Marilynne Robinson again embarrasses herself with an attempt to harmonize science and theology

December 5, 2022 • 10:45 am

I used to like Marilynne Robinson‘s fiction (she won a Pulitzer for her novel Gilead), but over the years she’s increasingly pushed her Christianity into her fiction and, more notably, into her essays. (See here and here for her rants on “scientism”.) And she is a pious Christian; as Wikipedia notes, she even preaches:

Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism, and her interest in the ideas of John Calvin, have been important in her works, including Gilead, which centers on the life and theological concerns of a fictional Congregationalist minister. In an interview with the Church Times in 2012, Robinson said: “I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker.”

And now she’s in the New York Review of Books (NYRB). This magazine, under editor Bob Silvers, used to be a paragon of literary thought and quality, but since he died it’s come down in the world—though for some reason it always published Robinson’s lucubrations. In the article below (if it’s paywalled, join free for a short time), Robinson tries to derive a theology from science. She fails, not only because you can’t do that, but because she really doesn’t understand science. It’s embarrassingly bad—”dreadful” is too kind a word!

Not only is it really a sermon, not an essay (it’s full of passages from the Bible), but it’s very poorly written—surprising for a Pulitzer-winning novelist.

Her goal is to “rehabilitate” the antagonism she sees between science and religion. She appears to effect this reconciliation by adducing the wonders of science and evolution as evidence for God, though she spurns the idea of even needing evidence for God (she is of course a believer, but doesn’t need no stinking evidence). She also appears not to understand science.

Her using biological complexity and consciousness as evidence for the Divine comes perilously close to Intelligent Design, though she rejects that idea, too. After all, God doesn’t need to be buttressed with evidence of any sort. But then then proceeds to give that evidence—drawn largely from evolution and quantum mechanics—for many boring pages.

I could quote her at length, but I don’t want to damage your brain.  Here are the first three paragraphs laying out her thesis (bolding is mine):

I have been interested for a long time in theology and also in science. These two brilliant fields of thought have been at odds, supposedly, since the rise of what might be called the modern period, say, beginning in the nineteenth century. For the next one hundred years and more science flourished, applying its model of rationalism to every question, while increasingly religion struggled to find any way to justify its existence in the face of triumphant demystifications of reality. Then an odd thing happened. With one brilliant advance after another, science burst out of the constraints of rationalism and found itself in the terrain of quantum theory, which everyone says no one understands, but which is very robust and has been put to all sorts of practical uses. Rationalism had been choking out religion for generations as it proposed etiologies for the creatures to refute creation myth and ethics for human beings that often ran directly counter to the traditional teachings of religion. For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

More recently certain stalwarts of nineteenth-century truth and reason were sure they would at last deliver the death blow to religion. But they lost heart or retired or went to their reward before that mortal blow was struck, if it ever could have been. They may have noticed that science as it advanced did not much resemble their conception of it, but their views never moderated. In the meantime religion was damaged and science was, too, so far as their reputations are concerned. Religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven, science as atheistic and arrogant. It is not unusual for people and groups to embrace the harshest characterizations that are made of them, as seems to have happened in this case. This is one more reason why we should speak more generously of one another.

In light of the fact that science and religion are two major pillars of our civilization, it seems there should be some effort at rehabilitation. I haven’t noticed any. Science has felt the consequences of all this in budget cuts and controversies in schools and the refusal of important segments of the population, in critical matters of public health, to accept the views of scientists as offered in good faith. Religion, meanwhile, has been largely overtaken by a belligerency darker and cruder than obscurantism, the very antithesis of theology, whatever it might have to do with faith. At the end of this hard-fought and meaningless struggle nothing was resolved, but there was grave loss on all sides.

First, theology is not a “brilliant field of thought”—not unless you consider embellishing fairy tales a “brilliant” exercise.  My contention is that theology hasn’t “advanced” since the days of Augustine the Hippo (yes, I know the name is a joke). By that I mean that although Biblical exegesis has become less literalistic and more sophisticated, has changed, and has even gotten more “inclusive”, it hasn’t brought us one iota closer towards understanding the nature of God and the divine, much less giving us any evidence for God’s existence or true nature. How could it? It’s all MADE UP STUFF. Science, on the other hand. . . . well, you know what it’s accomplished.

Look at the first paragraph above, where Robinson mentions “etiologies for the creatures” that refuted creationism with rationality. “Etiologies” here means EVOLUTION, but for some reason she doesn’t say that. She’s trying to show off, I guess. In the next sentence, Robinson just gets things wrong:

For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

In fact, nineteenth-century versions of evolution became highly modified as our understanding grew, and took a great leap in the 1930s, when the Modern Synthesis fused the young science of genetics with evolution.  I’m not sure what the “sundry determinist implications” are, either.  Evolution is no more deterministic than is physics; that is, it is deterministic save for any truly indeterministic quantum-mechanical influences (perhaps in mutation?), but I don’t think that’s what she’s talking about.  And Robinson is just dead wrong in assuming evolution is less subtle than “physics, genetics, and other fields”, but she’s not even wrong when she says that evolution survived in the face of findings of other fields. In fact, evolution incorporated genetics soon after it was rediscovered in 1900.  Truly, I don’t think Robinson knows what she’s talking about here. What is the sweating writer trying to say?

She’s right in saying in paragraph two that “religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven”, though not all religionists are fearful; but if science was damaged by being seen as “atheistic and arrogant”, I haven’t seen it. In fact, as belief in God is waning, public confidence in science is increasing. Below are some data from a 2019 Pew poll. Compare scientists on the top line with “religious leaders” on the bottom. Scientists win!

Science is practiced as an “atheistic” discipline—that is, one that doesn’t need or invoke the supernatural in making explanations—but is it really seen as “arrogant”? It surely is by Robinson, who’s been banging on about “scientism” for years, but if science’s reputation is eroding because of that, well, religion’s is eroding faster.  And nobody is more arrogant than someone like Robinson who strongly believes in the Christian God, and claims to know His nature—without a lick of evidence!  At least scientists can test other scientists’ claims and then show them to be wrong. What would convince Robinson that there was no God, or a god but not the Christian God she worships?

Robinson is, of course, making up a scenario here: there’s no evidence that the public has less trust in science than in religion, and to say that theology isn’t obscurantist is wrong. In fact, Robinson’s whole piece is obscurantist, as is most modern theology (try reading Alvin Plantinga or getting a lucid explanation of why God allows innocent people to suffer physical evil).

Below, Robinson raises the something-rather-than-nothing question to buttress her harmonizing of theology and religion, but then denies that the question constitutes “proof” of God. Again, bolding is mine:

Science has pondered the evolution of the eye as a special problem. In the case of the scallop, that morsel so much a staple of our menus, the emergence of the eye seems to have happened twice—once as a fringe along the shell for ordinary scallop business, and again as two stalks that look straight up so that the creature can find its way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest. This is charming. This is delightful. A courtesy, a solicitude. What an uneconomic deployment of possibility. But that phrase could be applied to humankind, to the whole of creation. After all, why is there something rather than nothing?

First, I didn’t know that scallops evolved eyes twice independently, particularly as two stalks that “help them find their way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest”.  Five minutes on the Internet yielded no verification of this, but I’ll let readers see if she’s right there. What’s more important is her last question: a staple of “sophisticated” theology.  Why is there something rather than nothing? Clearly Robinson thinks that means that there’s something because God wanted something, but this question isn’t evidence for God, much less of her Christian God (see Sean Carroll’s take here). And even if it were, then we would have to ask,  “Well, why is there a God rather than no God?” Theologians will do some fast-stepping there!

