Andrew Sullivan: Sustainable liberalism requires God

August 29, 2020 • 1:45 pm

I want to add one comment to today’s earlier post on Andrew Sullivan. It gets its own space here because it’s is unrelated to the issue of violent vs. nonviolent protests.

One good feature of The Weekly Dish is that thoughtful readers write in offering criticisms of what Sullivan wrote earlier.  Sullivan then responds, and, to his credit, sometimes he admits error. But this time he touts God. Here’s a bit of one critical email and Sullivan’s answer (my emphasis):

Part of reader’s comment:

Parting question for you: Do you think a resurgence of small “L” liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic West? If so, by what mechanism would it be brought about?

Sullivan’s response:

I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the past. But the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

Well, yes, you have to have faith in an objective reality if you’re trying to do any effective politics, but liberalism depends heavily not only on the concept of objective truth, but on ascertaining what it is. But as for “general faith in a transcendent divinity”, well, that’s totally bogus. Why do we need belief in God to advocate liberal politics? It would seem the opposite to me: many right-wing tenets, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay positions, seem to depend on adhering to the will of a god or a faith.

It irks me that a man who is often so rational in other ways still believes, without a shred of evidence, that there is a god. (Sullivan’s a Catholic—a pretty pious one, I gather, though not an adherent to all Church dogma.) If you believe in an objective reality, then you must also believe that there are ways to ascertain what that reality is. But there is no way to ascertain the “reality” of a god, much less of Sullivan’s Christian god. The more urgent task is to weaken all faiths, not buttress them.

Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism.

Russell Blackford reviews Elaine Ecklund’s latest religion-osculating book

August 13, 2020 • 11:15 am

It’s been roughly four years since I wrote about Elaine Ecklund‘s efforts to show that religion and science aren’t in conflict and also that scientists are more religious than one might suspect (see posts here). A sociologist at Rice University, Ecklund has been funded, as far as I can see, nearly continuously by various Templeton grants, as their sub-organizations love her message of harmony between science and faith. And Ecklund’s analyses designed to show that have involved, in my view, a sometimes disingenuous presentation of the data—data that often don’t support her conclusions (read some of my earlier posts to find out how).

In the June issue of Free Inquiry, philosopher Russell Blackford reviews Elaine Ecklund et al.’s new book (screenshot of review and book below). The article is paywalled, but I’ve gotten permission to send Russell’s manuscript in Word, which is apparently nearly identical to what was published, to those who are interested (don’t ask unless you want to read it!):


The book, with seven authors (and, as you see, with Ecklund clearly the senior one), came out July 2 and was published by Oxford University Press. Click on the cover below to go to the Amazon site:

Part of the acknowledgments:


I haven’t yet read it, so you can use Russell’s review as a guide for whether you want to read it yourself. He’s quite critical, but, in the end, doesn’t think the book is completely worthless. After taking it apart for several thousand words, he does add an encomium at the end:

Finally, although I have emphasized what I see as an obvious pro-religious bias – and a certain amount of wishful thinking – throughout Secularity and Science, the large amount of money that went into the book from Templeton’s coffers was not entirely wasted. This book does provide important information for scholars to pore over and consider. Secularity and Science is a resource, among many others, and I’m not sorry to have had the opportunity to read it. I certainly intend to make further use of its extensive information, notes, and bibliography. It just has to be read with a critical mind, and its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

The book interviewed 600 individual scientists in “elite” universities from several countries: the US, the UK (not including Northern Ireland), France, Turkey, Italy, India, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, most of which get their own chapter.

Ecklund’s conclusions, some of which she’s published before in papers (see my earlier posts) are predictable, and Russell summarizes them at the outset:

Secularity and Science offers numerous conclusions about the countries that were studied. With the US, for example, the conclusions are, first, that American scientists are often hostile to religion because of an exaggerated sense of the fundamentalism of the American religious public, and, second, that discrimination against religious scientists undermines American science. But these claims are, to say the least, impressionistic and conjectural. In particular, no worthwhile evidence is presented for the second claim, which would be explosive if it were true. As we’ll see, American scientists are markedly less religious than the general public in the US, and that would have been the most obvious conclusion to report.

The book also offers four overall conclusions, not relating to any particular country:

  • “Around the world, there are more religious scientists than we might think.”
  • “Scientists – even some atheist scientists – see spirituality in science.”
  • “The conflict perspective on science and religion is an invention of the West.”
  • “Religion is not kept out of the scientific workplace.”

Little of this is helpful if we hope to deepen our understanding of the relationship between science and religion. . . .

Russell’s three big beefs are these. First, Ecklund’s most important claim is that “there are more religious scientists than we might think”, but “the authors fail to produce any evidence as to what ‘we’ might, or actually do, think.” That conclusion, then, is little more than wishful thinking to soothe accommodationists and Templeton.

The second involves Ecklund’s claim above that “The conflict perspective on science and religion [i.e., that they’re in conflict] is an invention of the West.”  Blackford calls this a sleight of hand with the word “invention because:

Why not call the conflict model a discovery of the West, rather than an invention, since nothing in Secularity and Science demonstrates that the perception of conflict is actually false? Or why not look for a more neutral way of making the point?

For all Ecklund and her collaborators tell us, some degree of conflict, or at least tension, between science and religion might be almost inevitable. This might be a genuine problem for the ongoing viability of religious faiths, even it was first identified in Western countries and has, so far, received little recognition from scientists in Asia.

Russell then goes on to demonstrate, as I did in Faith Versus Fact, that science and religion have different epistemologies and ways of obtaining “knowledge”, that religious methods, in contrast to science’s, haven’t lead to reliably true claims about the universe, and indeed often conflict with scientific claims, and that scientific investigation has continually eroded religious belief and the idea of a supernatural. I would call that a conflict, and I define what I mean by “conflict” at the beginning of my own book.

