Does the ubiquity of prayer prove the existence of God?

January 10, 2023 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Adam Rutherford reminded me that it was the now-demonized Francis Galton who did statistical tests on the efficacy of prayer. His most famous is finding out that British Royals, who are prayed for constantly, didn’t live any longer than non-royals at a similar level of well being. Galton did related studies of the success of sea voyages accompanied by prayer versus those with no prayer. Again, no effect. And, more recently, I’ve written about the Templeton-funded study of intercessory prayer that found no effect of such prayer on the rate of recovery from cardiac surgery (in fact, those who were prayed for did marginally but not significantly worse).  This constitutes direct evidence against Brown’s implicit thesis. (But read the last paragraph of the NYT story I’ve linked to so you can see how the faith try to rescue God.)


Of course not! The ubiquity of a belief doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of that belief.  Several hundred years ago the whole world believed that infectious diseases were caused by things like God’s will, or miasmas, or the Jews.

They were wrong.

Our species has grown up since then, because science, and science alone, has told us why those earlier beliefs were wrong. The problem is that science can’t disprove an equally unfounded belief in a deity. God is slippery, and smart theologians are paid to make him slippery, because they’d be out of a job if everyone was an atheist.

But that’s what the evidence says, so far as it exists, for we can make plenty of arguments against certain conceptions of God. The Abrahamic omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving deity, for instance, is disproven by the many innocent people who die of physical factors like earthquakes or cancer.  (Theologians have a number of magic tricks to get out of that argument.) As the late Victor Stenger said, “The absence of evidence is evidence for absence—if the evidence should be there.”  And certainly any god worthy of its name, who wanted people to obey and worship him, would make his presence unequivocally known. The evidence should be there.

It isn’t.  Using Bayesian analysis, the priors for an Abrahamic god are low.

But forget that. This article, from the conservative site WND, tries to argue that because most people pray (even atheists, they say!), it’s evidence for God’s existence, and atheists are out of luck. Click to read:

Michael Brown uses injured football player Damar Hamlin, who is recovering (though I doubt he’ll play ball again) as an example of the ubiquity of prayer. I saw this many times on television, even with news anchors on local news who send out “thoughts and prayers”:

Around the nation, in response to the life-threatening injury to Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin, people prayed. Hamlin’s teammates and coaches prayed. Millions of fans joined in prayer, tweeting their support. Even on live TV, sports commentators stopped in the middle of their broadcast to pray.

But this is only natural. During times of crisis, especially life and death crisis, people turn to God.

We know the situation is grave, we know we cannot change things ourselves, and we know that only God – an all-powerful being who cares – can turn the tide.

That’s why, at such times, people do not turn to atheism. They turn to God.

Even non-religious people pray. In fact, many agnostics and soft atheists even turn to prayer.

It continues, showing that the God they are talking about is, of course, the God of Christianity:

As expressed by Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, “It is interesting to me as a person of faith that we tend to go to that core place [at moments of tragedy], that we start talking to God and talking about talking to God.”

He added, “I just find that rather refreshing in an affluent culture that has so much that we tend to ignore God that something like this happens and it reminds us of our own mortality, and we begin to talk about praying and talking about God. … It speaks to the yearning deep inside of us.”

But to ask again, what about Orlovsky’s sports and media colleagues? Were they also happy with him praying on live sports TV?

Yes, many of them were positive on this as well. As one headline announced, “Dan Orlovsky Praised After ‘Beautiful’ Prayer for Damar Hamlin Live on Air.”

Among those quoted in the article were ESPN presenter Ashley Brewer and Super Bowl champion Ryan Clark.

In Brewer’s words, “This is amazing, I teared up watching this in my living room today. Proud to call you my teammate & brother in Christ.”

This is what happens when, as a nation, we are drawn into a life-and-death crisis.

This is what happens when, suddenly and unexpectedly, in front of our eyes on TV, the health and well-being of a relative stranger now becomes our personal concern.

This is what happens when we realize that we need help outside of ourselves.

People pray, and prayer is welcomed rather than ridiculed.

It’s not all that welcome on this website, because, being an atheist, I think prayer is useless. If it makes you feel better, or helps you meditate, go for it. But don’t think that anybody up there is listening and will help you. For if he was and did, there wouldn’t be kids dying of cancer all the time.