But Robinson quickly explains that she doesn’t need no stinkin’ proof of God. I’m wondering why she believes in the first place, then:

If I seem to be proffering a version of intelligent design, I want to make it clear that I reject any argument that presents itself as a proof of God’s existence. I think there is a degree of irreverence in the very idea of proof. At the same time, whether or not His existence is a factor in the nature of the world, there is a glory in creation to which the hyperbolic celebrations of Scripture are uniquely appropriate. The Book of Job describes creation as the moment when “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” In the long final speech from the whirlwind, God names the beasts and the natural forces and luxuriates in their power and strangeness, in overwhelming reply to the questioning of His justice. Granting that this is a difficult teaching to absorb, it can only mean that the world, the cosmos, in its infinite particularity, should be seen as a joy to God Himself. Let us say, therefore, that it is recommended to our attention. And it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention, as the arts and the sciences have demonstrated.

She says she’s not offering proof, but she sure as hell is adducing “evidence”! She just euphemizes “proof” with other words: “let us say that it is recommended to our attention”, and “it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention.”  What she’s saying is that the natural world, and our ability to understand it, points towards God.

I really can’t go on further, as I can’t figure out what the sweating author is trying to say, and her essay is so poorly written that I wonder why the NYRB, once a bastion of good writing, printed it. After all, it’s not a thoughtful analysis of anything, but is simply a sermon couched in what Dan Dennett calls “deepities”.

I’ll just leave you with her quantum woo. She reads into quantum mechanics, which we don’t fully understand nor have a good physical picture of, some divine mystery that also points towards  God. Physicists may be amused by her invoking the observer effect (which I think is pretty much defunct) and other quantum stuff that she incorporates into theology. If this is Sophisticated Thelogy®, it is obscurantist, wordy, and impenetrable.

Popular ideas of God have often been essentially anthropomorphic and have tended to limit their conception of His awareness by a standard of the possible that imagined a vastly heightened but basically humanlike consciousness. Now we know that the nature of things is negotiated moment by moment at the level of quantum indeterminacy, that from a subatomic point of view the clay is still in the potter’s hands. We know that an observer, literal or other, can effect this openness to possibility, can cause the indeterminacy to de-cohere, to become one version of the array of possibilities present in any instance. This underlies what we experience as a great constancy.

. . . Then again, if the hypothesis is correct that time and space emerge from quantum phenomena, which are therefore in some sense prior to them, then I find myself failing to imagine Being that is not spatially or temporally local and yet is generative of these conditions for and of our existence. I find myself thinking of the intuitions of the ancient people that there was a time when the world came into being. In Babylonian mythology the god Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat, a giant, raging serpent. He slices her corpse in two and uses half to form earth, half to form sky. Scholars have claimed to find evidence that a tale like this lies behind the serene, magisterial creation in Genesis. And there are glimpses in the biblical creation of the suppression of a primordial chaos, tohu va-vohu in Hebrew, “without form and void” in English. The prophet Isaiah says God will punish “Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

In the end, Robinson’s views are risible, and an embarrassment to both her and the NYRB. And to think that she won a Pulitzer Prize before she went off the rails and began writing stuff like this!

How low the NYRB has sunk!

The Fine Tuning argument for God: a selection of refutations (and a few supporters)

November 19, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Most of you surely know the fine-tuning argument for God: the claim that the physical constants of the Universe are such as to permit the evolution and existence of life (especially H. sapiens), and the concatention of so many salubrious constants is improbable—too coincidental to reflect anything but a Great Designer. (Its proponents claim that any alteration in these constants would make life impossible.)

This hourlong video interviews proponents and opponents of this argument for God (mostly opponents). They include philosophers, physicists, and believers. Here’s a list. Anybody whose name you recognize in the list below, save perhaps (Lennox and Craig) isn’t convinced by the argument.

Sir Roger Penrose
Sean Carroll
Alan Guth
Carlo Rovelli
Hans Halvorson
Justin Something
Chris Hitchcock
Barry Loewer
Graham Priest
Daniel Linford
Tim Maudlin
Simon Saunders
Niayesh Afshordi
Alex Malpass
Kenneth Williford
William Lane Craig
John Lennox
Abhay Ashketar
Lee Smolin
Stav Zalel
Rafael Sorkin

Nearly all the people interviewed reject the argument, largely on the grounds that we simply cannot calculate a priori what the probabilities are of the constants of nature being what they are, and there are alternative explanations for life that are purely naturalistic.

Sean Carroll makes the point that even thinking that there is fine-tuning that allows for the existence of life, that presupposes naturalism, because “God does not need the laws of physics to allow certain physical configurations to exist in order for there to be life. God is infinitely powerful; God can do whatever. The only theory under which the physical conditions need to be exactly right to allow for complex chemical reactions and biology and life and so forth, is naturalism.” I’m not quite sure about that argument, however; how do we know that God’s creation could occur unless the laws of physics were what they are? Could God really create humans in a universe with different physical constants, constants that He determines?

I do recommend watching the video; it gives you plenty of ammunition against those who wield the argument, but examines the argument from various sides, including what theological assumptions go into it. (The problem of evil is offered as a defeater for a God who would create a universe containing humans.) The arguments go further into string theory, multiverses, the cosmological constant, Boltzmann brains, and Lee Smolin’s “cosmological selection” argument for fine-tuning.

In the end, you will likely reject the fine-tuning argument (even the moderator says that there’s no justification for accepting God from this argument), but you’ll also be impressed about how much we still don’t understand about cosmology.

NYT readers, including Dan Dennett, respond to Ross Douthat’s column on the “increasing” evidence for God

August 21, 2021 • 1:15 pm

The other day I dissected Ross Douthat’s long-form NYT essay, “A guide to finding faith.” In short, it was dire, but no worse than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  His thesis was that, in this age of science, empiricism gives us more reason than ever to believe in God, especially Douthat’s Catholic God. It still baffles me why the NYT would publish such tripe, but the proportion of tripeish material in the paper is approaching that of a bistro in Normandy.

But the readers have responded, and you’ll find five letters at the site below (click on link). Four of them are critical of organized religion, while one misguided soul supports Douthat.  There are two notable letters in the former category, and I’ll reproduce them below.

To the Editor:

On a weekend when fundamentalist Muslims were winning a war against the United States, and as fundamentalist Christians demand the right to cause their fellow Americans to suffer and die from a preventable disease, Ross Douthat had the gall to tell me that I ought to accept the same primitive explanations that led directly to their fundamentalism. Hard pass.

David Bonowitz
San Francisco

and:

To the Editor:

Ross Douthat is so frantic in his campaign to stop the erosion of faith in faith that he can’t resist twice committing the sin I call lying for Christ.

First, he unaccountably misinterprets the meaning of the title of my book “Breaking the Spell,” which called for scrutinizing the phenomena of religion with the same objectivity we adopt when studying viral pandemics.

Second, he misinterprets illusionism, the well-evidenced theory that says that evolution has designed us to be conscious of an efficient oversimplification of the physical world: a user-illusion that helps us track the features of the world that matter to us.

It is ironic that Mr. Douthat himself breaks the spell, taking a hard look at the difficulties confronting would-be religious believers today. His recommendation that they cultivate a return to the mind-set of the Dark Ages is particularly telling. We secularists can glory in the wonders of “creation” without the nagging worries he exposes.

Daniel C. Dennett
Medford, Mass.
The writer is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

h/t: Barry

Some pushback by religion

August 18, 2021 • 1:15 pm

What I thought would be a pretty uncontroversial post the other day about Ross Douthat’s ridiculous arguments for God as the most parsimonious explanation for nature, turned out to generate a lot of heat. You didn’t see all of it because some came down in the form of emails and of comments so inordinately intemperate or stupid that I didn’t post them.  I don’t want interminable discussions of dumb and long-refuted arguments for God to contaminate this website, though I did allow a few believers to have their say.

