Tish Harrison Warren hangs it up at the NYT

August 6, 2023 • 1:00 pm

It’s been a year since the NYT has been publishing Sunday columns on religion by the Anglican minister Tish Harrison Warren. She seems like a nice person, and is a compassionate rather than a hard-line Christian, but still, week after week, I was forced to read her lucubrations about what I see as society’s religious delusions. (Don’t ask me why I didn’t ignore them: it’s the laws of physics.) A column on God each week is like a column on Bigfoot: we’re supposed to take seriously something that doesn’t exist.  Sure, you can draw moral lessons from God if you want, but too often Warren’s moral lessons tallied more with secular humanism than with Christianity.

She says her farewells, none too soon, in the piece below (click to read):

At first I thought she’d signed on for a year—as it’s been about that long—and her contract had expired. But she says instead that she decided to stop writing, and gives her reasons. Did the Times gently nudge her out the door? Who knows, but I won’t miss her. Now can we have a secular humanist or an atheist for the next year?


For this and many other reasons, it was a tough decision to leave. And as with any tough decision, my reasons are varied and complex, but one is that writing publicly about God each week can do a number on one’s soul. Thomas Wingfold, a character in a novel by the Scottish minister and poet George MacDonald, said, “Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.” Holy things, sacred topics, spiritual ideas, I believe, have power. Dealing with them is a privilege and a joy, but habitually dealing with the outside of them is inherently dangerous.

The “outsides” of holy things, to me, describes the difference between speaking about divine or sacred things and encountering the divine or the sacred directly. To be sure, we need more and better religious discourse in America. In my very first newsletter for The Times, I wrote that “we need to start talking about God,” and I still believe that. I believe that religion and, more broadly, the biggest questions in life are the driving forces behind much that is beautiful, divisive, unifying, controversial and perplexing about our culture and society.

And also behind much that is divisive and bad!  But why talk about the good of religion when you can’t even prove that God exists? Why not just talk about ethics? The thing is, Warren’s columns, without her dragging in her deity, were often mawkish laden with bromides. She was the Krista Tippett of the New York Times. Nobody would be given such a column unless there was a religious angle to it (Tippett also got her start on an NPR show called “On Faith”).

In her peroration she once again tries to imbue us with the power of faith:

We become like Linus in the old “Peanuts” cartoons who famously said: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” True community, however, is made of real people with names, of friends with true faults, of congregations with faces, of the local, the small. Don’t get me wrong: Global and national news is important and I will continue to read news and opinion pieces nearly every day. But for me, as for most of us, the places we meet God — the places we become human — are not primarily in abstract debates about culture wars or the role of religion in society, but in worship on a Sunday morning or in dropping off soup for a grieving friend, in a vulnerable conversation or in making breakfast at the homeless shelter down the street, in celebration with a neighbor or in the drowsy prayers uttered while rocking a feverish toddler in the middle of the night.

I used to work in a soup kitchen on the South Side of Chicago, but I never met God. But I did meet Milton, a 90-year-old man who told me, over Thanksgiving dinner, how he used to wait to see Billie Holiday outside the jazz clubs that used to line the area. And that’s what kindled my investigation of jazz that became a passion. I’d say that’s better than meeting God any day, for at least Milton was real.

NYT touts religion again: this time it’s Judaism

July 3, 2023 • 9:15 am

Every Sunday we get a paean to Christianity by Tish Harrison Warren, and yesterday we read Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe touting the advantages of Judaism—and of religion in general.  Wolpe isn’t as irritating as the  smarmy Warren, who provides only bromides. Wolpe seems like a nice and caring guy, and I’m sure he’s brought solace to many in his rabbinical duties. He’s also had his own tribulations: two surgeries for a brain tumor as well as lymphoma.  But can’t the NYT occasionally produce columns in praise of atheism and humanism? After all, there’s no good evidence for a God, and yet that viewpoint is resolutely ignored by the paper, which publishes piece after piece by people who think not only that there is a God, but a specific kind of God, like the Christian one (e.g., Warren).