Now I don’t think author Brown is trying to convince himself of anything; he’s already lost to the delusion. Nor is he trying to convince his fellow religionists, who have also drunk the Kool-Aid.  I think he’s making fun of atheists by showing that we’re trumped by the ubiquity of prayer. And that wouldn’t bother us, he thinks, unless he thought that prayer’s ubiquity was evidence for God. People wouldn’t be praying all the time if they didn’t think there was really a god to pray to! Checkmate, you heathens!:

The reality is that we always need God. It’s just that, when all is well, we often forget about Him, putting our trust in ourselves and leaving Him out of our thoughts entirely. Many of us even become hostile to faith, doing our best to keep it excluded from public life. And then a crisis wakes us up as we recognize our own frailty and remember that death could be near at any time.

May we not forget these realities as life gets back to normal and, we hope and pray, Damar Hamlin makes a full and even miraculous recovery.

And may those who ignore or even scorn the idea of God think again. Eternity is always just one step away. Then what?

If the Bible is true – which I am 100% sure it is, personally – one day we will actually give account of our lives to God.

That is a sobering thought.

The sobering thought is that people who can actually think can be so deluded that they give their lives up to a belief that is totally lacking in evidence. (Brown even has a Ph.D.!) Another sobering thought is that people like Brown think that somehow the fact that lots of people pray means that God is up there listening. A third sobering thought is that Brown has not a scintilla of evidence that the God he’s so sure we’ll meet is the God of the Bible rather than the God of the Qur’an—or any other god. As for the possibility that there are no gods, well, fuggedaboutit!

h/t: Steve

Conservative religious organization refused restaurant service in Virginia: does this violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

December 7, 2022 • 9:15 am

This incident is relevant to the Supreme Court’s recent hearings about whether a Colorado web designer could refuse service by refusing to create a wedding website for a gay couple. That was a First Amendment case, but this refusal to service, in Virginia, may constitute a civil rights case. You decide:

Reader Williams Garcia sent me a link to an article from ABC 8 News serving the Richmond, Virginia area.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited, among other things, discrimination in public places against certain “protected classes”: to wit:

Note that it says nothing about “politics”, so I suppose a restaurant could deny service to a group or person on political grounds, though I’m not 100% sure. Could a restaurant refuse to serve Mitch McConnell because he’s a Republican servant of Beelzebub?

This is important because a “conservative advocacy group” mentioned in the article (click on screenshot) was refused service on grounds that seem to involve both the group’s politics and their religious foundation:

Here’s the skinny (my bolding):

A Virginia-based conservative Christian advocacy group was turned away from a local restaurant just an hour before their reservation last week.

A representative of the Family Foundation said he was frustrated after the group was turned away from Metzger Bar and Butchery last Wednesday. The group claims the refusal had to do with their religious beliefs.

According to Todd Gathje, Director of Government Relations for the Family Foundation, one of the owners of Metzger called a representative of the Family Foundation about an hour before the reservation time, saying that the group would not be dining in the restaurant.

“We’ve had events at restaurants all over the city and never encountered a situation like this,” Gathje said. “It’s no secret that we are very much engaged in the public policy debate on a number of controversial issues. But we never expected that we would be denied service at a restaurant based on our religious values or political beliefs.”

For businesses like restaurants, federal and state laws do not allow discrimination based on protected classes such as race, religion, sex and more, as defined by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s not yet clear if this incident falls under one of those protected classes.

The question, then, is whether the Family Foundation of Virginia (FFV) was refused service because it’s politically conservative or because it was religious. In fact, the two are connected. Wikipedia says this about the organization:

Family Foundation of Virginia is a socially conservative and Christian fundamentalist lobbying organization headquartered in the US city of Richmond, Virginia. It was focused originally on opposition to sex education. It has expanded to opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, nondiscrimination policies, and same-sex marriage. The organization supports legal conversion therapy for minors and increased legal restriction on abortion.

(By the way, it was the FFV that, it says, lobbied so hard against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia that it failed to be ratified by the state, and that was the end of the line for the ERA).