Among the accusations were these:

a. You can’t prove atheism. This amuses me because atheism is simply the failure to accept the existence of gods, mainly because there’s no evidence for them. But yes, you can’t prove that there’s no god because you can never prove a negative like this. But you can’t prove that there are no fairies, either, yet I remain an a-fairyist. All I can say is that the less and less evidence we have for God, when (as Victor Stenger often said) there should be evidence for God, the less likely it is that God exists. Just look at it from a Bayesian perspective.

b. The presence of God is not an empirical matter. This was said by someone who characterized himself as a “firm believer”, in which case I wonder why he believes so firmly!

c.  The question of moral evil in a world run by God was solved by Alvin Plantinga, and most philosophers accept his explanation as a valid one. However, my argument was not about moral evil—Plantinga’s explanation is that we have free will, a higher good than the moral evil it creates)—but about physical (or natural) evil, like tsunamis or childhood cancers.  Plantinga’s explanation for that is outlined on pp. 148-149 of Faith Versus Fact, and involves invoking Satan. It’s ridiculous and no sane person would accept it.

d. Even physical evil is compatible with God, for what is a mere lifetime of suffering from disease compared to the glory of eternity with God? My response: what kind of sadistic god would allow even a mere lifetime of suffering if he could prevent it?

e. Atheism is a faith, like religion. This old chestnut is equally risible. Atheism is LACK of faith, for faith is believing in something without sufficient evidence. Atheism rejects belief in god because there is no good evidence for him (or her or it). If atheism is a faith, so is a-fairyism—the refusal to believe in the existence of fairies. Those who say that atheism is a faith must also say that everything they themselves reject because there is no good evidence, is also a faith like religion.

I guess I saw what we already know: much of America is religious, and not religious in a liberal way like the Unitarian Universalists or Quakers. People are willing to make the most ridiculous statements to defend their belief that God exists. One of the most ridiculous is that “atheism is a religion, too”, which I always read as “See? You’re as bad as we are!”. But it ain’t so.

The persistence of belief in God in an age where all evidence once adduced for His existence has vanished (creationism was the most powerful argument) still perplexes me. I can give reasons, like people want something MORE than what exists in the natural world, people want an afterlife, or people want to fob off on God things that they don’t understand (consciousness, or, in the case of Intelligent Design, “irreducible complexity”). There could be evolutionary reasons behind it, like Pascal Boyer’s “agency” theory, and so on. But explaining the ubiquity and strength of religion gives religion no credibility at all; it is a sociological question, not a theological one. Nevertheless, some people still claim that because religion is pervasive, that goes on the “God exists” side of the ledger.

In Faith Versus Fact I lay out a scenario that would convince me—provisionally, of course, because I’m a scientist—of the existence of a divine being. Even my rigorous criteria have been criticized, because they could, some say, merely involve trickery by space aliens. So be it. But nothing has come close to the kind of evidence I’d require.

I’d like to know what evidence would convince believers that there is no God. That evidence, of course, is already there: childhood cancers, tsunamis, the failure of prayer, the failure of God to instill a single religion in humanity, the failure of God to appear to humans for the vast majority of the hominin lineage, the disappearance of miracles that used to occur all the time, the uselessness of invoking supernatural forces to understand nature, the failure of Jesus to return, the paucity of evidence for Jesus, and so on, and so on, and so on. What about Auschwitz and the Nazis? Doesn’t that count against God, at least a benevolent and powerful one? I guess not—not if killing 10 million people was necessary so that Nazis could have free will.

If you’re a believer reading this, let me know what it would take to convince you, in this life, that there is no God.

Douthat: Science gives us more reason than ever to believe in God

August 15, 2021 • 9:30 am

There are some posts I’m compelled to write even though I know that they’ll make me angry, take a lot of time, and won’t stimulate my brain in the least, for they involve religious arguments that have long been refuted. This is one of those posts.

I’m always puzzled when people who show reasonably high intelligence confess that they’re religious—even deeply religious. These people include Andrew Sullivan, NIH head Francis Collins, and NYT columnist Ross Douthat. Though I usually disagree with Douthat and his conservative views, at least they’re based on data, however misinterpreted. But his deep faith (pious Catholicism), which he displays in embarassing detail in his new NYT essay, is beyond my ken. For here Douthat not only advances some of the common and unconvincing arguments for God (many taken from Intelligent Design), but also makes many of them, and says that they’re based on science itself.

But none of his claims will convince the skeptic. Further, Douthat fails to deal with arguments against God—especially the argument from physical evil (tsunamis,childhood cancers, and so on).  He doesn’t answer the question of where God came from, nor how we decide what beliefs about God are are true in the face of conflicting faith claims—though he does mention these issues. He punts on the question about why he’s a Catholic instead of a Jew or a Muslim. Is this just his preference, or are there facts about the world that vindicate Catholicism? Douthat doesn’t say.

As I began to write this summary and critique of his arguments, I felt more and more that even very smart people are willing to accept dubious claims if it makes them feel good. In other words, they lack well-tuned organs of skepticism and are ridden with confirmation bias. If you have other answers (e.g., God gives us answers to questions we can’t solve—another of Douthat’s “reasons”), weigh in below. And I remind readers of Michael Shermer’s relevant book, Why People Believe Weird Things.

But first click below to read and weep:

In this long piece, Douthat makes five arguments for God that I’ll summarize and discuss briefly. But first lays out his claim: that, in fact, believing in God, especially these days, is the most parsimonious thing to do. Atheism is less parsimonious than faith. And, even though science has advanced and explained via naturalism a lot of things once imputed to God, Douthat sees these advances as simply confirming God’s existence even more strongly.

A couple of introductory quotes. He first dismisses two reasons to at least pretend to believe in God: it can give you a communal system of ethics and philosophy, or, if you act as if you believe, perhaps eventually you will believe, and then you’re home free. Douthat doesn’t like those reasons, though, as he’s a true believer:

But there’s another way to approach religious belief, harder in some respects but simpler in others. Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.

The “new atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote a book called “Breaking the Spell,” whose title implies that religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly. But what if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?

In that case, the title of Dennett’s book is actually a good way to describe the materialist defaults in secular culture.

And this:

. . . there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.

Dennett gets bashed a couple of times, and I hope he’ll respond. But after recounting several reasons why medieval people believed in God, and claiming that they’re still good reasons (e.g., our consciousness, which allows us to observe ourselves from the outside, leads us to believe that we’re clearly made in the image of the Creator—which isn’t an argument at all), Douthat moves on to how modernity has only buttressed the case for a divine being. I find five reasons in his essay.

1.) The fine-tuned universe proves God.  Here we have this argument again, which physicists have refuted repeatedly. And even if Douthat’s answer be true—the multiverse leads some universes to be suitable for human life—that is an argument against God, not for him. For if God wanted to simply create life, with humans as its apotheosis, why did he go to all the bother of setting up multiverses, many of which don’t allow life?  Here’s Douthat:

The great project of modern physics, for instance, has led to speculation about a multiverse in part because it has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.

In other words, the multiverse explains why the laws of physics in our universe, though not in others, allow life to exist.

Are you kidding me? That’s an argument for God? The multiverse hypothesis posits not that the laws of physics are calibrated for life, but that they differ among universes, and in at least one universe (ours) those laws allow life to exist. (This, of course, assumes that the laws of physics really are “fine tuned” for life, and life couldn’t exist under any variants of those laws—a claim which itself is dubious.) Now we can’t test whether a multiverse exists, but if it does, and the laws of physics vary among them, then the “fine tuned universe” is in fact an argument against God and for naturalism.

2.) The “hard problem” of consciousness proves God.  Oy gewalt, my kishkes are already in knots.

Douthat:

Similarly, the remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened the “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, from the simple experience of color to the complexities of reasoned thought. So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions. Thus the self that we identify as “Daniel Dennett” doesn’t actually exist, even though that same illusory self has somehow figured out the true nature of reality.

This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.

