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

My anti-accommodationism article at The Conversation

December 21, 2018 • 9:00 am

A while back I posted a critique on this site of an article by Tom McLeish at The Conversation, “Religion isn’t the enemy of science: it’s been inspiring scientists for centuries.” In that critique I wrote, “I think it’s time I contributed an article to The Conversation showing why science and religion are incompatible, as that site appears to be very soft on faith.”  Since then I’ve learned that The Conversation has several independent branches, and that piece was published by The Conversation UK, not The Conversation US.

But the former site, which may indeed be soft on faith, recently published yet another accommodationist article, “War between science and religion is far from inevitable” by David N. Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History, Queen’s University Belfast, and John Hedley Brooke, Emeritus Professor of Science and Religion as the University of Oxford. And that was the last straw for me. That article, if you can get through it, is an encyclopedia of all the tropes of accommodationism: scientists can be religious, religion inspired scientific discoveries, and religion can provide useful values in a discussion with scientists. (It even begins with a mention of Faith versus Fact, whose thesis of course Livingstone and Brooke reject.). The prose, too, was deadly; get a load of this:

In our own day, there may well be benefits to be derived from a dialogue between theological anthropology and those advocating transhumanism. New technological possibilities are raising profound questions about what it means to be human, a subject on which theologians have had much to say. At the very least, theology might prove to be a useful conversational partner in articulating values by which to adjudicate among the human capacities that might be prioritised for enhancement.

The article winds up with a firm but plaintive assertion that religion, after all, isn’t going away. (Of course it is, at least in the West.)

I didn’t write about the piece here, as I finally decided to respond at The Conversation itself—if they’d let me. I sent The Conversation U.S. a pitch, they were interested, and I wrote a piece that didn’t directly attack the ideas of Livingstone and Brooke, but linked to their piece (and others), and asserted that yes, there is a kind of war between science and religion. This was published this morning. It was a pleasure to work with my editor and the site. (I didn’t realize that you have to be an academic to publish there, and have to link to every quote and claim that you make.)

At any rate, you can read my piece below (“Yes, there is a war between science and religion“) by clicking on the link. If you’re interested, give them some traffic, and stand up for empiricism! (You’re welcome to make comments and to engage with the commenters who, inevitably, will be upset by my ideas.) The Conversation also published under a creative commons license, so anybody can republish the article for free.

As Andrew Sullivan might say, “See you next Friday,” except I’ll be here all week, folks.

David Bentley Hart makes a fool of himself, and so does the New York Times

July 17, 2018 • 9:15 am

I don’t want to believe what is happening to the New York Times: its journalistic standards are declining, it fired its public editor for finding flaws in the paper’s coverage, and it’s becoming more and more Authoritarian Left. One would think from the outset that publishing an article by a theologian wouldn’t comport with Control-Leftism, but Saturday’s op-ed, by none other than David Bentley Hart, does.

We’ve met Hart before: he’s a humorless, Orthodox Christian Sophisticated Theologian™ and philosopher, most notable for his dreadful writing and obscurantist pronouncements about the nature of God. Combined with his lame philosophy and execrable prose is his overweening arrogance, which seeps through in virtually every sentence of his work. You can see it, for instance, in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss,which I analyzed on this site.

So the New York Times published Hart’s long, confusing, and wearisome diatribe—on baseball. Click on the screenshot to read it, but, to quote Joni Mitchell, “be prepared to bleed”:

The point of the article, as far as I can discern what the sweating professor is trying to say, is that he’s a baseball fan of sorts, doesn’t like the New York Yankees, and sees them as unfairly advantaged because of their large endowment, which enables them to buy up the best players. This creates a wage gap between them and other teams, and this gap parallels the income inequality that pervades America today. To make this point, Hart uses over 1400 words, most of them unnecessary.

