Is there more evidence for Jesus’s Resurrection than for biological evolution?

March 20, 2023 • 9:15 am

I love it when I wake up to an email like this, showing me that there’s still work to be done among the neuronally deprived. Unfortunately, readers like “Henry” are unlikely to be persuaded since they instantiate the very definition of faith discussed below. 

At his friend’s behest, Henry started reading my 2016 post, “Peter Boghossian accused of hate speech for correctly defining ‘faith’.” (By the way, Peter’s definition of “faith” was “pretending to know things that you don’t know” and “belief without evidence”.) Peter’s definition angered Christian apologist named James Bishop, who wrote a long article attacking Boghossian and his claim (it’s no longer online). Bishop’s response was the subject of my piece: was there was anything more to “faith” than Boghossian’s simple definition? Note that Bishop played the “hate speech” card way back in 2016:

I consider Boghossian’s view to be bordering on hate speech. It’s not simply Boghossian’s redefinition of a word that appears hateful but it is the implications it has when it comes to human people – since many religious people do in fact match Boghossian’s  definition of faith. In other words, history well tells us that it is an incredibly dangerous thing to single out a people or a group in such a way as to ostracize and demonize them. That is what it would appear Boghossian is doing here.

Note that there are 120 comments on the post, but that was back in the day when people actually made comments. Now I weep in frustration. . .

At any rate, reader “Henry” was directed by his pal to the piece above, and decided he had to comment on it now; his comment responded not just to my post, but also to a comment made by reader Sastra.

Instead of posting Henry’s comment in the original thread, which nobody will read since it’s seven years old, I’ll put it here because it’s not only bizarre, but shows the mindset of those marinated in faith: how readily they reject a ton of evidence so that they can believe what makes them feel good.  So much for those who claim that there’s no conflict between science and religion!

Here’s Henry’s comment:

I’m only commenting on this because a friend sent me the link.I started reading the above article with the intention of finishing. However, after progressing to roughly the middle of it I concluded the rest wasn’t worth reading. The author would do well to get a grasp on what constitutes “evidence”. The evidence so far supporting evolution as ‘fact’ as opposed to the convoluted diatribe used by atheists towards Christianity (you know, that irritating value system which underpins western civilisation) is somewhat scant. In contrast the evidence for the existence of Jesus as an historical character is fairly comprehensive.The issue is whether or not he rose from the dead.If Jesus was not raised from the dead then the house of cards collapses. The bible as a book, is a collection of books & writings assembled in antiquity with the authors (& eye witness) being much closer to the event than we are today. If you can believe that historical characters like, Julius Caesar existed then why do atheists get upset when Jesus is mentioned ??? I suspect the answer to that lies in psychology. Bad behaviour by organised religion has ruined many lives & generated much (deserved) anger & damaged the credibility of institutions who profess a faith which they themselves have abused. Distinguishing ‘saint’ from ‘sinner’ has become blurred to the point irrelevance in the minds of those who hold a genuine well founded grudge.

Note the absolutely ridiculous claim that we have more evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than we do for biological evolution, despite the fact that evidence for evolution appears in many books and papers, with more coming out daily, while the Resurrection appears in only one book and there’s no more evidence since the Old Testament appeared. (There could be—if Jesus came back again!)

Note as well that Henry’s “evidence” that Jesus rose from the dead goes beyond just what the New Testament says: he considers it “evidence” that if the Resurrection isn’t true, then Christianity collapses. This is of a piece that if a religion persists for a long time, then its truth claims must be accurate. So much for all those many dead religions that flourished for a long time!

Finally, note that Henry really instantiates Boghossian’s claim: Henry’s a guy who rejects one claim in favor of another, even though there’s a gazillion times more evidence for the former (evolution) than the latter (Resurrection).

But of course the validity of evidence has nothing to do with the existence or duration of social structures based on that evidence.  Does the presence of 17 million Mormons in the world mean that Joseph Smith did indeed find that now-disappeared set of Golden Plates discovered in 1820.  After all, the evidence for that is not just a sacred book (The Book of Mormon, of course), but the fact that the book is prefaced by the sworn testimony of eleven people (in the 19th century, not 50-100 A.D.) who said that they had actually seen  the golden plates. Doesn’t that make the evidence for Mormonism stronger than that for Christianity?

But I digress. It’s a bit cheeky of Henry to tell me about the relative weight of evidence for evolution vs. the Resurrection when I not only wrote the book about the former, but have also read read a lot about the latter. There is no comparison. It would be great if reader Peter Nothnagle sent me one of his patented New-Testament-debunking pieces to forward on to Henry.