What “leap of faith” is he talking about? I suspect it’s that naturalism hasn’t yet explained consciousness (or other stuff), and therefore God is a more parsimonious explanation. But, as Hitchens noted, that still leaves you with all the work ahead of you, for what explains the pre-existence of such a complex God? How did such a god get here? Saying he always existed is not an answer, for one could say that the multiverse always existed, or that single universes pop in and out of existence because “‘nothing’ is unstable”. And if God’s main aim was to create humans to worship and obey him, what was he doing before he made the Earth. And why use evolution to get to hominins rather than poof them into existence? After all, the Bible explicitly contradicts evolution.

Here Douthat simply offers the Argument from Ignorance: because there are hard problems that we can’t explain, we should default to the God Theory. You’d think that, observing the history of science and seeing that one argument for God after another has fallen in the face of naturalism (evolution, for instance, replaced the most convincing argument humanity ever had for God: creationism), Douthat would have some proper Catholic humility. But no, he claims that, with consciousness (and other phenomena described below),science has reached the end of the road. Ergo, God.

I beg to differ. Naturalism is the one route to understanding the universe; it’s the only game in town. Scientists, as Laplace explained, have discarded the God hypothesis because it doesn’t help us explain anything. Further, naturalism is already helping us understand consciousness: the parts of the brain that are necessary for the phenomenon to appear in our species, the chemicals that can take it away and bring it back, and so on. As with Patricia Churchland, I believe consciousness will be explained when we know all the parts required, and how they interact, for a being to become conscious. (Yes, I do realize how hard that endeavor is.) Beyond that, there’s no “hard problem.”

As for the “ultimate” explanation for consciousness—whether it’s a phenomenon favored by evolution or simply an epiphenomenon of the brain—I have no answer, but I could think of possible reasons. But let’s move on to Douthat’s next reason for God.

3.) The comprehensibility of the Universe itself is proof of God.

Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.

But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”

This again is not a new argument, and has been made for centuries. It involves two connected claims: that the Universe is comprehensible because God made it that way, so that it obeys laws (let’s leave the annoying lawlessness of miracles aside), and that God forged the human mind so that it could understand those laws, thereby appreciating God’s greatness.

As to why there are physical laws in the first place, we don’t know, but it’s likely there could be no universe to observe unless there were physical laws. They may differ among different universes, but if laws changed within a universe, what would we have? We wouldn’t have planets orbiting the Sun according to the laws of gravity, we would not have matter, whose existence depends on many regularities, and so on. In other words, we could posit a “weak anthropic principle” for physical laws.

As for why humans can investigate and understand those laws, we don’t need to posit God. The blind and naturalistic process of evolution, for which (unlike for God) we have evidence, will suffice. And if God gave us brains to comprehend the universe, why didn’t those brains include a universal belief in the real God—the one that Douthat thinks exists. All scientists worth their salt accept the inverse square law of gravity and the existence of evolution, but different populations of the world have very different concepts of God—or no god at all. Did God intend to punish atheists by withholding from them the ability to believe in God while still vouchsafing them the mental ability to detect gravity waves? I’m puzzled.

Now note that if you combine arguments #2 and #3 you get this result:

When there’s stuff we don’t understand, that’s proof of God
When we do understand stuff, that’s proof of God, too.

This means, of course, that Douthat has a watertight argument for God that can’t be disproven.

4.) Demonic visitations, near-death experiences, and other numinous phenomena prove God. This is truly bizarre, especially given Hume’s postulate that one should take a parsimonious view of such occurrences, accepting them as real only if a naturalistic explanation (including deluded observers) is less parsimonious.

Here’s Douthat, whom I’ll have to quote at length (there’s a lot more than this!):

Read the British novelist Paul Kingsnorth’s recent account of his pilgrimage from unbelief through Zen Buddhism and Wicca to Christianity, and you will find a story of mysterious happenings that would fit neatly into the late Roman world in which Christianity first took shape. (Except back then he would have probably been a Platonist rather than a Buddhist.) Or read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Living With a Wild God,” a memoir by an inveterate skeptic of organized religion, which describes mystical experiences that came to her unbidden, with a biblical mix of awe, terror and mystery.

“It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once,” Ehrenreich writes. “One reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”

So the bolt from the blue still falls on nonbelievers as well as on believers. The nonbeliever is just more likely to baffled by what it all might mean, or more resistant, as Ehrenreich remains, to the claim that it should point toward any particular religion’s idea of God.

Likewise with experiences that seem like hauntings and possessions, psychic or premonitory events, or brushes with the strange “tricksters” that used to be read as faeries and now get interpreted, in the light of science fiction and the space age, as extraterrestrials. In the 21st century, as in the 19th or the 14th, they just keep on happening, frequently enough that even the intelligentsia can’t completely ignore them: You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker.

. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.

. . . Maybe they are all just mental illusion (even if some of their features are not exactly easy for existing models of brain function to explain), the result of some evolutionary advantage to feeling peaceful at the brink of death. But just conceding their persistent existence is noteworthy, given how easy it is to imagine a world where these kinds of experiences didn’t happen, where nobody came back from the threshold of death with a life-changing account of light suffused with love or where the experiences of the dying were just a random dreamlike jumble.

Let us first note that a. there are reasons why people would want to take these phenomena as evidence for a God, for who wants their life to end at death? But the phenomena, which can be reproduced with drugs, chemicals, meditation, and so on, are not themselves evidence for any kind of divine being. Anyone who’s ingested LSD or other hallucinogens will experience all kinds of bizarre things, including great and ineffable beauty that eludes us in our quotidian life, and perhaps a sense that we’re all part of one Universe.  But just because we can reproduce mystical experiences with chemicals is no proof that non-chemical experiences of the numinous are evidence for God. In fact, people who are severely mentally ill often have such experiences, including the sense that they themselves are gods! Douthat is incredibly credulous about human experiences and what they mean.

And no, an evolutionary explanation for “nonhuman minds” is NOT making “a concession to religion’s plausibility”; it’s a scientific/sociological attempt to explain why people so readily buy religious claims. Pascal Boyer’s explanation, for instance, that “agency detection” would be of evolutionary advantage, does not give even an iota of credibility to religious claims. It’s simply an attempt to see why people so readily impute unknown phenomena to God. It’s arguments like this one that makes me think Douthat is either not as smart as he seems, or, more likely, is deeply blinded by his will to believe. He hasn’t the slightest idea why evolutionary biologists seek explanations for religion, or what that seeking means. We want to know why so many people believe stuff that’s unsupported by evidence. The only concession that people like Boyer or Dennett make when they study how religion might have come about is that religion exists, not that it’s plausible !

5.) Finally, because evolution leads us to believe in things that are real and true, ubiquitous belief in God must give us greater confidence that God exists. I’ve already discussed a bit of this claim, for it’s in this bit of Douthat quoted above:

. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.

I mentioned above the fallacy of asserting that evolutionists’ study of religion gives the content of religious beliefs—including God—more plausibility. Now I’ll address the idea that evolution tells us what’s true about the world. This is often the case, for an individual who thinks a lion is harmless, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt him, is less likely than others to pass on his genes. But, as many have pointed out, evolution has also endowed us with faculties that can be fooled. Optical illusions are a good example. But there are many more, and here I’ll quote from Steve Pinker’s excellent essay, “So how does the mind work?”

Members of our species commonly believe, among other things, that objects are naturally at rest unless pushed, that a severed tetherball will fly off in a spiral trajectory, that a bright young activist is more likely to be a feminist bankteller than a bankteller, that they themselves are above average in every desirable trait, that they saw the Kennedy assassination on live television, that fortune and misfortune are caused by the intentions of bribable gods and spirits, and that powdered rhinoceros horn is an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction. The idea that our minds are designed for truth does not sit well with such facts.