Finally, despite the claims above, the book demonstrates, as Russell shows clearly, that scientists throughout the world are less religious—often much less religious—then are the citizens of their own countries. There is no discussion of this in the book, nor why the general populations of most of these countries are much less religious than they were, say, a century ago. This is an important question, but of course ignoring it is in keeping with Ecklund’s career-long narrative as well as with Templeton’s agenda of science/religion harmony. To be sure, Russell says that these topics weren’t within the scope of their project.

Perhaps they weren’t, but surely this question should at least have been brought up. There are several reasons why scientists in general might be less religious than the general populace, including the enrichment of science with people who weren’t believers at the outset, as well as the loss of religious faith for those working in science. (I suspect both factors are in play.) But surely, as I mention in Faith Versus Fact, the huge disparity in religiosity between scientists and their lay fellow citizens bespeaks some kind of conflict between religion and science.

I wouldn’t bet that Ecklund will investigate this important question in the future.

Five misconceptions about evolution: one is dubious, another wrong

July 3, 2020 • 1:45 pm

Prowling around at The Conversation, I came across a 2016 article by Paula Kover on common misunderstandings about evolution.  It’s important for those of us who teach evolution to know these, for we need to dispel them implicitly—or, better, explicitly—when we teach evolutionary biology. I keep a list on my computer, and you can see a comprehensive summary of such misconceptions at the UC Berkeley site Understanding Evolution.

Click on the screenshot to read Kover’s short article:

Kover’s list is straightforward, though not original (and, indeed, how could it be since these are well known?), and the first four are these are generally true, but #2 has a hitch and #5 is just wrong.  In the narrative below, I’ve put Kovar’s points in bold but I’ve made a brief comment on all the points in non-bolded text.

1.) It’s just a theory.  That’s used to discredit evolution since, although it is a theory in the scientific sense, evolution is also a highly substantiated theory—so substantiated that evolution is also a fact. Yes, this is one of the most common misconceptions about evolution.

2.) Humans are descended from monkeys.  Well, this isn’t so clear. What is true is that we are not descended from any monkey living today. However, we did descend from primates that had long tails, the early members of the Catarrhini, a group of primates that includes the modern old world monkeys (Cercopithecoidea) as well modern apes + humans (Hominoidea). Another branch, the New World monkeys (Platyrrhini), are more distantly related to us than are Old World monkeys and apes.   (“Monkey” is a vernacular term, not a formal biological one.) But the point is that that the common ancestor of us, and all monkeys, in the Simiiformes, would have been called a monkey because it looked like a monkey. Here’s a diagram of our ancestry (we’re in the Hominoidea):

 3.) Natural selection is purposeful. Yes, this is a common misconception. Natural selection has no externally imposed purpose, and no consistent direction in terms of morphology, behavior, or physiology (i.e., there’s no evolutionary drive towards “greater complexity”). But there is one consistent direction: evolution by natural selection always improves the reproductive fitness of an organism. Fitness can go down, however, by other evolutionary mechanisms like genetic drift or meiotic drive.

4.) Evolution can’t explain complex organs. As Richard Dawkins masterfully explains in his book Climbing Mount Improbable, complexity is attained through a series of small steps, so an organ like the eye, which seems unlikely to have evolved de novo, did in fact not do so, but rather, in a series of small, incremental improvements of a light-gathering organ. We see this as plausible (for the eye) because we can make models of how fast a complex eye could evolve from a simple one (it’s pretty fast, see here), and we can observe in nature organs that function well but also resemble what we think are the intermediate evolutionary steps of our (and the octopus’s) “camera eye.”

Here’s what Kover says that doesn’t belong with the others, as it has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with theology and accommodationism. These are all her words:

5). Religion is incompatible with evolution

It is important to make it clear that evolution is not a theory about the origin of life. It is a theory to explain how species change over time. Contrary to what many people think, there is also little conflict between evolution and most common religions. Pope Francis recently reiterated that a belief in evolution isn’t incompatible with the Catholic faith. Going further, the reverend Malcom [sic] Brown from the Church of England stated that “natural selection, as a way of understanding physical evolutionary processes over thousands of years, makes sense.” He added: “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science” and vice-versa. I fully agree.

Yes, but science posits that life arose from inanimate matter, and we know that all living things descend from one Ur-species. If what Kovar is referring to here re life’s origins is that “God could have done it,” well, we have no need of that hypothesis.

And in terms of conflict between evolution and the most common religions, the graph below, from a recent Gallup poll, shows that 73% of Americans accept a theory of evolution that involves either de novo creation (40%) or God’s tweaking of the process (33%, often to create the Special Species, Homo sapiens).

As far as what the Pope says, well, many Catholics (27%, as I recall) reject evolution and embrace creationism. They can’t even stomach their own Church’s position. Besides, Catholicism isn’t wholly down with evolution, for it accepts Adam and Eve as the literal ancestors of all humanity, which, as population genetics tells us, could not have been true. Finally, Catholics (and many from other faiths) think that humans are distinguished from all other species because we have a soul. There is no evidence for that.

A large percentage of Muslims also reject evolution outright and embrace creationism by Allah outlined in the Qu’ran. Many Orthodox Jews reject evolution as well.  And what Malcom [sic] Brown says about natural selection “making sense” has no bearing on the truth of evolution. To many, creationism makes more sense than evolution. You judge a theory not because it makes sense, but because it’s supported by evidence. After all, quantum mechanics doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Finally, examine the claim “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science and vice versa.” Nope, not true at all. Science works best when it stays far away from religion, rejecting any supernatural entities or forces. We don’t need that hypothesis, and I can’t imagine a way science would be improved by working with religion.

Religion, on the other hand, does need to work with science if it wants to avoid promulgating lies, but that is a “destructive” conversation, not a constructive one. What science does is tell religion where it goes wrong, as in its false stories in Genesis, about the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, about Herod’s census involved in the birth of Jesus, and so on. Religion needs science if it wants its historical narrative to comport with reality, but many religions don’t care about that. And, again, science doesn’t need religion.