If I wanted to refute “Henry” further, I’d go into the lack of evidence for Jesus’s miracles (and perhaps his very existence), including his vow to return before some of his contemporaries had died (but he didn’t show), that prayers don’t work, nor does a trip to Lourdes restore missing eyes and limbs, and that there’s been a disturbing lack of evidence for Jesus in the past two thousand years. It’s as if after he was Resurrected, he decided to vanish forever.

But I’ll leave any rebuttal up to the readers. Address your comments to Henry (or take on this topic) below, and I’ll forward him the link tomorrow.

Unbelievable osculation of religion at the New York Times

August 24, 2021 • 9:30 am

As John McWhorter begins his biweekly “Newsletter” for the New York Times (and there are some newsletters by others that look good), we also see the onset of one that promises to be much more dire. Author Tish Harrison Warren, according to her online bio, is truly washed in the blood in the lamb, and with bona fides like these, why wouldn’t the NYT hire her to to write every Sunday about “matters of faith in public live and private discourse”?

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, which was Christianity Today’s 2018 Book of the Year, and the forthcoming Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, or Watch, or Weep (IVP 2021). She has worked in ministry settings for over a decade as a campus minister with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, as an associate rector, with addicts and those in poverty through various churches and non-profit organizations, and, most recently, as the writer-in-residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a monthly columnist with Christianity Today, and her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, Comment Magazine, The Point Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project and a Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum. She lives with her husband and three children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

What you have to ask yourself is this: do you really want to read about matters of faith from a true believer? Aren’t there tons of websites that already contain such stuff?

Well, the first sample is below. Read and weep—have a pack of hankies on hand.

I can find nothing substantive in this newsletter, nor do I think that liberal religionists will, either. These are the points Warren makes:

a. The priest’s first words in each week’s sermon are about God, not the congregation or “a mention of the weather or how nice everyone looks this week”. She finds that strange. I don’t.

Each Sunday in my Anglican church in Austin, Texas, the priest leading the service takes his or her place in front of the congregation and begins by saying the opening acclamation, usually, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

What has surprised me since I first attended an Anglican service just over a decade ago is that we begin not with welcoming anyone in the pews but with a direct announcement about God.

. . . Part of why I find this moment strange is that I’m habituated by my daily life and our broader culture to focus on the “horizontal” or immanent, aspects of life — those things we can observe and measure without reference to God, mystery or transcendence. This can affect my spiritual life, flattening faith into solely the stuff of relationships, life hacks, sociology or politics.

But each week, as a church, the first words we say publicly directly address the “vertical,” transcendent dimension of life. We do not have just an urbane, abstracted conversation about religion, but we speak as if God’s presence is relevant — the orienting fact of our gathering.

b. Faith intersects with the secular world. (SURPRISE!)

Karl Barth, a 20th-century Swiss theologian, is credited with saying that Christians must live our lives with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Barth, who was a leader of a group of Christians in Germany resisting Hitler, understood that faith is not a pious, protective bubble shielding us from the urgent needs of the world. It is the very impetus that leads us into active engagement with society. People of faith must immerse ourselves in messy questions of how to live faithfully in a particular moment with particular headlines calling for particular attention and particular responses.

c. We need to keep discussing faith and the secular world even when religion is on the wane. 

Membership in a house of worship has declined steadily in the United States over the past eight decades and, according to a Gallup poll, dropped below 50 percent this year.

So we must ask: Is faith worth discussing anymore? In the vast world of subjects that one could read about, from architecture to Zumba, why make space for a newsletter about faith and spiritual practice?

The answer to her last two questions are, respectively, “no” and “no good reason.”

But Warren has a reason, though I doubt it applies widely to NYT readers. It’s because those who are already religious want to read about religion, and they need religion to answer The Big Questions:

As a pastor, I see again and again that in defining moments of people’s lives — the birth of children, struggles in marriage, deep loss and disappointment, moral crossroads, facing death — they talk about God and the spiritual life. In these most tender moments, even those who aren’t sure what exactly they believe cannot avoid big questions of meaning: who we are, what we are here for, why we believe what we believe, why beauty and horror exist.

These questions bubble up in all of us, often unbidden. Even when we hum through a mundane week — not consciously thinking about God or life’s meaning or death — we are still motivated in our depths by ultimate questions and assumptions about what’s right and wrong, what’s true or false and what makes for a good life.

Clearly, and literally, this column is meant to preach to the choir. And just as clearly, Warren’s column is meant to emphasize our need to reach out to the divine, though any secularist with two neurons to rub together knows that we make our own meaning, and we can ponder what’s true and false and how to live without invoking gods. In fact, it’s better not to invoke a deity for which there’s no evidence when trying to find “meaning” or discern truth. Has Warren ever heard of secular humanism?

