be skipped. Unless a relative forces you to go through with it unbeknownst to your parents…

Below, you’ll find a story that one teen shared on Reddit detailing how she got revenge on her aunt who attempted to pressure her and her brother into adopting the same religious beliefs, as well as an interview with Dr. Jerry Coyne.

What surprised me is that they not only gave the entirety of my responses, but also that the whole tenor of the article is that religion isn’t necessarily good for kids at all. They even quote studies in which nonreligious children proved to be more altruistic and less judgmental than kids who were either religious or raised in religious homes. And they quote everything I wrote, sprinkled through the piece. Here’s an excerpt:

Dr. Coyne was kind enough to have a chat with us about some of the issues that can arise when adults feel the need to indoctrinate children into their own religions. “First, it almost always makes the child adopt the religion of the parents, so they don’t get to choose their faith—or lack of faith,” he told Bored Panda. “That could be done only after exposure to the tenets of many faiths and by attaining an age that allows a mature choice.

“More importantly, it indoctrinates the child into accepting religious superstition, as well as thinking that faith alone is a good reason to accept truths about the world—truths that actually can be found only through empirical observation,” Dr. Coyne went on to explain. “Finally, it deludes children into thinking that their faith is the correct faith, when in reality we have no idea whether any faith is correct, or even if there is a god to worship.”

. . . Dr. Coyne urges moms and dads to allow their children to form their own beliefs over time, rather than pressuring them to follow a specific path from childhood. “Let the child grow up and make their own choice of what to believe, or to believe nothing at all about gods,” he says. “Although Richard Dawkins has characterized [religious indoctrination] as ‘child abuse’, I wouldn’t go quite that far. But it is indoctrination and propagandizing that is simply wrong.” If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Coyne and check out his books, be sure to visit his website Why Evolution Is True right here.

The article ends by quoting some responses that came after Bored Panda asked readers to react. Note that they quote a pro-atheist article:

We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments below, pandas. How do you feel about the actions of this aunt? Do you think she got what she deserved? Feel free to share down below, and then if you’re interested in reading another Bored Panda article discussing why some people from religious families decided to become atheist, you can find that story right here.

The witch-baptizing girl herself (“Vibing_Jellybean OP”), also responded. I was chuffed to see that nearly all the published responses were on the girl’s side. Here’s one exchange (“NTA” means “not the asshole”. Oy, kids and their abbreviations!)”

Frankly, I’m surprised that this site (or at least this piece) takes the girl’s side and emphasizes the downside of forcing kids to adopt a faith, as well as of having faith oneself. Yes, it’s a clickbait site, but why not put some secularism in it?  I’m happy to find that kids see through this proselytizing.

A pastor touts religion in The Atlantic: Religion helps America because “its metaphysical claims are true”

February 8, 2023 • 9:45 am

Frankly, I was gobsmacked when I saw this new piece in The Atlantic, because, in the interest of convincing a secularizing America that we need more religion (and by “religion” the author means “Christianity”), Thomas Keller proffers what turns out to be a long sermon, touting theological points like “salvation through faith”. He also insists on a factual basis of Christianity, which presumably includes the existence of stuff like Resurrection and Heaven and the half man/half Go nature of Jesus as important parts of what Americans must accept.

It’s not surprising that Keller would write something like this, as he’s identified as “the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, chair of Redeemer City to City, and author of the forthcoming book Forgive: Why Should I? How Can I?”  What’s surprising is that a liberal and mainstream magazine like The Atlantic would want to publish such a religious screed—and one loaded with dubious claims presented as if they were real. Well, if you want to see why America needs Christianity, amounting to a call for a Christian nation, click below:


Keller begins by wringing his hands about the increasing secularism of America, something you’ll know about if you read this website. He cites the well known statistic that about a third of Americans are now “nones,” not identifying with any established church (these aren’t all nonbelievers, of course). He especially mourns the “repurposing” of old churches as gyms, pubs, and coffee houses, although these provide a lot of what Keller says would be gone if religion disappeared.

To pastor Keller, the secularization trend is insupportable and harmful, for, he claims, religion is a vital glue that holds America together:

Many secular social theorists—including ​​Émile Durkheim and Jonathan Haidt, to name two—show how religion makes contributions to society that cannot be readily supplied by other sources. Cultural unity, Durkheim argued in the 1890s, requires a “conscience collective,” a set of shared moral norms that bind us together in a sustained way. These norms are understood to be grounded in something sacred and transcendent, not created by culture. Durkheim recognized the difficulties secular cultures have in cultivating moral beliefs that are strong and unquestionable enough to unite people.

