An Anglican priest pushes more religious palaver at the NYT

September 12, 2021 • 10:45 am

I’m sure Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, is a very nice person, but she’s put herself in the line of fire when the New York Times hired her to osculate the rump of religion once a week in their opinion section. I’ve beefed about this osculation before, and it’s continued this week with her anodyne column on the pandemic, which ends with an outright lie (or delusion; take your pick). The thing about these nice, liberal clergy who publish in mainstream media is that you’re so taken in by their niceness—though I find her boring and predictable—that they manage to slip in some outrageous stuff about religion before you know it.

Well, Jesus wept, and you might too if you read her piece. But you can read it only if you’re a NYT subscriber, so there is no link. (If you want to subscribe, go here.) I receive each column in an email because I’m a masochist.

Here is her thesis:

a. The pandemic should be over now. But it isn’t and Pastor Harrison and her family, like many, have “had it.” She’s fatigued. She doesn’t like the emotional roller coaster of the last 18 months, which reminds her of the emotional roller coast that the captive Israelites had in Egypt, who were freed (yay!) and then had to wander in the desert for decades (boo!). No matter that that entire story is pure fiction.

b. We may not know how the pandemic will end, but we should simply trust in God, for all will be well. Why? Because the Bible tells us so. Jesus is coming back!

After her boilerplate kvetching about how she and her family have suffered during the pandemic, and yet the uncertainty is still not over, she looks heavenward and finds solace. This is her ending:

. . . . But each of our lives is locked in the present tense. We can’t skip ahead in our own stories.

It has become a cliché, a bumper-sticker pat answer, to say “Let go and let God.” But why should we? What evidence is there that trusting God is such a great idea?

Again and again, the church has answered: because we have been given the gift of knowing how the story ends.

Christians see Moses as prefiguring Christ. Jesus, like Moses, delivered his people. Through his resurrection, we were rescued from the oppression of sin and power of death. The end of the story is that Jesus makes, as the Book of Revelation says, “all things new.” The church proclaims that in the resurrection, we have glimpsed the Promised Land. We have seen that God has defeated death. We cannot know the path ahead for any of our individual lives, but we can read the big story of redemption back into our particular life and our particular moment.

In this new phase of the pandemic, we sit poised between celebration and continued suffering. We aren’t sure how to feel. We aren’t sure when — or if — things will go back to normal.

So what must we do? We grieve. We admit we are worn out. We do what we can to help (which for most of us is simply to continue to wear masks and get vaccinated). And we take up the practices of patience and perseverance amid uncertainty. Perseverance isn’t simply a “grin and bear it” stoicism, much less a call to deny our frustration, disappointment or anxiety about what lies ahead.

Instead the Book of James presents perseverance as an artist, with our own souls as its medium. Perseverance, James writes, must “finish its work in us” that we might become “mature and complete.” It forms and shapes a kind of wholeness in us that comes as a gift: We don’t know what the next hour brings, but God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story. So now, in the present tense, with all its grief and frustrations, we can bear whatever comes to us, even if it lasts longer than we’d hoped.

This is the kind of thing you read in an evangelical tract, not in the New York Times!

And what makes Pastor Warren think that her church has the right answer, or that any church has the right answer? Many faiths don’t promise us that the divine being will “defeat death”: give us eternal life.  No, we do not know how the story ends, except in a heat death of the Earth five billion years from now. The Bible is a work of human confection, Jesus was not the Son of God, and he ain’t coming back. There is no Promised land of Heaven.

Yes, I’m an antitheist, because, really, look at the pabulum that Warren is dishing into our bowls: “God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story.” First of all, that’s not even logical. Yes, God has told us that in the end everything will be fine when Jesus (aka God) returns. But that doesn’t mean we can trust him for everything else! Remember, Jesus (who is God in human form) promised before he died that he’d return before some of those who watched the Crucifixion passed away. In other words, he said, “Hey, folks, I’ll be back within 80 years”. That was a lie! God lied!

And, after all, didn’t God allow the virus to ravage all of humanity, killing 4.6 million people already? And believe me, they weren’t all sinners. How is that supposed to engender trust?

All Warren is saying here—in fancy words and in the pages of the Paper of Record—is that we can lean on the promise of Jesus in hard times to make things right.  I think Marx had a quotation about that, with the famous part (usually taken out of context) put in bold by moi:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

I remain baffled why the NYT purveys delusions like Warren’s to their readers.


UPDATE: I found this on FB, and you can verify the quote here.

Elaine Ecklund has a new book, and yes, it’s more of the same accommodationism

August 31, 2021 • 9:30 am

It’s been a long time (over a year) since we’ve examined the oeuvre of Elaine Ecklund a sociologist at Rice University—and now “director of the Religion and Public Life Program in Rice’s Social Sciences Research Institute—who used to be the subject of many posts.  The reason? Because she made her living as a researcher heavily funded by the Templeton foundations, and apparently dedicated to showing that religion and science are compatible. She was not above twisting or misrepresenting her data to make that point which, besides the tendentious nature of her scholarship, upset many of us, including Jason Rosenhouse and Russell Blackford, who panned her 2019 book Secularity and Science for misrepresenting the very data she published.