The rest is palaver, words without meaning, except to tell you to expect more of the same:

This newsletter, like our opening acclamation, acknowledges the presence of God in the world, believing that God, faith and spirituality remain a relevant part of our public and private lives. In it, I will talk about the habits and practices that shape our lives, the beliefs that drive our imaginations, the commitments that guide our souls.

So here’s my opening acclamation. Let’s discuss our deepest questions, longings and loves and the rituals and habits that form who we are and the way we walk through the world, week in and week out.

I have a better idea: let’s not.

Now I’m sure that Pastor Warren is a nice lady, but that doesn’t mean that her lucubrations deserve column inches in the Times every Sunday. Nor do I have to say, “This column is a valuable addition to media discourse.”  Rather, I ask myself WHY ARE THEY PUBLISHING THIS STUFF?  The Times is increasingly osculating not just faith, but also woo like dowsing and astrology. What explains this? I have no answer.

Wouldn’t it be better—wouldn’t it go ahead of the curve—to have a weekly (or at least a semi-regular) column on secularism and nonbelief? There are plenty of people who could write such a piece, and they wouldn’t have to purvey mindless platitudes to do so.

But, Ceiling Cat help me, I have subscribed. I feel like I’ve just bought a hair shirt or a cilice that will cause me constant irritation.

Pastor Warren

h/t: Barry

Misguided journalist argues that science—and wearing of facemasks—are based on a quasi-religious faith

January 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

Despite what I consider my strong refutation of the idea that “faith” is pervasive in both science and religion, that idea persists. I won’t go through the arguments that I made in Faith Versus Fact or, more concisely, in an article in Slate, “No Faith in Science,” but people nevertheless persist in their nescience. The latest attempt to argue that science is faith-based is in the pages of The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian news magazine. It’s just so tiresome in every way that I get no pleasure from putting fingers to keys. But since that rag is fairly widely read, I’ll say a few words.

The article is really a disguised harangue about how mandates to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic are infringements on our liberty. In other words, it’s the right-wing libertarian argument against masks that we see so often in the U.S. And, says Andrew Mahon—identified as “a Canadian-British writer based in London who has written for the Spectator, the Daily Wire, Conservative Woman, New English Review, Brexit Central, Catholic Journal and others”—the notion that masks reduce Covid-19 transmission is based on faith, because there’s supposedly no evidence behind it.

Click on the screenshot to read and weep:

You can read my Slate piece to see that when scientists use the word “faith”, they use it differently from believers. Scientists use it to mean “confidence born of experience.” And when people say “I have faith in my doctor” or “I have faith in Anthony Fauci’s views”, they mean that they trust authority figures who have a good track record. That’s not the same as religious faith, characterized by philosopher Walter Kaufmann as ” “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

Read my piece if you want more. The upshot is that the scientific notion of “faith” does not turn science into a religion, as Mahon implies in his headline. If you look up “religion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find this definition:

 Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.

Even if science were based on a religious-like faith, which it isn’t, it couldn’t be described as a religion. We have no obedience to or reverence for gods or the supernatural. End of story.

Mahon, who I suspect is a believer, has a weird notion of religion, claiming that it is not based on evidence or claims about reality. That’s of course untrue, but it does adhere to the Gouldian “Non-overlapping magisteria” view of science and religion:

The religious impulse cannot be avoided. Alongside faith, everyone participates in ritual and follows prohibitions in one form or another. We do it in every human interaction, and we certainly notice whenever anyone doesn’t follow conventional norms. The question becomes where to direct the religious impulse. And, leaving aside the truth or falsehood of its claims, what Christianity achieved was to direct man’s religious impulse to the ideal place, away from the empirically knowable. Unlike other religions, Christianity directed it wholly towards things unknowable, unprovable and unfalsifiable. This effectively freed up the knowable world, severing it from the realm of faith, and allowed the scientific method to step in and transform human civilization.

Away from the empirically knowable? But if you’re a Christian, don’t you have to have some “knowledge” about the existence of Jesus and God,  and of their powers and their plans? In fact, empiricism is the only way to know about these things, making the term “empirically knowable” a bit of an redundancy. I guess he’s talking about “other ways of knowing,” i.e., revelation, authority, and sacred books, which are non-empirical. Neither are they a way to arrive at the truth, as we know from all the contradictory claims of the world’s diverse religions. As Mike Aus, a pastor who quit the church, said:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

So, although Mahon gives credit for science to religion’s wise decision to step away from empirical claims, I can’t be all that grateful. And I wish that religion would keep its mitts off evolution.  But of course Mahon’s claim bespeaks a profound ignorance of religion, many of whose proponents really do make claims about reality that they believe absolutely, and are constantly trying to buttress with evidence (viz. Biblical archaeology, miracles, and so on).