According to Wikipedia, Wolpe is infamous among conservative Jews for questioning the historicity of the Old Testament:

On Passover 2001, Wolpe told his congregation that “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” Casting doubt on the historicity of the Exodus during the holiday that commemorates it brought condemnation from congregants and several rabbis (especially Orthodox Rabbis). The ensuing theological debate included whole issues of Jewish newspapers such as The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and editorials in The Jerusalem Post, as well as an article in the Los Angeles Times. Critics asserted that Wolpe was attacking Jewish oral history, the significance of Passover and even the First Commandment. Orthodox Rabbi Ari Hier wrote that “Rabbi Wolpe has chosen Aristotle over Maimonides, theories and scientific method over facts”. Wolpe, on the other hand, was defended by Reform Rabbi Steven Leder from the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who argued that “defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.”

Wolpe asserted that he was arguing that the historicity of the events should not matter, since he believes faith is not determined by the same criteria as empirical truth. Wolpe argues that his views are based on the fact that no archeological digs have produced evidence of the Jews wandering the Sinai Desert for forty years, and that excavations in Israel consistently show settlement patterns at variance with the Biblical account of a sudden influx of Jews from Egypt.

In March 2010, Wolpe expounded on his views saying that it was possible that a small group of people left Egypt, came to Canaan, and influenced the native Canaanites with their traditions. This opinion is, in fact, shared by the majority of historians and biblical scholars. He added that the controversy of 2001 stemmed from the fact that Conservative Jewish congregations have been slow to accept and embrace biblical criticism. Conservative rabbis, on the other hand, are taught biblical criticism in rabbinical school.

It’s to Wolpe’s credit that he accepts the historical and archaeological evidence against the Exodus. As he says below, he thinks that religion isn’t really about “a set of beliefs to one assents.” He’s wrong, of course. Maybe that’s true for Wolpe, but why would there have been a controversy about the Exodus if some people didn’t adhere to the Old Testament claims? But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’ll just add that you may know Wolpe from  his several debates about religion with Christopher Hitchens. Here’s one about the existence of God. (Note: it’s 90 minutes long.)

Click on the headline below to read, and you can find the piece archived here

This column seems to serve as Wolpe’s swan song: his retirement thoughts on the human condition and how it’s ameliorated by religion, which to him serves as a kind of social glue. (Wolpe’s statements are indented.)

For over a quarter century now, I have listened to people’s stories, sat by their bedsides as life slipped away, buried their parents, spouses and sometimes their children. Marriages have ended in my office, as have engagements.

I have watched families as they say cruel, cutting things to one another or, just as devastating, refuse to say anything at all. I have seen the iron claw of grief scrape out the insides of mourners, grip their windpipes, blind their eyes so that they cannot accept the mercy of people or of God.

After 26 years in the rabbinate, as I approach retirement, I have come to several realizations. All of us are wounded and broken in one way or another; those who do not recognize it in themselves or in others are more likely to cause damage than those who realize and try to rise through the brokenness.

This is what binds together a faith community. No religious tradition, certainly not my own, looks at an individual and says: “There. You are perfect.” It is humility and sadness and striving that raises us, doing good that proves the tractability of the world and its openness to improvement, and faith that allows us to continue through the shared valleys.

Well, I’ve never been a member of a “faith community,” even a Jewish one, but it seems to me that what binds a faith community together is a desire to belong to a tribe which whose members care for each other. That, plus the factors that make a tribe a tribe: shared beliefs.  Jews can never be members of a Christian faith community because they don’t think the Messiah ever came back. Nor can Muslims be members of either community because they think the Qur’an is the final and correct faith, and Muhammad is the prophet.  And that brings us to Wolpe’s misguided claim about religion not being about a “set of beliefs”:

I have had a privileged view of the human condition, and the essential place of religion on that hard road. Sometimes it seems, for those outside of faith communities, that religion is simply about a set of beliefs to which one assents. But I know that from the inside it is about relationships and shared vision. Where else do people sing together week after week? Where else does the past come alive to remind us how much has been learned before the sliver of time we are granted in this world?