For most of the years I’ve written this site, Ecklund has been heavily funded by three foundations started with John Templeton’s mutual-fund fortune. According to her c.v., she’s currently sitting on three grants from the Templeton Religion Trust totaling $ 3,939,548! Sir John Templeton’s ambition, when he founded the John Templeton foundation, was to show that the more we learn about science, the more evidence we have for God.

Well, Ecklund doesn’t talk about her own religious belief, but she’s dedicated her career (and spent a gazillion Templeton dollars) trying to show that scientists aren’t as atheistic as people think they are, and that scientists are “spiritual people,” not meanies like Richard Dawkins. This message, of course, plays right into Templeton’s program, ergo the continual stream of funding she gets from their foundations. And once you’ve gotten your stall in the Templeton Stable, the feed bag has no bottom.

Now Ecklund has a new book, coauthored with David R. Johnson, which promises to be more of the same. I haven’t yet read it, but I’ve read several of her books and papers, and have never failed to be infuriated by them. To get an idea of what it’s about, there’s a summary of the contents in the puff piece issued by Rice University and on Ecklund’s personal website.  The book is called Varieties of Atheism in Science (you can also get it from Oxford University Press). The screenshot below links to the Amazon page.

Some of the puffery in a press release from her school, Rice University:

As it turns out, the “New Atheism” embraced by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other notable scientists is at odds with the beliefs of most scientists who are atheists.

“Atheist scientists and religious communities, for example, certainly disagree about many things, but we found that they have so much more in common than they might think they share,” Ecklund said. “Both groups often have a sense of fascination about the world, a sense of meaning and purpose and a desire to explain something larger than themselves.”

This is completely disingenuous. Science has ways of showing what we think is true about the world, while religion just makes stuff up and its claims about the cosmos are falsified or untestable. The “sense of meaning and purpose” of scientists rests on the desire to find out the truth about the world, or involves secular stuff like their families and hobbies, while that of believers rests on the assumption that a deity confers meaning and purpose upon us. Finally, “something larger than ourselves” means “the universe or the Earth” to scientists, but “God and his plan” to religionists. We also have in common that we eat, breathe, and sometimes like books and music. We should be friends!

But wait! I rant! The puffery goes on:

. . . Ecklund and Johnson argue that improving the public’s perception of scientists requires uncovering the real story of who  scientists are.

“As the pandemic continues to ravage the global population, never before has it been more important to improve the relationship between the public and the  community,” Ecklund said.

Of the New Atheists, the book concludes, “It is now our responsibility to replace their rhetoric with reality.”

“Reality” is Ecklund’s construal of the data, which, as we’ve seen repeatedly, doesn’t quite match with what the data themselves say. And I wonder who those 81 interviewed scientists are. They certainly don’t include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or me!

The onus for improving the “science-religion relationship” rests not on scientists, who by and large are atheists who ignore religion, but on religionists and their rejection of science. It’s not the scientists who are making the pandemic worse by ignoring data!

Which reminds me, as I continue my rant, of a lovely quote from The Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll:

“There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

That, in a nutshell, is the academic program of Elaine Ecklund.

Here’s a summary of her new book with Johnson from Ecklund’s personal website:

A significant number of Americans view atheists as immoral elitists, aloof and unconcerned with the common good, and they view science and scientists as responsible. Thanks in large part to the prominence and influence of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Hitchens, [JAC: SAM HITCHENS????] New Atheism has claimed the pulpit of secularity in Western society. New Atheists have given voice to marginalized nonreligious individuals and underscored the importance of science in society. They have also advanced a derisive view of religion and forcefully argued that science and religion are intrinsically in conflict.

Many in the public around the globe think that all scientists are atheists and that all atheist scientists are New Atheists, militantly against religion and religious people. But what do everyday atheist scientists actually think about religion? Drawing on a survey of 1,293 atheist scientists in the U.S. and U.K., and 81 in-depth interviews, this book explains the pathways that led to atheism among scientists, the diverse views of religion they hold, their perspectives on the limits to what science can explain, and their views of meaning and morality. The findings reveal a vast gulf between the rhetoric of New Atheism in the public sphere and the reality of atheism in science. The story of the varieties of atheism in science is consequential for both scientific and religious communities and points to tools for dialogue between these seemingly disparate groups.

Well, unless Ecklund produces a survey showing the percentage of “people around the globe who think that all scientists are atheists and that all atheists scientists are New Atheists”, I will doubt that. Many atheist scientists have criticized the likes of Dawkins, Harris, and [Sam] Hitchens for being too outspoken and “shrill.” So even atheistic scientists themselves think that not all atheist scientists adhere to their views.

Given the way Ecklund has vastly overblown her findings in the past, I’d take that second paragraph above with a grain of salt.  For years Ecklund has been calling for productive dialogue between science and religion, and yet what we have, and will always have, is an unproductive monologue, with science telling religion, “Your claims are either unevidenced or disproven.”  Religion has nothing valuable to say to science, though they often repeat the ironic mantra: “Be humble”. Yet it is “humble” to be a believer who not only thinks there’s a divine being, but claims to know its nature?