But the “religious impulse” that “can’t be avoided” is now, argues Mahon, directed towards the pandemic, in particularly those nasty mandates to wear masks. He gets into his anti-mask argument slowly, as he doesn’t want to look like a crazy right-winger at the very beginning.

Step 1: A general assertion:

The rush to accept the claims of scientists with blind faith rather than insisting on proof is a distinct sign of our times, as is the demand for proof of unprovable tenets of Christianity. In thrall to this topsy-turvydom, many scientists expect politicians to trust them in the absence of evidence and many Christians try to construe the book of Genesis as if it were a scientific treatise.

Step 2: Mahon gets more specific:

Surely, given the unprecedented disruption to people’s lives, the suppression of basic liberties and the destruction of the economy, the decision to shut down society ought to have been evidence-based rather than faith-based. But with few exceptions, our politicians didn’t insist upon evidence, choosing instead to defer to (or should we say, hide behind) their scientific advisors, who presented them with predictions, models, worst-case estimates and beliefs.

And of course those scientific advisors, who were blindsided like many of us, initially went on the best guesses they could make from evidence derived from previous coronavirus epidemics and from epidemiology. In other words, they went on evidence, scanty as it was at the beginning of 2020. They weren’t always right, but they did not rely on revelation, sacred books, or mere unevidenced pronouncements of authorities. And of course those scientists eventually presented the politicians with a vaccine. That vaccine wasn’t, of course, based on faith.

Step 3: Mahon reveals his real animus:

Take mask mandates. People who believe in wearing masks think that they’re basing those beliefs on science. But if that were true, they’d be able to show evidence. What you get instead is a patronizing cartoon of people peeing on each other, or Paul Rudd trying to be funny and then yelling at you from his celebrity pedestal. “It’s science!” he shouts. But is it?

Wearing masks makes some people feel better. It also satisfies a naive intuition. The mask is clearly a barrier that will at some level prevent fluids travelling through fabric, just like your pants. But that doesn’t constitute scientific proof that masks prevent the spread of a virus. Scientific proof in this case would take the form of randomized controlled trials. There was one five years ago which compared medical masks to cloth masks and found that “Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.” This was the line that most governments were taking at first, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. But then they altered course without any new evidence, and the vast majority of people now accept it as an article of faith that masks save lives.

There has been a grand total of one randomized controlled trial conducted to determine the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The Danish study that initially struggled to find a publisher conclusively showed that there is a statistically insignificant difference between wearing a mask and not wearing a mask. Add to this the fact that masks are disgusting, unhygienic sneeze receptacles that in practice are rarely washed or replaced, that people touch their masks and faces constantly before feeling up avocados in the supermarket, that because of the false sense of security, people wearing masks are less likely to do other, more effective things, like wash their hands, and finally, that there is little to no evidence of asymptomatic transmission, and we have to wonder why all these healthy people are still walking around with their faces covered. The answer is quite simply that their faith is misplaced.

Now let’s grant that we lack the direct controlled, randomized trials that we need to show with absolute certainty that masks are useful in helping contain the epidemic. (Of course other things are very useful as well: hand-washing, avoiding big social gatherings, quarantining, and so on.) Doing those types of experiments would be unethical.  But we have correlational evidence that show mask wearing by symptomatic and asymptomic people, whether the latter be infected or not, reduces the incidence of transmission; that masks contain respiratory droplets, a source of infection; and so on. All the evidence is summarized in this post on the website of my doctor, Alex Lickerman—a post I’ve mentioned before (click on screenshot to read it):

You won’t find any faith in the post above, just data—data sufficient to buttress the argument that we should all be wearing masks.

At the end, Mahon reprises his claim that mask-wearing is a religious act, and makes what I call “The Argument from the Norm”:

Not wearing masks is the norm, freedom to visit family and friends is the norm, freedom to conduct business is the norm, and evidence should be required to displace by legal compulsion each and every one of these norms. But too many people aren’t interested in that, preferring instead to trust in the government’s claim to be following “the science,” and if challenged, they often react the way a religious person reacts when his beliefs are criticized — offended and scandalized.

Well, read Alex’s post above and see if you think there’s no “science” behind mask mandates.