Note that acceptance of the “sacred and transcendent” is crucial here; more about that later. But I disagree with this claim, and again I cite Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Are those countries hellholes of anomie? Does the lack of feelings about the numinous cause the inhabitants tp wander about aimlessly, mourning the absence of meaning and morality? Nope: these are some of the most moral and caring countries in the world. If you think a country absolutely needs religion to function well, have a look at Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.

Keller then gives two reasons why having Christian churches is important for America, then five ways to keep them going—or even increase their number—and finally three reasons ways Christianity needs to change to preserve its hegemony. (Keller apparently loves lists.) I’m not going into detail into this, but one point is worth examining: the second reason why, says Keller, we need churches. I’ll separate the three groups of arguments and omit the third. Keller’s quotes are indented:

A. Why we need churches. 

1.) At a local level, churches provide community and support to people in their congregations who lack strong family ties or other kinds of emotional and social support. They also serve neighbors who do not attend church, particularly in poorer neighborhoods.

Yes, they do that, but so can government, which, in Scandinavia, provides succor and sustenance without pushing religion. Lunch is rarely free when the church hands it out, and of course the whole enterprise serves to buttress faith. And don’t forget about those pubs, coffee houses, and gyms that occupy the abandoned churches.

But here’s the kicker, and the one reason we don’t want more churches. Bolding is mine:

2.) While a revival of the Church would benefit society, that will never happen if the Church thinks of itself as just another social-service agency. Christians seek spiritual renewal of the Church not because they see religion as having social utility, nor because they want to shore up their own institutions. First and foremost, Christianity helps society because its metaphysical claims are true; they are not true because Christianity helps society. When Christians lose sight of this, the Church’s power and durability are lost.

Note the flat assertion that Christianity’s “metaphysical claims are true.” Well, of course that raises several questions. First of all, which metaphysical claims are true? That Jesus was the divine son of God as well as God himself, and came to Earth to save us? That Jesus got crucified and then resurrected? That Jesus really did do all those miracles? Do you really achieve salvation not through works but through faith, as Keller thinks? If not all the claims are true, which ones are true? And how does Keller know that any of the metaphysical claims are true? Because the Bible tells us?

And of course, there are plenty of Christians who claim to be helped by Christianity without buying into all its “truth claims”. In fact, given the evidence that Christianity’s metaphysical claims are false, it seems unlikely to help society in the way Keller thinks.

But the worst part is that Keller scuppers his own argument for reviving Christianity by making it depend on accepting his interpretation of parts of Scripture as literally true.

B. How to make the Church sustain itself and grow.

1.) First, as I see it, growth can happen if the Church learns how to speak compellingly to non-Christian people. For a millennium, Western institutions instilled in most citizens Christian beliefs about morality and sex, God and sin, and an afterlife. If non-Christian people entered a church, what they heard was likely not strange or offensive to them. That has changed, but the Church has not yet learned how to communicate to outsiders. As a result, most evangelical churches can reach only the shrinking and aging enclaves of socially conservative people.

Good luck getting Christians to “speak compellingly” to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and those of other faiths. There’s no need to discuss this point further.

2.) Second, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it learns how to unite justice and righteousness. I have heard African American pastors use this terminology to describe the historic ministry of the Black Church. By righteousness they meant that the Church has maintained its traditional beliefs in the authority of the Bible, morality, and sexuality. It calls individuals to be born again through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. By justice, they meant that the Church has an activist stance against all forms of oppression.

White Protestant churches in America tend to pick one or the other. if the Church at large could combine these two ideas the way the Black Church has, it can begin to rebuild both credibility and relevance, rebutting the charge that it is merely another political power broker. A church that unites justice and righteousness does not fit with the left on abortion and sexual ethics or with the right on race and justice. Instead it is a community that addresses the timeless longings of all people for meaning, hope, love, and salvation.

What is the sweating pastor trying to say here? That his new church will be anti-abortion and puritanical? Most Americans actually go along with the left on abortion, at least insofar as a majority agrees with Roe v. Wade. This so-called unification doesn’t seem to be very palatable. But look at it this way: if nobody has sex, there will be no need for abortions.

3.) Third, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it embraces the global and multiethnic character of Christianity.

Keller wants more immigrants from China, Korea, and Latin America, for, he avers, they’re more religious than Americans (is he serious about China?). This is a very strange reason to favor immigration.