I’d recommend, if you want a list of the misconceptions about evolution, having a look at the Berkeley site I linked to above.


The Wall Street Journal touts “the science of prayer”

May 18, 2020 • 12:45 pm

Reader Frank sent me a copy of this article, which, being in the Wall Street Journal, is paywalled (judicious inquiry might yield you a copy).  Since I’ve become a more vociferous atheist, I tend to notice these things more often, and to me this sounds like a paean to God pitched as a “scientific” analysis of why prayer is good for you.

Now I’m perfectly prepared to accept that prayer might have salubrious results. After all, it’s a break from quotidian tasks, can be a form of meditation, and could serve, as it often does, as a conversation with an imaginary friend. As the WSJ admits, however, there’s not a whole lot of “science” to this, only a few studies and some anecdotes:

Scientists have no way to measure the existence of a higher power, of course. And they’ve done little research on any health benefits of prayer, largely because of a lack of funding in the medical community for spiritual research, says David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Mass.

How would you “measure” the existence of a higher power? Does it have a size? Either there is one or there’s not one, but that’s detected, not measured. And here are three studies:

A 2005 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine comparing secular and spiritual forms of meditation found spiritual meditation to be more calming. In secular meditation, you focus on something such as your breath or a nonspiritual word. In spiritual meditation, you focus on a spiritual word or text. Participants were divided into groups, with some being taught how to meditate using words of self-affirmation (“I am love”) and others taught how to meditate with words that described a higher power (“God is love”). They then meditated for 20 minutes a day for four weeks. Researchers found that the group that practiced spiritual meditation showed greater decreases in anxiety and stress and more positive mood. They also tolerated pain almost twice as long when asked to put their hand in an ice water bath.

This is a bit unclear to me: was the “spiritual” meditation all invoking the divine (“God is love”—a deepity if ever there was one)? What is their definition of “spiritual”? Well, I can’t be arsed to read that study, or to find out if the effects were permanent (I doubt it; I wonder if they did just one assessment at the end of the study.) As for the ice water bath, well, that’s not something most of us are prone to encounter.

Here’s another study:

People pray for many reasons, including for guidance, thanksgiving, solace or protection. But not all prayer is created equal, experts say. A 2004 study on religious coping methods in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who approach God as a partner, or collaborator, in their life had better mental- and physical-health outcomes, and people who are angry at God —who feel punished or abandoned—or who relinquish responsibility and defer to God for solutions had worse outcomes. It’s similar to the way a loving relationship to a partner brings out the best in you, says Dr. Pargament, the lead researcher on the study.

This says nothing about the efficacy of prayer itself, but about the relative outcomes of “loving” versus “angry-at-God” prayer. Were all the outcomes, good and bad, better than those placebo non-pray-ers or of “secular” prayers? And isn’t there a complication of those people who pray benignly having different personalities from those who are angry at God? Frankly, this description tells me nothing about “the science of prayer.”

Finally, there’s this:

Prayer can also help your marriage, according to several studies at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. Researchers there have found that when people pray for the well-being of their spouse when they feel a negative emotion in the marriage, both partners—the one doing the praying and the one being prayed for—report greater relationship satisfaction. “Prayer gives couples a chance to calm down,” says Frank Fincham, eminent scholar in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University, who conducted the studies. “And it reinforces the idea that you are on the same team.”

Perhaps this is the case, though of course there are secular alternatives, like discussing problems with your spouse in a structured way, or having couples therapy.

At the end, author Elizabeth Bernstein recounts her own episode of prayer, uttered when her father had a heart attack and a stroke, and she prayed with the medical staff for his life to be saved (it was). Now she says the “serenity prayer” (“God grant me the serenity”, etc. etc) over and over again.

I find almost none of this convincing “scientific” evidence for prayer over other forms of meditation—save for the supposedly more favorable (and probably short term) outcome of “spiritual” prayer over “secular” meditation—and yet calling on your imaginary friend may indeed be a good strategy. But what it doesn’t do, and what the Wall Street Journal touts ever so subtly, the suggestion that there’s somebody up there who’s listening. Yes, “scientists have no way to measure the existence of a higher power”, but I claim that the underlying message of this article is that such a power exists. We just can’t “measure” it!

And, if prayer improves your mental health, and praying to numinous beings gives the best results, are we supposed to pray in that manner even if we have no evidence for such beings?

Another ludicrous “Thought of the Day” from the BBC: The Bishop of Manchester assures us that we have libertarian free will

May 14, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’ve long known that BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a religious homily every day at a bit before 8 a.m. I’ve heard it many times, and grumble loudly at each homily. Yesterday, reader Neil called my attention to a particularly galling homily given yesterday by the Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester. It especially irked me because it was about free will—his idea that we have it in the libertarian form.

Click on the screenshot below to hear the three-minute dollop of religious blather (I’m not sure whether the BBC leaves these things up, so listen soon):

As you heard, Walker rejects determinism, claiming that if we have no “choice” whether or not to commit an offense (i.e., the future is preordained), then humans beings “have no moral responsibility for what we do.”  He claims that his own Christian faith accepts a God “who has created a universe that maintains a beautiful balance between the predictability of mathematical laws and the liberty and responsibility which comes with free will.”  Now that’s some god!

And to Walker, as with the bulk of the respondents in the Sarkissian et al. study I’ve mentioned several times, you can’t have moral responsibility in a world without libertarian free will.  Of course, without moral responsibility, you can’t be held accountable by God for your sins, sins that may include choosing the wrong savior, or no savior at all. Those who deny that libertarian free will is prevalent must reckon with the vast number of believers who are true libertarians.

(I’ll mention again that I believe people must be held responsible for their acts, but not  “morally responsible” if you construe that, as I do, as meaning “you could have chosen to do a different thing”. But of course I still believe in reward and punishment, though I won’t reiterate my reasons for the umpteenth time.)

