A reader tells us why God allows suffering

May 20, 2022 • 7:30 am

I love the amateurs who engage in theodicy, though, to be sure, they don’t give palpably worse explanations for earthly suffering than do the Sophisticated Theologians®

Reader “Travis”, a true believer, attempted to put this comment on my May 4 post, “Why should nonbelievers pray and go to church?

The “solution” to the “problem of evil” (at least in the sense of unjust suffering), by my thinking, is this:At the end of the proverbial day all suffering will either be the just punishment  of those who reject God or will be suffering which those who love God will be grateful to have suffered for the accomplishment of God’s good purposes.

Note several things, not least the assurance with which Travis claims to understand God’s plan.  Also, this explanation fails to explain important aspects of suffering, like why infants who die of cancer or other afflictions—before they even know about God and therefore can’t love him—nevertheless suffer.  Further, who would be grateful for earthly suffering, unless that suffering is somehow a prerequisite to being with God?

And what about the suffering of people who accept God, like (honorable) priests, rabbis, and imams? They certainly don’t reject God!

The fact remains, and nobody can explain it, is that there is a huge amount of gratuitous suffering on this planet that God could have prevented had he chosen to, and the explanation above says nothing about suffering as the price of having “free will.” (That explanation, as readers have noted, makes little sense, and at any rate doesn’t explain physical evil: stuff not resulting from human action but from diseases, microbes, or catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis.)

Reply to Travis (politely), if you wish, and I’ll inform him/her of the thread.

 

Does science need religion because only faith gives us “meaning and purpose”?

January 31, 2022 • 10:30 am

You already know the answer. But let me blather a bit.

I don’t read Patheos much, but an alert reader told me about an article at it’s sub-site Public Theology—a name that would normally make me click away immediately. I’ve read enough theology in my life that my craw is full of it, and I can consume no more.  But of course all of us want to see how our names are used.

It turns out that the article from last fall below (sent to me because it mentions me) is simply a rehash of old ideas, particularly those of Steve Gould.

First, the author’s bona fides:

Ted Peters is a pastor, professor, and author of both fiction and nonfiction. He is emeritus professor of systematic theology and ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. His fictional thrillers feature an inner-city pastor, Leona Foxx, who courageously challenges the structures of political domination that are buttressed by the latest in science and technology.

Click on the screenshot to read this. TRIGGER WARNING: Theology!

For the entire piece Pastor Peters  (also identified as a professor at the Graduate Theological Union) simply lays out the same mantra over and over again (the points below are my own characterization):

1.) Science and religion are compatible.
2.) In fact, they are inseparable if one wants to lead a complete life.
3.) This is because science can give us the answers to factual questions about the cosmos: the “how” questions”
4.) But only religion can give us the answers to the “why” questions, telling us the purpose and meaning of life, how to be moral, and where the laws of physics come from.

Only line 3 is true, and I’ve written about this so much (especially in Faith Versus Fact) that I don’t feel the need to dilate on the other topics. That book dispels assertions 1, 2, and 4, but I want to concentrate a bit on claim 4: that religion is the only way to answer questions about life that science can’t address.

If you read Steve Gould’s accommodationist book Rocks of Ages, which I reviewed very critically in the Times Literary Supplement (inquire for a copy, as it’s no longer online), you’ll recognize the so-called harmony of science and faith summarized by the “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) trope. In my review, I described Gould’s solution of how science and faith could find harmony:

This principle leaves both religion and science with important but distinct tasks: Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.

Gould grants these “magisteria” equal status and asserts that we must accept the values of both. He calls for intense dialogue between religion and science, not to unite them, but to encourage greater harmony and mutual understanding.

Here are some quotes from Peters that underlines this erroneous thesis. First, accommodationist Denis Alexander’s restatement of NOMA:

Is there room for science in Christianity? Yes, according to biochemist Denis Alexander, founder of the Faraday Institute at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. “The scientific and religious accounts of reality provide us with two complementary narratives. Both narratives are important, and are impoverished if one is considered without the other….Conflicts occur when there are boundary disputes between the two domains of knowledge” (Golshani 2021, 25). As long as science and religion remain within their boundaries, then they may enjoy peaceful coexistence.

Religion is not a domain of knowledge, of course. It’s an irrational stew of superstition, with some morality that’s been gleaned from secular ideas.

Let’s pass on to another theologian (my emphases).

This split between fact and meaning gets reiterated by renowned cosmologist George F. R. Ellis. Since 1990, Ellis has served as Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “Science cannot deal with values and issues of meaning that are the concern of religion….The themes [science] can deal with are measurable quantities such as mass, velocity, distance, force. It cannot cope with purpose” (Golshani 2021, 134). Science cannot cope with purpose, Ellis emphasizes. Purpose is the contribution of religion to the larger society.

Like many acccomodationists, Peters likes to quote religious scientists to buttress his thesis.  But, like Gould, they don’t think very hard about the incompatiblities of science and religion, and, in an effort to be conciliatory, always distort what religion can really accomplish, which is mainly to herd the sheep and fill its own coffers.

Take the last bolded sentence above. “Purpose is the contribution of religion to the larger society.” That’s bullpucky. Yes, some people find “purpose” in religion, but they also find it without religionIn a very popular post here in 2018, our many atheist readers here were perfectly able to describe and discern what they construe as “the meaning of purpose of life”, which generally boils down to “doing what gives one satisfaction.” You don’t need religion for that, and, in fact, religious “purpose” always turns out to be something like “we should serve God or Allah” (a waste of time), or “we should be good” (something you can derive from secular ethics and philosophy).

What people like Peters and Gould always forget is that religion is one source of meaning and purpose but:

a. It is not the SOLE source of meaning and purpose in life; humanism is another (and a better one).

b. People in countries that are nearly completely atheistic, like Iceland or Denmark, do not seem to be stricken with ennui because they don’t have religion to give them meaning and purpose. They get what they need from secular sources.  I’d rather hang out with a bunch of Danes than with a bunch of American theologians any day.

c. Most important, religion doesn’t answer “why” questions in any agreed-upon way. Yes, an individual can find “purpose” in slavish worship of Allah, but that’s a personal answer, not a general answer. In fact, all answers to the question are subjective and personal, and usually don’t come from religion though they may be buttressed by religion. What it boils down to is this: “the answers religion provide to questions of meaning and purpose all involve God’s will.”  And there’s no evidence for what God’s wills, much less for God itself.

But wait! There’s more!

How should the public theologian think about this? If science sticks to the facts and religion to the meaning of the facts, the two together could enrich civilization. Right?

Yes, says Skeptic Kendrick Frazier. “Science is concerned with understanding the natural world, religion with humanity’s moral, ethical , and spiritual needs….If science and religion kept to these separate domains, there would be no conflict” (Frazer 1999, 22). Science gives us data, and religion gives us the meaning of the data. That’s a recipe for peaceful cooperation. Right?

Okay, so give me one example of “the meaning of the data collected by science” that all religionists agree on. The observation that animals and plants exist and are adapted to their environment? Fuggedaboutit: many Christians and Muslims say that the “meaning” is the working of a divine God. Other believers adhere to the naturalistic view of scientists. And that’s only the simplest example. The answer to that one comes solely from science.

Here’s another question that religions are supposed to answer for us: why is there physical evil in the world? Why do children die of cancer and thousands of innocent people get wiped out by earthquakes, tsunamis, and other physical event?  Try to get believers to tell us what that means? You won’t find an answer in faith—but a lot of gobbledygook and foot-shuffling. In fact, science does answer these questions, which are based on seismic movements and the slipping of tectonic plates, as well as mutations and viruses. So why, then, does god make things happen. As the Beach Boys answered, “God only knows”.

At least Peters sees that I regard this as a false reconciliation:

No, exclaims University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. Dr. Coyne declares war. After the war, only one can reign victorious. The victor must be science.

“Religion and science are engaged in a kind of war, a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true….I see this as only one battle in a wider war–a war between rationality and superstition. Religion is but a single brand of superstition (others include beliefs in astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing), but it is the most widespread and harmful form of superstition” (Coyne 2015, xii).

By declaring war, Dr. Coyne restricts himself to a worldview that is objective only. It is devoid of meaning or purpose. Now if Coyne were to ask his science to provide meaning or purpose, then he would be practicing theology without a license.

How the hell does Peters know my worldview? Has he read anything I’ve written about it? Of course religion doesn’t give me what “meaning or purpose” I have. These are personal constructs that most of us explain post facto as simply the distillation of what gives us satisfaction or pleasure. (“My purpose is to love and take care of my family.” Or, I find meaning in life by feeding ducks.”) I have a worldview, but it doesn’t come from religion. If you read this website regularly, you’ll learn big bits of that worldview, but I’m not going to explain it here.

Oh, the hubris of these sophisticated but humble theologians who have the temerity to tell us, in the face of millennia of secular philosophy and humanism, that we need religion to find “meaning and purpose”!  Isn’t it theologians who keep telling us that we need to be “more humble”?

Peters then drags Muslims and even atheists into the fray to support his argument:

Culture needs two wings to fly. Science provides one wing, and religion the other. At least according to Maryam Shamsaei and Mohn Hazim Shah. “Humanity needs to understand that science without religion is not moral and they are like two wings which required to function together to let a bird (human salvation) fly” (Shamsaei 2017, 883).