And on their own page, under “Who we are,” the FFV says this:

The Family Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan, faith-based organization. We believe there is no square inch in all the universe over which God has not claimed “Mine,” and that includes the arenas of civil government and public policy where we spend much of our time. We advocate for policies based on Biblical principles that enable families to flourish at the state and local level. We are uniquely positioned at the center of a national, state, and local coalition, which includes being associated with Focus on the Family.

Well, that sounds pretty religious to me, and on their own site they beef about being reused service at Metzger’s.

The question, then, is whether they were refuse service on religious grounds or on political grounds (i.e., Metzger’s just didn’t like the organization as a whole, and wasn’t refusing service because they were religious). I don’t think it matters whether they were refused service because Metzger’s itself had a religious belief that prevented them from serving the FFV, or whether the FFV was refused service because of its religious beliefs; the law above implies that the latter is enough to constitute a civil rights violation.

Here’s what the site says about being refused service:

The restaurant noted that many staff members were LGBTQ or women and that it believed the Family Foundation “seeks to deprive women and LGBTQ+ persons of their basic rights in Virginia.”

Gathje has previously written for the Family Foundation about a stalled effort in 2021 to remove an unenforceable provision of the Virginia Constitution — invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 — that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, saying that removing it would open the door to “polygamous, incestuous, kinship or even child marriages.”

Gathje said he thought it was unfair of the restaurant to deny service over the group’s religious beliefs.

“It was a very intolerant message being conveyed,” Gathje said.

Well, of course they were refused service either because they were political or religious in a way that the LGBTQ staff didn’t like, but in this case it’s impossible, I think, to separate the politics and the religion, since the former comes from the latter. And the reasons given for refusing service are ambiguous. While the FFV has offered to sit down with the restaurant’s owners to try to avoid situations like this, it could institute a lawsuit. If they were refused service because they were, say, black or Jewish, and that would be a valid lawsuit. But because the FFV doesn’t favor “basic rights” of LGBTQ+ people, does that count? Here are the “core principles” of the organization, which seem based on religion:

  1. Human life, from fertilization until natural death, is sacred, and the right to life is fundamental to all other rights.

  2. Marriage, as a lifelong union between one man and one woman, is an institution of God and a foundation for civil society.

  3. Gender, beautifully expressed as either male or female according to God’s immutable design, is an important biological and social reality that must be respected by all.

  4. Parents are ultimately responsible for the care and well-being of their children and should therefore be free from intrusive government involvement.

  5. The right of conscience and the right to practice faith according to personal convictions are sacred and should not be denied or infringed.

  6. The role and jurisdiction of government is clearly prescribed by our Constitution and consequently should be restrained from excessive involvement in the lives of citizens.

  7. Human exploitation, in its various forms, is wrong, and governments have a legitimate and important role in curbing these abuses.

As you see from #2 and #3, they do favor things that violate the legal rights of LGBTA+ people. But does that count?

Perhaps lawyers could weigh in here. Would this refusal of service be illegal? If not now, would it be later if the Supreme Court, as is likely, decides for the web designer, and whether it does so purely on First Amendment grounds (“a website is an expression”) or whether it issues a broader ruling allowing any discrimination because of a businessperson’s religious beliefs?

Two religions collide: Cambridge student preacher causes row by suggesting that Jesus was a transsexual male

November 27, 2022 • 12:00 pm

You can thank reader Pyers for the links to two—count them, two—articles about how a student at Cambridge claims that Jesus was a transsexual male, which of course caused a huge fracas. Pyers added this to his links:

And this one must be for the 5* treatment as being idiotic on just so so many levels.  When I read it I just, to use a piece of internet shorthand, PML. [JAC: inquiry reveals that this stands for “pissed myself laughing”]. It is the craziest of the crazy, looniest of loons …Just do what I was tempted to do and bash your head against a wall. It is at moments like this that you thank God you are an atheist! (Big grin for that one.)

It’s widely reported in the UK media:

The first article’s from the Torygraph:

A quote and picture (bolding is mine):

Jesus could have been transgender, according to a University of Cambridge dean.

Dr Michael Banner, the dean of Trinity College, said such a view was “legitimate” after a row over a sermon by a Cambridge research student that claimed Christ had a “trans body”, The Telegraph can disclose.

