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.

Jordan Peterson, Sophisticated Theologian

June 26, 2018 • 9:30 am

I am still deliberately avoiding reading or listening to Jordan Peterson. He seems to be a maelstrom, a black hole who will suck you into Internet arguments that will eat up all your time and energy.  As Bert Jansch sang, “I have no time to spend with you; you talk of nothing, what can you do?” I’ve heard he’s soft on religion, or at least not an overt atheist, and I’m not even sure about that. But these two tweets, sent by Grania, show that he appears to be either an accommodationist or an ultra-Sophisticated Theologian™. Here he tries to limn what he sees as “God”, and it’s a bloody mess. These tweets could have been made by Alvin Plantinga, David Bentley Hart, or even Karen Armstrong.

Well, that makes no sense. Why is faith necessary? And if it is, why place it in God—or is he defining God as “that in which you place faith”, which is almost a tautology. In that case, what is the atheists‘ god? And why is this an “axiom”? The last bit is opaque: yes, believing in gods may be a “mode of being”, but why is that the same thing as a “personality”?

That seems to me like an extended Deepity, sounding fine but meaning nothing.

Here’s another, in which he redefines god as “how you act according to your values”:

I value being an atheist, reading, doing science (or at least writing about it), criticizing political opponents, feeding my ducks, and drinking wine. Does that make this “mode of being” God?

It’s common for Sophisticated Theologians to redefine God in such a way that you couldn’t refute God’s existence(e.g., “God is the cosmos” or “God is love”). But that’s weaselly, and certainly doesn’t correspond to most people’s notion of God, which is represents a powerful and loving divine being who has a personal relationship with you and promotes a certain morality.  What Peterson has done with these two tweets (which, as far as I’ve read, correspond to his general logorrhea and obscurantism) is to “prove” God’s existence by calling something God that everyone has: in this case the “mode of being you value the most.”

I haven’t read much Peterson nor listened to any of his interviews save the infamous one with that persistent interviewer, so I’m not saying this kind of Deepity characterizes all his thought. I’m just saying that if these tweets are Peterson’s notion of god, he’s being a slippery sophist.

I know he’s debated various people lately, and feel free to comment or add links.

Edward Feser godsplains why atheists don’t understand religion, and why there is absolutely, positively a God (the Catholic one)

April 6, 2018 • 1:00 pm

Edward “Dogs Don’t Go to Heaven” Feser is able to discern the most extraordinary conclusions about reality from simply plumbing his brain and channeling revelations, being sure to weed the true revelations from God’s Fake News (see the first link). In other words, he’s a theologian: a Catholic who’s an associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College.  His schtick (and I’ve written about him quite a bit) is this:

  1. Thomas Aquinas is the greatest philosopher who ever lived, and Aquinas’s “Five Ways” of knowing (which, as Feser admits, weren’t original with Aquinas) constitute definitive proof of God’s existence.
  2. Aquina’s God (aka the Real God) also happens, mirabile dictu, to be Feser’s god: the god of Catholicism.
  3. New Atheists don’t understand the subtleties of Aquinas’s arguments, and so are attacking strawmen. In order to come to grips with genius philosophers like Feser, one has to read extensively, particularly Aquinas (see #1), and most especially Feser’s own writings. As I wrote several years ago:”Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher at Pasadena City College, is notorious on this website for touting the Cosmological Argument for God’s existence (short explanation: every contingent thing has a “cause”; the universe is contingent; therefore the universe has a cause; therefore God). He’s equally notorious for claiming that one can’t truly understand this compelling argument without reading at least six books and seven articles, two of which of course, are by Feser himself.  (Go herehere, and here to see Jason Rosenhouse’s refutation of Feser’s arguments.)” [JAC: Jason’s links don’t seen to exist any more, but you can see his critiques of Feser here.]
  4. Feser’s a nasty piece of work, especially towards atheists—far more vitriolic than the New Atheists he decries. That’s very un-Christian of him.
  5. He thinks that New Atheists like Dawkins and I (we’re mentioned explicitly) rely almost entirely on the “argument from design” in our rejection of God. That, of course, is pure bullshit: both of us have dealt with most of the arguments for God, sophisticated or not. The reason we concentrate on creationism is because it was the alternate theory of origins dispelled by Darwin, but is still plaguing biologists in America and the Middle East. But fighting creationism is different from saying that we think the argument from design is the best and most central argument for God. I’m surprised that Feser, who prides himself on his intellect and nuanced thinking, doesn’t realize that.
  6. Dogs don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls. (See first link for explanation).