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. So how are northern Europe and Scandinavia able to fly? They’re missing a wing!  And do they lack culture? Not that I’ve seen.

But wait! There’s more:

So we ask: is there room in Islam for science? Is there room in science for Islam? Yes, indeed. At least according to the majority of Muslim contributors to the 5th edition of Golshani’s edited book, Can Science Dispense with Religion?

According to Majeda Omar at the University of Jordan, for example, “Science and religion are complementary concepts, not contradictory….science contributes to obtaining authentic knowledge of the physical world and its workings, and religion helps us in capturing the inner depths of reality, while providing perspective on the purpose and meaning of life” (Golshani 2021, 379). (Photo: Majeda Omar)

Once again, loose and flabby terms are used. What, exactly, are the “inner depths of reality”? If Omar means “God,” well then of course you need religion to find them? But he should define his terms. Maybe the inner depths of reality really mean what goes on at the particle level, in which case physics is answering that.

And—do I have to keep saying this forever?—philosophy provides a much better perspective on the purpose and meaning of life than does religion. For philosophy is a discipline of argumentation and rationality, while religion is a discipline of worship. obeisance, and irrationality. Only religion could produce the dictum that women should cover their bodies and homosexuals should be thrown off roofs.

Even poor Einstein gets dragooned into the war:

Let me offer a clarification. It’s quite clear that practicing scientists want to eliminate from their methods any appeal to supranatural causes, design, meaning, or purpose. This is OK, because religion provides those things to society. Might society benefit from both? Yes, indeed, according the legendary physicist Albert Einstein. “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind” (Einstein 1950, 26).

Does Peters not realize that Einstein’s “religion” was merely a sense of wonder about the world that gives us curiosity to move forward. Einstein was pretty much an atheist–or rather a pantheist who saw the cosmos as a god, but not a personal God. And even if Albert were an an orthodox Jew, just because he was a good physicist doesn’t mean we should bow down before his arguments about theology.

One more point. People like Peters are always calling for a dialogue between science and religion. The assumption is that each discipline can contribute to furthering the other. This is, of course, hogwash. Science can contribute to theology by testing (and always disproving) its assertions. On the other side, religion has nothing to contribute to science, for science is a discipline that does not need the numinous or divine. If there is to be a meeting of these disciplines, it will be not a constructive dialogue but a destructive monologue, in which science tells believers that they’re either wrong or have no evidence for their claims.

Finally, as if he hasn’t said this a gazillion times already, Peters bangs on about how science can’t give us a “worldview”:

Here is my tentative observation. Both Muslims and Christians recognize that the materialist assumptions of scientific research–which preclude at the outset any reference to divine causation let alone meaning or purpose–can only mislead us on the nature of ultimate reality. Muslims are less willing than Christians, by and large, to accept living with two incompatible worldviews, one scientific and the other religious. Despite this modest difference in emphasis, both Muslim and Christian theologians feel the deep impetus to formulate a single worldview that incorporates all that science can tell us about the natural world into a single comprehensive scheme in which everything in reality is understood in relationship to God.

Well, pastor Peters, first convince me that there is a god and then we’ll talk. By the way, you have to specify which god you’re talking about and the nature and characteristics of said god.

. . . Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy teams up with cosmologist George Ellis to make one point very clear:  any worldview constructed on the basis of science alone would be woefully inadequate. “The fundamental major metaphysical issues that purely scientific cosmology by itself cannot tackle–the problem of existence (what is the ultimate origin of physical reality?) and the origin and determination of the specific nature of physical laws–for these all lie outside the domain of scientific investigation” (Murphy 1996, 61).

In the face of science, Murphy and Ellis lay on the theologian’s shoulders “the reconstruction of a unified worldview” (Murphy 1996, 1) that includes “genuine knowledge of a transcendent reality” (Murphy 1996, 7).

What makes pastor Peters and Dr. Murphy think that religion can give us answers about the origin and nature of physical laws and of reality? Science in fact is giving us answers about some of these things, but religion is silent, or rather full of hot air. I would love to hear Murphy’s answer to the question, “why is the speed of light in a vacuum 299,792,458 meters per second?” Is she going to respond, “Because God decreed it”? For, after all, that’s all these theologians can say, and it’s a non-answer. (My riposte would be, “and how do you know that?”) Scientists may, as Sean Carroll has emphasized, never be able to answer such questions, and may have to wind up saying, “Well, the constants are what they for reasons we don’t understand.”

And that’s fine. At least scientists have the decency to admit when they don’t know something. Theologians like Peters and Murphy don’t: they always make up stuff, including dictates by an imaginary god.

I swear, when I read stuff like this I wonder how smart people can produce such gibberish. Do they really believe this “reconciliation”? Don’t they know that secular philosophers have been grappling with questions of meaning and purpose since the ancient Greeks?

I suppose the one thing that bothers me most about religion is that it’s an enormous waste of time, employing otherwise useful brains to analyze a gigantic fairy tale. And people pay them to do this! Every time you put a fiver in the collection plate, or donate to a religious charity, or pay the salaries of these people, it’s a complete waste of money. We already have therapists for those who need counseling. The rest is fiction.

 

Blogger: Ken Ham and I are like “two peas in a pod”

December 24, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Well, I’ll be: of all the characters whom I’m compared to, the young-earth creationist Ken Ham is the one I find the most unlikely.  But Joel Edmund Anderson, who presents himself as a Sophisticated Theologian®, sees profound similarities between Ham and me. Well, yes, we both have two arms, two legs, and presumably a Y chromosome.  Yet Anderson sees another similarity—and there is one, though Anderson characterizes it wrongly.  First, a bit about Anderson from his Linked In site.

Although I current am a high school teacher, I hope to eventually teach Biblical Studies at the college level. In addition to my masters degree from Regent College, I also have an MA in Old Testament from Trinity Western University, as well as a PhD in Old Testament from the University of Pretoria. I would also like to get more articles and books published.

According to Anderson’s blog, Resurrecting Orthodoxy, Ham and I are in fact like “two peas in a pod.” Click on the screenshot to see the 2018 post that someone called to my attention. But the arguments that Anderson makes are still around in 2021; I’ll talk about a more recent version of this argument against the “war between science and religion” next week.  The narrative that there’s no incompatibility between science and religion, and that they’re not in opposition to one another, continues.  In Faith Versus Fact I describe what I mean by “the war between science and religion”, and apparently Anderson either didn’t read that book, did read it and didn’t understand it, or read it and understood it but deliberately mischaracterizes my views.

Ham, “creator” of the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum in Kentucky, was on a roll three years ago tweeting about me. I don’t have the tweets but Anderson repeats them:

. . . . for the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on a recent article Coyne wrote, entitled, “Yes, There is a War Between Science and Religion.” It came to my attention because Ken Ham tweeted about it three different times the other day. Ham’s tweets were as follows:

    • “Jerry Coyne (emeritus professor) is an atheist, & so such an article as this is totally expected from one who is against God & totally committed to his religion of atheism. Interestingly he sees Christians who compromise as inconsistent–which they are”
    • “There’s no war between observational science & creation, such science confirms Genesis account. But there’s a spiritual war between Christianity & blind faith religion of atheism & the belief in evolution which is contradicted by observational science”
    • “This scientist arbitrarily defines religion as involving the supernatural, declares atheism is not religion, arbitrarily declares evolution science & fact, so he can then falsely declare creation is at war with science! It’s how secularists work”

So Anderson’s point is that Ham and I are alike because we see a war between science and religion. In Ham’s case, the war is between evolution and creationism, and he sees creationism as “science” because it’s “observational science”, and views evolution as a religion, because it’s based on faith and the “religion” of atheism. In other words, Ham sees a war between the Bible and atheistic modern science.

My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.

Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.

End of my views.  Now here’s what Anderson has to say:

Like Coyne, Ken Ham also sees the creation/evolution debate as being a war. Ham doesn’t see it as a war between science and religion, though. Ham simply throws in his made-up distinction between “observational science” and “historical science,” claims “observational science” confirms the creation account in Genesis, and then equates the scientific theory of evolution with “blind faith religion of atheism,” and claims the “war” isn’t between science and religion, but rather atheism and Christianity.  But make no mistake, both Ham and Coyne agree: evolution is atheism, and evolutionary science is at war with the Christian faith.

No, evolution is a science, atheism a disbelief based on the absence of evidence. Science is atheistic in practice, for we do not use gods or the concept of miracles in our research. We don’t rule them out a priori—we’ve just found that dragging gods into science doesn’t help us understand anything.  Evolutionary science is at war only with those Christians who deny evolution (or other scientific findings) and accept either an ex nihilo creation or the intervention of God in evolution.

Anderson:

Now, sadly, it is true that many people have abandoned their faith because they think evolution has disproven the Bible. In that respect, both Coyne and Ham are correct. But let’s be clear, the reason why evolution has led to a loss of faith of many people is that people like Coyne and Ham are mischaracterizing what science is and what the Christian faith is. Ham is actually correct in one of his tweets: Coyne essentially is hijacking the scientific theory of evolution and smuggling in his atheism into—later in his article, he claims, “science is practiced as an atheistic discipline.” Yes, it is “atheistic” in the sense that is simply studies natural processes, but to call it an “atheistic discipline” as Coyne does is to falsely equate the scientific theory of evolution with the philosophical worldview of atheism.