The “truly shocking” address at last Sunday’s evensong at Trinity College chapel, saw Joshua Heath, a junior research fellow, display Renaissance and Medieval paintings of the crucifixion that depicted a side wound that the guest preacher likened to a vagina.

Worshippers told The Telegraph they were left “in tears” and felt excluded from the church, with one shouting “heresy” at the Dean upon leaving.

The sermon displayed three paintings, including Jean Malouel’s 1400 work Pietà, with Mr Heath pointing out Jesus’s side wound and blood flowing to the groin. The order of service also showed French artist Henri Maccheroni’s 1990 work “Christs”.

Heath, whose PhD was supervised by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, also told worshippers that in the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, from the 14th century, this side wound was isolated and “takes on a decidedly vaginal appearance”.

Heath also drew on non-erotic depictions of Christ’s penis in historical art, which “urge a welcoming rather than hostile response towards the raised voices of trans people”.

“In Christ’s simultaneously masculine and feminine body in these works, if the body of Christ as these works suggest the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body,” the sermon concluded.

A congregation member, who wished to remain anonymous, told Dr Banner in a complaint letter: “I left the service in tears. You offered to speak with me afterwards, but I was too distressed. I am contemptuous of the idea that by cutting a hole in a man, through which he can be penetrated, he can become a woman.

“I am especially contemptuous of such imagery when it is applied to our Lord, from the pulpit, at Evensong. I am contemptuous of the notion that we should be invited to contemplate the martyrdom of a ‘trans Christ’, a new heresy for our age.”

Here is PROOF—one of the pictures shown during Heath’s sermon. You have to do a really logical stretch to see that as a vagina. It’s not even in the right place!

And here’s how Dean Banner defended the claim. Note that he often gives BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”, which is usually a religious homily. Dawkins did it once, and that was the last time they used an atheist!

Dr Banner’s response to the complaint, seen by The Telegraph, defended how the sermon “suggested that we might think about these images of Christ’s male/female body as providing us with ways of thinking about issues around transgender questions today”.

“For myself, I think that speculation was legitimate, whether or not you or I or anyone else disagrees with the interpretation, says something else about that artistic tradition, or resists its application to contemporary questions around transsexualism,” Dr Banner added.

Dr Banner, who frequents BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, said that while the views were the speaker’s own, he “would not issue an invitation to someone who I thought would deliberately seek to shock or offend a congregation or who could be expected to speak against the Christian faith”.

Click to read the more heated piece from the Daily Fail:

The Fail doesn’t add much to the above, but does give an official quote form the Uni:

A spokesperson for Trinity College said: The College would like to make clear the following:

‘Neither the Dean of Trinity College nor the researcher giving the sermon suggested Jesus was transgender.

‘The sermon addressed the image of Christ depicted in art and various interpretations of those artistic portrayals.

‘The sermon’s exploration of the nature of religious art, in the spirit of thought-provoking academic inquiry, was in keeping with open debate and dialogue at the University of Cambridge.’

Now it’s barely possible that some randy medieval artist deliberately painted Jesus’s wound to resemble a vagina. But since I’m not convinced that Jesus really existed as any real person, much less as a divine human/son of God/part of God, I can’t be bothered worrying about his gender. The whole fracas is simply hilarious, instantiating what happens when one religion, Christianity, collides with another—wokeness.

A reader’s essay on why religion is at best superfluous

November 6, 2022 • 11:00 am

Reader Daniel Sharp, a student in Edinburgh (I’m informed that he’s now graduated), sent me a link to a very nice essay he wrote for his Substack. As you can see, it was intended for Quillette but fell through the cracks. His intro:

I just wanted to share with you a little piece I just published on my Substack. I was commissioned by Quillette to contribute to one of their ’roundtables’, where various people answer a particular question, either positively, negatively, or, if you like, agnostically. In this case, the question was about religion, and I had fun donning my ‘New Atheist’ hat. Alas, the feature wasn’t published because they couldn’t find anyone to take the middling position, so I published it on my Substack instead.

Click to read:

A couple of quotes (indented):

As a good old-fashioned New Atheist type, I have long been of the view that religion is most certainly not good for humanity. At best, it is irrelevant to the task of creating happy, free, and prosperous societies. At worst, it is an enemy of truth and a driver of hatred and conflict.