But the best part of Mahon’s argument is his claim, at the very end, that because the erosion of Christianity in our society has also eroded the distinction between “the knowable and the unknowable”, then perhaps a return of Christianity will actually help revive science! I kid you not:

I’m not sure whether a return to Christianity is necessary to salvage the unknowable/knowable partition and preserve the utility of the scientific method. But whatever direction our society chooses to go in future, one thing’s for sure: we will have a religion. We may not have science.

Can you believe that? Mahon’s not even wrong here. Eventually religion will largely disappear from Western society, but science never will because it cannot. In the modern world, we don’t really need religion that much, but we’ll always need science. How else would we have gotten a vaccine? Science is the only good way to materially improve humanity, whether it be through technology, nutrition, or health. And, of course, it’s the only way to satisfy our insatiable curiosity about the cosmos.

The Post Millennial was in fact irresponsible in printing this piece, implying as it does that mask-wearing has no effect on viral infection rates. Mahon may have the right to endanger Canadians with his pabulum, but the paper should exercise better judgement in allowing columnists to make misleading statements about science, particularly when they affect public health. If this column were on Twitter, it would have gotten one of those “false tweets” warnings.

h/t: Paul

p.s. If you saw a mattress ad, ignore it. I had to turn off adblocker to get the article, and accidentally copied that ad. It should be removed now.

The Friendly Atheist discusses the incompatibility of science and religion

July 13, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Here’s Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist,” not being very friendly towards accommodationists in his new video, “Can science and religion coexist?” He gives a firm “no”, and I have to hand it to him: he doesn’t pull any punches.

Now if you’ve read Faith Versus Fact (and if you haven’t, why not?), you won’t find much new here: even the debunking of one miracle that helped canonize Mother Teresa (the “curing” of Monica’s Besra’s tumor) is also in my book. But for those who haven’t read it, this is as good a summary of the conflict that you can get in a 16-minute video.  I do worry that it’s so anti-theistic that it will turn off those whose minds are open, but on the other hand I appreciate Hemant’s straightforward anti-theism.

Because nearly all of this is good stuff, I have only a few beefs; in fact, they’re such small beefs that they qualify as stew meat.

Re the statement: “Religion and science offer two different ways to get to the bottom of big questions,” which Hemant sees as the heart of the matter. And he’s right—so long as by “the big questions” you mean empirical questions about the nature of the universe. It would have helped had Hemant added that caveat, for religion would claim (falsely, I think), that it can provide “true” answers to “big questions” about meaning, morals, and purpose, while science can’t. Indeed, science cannot deal with those questions, as they don’t bear on the way the universe is, but secular philosophy can, and gives better answers than any religion I know.

Second beef: There’s a bit too much concentration on miracles, which, says Hemant, are those phenomena that violate the laws of science. If miracles were observed (and I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact), one might tentatively conclude that there is something numinous out there. But Hemant declares flatly, “Actual miracles don’t happen. They never have.”  Indeed: I know of none that are so enigmatic and convincing that they make me rethink naturalism.  But I think a better tactic would be to say not only that there are naturalistic explanations for nearly all miracles, but to admit that miracles might happen but have never explained anything to the detriment of science. That is, a true scientific attitude might admit of the possibility of miracles—for science can never prove that something cannot exist—but would add that this is true in the same sense that we admit of the possibility of leprechauns and the Loch Ness Monster: things that, in view of history and empiricism, are so wildly improbable that, as with Hume, you’d put a higher probability on a lie or a mistake than on a true miracle.

At the end, Hemant has a useful discussion on why people still think science and religion are compatible despite his (and my) claim that they’re not. And he even disses the Templeton Foundation! Kudos for him!

h/t: Hugh

“This is the nice thing about science . . . “

May 6, 2020 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Mark Mulligan, a vaccine researcher at NYU, was asked by NBC News if he was optimistic about the prospects for the covid-19 vaccine he is working on.  He replied,

This is the nice thing about science. You don’t have to have faith or belief.

(NBC’s transcript, for some reason, edited out “. . . nice thing about . . .”.)

Dan Dennett versus two believers (including Reza Aslan): a discussion of faith at the University of Chicago (tickets free)

January 28, 2019 • 8:30 am

Maybe it’s a bit clickbaity to use the word “versus” in the title, but since Aslan is a faith-coddler, and the other religionist, William Schweiker, is identified as “Leading Theologian and Ordained Minister of the United Methodist Church, Author of Dust that Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms, and Director of Enhancing Life Project”, this looks to be a discussion in which there will be disagreement. And it looks like big fun.

Click on screenshot to go to the site, where you can register (just give your name and email) to get one or more free online tickets (click on the green “register” button). I’m going, and of course I’ll report on how it went.