Now you may try to tortuously parse the good Reverend’s words to say what he really means is a compatibilistic free will that, deep down, accept determinism of our actions. But I think you’d be dead wrong, for Walker states at the outset that he clearly rejects the mathematically-based determinism of science. No, he’s talking about pure libertarian free will—the kind that his sheep accept.

I’m surprised that, in a country where—although there’s a state church—Christianity is on a precipitous decline, the BBC still emits a “thought for the day” that is invariably religious. Seriously, my UK friends, why does this persist? Why don’t you write en masse to the Beeb demanding either that it ceases dispensing this goddy pabulum or give nonbelievers a chance to say something not only substantive, but bracing and true? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some words that came from science, for instance?

In fact, this happened once. Richard Dawkins was invited to give the Thought for the Day. He didn’t mince words: goddy explanations were the stuff of toddlers. After that, a humanistic thought was never broadcast again. Neil reported this:

Any mainstream faith may provide the piece, but humanists are excluded, apart from on one occasion when Richard Dawkins was allowed 3 minutes to say his piece, prior to being banned forever for saying we should be more adult in our understanding than accepting simple explanations of the world.  You can read his words here:

And here’s one bit of Richard’s talk that surely irked the BBC:

Nerve cells, too, branch like trees. They are so numerous in the teeming forest of your brain that, if you stretched them end to end they would reach right round the world 25 times.

In the face of such wonders, do you fall back, like a child, on God? “It’s so wonderful, so complicated, only God could have done it.”

It’s tempting, isn’t it. But it’s not a real explanation. Not the kind of explanation that actually explains anything. And it’s nowhere near as poetic as the true explanation.

Because the beauty is that humanity has grown up. We now know the true explanation. It’s gloriously simple once you get it, and more wonderful than our forefathers could ever have imagined. It makes use of yet another tree. The family tree of life. It began with something smaller than a bacterium, and it branched and branched to give all the species that have ever lived, whether extinct like the dinosaurs, or still hanging on like our own. Evolution really explains all of life, and it needs no supernatural intervention of any kind.

The adult response is to rejoice in the amazing privilege we enjoy. We have been born, and we are going to die. But before we die we have time to understand why we were ever born in the first place. Time to understand the universe into which we have been born. And with that understanding, we finally grow up and realise that there is no help for us outside our own efforts.

Humanity can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.

Now there’s a thought for more than just a day!

The crybabies are actually at the Beeb, which apparently cannot stand the idea that there may be no God, or at least don’t want to endanger public morals by promulgating such a Dangerous Idea.

Look, I know Britain has a state religion, lacks the equivalent of our First Amendment, and that the BBC is owned and run by the government. But they seem curiously immune to religious freedom and the rising tide of secularism in their land.

If you’re in the UK, have you ever complained about this daily insult to our ears and intellect? If not, why not? If a lot of people objected, would they stop it?

Here: have a libertarian free-willer:

The Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester

NBC News, reporting Jerry Stiller’s death, touts heaven

May 11, 2020 • 6:15 pm

The great comedian Jerry Stiller, who often performed with his wife Anne Meara, passed away this morning at age 92. Reporting on his life and comedy, NBC News finished the report with these words:

“Meara passed away five years ago. Now this legendary pair is laughing together again.”

Now if that isn’t a paean to togetherness in the afterlife, you tell me what it is. You might be able to confect a tortuous interpretation, like a Sophisticated Theologian®, but I see the words as a sop to the religious.

We are constantly inundated by these nods towards religion and religionists, and this is one of them. It sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s a lie.

Let’s just watch them laugh together when they were alive. Here they are on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, with Meara trying to kiss off her ardent boyfriend.

A physicist and science popularizer osculates the rump of faith

February 9, 2020 • 10:30 am

I have mixed feelings about physicist Brian Greene. On the one hand he’s a good popularizer of science (I don’t know much about his achievements in physics research), and an eloquent speaker.  In collaboration with his partner Tracy Day, he also organizes the World Science Festival in New York, a good endeavor.

On the other hand he takes lots of money from the John Templeton Foundation to run the World Science Festival, and there’s always some Templeton-sponsored events that reconcile religion and science or enable “spirituality”.  In fact, Dan Dennett withdrew from a Festival panel when he learned it was backed by Templeton (see the first link in this sentence). And Greene has always been reluctant to say anything bad about religion, despite the fact that he seems to be an atheist. Although he’s said that “there’s much in New Atheism that resonates with me“, he’s admitted that his strategy is less confrontational and less antagonistic than scientists like Dawkins. In fact, as we see below, it no longer seems the least confrontational and antagonistic, but rather worshipful.

And, as I’ve related before, I’ve been collecting signatures of secularists, scientists, and other well known people on a copy of Faith versus Fact, which will be illuminated by Kelly Houle (like WEIT was), and then auctioned off for charity. (We made about $10,400 for Doctors Without Borders.) The new book has even more signatures, including every living Horseperson, Julia Sweeney, Steve Pinker, Dan Barker, Anne Laurie Gaylor, three Nobel Laureates, and many more, so I’m anticipating another big donation—to a different humanitarian charity this time.  Everyone I’ve asked to sign the book has obliged save one:  Brian Greene, whom I encountered in Aspen. When I handed him the book, told him what I was doing, and asked for his signature, he looked at the book and refused. That disturbed me, for it seemed that he didn’t even want his name written on a book that’s critical of religion, even if the goal was to get money for charity.

At any rate, the Guardian has an interview with Greene, as he has a new book out.  You can read it by clicking on the screenshot.


Most of the questions are about physics, and some of the answers are interesting, like Greene’s response to the question of where and when he’d go if he had a time machine, or what big problem in physics he’d like to see solve.

But there’s also this question (in bold) and his answer:

In your book, you talk about the “majesty of religion”. What do you mean by that?
There’s a tendency, certainly among some scientists I know, to judge religion by whether or not it gives us factual information about an objective reality. That’s not the right yardstick. There are many others who recognise that the value of religion is found in its capacity to provide a sense of community, to allow us to see our lives within a larger context, to connect us through ritual to our forebears, to alleviate anxiety in the face of mortality, among other thoroughly subjective benefits. When I’m looking to understand myself as a human, and how I fit in to the long chain of human culture that reaches back thousands of years, religion is a deeply valuable part of that story.