Yes, religion is about the solace of being a member of a community. But, for most, it’s also about shared beliefs, something I discuss in Faith versus Fact.  Does a Christian community have any meaning if the members don’t accept the fact that Jesus came to earth as God/son of God, was crucified, and thereby gave us the possibility of eternal life?  Are Muslims not a community because they all accept the tenets of the Qur’an, dictated to Mohamed by an angel? In fact, Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life—a way of life based on shared beliefs about empirical circumstances. And so it goes for many religions: without accepting at least the existence of a divine being, most religions—and all Abrahamic religions—center largely on “a set of beliefs to one assents.”

Now as a heterodox rabbi Wolpe may indeed reject a conventional god. As he says in the debate below, he defines his god as something quite nebulous:

“God is the source of everything that exists, and God is someone, something, with whom a human being can have a relationship, and that you can live your life in alignment with a godly purpose. That any definition that is greater than that is in some ways to traduce God.”

But he has no right to pronounce on what religion is about for everyone else! And there’s ample evidence that he’s wrong.

In some ways, Wolpe’s claims are a final defense against the increasing secularization of America, which he mentions twice. Pushing back against that, he sees religion as, without question, a net good:

I know the percentage of those who not only call themselves religious but also find themselves in religious communities declines each year. The cost of this ebbing of social cohesion is multifaceted. At the most basic, it tears away at the social fabric. Many charities rely solely on religious institutions. People in churches and synagogues and mosques reliably contribute more to charities — religious and nonreligious — than their secular counterparts do. The disunity that plagues us in each political cycle is also partly because of a loss of shared moral purpose which people once found each week in the pews.

If lack of religion “tears away at the social fabric,” especially because religions promote charities, then you’d expect that atheistic countries would have a badly torn social fabric.  The evidence is against that—at least the evidence from Scandinavia, where government has simply taken over the care of sick people, old people, disabled people, and poor people. There is no lack of charity in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, or other countries. (And virtually every European country has government-provided health care.)

Of course Wolpe doesn’t mention the bad things that religion does—things that Hitchens eloquently mentions in the debate above. Why are Jews demonized by many in the U.S., something mentioned by Wolpe in this article? It’s because they’ve inherited the legacy of being “Christ killers.” Why do Muslims and Jews battle each other to the death? Religion. Why did Hindus and Muslims kill each other during India’s partition in 1947, and continue to do so today? Religion, of course.  Now you can say that without religion people would find other reasons to kill each other and form tribes. That may be true, but religion is perhaps the greatest cause of tribalism in the history of the world, and I’m pretty sure that, had it never arisen, the world would be a better place.

Wolpe paints the Old Testament, even if it be fictitious, as a source of solace:

I still believe the synagogue is a refuge for the bereaved and provides a road map for the seeker. I have been moved by how powerful the teachings of tradition prove to be in people’s lives, helping them sort out grievances from griefs, focusing on what matters, giving poignancy to celebrations. The stories of the Torah, read year after year, wear grooves in our souls, so that patterns of life that might escape us become clear. Sibling rivalries and their costs are clear in the story of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The consequences of kindness emanate from the book of Ruth. We share unanswerable questions with Job and passion with the Song of Songs. The Torah acts as a spur and a salve.

But so do many other nonreligious works! If the Torah is more efficacious than these works, it’s because people believe those stories, something Wolpe says they don’t do. Otherwise, sibling rivalries, kindness, and questioning can be found in gazillions of nonreligious works of fiction and nonfiction. And, as reader Leo (who sent me this link) noted, “I guess he wants us to ignore the Bible stories about slavery, war, genocide, etc.”