Will I read the book? I suppose so, but only in the way that I visit the endodontist for a root canal.

The full paper on which saints to pray to when you’ve got Covid, and a laudatory reply

August 29, 2021 • 9:45 am

Yesterday I wrote about an unbelievably weird paper in the Elsevier journal Ethics, Medicine and Public Health. It reports a survey on Facebook and Twitter by three European scientists, curious about which saints respondents thought were the best ones to pray to for those who get Covid. This wasn’t just a survey of Catholic opinion, but was presented almost as a crowdsourced guide about which saints to call upon should you get the virus. The title is below, but presents only bits of the paper, and I couldn’t access the full thing because our library doesn’t get that journal. To see the snippets, click below:

Further, trying to ascertain if this paper was real by looking on the journal’s website (yes, it’s real), I also found that there was a “comment”, which I automatically assumed was a critical letter. (Click on screenshot below to see the site, but again, it’s paywalled):

Now, however, several kind readers have gotten hold of both the entire original paper and the reply, which you might be able to see via judicious inquiry. The short original paper is as bad as I suspected from the snippet, and the letter is completely weird, as it praises the original paper and then suggests that the authors left out one important saint. San Gennaro, known to Catholics as St. Januarius. (You might recall that the young Godfather murders Don Fanucci during the San Gennaro festival in New York City, with the fireworks masking the gunshots.)

First, the original paper. The authors surveyed, over just four days, followers on Twitter and Facebook. They asked the following question (it’s not really a question; this paper badly needs editing for English):

“Which saint you would pray for fighting against a Covid infection?”

They asked 15,840 people (92% from Europe) and got 1158 responses. There’s no information on the sex, age, or cultural background of the respondents.  Here are the answers:

St. Rita is said to practice self-mortification, had a difficult marriage, and “is considered patron saint of lost causes.” The next two, Saints Roch and Sebastian, are seen as protectors from the plague. The authors go on to discuss the saints not only as if they were real, but as if the miracles they were said to perform were real! An example (I can’t copy from the pdfs so am giving screenshots).

Bow wow! Here’s your loaf!

And here’s the paper’s summary, which certainly lends credibility to my guess that the authors do think this list will help people get over the virus. You could argue that it’s just a sociological report of what Catholics think, but I suspect there’s more behind it.

As for the “letter,” it’s not a critique, but praises the “brilliant” paper of Perciaccante et al. and then adds that the authors missed an important saint—perhaps because some regions of Italy that worship St. Gennaro (e.g., Naples) weren’t included in the survey. They end by saying that there are conflicting results about whether prayer “works” in curing disease, but that it does make people feel psychologically better. Here’s the whole thing, written by three Italian researchers:

Note that the miraculous liquefaction of St. Januarius’s blood is taken for granted as a real miracle. (See here for naturalistic explanations.)

Two papers are cited (#3 and 4) that, say Brancaccio et al., show conflicting effects of remote intercessory prayer on the outcome of coronary patients. The first coronary care paper is well known, and found no effect (in fact, there was one negative effect of remote intercessory prayer on healing). The second, which I just scanned, appears to give marginal positive results, with the probability that the “improved” effect of prayer could be due to chance alone being 4% (lower than 5% is considered significant, but the authors did not correct for using multiple indices of healing, which one would normally do using a Bonferroni test). The effect of prayer, even accepting their wonky probability, is very small.

Regardless, even if researchers are going to waste their time trawling for marginally significant effects of prayer on healing, do they need to also investigate which saints should be prayed to? What is the patron saint of heart issues? Did the intercessory prayers evoke that individual, or were the prayers generic? The paper doesn’t say, so apparently the selected “pray-er” was just given the first name of the patient and told to go to town.

Given the possibility that prayer promotes favorable medical outcomes, I’m surprised that doctors and scientists aren’t doing tons of research on this important issue. I wonder why.

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

NYT readers, including Dan Dennett, respond to Ross Douthat’s column on the “increasing” evidence for God

August 21, 2021 • 1:15 pm

The other day I dissected Ross Douthat’s long-form NYT essay, “A guide to finding faith.” In short, it was dire, but no worse than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  His thesis was that, in this age of science, empiricism gives us more reason than ever to believe in God, especially Douthat’s Catholic God. It still baffles me why the NYT would publish such tripe, but the proportion of tripeish material in the paper is approaching that of a bistro in Normandy.

But the readers have responded, and you’ll find five letters at the site below (click on link). Four of them are critical of organized religion, while one misguided soul supports Douthat.  There are two notable letters in the former category, and I’ll reproduce them below.

To the Editor:

On a weekend when fundamentalist Muslims were winning a war against the United States, and as fundamentalist Christians demand the right to cause their fellow Americans to suffer and die from a preventable disease, Ross Douthat had the gall to tell me that I ought to accept the same primitive explanations that led directly to their fundamentalism. Hard pass.

David Bonowitz
San Francisco


To the Editor:

Ross Douthat is so frantic in his campaign to stop the erosion of faith in faith that he can’t resist twice committing the sin I call lying for Christ.