Here we see Greene floating a version of Steve Gould’s NOMA idea: that religion is not intended to give us factual information about reality, but rather is beneficial to society in other ways. Further, he’s advancing a kind of theology by arguing that the way to judge the value of religions should completely ignore any factual claims they make about the universe. (In fact, since Greene appears to be a nonbeliever, he realizes that “alleviating anxiety in the face of mortality” requires not only a false claim about the afterlife, but an essential claim “about an objective reality.” Absent that factual claim, there’s no alleviation of anxiety.

Further, while touting the benefits of religion, Greene neglects its downside—not only its palpable falsity, but its divisiveness, its oppression of women and gays, its instillation of fear in children, the people it has tortured and killed because they belong to the “wrong” faith, the smothering morality in spreads among its adherents, and so on. No, you won’t hear a bad word about religion in this interview.  Certainly religion is an important part of the “long chain of human culture” (how could we understand the Inquisition without it?), but I for one don’t see the “majesty of religion”.

About the argument that religion can’t be judged by whether it makes factual claims, well, I think many—perhaps most—believers would take issue with that. As I wrote in a 2018 post about a thinker (Stephen Asma) who also asserted that religion is all about making people feel good and connected, and that its truth claims are irrelevant:

 But do most people think that religion’s truth claims are bogus, or irrelevant? Here’s what a random poll of all Americans (not just believers) think is true; this was taken by the Harris organization five years ago. These are all metaphysical claims, of course:

A personal God concerned with you  68%
Absolutely certain there is a God  54%
Jesus was the son of God   68%
Jesus was born of a virgin   57%
Jesus was resurrected   65%
Miracles   72%
Heaven   68%
Hell and Satan   58%
Angels   68%
Survival of soul after death   64%

Further, many well known religionists have recognized that religious belief depends on truth claims. Here are three quotes I often use as well:

“I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection  of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.”  —John Polkinghorne

“A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.” —Ian Barbour

“Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than  just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.”—Karl Giberson & Francis Collins

As I’ve said before, the biggest opponents of Gould’s NOMA idea aren’t scientists—most of whom are nonbelievers who don’t care about religion or reconciling it with science—but believers and theologians. They, at least, recognize that the truth claims of religion are vital in getting people to not only accept it, but to follow its dictates, including coughing up the dosh (10% of your income if you’re a Mormon). The three quotes above are only a small sample of those sentiments.

And as for religion’s ability to bring people together, I added this in that earlier post:

Religion is really about morality, consolation, and emotional connection. 

[A quote from Stephen Asma} :”Maybe, then, the heart of religion is not its ability to explain nature, but its moral power?”

If that’s the case, then give me secularism any day. For religious “morality” is often twisted and warped, more about people’s sex lives than their character. It tells them who to copulate with, what to wear, what to eat, whom to hate, and how often you should pray, and in which direction. How is that good?  And of course here are some results of Catholic “moral power,” a list I often give in talks:

Opposition to birth control (leading to an increase in STDs, including AIDS)
Opposition to abortion
Opposition to divorce
Opposition to homosexuality
Control of people’s sex lives
Oppression of women
Sexual abuse of children
Instillation of fear and guilt in children

If that’s the heart of Catholicism, please do an Aztec-style cardiectomy!

I didn’t mention Islam, but one could make similar arguments for that faith—and many others. I haven’t read Greene’s new book, but I suppose I should look at least at the bits about the “majesty of religion.”

Andrew Sullivan is back to touting religion

February 3, 2020 • 9:00 am

Andrew Sullivan’s weekly Intelligencer column is not as good as usual, though it’s always worth reading. And, as always, it’s tripartite, dealing this week with American tribalism—especially with respect to race—Alastair Stewart’s demonization (and firing) for using a Shakespeare quote containing the word “ape” when responding to a black critic, and Sullivan’s personal appreciation for a favorite band (his, not mine): the Pet Shop Boys. You can read the column by clicking on the screenshot.

The annoying part of the main discussion about tribalism is that it heralds Sullivan’s return to extolling religion—after a long hiatus when he avoided the topic. (He is a gay Catholic, which is really an oxymoron.) This comes after he discusses two books that, he says, make him pessimistic about healing the racial divide in America: Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement and Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. I haven’t read either, but both appear to describe how racial tribalism, especially on the Left, arose as an unwanted consequence of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The consequences, as Sullivan describes:

The GOP became whiter and whiter; the Democrats more and more became the party of the marginalized nonwhites as the years rolled by. Blacks and southern whites ceased to communicate directly within a single party, where compromises could be hammered out through internal wrangling. In the aggregate this was, as Klein emphasizes, a good thing — because blacks kept coming out the losers in those intraparty conversations, and with civil rights, they had a chance of winning in a clearer, less rigged, debate.

But it was also problematic because human beings are tribal, psychologically primed to recognize in-group and out-group before the frontal cortex gets a look-in. And so the whiter the GOP became, the whiter it got, and the more diverse the Democrats got. Simultaneously, the economy took a brutal toll on the very whites who were alienated by the culture’s shift toward racial equality, and then racial equity. Klein recognizes that this racial polarization, is, objectively, a problem for liberal democracy: “Our brains reflect deep evolutionary time, while our lives, for better and worse, are lived right now, in this moment.” So he can see the depth of the problem of tribalism — and its merging with partisanship, which goes on to create a megatribalism.

If humans simply cannot help their tribal instincts, then a truly multicultural democracy has a big challenge ahead of it. The emotions triggered are so primal, that conflict, rather than any form of common ground, can spiral into a grinding cold civil war. And you can’t legislate or educate this away. One fascinating study Klein quotes found that “priming white college students to think about the concept of white privilege led them to express more racial resentment in subsequent surveys.” Anti-racist indoctrination actually feeds racism. So tribalism deepens.