In the latest installment of his never-ending exposition of the Prime Mover argument, Feser lists at Five Books “The best books on arguments for the existence of God.” Here they are, with three being about Aquinas.

It’s amazing, as I said, all the things Aquinas (and Feser) can conclude about God without any need for empirical observation. From the Prime Mover argument, both accept that there is a God, that He/She/It/Hir are outside time and the Universe, that there is only one God, and that that God is omnipotent. The rest—and of course Aquinas bought the literal existence of Paradise, Adam and Eve, a young Earth, and the Jesus story, as well as the existence of angels (Aquinas was positively obsessed with angels and their characteristics)—comes from “divine revelation”. Further, Feser argues that you can judge which revelations tell you True Stuff through reason alone! That is, using reason, Feser can supposedly prove to everyone that God is the Catholic God, that the Jesus story is true, that there’s a Trinity, and so on. How curious that the “reason” he adduces hasn’t manage to convince Hindus, Jews, or Muslims!

Here’s some of Feser’s theobabble:

The way that Aquinas divides up the territory is that he thinks there are some things that we can know about God through purely natural reason. From a modern reader’s point of view, it might be surprising just how much Aquinas thinks we can know in that way. We can know not only that there is a God — in Aquinas’ view this can be strictly demonstrated through philosophical arguments — but  we can deduce a great number of the divine attributes: that God is all-powerful, omniscient, outside of time and space, and so on.

There are other things about God’s nature, however, that in Aquinas’ view cannot be known through philosophical reasoning alone. They could not be known simply through applying our natural powers. If we’re going to know them, then, we need to rely on special divine revelation. God has to reveal them to us through some prophet or sacred text or the church, for example. The doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation would be two examples of this. Now, does that mean that Aquinas thinks that these are not ideas that are susceptible of rational investigation? No.

True, he thinks that we can only know about them through divine revelation, but, there are two things that have to be emphasised here. First of all, Aquinas would not deny for a moment that when we ask ‘How do we know that these doctrines have really been divinely revealed?’, we have to be able to give a rational answer to that. He doesn’t think that the fact that divine revelation has occurred is itself something that we have to appeal merely to faith in order to know about. He thinks that you need to be able to give rational arguments for the conclusion that an act of divine revelation has actually occurred.

Good luck in showing that you can figure out the difference between real divine revelations and phony revelations. I presume, that if Feser’s argument is rational, such distinctions can have nothing to do with their content!

I could go on, but Feser’s word salad runs a long time (it’s a terrible interview, conducted by Oxford student Charles Styles, who is reluctant to pose any hardball questions).

Just a bit more fun: watch how Feser claims there’s an objective morality that more or less conforms to Sam Harris’s “well being” argument, but remains grounded in God because what constitutes our well being depends in our nature and, as the canny theologian argues, “we wouldn’t have the natures we have if God weren’t keeping us in existence.” Slick move, Dr. Feser!

He also has a “good” argument against the atheists’ claim that the existence of evil is incompatible with an omnibenevolent Christian God. To wit (my emphasis):

The existence of such evil gives us good grounds to doubt the existence of God or to deny God’s existence, even though it doesn’t count as a strict proof. That’s the kind of argument that an atheist would have to develop in order to get the problem of evil off the ground as an objection to theism.