To the point, when atheists like Coyne and YECists like Ham are telling people that if you accept evolution then you must reject belief in God and accept atheism, then a whole lot of them are going to reject their faith because they are being told they have to.     

I wish! Yes, I’ve met people who abandoned their faith because they were literalist Christians, and when they saw the evidence that the Genesis stories weren’t true, the whole edifice of their faith toppled. But I don’t tell people what to do. I either teach them evolution and let the results fall where they may, or I explain to them why I, Jerry Coyne, see science and religion as incompatible. People can ponder my arguments and make their own decisions. I don’t believe I’ve ever told anyone that they have to reject their faith if they accept evolution.

Just a bit more. Anderson touts himself as having a “correct” understanding of religion versus the “cartoonish” versions held by Ken Ham (and about 40% of Americans with him!)  When I say that evolution is incompatible with creationism, I mean just that: it’s incompatible with a literal reading of the Bible. Anderson, however, being a Sophisticated Theologian®, somehow knows that much of (but not all of) the Bible was written as metaphor.  Clearly Augustine, Aquinas, and many other church fathers didn’t understand Scripture properly either, for they always defended literalism—sometimes with a metaphorical veneer. Anderson:

And both Coyne and Ham lump the creation account in Genesis 1 in as being the same kind of writing as found in the Gospels. They see no difference between the genre of Genesis 1 and the genre of the Gospels. This failure of basic reading competency views anyone who acknowledges the difference in genre as trying to pull a fast one. Call it accomodationism [sic] or compromise, both Coyne and Ham think you are deceptive and dishonest if you simply acknowledge that the Bible is not written in one monolithic genre. Both men might think that failure to read Genesis 1 a literal history automatically means you have to reject the account of Jesus’ resurrection, but competent readers of Scripture know better.

In other words, Anderson knows that Genesis was metaphorical, but the Resurrection really happened. But we have no more evidence for the latter than for the former: they’re both assertions in a book that’s almost wholly fictional. Anderson is a Picker and Chooser, presumably anointed by God to know that sometimes God was speaking metaphorically, and at other times literally; and Anderson can tell us which is which. Piffle!

I could go on for hours, but we have celebrating to do, albeit many are celebrating the birth of a fictional being. I want to proffer one more bit of Anderson and let you have the laughs:

  • (5) Coyne (like Ham) misinterprets Hebrews 11:1 (“the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”) as referring to believing things about the origins of the natural world without evidence.

Both men are horrible biblical exegetes, as seen in their understanding of Hebrews 11:1. Both view it as defining faith as nothing more than blind belief about the past creation of the natural world. On AiG’s website, one can find an article entitled “Blind Faith” that says this: “So faith, as commended in God’s Word, is being sure about something that wasn’t witnessed firsthand (including creation), or that cannot be seen now, or that is yet to be revealed. By this definition, all faith is blind! If we can see something, then faith is no longer operative.”

Well, not quite. To the point, the “substance (or assurance) of things hoped for” and “the evidence (or conviction) of things not seen” has nothing to do with looking back and believing things about the creation of the material universe. Rather, the faith of Hebrews 11:1 is forward-looking to the fulfillment of the saving work of Christ and the new creation. Faith is being certain that what had begun in Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit will be completed in the New Heaven and New Earth. The faith that Hebrews 11:1 is talking about is the faith that sees the evidence of the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit in part, and that looks forward to the fulfillment of Christ’s work in the future. It is being certain of the outcome because we have been given, and now witness, a foretaste of that future reality. Contrary to what AiG (and Coyne) belief, the Christian faith is not blind, and Hebrews 11:1 isn’t about “blindly believing” that Genesis 1 is telling us exactly how God actually created the world.

Yes, Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible”—but it is not a scientific statement. It is saying something fairly simple: God created the universe and there is more to reality than just the material world.

No unevidenced claims in those paragraphs!

Ummm. . . .if you look at Hebrews 11, it’s not something forward looking, and it says almost nothing about Jesus, even though it’s in the New Testament. In fact, most of it tells people how faith was used in the Old Testament. What Anderson is doing here is exegesis: interpreting the Bible, and in a way that suits his beliefs. I would assert that the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 is accurate.

I’ll pass over Anderson’s claim that “Coyne says that religion is science”, as it’s a lie. I say that religion makes truth claims, but they aren’t asserted after using the methods of science.

End of story: I’m off to rest and have some bubbly. Happy holidays, and send in your cats!

Ken Ham and his life-sized Ark

________________________________________________________________________

 

Here’s Hebrews 11:1-8 (King James Version) being backward looking; you can read the rest of the chapter here.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

For by it the elders obtained a good report.

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.

Weekend reading: three easy pieces

September 5, 2020 • 12:30 pm

I commend three items to your attention for weekend reading, assuming that you’re not gallivanting about this Labor Day weekend, mingling with crowds and spreading viruses. You can access each article by clicking on the screenshot of its title.

First up we have an attack on science, seen as “scientism”, from Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, who works at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. I’ve written a few times about Feser, most famously about his theological analysis of why animals can’t go to Heaven. (Yes, someone gets paid to think about that kind of stuff!) Feser was furious at my critique and issued a bunch of ad hominems, including the usual claim that I’m theologically unsophisticated and need to read more Feser—the usual riposte to an attack on Sophisticated Theology®. (Feser is a nasty piece of work, and lets no attack go unrebutted, usually with lots of nasty counterattacks that tout his own superior wisdom.)

That aside, he’s now written an attack on scientism in The American Mind, the organ of The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.  From reading it, you’d gather (well, I gathered) that Feser really knows very little about how science is actually done, adopting most of his criticisms from the rather erratic Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science.

Here’s one sign that Feser is scientifically unsophisticated (my way of a tu quoque response):

There is nevertheless a methodological tendency that scientists do have in common, which brings us to Feyerabend’s third point about method. In his view, scientists have a predilection for replacing the richness and complexity of actual, concrete empirical reality with abstract mathematical models. When some aspects of the world of ordinary experience prove difficult to fit into the models, they are tempted to deny the reality of these aspects rather than to acknowledge that the models are merely abstractions, and as such cannot capture all of reality in the first place. That a mathematical abstraction is technologically useful and captures part of physical reality does not entail that it captures the whole of it.

Never in my life did I make a mathematical model, though many scientists do. Darwin didn’t make a mathematical model, either about natural or sexual selection, and many scientists either make verbal models or simply describe phenomena and hypothesize about them or simply let them become part of our knowledge about nature. People like Feser don’t seem to realize that an important part of science is simply describing stuff.  Mathematics, while immensely useful in science, isn’t always necessary if you don’t need a mathematical model, though statistics is essential for reaching sound conclusions about quantitative data.

But you can read the piece for yourself; after all, that’s the point of this post. When I read it last week, I found myself saying over and over again, “Wait! That’s not a good description of science.” And if you don’t understand enough about science to describe it properly, and especially if you rely on Paul Feyerabend as your go-to expert, you’re going to produce an attack that will be embraced only by those who already despise science—like Feser. (Feser also seems to think that the pandemic is overblown.) It’s ironic that Feser, a Catholic, disparages science by saying it’s our “state religion.”  “See! You’re as bad as we are!”

Here’s Graeme Wood in The Atlantic going after Vicky Osterweil’s new book meant to justify looting as a positive social force.  It’s a humorous and well written piece, and it’s clear Wood doesn’t much like the book:

My view wasn’t that Osterweil’s interview with NPR shouldn’t have been published, but that the interviewer didn’t ask her any hard questions about her ridiculous thesis. NPR finally agreed, and walked the article back a bit.  Wood argues—and I agree—that we need to hear the best case possible for excusing looting, but also that NPR wasn’t critical enough. An excerpt:

Instead of writing off NPR or Code Switch, I prefer to think of them as coming very close to doing excellent journalism—and indeed I am jealous that I did not think of conducting this interview first. Since looting became widely reported in this season of protest over police violence, the reaction has split among those who do not support the protests or the looting, those who support the protests but denounce the looting, and those who support the protests and consider the looting a condign response to systemic injustice. Osterweil is enthusiastically in the last category and has given voice to a view that has heretofore been only gestured at. Good journalists find such voices and interrogate them roughly and fairly. The roughly part could, in the case of the NPR interview, have used a little work.

In a funny reversal of the normal polarities of “cancel culture,” conservatives might object to NPR’s decision to give Osterweil a platform at all, given that her defense of looting is a call to criminal behavior likely, even if not intended, to cause death and impoverishment. Should NPR also interview Nazis? Yes, actually—if the year is 1933, and most Americans don’t know what Nazis believe. Osterweil is not a Nazi (I have even sweeter compliments for her where that came from), but she has taken up a position that others espouse implicitly. A full exploration of that position is exactly what we need, and Code Switch found its best defender. If Osterweil’s defense is a bad one, she has now given other pro-looters a chance to reply to it and say why. If they do not, we can assume that they agree with Osterweil, and her argument is the pinnacle of looting apologia. A week ago, you could have said that looting might not be so bad, and I might have wondered what you meant by that. Now I will ask you if your reasons are the same as Osterweil’s, and I will make fun of you if you say yes. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch.