4.) Fourth, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it strikes a dynamic balance between innovation and conservation. A church must conserve historic Christian teaching. If a church simply adopts the beliefs of the culture, it will die, because it has nothing unique to offer.

He mentions past “innovations” like monasticism and the “east African Revival” that made Africa more religious, but Keller really has no suggestions for America.

Finally, another bad suggestion:

5.) Fifth, the Church has in its favor what the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor called “the unquiet frontiers of modernity.” He makes the case that Western culture is deeply conflicted about faith and God. Modern secularism holds that people are only physical entities without souls, that sensations of love and beauty are just neurological-chemical events, that there is no meaning other than what we construct, and that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds choose. Yet most people feel that life is greater than what can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations.

. . . The breakdown of neighborhoods and communities means that, more and more, our lives are run by faceless, massive bureaucracies and inhumane technologies and inhumane technologies aimed solely at economic efficiency.

This mistakes what people want to believe with what is true. Yes, people may want there to be more to life than “neurological-chemical events” and more to morality than a human construct (do they want a morality derived from the Bible?). And indeed, you don’t have to live your life rejecting love because it’s neurochemical and evolved as a bonding mechanism. That may all be true, but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the sensation of love. But to simply make up divine explanations, or confect diving moralities, because you’re not happy with what science tells us, well, you’re spurning truth in favor of faith.

In contrast to the claimed emptiness of a life based on “scientism”, Keller offers theological exegesis, and a kind that’s contested:

In stark contrast, Christianity offers grace and covenant. Protestant Christianity teaches its members that salvation is by sheer grace, not by one’s moral efforts or performance. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God, so the cosmic ruler becomes our unconditionally loving heavenly father. And all who unite with God as father are brought into a family of faith, which is based not on contractual relationships, sustained only as long as they benefit both parties’ interests, but covenant relationships, in which all parties pledge to serve one another in sacrificial love.

He’s professing here sola fide, the notion of salvation by faith that’s held not by all Christians, but by Lutherans and a few other Protestant denominations. In this kind of faith, it doesn’t matter how much good you do before you die: unless you have true faith in Jesus, you’re not going to Heaven. (Oh, I forgot: does Keller believe in Heaven and Hell as true metaphysical claims?) If you’re a mass murderer, but at the end of your life embrace God and Jesus, you’ll get your harp and wings. This is in contrast with Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the Eastern Orthodox church, which require not only faith for salvation, but good works. Indeed, what kind of god would welcome Hitler as warmly as would Louis Pasteur, so long as both had the true faith?

Keller’s offering the easy way out here: just accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior and you’re golden. Perhaps that’s why he touts this as the way to grow religion in America as it’s a lot easier to have faith alone than to have both faith and a c.v. full of good works. If I were a Christian—and thank Ceiling Cat I’m not—I’d find the “salvation through faith alone” gambit to be a form of religion that’s too easy; in principle, if Ted Bundy confessed at the end, he’d go right past Saint Peter into Paradise.

In the end, I doubt that many of us want religion to grow; most of us seem to be applauding the waning in America of the kind of faith that was, as Hitchens said, a sign of the “infancy of our species.” For to keep religion going in America means to keep faith going, and to keep faith going means, as Mark Twain said, to keep “believing what you know ain’t so.” In the end, Keller wants us to keep America going by relying on lies, delusions, and superstitions.

h/t Barry, who sent me the link and noted this:  “Keller never addresses the central question: ‘Does Christianity have anything to say about the nature of the world and the universe that is true?'”

Where did Jesus get his DNA?: a dispute between Catholics and Evangelical Christians

January 16, 2023 • 9:30 am

A reader’s comment in a recent post brought this issue to my attention. Lots of fun!

I should have figured that once genetics became established, theologians would realize that they had a problem. Two big problems, actually. The first, which I’ve discussed before, is that we’re all supposed to be descended from a man and a woman who were a couple living at the same time and place (Adam and Eve, of course).  Because this is not possible, scientifically inclined theologians have tried to save the Original Sin Couple for well over a decade. I won’t describe their solutions, but they are the subject of constant argument at the moribund BioLogos site (see here for a FAQ on Adam and Eve).