The problem with that, though, is that if you do have an independent demonstration that God exists, if you’ve got something like a successful version of Aquinas’ Five Ways, then you already know independently that there is a first cause of the world who is infinite in power, all-good, and so on. So, you independently know that for any instance of evil that occurs, there must be some reason why God allows it, even if we don’t know what that reason is. 

Another great finesse! Of course the Prime Mover argument doesn’t show that God is “all good”, but presumably, using rationality, Feser (and Aquinas) managed to deduce that from revelation. I’m stunned with admiration for Feser’s Sophisticated Theology™.

I’ll just end with a passage from Faith versus Fact (p. 58), eminently applicable to Dr. Feser but aimed, I believe, at Feser’s hero Aquinas:

Philosopher Andrew Bernstein describes such theological analysis of arcane and unevidenced claims as “the tragedy of theology in its distilled essence: The employment of high-powered human intellect, of genius, of profoundly rigorous logical deduction—studying nothing.”

Note: Feser has a thin skin and will undoubtedly respond, and his response will consist in noting my failure to have spent half my lifetime studying the works of Aquinas and Feser. I will respond in advance that Feser knows nothing about the proper use of evidence, and is simply confecting tortuous arguments to prove what he finds emotionally comforting.

As an update: Reader Pliny the in Between has a relevant cartoon:


h/t: Barry

Does the nature of the Universe show that there’s no God?

November 4, 2017 • 12:15 pm

That, at least, is the contention of Emily Thomas, an assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University, in an essay at RealClear Science (“Does the size of the universe prove God doesn’t exist?“) This point has been made by many people before, including, as I recall, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins: the Universe is unbelievably large and all those extra galaxies and planets would seem to be superfluous if God’s real concern was Earth. After all, the Bible refers to this planet, not others, and so what’s going on with all those other planets, even if they do harbor life?

The good bits in Thomas’s essay are simply the facts she gives (these are quotes from her piece):

  • Scientists estimate that the observable universe, the part of it we can see, is around 93 billion light years across. The whole universe is at least 250 times as large as the observable universe.
  • Our own planet is 150m kilometres away from the sun. Earth’s nearest stars, the Alpha Centauri system, are four light years away (that’s around 40 trillion kilometres). Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains anywhere from 100 to 400 billion stars. The observable universe contains around 300 sextillion stars. 

The last fact is for just the observable universe. 300 sextillion is 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, and multiply that by at least 250 (or more, if the 250 is a linear dimension and not volume). That’s HUGE–even bigger than William Howard Taft! Thomas quotes Douglas Adams here as saying the Universe is “big really, really big”, but as I’m reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ll give the full and accurate quote:

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

The Universe is also old: about 13.7 billion years. Why did God wait so long to create Earth, and then wait another 4.5 billion years—until about 4000 years ago—to reveal himself to us?

As Thomas notes, this evidence—the size and age of the Universe—does not comport with a God who’s deeply concerned with what happens on Earth: the superfluity of stars and of time does not comport. As Thomas argues:

Over the last few decades, a new way of arguing for atheism has emerged. Philosophers of religion such as Michael Martin and Nicholas Everitt have asked us to consider the kind of universe we would expect the Christian God to have created, and compare it with the universe we actually live in. They argue there is a mismatch. Everitt focuses on how big the universe is, and argues this gives us reason to believe the God of classical Christianity doesn’t exist.

To explain why, we need a little theology. Traditionally, the Christian God is held to be deeply concerned with human beings. Genesis (1:27) states: “God created mankind in his own image.” Psalms (8:1-5) says: “O Lord … What is man that You take thought of him … Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!” And, of course, John (3:16) explains God gave humans his son out of love for us.

These texts show that God is human-oriented: human beings are like God, and he values us highly. Although we’re focusing on Christianity, these claims can be found in other monotheistic religions, too.

. . . Clearly, there is a discrepancy between the kind of universe we would expect a human-oriented God to create, and the universe we live in. How can we explain it? Surely the simplest explanation is that God doesn’t exist. The spatial and temporal size of the universe gives us reason to be atheists.