Let’s take truth first. The question at hand isn’t really about the veracity or otherwise of religion, but I think most people would consider truth, all else being equal, to be a good thing for humanity, as I do. This is by no means a given, I concede, and we shall have to skate over difficult metaphysical and epistemological questions about what exactly we mean by ‘truth’. But if we believe that truth (meaning, broadly, the accurate understanding of reality) is good, then religion, almost by definition, cannot be good for us.

I’m not one of those milquetoast atheists who hedges their bets, let alone a respectably stuffy agnostic. No, I think one can say, with great confidence, that Christianity, Islam, and the rest are utterly false. We know, and even believers have had to admit, that all the holy books are riddled with.

As for the idea that religion acts as a social glue, well, perhaps it does for members of a congregation or faith, but surely not for humanity as a whole. I can’t imaging a more divisive force save nationalism.

Questions of truth and knowledge aside, what of the social effects of religion? We live in a generally secular age, in which religion (or at least some religious sects, and mostly in the West) has been mostly defanged. I think this explains why so many people have a hard time understanding that genuinely held delusional beliefs can be a powerful motivator to action. This is why we find it hard to comprehend the cruelty of medieval inquisitors and the murderousness of modern jihadists. We rationalize their evils as being rooted in grievances or economics. But make no mistake: religion is an extraordinarily effective engine of evil.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that one could pick almost any conflict at random, historical or contemporary, and quickly see the poisonous influence of religion. Putin’s war on Ukraine, for example, like the missiles with which he slaughtered Syrians, has been blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin sees himself as the restorer of a pure Russianness, one based on a rejection of secular and liberal modernity and in search of an imperium over which to rule. For him, Russia is the last great hope of Christianity and traditional values, and Moscow is the “Third Rome”.

To head off another likely response: I am not saying that religion is the sole cause of every conflict. But it appears, one way or another, as motivation or motivator, in most of them, and makes them even harder to resolve. As Christopher Hitchens put it in his 2007 broadside against religion, god is not Great, “Religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred.”

After Jordan Peterson’s  quasi-religious spiel at the academic freedom conference yesterday, I was discussing with a friend the notion that “wokeness” is a form of religion—the claim of John McWhorter in his antiracism book.  Yes, I agree there are many parallels, but I couldn’t say that wokeness is a replacement for religion: filling the “God-shaped hole” that many are supposed to have.

I think the parallel is largely on the basis of similarities in some tenets of wokeism and of religion (e.g. “original sin”, authoritarianism, and moral purity), but the parallel goes only so far. There is nothing supernatural about wokeness; it’s a purely human phenomenon. This makes wokeness “religinoid” rather than “religious”. Moreover, when you look at countries outside the U.S.— countries that used to be religious but are now largely atheistic (e.g., Germany, Scandinavia, etc.), they are neither particularly “woke” nor do their inhabitants feel the need to replace religion with something similar.  The disappearance of religion doesn’t seem to have left a God-shaped hole. (What did Danes or Icelanders fill their God-shaped hole with?). Nor is Britain particularly religious compared to the U.S., though it is woke.

Rather, the tenets of “progressive leftism” that we consider illiberal come from tribalism, not religion. That may be a distinction without a difference, but I get queasy when I hear about that “God-shaped hole”. I see religion as something that arose when we didn’t understand the world, and because we were (and still are) afraid to die. Wokeness doesn’t fill either of those needs; science and reality do.

One could, I suppose, test the “GSH” hypotehsis by seeing if the woke, compared to, say, centrist liberals, used to be more religious but gave it up: they are more likely to be “nones.”

This is just a digression having nothing to do with Daniel’s fine review. But I put it out there because I’m sitting at the SF airport with nothing to do but write.

Daniel’s peroration:

In the end, I can make weaker and stronger versions of my argument. At its strongest, I can say that religion is not just harmless but harmful. At its weakest, I can say that religion is irrelevant. Either way, religion is not positively good for us. We have no need of it. Humanity is weak and foolish, yes, but it also contains what Saul Bellow in his great novel The Adventures of Augie March so beautifully called the “universal eligibility to be noble”.

I submit, finally, then, that the highest, noblest path that humanity can pursue is one without religion. We must face the uncaring universe with our chins up. . . .