In his last paragraph, Wolpe again claims that religion is a bulwark against creeping secularism and the social damage it apparently causes:

Religion may be on the decline in this country and in the West, but if you wish to see the full panoply of a human life, moments of ecstatic joy and deepest sorrow, the summit of hopes and the connections of community, they exist concentrated in one place: your local house of worship.

Well, they also exist concentrated in a better place: your local library.

A creationist writes in: repent your acceptance of evolution lest ye burn in hell

May 30, 2023 • 12:15 pm

News is slow today, and I’m not feeling great, as my insomnia has returned. Let’s look at a new reader’s comment, which was meant to be put up after the post below but of course was trashed by moi.  If you reply, though, I’ll alert the religious Paul Polster to your comments.

Read and weep. It’s Pascal’s wager!

Details: From one “Paul A Polster” in reply to Carlos on the post “Odious Ray Comfort movie (watch it below) to be distributed in public schools“:

Think about this, and pass it along to all your fellow atheists: if you are right, you die, it is all over, no harm, but if God does exist, and the Bible is true, when you die, you will appear at the great white throne as a lost soul. You will hear a list of sins that you have committed since you were aware of right and wrong, you will bow a knee to Jesus Christ, however, it will be too late to repent and you will be cast into Hell for eternity. You evolutionists are thinkers, think that one through in your quiet time and add this to it: have I lied? stolen?looked at the opposite sex with lust? Cheated on a test? Give some thought as to why these things happen as well as why good and evil exist. Evolution has no answer to these questions. One final thought: are you willing to risk possibly going to hell in order to hold to your faith in evolution? (it requires faith to believe it). Or are you willing to give true science ( discovery of the truth) a chance with an open mind? I hope you can ,your eternity depends on it.

Well, we’re all going to hell, including Jimmy Carter, who has looked on women with lust.  He’s close to the end, and I bet he can feel the flames now. . .

A few comments:

  1. Why is “believing in evolution” a sin? Did God put the evidence for evolution everywhere to deceive us?  (And if you think it takes “faith” to believe in evolution, read my article dispelling that bit of stupidity.)
  2. Which moral dictates are we supposed to believe? If we’re Jews, we can’t mix meat and milk in one meal. If we’re Catholics, we have to go to confession. If we’re Muslims, we have to observe Ramadan. I presume that Mr. Polster somehow knows that the Christian god is the REAL god. But how does he know?
  3. What kind of God would send someone to hell who has lived a good life even if he didn’t accept the existence of God.’
  4. The absolute certainty of Polster—about the falsity of evolution, about God being the Christian god, and about liars and the lustful going to hell—is breathtaking.

The kind of God that Polster paints is the ruler, as Hitchens used to say, of a celestial North Korea. He’ll toss into the fire anybody who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ (even those who were faithful before the time of Jesus Christ), he burn anybody who accept the evidence for evolution that God supposedly put all around us, and he’s not in the least merciful.  Why did he design our bodies to lust after members of the opposite sex if you’re going to hell for it?


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

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.

Emails from believers: “I know God exists the same way I know my wife loves me”

August 10, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Does your wife love you? If you believe she does, then you’re justified in believing in God and Jesus. Or so says a befuddled believer, whose words I reproduce here.

A comment came in from one “Brad Thorp” (you’ll read it here only) addressing my post “Stephen Meyer in Newsweek: Three scientific discoveries point to God. As usual, his claims are misleading.

If you recall, I addressed Meyer’s ID-generated claims that science couldn’t explain the Big Bang, the “fine tuning” of the laws of physics that permit life, and the “irreducible complexity” of some features of animals and plants. These, he argued, refute pure naturalistic evolution and physics.  After I presented his arguments, I said this:

I’ll give alternative naturalistic explanations for each of the three “proofs of God”. We don’t know the materialistic answers for sure, but at least the scientific explanations are in principle testable, and there is some evidence behind them.

Apparently to some believers, like Mr. Thorp, if science can’t understand something, that counts as evidence for God. One would think that the history of science, which successively replaced divine explanations with naturalistic ones (e.g., lightning, disease, evolution), would make people more cautious about using “The Argument for God from Ignorance.”