First, he unaccountably misinterprets the meaning of the title of my book “Breaking the Spell,” which called for scrutinizing the phenomena of religion with the same objectivity we adopt when studying viral pandemics.

Second, he misinterprets illusionism, the well-evidenced theory that says that evolution has designed us to be conscious of an efficient oversimplification of the physical world: a user-illusion that helps us track the features of the world that matter to us.

It is ironic that Mr. Douthat himself breaks the spell, taking a hard look at the difficulties confronting would-be religious believers today. His recommendation that they cultivate a return to the mind-set of the Dark Ages is particularly telling. We secularists can glory in the wonders of “creation” without the nagging worries he exposes.

Daniel C. Dennett
Medford, Mass.
The writer is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

h/t: Barry

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

August 15, 2021 • 9:30 am

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

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

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

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

But first click below to read and weep:

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Tom and several other readers.

Religious treacle from David Brooks

March 23, 2021 • 10:45 am

And so we have another New York Times column to ponder, but one that won’t get its author, David Brooks, fired. For it’s just religion-coddling message: “if we want true social justice, the best way is to embrace the Christian religious view, which leads naturally to the healing of society”.

It’s dreck—dreck covered liberally with the maple syrup of feel-good words. It carries no weight, is dubious in its argument, and will lead to no results. I think part of Brooks’s job is to hold down the Be Nice to Religion desk at the paper. But this column is simply a waste of words—a bit of chest-thumping by Brooks about the wonder of faith.

Click on the screenshot to read. 

As reader Narendran pointed out, the column is slightly misleading, for Brooks describes his interviewee, Esau McCaulley, who is African-American, as “a New Testament professor at Wheaton College and a contributing writer for New York Times Opinion.” That’s true, but Brooks doesn’t mention that McCaulley is also an Anglican priest. And so he’s preaching in his piece, and Brooks eats it up.

I’ll be brief (or so I always think). The whole schmear rests on the supposition that Christianity is true (e.g., we were created by God). If that’s not the case, there’s no good reason to lean on the Bible and liberal Christianity to buttress genuine advances in social justice. Humanism will serve just as well. But let’s look at McCaulley’s narrative that Brooks found “riveting”.

This vision begins with respect for the equal dignity of each person. It is based on the idea that we are all made in the image of God. It abhors any attempt to dehumanize anybody on any front. We may be unjustly divided in a zillion ways, but a fundamental human solidarity in being part of the same creation.

But we weren’t made in the image of God! Doesn’t Brooks accept evolution? And if this God-given equality just a metaphor, then it’s meaningless. A metaphor for what?

One can better ground equal treatment of people on humanistic morality. Granted, that morality, like all morality, must in the end be subjective, but I’m a consequentialist and happen to believe that accepting equal dignity of each person is the notion that works best for society.

But wait! There’s more!

The Christian social justice vision also emphasizes the importance of memory. The Bible is filled with stories of marginalization and transformation, which we continue to live out. Exodus is the complicated history of how a fractious people comes together to form a nation.

Do we really need the Bible to remind us to remember history, especially because much of the history of the Bible, and its stories of “marginalization and transformation” (which include fig trees and pigs) are bogus. Humanism would also emphasize history, but true history.

And finally, this:

McCaulley doesn’t describe racism as a problem, but as a sin enmeshed with other sins, like greed and lust. Some people don’t like “sin” talk. But to cast racism as a sin is useful in many ways.

The concept of sin gives us an action plan to struggle against it: acknowledge the sin, confess the sin, ask forgiveness for the sin, turn away from the sin, restore the wrong done. If racism is America’s collective sin then the tasks are: tell the truth about racism, turn away from racism, offer reparations for racism.

Crikey! Why do we need “sin”? (This, by the way, feeds directly into John McWhorter’s view that Critical Social Justice is truly a religion.) You can do equally well with the concept of bad or harmful behavior, which racism is. And the tasks that stem from seeing racism as a “sin” are identical to the tasks broached by humanists, who of course differ (as do religious people) on the question of “reparations.”

It will have crossed your mind that #NotAllChristians are adherents to social justice in the same way as Brooks and pastor McCaulley. How many evangelical Christians marched under the banner of Trump?  Brooks mentions that good things have been done under the aegis of religion (e.g., the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties), and that’s true. But remember the words of Steven Weinberg:

“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

Humanism is enough, Mr. Brooks!

h/t: Narendran

WaPo editor: religion is necessary for a strong American democracy

November 8, 2020 • 10:00 am

The “proper” stand to take on religion these days, if you’re a science-friendly liberal, is to say that yes, you’re not really a believer, but you’re spiritual, that religion is in general good for The Little People, and that Richard Dawkins has ruined it all with his shrill and misdirected attacks on religion, which he’s mistakenly taken to be identical to fundamentalism.

Every bit of that is bogus, of course, but religion is the one superstition, the one delusion, that you simply can’t criticize in public. While you lose considerable reputation by attacking it, you lose nothing by extolling it. Indeed, if you’re an atheist who lauds faith, you’re seen as an affable and open-minded fellow.