As Everitt puts it:

The findings of modern science significantly reduce the probability that theism is true, because the universe is turning out to be very unlike the sort of universe which we would have expected, had theism been true.

She then suggests several ways that theologians could answer this argument, including the possibility that we don’t understand God’s plan, or that God simply values natural causation and lovely stars. But these seem like post facto rationalizations (which they are), and so she concludes that this is all evidence against God:

The problem with these rival explanations is that, as they stand, they are unsatisfying. They hint at reasons why God might create tiny humans in a gargantuan place but are a million miles away from fully explaining why. The weight of galaxies, and the press of years, seem to sweep us towards atheism.

Well, this is all fine and good, but is somewhat unsatisfying on three counts. First of all, it’s not a new argument, though of course hardly any arguments against God are new.

Second, theologians have other answers to the Argument from Douglas Adams not mentioned by Thomas. Michael Ruse—an atheist who specializes in helping Christians keep their faith by telling them how to harmonize science and Jesus—has suggested that Jesus traveled from planet to planet throughout the Universe, saving aliens everywhere (I am not making this up). But of course the Bible is Earth-centered. So theologians would have to claim that each planet has its own Jesus, and that God is saving different life forms in different ways—if those forms are “made in God’s image” and have souls to be saved. (In that case, what does “made in God’s image” really mean?)

Finally, there are many other reasons beyond the size and age of the Universe that already tell us that the probability of God’s existence is unlikely. And some of these arguments, like the existence of physical evils and the death of innocents and animals from horrible diseases, simply do not comport with an omnipotent and loving God—a God also described in the Bible. There’s the fact that God doesn’t show himself to us in convincing ways, and yet could if he wanted to. Why is he a deus absconditius? There are evolutionary arguments, too: if evolution is God’s way of creating humans, why all the wastage—the terrible suffering due to natural selection, and the 99% or more of species that have gone extinct without leaving descendants? Why the superfluity of species, much less stars?

Theologians have answers for these, too, for there is nothing that a clever, committed and well-paid theologian like Alvin Plantinga cannot rationalize as comporting with God’s existence. (If you can  accept the Holocaust and God at the same time, there’s nothing that can dispel your faith.) But that, too, is an argument against accepting God: if his/her/hir/its existence cannot be disproven by anything, then we need not take God seriously.

I’m not overly impressed by arguments like the superfluity of stars as evidence against a God, though it does count for something. And I’m pleased that RealClear Science is giving arguments for atheism. But Thomas writes as if scientists and philosophers like her have just discovered this argument in “the last few decades”. In fact, we’ve known for much longer that this is not the kind of universe that argues for existence of a god, and we’ve known it from several other considerations. Unwarranted suffering alone is, to me, the strongest argument against the Biblical god, for theodicy is the Achilles heel of theology.

Readers might amuse themselves by thinking up other reasons why the sheer size and age of the Universe alone do not militate against God’s existence. If you can walk like an Egyptian, you can think like a theologian.

I am honored by theologians: there’s now a “Coyne Fallacy”!!!

January 3, 2017 • 1:00 pm

Who knew? For two years there has been a theological fallacy named after me, one imparted to me just today by reader Jon. Now I’m not sure how far this fallacy has spread among theologians, but I hope it goes far, for it’s ineffably stupid. The post in which it appears was written by William M. Briggs, whose website gives his name and the subtitle “Statistician to the Stars.”

First, who is William M. Briggs? Well, he answer the question on his site: “Who is W.M.B.?


I am wholly independent; i.e., I have no position. I depend on you, dear reader, for my livelihood. I do not jest. The burden is on you. Hire the Dancing Briggs. Spread the word.


Currently a vagabond statistician and Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell. Thought leader (have your thoughts led by me). Previously a Professor at the Cornell Medical School, a Statistician at DoubleClick in its infancy, a Meteorologist with the National Weather Service, and a sort of Cryptologist with the US Air Force (the only title I ever cared for was Staff Sergeant Briggs).

No comment.