But not Mr. Thorp. In fact, his email below suggests that science must bow to religion in its wisdom, for the “evidence for God” seejs stronger than the evidence for many claims that scientists take as provisionally true.


“… we still don’t know…” we still don’t know, we still don’t know…. Ad infinitum…

The only solution is an address where one can go, poke god in the belly, pull his beard… and decide we are smarter than He is!

The issue is not one of evidence. It is wanting absolutely conclusive evidence that forces one to believe, taking away any alternative. This creates a heinous caricature of a masochistic tyrant that anyone in their right mind finds repulsive. It denies the role “choice” plays in all our decision making.

I am an atheist of this misrepresention of the God portrayed in the Bible and revealed through the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I for one am not looking for overwhelming conclusive proof that destroys my freedom to choose. I cannot objectively prove my wife loves me. But evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt gives me reason to support that conclusion. The same standard of evidence/proof is what we all use daily.

So in the never ending discussion about God and maintaining atheism re Christianity, let’s keep the standard of evidence artificially high and inconsistent with daily life: “ I won’t believe in god unless I can poke Him in the belly! “

The issue of God, including presumably whether God exists or not, “is not one of evidence”.  But then it does become one of evidence. It’s just that we petulant atheists keep the standard of evidence “artificially high”. I’m not sure what “artificially high” means, but the God hypothesis doesn’t even surmount a bar so low that an earthworm could limbo under it. Science deals in likelihood, not absolute certainty, and it’s telling that, beyond revelation and scripture, we don’t have even a scintilla of scientific evidence for God, even though such evidence could exist. As Victor Stenger used to say, “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence. . . if the evidence should be there.” For God it isn’t.

In fact, I’m not sure what Thorp is saying. I don’t think he does, either. First he says he doesn’t need no stinking evidence because that would “destroy his freedom to choose” (i.e., evidence of God would make him uncomfortable about being a believer). But then he mentions the value of empirical evidence, even if it’s not absolutely conclusive: “I cannot objectively prove my wife loves me. But evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt gives me reason to support that conclusion.”  Presumably he means empirical evidence that his wife acts as if she loves him, like treating him well, being affectionate, not having affairs, and so on.

Does Thorp not realize that the evidence that his wife loves him is a gazillion times stronger than the evidence that God existed and Jesus was his son, a son whose life and Resurrection offers us all a path of salvation? You can hire a private detective to check up on your wife, but you can’t hire one to look for God.

Shoot me again—more creationists adduce evidence for God.

July 18, 2022 • 9:20 am

For some reason I don’t comprehend, my critique of Stephen Meyer’s Newsweek article, “Stephen Meyer in Newsweek: Three scientific discoveries point to God. As usual, his claims are misleading” prompted a fair number of emails and comments, some of which, like the submitted comment below, I didn’t deem fit to put in the comments section but did find worth a standalone post because of what it says about the thought process of some humans.

First, reader Coel corrected me when I said the Big Bang was the “beginning” of the Universe, and Coel was right. He also corrects Arno Penzias (a Nobel Laureate!), whom Meyer quoted with approbation:

Evidence for what scientists call the Big Bang has instead confirmed the expectations of traditional theists. Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who helped make a key discovery supporting the Big Bang theory, has noted the obvious connection between its affirmation of a cosmic beginning and the concept of divine creation. “The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses…[and] the Bible as a whole,” writes Penzias.

Here’s a comment by Coel:

“If the Big Bang did occur, which seems likely since we have tons of evidence for it, then that shows only that the Universe began, not how it began.” {From my post]

The Big Bang doesn’t even establish that the universe “began”. Most cosmologists would say something along the lines that the observable universe came from a quantum-gravity fluctuation around the Planck time, where that fluctuation occurred within a pre-existing state.

Thus “our universe” only had a beginning if one uses the term to refer narrowly to the products of that quantum fluctuation, not to “everything”.