Richard Just, the editor of the Washington Post Magazine, isn’t a nonbeliever, but he’s the closest thing to it: a Jew who belongs to a Reform synagogue—the most liberal branch of Judaism.  (The old joke goes, “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?” The answer is, “A Jew.”) But Just does go to schul, and apparently believes in a higher power of some sort. He’s leveraged his faith into a very long article in this week’s WaPo magazine, which, despite Just’s undeniable talents as an editor, is about the lamest defense of religion I’ve ever seen.

His thesis is this: American democracy is falling apart, the country riven with mutual distrust.  Also, America is becoming more secular, with the percentage of “nones”—those who are atheists, agnostics, or believers in “nothing in particular”)—rising from 17% to 26% in the last decade.

Just sees a connection here, blaming increasing nonbelief on “the erosion of the traditional norms that have sustained our democracy”. He means religious norms. Now Just is not calling for more fundamentalists or Evangelical Christians, but he thinks that the main characteristics of religion are just the ones we need to buttress American democracy. And so he argues in the article below (click on the screenshot to read).

The piece is so tepid and vapid that I can barely bring myself to offer a critique, for Just adduces no evidence for his thesis. (Well, he cites two psychological studies, but they’re irrelevant to his argument.) Rather, he simply asserts that religious faith is just the ticket for repairing our democracy.

Before I summarize the allegedly salubrious aspects of faith, let’s realize that Just is writing pretty much about the last four years of the Trump era, not about America over the last several decades. Perhaps our democratic system is unraveling, but I don’t see that—nor does Just offer any evidence for it. And, as I’ll mention below, he totally ignores the place where the real data lie: the European democracies that are not sustained by faith: the atheistic countries of Northern Europe, including Scandinavia. That alone refutes his entire article.

Need I continue? Very well. Here are the values religion can use to shore up the levees of democracy:

A lack of idolatry. This beggars belief. Religion, in America, at least, is idolatrous, but Just feels that it’s better to have religion than what has replaced it: a politics that has become a religion. Yes, that’s right:

De Tocqueville was worried, essentially, that if we didn’t worship God, we might exercise our instinct to worship through politics or politicians themselves. If this concern resonates with you — if you fear that some of our politicians have, in the past few years, become can-do-no-wrong cult-like figures in the eyes of their supporters — then you’re not alone. As Quincy Howard — a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa and coordinating director for Faithful Democracy, a multifaith coalition advocating democracy reform — put it to me recently, American politics is arguably “on the brink of being idolatrous at this point, and this goes for the left as well as the right.”

Remember that Just is writing as a Reform Jew, just a hairsbreadth from atheism, and doesn’t seem to realize how damaging religion, in particular Christianity, has been to America politics—perhaps the main force sundering America. But I won’t expatiate about that. The only argument in favor of Just’s argument is that many people seem to worship Trump. But who do the Democrats worship? Saying that politics is idolatrous resembles the argument of faithheads that atheism is a form of religion. It’s an assertion without evidence, and can be dismissed as part of Just’s argument.

Inner peace and emotional comfort.  Yes, these are the traditionally mentioned virtues of religion, and I won’t deny them, except to say that it’s false comfort to rest your peace and comfort on nonexistent propositions. For if the tenets of faith be not true, and Jesus did not live and die as the son of/part of God, then what comfort is there to be had?


There is, however, a more complicated element of de Tocqueville’s warning that is also worth taking seriously today. It has to do with inner peace. Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, recently told me that he sees a sense of personal calm as one of the key contributions religion can make to our national life. “Religion offers peace. Serenity, if you will. And people want that too,” he said. “How do you deal with undesired uncertainties and fears and worries and doubt?”

When I put the question of whether and how religion could benefit democracy to the Rev. Michael Bledsoe, the now-retired longtime pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, he spoke about how “authentic communities” can help to “leaven societies.” They provide us with emotional comfort when we are sick, and with life markers from birth to death. “This is a tapestry that’s being woven almost unseen by the rest of the culture,” he said.

And it’s all delusional. Are we supposed to believe in unevidenced palaver because it brings us comfort? And, given the inevitable and increasing secularism in America, does Just feel we need to go back to faith? Granted, his is a nebulous faith without much dogma (read some of his quotes about Judaism), but it still depends on the existence of Yahweh.

Humility and doubt.  Again a howler. Maybe Reform Judaism brings humility, for argument and doubt are part of its package, but to characterize “humility” as an essential component of American religion is to misunderstand American religion. You want humility and doubt? Try science and rationality!


One value that is found in all the major religions is, of course, humility. “Believing in a higher power,” Hendi told me, “must make us humble in God’s presence, and make us realize that only God is perfect. We are not.” Faith, he added, instructs us to say, “I am right, and I know I’m right, but I could be wrong. My opponent is absolutely wrong but could be right.”

The thing that has surprised me most as I learned more about my own faith in recent years was how consistently inconsistent — how proudly riddled with uncertainties and outright contradictions — religious Judaism is. Consider this passage from Martin Buber’s 1923 book “I and Thou,” a touchstone of modern Jewish thinking about God: “One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. … Of course, God is ‘the wholly other’; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present. Of course, he is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I.” Every sentence about God here is essentially an argument with itself.