As I haven’t read the books, I can’t speak to the acuity of their analysis, but there’s no doubt that tribalism in America, and in my beloved Left, is increasing, and increasing to the point where it gives a moron like Trump the opportunity to be President.

But what’s the cure? Unfortunately, Sullivan means “miracle” in his title literally (my emphasis). While he sees a growing backlash against “social justice warriorism” when it involves excesses of feminism and gender-touting, he has no hopes for race—except for religion. My emphasis in the following:

I have a smidgen more optimism. I see in the long-delayed backlash to the social-justice movement an inkling of a new respect for individual and creative freedom and for the old idea of toleration rather than conformity. I see in the economic and educational success of women since the 1970s a possible cease-fire in the culture wars over sex. I see most homosexuals content to live out our lives without engaging in an eternal Kulturkampf against the cis and the straight. Race? Alas, I see no way forward but a revival of Christianity, of its view of human beings as “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This means such a transcendent view of human equality that it does not require equality of outcomes to see equal dignity and worth.

Yes, I’m hoping for a miracle. But at this point, what else have we got?

First, I don’t see that “long-delayed backlash”, much as I’d like it to happen. There are some pushbacks against Authoritarian Leftism, and I do my best to help, but Wokeness is spreading like Australian brushfires among American, Canadian, and British campuses, as well as in the mainstream media. It’s even starting to insinuate its tentacles into my beloved University of Chicago.

As for the cherry-picked Biblical quote used to sell Christianity as a solution to racial tribalism, we all know it won’t work, if for no other reason than religion is on the wane in America. And, as we know, Democrats tend to be even less religious than Republicans. It will be a cold day in July when Christianity helps bring blacks and whites together, especially if the whites include Republicans. Here’s a confected letter to Sullivan (maybe I’ll tweet it to him):

Dear Andrew:

Your New York Magazine columns in the last year or so have been beacons of rationality and paragons of clear thought, and I tout them often on my website. But in the latest one you promote a return to Christianity as a way to cure racial divides. That proposed fix seems to me a non-starter, especially given the rising percentage of “nones” in America, which is higher among Democrats than among Republicans. And, of course, there is not the slightest evidence that Christianity is true. If we must embrace falsehoods to heal our divides, we are truly lost. It’s time for you to jettison your Catholicism and join us secular humanists—the only “religion” that makes sense.

Your friend,
Jerry Coyne

And then I was told that Michael Shermer had also responded to Sullivan, pointing out a Biblical misinterpretation!

h/t: Simon

Former Scientific American editor, writing in the magazine, suggests that science may find evidence for God using telescopes and other instruments

December 26, 2019 • 10:00 am

I was quite appalled to see this new op-ed in Scientific American in which former contributing editor Mark Alpert trots out all the Great Unknowns of Science to answer his title question with a big “NO!”. God is still viable!

Now the magazine does give a caveat at the end: “The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American”, but to me that doesn’t justify publication of what is essentially The Argument from Ignorance. A science magazine has no business engaging in theology—it might as well have titled the article “Can science rule out Wotan?” or “Can Science rule out Leprechauns?”. For the argument—that we don’t understand everything, ergo God remains a viable explanation—could hold not just for God, but for any postulate for which we don’t have evidence and, indeed, are unable to get decisive evidence. (Note at the end, though, that Alpert somehow thinks we can find evidence for god by using big telescopes. )

Increasingly, we see venues like Scientific American and National Geographic touting or coddling religion, and I’m not sure why. I don’t even have a theory that is mine.

Click on the screenshot to read (and weep).

First Alpert avers that he “has no religious agenda” and is neither a believer nor a “committed atheist”. But, as you’ll see, he has a definite weakness toward religion, especially since there is no empirical evidence (remember the magazine’s title) for a God, and yet his article tries to keep that idea viable.  In trying to do that, he produces a dog’s breakfast of muddled arguments.

Here, for example, he mixes up a number of questions, some scientific and some religious or philosophical:

For 10 years, I was an editor at Scientific American. During that time, we were diligent about exposing the falsehoods of “intelligent design” proponents who claimed to see God’s hand in the fashioning of complex biological structures such as the human eye and the bacterial flagellum. But in 2008 I left journalism to write fiction. I wrote novels about Albert Einstein and quantum theory and the mysteries of the cosmos. And ideas about God keep popping up in my books.

Should scientists even try to answer questions about the purpose of the universe? Most researchers assume that science and religion are completely separate fields—or, in the phrase coined by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, “nonoverlapping magisteria.” But as physicists investigate the most fundamental characteristics of nature, they’re tackling issues that have long been the province of philosophers and theologians: Is the universe infinite and eternal? Why does it seem to follow mathematical laws, and are those laws inevitable? And, perhaps most important, why does the universe exist? Why is there something instead of nothing?

I don’t really know any scientists, save religious ones, who try to tell us about “the purpose of the universe.” It’s like asking, “what is the purpose of a star, or a glacier?” We all know that science doesn’t answer questions like that, except in a metaphorical way (i.e., “What is the purpose of the heart?”)  And the questions Alpert broaches are a mixture of scientific ones (“Is the universe infinite and eternal?”) with theological ones (“Why does the universe exist?” could have both a theological and scientific answer), as well as ones that aren’t even scientifically sensible (“Why does [the universe] seem to follow mathematical laws?” is an observation that, if couched as a “why” question, begs for a theological answer).

Other questions, like “is the universe infinite?”, will and probably can answered, not by philosophers or theologians, but by scientists. The question, “are those laws inevitable?” at least has a possible scientific answer pending formulation of a new and comprehensive theory of physics.