By the way, if one checks what that Penzias quote was actually about (see here), it wasn’t about the universe having an origin, it was about how many “universes” there are. But since the time of that quote, the best data today do favour an “eternal inflation” multiverse, and thus now dis-favour Penzias’s argument.

Lastly, the fine-tuning argument has to start with the axiom that there would be something wrong if the universe did not contain human-like life. The conclusion (that the universe started with human-like life in the form of a god) is thus entirely circular.

Okay, and that’s a good and substantial comment. But then someone called Aeiutuz responded to Coel, and here’s the unposted comment I’m highlighting:


In reply to Coel.

I’d go a step further. I think modern cosmology gives at least a 50% chance God exists. Nearly all cosmologists believe the big bang began after a period of cosmic inflation. We know absolutely nothing about what the universe was like before inflation. But we do know, it was incredibly hot. So hot that all of our laws of physics break. There existed a state of mass/energy we can’t describe. The mass/energy was imaginably large, possibly/probably infinite. Inflation could have been going on for an infinite amount of time. Or maybe not.

Modern cosmology tells use, before the big bang, there was an unimaginably large, possibly infinite state of mass/energy that we can’t describe. Some part of that mass/energy broke off creating the cosmic inflation and when the inflation ended, it created the big bang. There was no intelligence in that mass/energy.

Most western religions tell us that before the universe we know today began, there was God. A state of something, maybe mass/energy beyond our description that was unimaginably large. Probably infinite. With intelligence. Some part of the broke off to create the universe, perhaps in a big bang.

Modern cosmology says the universe began from a state of mass/energy that we can’t describe that was unimaginably large, possibly infinite. But there was no intelligence behind it.

Modern religion tells us the universe began from God, as state of spirit, or possibly mass/energy we can’t describe that was unimaginably large, probably infinite. But had intelligence.

The difference between cosmology and religion is this: before our universe began, was there intelligence in the mass/energy that existed before the big bang or not? Religion says yes. Cosmology says no. But if you have an infinitely large amount of energy, or an unimaginably large amount of energy almost indistinguishable from infinity, is it so hard to imagine there wasn’t intelligence behind it? I say the chance is at least 50-50.

Now the state of the universe before the Big Bang is above my pay grade, but not far enough that I can’t criticize a bizarre analogy between what physicists think and what “most Western religions tell us.” For example, I can’t find any hint of this in Genesis:

Most western religions tell us that before the universe we know today began, there was God. A state of something, maybe mass/energy beyond our description that was unimaginably large. Probably infinite. With intelligence. Some part of the broke off to create the universe, perhaps in a big bang.

God was “infinite”? In what sense? Was he also “incredibly hot”? (He must have been a looker!). And where does it say that “some part of God broke off to create the universe, perhaps in a big bang”? You have to have a pretty loose interpretation of Genesis to see that!

Further, where does modern religion tell us that God was either a “state of spirit” (whatever that is) or “possibly mass/energy that was large, probably infinite”? Again, Aeiutuz is tailoring his view of God to what physics says. (I doubt that this was his a priori conception of a deity.) He might as well just go the Einstein route and say that the laws of physics and history of the Universe are God, cutting out the anthropomorphic middleman.

The part I find weirdest, and somewhat humorous, is that after these labored analogies, Aeiutuz says that if we can’t determine if there is a God or not since his God comports with what physicists tell us, then the chance that there was a divine intelligence is “at least 50-50”.

Let’s leave the analogies aside: the real fallacy is this: “If we have two hypotheses and we can’t distinguish between them, then the chance of each being true is roughly 50%. Is there a name for this fallacy?

In fact, the chance that there’s an intelligence seems less than 50% since we’ve never seen any evidence for it, yet we have plenty of evidence that naturalistic physics, which ignores an idea of a Big Intelligence, still leads us to the truth about the Universe. You could obtain the same probability for any imaginary being, like leprechauns (after all, who makes the rainbows?)