Here’s the description of the program.

Tuesday, February 5th at 5:30 PM
The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
915 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

The Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge invites you to a discussion about the past, present, and future of belief. Join award-winning writer and commentator Reza Aslan (author of Beyond Fundamentalism), controversial philosopher of science and culture Daniel Dennett (author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and respected religious ethicist William Schweiker for a conversation that will take the long view on religion as a human enterprise: its history, its power, and its prospects. We hope to bring believers, critics, and everyone in between into a productive—and provocative—dialogue about the place of faith in our changing world.

Religion, Identity and the Construction of Faith will be moderated by David Nirenberg, Interim Dean of the UChicago Divinity School. The discussion will be held at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center Performance Hall on February 5, 2019. Doors open to the public at 5:00 p.m.; the event will run from 5:30-7:00 p.m., with a reception to follow.

Award-winning titles by these acclaimed authors will be available for sale by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in the lobby of the Logan Center Performance Hall from 4:30-7:30.

Given the moderator and discussants, it looks as if Dennett will be playing the role of the Greeks at Thermopylae.

Josh Dehaas on “Indigenous ways of knowing” (aka “faith”)

May 28, 2018 • 12:00 pm

Quillette remains a good source of liberal but critical articles, refreshingly free of clickbait and ever critical of Control-Leftism. One recent article worth reading is by Josh Dehaas, “‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking ahd Spirituality by Any One Name.” Dehaas, described as “a Toronto based freelance journalist”, is critical of a Canadian government initiative to put “indigenous ways of knowing” alongside “Western” ways of knowing as equally valid methods for understanding nature. It turns out that while some of these “indigenous ways of knowing” may have a valid core, in the main they’re based on revelation, guesses, and tradition—forms of faith. In no way are they, taken together, comparable to the empirical approach used by scientists and science-based researchers, engineers, or even car mechanics—a method I called “science construed broadly” in Faith Versus Fact.

First, the issue. There’s no doubt that Canada treated its indigenous people horribly. Many children were ripped from their parents, sent to schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice traditional customs—an attempt to forcibly turn them into European Canadians. The country has rightfully tried to make reparations for this and similar forms of ill-treatment, and that’s to be applauded.

But in one way these reparations have gone too far. By attempting to teach indigenous “ways of knowing” as valid, the Canadian government and its universities are putting truly valid ways of understanding nature alongside ways that are not rigorously tested, and indeed, can be dangerous.

Now you’ve heard this equivalence of knowledge in at least two other areas: religion, which also claims “ways of knowing” based on revelation, dogma, authority, and simple faith, and postmodernism, which in some forms holds that there are many “ways of knowing”, with science just one among many, and not privileged in any way.

But we also have the indigenous ways of knowing held by what Canadians call “First Nation” people. Dehaas outlines how these ways are being validated:

From the University of Calgary to The University of Saskatchewan to Acadia University in New Brunswick, Canadian deans are pledging to infuse their curricula with a doctrine often described as “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” (IWK), which teaches that Indigenous peoples arrive at their understanding of the world in a unique way.

The idea has been around in some form for many years. In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, for instance, Indigenous education scholar Marie Battiste argued that Indigenous peoples possess a “cognitive system” that is “alien” to Europeans. But in recent years, the concept has gained critical mass, as education officials seek to incorporate IWK into university coursework. Much of the impetus has come from the publication of the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015.

The TRC was created as part of an attempt to formally recognize and heal the damage done by the Indian Residential School System, which for generations served to separate Indigenous children from their parents, thereby stripping them of their culture, often under abusive conditions. One of the TRC’s many recommendations was that Canada’s educational institutions treat “Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” This prompted the universities’ main lobby group, Universities Canada, to exhort members to ensure “mutual respect for different ways of knowing,” and encourage “the cohabitation of Western science and Indigenous knowledge.”

Formally recognizing the harm done by the residential school system is a laudable goal. But I have yet to see any evidence that scholars create knowledge in fundamentally different ways, based on their ethnicities, as IWK proponents claim.

One example:

In an introductory IWK lecture, Paul Restoule, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), starts off by telling his class that “knowledges” are subjective. He also claims that the mere act of defining IWK is “problematic,” since any definitions would use “Western knowledge” as a frame of reference. This is not unusual. I’ve been writing about higher education for a decade, and have investigated the issue of IWK on different campuses. Invariably, my attempts to determine the exact parameters of IWK always meet with this somewhat gauzy, defensive response. Oddly, the most zealous proponents of IWK also are the ones who are the most reluctant to describe what it is.