Note that Just avers a belief in God here: he’s not a “ground of being” guy. More important, doesn’t he realize that Reform Judaism is not the main religion of America? 43% of Americans are Protestants, 20% are Roman Catholics, and only 2% are Jews (and only a fraction of those are Reform Jews).  A high percentage of the Christian denominations are pretty authoritarian, espousing a particular morality that comes from the Bible (ergo from God).  There is no “doubt” in the minds of the Christian pro-lifers, no “humility” in those who oppose gay marriage. And none of these warts on American democracy come from secularism: they’re all a product of religious hubris.

Further, Just is a big fan of the “mystery” of religion, a supposed source of humility:

But because religion is fundamentally a mystery, it can also be a profound source of analytical humility and existential uncertainty. It can teach us to value, even celebrate, contradictions, to think constantly about how we might be wrong — an ethic that is the very opposite of the perpetual certainty now running rampant in American politics.

Yes, Trump’s religious base is certainly thinking constantly about how they might be wrong, aren’t they? How can we get them to be properly religious and embrace some doubt? Just doesn’t tell us. That’s because he’s not offering a prescription to fix American democracy, but simply expelling pious hopes into the ether. If he though hard about the issue, he’d advise his readers to join the nones and turn America into a Denmark West.

Just two more points showing Just’s cluelessness. The first is this (“Hendi” is Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University):

Churches continue to reflect the racial segregation of society as a whole. And how can institutions that drive people apart be a useful source for democratic values? The point goes beyond Christianity: To many secular Americans, religions of all kinds appear to be just one more marker of identity that separates us from one another.

It’s a major challenge, and one that isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. Yet in the long run, religion doesn’t have to be a divisive, rather than a unifying, force. Hendi told me that he thinks this is a crucial contribution that Islamic theology can make to our democratic mores. Islam, he explained, “is very particular about how God created us to be different and God wants us to be different, and that differences do not mean animosity or hatreds or negativity.” He added: “Our closeness to the divine depends on our ability to value those differences.”

What the deuce is Hendi talking about? Muslims value their differences from non-Muslims, despite the fact that Islam is supposed to be the final faith and the Qur’an urges killing nonbelievers and apostates? I suspect Hendi is a weak-beer Muslim just as Just is a weak-beer Jew. But anybody who argues that Islamic theology can buttress American democracy by bringing us together needs to get out more.

As for the “evidence” that infusing America with more faith will strengthen our democracy, Just cites two studies:

None of this will necessarily assuage the worries of ardent secularists, many of whom may intuitively fear that religion correlates with an authoritarian mind-set. But academic studies suggest the situation is more complicated. One study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1995, found that “authoritarianism was positively related to several different facets of less mature faith development, and negatively related to several aspects of relatively mature faith development.” Another study from the same publication reached a similar conclusion in 2007: It found a positive association between authoritarianism and religiousness, but a negative association between authoritarianism and “spiritual seeking.” In other words, yes, religion can line up neatly with anti-democratic forces — and it often has — but faith that is undergirded by the right kind of values can serve as democracy’s partner.

I urge you to look at these studies. One is based on surveys of college psychology students (a sample of 156), and neither of them surveyed nonbelievers (one explicitly surveyed only believers). Neither study says anything about what a purely secular democracy would look like.

But we already know some stuff about that, for we have an experiment. Atheism is rife in the democracies of Western Europe, particularly in countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway. How are their democracies doing? Pretty well, I think. Certainly better than America. Yes, the Right has been ascendant in some lands, but, in general, the healthiest democracies in Europe, and those that have the people who are happiest and most well off, happen to be those democracies full of atheists. The lesson: we don’t need no stinking faith to have a good democracy.

How Just comes to this conclusion is simply by revelation: the same way that most believers get their faith (aside from their parents, of course). As I wrote to Andrew Sullivan, hoping he’d publish this in his “Dissents” (he didn’t):

There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations.  Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.

Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.

This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.

Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.

Just ends his 3300-word screed with an emission of gaseous verbiage; as Eliot said, not with a bang but a whimper. If you understand this, you’re better than I. But hey, it’s theology, Jake!

For [Rabbi Abraham] Heschel, we are meant to live in the world of space — the material world — six days a week, but on Shabbat, we are meant to celebrate the holiness of time. “Time,” he wrote, “has independent ultimate significance; it is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars. … It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God, wherein man becomes aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations.”

In the past few years, I have often felt that politics, with its never-ending loop of can’t-look-away ugliness, was stealing my time. Perhaps you have too. If our time is holy, then we simply have to figure out a better politics — one that is saner, more measured, more humble, more humane. Religion can’t solve every problem facing our democracy, but maybe, if we step into the mystery, it can help.

My response is this: no it can’t. Yes, we need to figure out a better politics, but faith isn’t useful for that. And everybody knows we have to figure out a better politics, anyway.

For your amusement, you may want to read some of the 1,600 comments by readers. A very large number of those readers aren’t buying what Just is selling. Reader Timothy, who sent me this link, attributes the pushback largely to the Four Horsemen, and I think he’s right.  Those who argue that the New Atheism was a dismal failure have to explain why so many of the religion-dissing comments would not have been conceivable had Just’s article been published in 1960 or so. New Atheism has done its job: it’s nudged the rock down the hill, and the rest is gravity.