Come to think of it, I think I saw this fallacy highlighted by my late Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin in a form like “If you have two explanations for something, that implies that the truth lies somewhere near the middle.” For lack of a formal name, I’ll call this The Centrist Fallacy.

There’s another fallacy here as well: “If we don’t understand a physical phenomenon, then God is one explanation worth considering.” The problem is that that hypothesis has been used for centuries, explaining things like the “design” of organisms, lightning, the Black Death, and so on, and one by one these unexplained phenomena got explained—not by invoking a god but by using the tools of science. You’d think that people would have become wary about equating “unexplained scientific question” with the assertion “God exists.”

But now my craw is full of these people and their weird arguments for God. I will stop and move on.


Tish Warren preaches about sin in the NYT

March 7, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I’m not sure why the NYT hired Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren to write a weekly column about her Christian beliefs in the Paper of Record, but it’s annoying. You don’t see a weekly column about humanism, or even a weekly personal musing about science, which at least has the benefit of being true. What’s clear is that the paper has some reason for this palaver: probably to cater to the spiritual feelings of its liberal readers.

But what’s also clear is that Warren is very careful to stay away from tendentious preaching and any form of Biblical literalism, though she does believe in Jesus and, I believe, the Resurrection. The Times readers like their religion to be more on the personal and spiritual side, especially with a patina of sophistication. 

As a result, Warren, despite her inability to produce stirring or even well-above-average prose, has been called by Religion News “a rising star in Christian spiritual writing” for her “willingness to merge personal vulnerability with deep theological reflection”. Well, yes, the personal vulnerability is on tap, as it is in this week’s column about sin (see below), but the theological reflection isn’t deep. It’s superficial. I would much rather read about someone’s personal reactions to specific events than to the fairy tales that constitute Christianity. But somehow superficial thought and mediocre writing can be excused if it’s about religion.

Click on the screenshot to read.

I can summarize Harrison’s thesis in two sentences (my words)

None of us is perfect; we all screw up, make messes in our lives, and hurt other people.  But the good news this Lenten season is that we can, just by recognizing our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, we can be released by God from self-flagellation.

She does throw in the “personal” vulnerability to show how she too is a sinner (all indentations below save one are Warren’s prose):

In college, through a string of failed relationships and theological questioning, I came to understand sin as something more fundamental than rule breaking, more subtle and “under the hood” of my consciousness. It was the ways I would casually manipulate people to get my way. It was a hidden but obnoxious need for approval. It was that part of me that could not rejoice in a friend’s big award or accomplishment, even as some other part told her, “Congratulations!”

This could be said of most of us, so there’s no real insight into human psychology here. Where the religion comes in is her theological doctrine that we are all BORN as sinners (my emphasis):

This is the first Sunday of Lent, a season in preparation for Easter when Christians often focus on sin and repentance. One of the things that’s most difficult to swallow about Christianity is the idea that normal, nice people are sinners, that we are born sinful and can’t elude being a sinner by being moral or religious enough.

This is palpable nonsense. We may be born and doomed, as humans, to do bad things when we grow up,  but we are certainly not “born sinful”.  What does she mean by that? An infant is not born sinful in any meaningful sense except the Christian one: we’re supposedly born afflicted with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.

Far, far better to reject that nonsense and just say that, as social beings evolved from small groups of primates, we sometimes act badly, usually out of inborn selfishness (perhaps the real “original sin”); and sometimes, in our modern and larger pack of primates, our selfish desires conflict with our need to keep good relations with our fellows. But if you said that it wouldn’t be religious. It would be humanistic.

The other aspect of Harrison’s column is the “forgiveness” part, and why it’s good to know that we’re “born sinful”:

The Eastern Orthodox practice of praying the Jesus Prayer has become important to me over the past few years. This prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is usually prayed repetitively and meditatively, again and again.