Now I think a lot of the article is Hart’s attempt to be humorous while making this serious point, which he does by using hyperbolic similes, fancy foreign phrases, and purple prose; but the result is not funny at all. I’ll spare you most of the prose, but have a gander at this:


So, I confess it: There is some resentment. But it never degenerates into emulousness or envy. No one elsewhere wants to root for a team like the Yankees. The notion is appalling. Could any franchise be more devoid of romance? What has it ever represented but the brute power of money? One can admire the St. Louis Cardinals’ magnificent history, or cherish fond memories of the great Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds or Oakland A’s teams of the past. But no morally sane soul could delight in that graceless enormity in the Bronx, or its supremacy over smaller markets. It is an intrinsically depraved pleasure, like a taste for bearbaiting. And certainly none of us wants to be anything like Yankees fans — especially after seeing them at close quarters. Certainly, I have witnessed them often enough in Baltimore during weekend series against my beloved Orioles to know the horror in full.

Not that the horror is easy to recall clearly. The trauma is too violent. Memory cringes, whines, tries to slink away. One recollects only a kaleidoscopic flux of gruesomely fragmentary impressions, too outlandish to be perfectly accurate, too vivid to be entirely false: nightmarish revenants from the dim haunts of the collective unconscious … monstrous, abortive shapes emerging from the abysmal murk of evolutionary history … things pre-hominid, even pre-mammalian … forms never quite resolving into discrete organisms, spilling over and into one another, making it uncertain where one ends and another begins. … It really is awful: ghastly glistening flesh … tentacles coiling and uncoiling, stretching and contracting … lidless orbicular eyes eerily waving on slender stalks … squamous hides, barbed quills, the unguinous sheen of cutaneous toxins … serrated tails, craggy horns, sallow fangs, gleaming talons … fragrances fungal and poisonous … sickly iridescences undulating across pallid, gelatinous underbellies or shimmering along slick, filmy scales.


Fancy foreign phrases to show off:

I mean, be reasonable: How often, as Derek Jeter’s retirement approached in 2014, were we made to endure the squealing ecstasies of television announcers too bedazzled by the fastidious delicacy of his dainty coupé-chassé en tournant on grounders to his right to notice his minuscule range or flimsy arm? Why were we forced to see him awarded a preposterous two additional Gold Gloves in his dotage when his defense was scarcely better than mediocre in his prime?

Umm. . . how many of the Times’s readers, sophisticated as they might be, know what a “coupé-chassé en tournant” is? Could he not have used a more familiar phrase?

Hart’s labored and unconvincing conclusion:

The analogy is imperfect, but irresistible. America — with its decaying infrastructure, its third-world public transit, its shrinking labor market, its evaporating middle class, its expanding gulf between rich and poor, its heartless health insurance system, its mindless indifference to a dying ecology, its predatory credit agencies, its looming Social Security collapse, its interminable war, its metastasizing national debt and all the social pathologies that gave it a degenerate imbecile and child-abducting sadist as its president — remains the only developed economy in the world that believes it wrong to use civic wealth for civic goods. Its absurdly engorged military budget diverts hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the public weal to those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Its plutocratic policies and libertarian ethos are immune to all appeals of human solidarity. It towers over the world, but promises secure shelter only to the fortunate few.

Yes, there may be some truth in this penultimate paragraph, but really, hasn’t this been said a gazillion times before? And how much of it has to do with baseball? Child abduction? Yes, the Trump administration treats immigrant children poorly, but why does that have to do with the Yankees?

And does Hart have to preface this paragraph with 1200 words of bloviation about the horrible Satanic New York team? Yes, the analogy is imperfect, because the U.S. government is not a private organization like the New York Yankees, nor subject to the same market forces, but the analogy should have been irresistible. 

Only a pompous ass of a theologian, trying at once to be humorous and profound, could produce such a horror of an article. More important: Why did the New York Times publish this? What editor looked at this submission and thought, “Hey, this is pretty good. Let’s run it?” And didn’t that editor have an editor to approve the publication?

I urge you to read it yourself and tell me if there’s any merit in it.