Once again: the supposed need for the self-justification of science

September 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Reading the latest edition of The Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper, I saw an op-ed about self care by Ada Palmer, an associate professor of History. I’m not going to write about that; her piece is pretty straightforward and empathic towards our students, who will be having a rather stressful semester. Rather, when I looked Palmer up, I saw that she’d written a review two years ago in Harvard Magazine of Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Always interested in how my colleagues regard Pinker, in arguments for empiricism and rationality, and intrigued by the title of her piece, I read her piece. You can, too, by clicking on the screenshot below.

It turns out that Dr. Palmer likes Steve’s book, but has two reservations. The first is that Steve argues that humanism, which is a handmaiden of atheism, is the way forward, and that religion has only been an impediment to moral and material progress. I think he’s pretty much right on that one. But Palmer doesn’t like the atheism bit:

Pinker reviews what he sees as humanism’s intellectual adversaries, such as those who caricature it as cold utilitarianism, those who suggest that humans have an innate need for spiritual beliefs, and the classic accusation, ubiquitous in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, that there cannot be good or virtue without God. For some readers, it will be frustrating that 350 pages of useful and cheering data, the majority of which one could call faith-neutral, culminate in the declaration that only triumphant atheism can ensure that scientific progress will help instead of harm. But Pinker’s secular humanism is less militant than that of many contemporary atheist voices; he focuses on the benefits of caring about the earthly world, rather than on condemning religion. His conclusion, that progress simply requires us to value life over death, health over sickness, abundance over want, freedom over coercion, happiness over suffering, and knowledge over superstition, is one numerous theisms can and have embraced.

Thank God he’s not as militant as Dawkins! God forbid that anyone should condemn religion.

Yes, but of course many theisms have impeded science, reason, and morality, and continue to do so (I’m looking at you, Vatican), while atheism hasn’t impeded those things one bit. After all, atheism is simply lack of belief in gods. The lucubrations above look like either religion osculation or accommodationism. I doubt that anyone could argue cogently that science would be more advanced if everyone became religious. Palmer also mentions “secular evidence” below, as if there was a kind of “nonsecular evidence” for science.

But the main problem with her piece is a recurrent trope that we see among those who wish to minimize the importance of science. It’s the claim that reason itself, or logic, or science itself, cannot prove that science can actually help us understand the universe in a useful way. For philosophers and some in the humanities, the lack of a priori justification that reliance on empirical methods will work is somehow an indictment of science. Here’s how Palmer goes at it:

Pinker briefly reviews efforts to value other factors—love, passions, feeling—above reason, but declares such efforts self-defeating: as soon as they attempt to justify themselves, the very act of providing reasoned arguments for their beliefs admits that reasoned arguments are the strongest grounds for belief. Yet, as I reflect on this argument, I am reminded how science, during a critical moment in its history, was self-defeating in much the same way.

Why was it self-defeating? Because there was no a priori justification for going ahead with empirical observation, hypothesis-making and -testing, and so on as a way to understand nature:

Progress in the modern sense, as an intentional and human-driven process, was first fully articulated by Francis Bacon early in the seventeenth century, when he suggested that a collaborative community of empirical inquiry would uncover useful truths that would radically transform human civilization and make each generation’s experience incrementally better than that of the generation before. This was not the easy sell it seems, since Bacon had no evidence that this unprecedented project could wield such power—and even if he had found evidence, one can’t use reasoned evidence to prove that reasoned evidence can prove things. New discoveries were frequent—the moons of Jupiter, the magnification of insects, the circulation of the blood—but practical benefits were slow in coming.

Well, that’s not exactly true, because people had been using what I call “science broadly construed” to understand nature for millennia. I was impressed, on reading Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, how local trackers used scientific observation to find game: the depth of the tracks, how dry they were, where waterholes were, and so on. There was in fact every reason to think that empirical inquiry would lead to understanding, while prayers and revelation, which any chowderhead would know didn’t help much, weren’t a good way to find animals or decide which plants were edible vs. poisonous.

As for the “practical benefits being slow in coming”, well, I take issue with that. Is improved understanding of the world “practical”. Maybe it won’t make you richer or healthier, but it makes you wiser and more appreciative of the marvels of nature.

In the end, though, I don’t care if you can’t use reason to prove that reason and empiricism “can prove things”. (Actually, they can’t: science doesn’t speak of “proof” but of more or less confirmed hypotheses.) What’s important is that, as Richard Dawkins said pungently, “Science works, bitches!”  The justification of empiricism, reason, and science is in its results: we find out what makes people sick, how to get to the Moon, how to cure disease, and so on. Only somebody hogtied with the strictures of philosophy could see a lack of a priori justification as an argument against the methods and validity of science. Yet we hear this all the time—often from theologians.