Finally, we have this provocatively titled article from Inside Higher Ed, and the answer to the title question is “yes.” Well, it’s a bit misleading—the title is apparently chosen to make the article look more au courant in the George Floyd era. Lecturing isn’t exactly racist, but it does, say the authors, discriminate against minorities, who learn better using other methods.

Before you dismiss the piece entirely, read it (it’s short). There are apparently data showing that some minorities don’t learn as well in lectures as they do under a method called “active learning”. I haven’t looked that method up, but, if the purpose of lectures is to help students learn, and if the authors’ studies really show that active learning is better for everyone than are lectures, then we need to rethink how we teach. Of course there’s considerable inertia here, as that’s the way we’ve always done stuff, and there’s a pleasurable frisson of showmanship involved in lecturing. Remember, though that the evidence seems to come largely from the authors’ own research:

An excerpt:

Chemistry classes at the university we studied, like most chemistry and indeed STEM courses in North America, are dominated by lectures. But in a study published just this March, we showed that on average and across many STEM courses and institutions, achievement gaps for URM and low-income students shrink dramatically when lectures are replaced by the innovative approaches to teaching collectively known as active learning.

Earlier work from our group shows that all students do better with active learning. The news in the new data was that underrepresented groups get an extra bump — a disproportionate benefit. Changes in difficulty don’t explain these patterns, either. The active-learning courses in our studies were just as rigorous as lectures; we only looked at comparisons where students were taking identical or equivalent exams in the lecture and active learning versions of the same course.

Using evidence-based approaches to shrink achievement gaps could have profound consequences for representation in STEM degrees, which are associated with many or most of the highest-paying careers in our economy. For example, one of the analyses in our chemistry study showed that if students from underrepresented groups got a C or below, they dropped out of the STEM track at much higher rates than their overrepresented peers with the same grade. But if women, URM or low-income students got a C-plus or better, they persisted at much higher rates. They hyperpersisted, even if their grades were only at the class median.

Closing achievement gaps with active learning, then, means that more underrepresented students pass critically important introductory courses, which means that more move into the hyperpersistent zone and stay in STEM majors, which means that more become doctors, dentists, technicians, computer scientists, engineers, research scientists, entrepreneurs and problem solvers.

But for a one-off, like a visiting talk or a short series of talks on board a ship, I still think lectures are the way to go.

Have a good weekend!

 

Rowan Williams, Lord Oystermouth and former Archbishop of Canterbury, faults Dawkins and New Atheists for damaging Christianity and not knowing theology

April 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Good God, here we go again! Rowan Williams, formerly a “sophisticated” Archbishop of Canterbury, now bearing the appropriate title of Lord Williams of Mealymouth Oystermouth, is still kvetching about Richard Dawkins and his supposed New Atheist posse, and on two grounds.

First, Dawkins (and we) damaged Christianity, and it needs to be repaired.

Second, New Atheists don’t know jack about theology.

As to the first, I say “GOOD FOR US! Christianity needs to be damaged, for it’s harmful and delusional, and enables the vice of belief without evidence—in other words, faith. As to the second claim, I’ve dealt with it many times before (it’s gone under the name of “the courtier’s reply“), and address it here only briefly.

Here’s the short article from The Tablet. Click to read, and shake your head about the lucubrations of poor Lord Oystermouth:

A few short excerpts:

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (Rowan) Williams of Oystermouth, has made a scathing attack on Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists”, while cautioning that their negative impact on religious faith could still take time to repair.

“Many people who aren’t religious believers regard writers like Richard Dawkins as extremely bigoted and authoritarian, and I think their writings are less popular now,” Dr Williams told Polish Radio in an interview.

“But secularisation has also meant a lot of ignorance, and there’s a suspicion towards religion, sometimes intensified by anxiety about militant Islam. It’s as if every form of religion is the same and the local parish priest would like to cut your head off or impose some alien law on you.”

The 69-year-old theologian and poet, who was 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, from 2002 to 2012, said he planned to engage in a new debate during 2021 with Professor Dawkins, whom he viewed as a “very good biologist and absolutely brilliant writer”, but also as a “very bad philosopher” with virtually no knowledge of theology.

He added that a “rash of books” a decade ago by Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling and other “New Atheists” had damaged Christianity, by fostering an assumption that “the consensus among intelligent people was anti-religious”. [JAC: This is getting truer and truer every day.]

. . . He said: “The bad aspect of secularisation is that people forget what religious doctrine really is, and become subject to distortions and charicatures. It’s as if people have a very trivial picture of what religion is and why it matters.

I have news for Lord Oystermouth: yes, New Atheists damaged Christianity by turning people away from that delusional faith (is “delusional faith” a tautology?).  But no, Christianity will not be repaired. All over the West, and especially in the UK, Christianity is waning rapidly—so rapidly that I needn’t look up links to document its disappearance.

Further, none of the New Atheists named above think that all religions are the same, or are identical to militant Islam. Has Oystermouth even read Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris? None of them say that all forms of religion are the same and, in fact, all say that different faiths are indeed different. In their writings they make distinctions between more harmful and less harmful faiths, but always emphasize that faith itself, as instantiated in nearly every “religion”, is not a virtue but a vice.

And bad philosophy? Who’s a worse philosopher? Who’s a bad boy? A guy who spends his life touting a deity for which he has no evidence, and bolstering the idea that it’s fine to believe without evidence, or a guy who simply points these things out? That’s not philosophy, but empiricism. For surely all theology, even Oystermouth’s “sophisticated”® brand, must begin with the proposition that there is a God of a certain sort. If you can’t even buttress that first assumption, the rest is commentary, and ridiculous commentary. As Dan Barker likes to say, “Theology is a subject without an object.”

Look: Here’s Oystermouth blathering on about the certainty that there is a deity, and, in fact, a deity of the Anglican persuasion (my emphasis):

Asked about the prospects for Christianity across Europe, the retired archbishop said he was “completely confident” the faith would survive.
“The Church exists because God wanted and wants it to exist, so we shouldn’t have any anxiety about its disappearance,” Dr Williams said. “Despite the New Atheists, people are not hostile to the Christian faith, nor do they regard Christianity as their enemy or as something completely ridiculous. They want to know and learn, and I think we have to be out there, arguing, persuading, doing what we can from a place of basic confidence.”

See? Some readers have defended the claim that bad things happen because “we don’t understand God’s ways” by saying, “Well, see, that’s just like what scientists do! What’s wrong with saying ‘We don’t understand?'” We had one of these commenters today.

But the difference between scientists and believers, my brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, is that scientists say they don’t understand in a uniform way, not pretending that we understand some stuff but not other stuff, when there’s no evidence for either. Yet Oystermouth blithely tells us that he knows not only that there’s a God, but that God wants the Anglican Church to exist, so it won’t go extinct. How does he know that about God?

I get peevish when I read stuff like this, so I can’t resist commenting on his eyebrows, which have always freaked me out, making me fear that he’d take off in a high wind. 

Photo credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

h/t: Enrico, Barry

The craziest Templeton grant yet: Evolution and “self-giving love”

January 6, 2020 • 10:00 am

Templeton continues to waste perfectly good money on theology, which is the study of the invisible and its self-justification by simply making up stuff that can’t be tested. A paradigmatic example of the genre is this award of $133,130 for studies of theodicy by Mats Wahlberg, a professor of “systematic theology” at Umea University in Sweden.

What really burns my onions about this is the palpable stupidity of the project and the obvious objections to its thesis—and, most important, its lame attempt to justify why evolution by natural selection involves suffering. But Wahlberg’s “justification”, a particularly odious and tortuous species of theodicy, appears to involve only human beings. Click on the screenshot to read about this travesty:

Evolution has long stymied theologians, as it aims directly at their Achilles heel: why would an omnipotent and all-loving God “create” in a way that involves tremendous amounts of suffering? After all, a good God could have created a world of herbivores and no parasites, and could have given each individual a fixed longevity and a painless death. Then the only thing that would suffer would be vegetation. And there wouldn’t need to be be earthquakes, either, nor asteroids. After all, why did God create the dinosaurs and then let them all die off, presumably with substantial suffering, after the big asteroid struck the Earth?

It was this suffering that famously drove Darwin to the idea that if there was indeed a God (and I think Darwin was at best a deist), it wasn’t a good God. Here’s a well known passage from a letter that Darwin wrote to Asa Gray on May 22, 1860, six months after The Origin had been published:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Here Darwin punts to the view that perhaps God designed the laws that govern the world, though he can’t understand why those laws result in so much suffering. (Remember that in the last paragraph of The Origin Darwin argues that natural selection is a kind of law similar to the law of gravity.) But it’s clear that Darwin doesn’t accept a beneficent god.

And Professor Wahlberg, with his two-year $133,130 Templeton grant, isn’t content with the “I have a dog’s mind” view of theodicy, and so is taking Templeton’s dosh to work on solutions to the problem. Or rather, it seems, he’s already solved the problem, and simply wants to work out the details (indented quotes are from the Templeton blurb).

His question:

 “If you look at it superficially, the laws of evolution might appear to be antithetical to the Christian worldview — they involve a lot of competition, survival of the fittest, suffering and extinction,” Wahlberg says. “So the question arises, why would a perfectly good God choose to create by such a process?”