One would imagine that Douthat could have talked to more evolutionists before he started making The Argument for God from Evolution.  But the man is clearly beset with confirmation bias, and his willingness to make the fivefold assertion that modern science proves God more strongly than ever testifies to that bias. And because of his personal issues, we get this wretched essay that’s come from his word processor.

I’ve alluded to Douthat’s evasion of the issues of evil, and of the problem of many and conflicting faiths, and you can read for yourself how he punts on these issues, which actually are critical ones. Just one quote here:

But wait, you might say: Given that Hinduism and Christianity are actually pretty different, maybe this attempted spell-breaking doesn’t get us very far. Postulating an uncreated divine intelligence or ultimate reality doesn’t tell us much about what God wants from us. Presupposing an active spiritual realm doesn’t prove that we should all go back to church, especially if these experiences show up cross-culturally, which means they don’t confirm any specific dogma. And you haven’t touched all the important problems with religion — what about the problem of evil? What about the way that institutional faith is used to oppress and shame people? Why not deism instead of theism, or pantheism instead of either?

These are fair questions, but this essay isn’t titled “How to Become a Presbyterian” or “How to Know Which Faith Is True.” The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.

Well, at least he admits the problems, but doesn’t face the fact that these are arguments against God—especially if you use his own claims! He thinks his arguments are so strong that niggling worries about how many gods there are, or why little kids get cancer, can be ignored or put off for some other time. I, for one, look forward to Douthat’s explanation of those issues.

h/t: Tom and several other readers.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Lewis

July 21, 2021 • 9:15 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “Lord”, comes with the note: “Look, it’s a trope.”

The trope, of course, is C. S. Lewis’s (in)famous “Liar, lunatic, or lord” passage from his book Mere Christianity, also known as Lewis’s Trilemma. Here it is:

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. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

Now isn’t that convincing?

I remember when I read the book as part of my research for Faith Versus Fact, and I read it because Mere Christianity is supposed to be the best selling and most popular book on Christianity save the Bible itself. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that there are other possibilities beyond Lewis’s three, including Bart Ehrman’s thesis that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who may have believed what he said, but didn’t claim he was God himself.  You can see other criticisms at The Secular Web.

All in all, I was pretty appalled that people were taken in by C. S. Lewis’s arguments for Christianity in the book. It was like The Little Golden Book of Jesus for Brits. Grania, a lapsed Catholic, always said that Lewis was popular simply because he was one of the few theologians who could write for the average person.

But on to the strip, in which Mo gives Jesus a zinger:

The pathetic Michael Egnor thinks the existence of stuff proves God

April 12, 2021 • 2:00 pm

I have mixed feelings toward pediatric neurosurgeon, Catholic, and intelligent-design (ID) advocate Michael Egnor. I feel sorry for him because his ID activity is simply a waste of time, much of it spent attacking atheism (mine!) rather than advancing evidence for intelligent design. Where is the evidence for ID that was supposed to convince us all about a decade ago? Egnor’s given up on that endeavor to engage in invective towards evolutionists and atheists, thinking that denigrating scientists will help his cause. It hasn’t. For that’s simply an ad hominem tactic that will convince nobody who hasn’t already drunk the Kool-Aid (or the communion wine). My other feeling is that I deeply dislike the guy because he’s simply nasty. Acceptance of ID has declined since it first surfaces a few decades ago, and teaching it in schools has been ruled a “religious activity” that violates the First Amendment.

You can see evidence of the man’s egnorance and incivility in Egnor’s latest piece at the ID site Mind Matters News (click on screenshot).  Here he argues, as the title says, that evidence for God (which God? he doesn’t say) is scientific: in fact, more scientific than any other proposition. However, Egnor’s “scientific argument” consists of mounting Aquinas’s broken-down old Nag: the First Cause Argument. To summarize, Egnor’s entire argument for God is this: “the existence of stuff proves God.” That’s truly pathetic.  First Cause arguments for God have been made for centuries, but also found unconvincing for centuries.

First, Egnor shows how offended he was by my critique of a Mormon’s claim that “we can have God and vaccines, too, ergo science and religion are compatible”.  According to Egnor, I am benighted on both the scientific and religious front:

Atheist evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is a fountain of nonsensical arguments against the existence of God. If a scholar wanted to write a review paper on the most ridiculous arguments against God’s existence so far in the 21st century, he would need look no further than Coyne’s blog. . .

Coyne misunderstands both the nature of scientific evidence and the nature of the evidence for God’s existence.

And by my writings I have done “incalculable damage” to the world:

The real scandal is not that these New Atheists don’t believe in God — regrettably, disbelief in God is fairly common in our willfully ignorant and distracted society. The real scandal is that intellectuals like Coyne merely pretend to understand evidence for and against God’s existence. They use their scientific credibility to buttress arguments that are embarrassingly ignorant. They mislead many people who have neither the time nor the inclination to look into these questions deeply and objectively.

Their forays into issues like faith and science in fighting COVID-19 do incalculable damage to so many souls by denying the scientific fact that God exists. God’s existence is far more thoroughly proven using the scientific method than any other theory.

Has somebody not gotten their jab because of me? I seriously doubt it. And look at that last sentence! God’s existence is more thoroughly proven via science than any other theory!

How can I have gone so wrong? Well, first, says the benighted physician, I don’t understand how science works:

. . . as Thomas Aquinas. pointed out in the 13th century, nothing can be proven to exist using deductive proof because deductive proofs only work with logical forms, which are essences. Essence and existence are separate concepts. For example, to prove that wolves, dinosaurs, or unicorns exist, we would need evidence. We can’t prove (or disprove) that they exist by deduction alone.

All of science depends on inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning begins with evidence and then proceeds by a logical chain to the most reasonable conclusion. Newton used inductive reasoning when he began by studying the motion of objects in gravitational fields and applying logical and mathematical rules to arrive at his law of gravitation. Darwin used inductive reasoning by studying the diversity and distribution of species and animal breeding. Then, by using logical rules, he drew analogies to speciation in nature. All scientific theories, whatever their merit, depend on inductive reasoning.

Yes, but much of science also depends on deductive reasoning, or a combination of the two called “abductive reasoning.” In fact, a lot of modern physics began as deductive processes based almost entirely on rumination. The General Theory of Relativity is such a theory. Of course to verify a theory like that one needs evidence, but that evidence can also come from deductions from a theory. One could predict, for example, that if gravity can bend light, as Einstein posited, then light from a star passing by a big celestial body might curve in its path, giving us a false idea of the star’s real position. This is a deduction, and was verified in 1919 by Dyson and Eddington, who observed the position of stars during a solar eclipse, showing starlight bent, as predicted, by the Sun. Their result has been verified several times over.

But never mind. Had my understanding of the scientific method been so terrible, I never would have had a successful career in science, for my papers would never have been accepted and published.

But my theological misunderstanding, says Egnor, is even lamer: for I can’t grasp that the very existence of stuff around me is evidence for God. That’s what Aquinas’ First Cause argument says: “Everything has a cause; there was a cause for stuff; and all causes eventually regress to the First Uncaused Cause, which is God by definition.” To Egnor, this piece of logic is absolutely convincing:

The Big Bang, to take an example, was not an event in the natural world. It was a singularity, which means that it is undefined and undefinable both mathematically and in conventional physics. Similarly, a cosmological singularity — for example, a black hole — is also a supernatural entity. That just means it is outside of nature. We never observe black holes just as we never can observe the Big Bang. We can only infer — by inductive reasoning — the existence of supernatural entities such as black holes by their effects in the natural world.

This inductive reasoning is precisely what proofs of God’s existence do. We cannot observe God in this life because he is not part of this world. He is supernatural. But we can observe his effects in the natural world just as we inferred the existence of the Big Bang and black holes by observing their effects. It is the same sort of reasoning.