A bigger question, discussed at tedious length at the Evangelical Christian website below, is this: if Jesus was part human and part divine, but was born of a human mother (Mary), what was his genetic constitution? Clearly Joseph didn’t have a part in inseminating Mary, and if Jesus was a human, with 23 pairs of chromosome and a Y, did one set of chromosomes, containing an X, come from Mary, and the rest from God? That is, did God contribute half of Jesus’s genome, or did he create Jesus’s genome entirely?

Given the lack of evidence that a divine Jesus existed, or that even a Jesus person existed (some, like Bart Ehrman ,see Jesus as a real person but not divine: a messianic apocalyptic Jewish preacher), this argument would seem superfluous. Or trivial–like the number of angels waltzing on a pinhead. But Christians need answers, and so Finding Hope Ministries (FHM) supplies us with theirs.

Click below to read:

FHM first lists all the possibilities—eliminating the possibility Jesus was haploid, containing only 23 chromosomes from Mary, which would make the Savior inviable (and not male), but would explain the middle initial in “Jesus H. Christ”):

It seems there are only 3 options for considering the composition of Jesus’ DNA:

  1. Jesus has 100% Mary’s DNA with a divinely created Y chromosome to make Him male. [JAC: But did God take out one of Mary’s two X chromosomes, or was he XXY, a male with Klinefelter syndrome?]
  2. Jesus has 50% DNA from a human female (Mary) and 50% DNA from God, to replace that of a human male.
  3. Jesus has DNA created entirely by God at the time of His conception.

Several have proposed God supplied a Y chromosome to add to the X chromosome of Mary’s egg cell (ovum), which programmed for the male gender of Jesus.  In so doing God bypassed defective genetic weaknesses of the Adamic (male) genome.  However, this is a fallacious argument, as 22 other chromosomes must be contributed to match the other 22 chromosomes Mary produced in her ovum cell.

God, of course, could have done anything.

FHM then analyzes the Catholic position, which they ultimately reject (their bolding):

The Roman Catholic Church embraces the second option: Jesus has 50% DNA from a human female (Mary’s) and 50% DNA from God (to replace that of a sinful human male).  This enabled Mary to supply Jesus’ humanity.  God the Holy Spirit miraculously encapsulated the Divine nature in Jesus human body.  Mary and the Holy Spirit each contributed 50% to the end result.  But doesn’t Mary fall under the category of all humans who are born sinners? Catholic theologians cite Mary’s “Immaculate conception” as contributing a sinless human nature to Jesus.  Catholics believe Mary was without sin when she bore God’s Son.  Mary is considered the “Holy Mother of God.” She remained a virgin after delivering Jesus (according to the Catholic church). Therefore, Roman Catholicism insists Jesus’ other brothers and sister mentioned in Scripture (James, Jude, etc) were not siblings but cousins—not birthed by the Virgin Mary. The Holy Scriptures teach Jesus’ siblings were born of Mary, who did not stay a virgin after Jesus’ birth.  But the question about whether they share Jesus’ DNA remains unanswered.  Let us further examine the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

To ensure that Jesus was without Original Sin given that he had a human mother, Catholics adopted (in 1854!) the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: that Mary was sinless from the moment of her own conception—as sinless as the pre-serpent Adam. If so, then her offspring, Jesus, was also born without Original Sin.  To ensure that Jesus’s brothers and sisters remained sinful, it was proposed that they were not the result of Mary’s insemination by God. Instead, they were “cousins,” which I presume means fathered by Joseph with another woman. Adultery!

The Catholic solution is thus this, as stated by FHM:

Catholics teach Mary was sinless and conceived in perfection. They therefore propose Mary contributed Jesus sinless human nature. Jesus’ DNA would then consist of 50% contribution from Mary, and perhaps more if God only added the ‘Y’ chromosome.

Catholic theologians admit the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, as defined by Pope Pius IX was not overtly taught prior to the 12th century. They also agree Biblical Scripture can’t prove this teaching. But they claim the doctrine is implicitly contained in the teaching of the church Fathers.

The church Fathers, of course, didn’t know anything about heredity, much less about the Y chromosome, so I’m not sure how that solution is “implicit” in their teaching. BUT to evangelical Christians such as those from FHM, this doesn’t solve the problem. Why? For two reasons. First, as they note:

Most Protestants reject the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. They do not consider the teaching authoritative because it is not supported by Biblical Scriptures.