Remember, when you’re arguing about whether the phenomenon of religion itself is now (or was in the past) a net good or net bad for the world, you have to consider all of humanity, not just the United States. If Northern Europe can survive perfectly well without either religion or a religion-resembling replacement, then so can we all.

Philomena takes the mickey out of religion

October 10, 2022 • 1:00 pm

You must watch “Faith Off,” the second episode of the BBC’s five-part “Cunk on Earth” series. After watching two of the episodes, I’ve concluded that while they have their funny moments (one of them noted by reader Barry below), the Philomena trope has trouble sustaining a long series. The bit about “Philomena’s castle” at the end is a weird and unamusing digression.

Moreover, now clearly some (but not all) of the academics and scholars she interviews are in on the fact that it’s a spoof .

Barry, who sent me this link, noted a bon mot from La Cunk:

In case you haven’t seen her latest: “When Christ was born he had a magic flaming circle on his head, which would have set fire to all the hay and pubes as he came out.”

The treatment of Islam is pretty funny, what with the blackouts, but note that there are two ads that interrupt in the show.

I’ll post the other three half-hour segments in the coming days.

Thursday reading

October 6, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I haven’t yet subscribed to Freddie deBoer’s Substack site, but I get emails when he posts, and you can read this one for free. And you should (click on screenshot):

First deBoer attacks “belief in belief” (a term I believe was coined by Dan Dennett): the “little people” argument adduced by nonbelievers who claim that religion is good because it’s a form of social glue, and also because it fills the need to believe in something: the “god-shaped hole” that we supposedly all have. He said this in an earlier post on Jon Haidt:

. . . belief in belief is belief in delusion – worse, in other people’s delusion. It is one thing to argue that religion is true or is not true. It is another to say “it isn’t, incidentally, but go on pretending, it’s good for you.” In the inherent condescension of that attitude I see something worse than Christopher Hitchens ever unleashed against the faithful. Whatever Christianity is, it is not worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Judaism is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Islam is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. And in fact if you take the precepts of those religions at all seriously, you can see praying to the God-shaped hole for what it is: idolatry.

Now, however, deBoer sees the rise of another form of religion, one that has occasionally been adduced by Andrew Sullivan:

There’s a new wrinkle to all of this: nowadays I frequently encounter people online who not only say that postmodern religion (post-belief religion) is good, I regularly hear that there has never been another kind. That is, I am told that, according to an extremely tendentious and evidence-light perspective, pretty much nobody ever believed any of the supernatural claims in religious stories – not the burning bush, not water into wine, no splitting of the moon, no siddhis, none of the supernatural events common to Mahayana Buddhism. In this telling nobody, or almost nobody, has ever believed in transcendent extra-material deities or their magical works in the world of man. Do these people think Jesus’s apostles never really believed that he died and rose again – not metaphorically, but actually, in the physical and literal realm – but went out to spread his gospel anyway? Unclear! Haidt cited St. Augustine and Pascal as two people who spoke to his idea about the god-shaped hole. Neither of them professed any belief in belief as such, any belief in belief with no actual divine referent.

This is projection on a whole other level, to me. People find that they can’t summon belief in the supernatural, but they want what people who can summon that belief have.

This “projection” is of course pure bushwa, on the level of Andrew Sullivan instructing me that no Christian really ever took Genesis as literal truth—a claim that you could make only if you’re either completely ignorant of the history of Christianity or deliberately dissimulating.

If you think that Church Fathers like Aquinas, Augustine the Hippo (that’s a joke, folks) or Tertullian saw the Bible as pure metaphor, you don’t know your theology. (Yes, they saw the Bible as metaphorical in some bits, but also as literal truth as a whole.) I lay this out in Faith Versus Fact.

deBoer takes apart this idea of Relgion as Metaphorical Comfort:

If you want to say that belief in the supernatural elements of religion has always been complicated; if you want to say that at least some doubt in the existence of God is common to lived religious practice; if you want to say that it’s all more complicated than I’ve laid it out here – fine. But I continue to find belief-in-belief to be a dead end. I cannot for the life of me understand why you’d engage in religious practice without any belief in the actual transcendent claims on which religion is based rather than simply participating in moral philosophy. It is admittedly difficult to craft a transcendently/objectively true moral philosophy without some conception of a deity that determines right and wrong, but people have been working on it for a couple thousand years. I also understand the desire for the community and fraternity that religion can engender, but surely these are possible without religion, and our Bowling Alone present (the death of communal life in contemporary times) is a bigger and separate issue. The basic question remains: why bother with the bric a brac if you know that the crucifix you pray towards reflects only a deluded carpenter who tried and tried and finally got Rome’s attention? There are many pretty buildings in the world. You can eat your own bread and drink your own wine. You can burn your own incense. It’s all available to you.