Alpert then raises Aquinas’s “First Cause” (cosmological) argument, and doesn’t mention the many rebuttals, both scientific and philosophical, of that misguided argument for God.  Later in the piece he does note Victor Stenger’s observation that why the universe could have been eternal, or have gone through endless cycles, but Alpert doesn’t mention these caveats when discussing the Cosmological Argument. In fact, it’s risible to discuss Aquinas’s refuted arguments in the pages of Scientific American as even remotely credible arguments for God.

Alpert then goes on to suggest that Einstein himself sort-of-believed in a God, using the same wink-wink-nod-nod claims we often hear: because Einstein used the word “god”, and Einstein was smart, that constitutes some evidence for divinity:

Both Leibniz and Newton considered themselves natural philosophers, and they freely jumped back and forth between science and theology.

By the 20th century, most scientists no longer devised proofs of God’s existence, but the connection between physics and faith hadn’t been entirely severed. Einstein, who frequently spoke about religion, didn’t believe in a personal God who influences history or human behavior, but he wasn’t an atheist either. He preferred to call himself agnostic, although he sometimes leaned toward the pantheism of Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who proclaimed, in the 17th century, that God is identical with nature.

Likewise, Einstein compared the human race to a small child in a library full of books written in unfamiliar languages: “The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly.”

Einstein often invoked God when he talked about physics. In 1919, after British scientists confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity by detecting the bending of starlight around the sun, he was asked how he would’ve reacted if the researchers hadn’t found the supporting evidence. “Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord,” Einstein said. “The theory is correct.” His attitude was a strange mix of humility and arrogance. He was clearly awed by the laws of physics and grateful that they were mathematically decipherable. (“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” he said. “The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”)

This is nothing other than a weaselly way of conflating Einstein’s wonder at the regularities of the Universe with conventional religious belief. I’ve now read enough Einstein to realize, as do most of his biographers, that he didn’t really believe in any kind of anthropomorphic God, and wasn’t even a deist—except in the nonreligious sense that he felt awe at the regularities and comprehensibility of the Universe. His use of the words “Lord” and “God” was simply a gratuitous metaphor. But what other purpose does Alpert have here than to somehow make the idea of God more credible because Einstein, a smart guy, used the word.

Finally, Alpert plays his hole card, which is, of course, the oddity of quantum mechanics. It is, he says, almost. . .  supernatural.

Although quantum theory is now the foundation of particle physics, many scientists still share Einstein’s discomfort with its implications. The theory has revealed aspects of nature that seem supernatural: the act of observing something can apparently alter its reality, and quantum entanglement can weave together distant pieces of spacetime. (Einstein derisively called it “spooky action at a distance.”) The laws of nature also put strict limits on what we can learn about the universe. We can’t peer inside black holes, for example, or view anything that lies beyond the distance that light has traveled since the start of the big bang.

And why, exactly, does this even seem supernatural. In his latest book, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime,  Carroll (who is an avowed atheist, though not a vociferous one), discusses how entanglement doesn’t really posit a supernatural-ish “observer effect”, for the observer is simply part of the physical wave function embracing an entire experiment.

Further, the fact that the laws of nature limit what we can know about the Universe (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” is a famous example), says nothing about the existence of a god.

Towards the end, I Alpert seems to realize that his argument for god is going nowhere, and so, in a move of desperation, he redefines “God” as “pure naturalism” or “the physical universe”. What is the sweating writer trying to say with this?:

Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s assume this hypothesis of Quantum Creation is correct. Suppose we do live in a universe that generated its own laws and called itself into being. Doesn’t that sound like Leibniz’s description of God (“a necessary being which has its reason for existence in itself”)? It’s also similar to Spinoza’s pantheism, his proposition that the universe as a whole is God. Instead of proving that God doesn’t exist, maybe science will broaden our definition of divinity.

But of course the universe could have existed, in one form or another, eternally, or there could be multiple universes that keep branching off, as Carroll suggests in his most recent book. But leaving that aside, Alpert knows perfectly well that a self-contained and purely naturalistic universe is not what most people think of as God. For if you define God as “all the laws of physics and their sequelae”, then anything, including a rock or a comet or a bird, could be taken as evidence for God.

There is in fact no point for “science to broaden our definition of divinity”—what he means is that science will replace our idea of divinity—unless Alpert somehow wants to fool believers into thinking that modern physics give us assurance that God existed. But redefining the idea of God in this way is a non-starter; as my dad used to say, “If my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle.” (Perhaps that’s not the wisest statement to mention these days, but it was from my dad, not me!) I see Alpert’s redefinition here, in view of what Americans really think about God, as mendacious, duplicitous, or even a way to convince himself that there might be a god.

At the very end, Alpert proposes that new scientific instruments will ultimately help us decide whether God exists, leading to “breakthroughs in theology”:

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To spur humanity’s search for meaning, we should prioritize the funding of advanced telescopes and other scientific instruments that can provide the needed data to researchers studying fundamental physics. And maybe this effort will lead to breakthroughs in theology as well. The pivotal role of observers in quantum theory is very curious. Is it possible that the human race has a cosmic purpose after all? Did the universe blossom into an untold number of realities, each containing billions of galaxies and vast oceans of emptiness between them, just to produce a few scattered communities of observers? Is the ultimate goal of the universe to observe its own splendor?

Perhaps. We’ll have to wait and see.

It would have helped here had Alpert told us what “breakthroughs in theology” are even potentially achievable by using new telescopes and instruments. Will we see the face of God with a sufficently power telescope? And what empirical findings would convince us that the universe has a cosmic purpose? Here Alpert is curiously silent, telling us nothing about how such observations could tell us what the “ultimate goal of the universe” is. That question doesn’t even have any meaning, any more than asking “what is the goal of a mountain?”

I can see his justification in an NSF Proposal for a new telescope: “In addition to the new empirical observations that could result from this funding, I should add that such a telescope could also enable humanity to find its meaning, perhaps leading to breakthroughs in theology.”

Here’s my short review of the piece, one that I’d put up on Amazon if it was in a book. And it apparently is, as the article says that “This essay was adapted from the introduction to Saint Joan of New York: A Novel about God and String Theory (Springer, 2019).”