I’ll put the next bit in bold because it’s so stupid:

There is one difference though: the evidence and the logic pointing to God’s existence is overwhelmingly stronger than the evidence and logic supporting any other scientific theory in nature. Aquinas’s First Way proof of God’s existence, for example, has exactly the same structure as any other scientific theory. The empirical evidence is the presence of change in nature. Because infinite regress is logically impossible in an essentially ordered chain of change.

I’m not going to get into the claim that the existence of black holes and the Big Bang are “supernatural” entities.  In fact, we can observe the residua of the Big Bang (leftover microwave radiation pervading the Universe), and there are theories that it is not supernatural: a totally empty universe is physically unstable and the Big Bang is a naturalistic result of that. Further, we can see black holes directly: here’s a picture of one taken with radio waves (and color visualized) just two years ago. The “black hole” or event threshhold is visible in the center. Is it supernatural? Don’t make me laugh.

As for the black holes in the First Cause argument (also called the Cosmological Argument), I needn’t reiterate them; just go here or here for a quick overview. One of the objections is that even if there were a First Cause, it wouldn’t have to be a theistic God, i.e., the God who, according to Egnor, continues to interact with the world, even becoming a wafer during Mass.

I’ve wasted enough time on Egnor, for I’m actually giving him what he wants: publicity and attention. While he continues to attack me on the ID websites, I’ll leave the bugger alone except to point out that his own faith—Catholicism—has been and continues to be one of the chief religious vehicles for immorality and harm in the world.

Egnor thinks he has an airtight argument for God (he doesn’t), but he has no argument at all for his Catholic God.  Will he wave the Bible at me to prove that? Then I’ll wave the Quran back at him. What else can you say about a man who thinks that this is a scientific argument:

The evidence and the logic of Aquinas’s First Way is immeasurably stronger than the evidence for any other scientific theory — for Newtonian gravitation, quantum mechanics, relativity, the Big Bang, etc., because every instance of change in nature is evidence in Aquinas’s First Way. Every galaxy that emits light, every wave on the ocean, every leaf that turns brown in the fall, every electron that moves in an atom is evidence for God’s existence.

Richard Dawkins on truth and “ways of knowing”

December 19, 2020 • 10:45 am

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an article by Dawkins appear in a magazine or newspaper, but now there’s a new one on the nature of truth and knowledge in The Spectator (click on screenshot for free access). Yes, it’s a rather conservative venue, but you’re not going to see The Guardian publishing critiques of theology and postmodern denial of objective truth. And Dawkins does take some pretty strong swings at Donald Trump, e.g. “For him, lying is not a last resort. It never occurs to him to do anything else.”

The article first defines what scientists mean by “truth”, and then attacks two areas that dismiss that definition—or at least offer alternative “ways of knowing”:

What is truth? Richard begins by analogizing scientific truth with the “the kind of truth that a commission of inquiry or a jury trial is designed to establish.” He adds this:

I hold the view that scientific truth is of this commonsense kind, although the methods of science may depart from common sense and its truths may even offend it.

I like that idea—though Massimo Pigliucci will be enraged—because it shows there’s no bright line between scientific truth and the kind of truth that people establish using “common sense”, which I take to mean empirical inquiry whose results people generally agree on. Truth is simply what exists in the universe and can be found by common assent. That’s with the proviso, of course, that there is a reality to be found, and one that’s independent of us. I’ll take that as a given, and don’t want to argue about it. And, of course “common assent” means, in science, the assent of those capable of evaluating data.

Finally, while truth is always “provisional” in science, there are some truths so well established that we can regard them as “not really that provisional”. These are the truths whose reality you’d bet thousands of dollars on. It’s unlikely, as I say in Faith Versus Fact, that normal DNA will some day be shown to be a triple helix, or a water molecule to have two atoms of hydrogen and two of oxygen. This is a point that Richard makes as well, and one we should keep in mind when we debate those who argue that, “Well, science is tentative, and can be wrong—and has been wrong.” To wit:

It is true that Newton’s laws are approximations which need modifying under extreme circumstances such as when objects travel at near the speed of light. Those philosophers of science who fixate on the case of Newton and Einstein love to say that scientific truths are only ever provisional approximations that have so far resisted falsification. But there are many scientific truths — we share an ancestor with baboons is one example — which are just plain true, in the same sense as ‘New Zealand lies south of the equator’ is not a provisional hypothesis, pending possible falsification.

Bad thinkers. Finally, the two groups Richard excoriates for rejecting the notion of scientific truths are the theologians on one hand and the PoMo-soaked philosophers and Critical Theory mavens on the other. First, the theologians, who by now are low-hanging fruit:

Theologians love their ‘mysteries’, such as the ‘mystery of the Trinity’ (how can God be both three and one at the same time?) and the ‘mystery of transubstantiation’ (how can the contents of a chalice be simultaneously wine and blood?). When challenged to defend such stuff, they may retort that scientists too have their mysteries. Quantum theory is mysterious to the point of being downright perverse. What’s the difference? I’ll tell you the difference and it’s a big one. Quantum theory is validated by predictions fulfilled to so many decimal places that it’s been compared to predicting the width of North America to within one hairsbreadth. Theological theories make no predictions at all, let alone testable ones.

Nor has theology ever, by itself, established a single truth about the universe. I keep asking people to give me one, but they either can’t or bring in truths that are empirical and can be verified not by revelation or dogma, but only by observation and testing. Ergo, theology is not a “way of knowing.”

And then the poor PoMos and Critical Theorists get their drubbing (remember, the roots of Critical Theory are in the filthy humus of postmodernism):

A more insidious threat to truth comes from certain schools of academic philosophy. There is no objective truth, they say, no natural reality, only social constructs. Extreme exponents attack logic and reason themselves, as tools of manipulation or ‘patriarchal’ weapons of domination. The philosopher and historian of science Noretta Koertge wrote this in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1995, and things haven’t got any better since:

Instead of exhorting young women to prepare for a variety of technical subjects by studying science, logic, and mathematics, Women’s Studies students are now being taught that logic is a tool of domination…the standard norms and methods of scientific inquiry are sexist because they are incompatible with ‘women’s ways of knowing’. The authors of the prize-winning book with this title report that the majority of the women they interviewed fell into the category of ‘subjective knowers’, characterised by a ‘passionate rejection of science and scientists’. These ‘subjectivist’ women see the methods of logic, analysis and abstraction as ‘alien territory belonging to men’ and ‘value intuition as a safer and more fruitful approach to truth’.

That way madness lies. As reported by Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh in The Nation in 1997, the social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, at an interdisciplinary seminar, praised the virtues of the experimental method. Audience members protested that the experimental method was ‘the brainchild of white Victorian males’. Ellsworth acknowledged this, but pointed out that the experimental method had led to, for example, the discovery of DNA. This was greeted with disdain: ‘You believe in DNA?’

You can’t not ‘believe in DNA’. DNA is a fact. . . .

While different groups of people have different interests, and that may lead them to work on areas that reveal truths heretofore hidden, that doesn’t mean that there are different ways of knowing. Barbara McClintock, for example, was touted by her biographer Evelyn Fox Keller as having a special female-linked “feeling for the organism” that led to her Nobel-winning studies on mobile genetic elements. I don’t buy that thesis, but there may be some truth to the claim that female evolutionists helped emphasize the important role of female choice in sexual selection.  If so, that means that different aspects of a problem may appeal to different groups, but in the end the truth or falsity of ideas are established the same way by everyone. McClintock did her science the way everyone else did, as do those who study sexual selection. There may be many ways of thinking, but only one way of knowing. 

And that way of knowing is what I call “science construed broadly”: the use of observation, testing of hypotheses, attempts to falsify your theory, experiments, and so on. Science has more refined methods than, say, an electrician trying to find a glitch in house wiring, but in the end they both rely on a similar set of empirical tools.