Here’s a photo:


On to The Coyne Fallacy, laid out in Brigg’s post about a terminally smug and arrogant book by Sophisticated Theologian™ David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox Christian whose views I’ve criticized before (see here). The book is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, which I’ve read and discussed (see here and here, for instance).  It purveys the brand of Sophisticated Theology™ that sneers at atheists but also claims a knowledge of what God is really like:  and he turns out of course, not to be the kind of God that most Christians accept. (Think of a Ground of Being: an Orthodox version of Karen Armstrong.) But Hart knows better, for, due to his Deep Thinkings, he has a Pipeline to God Himself.

It’s not surprising that Briggs likes Hart’s book, because it posits a kind of God that can’t be empirically disproven. How do you know He exists, then? Briggs tell us!:

The transcendent God can be “‘investigated’ only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences.”

Hmm. . . a God immune to refutation by observation.

And, says, Briggs, the theistic, in-your-life savior God is a fiction concocted by atheists, because Christians don’t accept that kind of God! (my emphasis):

Because it turns out that the god modern-day atheists have in mind, what Hart calls the Demiurge, is a god Christians also reject. The Demiurge is a kind of “superior being”, a being like any other only more so, and it is this small-g god that the man-in-the-street atheist, and certainly those well known celebrity authors, find implausible or ridiculous. And so does the theologian.

Really, do Christians really reject the Demiurge? Because here are the data on what all Americans (not just Christians) believe, taken from a 2013 Harris poll:


Sounds like a Demiurge to me. But wait! Briggs then does a 180-turn, claiming that the average Christian doesn’t know who God is, and he/she might really believe in The Wrong Kind of God. Then we have to call in theologians like Hart to correct us:

Of the God, the necessary Being, the new atheist knows little to nothing. Well, maybe the Christian-, Muslim-, or Hindu-in-the-street knows little of Him either, in the sense of being unable to write down a philosophically consistent definition of just who and what God is. The theologian, however, can, and this is Hart’s task. To definite, delimit, demarcate just what it is the great religious traditions say about God. Hart’s isn’t a work of apologetics nor a list of proofs of God’s existence. It is an in-depth examination that spells out precisely who God is. Something very necessary for those who say they don’t believe in God: just what is it you don’t believe?

Now I’m not sure what the Great Religious Traditions are, but they are surely varied, even among Christians, and many are literalist. Read Aquinas or Augustine to see how literalistic they are, and how specific about the nature of God. How wrong they must have been–to have to be corrected by the likes of David Bentley Hart! What’s worse is the notion that theologians can distill these traditions and give us an idea of who god really is—in the absence of any evidence for a God. (Remember, though—Briggs thinks we don’t need that.)

But I must get to My Fallacy. Here it is:

Let’s get one popular fallacy out of the way. This is the most-people-believe-what’s-false-therefore-it’s-false fallacy, or the Coyne fallacy, named after its most frequent user, Jerry Coyne. This fallacy is used to reject a proposition because most people misunderstand or hold false beliefs about that proposition. So that if the average church or temple goer has a definition of God that suffers certain inconsistencies, therefore God doesn’t exist. If you accept that then you’d have to believe that since the average citizen has mistaken ideas about evolution (holding to Intelligent Design, say), therefore evolution is false. Truth is not a vote.

That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The fallacy, ascribed to me, is to claim that because a group misunderstands the nature of something, that thing doesn’t exist. So it’s just as false to say God doesn’t exist because some Christians (or atheists) have a “false” notion of who He is as it is to say that evolution doesn’t exist because many people misunderstand it.

And yes, many people do misunderstand evolution. But there’s a difference between evolution and God. Do I need to point out that we have evidence for evolution but not for any kind of god, from Demiurge to the Ground of Being? That’s a big difference. So we can correct misunderstandings about evolution because, as evolutionary biologists, we know how it works. David Bentley Hart has only a knowledge of what other theologians said and whatever revelations strike him when contemplating the Numinous.