The answer: 

In theological terms, a theodicy is any attempt to understand how a good God could justifiably allow evil or suffering to exist. For Wahlberg, evolution requires its own version of theodicy — one with potential insights into the origin and purpose of divine and human love.

“In order to have great love, you have to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the one you love, just as Christ suffered for humanity on the cross,” Wahlberg says. “Perhaps we cannot separate love and suffering — they go together.”

Wahlberg’s proposed evolutionary theodicy runs as follows: If God wants love to be realized in the world, he would have to create the world so that it provides the necessary conditions for love. If this entails the possibility of suffering, then we have a glimpse of why God would make such a world. Wahlberg describes this as love’s “shadow side,” a necessary condition for the greater good. “If this hypothesis is borne out,” he says, “then you have to ask whether this entails that the world itself must have such a shadow side.”

Wait a tick! First of all, this “suffering” appears to be limited to humans, and is the reverse side of being in love. But evolution, of course, is the source of all creatures. So if a deer loves its fawn, does that necessarily involve suffering? Well, maybe, if the fawn dies and its mother feels grief. But what about all the evil inflicted on animals that can’t suffer for love, like fruit flies, rotifers, earthworms, sea turtles, most fish, and, in fact, all creatures without parental care, the capacity to “love”, or both. Or did God create evolution so that only humans could suffer, and doesn’t care about the suffering of every other species?

And even if you accept that the gratuitous suffering is simply a byproduct of the real creature that needs to suffer—Homo sapiens—why did God create love that allows the “possibility” of suffering? After all, if he controls all, he could make all romantic breakups mutual, and all deaths less grief-promoting by proving to all (which he could do, but doesn’t) that the dead find eternal life with their friends and relatives?

But Wahlberg may well be speaking not of our love for other humans, but of our love for God. In that case, no suffering need exist at all, save for those, like penetentes, who make themselves suffer needlessly so they can mimic the fictional sufferings of Jesus. After all, if you love God then all should be well—and you even get an afterlife in Heaven. Why do you have to suffer? Jesus did that suffering for you!

This is delusion, pure and simple, and yet Templeton wants to pour enough money into this crazy project that could otherwise buy hungry and impoverished kids Plumpy’nut, an effective and cheap nutritional supplement. In fact, the size of this grant would provide 2219 hungry Third World children with a two months’ supply of Plumpy’nut ($60 for each kid’s supply). I like to think of these ridiculous grants in terms of Plumpy’nut Equivalents.

Finally, Walhlberg has the temerity to suggest that his hypothesis is testable, even though I’ve shown above that it’s already dead upon arrival because of what we know of biology.

In its present form, Wahlberg casts his version of evolutionary theodicy as a philosophical theory, defensible not through scientific experimentation (although it draws on recent biological insights) but through careful thought. “You have to formulate it in a very precise way, and then you have to test it by confronting it with the strongest possible objections and see if there are adequate responses,” he says.

But it’s absolutely clear that Wahlberg’s “testing” of his theodicy is not a real test, as he would never reject his idea (for one thing, the Templeton money would dry up). Instead, he simply tweaks his unfalsifiable views so they remain viable. Theological “tests” like this one are shameful:

One such objection concerns the nature of heaven: if suffering is necessary for some of love’s highest expressions, can there be a heaven suffused with love but free of suffering?

“You can see heaven as the goal of the process where you go from being a created being and learning how to love God and your neighbor,” Wahlberg says. “It might be that the process requires at least the possibility of suffering, even though the end state might be free from suffering.”

It might be. . . it might be. . . It might be. Such is the cry of the Red-Breasted Theologian. Or it might not be. Here Wahlberg is simply spinning his wheels. There’s no way his idea can be refuted. But that’s theology, Jake! At least it keeps the trough filled with dosh.

Meanwhile, children in Africa and India are starving, and they won’t get their Plumpy’nut because Wahlberg needs that money to perfect his apologetics.

 

h/t: Michael

IDers resurrect First Cause argument, claim that it’s convincing and that Dawkins and I are too stupid to understand it

September 28, 2019 • 12:00 pm

LOL! Michael Egnor, as we saw yesterday, is a Christian neurosurgeon, while David Klinghoffer is an Orthodox Jew. Both are goddy Intelligent Design (ID) advocates who write for Evolution News, a site that has largely abandoned providing “scientific” evidence for ID to launching attacks on its opponents. I am quite proud that both of these men seem obsessed with me (that means they worry about my influence), and also that they and their colleagues spend oodles of column inches on the site attacking my views on evolution, my philosophy, and, once, even my looks. I’m also pleased that they chose me as 2014’s Censor of the Year, an honor I’d love to win again.

Today Klinghoffer leans on Egnor (the bland leading the blind) to resurrect the First Cause Argument, claiming that Dawkins and I don’t understand it, and that presumably, if we did, we’d be convinced that God exists. Click on screenshot below, which goes to an archived link (I’m not giving these people page clicks):

Today I get extra plaudits from Klinghoffer because he thinks that both Dawkins and I, in our weak and unconvincing attempt to defend evolution, have actually driven people to Intelligent Design:

. . . . in the context of the evolution debate. . .  opponents of intelligent design theory very often refuse to grapple with ID itself, limiting themselves to denouncing a cartoon parody. Plenty of thoughtful people have been persuaded in favor of ID in part by the “weak, vague, and dubious” responses from supposedly top critics (like Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins). In still another context, a political one, I was turned off leftism as a youthful leftist, a college freshman, by meeting other campus leftists and listening to what they had to say and how they said it.

I know of no people who I’ve turned to ID, but I am absolutely sure that Dawkins, at least, has made many more converts to evolution than away from evolution (see evidence here, and note that there are 132 pages of testimony). I also suspect that my book Why Evolution is True has also made converts to accepting evolution: I’ve gotten a ton of emails to that effect, but never one from somebody who said: “Dr. Coyne, your criticisms of intelligent design are so lame that they’ve made me embrace that form of creationism.” Given that I get a fair amount of nasty and critical emails, surely I should have gotten at least one like that!

But I digress: Klinghoffer, unable to give a satisfactory answer to his son’s question, “Who made God?”, importuned Egnor to give him an answer to this recurring argument for theism. And here is Egnor’s reply to Klinghoffer, an extra-ridiculous version of the First Cause Argument (also known as the “Cosmological Argument”). Once again, to my pleasure I get lumped in with Dawkins:

My youngest daughter asked “Who made God?” one day when we were driving to 7-Eleven. She was 4.

There are two groups of people for whom the question is excusable: kids and ordinary folks who make no pretense to philosophical insight.

Coyne and Dawkins fall into neither category. They claim insight — arrogantly claim it, in fact. They are highly educated men who have at their disposal books and colleagues who can provide the answer to that question anytime. They proclaim their ignorant atheism to millions of people who (foolishly) take their word for it.

The answer to the question is simple. God is not “made.” He is not a “thing” in the collection of things we call nature. If He were a thing, He wouldn’t be God.

God is the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, the Necessary Existence. He is the necessary prerequisite for making, causing, and existing.

How so, one might ask? Succinctly, all change in nature consists of three steps: the existence of potentiality, the process of change, the final actuality. By the law of non-contradiction, a thing may not exist and not exist at the same moment in the same way. Applied to change, this means that a thing may not be potential and actual in the same respect at the same time. That is, a thing may not be the cause of its own change. Everything that is changed is changed by another.

If everything has potentiality (i.e., can be “made”), then the process of change — steps 1, 2, and 3 — could not get started, because if everything is potential, nothing is actual. If nothing is actual, nothing can change or be made or even exist.

To account for change or causation or even existence itself, there must be Someone Who is unchanged, uncaused, and Who necessarily exists. This is the cosmological argument, which is the framework for Aquinas’ first three ways.

This argument, and its consequences, fills books that fill libraries. There are millions of people — theologians, professors, interested laypeople — who can explain it in simple terms to Coyne and Attenborough. Heck, we’ve explained it in simple terms several times on Evolution News. Coyne and company have no excuse.

“Who caused God?” is, as I said, a fair question for a kid or a person who makes no claim to philosophical knowledge. It is culpable error of a very serious degree for people who have a public voice and who claim insight into such matters.

Remember that Egnor is a neurosurgeon, not a philosopher, so it’s bizarre for him to accuse Dawkins and me of lacking sufficient philosophical knowledge to apprehend this simple argument. In fact, I’ve read a ton about this argument and know all the refutations, some of which can be found here, here, and here. In fact, the argument is so threadbare that no philosophers—save religious ones—accept it as convincing. Physicist Sean Carroll has also smacked it down repeatedly (see here for one example), and Sean is not a dumb guy who’s ignorant of philosophy!

I don’t want to waste time repeating the rebuttals of others, but will just say two things. First, yes, something can be the cause of its own change: one example is an atom of radioactive element that decays into a different kind of atom. As far as we know, there are no external “causes” for this phenomenon.

Second, even if Egnor and his superstitious acolytes were right, and there had to be a “first cause” (something I deny is logically true), that doesn’t show that the “cause” was a god, much less the kind of God (or G*d, in Klinghoffer’s case), in which these men believe. As Hitchens used to say, “All their work is still ahead of them.” The rest of the arguments, including the claim that the universe had to have an external cause, or that there had to be a first cause or a beginning of everything, can be found in the links above.