Richard will of course be faulted for attacking the beloved notion of “other ways of knowing”, but in the end he’s right. And of course there are all those people laying for him, who will claim he’s arrogant in giving science such hegemony over truth. He attacks this head on:

Some of what I have claimed here about scientific truth may come across as arrogant. So might my disparagement of certain schools of philosophy. Science really does know a lot about what is true, and we do have methods in place for finding out a lot more. We should not be reticent about that. But science is also humble. We may know what we know, but we also know what we don’t know. Scientists love not knowing because they can go to work on it. The history of science’s increasing knowledge, especially during the past four centuries, is a spectacular cascade of truths following one on the other. We may choose to call it a cumulative increase in the number of truths that we know. Or we can tip our hat to (a better class of) philosophers and talk of successive approximations towards yet-to-be-falsified provisional truths. Either way, science can properly claim to be the gold standard of truth.

Amen! I’ll finish with a quote I used to begin Chapter 4 in Faith Versus Fact. It’s from Mike Aus, a former preacher who left the pulpit after admitting his atheism on television. Since then he hasn’t fared well, but he did produce one quotation that I think is telling:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

h/t: Eli

A Christian tries to save my soul by answering my hard questions about religion

August 23, 2020 • 9:15 am

In 2014 I published a piece in The New Republic (click on screenshot) which, despite the title, which I didn’t choose, described ways to turn religious peoples’ debate arguments back on themselves.

Part of that article involved using a “no-god of-the-gap” arguments, asking religious people to answer a series of six questions. The bit below is from my piece:

But we can play the Gap Game, too. There are huge gaps in believers’ understanding of God, and in those lacunae, I claim, lies strong evidence for No God. Here are a few religious gaps:

  • Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?
  • Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?
  • Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you eternal immolation in molten sulfur. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?
  • Why is God in the Old Testament such a narcissistic bully, toying with people for his amusement, ordering genocides in which innocent women and children are killed en masse, and demanding the death of those who work on the Sabbath? How does that comport with the God that Christians and Jews worship today?
  • Why didn’t Jesus return during his followers’ lifetime, as he promised?
  • How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

Now I didn’t think that these questions would flummox more “sophisticated” believers, but they were designed to plant doubts in the minds of the more open-minded believers, or of those on the fence, and help them realize the intellectual vacuity of Abrahamic religion.

And, sure enough, six years later a Christian came out of the woodwork, emailing me a long screed yesterday giving his answers to the questions above (the writer is a man). To be fair, the guy spent a lot of time on the answers, even quoting the relevant Biblical passages. But the email turned out to be too long to post here.

Instead, I’ll just show you how he answered  three of the questions above (they’re in bold below, and stuff from the email is indented). I’ll say a few words (flush left after my initials), and let readers respond. I have the writer’s complete email with the answers to the other three questions, and will be glad to send them—without the sender’s name—if you’re interested.

If you respond, please be polite: the gentleman did, after all, have my salvation in mind. But be as hard-nosed as you want in the answers. Afterwords, I’ll inform the sender of the comments on this site so he can see the responses.  I have of course eliminated the name or any identifying aspects of the sender; the point here is to address arguments, not “out” a believer.

Here we go, with the sender’s words indented, with all words exactly as sent: typos and other errors are the sender’s.

In this article from 2014 you said that no theologian could provide credible evidence to the “gap” in believers understanding of God. I have a rebuttal to your six gaps. I know it will probably not change your mind about a thing, but if anything I hope that it enlightens you to the fact that some Christians will research and formulate comprehendible arguments. If it means anything to you know this; even as a stranger, i sincerely do hope that you will think about these things and I care enough about your salvation that I bothered to do this for you.

Q) Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?

A) This question is easily answered by the most simplistic Biblical concept there is. Loving God=freedom for people, freedom=choice. Humanity chose to rebel against God and the consequences is separation from God=death(Gen 3). God holds all things together (Pslm 75:3)therefore going against him, rebelling, sinning and going our own way leads to death(Rom 6:23). He dwelt among us in the garden which was perfect and God(Gen 1:31) (Gen 3:8) and kept all things Holy, once His presence left death and decay gripped all creation. Satan is the accuser, the liar, the murderer of the human family(Jn 8:48) who holds the power of death(Heb 2:4). Because of his pride he first rebelled against God and has sinned from the very beginning(1 Jn 3:8), and he uses that very same pride today to get people to not believe, masquerading as an angel of light(2 Cor 11:14) making sin look fun and beautiful, lying that we will not die for disobeying God (Gen 3:4). The key is though, that God has been using redemptive work ever since the days of Noah (Rom 8:21). All of the Biblical story points to Jesus and how it is God’s plan to save us from the punishment and judgement of our sins by becoming a perfect man (Heb 9:11) fulfilling all of God’s law and dying on the cross, rising again to bring us to life through him (Jn 6:40). So the all loving God was able to make a way for anyone that believes in the Son to live forever by reconciliation with the Father again(Jn 3:16) (Rom 10:9).

Suffering is a permanent sickness for the earth until we go to our true home, heaven (Rom 8:18-26). Even Jesus was not exempt from suffering. It is used as an instrument of obedience. As Wayne Jackson from The Christian Courier says ” all sunshine and no rain creates a desert”. We use suffering as a means to bring glory to God by persevering, enduring, and to become patient, compassionate, loving, kind, and yes even joyful which are all qualities God desires to see arise out of us from trials. The child that gets cancer has hope, hope in Life with Jesus eternally (Matt 19:14). The tsunami victims have hope if they cry out to God to be saved (Pslm 34:17). God also promises we are not alone during life’s trials(2 Cor 1:3-7)(Heb 4:16). Jesus told us that in this fallen world we would suffer but he has overcome the world(Jn 16:33) so we can overcome the world through him( 1 Jn 5:5). Life is not all about the materialistic. There is another life beyond this. Plus God can heal providentially with medicine, wisdom for the doctors, and for the complex design of the human body and immune system are all ways he can work through natural law. It is foolish to think that if God created the world that all of the resources we have available are not created by him either. Who would understand it better than the one who created it all? With no God, cancer consumes the child and they have no hope, no more life, just a cruel and unfair “chance” that is uncontrollable and uncalculated in an uncaring universe.

JAC:  Here the blame falls on humans and (naturally) Satan, with God unable or unwilling to intervene to stop natural evil. Humans, of course, were responsible because Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, damning all their descendants to both moral and natural evil. Note that, unlike theodicy of “moral evil,” in which humans do bad things to other humans as an undesirable but necessary product of free will, free will here invoked only once: on the part of Adam and Eve. (You can’t invoke free will for stuff like cancer and tsunamis, which do not have any capacity to choose freely. Neither, of course, do we, but here we see the critical importance of libertarian free will in Christianity. If our “choices” are all determined by factors we don’t control, the whole explanation above collapses.)

Note, too, the Mother-Teresa-like concentration on suffering as a way to glorify God. This is barbaric. “The child that gets cancer has hope in eternal life with Jesus”? Not if the kid is too young to know about Jesus, much less accept him as a savior! And what about tsunami or accident victims that don’t have time to cry out to God to be saved? After all, as the writer said in another part of the email:

Not being baptized does not necessarily mean you will go to hell. Observe the thief on the cross. All he did was repent and that was last minute(Lk 42-43)! We all have been blessed with time to repent and come to Jesus(2 Pet 3:9). Then through acceptance of him, the Holy Spirit leads you to the decision of baptism and repentance(Matt 3:11)(Acts 13:24).

Not if you meet a sudden and unpredictable death, much less if you’re of a faith that doesn’t worship Jesus as the savior (e.g. Islam or Hinduism)!

Finally, if medicine and doctors are all products of God’s wisdom, why was He so late to bring antibiotics to our attention? Or, for that matter, why doesn’t he heal those cancer-stricken kids himself rather than rely on methods that aren’t always reliable? Why is suffering abated in some children but not others? But we must drop these questions and pass on.