So, in contrast to the evolutionary process, neither David Bentley Hart, Briggs, nor anybody else knows who God really is—or even if there’s a god.

I am thus somewhat saddened to see that the Coyne Fallacy is lame—a version of the Courtier’s Reply. And, in the end, Briggs’s argument shows the Fallacy of the Coyne Fallacy.

I can haz better Coyne Fallacy pleez?

Adam and Eve: More than two ancestors?

December 27, 2016 • 12:45 pm

I’ve posted repeatedly (e.g., here) about the dilemma that Adam and Eve pose for some believers, since population genetics shows not only that our species never dipped below a total of about 12,500 in the last 50,000 years or so. That directly contravenes Catholic (and some evangelical) doctrine that Adam and Eve were real people and the ancestors of us all. This is codified in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 statement from De Humani Generis (my emphasis):

37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism [that we descended from more than just two people], the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

In other words, the Pope said that all living humans, starting with Adam, had to be descended from him, and that Adam cannot simply stand for a “certain number” of first parents. Not accepting the statement above means you don’t accept Church dogma.  Of course, theologians are still busy trying to force the idea of Adam and Eve into the Procrustean Bed of population genetics, with the predictably risible results.

A few days ago I got an email from reader John, who said this:

“There’s one thing I don’t believe you addressed that I’ve recently seen sophists (err, theists) suggesting: that each of us is related to either Adam *or* Eve, but not necessarily to both–i.e. that there was an initial pool of 10,000+ humans, and only Adam and Eve had souls, but at this point all living human beings are distantly related to either Adam or Eve (but not necessarily to both of them).”

He then pointed me to a reddit thread on Adam and Eve, in which one commenter tried to reconcile Catholic doctrine with the evidence that the human population didn’t undergo a bottleneck of only two people. The commenter said this:

You are not engaging my point, and ignoring my argument for it. To remake my point, then. Catholic doctrine does not require a bottleneck of only two people. To insist that all people are descended from one particular pair does not equate to saying that all people are descended from only that particular pair. Here’s a visual representation of my point: all the yellow blocks are descended from the red pair, but at no point is there a bottleneck of only two people.


In other words, Adam and Eve for some reason, were two among many people (A&E in red), but that all living people somehow can trace their ancestry back to the Primal Couple. But this violates both science and the Pope’s doctrine in several ways. First, there are clearly “true men after Adam who did note take their origin through natural generation from him as the first parent at all.” These are the white rectangles in the second row, and of course there would have been many more white rectangles had there been more than six people alive, and those rectangles would have extended into future generations. Second, the Bible clearly says that Adam and Eve were the only two people around then; it doesn’t mention a population of humans created with them. If you’re going to take Adam and Eve as literal ancestors, why not accept that they also were the only two humans on Earth?

Further, as I wrote in the thread above, were Adam and Eve the genetic ancestors of all of us, then

. . . all the genes of every living human should “coalesce” back to the same time and the same two people. But we don’t see that either: each gene segment had its ancestor at a different time (and often at a different place) in the past: the Y chromosome, for instance, coalesces back to an ancestor who lived about 60,000 years more recently than the female ancestor who bequeathed us the genes in our mitochondria.  So this solution is also untenable.\\

And that solution is untenable even if you think we all inherited Adam’s Y chromosome (if we’re male) and Eve’s mitochondrion.

Now this of course leaves aside how “Original Sin” is inherited. It cannot segregate like a gene, which is present in pairs and thus a given gene has a 50% chance of getting into a single offspring. Rather, Original Sin must be passed on to EVERY offspring. So if every offspring of an Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, had Original Sin—as if it were a virus spread by both sperm and egg—then yes, every living person could have Original Sin, if you see them as all descended from Adam and Eve. But the genetic data show that even the claim, that Adam and Eve lived at the same time, is wrong. Ergo, there’s no way to save the Catholic dogma on the First Couple. It is, as all rational people realize, a complete fiction: a story descending from the ignorant childhood of our species.