Yes, of course people have Godsplained this argument to me, mostly in the many books and papers I’ve read about it. But I don’t accept that argument as even coming close to proving the existence of a divine being.

I will leave analysis of Egnor’s argument to readers of a philosophical bent.

Easter Special: Nicholas Kristof interviews a Christian who doesn’t accept the tenets of Christianity

April 21, 2019 • 9:15 am

For a long time, New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof has been interviewing religious people, struggling to somehow buttress his Christianity.  He’s written a number of columns in which he asks religionists and church leaders if he, Kristof, is really a Christian (see here, here, and here), for, like any sensible person, he has doubts about the miracles that underlie Christianity, and about concepts like the efficacy of prayer, heaven, and hell. He wants to be a Christian but is having problems. I think he’d be better off as a secular humanist (he holds a number of appealing liberal views), and that would also save us from the spate of tedious columns about religion flowing from his pen.

And indeed, the people Kristof interviews, like former President Jimmy Carter, usually disavow any literal belief in the foundational tenets of Christianity, like the Resurrection, but still consider themselves as Christians because somehow the whole fictional story resonates with them. But doesn’t there has to be some acceptance of Christian truths to call yourself a Christian rather than, say, a Muslim or Hindu? In this week’s column, Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, somehow manages to find her Christianity between the Scylla of the Resurrection and the Charybdis of the virgin birth, both of which she rejects.

Here’s what Jones doesn’t accept: the resurrection, the virgin birth, the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient god, heaven, hell (which has a “symbolic reality”, whatever that is). Here’s what she does accept: the crucifixion and the power of faith to tell her that there is a god and that that god is “vulnerable” (whatever that means).

Jones appears to reject things like the Resurrection because there’s no evidence for it, or it doesn’t make sense, but yet accepts other tenets of Christianity because her “faith” tells her what’s true. In the end, she calls for a reformation of Christianity—i.e., the religious underpinnings of Christianity—to effect social justice. (You can read the article to see that bit.)

Here’s where she accept the crucifixion (for which there’s no extra-Biblical evidence) but rejects the resurrection.

KRISTOF Happy Easter, Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection? I have problems with that.

JONES When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.

For me it’s impossible to tell the story of Easter without also telling the story of the cross. The crucifixion is a first-century lynching. It couldn’t be more pertinent to our world today.

What is it, Dr. Jones? Did the crucifixion really occur, but not the resurrection? If so, how do you know? And if you claim to know that the crucifixion took place, and the person nailed up was anything more than a non-divine apocalyptic Jewish preacher, are you kidding yourself, too? What, truly, was the nature of Jesus? And what is Easter about Is it all just a story? If so, why do you follow that story and run a big Christian seminary?

Sometimes I think that this mushy, cherry-picking theology is worse than Biblical literalism, because it’s infuriating the way that people like Jones twist and turn their words to buttress truth claims that don’t seem to be true. For example:

KRISTOF But without a physical resurrection, isn’t there a risk that we are left with just the crucifixion?

JONES Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs. The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts. For me, the cross is an enactment of our human hatred. But what happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?

Yes, that story is nuts, and I wonder if Jones tells her faculty and her flock (she’s a minister, too) that this foundational story of Christianity is “nuts” as well.  But then if somebody just got nailed up and was not resurrected, what is the vaunted “triumph of love”? The execution of a preacher isn’t a triumph of love, but hate. And if that’s the case, then what does she mean by saying “what happens on Easter”? Does she mean the celebration of a Resurrection that didn’t happen?

And since Jones doesn’t believe in the afterlife, what “hope” is she looking for? The improvement of humanity? If that’s the case, then secular humanism, particularly as discussed in Steve Pinker’s latest two books, gives us even more reason for hope: the historical progress of humanity that has depended not on religious superstition, but on humanism, science, and secular morality, traits that seem to be spreading.

Here’s where Jones avers that she knows the nature of God, though she doesn’t tell us how she knows, nor how she knows that there even is a God:

KRISTOF: You alluded to child abuse. So how do we reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient God with evil and suffering?

JONES At the heart of faith is mystery. God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object. But I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology. That’s not the God of Easter. The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.

If God is beyond our knowing, then how does she know that God is vulnerable and “connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy”? Truly, if God really is beyond our knowing, then how does Jones know there is a God at all?

In this bit below, Jones says that her faith is stronger than truth, because she’d maintain it (and has maintained it) even if its truth claims were found to be false (my emphasis):

KRISTOF Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.

JONES For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.

Here is deepity piled upon deepity. What does it mean to say that love is stronger than life or death? I have no idea. Note the last two sentences where Jones tacitly admits that faith is belief that is independent of the evidence. And this prompts my question to Dr. Jones: “What, then, would convince you that Christianity was a lie?”

Truly, this modernist theology sickens me, for while it pretends to rest on empirical evidence, it rests on it only so far, and beyond that things are believed for which there is no evidence—indeed, counterevidence if you accept Victor Stenger’s claim that “absence of evidence is evidence for absence, if there should have been evidence.”

I’m getting ill trying to dissect this piece, so I’ll proffer just one more specimen of Sophisticated Theology®:

KRISTOF What happens when we die?

JONES don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife. People who behave well in this life only to achieve an afterlife, that’s a faith driven by a selfish motive: “I’m going to be good so God would reward me with a stick of candy called heaven?” For me, living a life of love is driven by the simple fact that love is true. And I’m absolutely certain that when we die, there is not a group of designated bad people sent to burn in hell. That does not exist. But hell has a symbolic reality: When we reject love, we create hell, and hell is what we see around us in this world today in so many forms.

I’m not sure what she means by saying that “Love is true”, which seems to be another deepity. If love is true because it’s there and powerful, then so is hate. But besides that, note that Dr. Jones is “absolutely certain” that there is not a hell. How does she know? Well, maybe hell is just a “symbolic reality,” but you don’t need the symbol of hell to realize that treating people badly makes for a bad society. To call suffering “hell” in the Christian sense is to play with words and mislead people. In this sense—and in fact in every aspect of the watery Christianity that Jones espouses—her faith is unnecessary. In the end, it’s merely secular humanism tricked out with religious symbols to sell it to the Little People.

Happy Easter!

Serene Jones, professed Christian

Dan Dennett debates two believers who refuse to say what they believe

February 6, 2019 • 11:15 am

I went to this presentation last night, which involved a one-hour moderated discussion followed by a half hour of questions:

The topic, as given at this site was this:  a “conversation that will take the long view on religion as a human enterprise: its history, its power, and its prospects. We hope to bring believers, critics, and everyone in between into a productive—and provocative—dialogue about the place of faith in our changing world.”

That didn’t really happen, but it was an interesting discussion. Read on, though my comments are long.

The discussants included Reza Aslan and Dan Dennett, and you should know who they are, as well as William Schweiker, the Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. Schweiker is also an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church. (Aslan is a Muslim.) The moderator was David Nirenberg, Interim Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School as well as a Distinguished Service Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought.

Two of the three discussants were believers, Dennett is an atheist, and I’m not sure where Nirenberg falls, but he’s surely sympathetic to religion. In terms of faith, then, it was two against one, or maybe three against one, though Nirenberg did a good job and didn’t dominate the conversation or express his personal opinions.

Here’s the panel (shots are blurry as I used no flash and the shutter speed was 1/8 second):

Left to right: Schweiker, Dennett, Nirenberg, and Aslan

 

I’ll identify the topics in bold, and will summarize what the discussants said. I won’t be able to resist giving my own commentary as I write.  At the end, I’ll recount the question I asked Schweiker and Aslan and give my overall take.

Nirenberg: What is the place of a “soul” in your scholarly work?  Aslan said that he started off his career trying to separate his personal beliefs from his “scholarly” work, but finds it increasingly untenable to do so. Now, he avers, his religious beliefs are starting to infuse his work. (Sadly, he refused to say what he believed throughout the discussion.)

Schweiker, who also refrained saying anything about his own beliefs, declared that he brings religion into his discussions of ethics because religion raises the “Big Questions” about ethics, and why cut yourself off from an endeavor (religion) that has held sway for thousands of years? He also said that for historical accuracy, one must consider religion when discussing ethics, because there would be NO ethics without religion, including the ethics of Aristotle, Plato, and Kant. In other words, he claimed that religion gave rise to ethics. I doubt that. My own view is that secular ethics inform religion, which then, though its tenets, modifies ethics.

Dennett, the pure naturalist, said that souls are simply “made up of tiny robots” that are material but give us moral consciousness, something no other animal has. Throughout the evening, Dan relied heavily on meme theory, saying that religion is a product mainly of cultural rather than genetic evolution, and exists because memes for religion are self-replicating. I am wary of this, as “memetics” neglects exactly which features of the human mind, some of which must be evolved, make our minds more susceptible to religious memes than to other memes, or more to some religious memes than to other religious memes. In other words, memes are not disembodied, but to spread must interact with our biology. Dan also said that “we learn consciousness”, and here I think he was referring to particular aspects of our consciousness, for surely even a human born and reared in isolation would still be conscious in important ways.

Finally, Dan emphasized throughout a Gedankenexperiment in which robots could be programmed with the entire neuronal setup of a human. He said this would give them moral responsibility. And indeed it would—if humans have moral responsibility. I don’t think we do: I think we are responsible for our acts, but are not “morally” responsible for our acts as we have no libertarian free will and could not have chosen to behave otherwise.