Indeed. The Immaculate Conception was just made up to solve the problem of getting a sinless part-human Jesus—to save the Trinity. But if you reject this construction, then you face another problem: if Jesus really did contain some of Mary’s genome, and she still had Original Sin, then Jesus would also bear Original Sin. But he couldn’t have, for then he wouldn’t be Jesus.  Thus the Christians are forcd to accept the third solution—God created the entire embryo of Jesus:

It is more likely Mary nourished and “made” the infant Jesus from a single cell being conceived (created) only by God.  She gave it a virgin birth, protecting it from any sinful genetic contribution from the ‘seed of man.’  But God the Holy Spirit conceived and created the initial cell of Jesus that ultimately grew into the baby child born nine months later.  This was God’s miraculous conception without a man and without a woman.

. . . The Biblical record supports God intervened only once in human genealogy when Jesus became man. God picked Mary as the woman who would birth His Son because of His grace, not because He needed a sinless vessel to pass purity onto His son.  Mary provided nourishment and protection for God’s Son as He developed in her uterus. The virgin birth confirmed the purity of Jesus at childbirth.  So God the Holy Spirit placed a God-designed conception in the womb of Mary and she functioned as a surrogate mother.  God created His human nature.  Jesus existed eternally as Deity.  His God nature was never created, contrary to the teaching of Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses.

They cite scripture to support this (read the article), but of course Catholics cite scripture to support their own view. The thing is, if God can create a fertilized egg containing no human genome, and then make Mary bear it for nine months, why couldn’t he have created Jesus de novo without a pregnancy? That’s another question that I’ll leave to the readers, but I suppose pregnancy is part of the story that Jesus had at least some humanlike origin.

It gets even funnier when FHM explains why Mary could not have been without sin (remember, they reject the Immaculate Conception). It involves her having mutations in her DNA, mutations caused by SIN:

Inherent sin in the human genome produces inherited physical mutations. Over many generations, the human population has experienced myriads of genetic mutations, and these defects have been incorporated into the common human gene pool, affecting every infant ever born.  This is why the lifespan of men has declined from 900+ years in the pre-Flood world to 200+ years of Abraham’s contemporaries and ultimately to 70-80 years today.  Mary did not live to be 900 years old.  She was not martyred at a young age.  Her body suffered the ravages of imperfection.  She had a defective human genome and died a normal age (approximately 60) for a woman of that time.

Why sin produces mutations is unresolved, of course, and not all mutations are “defects”. But this solves the problem of a sinless Jesus born of a human mother, and kills another bird as well: the remarkable decline in human longevity since Biblical days.  No more Methuselahs! How clever these theologians are!  And it solves the problem of Jesus being both human and divine: the “human” bit wasn’t based on DNA, but on looking like a human and having been gestated in a human womb:

His body was truly “in the flesh,” but only “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Jesus grew in the Mary’s womb like any other baby, yet he was different from all others. He was not genetically related to either Mary or Joseph, for both had an inherited sin nature. Jesus was sinless and without genetic flaw.  He was the spotless and sacrificial Lamb of God who offered Himself as a perfect propitiation (payment satisfactory to God) for the sins of mankind.

. . .But the most amazing miracle God performed was His creation of the “second Adam” at conception.  He fashioned the first Adam on the sixth day of creation as a full-grown man without sin and in God’s image.  Adam was not born of a woman. He received no human DNA from earthly parents.  Yet he was fully human.  God created Jesus at conception in His image without any DNA contribution from earthly parents.  Jesus said to his disciples:

“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him” (John 14: 7).

Problem solved! Oh, those clever Christians! They then summarize if the readers weren’t able to follow the argument:

However, the church has always taught Jesus is 100% human and 100% Deity (preexisting His incarnation as the Son of God -“the Word”).  The third option presented earlier satisfies all these requirements: Jesus has DNA created entirely by God at the time of His conception.  His Divine nature did not need to be created, as it was eternally present prior to His birth. God the Holy Spirit provided a human body untainted by the fallen sin-nature of Adam at conception and placed it in the uterus of a virgin, Mary.  She carried this child for the nine months of a normal pregnancy as a surrogate mother.  This infant had no mutations or defects because Jesus was truly created the “second Adam” in the image of God—like the “first Adam.”  God created the first Adam and Eve without sin as perfect adults.  Sin entered both of them at the fall, and subsequently infected the entire human race.  God similarly created Jesus’s human body at conception, so He could experience everything human from the beginning to the end of a human life. Hebrews 4:15 explains: “He was at all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” 2 Cor. 5:21 states: ” For He made him who had no sin to be sin for us. ”  God became man to sacrifice Himself for the sins of mankind.  The name “Jesus” means “God saves.”