In this mushy article, former Scientific American editor Mark Alpert asks the question “Can science rule out God?” His answer—”Hell, no!”—is a foregone conclusion given that a.) science can’t rule out anything with absolute certainty, particularly those entities for which we have no empirical evidence and b.) Alpert expands his definition god so widely—i.e., “god” could be a purely naturalistic universe—that his answer has to be “no”. What he doesn’t mention is that empirical observation, such as the presence of natural evils, and the inefficacy or prayer, have already ruled out certain ideas of God, for example an anthropomorphic God who answers entreaties and is omnibenevolent. Scientific American should be embarrassed at publishing such tripe. Let us hope that in the future they stick to science and refrain from theology.




h/t: Kingpin

Disbelief about belief: why secular academics have trouble believing that jihadis are motivated by religion

May 3, 2019 • 1:00 pm

My friend and colleague Maarten Boudry, a Belgian philosopher (my only philosophy paper was coauthored with him) has a new, short piece published in the New English Review about why academics like Robert Pape and similar apologists have such trouble understanding that religious terrorists really can be motivated by religion (click on screenshot).  (Our earlier paper was on a related topic: why religious people don’t see their faith statements as mere fictional imaginings—as the author we were criticizing had maintained—but often do think that their reality statements do correspond to reality.)

For some reason,  many academics, as I noted recently when writing about Sam Harris’s reissued podcast, aren’t willing to accept religious ideology or belief as a motivation for bad actions. Not only Pape, but also Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan come to mind. My own view was simply that religion is uniquely off limits as something to criticize. Even atheists who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief” (the idea that religion, while not credible for the writer, is still useful for society), try to exculpate religion from doing bad stuff.  I realized this when I faced pushback for having written Faith Versus Fact, which I saw as trenchant but not over-the-top criticism of religion. Some of the criticism dealt not with my claims, but could be seen only as stemming from anger that I had taken a few steaks from the sacred cow of faith.

But Maarten goes beyond that in his piece (quotes below).

I’m not going to reprise all the ideas and people Maarten cites for promoting the idea that terrorism has no religious roots, nor his arguments against their claims. Suffice it to say that I think he makes an intriguing case. What I want to highlight is why Maarten thinks that this has to go beyond mere “political correctness” about Islam, or the special treatment of Muslims as a form of “soft bigotry.”  Here’s his view:

Why do some academics have so much trouble taking religious motivations seriously? Many people, Jason Walters included, would point to political correctness about Islam. Most academics, especially in the humanities, have a progressive, leftist orientation. For them, Islam is the religion of an oppressed non-white minority, and criticism of the latter is suspect. Blaming Islam for violence and hatred is something to be avoided at all costs. Many academics in the humanities regard it as their duty to counterbalance the shift to the right in politics and public opinion. If minorities are being stigmatized, academics must push back. If certain politicians start talking about “Islamic terrorism”, academics should act as a counterweight. Moreover, academic specialization has led to the formation of ideological enclaves, in which researchers have laid down their own rules and end up talking mostly to like-minded colleagues.

However, I do not think that this explanation is sufficient, as many political leaders themselves—such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—have had a hard time taking the religious motivations of terrorists seriously (indeed, this may even have contributed to Donald Trump’s unlikely victory). I would therefore like to propose another hypothesis. Most academics have grown up in a thoroughly secularized environment, in which religion played either no role at all, or only a very insignificant one. If they were acquainted with God at all, it was a touchy-feely version that had gone through the “washing machine of the Enlightenment”—as the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn called it—in which God was nothing more than an impersonal abstraction, or a metaphor for the goodness of human beings. Religious faith was primarily an intimate and personal affair, completely divorced from politics. Because of their indifference to religious faith, these godless Westerners have great difficulty imagining what it means to believe in a concrete personal God, the kind of deity who revealed himself in an infallible Holy Book, and who demands concrete actions and commitment from its believers, on pain of eternal hellfire. Not only do they themselves not believe in such a God, but they cannot imagine that others really believe in one either, let alone that their lives could revolve around that faith. This phenomenon, which I have previously called “disbelief about belief,” is especially strong in relation to Islamic fundamentalism, with its bizarre delusions about the impending End Times and the pleasure garden with 72 virgins. For these ‘disbelievers about belief’, it is tempting to look for other motives behind religious violence that make more sense from a secular perspective, such as frustrations about exclusion and discrimination, or the struggle to dislodge a foreign occupier. I admit that I felt a certain trepidation myself when I sat down to write a critical commentary for Behavioral and Brain Sciences about Harvey Whitehouse’s theory. It feels strange to be writing about the “blood of martyrs” and the “gates of paradise” in a serious academic journal. It all sounds so ludicrous and bizarre that you wonder: Does anyone really believe this stuff? In fact, Harvey Whitehouse has made his disbelief about belief quite explicit inrecent interview. For him, the thesis about extreme self-sacrifice is part and parcel of his broader take on religion. Religion is not about a “set of propositions” or a “rational understanding of nature” at all, but about “building cohesion” in a social group. For all these reasons, Whitehouse dislikes “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins who “offend people by attacking their identities.”

I think there is something to this, although I don’t see why political leaders, especially those on the Left like Clinton and Obama, are immune from “political correctness” towards Islam. Yes, blaming terrorism on Islam has been done more often by Right-wing politicians like Trump, but excusing of religion for terrorism by politicians on “pc” grounds is indeed common.

In other words, I think Maarten’s explanation is correct to some extent, for without personal experience of really believing deeply in the invidious truth claims of religion, it’s hard to fathom that other people might really believe them. (This is what my paper with Maarten was about). But I think the “political correctness” view also plays a huge role in denying religion a place among causes of terrorism. You be the judge.

Even if you don’t agree fully with Maarten’s new hypothesis, the piece is still very useful in reviewing how pervasive is the denial of any malfeasance promoted by religion.