What is a soul, anyway? Aslan said that he had no quarrel about Dennett’s claim that souls, whatever they are, are purely material products of our neuronal wiring. That was weird because with that Aslan abandoned two of the tenets of Islam: the immortal soul and the existence of libertarian free will. (Dennett made clear that, unlike religious “souls”, his version of a soul doesn’t live eternally, but dies with you.)

Aslan argued that he was more interested in what effect belief in the soul has in “making us human.” Throughout the discussion, Aslan punted on his own beliefs and acted as if he was interested solely in the sociology of religion rather than infusing his discussions with his own beliefs—something he said he is increasingly doing but didn’t last night!

Aslan also agreed with Dan that yes, it is possible in principle to transfer our “essence” (including our “souls”) to a robot. That once again flies in the face of Islam. Curiously, nobody defined “soul” except Dennett, who said it was roughly equivalent to an individual’s “dispositions and their architecture”, that is, a combination of one’s consciousness and ways of thinking and behaving. Dan said that to understand the soul conceived in this way, one must use control theory.

This was one of the points where Aslan muddled the discussion by saying that materialists like Dennett use words like “soul” as metaphors that are different from the metaphors that religious people use, but are identical in substance. But Aslan was also confused, because while he said he “didn’t know if consciousness is material,” he also agreed with Dan that it could be downloaded to a robot. If it can, it must be material! Aslan further confused the discussion by adding that if consciousness was indeed the product of purely material and natural processes, it would still be eternal because matter is eternal!

Dan quickly corrected him with the simple statement that it is the organization of matter that determines consciousness and one’s dispositions, and that organization disappears when you die.

Eternity. Schweiker refused to admit that science diminished the hope of eternity, though I can’t recall his explanation why. Dennett, in contrast, said that the finitude of life is what makes it, and morality, so important. If we don’t get a heavenly reward, we must forge a morality based on reason and secular tenets, and assume that people get no further rewards or punishment after they die.

Where did religion come from? Dan used his meme argument here, arguing, as he has in the past, that religion arose from common superstitions of humans, which turned into memes embodying these superstitions. In other words, evolution gave rise to religion, but it was cultural rather than biological evolution. Dennett further argued that religion came from “cultural viruses that spread because they could”, and had a “spreadability” feature lacking in competing memes, or in other religious memes that didn’t take hold.

Aslan got quite exercised at this point, saying that it was a slur to argue that religions are “viruses of the mind”.  In fact, Aslan claimed that we have no idea of how religions arose, and that “adaptive” hypotheses only tell us what religion does now, not how it came into being. He did say that the most plausible hypothesis for religion’s origin was that it was “a byproduct of other stuff,” and I presume he means here something like Pascal Boyer’s claim that religion is a byproduct of the evolved desire to see intentionality in nature. (Of course there are other “byproduct” explanations, like Dawkins’s suggestion that religion arose in part because of the evolved tendency of kids to accept what their elders say.)

Throughout the evening Aslan kept emphasizing that religion pre-dated our own species, and is an “eternal vital essence” of hominins. Dennett took issue with that, but Aslan claimed that the fact that Neanderthals and Homo erectus were sometimes buried with their “stuff” clearly showed their belief that their stuff would go with the dead to another world. Now I’m not sure about H. erectus, and I think there are other interpretations of being buried with your stuff, but clearly religious belief is very old, though I am not at all sure it antedates the origin of the lineage that turned into “modern” H. sapiens. (I don’t think Neanderthals are a different species from modern H. sapiens, anyway.)

Schweiker, too, said religion is not a virus or a meme to most people, but it wasn’t clear what he himself believed.

Does religion promote morality? Dennett said that perhaps, long ago, religions did promote morality: that morality needed the “emotional manipulation” supplied by religion to get off the ground. But now, he added, religion hinders morality, and it’s tremendously distorted moral thinking. Morality, he said, should not depend on the existence of a God, and you should “be good for goodness’s sake”.

Schweiker more or less agreed, saying (which everyone knew) that adding God to religion as a fount of morality violates Plato’s Euthyphro argument. But Schweiker still maintained that religion puts morality “in a more expansive context.” (I’m not sure what he meant by that; it sounded like Sophisticated Theology® or even a Deepity.) Since the world is religious, Schweiker argued that religion was important for morality as it places it on the “big stage” rather than confining morality to a particular culture. However, Schweiker ignored the palpable observation that morality varies from culture to culture and from faith to faith.

Aslan again got exercised about what Dennett said, asserting that he didn’t agree that the present effect of religion on morality was bad. Aslan didn’t say it was good, either: what he said was that “religion is a human construct”, and so of course it will reflect how humans are; ergo some of religion will be good and some will be bad.  When he said this, I thought, well, wars and dictatorships are also human constructs, but they don’t reflect much that is good in us! Aslan also said that the concept of morality as part of religion is new: that the ancient Greeks didn’t see the gods as promoting moral behavior. Morality infused religion, he said, starting with the Jews.

In response, Dennett said that his point was that religion not only tries to promote morality now (not in ancient times) but is now hindering morality, and is doing so by allowing people to “play the faith card”.  If you say that someone should be moral because your God says so, dictating what is moral, then nonbelievers or those of other faiths must ask, “That’s not good enough. What reasons should we have to consider that behavior X is moral?” Schweiker and Aslan immediately agreed with Dan, and the audience applauded—the only applause for an interim statement that I heard the entire evening.

Again, we see that Schweiker and Aslan were always talking about other people’s religions, studiously avoiding mentioning their own religious beliefs, despite Aslan saying at the outset that his beliefs infused his thinking. I longed to hear one of these guys say, “I believe Gabriel dictated/did not dictate the Qur’an to Muhammad”, or “I believe that Jesus was resurrected after death,” but no such words were said. Why not? I think because if you say stuff like that in front of an academic audience, you look superstitious and silly. There was not a single statement the entire evening bearing on a speaker’s own religious beliefs, except for Dennett saying he had none.

Is religion about truths, beliefs, and practices? Aslan kept saying over and over again that religion is NOT about these things: it is about identity. It marks one’s identity, humans need such markers, and that’s why religion will be with us forever.

That was in response to Dennett saying that religion was on the wane, and that atheists needn’t be so vociferous about it any more because religion is going away as we speak. Our job, said Dan, is just to help ease the world into secularism, like a midwife helping our planet give birth to reason (the last simile is mine). Dan argued that the increase in the proportion of “nones” is evidence for the waning of faith. Aslan vehemently responded that most of the “nones” are religious: they are just people who don’t identify with an established religion. Aslan is right about that, but many of the nones are “spiritual” rather than “religious”, and Aslan even remarked that many of the nones may be secret atheists.  But I think that nearly all data, at least from the West, show that atheism, nonbelief, and secularism are on the rise.

As for religion not being about truths or beliefs, but about identity (i.e., like favoring Manchester City over Manchester United), I take issue with that, and it’s one of the big parts of my book Faith versus Fact. If you survey Americans and Brits (and surely Muslims), you find that they do believe in many factual statements about the cosmos and assert these beliefs in Church. I also claim that without a grounding in these beliefs, religion becomes almost meaningless: it would be a social club without superstitions.

Near the end, Aslan said that in effect he was a physical determinist like Dennett, but said that that this determinism did not “delimit the faith experience.” And at that point a question began forming in my brain—a question I wanted to ask Schweiker and Aslan.

My question to the believers. I didn’t think I’d ask a question during the Q&A period, but several of the questions weren’t really trenchant (e.g., “What is the connection between art and religion?”). And so, at the end of the Q&A period, I raised my hand. I can’t remember exactly what I said, as I was nervous (it’s weird—I get nervous asking questions but when not giving talks), but it went something like this (I may be adding parts, for this is based on the notes I wrote for my question):

“I came here expecting a spirited debate of faith against nonbelief, but what I’m hearing is a secular lovefest. Everyone seems to agree that religion is a human construct, that you don’t need God or religion to buttress morality, and that religion had a secular origin. But the religious people on the panel have avoided discussing their own beliefs: they’ve talked about other people’s beliefs. I’d like to ask Drs. Aslan and Schweiker how their own personal religious beliefs inform their own morality, and how they affect their behavior and ideas in a way that would distinguish their views from those of Dan Dennett.”

I thought that was a good question in view of the avoidance of faith statements made by Schweiker and Aslan—both religious men.

Aslan simply punted: he said that he couldn’t prove whether there was a God or whether we had souls, and his response when asked that is to say things like, “Well, first you have to define what you mean by ‘God’.”

In other words, he didn’t respond. (I can’t remember Schweiker’s response but it was brief, and I was busy writing down what Aslan said.)  This is Karen Armstrong-ian theology: you don’t admit what you believe personally, and reduce all questions to definitional nonsense. I became a bit angry at that point because Schweiker and Aslan simply refused to admit that they entertained any religious beliefs, though the former is a Methodist minister and the latter a Muslim. And I think they punted because they’d look silly professing beliefs about Allah and Jesus.

At that point Dennett (who knew I was there) seemed to look at me, grin a bit (I may be imagining this), and said pithily to the others, “I doubt that what you gentlemen said is what you hear most preachers tell their congregations on Sunday.” In other words, Aslan and Schweiker were professing a rarified, almost atheistic version of religion—a kind of soccer club with incense.