Clearly the Catholics got it wrong! The clever theologians at Finding Hope Ministries have not only been able to show up those duplicitous Catholics, but found a way that Jesus can still be 100% human AND 100% divine and yet free of those sin-caused mutations. And it also explains the evolutionary reduction in human lifespan over the last two millennia! I am dumbfounded with admiration.

Can you believe that people get paid to ponder stuff like this? What’s even more incredible is that people believe these solutions.


Queen Mary University professor rejects evolution and promotes the New Testament in his inaugural lecture

December 12, 2022 • 9:15 am

Here we have an hourlong talk by Richard Buggs, Senior Research Leader (Plant Health & Adaptation) at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at Queen Mary University of London. We met Dr. Buggs on this site in 2021 as “a creationist professor of evolutionary biology in England,” where he touted Intelligent Design;  I included a shorter video in which Buggs mixed his God with his science. Now he’s doing it again in his Inaugural Lecture at Queen Mary University (below).

His personal webpage gives his bona fides:

Professor Richard Buggs is an evolutionary biologist and molecular ecologist. His research group analyses DNA sequences to understand how plants, especially trees, adapt in response to climate change and new pests and pathogens. Richard has published on a variety of evolutionary processes including: natural selection, speciation, hybridisation and whole genome duplication. The birch species Betula buggsii is named after him. Richard is a Christian, and sometimes blogs on issues where biology and Christianity intersect.

He’s also author of the 2007 Guardian article below (click if you want to read):

A quote from the article:

But, whatever the limitations of Darwinism, isn’t the intelligent design alternative an “intellectual dead end”? No. If true, ID is a profound insight into the natural world and a motivator to scientific inquiry. The pioneers of modern science, who were convinced that nature is designed, consequently held that it could be understood by human intellects. This confidence helped to drive the scientific revolution. More recently, proponents of ID predicted that some “junk” DNA must have a function well before this view became mainstream among Darwinists.

But, according to Randerson, ID is not a science because “there is no evidence that could in principle disprove ID”. Remind me, what is claimed of Darwinism? If, as an explanation for organised complexity, Darwinism had a more convincing evidential basis, then many of us would give up on ID

Back to the talk. This is a very bizarre lecture. In the first half he denies the existence of branching evolutionary trees, arguing that this invalidates both Darwinism and natural selection (note: although evolution is required for such trees, natural selection is not).

To do this, he cherry-picks data in which a few independent trees, derived from both morphological and DNA data, are not concordant. But that does happen under evolution, for sometimes genes are transferred horizontally, or via hybridization, or we have “incomplete lineage sorting”, in which segregating ancestral genetic variation is distributed among descendants. Further, if you use only a few genes—and note that Buggs’s trees are based on only a few genes—you may get a “gene tree” that’s discordant with the “species tree”—the actual history of new lineage formation via splitting. Allen Orr and I discuss this discordance in the Appendix of our book Speciation. The upshot is that you don’t expect every gene to give the same tree, but if evolution and evolutionary splitting occurred, you would expect the preponderance of genes to give the same tree. And they do, save in the rare case when there’s been pervasive hybridization between groups, and the species involved are fairly closely related.

Buggs also dwells at length on the relatively sudden appearance of angiosperms, almost implying that it supports sudden creation, though he ignores the fact that monocot plants appear far earlier than angiospemrs in the fossil record, so the data don’t support the evidence of any creation. (Note: Buggs implies that the fossil record and molecular data support a religious scenario rather than an evolutionary one, but is very canny about mentioning Biblical creationism or Intelligent Design.)

Buggs’s denigration of evolutionary trees constitutes, he claims, evidence for a Designer (aka God/Jesus). AT 30:00. for example, he argues that the NON-existence of evolutionary trees supports a Designer, for if a system were designed rather than evolved, you wouldn’t expect concordant trees; you’d get “a bit of a mess”.)

At 39:38, Buggs shifts gears and tells the baffled audience (listen to the tepid applause is at the end!) that well, maybe the evolutionary “tree of life” doesn’t exist, but the BIBLICAL tree of life does! This “tree of life” stands for eternity and all the claims of Christianity, for the words “tree of life” appears in Revelation (2:7 and 22:1-3).  Here’s a summary of Buggs’s “evidence” for the Bible:

In other words, because many people believed in Christianity, and John had a revelation, Christianity must be true (his words are “we should not lightly dismiss John’s claims”).  How little it takes to convince Buggs of the New Testament’s truth, and how much it would take to convince him of evolution! (Remember, he concentrates ONLY on the existence of trees as evidence for evolution, ignoring things like development, the fossil record, biogeography, observations of natural selection in action, and all the stuff I adduce in Why Evolution is True.)