Palmer goes on:

 Yet Bacon did succeed in awakening a groundswell of enthusiasm (and funding) for reason and science, through an argument that often surprises my students: he appealed to the personality of God, arguing that a good Maker would not send humans out into the wilderness without the means to achieve the desires implanted in us. Thus, because reason is God’s unique gift to humankind, it must be capable of all we desire.

From time to time, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, champions of secularized science have been embarrassed by this comment from Bacon—worrying what would happen if their atheist followers realized that science, at its inception, had no secular evidence to support its own faith in the power of evidence.

Well, the important thing is that nobody’s embarrassed by this argument any more, for the majority of scientists, and nearly all “elite ones” neither believe in gods nor worry about “the lack of secular evidence” to support the power of evidence. As I noted above, long before Bacon we knew that we could understand things without needing “divine evidence.”

Palmer makes one more dig at atheism:

But with Pinker’s entire book in hand, Bacon would also have felt the tension between two arguments running through it: the inclusive argument that reason, science, humanism, and progress have made our present better than our past, and can make our future better still; and the less inclusive argument, however eloquently and intelligently presented, that the humane and empathetic humanism capable of turning our powers to good and away from evil must be secular.

Frankly, I don’t care what Bacon would think about the lack of need for “divine” as opposed to secular evidence for science, or about the power of humanism. There’s not an iota of evidence that religion makes people behave better, and often it makes them behave palpably worse. (Remember Steve Weinberg’s dictum: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) And of course the more atheistic a country, the better off it is—by nearly any measure: gender equality, happiness, prosperity, well being, and so on.

But it doesn’t matter, for her main argument, which she reprises in her last paragraph, is both philosophical and a non-starter. Note what I see as a snarky bit in the following (I’ve bolded it):

Pinker is no more successful than Bacon at justifying science and reason without a recursive appeal to science and reason. Yet for those already confident in the persuasive force of evidence, it would be hard to imagine a more encouraging defense than Pinker’s of the reality and possibilities of progress.

What? Is there a large segment of humanity that isn’t confident in the persuasive force of evidence? If so, they shouldn’t be trusting any court decisions, or even their own observations, much less taking planes or swallowing antibiotics.  In my view, nearly everyone is confident in the persuasive force of evidence about most things, though some fraction of humans are confident in things that lack evidence. They include religious people, conspiracy theorists, and cranks. (Oh, and Donald Trump.)

Why does this argument against science keep coming up? It’s worthless!

Big new British monument to answered prayers

September 13, 2020 • 8:45 am

As Britain races towards secularism faster than the U.S., the faithful are making their last stands. One such stand is this Mobius strip of a memorial slated to be started next spring in Coleshill, near Birmingham. As this article in The Times explains, it’s to be called “The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer”, and it’s huge. (Of course, an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayer would be much, much larger!)

Click to read; it may be paywalled, but judicious inquiry will yield you the document:

Here’s how big it is:

At 169ft tall, the monument will be just a few inches shorter than Nelson’s Column in London but almost three times the height of the Angel of the North, Anthony Gormley’s 66ft-high steel structure in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.


It’s a big ‘un!  It was envisioned by Richard Gamble, former chaplain of the Leicester City football club, who had a revelation to build it.  He began a crowdfunding campaign had an international competition to design it, and then crowdfunded the construction. It’ll contain a gazillion answered prayers (actually, about a million).

Each brick in the wall will be associated with a Christian prayer and feature a unique code that can be read with a smartphone app. Visitors can use their phones to learn about the prayers individuals feel were answered, as well as the personal stories behind them. For bricks out of reach, the app can zoom in on a map of the monument.

Gamble, 51, and a team of volunteers have been collecting people’s testimonies online since 2018, noticing a surge in messages during the pandemic.

“Until this year it had been a small trickle,” he said. “But then it started accelerating. During lockdown it went mad.”

They need £9.35 million to finish it off, but, you know, God will provide; all you have to do is pray. So far God has prompted the faithful to ante up nearly £6 million. And you can submit answered prayers here.

It’s curious that God decided to answer more prayers during the lockdown (were more people were praying?), but the one prayer he didn’t answer was “God, please make this pandemic disappear.” But of course He works in mysterious ways, and one of those ways is killing off lots of innocent people.

The article gives examples of some of the prayers that will appear on the bricks:

The apparent miracles people have shared range from the dramatic to the mundane.

One person wrote about how their baby daughter had been rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage but survived and is now a healthy five-year-old. A doctor told a story about how, after 20 minutes kneeling in prayer, he and his team were sent a delivery of personal protective equipment that had been cancelled. Others also talked about mending difficult relationships and overcoming serious illnesses.

At the other end of the spectrum, one person explained how they had managed to have an “impossible meeting” with a dentist while suffering a swollen gum during lockdown.

“God is sooooooooooo good! He listens to our hearts’ cry,” they wrote.

But God is also sooooooo bad! He’s killed a million people in this pandemic, and he could have stopped it. At any rate, there’s been some discussion about “inclusivity”—not racial inclusivity but religious inclusivity. Not all religions are Christian, so they’ll be an exhibit inside about how adherents to other faiths pray.

I still think the humanists should build an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayers nearby, but to make its point it would have to be larger than this one, and that would cost too much.

h/t: Dom, Jez