And, as I left the venue clutching a couple of small sandwiches, I thought to myself, “If Aslan ever said that kind of stuff on the steps of the Great Mosque of Mecca, he’d be stoned to death.” (I think I”m plagiarizing a bit from Hitchens here.) What we were dealing with on this panel was not religion as most people practice it, but Sophisticated Theology®.

Two more points. By saying that religion is far more about identity than beliefs and practices, Aslan has removed religion from criticism of its tenets. All you can say to a believer, if Aslan’s claim be true, is “You adopted the wrong identity!”. But of course Aslan is wrong: most believers, and certainly his fellow Muslims, have definite beliefs about reality and about God, and those beliefs undergird their morality. Many of those beliefs come from scriptural interpretation, which is why nearly all surveyed Muslims think that homosexuality is immoral and that women should be submissive to their husbands. And many Muslims want sharia to be the law of the land for all, not just for themselves. Is that just about identity? If so, why force it on others?

Finally, if there was a winner of the evening, it was clearly Dan, and I don’t think I’m being biased here. What happened is that Dan got the other two panelists to admit to many of his materialist and philosophical views, and to avoid mentioning their own faiths—or even the virtue of faith itself.

While I disagree with Dan on the importance of memes in the origin of religion, I am with him on atheism, the source of morality, and physical determinism. And once you accept those things, the rest is commentary.

______________

UPDATE: I heard from a reporter who recorded the entire panel and wanted to quote my question in an article. Since he had a tape recorder, he transcribed the real question I asked in my own words, which differs a bit, though not substantively, from what I recalled above. Here’s what I said:

I came to this expecting a spirited debate about faith versus atheism, and instead I’ve seen a secular love-fest in which religion is talked about as other people’s religion, not what you believe. Two members of the panel are religious and I’m wondering–I’d like to ask Dr. Schweiker and Reza Aslan, Do you even care whether God exists or whether there’s an immortal soul? And if so how does that inform your beliefs and your morality in a way different from how it informs Dan’s?

The stuff about religion being a human construct and stuff is in my notes but I guess I didn’t verbalize it.

The blind leading the bland: Nicholas Kristof interviews William Lane Craig

December 22, 2018 • 1:30 pm

When I saw the headline below in the New York Times, I wondered why the deuce Nicholas Kristof wanted to talk to William Lane Craig. But who could NOT read that article after the headline, wanting to see how Craig answered? (Click on screenshot and be prepared to facepalm.)

It turns out that this is part of a series Kristof is doing on Christianity—but again, WHY? At any rate, here are the predecessors:

This is the latest installment in my occasional series of conversations about Christianity. Previously, I’ve spoken with the Rev. Timothy KellerJimmy Carter and Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Here’s my interview of William Lane Craig, professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University.

The interview is a gold mine of apologetics and laughs as Craig weasels and wobbles and waffles about Jesus, Scripture, and miracles. Have a look; I’ll put some of the Q&A below.

It’s hard not to reproduce the entire text! But here we go:

KristofMerry Christmas, Dr. Craig! I must confess that for all my admiration for Jesus, I’m skeptical about some of the narrative we’ve inherited. Are you actually confident that Jesus was born to a virgin?

Craig: Merry Christmas to you, too, Nick! I’m reasonably confident. When I was a non-Christian, I used to struggle with this, too. But then it occurred to me that for a God who could create the entire universe, making a woman pregnant wasn’t that big a deal! Given the existence of a Creator and Designer of the universe (for which we have good evidence), an occasional miracle is child’s play. Historically speaking, the story of Jesus’ virginal conception is independently attested by Matthew and Luke and is utterly unlike anything in pagan mythology or Judaism. So what’s the problem?

Note the “(for which we have good evidence)” after he mentions God. That, presumably is Craig’s dumb Kalam Cosmological Argument (read the link), which somehow gets from the assumption that “all things have causes” to “God is the Christian god and Jesus is His son”. He adduces additional “evidence”, like “fine-tuning” later on.

The “problem”, of course, is that even if you accept the existence of a creator, that doesn’t get you to miracles and Jesus.  And “independently” attested by Matthew and Luke? Really? Were they both there when God manufactured a haploid genome and inserted it into one of Mary’s eggs? And how independent were these Gospels? Although “Biblical scholars” (i.e., believers) consider them evidence of the writers being independently motivated by God to write the Truth, I think it more likely that they’re recounting a common myth, or even copying each other.

But wait! There’s more! Craig does some bobbing and weaving after Kristof asks him why he takes the New Testament as gospel truth but not the Old Testament. You’ll enjoy Craig’s response. Then Kristof asks him about why he thinks the New Testament is inerrant. (To be fair, he’s pressing Craig pretty hard, but pressing Craig is like trying to wrestle a greased eel.)

[Kristof] How do you account for the many contradictions within the New Testament? For example, Matthew says Judas hanged himself, while Acts says that he “burst open.” They can’t both be right, so why insist on inerrancy of Scripture?

[Craig] I don’t insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, what I insist on is what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity. Harmonizing perceived contradictions in the Bible is a matter of in-house discussion amongst Christians. What really matters are questions like: Does God exist? Are there objective moral values? Was Jesus truly God and truly man? How did his death on a Roman cross serve to overcome our moral wrongdoing and estrangement from God? These are, as one philosopher puts it, the “questions that matter,” not how Judas died.

But don’t the core doctrines of Christianity include all of us being imbued with Original Sin, that Jesus was crucified and then resurrected, and that there’s an afterlife in which you either go up or you fry. It’s interesting that he says “leave the contradictions to us Christians” and then says the important questions are those that aren’t contradicted but also have no answers. But Craig does think there are “objective moral values”—since he believes in Divine Command Theory, he thinks that whatever God says is correct and moral by virtue of God having said it. Ergo, we can kill anybody who picks up sticks on the Sabbath and curses their parents. I wish Kristof had pressed him on that!

I like this exchange best.

[Kristof] Why can’t we accept that Jesus was an extraordinary moral teacher, without buying into miracles?

[Craig] You can, but you do so at the expense of going against the evidence. That Jesus carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms is so widely attested in every stratum of the sources that the consensus among historical Jesus scholars is that Jesus was, indeed, a faith-healer and exorcist. That doesn’t prove these events were genuine miracles, but it does show that Jesus thought of himself as more than a mere moral teacher.

That reminds me of the famous passage from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, where Lewis pretends to exhaust all the possibilities:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I prefer the Poached Egg Hypothesis, but that’s not acceptable to most people.

Several times in the interview Craig appeals to “the consensus of historical Jesus scholars”, a consensus that of course is based on construing truth from what’s in the Bible. And I’m deeply suspicious of that consensus, especially in the absence of extra-Biblical evidence for even a historical person on which Jesus was grounded.

I remain agnostic about whether there was a real person on which Jesus was based, and even about whether that person could have claimed magical powers (a bit more of a stretch), but, as Craig says, “that doesn’t prove these events were genuine miracles.” Indeed—and there lies the rub that Craig avoids. Even if you accept the premise that some first-century charismatic preacher said he could do magic, that doesn’t mean that he could, or that such a person, now dead, continues to perform miracles.

And there’s this.

[Kristof] Over time, people have had faith in Zeus, in Shiva and Krishna, in the Chinese kitchen god, in countless other deities. We’re skeptical of all those faith traditions, so should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality when we encounter miracles in our own tradition?

[Craig] I don’t follow. Why should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality just because of weakly evidenced, false claims in other religions? I champion a “reasonable faith” that seeks to provide a comprehensive worldview that takes into account the best evidence of the sciences, history, philosophy, logic and mathematics. Some of the arguments for God’s existence that I’ve defended, such as the arguments from the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the universe, appeal to the best evidence of contemporary science. I get the impression, Nick, that you think science is somehow incompatible with belief in miracles. If so, you need to give an argument for that conclusion. David Hume’s famous argument against miracles is today recognized, in the words of philosopher of science John Earman, as “an abject failure.” No one has been able to do any better.

Although Kristof doesn’t ask him the logical question—”How do you know you’ve found the right god and the right faith?”—it’s implicit in the query. And Craig gives an implicit answer: that Christianity is not as “weakly evidenced” or as “false” as are other faiths. How does Craig know this? Not because the Bible is more credible than the Qur’an, but that Craig has personally experienced “the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.” Yep—”self authenticating” (see the link for a takedown).  And really—”the best evidence for God from contemporary science” is the Cosmological Argument and the fine-tuning argument? I don’t think many physicists would say, “Yes, that evidence pretty much convinces me of a God.”

As far as Hume’s argument against miracles, which is basically that you should accept a miracle only if a genuine God-produced miracle seems more likely than false testimony or dubious claims, that doesn’t seem to me an “abject failure,” but rather an exercise in judicious skepticism. But perhaps you feel otherwise.

I have to say that publishing this interview seems rather dumb, unless it exposes Craig’s philosophical weaknesses to a public that, by and large, considers him serious and learned. But I think people would nod their heads in assent at Craig’s answers.

And perhaps that would be true of all of Craig’s interviews with Christians. But somehow I don’t think, despite Kristof’s hardball questions, that he’s trying to do a number on Christianity.

h/t: Barry