I’d urge you to at least listen to the last 20 minutes so you can see how a scientist can be so credulous that he’s persuaded that Christianity is true based on the thinnest evidence you can imagine.

Finally, BUGGS goes woke at the end, promoting “inclusion” in STEM, but he apparently does as a way to promote religion. For, as the sweating Dr. Buggs shows, Christianity is most pervasive in “countries of color”: those in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America (also the U.S., but he ignores that). His conclusion? We need to include RELIGION more in the sciences, and be nicer to believers, because that will attract more “non diverse” people into STEM. This is a very weaselly proposal for sneaking religion into the sciences!

In the end, Buggs distorts and misrepresents what science has told us, ignores the pervasive evidence for evolution besides evolutionary trees, and gives an embarrassingly thin account of “evidence” for Christianity.

Yet this man is a professor of evolutionary biology and molecular ecology! His presence at Queen Mary University of London, much less his promotion to Professor, reflects very poorly on his university. I’m not urging his dismissal, though if he were teaching this guff at a public university in America he’d be violating the First Amendment and should be told to leave the religion out of his teaching. Now it’s possible that Buggs doesn’t mention Jesus or the Bible in his classes, and that would be great. But I truly doubt that he gives a good account of the evidence for evolution, either. (After all, he accept Intelligent Design, not evolution.) That is, I suspect Buggs’s students are being shortchanged, and if that’s the case, I feel sorry for them. As for Queen Mary University, I’d merely suggest that they check if Buggs is dragging religion into his teachings.

h/t: Gerdien

More fiction and superstition fed to NYT readers

December 11, 2022 • 11:40 am

The quote below is one of the sanest things I’ve seen on Facebook lately, though I can’t remember who posted it. Dag Søras is a Norwegian comedian:

Why I bring this up is because every Sunday, like today, the New York Times pretends that God and Jesus exist, and they do so by giving op-ed space to Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren. Every week Warren produces a page of bromides (usually along the lines of “why can’t we all love each other, even if we’re different?), all of which take for granted that her Christian beliefs are correct.

This week Reverend Warren interviews another Anglican priest who happens to be a poet, Malcolm Guite, described by Wikipedia this way:

. . . an English poet, singer-songwriter, Anglican priest, and academic. Born in Nigeria to British expatriate parents, Guite earned degrees from Cambridge and Durham universities. His research interests include the intersection of religion and the arts, and the examination of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and British poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was a Bye-Fellow and chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge and associate chaplain of St Edward King and Martyr in Cambridge. On several occasions, he has taught as visiting faculty at several colleges and universities in England and North America.

It always puzzles me when somebody with brains and academic training is also deeply religious, and I’ve started seeing that as a character flaw: an inability to accept that you’re staking your life and much of your time on stuff for which there’s no evidence. That is, you’re believing in the modern equivalent of Thor and Allah. In this column—and I’ll try to be brief—we have one Anglican priest (Warren) interviewing another (Guite), and together they manage to fob off a bunch of hooey on the readers of the NYT.

Click to read:

The subject is both poetry and Advent: the month of preparation for celebrating the birth of a baby who may or may not have existed, but is thought, wrongly, to be both God and the Son of God.  Guite explains its significance. In all that follows I’ve put the hooey in bold except for Warren’s questions, which the NYT put in bold.  Excerpts are indented.

I think the first thing to understand is the wisdom that is embedded in the liturgical calendar and that way of sacralizing time. Advent is meant to be to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. It’s always been the wisdom of the church to have a fast before a feast, to have this time of holding back and restraint so that you really appreciate and understand the reasons for the joy and the feasting when it comes.

The word Advent means “arrival” or “coming.” The church saw that preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas could also be a way of looking to that larger hope, which is the final coming of Jesus, the day when, at last, the earth will be filled with the glory of God. And in my book I said, well, I think there’s a third “coming,” a kind of continuous coming. We all experience a series of Advents. My prayer life and spirituality is very much focused on the Eucharist. So for me, every time I hold out my hands and the wafer is placed there and I receive him, that’s an advent. And in fact, that’s actually also Christmas. It’s an incarnation. He chooses the humble form of the bread as he chose the humble form of the baby to be his body.