Notice that here she explicitly is asking for forgiveness from God. It goes on:

In praying it over and over, I noticed how strange and transformative it is to repeatedly identify myself as a sinner. I am not identified primarily as a mother, a writer, a woman or a priest. I am not primarily a Democrat or a Republican or a Christian. I am also not primarily an upstanding citizen or right or reasonable or talented or “on the right side of history.” Instead, again and again, in these received words, I call myself a sinner.

This recognizes that I will get much wrong. That as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful. As a mother, I will harm my children — the people I love and want to do right by most in the world. And it tells me that I will harm them in real ways, not just dismissible “well, shucks, we all make mistakes” kind of ways. As a priest, I will lead people astray. I will not live up to what I proclaim. I will fail. I will hurt people, not just in theory or abstraction. I will cause true harm.

Again, this is Harrison’s personal way to deal with her “sin”, but a humanist might say (you don’t have to say it over and over again) “Yes, I’m human: I screwed up and will screw up again. But I will try harder not to screw up and to be nicer to people.”  That is not sophisticated humanism, but neither is Harrison’s pabulum Sophisticated Theology®. It’s her own personal mantra, and, to my mind, not a particularly useful one.

Finally, there’s the “forgiveness” bit. What’s clever about Harrison’s treatment here is that she must surely believe, as a priest, and as one who believes in original sin, that the Forgiver is God. But she seems to imply that it’s her congregation that forgives her. If the former, then she’s spreading Christian fairy tales; if the latter, well, it’s other humans that must forgive you—if you’re to be forgiven. And that is humanism.


But we’re not left to stew in guilt or shame. We aren’t just sinners; we are sinners who can ask for mercy and believe that we can receive it. Living in this posture is what makes forgiveness possible, which is the only thing that makes lasting peace possible.

Without a clear sense of right and wrong, we will end up endorsing injustice, cruelty and evil. But without an equally profound vision of grace, we will end up only with condemnation and an endless self-righteous war of “us versus them.”

After I kneel with my church each week, confessing that I have blown it, I am invited to stand and receive absolution and forgiveness. I’m then invited to “pass the peace” to those around me and extend to them the same mercy and forgiveness that I’ve received.

The Encyclopedia Brittanica (I can’t access the OED in Antarctica) uses this definition of “grace” in the religious sense:

grace, in Christian theology, the spontaneous, unmerited gift of the divine favour in the salvation of sinners, and the divine influence operating in individuals for their regeneration and sanctification.

If this is what Warren means by “a profound vision of grace”—and I’m pretty sure that’s what she does mean—then she’s saying here that true loss of our “sin”, our bad behavior, comes only from God’s forgiveness, not from human forgiveness. And note as well that Harrison has transitioned from the personal to the general here: she’s making a pronouncement that without a religious sense of “grace”, there is no conciliation for any of us with our fellow humans.

That, too, is wrong. One doesn’t have to believe in God to believe that there are ways to eliminate the division between humans. One way, of course, is through humanism itself: the notion that we are all brothers and sisters and must depend only on ourselves to right the wrongs of humanity. Warren’s “sermon” could be couched equally well—indeed, better—in humanistic terms.

What Warren has done is slyly slip her own Christian beliefs into a rather anodyne sermon about doing wrong and making up for it. And I still ask you, dear reader, why you think the NYT continues to publish these unenlightening religious musings. I really have no idea.

But she did get one thing right, noting above that “as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful.”  In this column she does both.

Tish Harrison Warren. Courtesy photo (from Religion News)

Finally, Warren wants to hear how you’re praying for Ukraine! Below the article you can see this:

Like many of you, I have been praying for peace in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people. As we feel dismayed and often powerless as individuals to respond to the horror of war, it can be hard to know how to pray. Please share your prayers or with us at HarrisonWarren-newsletter@nytimes.com or through the form below. We may mention some of your thoughts in next week’s newsletter.

Praying sure as hell is not going to help Ukraine. They need tangible human assistance, not pleading to a god. I wasn’t even tempted to fill in the boxes.