The only way that such belief is justifiable is if you admit that you don’t accept any of the truth claims of the religion but simply like seeing the candles, hearing the choir, and smelling the incense—and think that it’s good for society to have such rituals. To me, the real believers that enable the incense-sniffers are a drag on society, though, and we always have books, soccer, and wine for entertainment. Why is smelling the incense when you lack all belief better than smelling the bouquet of a fine old Bordeaux?

A new theory which is not mine

September 2, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I found this directed to me on the Internet (original spelling preserved). It’s a new theory of how religion evolved.

I read your article on the war between religion and science as im trying to find an avenue to put my theory of the evolutionary basis of religion. It involves harmonic vibrations of the skull occuring as we speak (felt best on the top of your head). The vestibular system is located excellently to pick up the vibrations and cause a feedback loop with the parietal vestibular insular cortex located around the audiocortex and the muscular and sensory sections of the mouth to improve speech. I find the journal process to be too slow and haphazard as i have sincerely no patience with it. There are too many journals! if you know of an appropriate journal or any other location that might be interested i would be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript.
I know of no journals that would be interested, but perhaps readers do. This is one of those things that’s best characterized as “I can’t even. . . “

What does the Webb telescope reveal about God?

July 27, 2022 • 9:15 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller reappears:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El-Baz uses the same dodge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As America gets more secular, the Supreme Court sides more with religion

June 22, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I think this “morning newsletter” is part of the NYT’s increasing trend to Tell You What You Need to Know, or What the News Means—the latest trend to dumb down the news for the busy liberal American. Except this is probably something that the readers here either knew or suspected: that is, the Supreme Court is increasingly ruling in favor of religion. That’s no surprise with a conservative majority that’s largely Catholic, but the trend has gone on for seven decades now, which is worth knowing.

Here’s What You Need to Know from the latest NYT (click to read)

Here are the rulings in favor of religious arguments in orally argued cases, divided up by era and the presiding Chief Justice:

Actually, with yesterday’s ruling in favor of vouchers in Maine for religious schools, the Roberts court’s “anti-First-Amendment” score has risen to 85%. That’s nearly twice the rate under Earl Warren. But things didn’t change that fast until Roberts came in and the other conservative justices like Kavanaugh and Barrett joined him later. Now we have a punctuated equilibrium for coddling faith. We have a new liberal judge on deck, but that only means more 6-3 rulings, since the new one, Ketanji Brown Jackson, will replace the liberal Breyer.

Now we know that America is slowly becoming less religious, but court rulings are favoring religion much more rapidly over time. The trends are in opposite directions. Why?

Philbrick gives three reasons, none of which are surprising. These are direct quotes.

1.) Over the past few decades, the rise of the religious right has made religious freedom a political priority for Republicans. That shift has corresponded with nominations by Republican presidents of justices who favor religious groups even more frequently than previous conservative justices.

2.) Republican-appointed justices also have a better track record of timing their retirements to ensure that a Republican president will name their successor,. . . .

3.) Republican presidents choosing successors to justices appointed by Democrats. Clarence Thomas, one of the court’s staunchest advocates of religious liberty, replaced a liberal icon in Thurgood Marshall, as did Amy Coney Barrett, who took over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat in 2020.

DUH!  #3 follows from #1 and #2, so it’s not really a different reason. The only thing that struck me was the trend and the rapid increase: the difference between the Rehnquist Court and the Roberts Court is a rise in 25% in the proportion rulings in favor of religion.

This is what we’ll have to expect in our lifetimes (if you’re older): a dismantling of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. All by 6-3 votes.

One more thing to watch out for:

The court is considering a second religion case that deals with a former high school football coach who lost his job for praying at the 50-yard line after games. A ruling is likely in the coming days.