Guite bangs on about the commercialization of Christmas and how we really have to avoid pre-Christmas parties and shopping, for it’s a time to reflect on the coming of baby Jesus.

Instead of being quieter and more reflective, then finally experiencing what G.K. Chesterton called the “submerged sunrise of wonder” at the birth of the Christ Child, we were suddenly assailed on all sides by commercial pressures.

There’s a tedious discussion of antiphons, but then Guite gets onto my territory: “ways of knowing”. And religion is one of them.

WARREN: You have said that imagination is “a truth-bearing faculty.” What do you mean by that?

GUITE: There’s a hierarchy between information, knowledge and wisdom. And reason is very good at finding and categorizing information. But reason has almost no access to wisdom at all. Counter to that are much earlier insights probably best expressed by Shakespeare in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He says: “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”

That suggests that imagination is a way of knowing. And it’s a way of knowing and intuiting and feeling we might have missed entirely if the poet or the artist or the painter or the musician hadn’t bodied it forth.

Imagination came to be considered, strictly speaking, made up. The presupposition was that all the things that we care about that have now been relegated to so-called subjectivity, like love and passion and beauty, somehow don’t exist in the same way that the atoms in a cup exist.

Earlier philosophers and some of those philosophers in Enlightenment who tried to resist this had a different notion. They said imagination is not simply about making things up. It’s about synthesizing everything. It’s about seeing the whole. C.S. Lewis, much later in his life, said that reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.

I don’t think we have to choose between reason and imagination. I don’t think we have to choose between science and religion. I don’t think we have to choose between serious intellectual inquiry and deeply held faith. I think these things are enfolded aspects, each depending on primal ways of knowing. To do theology well, we must bring the poets to the table along with the theologians and listen to what they say.

The first quote from Shakespeare sounds good, but really proves nothing. All it says is that when a poet imagines something, it somehow becomes “knowledge.”  Well, knowledge only in the sense that Shakespeare—or any poet—made stuff up.  Note how Guite conflates imagination and knowledge to somehow prove that what we can imagine to be true really is true. If that is the case, then when Guite and Warren imagine that Baby Jesus was born as God in human form, and performed many miracles before he was died and resurrected (he’ll be back!), why is that “knowledge”, while those who imagine that Allah, or John Frum, or Zeus, or Thor, or Shiva are real gods are wrong? When different people believe in different divinities, who, if anyone, is right?

There’s no way of knowing, and that’s why we have to choose between science and religion. Science has a way of distinguishing between competing explanations, although sometimes it’s hard to do (e.g. is string theory right?), but religion has no way of knowing whether its “knowledge” is real, genuine, true knowledge. (I’m taking “knowledge” to mean “truth that is nearly universally accepted” by those qualified to judge, but don’t hold me to a definition I made up on the fly.)

I won’t reprise Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible; let’s just say that Guite needs to read that book. Religion is not “enfolded” in science, nor is faith a “primal way of knowing” (note the word “primal”, which serves only to sound good but doesn’t move Guite’s argument forward).

That’s about it. One more exchange in which, I think, Warren is turning into the Anglican Krista Tippett:

WARREN: There is something about truth that is paradoxical. And poets — in a way that I don’t see with theologians or scientists sometimes — are very comfortable in that tension. Can you talk about the paradox of Advent?

GUITE: Advent is paradoxical in itself. It’s a season of waiting and anticipation in which the waiting is strangely rich and fulfilling. And it’s a season that looks back to the first coming, but only in order to look now at the other comings and also forward at the last coming.

What, exactly, is paradoxical about truth? Given that Advent is celebrating something that we don’t think really happened, is she referring to the “tension” of a celebrating something thatis likely a fiction? I don’t think so. The only truths I know that are paradoxical are the provisional truths of quantum mechanics, since they defy our ability to imagine what’s happening to particles on the physical level.

But enough. I am starting to wonder if the NYT continues to publish the numinous lucubrations of Pastor Warren because the paper in fact supports them—or at least supports the view, often pushed by The New Yorker, that science is only one of several “ways of knowing.” (As evidenced by my dialogue with Adam Gopnik, and other articles, the NYer apparently thinks that literature is also a “way of knowing”.) Since the sophisticated readers of the New York Times want to have their science and also their faith, this kind of twaddle with Guite and Warren buttresses the readers in their dissonance.

Well, that’s the only reason I can see to publish Christian dogma, week after week after week. . .