Restoule claims that, for Indigenous people, “the senses can know more deeply and concretely than knowledge gained through reading and being told.” He asserts that “knowledge is sometimes revealed through dreams, visions and intuitions.” And he offers a Venn diagram with a circle for “Western science”—“limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world” and “skepticism,”—overlapping somewhat with a circle for “Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,” involving a “metaphysical world linked to moral code” and “trust for inherited wisdom.”

That’s not knowledge, but faith that’s equivalent to religious faith!

Now I don’t know how pervasive this kind of nonsense is, but we know that First Nations people have been allowed to impose on their dying children “native medicine” rather than Western science-based medicine, with the predictable results: the kids die.(Sometimes the courts support this travesty.) I’ll count on Canadian readers to inform me if Restoule’s attitude is an outlier. I suspect it isn’t.  It is instead, as Dehaas observes, “a combination of magical thinking and spirituality.”

He adds:

Whenever proponents are asked to define IWK, “at some point in the conversation, postmodern relativism begins to enter into it,” she says. When asked to explain the unique “ways of knowing” exhibited by Indigenous peoples, advocates tend to describe either folk knowledge or spiritual beliefs, she adds. These may indeed be described as “alternative” ways of knowing. But their alternative character originates in the fact that they present themselves as exempt from the expectation of rigorous scrutiny that typically is applied to claims made by academics.

And it’s that absence of rigorous scrutiny and empirical testing that makes these “alternative ways of knowing” so dangerous.

Now some of you may be thinking, “But many modern medicines are derived from traditional plant-based remedies.” And indeed, that’s true: quinine as a remedy for malaria is the quintessential example. But the evidence that led to these plants being efficacious was still anecdotal: they seemed  to work. Now in the case of quinine they actually did work, but to find out rigorously if they work, you have to do proper empirical testing, using blind tests and statistics. That’s why all plant-based medicines, whether derived from local cultures or not, must be vetted by proper scientific testing.

After all, there are plenty of “traditional” remedies that don’t work at all: have a look at the Canadian Cancer Society’s page on “Aboriginal traditional healing“, which outlines many First Nations methods for cures that aren’t efficacious, including smudging, healing circles, and herbal medicines (some of which have been used on children with cancer). To its credit, the Society notes that there’s no evidence that any of these methods can be used to treat cancer, but the point is that people have used them—because they’re derived from “indigenous ways of knowing.”

Ditto for spiritual healing. That, like religion, is also an indigenous “way of knowing”, and may have some placebo effects, but if you had an infection, would you opt for smudging (inhaling the smoke from burning sacred herbs)— or antibiotics? By all means, if indigenous “remedies” aren’t harmful, make the patient feel more comfortable, and help him to take scientific medicine, use the other stuff as well. But don’t pretend that it’s a cure based on “other ways of knowing.”

Of course people who have been trod upon need their oppression remedied, and the Canadian government has taken admirable steps in that direction. But validating “indigenous ways of knowing”, at least insofar as they are claimed to produce truth about nature and the cosmos, isn’t one of them. There is only one valid way of knowing: a rigorous empirical method designed to overcome confirmation bias, and undergoes tests and replication. It’s called “science”.

h/t: Steve

NPR goes soft on faith again

November 13, 2017 • 9:00 am

I’ve kvetched before about the religiosity and faitheism flaunted by Scott Simon of National Public Radio (see here and here), and about the soft-on-faith attitude of NPR in general. They rarely seem to give atheists a good hearing, but there’s always plenty of opportunity for the numinous, as in the brief interview below as well as the weekly lachrymose lucubrations of Krista Tippett & Company. This brief NPR interview from Saturday (click on first screenshot to listen and see a transcript) is described like this:

The words “thoughts and prayers” are often criticized after mass shootings. Scott Simon talks to David French of National Review, who argues prayer can be the most rational and effective response.

First of all, I don’t see anything in French’s response that says that prayer is the “most rational and effective” response to mass shootings. If you can find it, show it to me.

UPDATE: Reader Mary, in comment #16 below, shows that the quote comes from French’s article in the National Review. And it’s even worse than you think: here’s one quote from French:

“There’s a bottom line here: Either you believe that God intervenes in the affairs of men or you don’t. And if you do, then you know that no one and nothing is more powerful than the creator of the universe. That means that while prayer is not the only response to evil, it is both the most rational response and, in all likelihood, the most effective response.”

The bit above is simply how NPR wanted to sell the interview. But even a believer can’t possibly think that the most rational and effective response to a mass shooting is to say a prayer. Well, listen for yourself.