If you read the link, you’ll see it involves a public-school coach praying midfield after a football game. He’d been told to cool it with these displays, but couldn’t keep Jesus bottled up in him. He was fired for the implied coercion of students involved in public prayer (he’d previously prayed with the players, and been told not to). I can see that there is a “free speech” side of this, but what about a teacher who prayer in her classroom after the bell rings? At any rate, the Court has already signaled that it’s going to rule in favor of the “right to pray”.

But this isn’t nearly as irritating as what the court just did with the Maine law. In that case, all the citizens of Maine will be required to subsidize the education of Christians in an evangelical and homophobic school, one that probably teaches creationism as well. The coach kneeling by himself midfield neither breaks my bones nor picks my pocket, but the people of Maine are truly having their pockets picked.

And that’s All the News You Need to Know.

h/t: Bat

The continuing secularization of America: belief in God falls to 81%

June 20, 2022 • 9:15 am

Although prices are rising in America, belief in God is falling. The good news is that this appears to be part of a consistent trend of secularization.  The bad news is that 81% of Americans still believe in God, and a bit more than half of those (42% overall) think that God hears prayers and can intervene to answer them (28% think God hears prayers but does nothing about then, while 11% think God doesn’t do either).

This is good news, and is detailed in a short article from Gallup. You can see it by clicking below, or going to the complete document, including methodology and the questions asked, at this pdf download site.

Here’s the trend since 1945. As Gallup notes,

Gallup first asked this question in 1944, repeating it again in 1947 and twice each in the 1950s and 1960s. In those latter four surveys, a consistent 98% said they believed in God. When Gallup asked the question nearly five decades later, in 2011, 92% of Americans said they believed in God.

A subsequent survey in 2013 found belief in God dipping below 90% to 87%, roughly where it stood in three subsequent updates between 2014 and 2017 before this year’s drop to 81%.

The fall from 92% in 2011 to 81% this year is pretty large.  Since there appear to be no data between the late 1960s and 2011, the slow decrease shown in the line is just an interpolation. But there’s no doubt that the long-term drop is a real drop, and goes along with a lot of data showing that Americans are, as REM sang, “losing their religion.” Perhaps some day we’ll be as areligious as northern Europe.

Here are the data on whether God hears/answers prayers (as we’ll see below, conservatives and liberals give very different data). But the idea that God hears prayers and intervenes leads to immense theological difficulties.  Does God refuse to answer some perfectly good prayers, like those of parents beseeching Him for the survival of their cancer-stricken child? There are many questions one could ask this 42% of Americans! Indeed, if you have the idea of God as a Man in the Sky with a Plan, one might think that a special request from someone for God to attend to their personal desires is trivial and solipsistic. So it goes.

Gallup broke the answers down by political party identification, ideological identification, frequency of going to church, and age. Here are those statistics (click to enlarge):

Of course those who go to church more often are more religious, with 99% of those who go to church weekly saying that they believe in God, and 74% saying that God hears prayers and intervenes.  Republicans are more religious than Democrats, with independents pretty much smack in the middle. For overall atheism, the percentage is 7% for Republicans, 26% of Democrats, and 18% for independents. The same trend holds if you divide people by “conservative, moderate, or liberal” instead of political party, except that the percentage of atheists rises to 35%. (Remember, these aren’t “nones,” some of whom are religious, but people who don’t believe in God at all. Those are atheists.

Finally, younger folk tend to believe in God less than older folk, though there’s not much difference on the prayer issue. There’s another figure for the changes in these data since 2013-2017, but you can see that for yourself.

Gallup’s conclusion:

Fewer Americans today than five years ago believe in God, and the percentage is down even more from the 1950s and 1960s when almost all Americans did. Still, the vast majority of Americans believe in God, whether that means they believe a higher power hears prayers and can intervene or not. And while belief in God has declined in recent years, Gallup has documented steeper drops in church attendancechurch membership and confidence in organized religion, suggesting that the practice of religious faith may be changing more than basic faith in God.

Whatever.  The fact is that many measures of religiosity show that America is becoming more secular, and that can only be to the good.  Just for fun, if you extrapolate a fall of 98% to 81% belief in 57 years, then America will become completely atheistic in about 270 years, or in 2293!

h/t: Barry