While I found this interview weird, what’s more disturbing is the lack of any similar response from nonbelievers, who have plenty to say about “thoughts and prayers” after tragedies. The trope “our thoughts and prayers are with the families” sounds good, for it’s a kind of virtue flaunting, but unless it’s matched with either direct expression of those thoughts to the people affected, or tangible action to comfort them and prevent further tragedy, they are completely useless. The thoughts are of course no more useful than prayers.  But you’ll wait a long time to hear an atheist discuss the issue on NPR. And if you’re like me, hearing the ubiquitous “our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends” is like listening to nails on a blackboard.

To be fair, French does say that T&P are best supplemented with actions, but doesn’t add that they’re useless without actions:

For example, French clearly thinks that prayer by itself has an effect, even if it’s not helping those who died go to Heaven.

Right. Well, you know, I think a lot of people, when they critique thoughts and prayers, don’t really realize what people are praying for. You know, what people are praying for is comfort for those who are grieving, courage for people who are responding. You know, they’re even praying for inspiration in ideas and how to confront this crisis.

So you know, it’s – the prayer life of a Christian is something that’s very, very rich. And prayer saturates their lives. And it’s going to be – not just a – it’s going to be an automatic response to a crisis. And it’s going to be something that is – provides great comfort to a great deal – you know, a great many people. So when you’re targeting prayers, a Christian, for example, would look at that and be, frankly, kind of puzzled by it.

How, exactly, does prayer comfort anyone but the person who prays—unless that person expresses condolences to the grieving?

I won’t belabor the rest of the short interview, which is more emblematic of NPR’s uncritical attitude of religion than of arrant stupidity, but I want to show one more exchange between Simon and French:

SIMON: Jeannie Gaffigan, the comedy writer and producer who has been publicly battling a brain tumor and happens to be a person of faith, this week tweeted, I’m living proof that prayer works. She’s feeling better now. But it also takes enormous effort along with prayer, sometimes a lifetime of struggle and dedication. Do you agree with that?

FRENCH: Oh, absolutely. I believe – you know, there’s a scriptural principle that faith without works is dead. In other words, you should pray and you should act. But I think the main criticism that many of these Twitter activists are offering is that they’re saying, don’t say thoughts and prayers. Say what I want you to say. And in a political environment where there’s sharp polarization and very different ideas about how to respond to a crisis, that’s just never going to happen. And besides, what use is an activist tweet anyway?

First of all, there’s Simon’s uncritical acceptance that prayer becomes more efficacious with practice. Well, it probably becomes easier with practice, but Simon implies that it works better with practice. Does he mean works to reduce tumors, or just to feel better about them? It’s not clear, but I suspect it’s both.

As for French’s Dictum that “faith without works is dead”, yes, faith without works is useless, but there’s an entire set of Christian religions that believe in the principle that faith alone makes a religion live, and brings salvation, and that works aren’t needed for salvation.  This is called justification by faith alone, or sola fide, and is followed by some Protestant sects like the Lutherans. In other words, you can be Hitler, but if at the end of your life you finally accept the salvific power of Jesus, you go to Heaven. (I don’t think I’m exaggerating here.) And sola fide, like French’s own doctrine of “justification by faith and works,” has also been supported by citing Scripture.

Finally, it’s true that, as French notes, an activist tweet is pretty useless—but so are thoughts and prayers.

Reader “Airbag Moments”, however, had a stronger dislike of this program, and not only sent me the link but the following message, and two tweets he sent:

Scott Simon’s choice to cover the story from this angle, to defend prayer in general, and the awful use of prayer by pro-gun politicians in particular, says everything you need to know. I like to call Simon out on Twitter because I know he reads it – and often engages with me. So I Tweeted this example of the original and my fantasy improved version of the story:
Yes, it would be nice to have Simon do a second show with Dawkins.  The thing is, however, that Simon interviewed Dawkins back in May, and took an aggressive and confrontational approach completely unlike his bum-licking of Mr. French. So it goes.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ faith

September 14, 2016 • 8:15 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo, “wind2,” is an 8-year-old strip with new artwork. Despite the fervent attempts of Sophisticated Theologians™ to define faith otherwise, it always comes down to the definition given by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” This is why, if you have evidence, you don’t speak of faith, and why scientists don’t say they “have faith in evolution”. Faith is not a virtue, but a character flaw.


NBC news touts the afterlife

March 11, 2016 • 5:38 pm

As correspondent Andrea Mitchell was reporting the funeral of Nancy Reagan for NBC News, her commentary toward the end was this: “a love story for all time. . . Ron and Nancy, now together again, for eternity.”

I may be wrong, I don’t think she was talking about “for eternity as corpses that are decaying next to each other underground.”