Q) Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?

A) He is hidden, or veiled, away from humanity because He is too Holy to be looked at without humans dying (Ex 20:18-20). He has revealed himself through His Word from which he spoke to prophets and patriarchs through dreams and visions and messengers (angels) see (Pslm 147:19) (1 Sam 3:21) (Isa22:14). Also creation displays God’s attributes and wonders and God is evident through all creation (Rom 1:20)(Pslm 19:1-2). In fact, we bear the image of the Almighty (Gen 1:27) and, God’s people also bear fruits that can only come from the holy spirit(Jn 15:16) which reveals a transformation that is visible for all to be recognized as coming from God(Matt 7:16) which shines a light for others to see (Matt 5:16). He also revealed himself through His Son Jesus (Jn 14:9) who was fully God and testified all that we need to know about God in our present state, more shall be revealed later, in eternity we will have all the answers we have ever sought(Pslm38:15). Jesus even says that there are some who would be unbelieving even while seeing (Jn 5:43-47),(Jn 20:29)(Jn 6:36).

Finally, we are to seek God with all our hearts, minds and strength humbly and confidently (Jer 29:13), (Matt 6:23), (Duet 4:29). God’s timing is His own and his ways are not our ways(Isa 55:8), the reason he waited was because everything had to be fulfilled perfectly for his redemptive plan (Matt 8:17), (Jer 33:14), (Acts 7:17), just as we are waiting now for Christ’s return (Jm 5:8). The area that He chose was foretold in prophesy (Pslm 130:8), (Rom 11:1-5) and the milage sure didn’t seem to make a difference for the spread of Christianity. We are now reconciled to Isreal from all nations and peoples who call on His name, great multitudes (Eph 2: 11-18) (Rev 7:9). Why is the ground not obvious to everyone? Because of our hard hearts. Our idolatry. Our carnal desires that we will not give up to taste and see. Our rebellious nature(Ezek 12:2)(Pslm 53:12). Seeking our own ways(Isa 53:6), inventing our own gods and following the god of this age(2 Cor 4:4)

JAC: First of all, several humans in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Abraham, etc.) did see manifestations of God without dying. But what I was talking about here was not a vision of God as a person, but the absence of well documented miracles these days when they were so frequent in Biblical times. (This is a question I discuss in Faith Verus Fact, even including the kind of miracle that would make me a provisional believer.) In the end, the writer expects us to accept God because the Bible says that there’s a God, and the Bible is TRUE. This is another instance of “begging the question” in the correct sense: assuming what you want to prove. The writer has no evidence that the Bible, as opposed to gazillions of other scriptures that make contradictory claims, is the truth.

Which brings us to the last question this Christian tries to answer.

Q) How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

A) How we know for sure that our faith is correct is that our God has revealed himself (Isa43:12)(1 Cor 4:1)(Duet 29:29)(Ezek 20:5). This was achieved by signs and wonders, prophets, his Holy spirit, his Word, his promises that have been fulfilled(Jos 21:45). No other God is like Him who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1)(Col 1:16). No other “god” has ever or will ever be able to prove themselves and have faded and passed through the ages, but the word of the Lord endures forever (1 Pet 1:25). So therefore, if someone in a monotheistic religion believes all of this about the one true God, then they must believe Jesus is who he said he was (1 Tim 2: 5-6). If not, they are calling God a liar and the entire Christian religion is false. If Jesus didn’t create the New Covenant through his death and resurrection, then that means we cannot be reconciled to God. We would be stuck having to atone and sacrifice for our own sins which we would all fail at and be lost forever.

My point is Christians can be confident their faith is the right one through faith in Christ, the other religions are not even confident enough to know if they are saved or not! Even the most devout among them still question whether God will have mercy on them based on their actions, which still might not even be enough for salvation no matter how good they have been. But there is a contradiction: if God has revealed himself then how can one not know what God wants from them to be saved? Even better, how does any other religion have a superior way to salvation than God dying in their place for them? Trusting that Jesus is the way is how to be sure your faith is right(Jn 14:6). Jesus is Divine. Jesus is God. And to deny him is to deny God (1 Jn 2:23(Luke10:16).

JAC: Here we have more question-begging. We know that Christianity is the right faith because the New Testament says so, and the Bible must be true. If you doubt the Bible, you “are calling God a liar.” I’d put it more gently: the Bible is the word of humans, not of a god. The second paragraph assumes that we all want salvation, but some religions, like many kinds of Judaism, don’t believe in or expect an afterlife.

Oh hell, I’ll put in one more question and just a snippet of the sender’s response, just to show that he sees homosexuality as a sin:

Q) Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you to eternal immolation in molten sulfer [sic]. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?

A) First of all let’s get one thing strait: all sins are punished(Rom 5:12). Not just homosexuality but also lust, idolatry, murder, greed, selfishness, fornication, adultery, hate, theft, lying, idolatry, and blaspemers. No one is good, there is not one(Pslm 53:3). We all have weakness(2 Cor 12:9). Now this is considering that these sins are not repented of that we receive the punishment. . . .

Final thoughts [from the sender]:
• How, after fierce opposition and persecution to the early church, did Christianity spread so rapidly by so few men, with such little resources and survive 20 centuries and is still the biggest religion? Why risk your life and families life for something that is false, and why do so many people suffer for the name of Christ but are still zealous and faithful?

JAC: Lots of people have risked their lives and families for religions that this sender claims are false. QED

• The biggest humanitarian and philanthropic movements in history are influenced and supported by Christians and the church and some examples are: The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision International, Samaritans Purse, Water Missions International, Feed the Children, ect. Also most addiction services and many hospitals and nursing homes are started in the name of Christ with Christian values and ethics as their mission statement.

JAC: Do I need to point out that the argument above says nothing about whether the tenets of Christianity are correct? At best it says that belief in Christian tenets can motivate some people to do good. The same holds for the tenets of many faiths.

• Some of the most influential historical figures that have impacted society and made for a better life include: Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr, ect.
Ect. indeed!  I won’t bother to list the many historical figures or organizations who were Christians and did bad things. As the physicist Steven Weinberg famously said:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

What is the value of theology?

June 21, 2020 • 9:30 am

Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, cleverly defined theology as a “subject without an object”.  That presupposes that there is no evidence for the “subject”: gods, prophets like Jesus, and so on, and I think most of us agree with that. So does the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives this as a definition:

I find the word “science” in the above definition offensive.

But some people consider “religious studies” or “Biblical history” as part of theology as well, and those areas don’t presuppose the truth of religious beliefs.  Further, those areas can be wide-ranging. Have a look at last year’s course list at the University of Chicago’s theology school, which includes courses like “Anthropology and Sociology of Religion,” “History of Religions,” “Islamic Philosophy”, “History of Judaism,” “Christian Iconography,” and so on. Since religion has been an enormous influence on history, art, and sociology, I have no problems with these, though I don’t see why they can’t be folded into history, anthropology, philosophy, and art departments. And of course studies of the history of the Bible and Qur’an, as well as Hindu scriptures, are also useful since these books have been so influential and connect Christianity and Judiasm with Islam and the myths of other faiths and early non-Abrahamic religions.

But there are also courses like “God and the Good Life” and many courses on “Religious leadership and practice,” which appear to be courses preparing one for a life in the ministry. These, of course, presuppose the truth of gods and of the dicta of specific religions. Here’s one that looks a bit suspect (my emphasis):

RLST 20901 – Interpreting Jesus

This course examines the on-going mutability of portrayals, images, and narratives of Jesus in ancient Christian gospels and later art, literature, drama, and film. Our investigation will begin with the New Testament gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will then discuss the lesser known gospels according to Thomas and Mary. This in turn allows us to consider how literary and dramatic works, art, and films frame, narrate, and interpret Jesus and the stories about this controversial figure as he appears in these later receptions in a variety of guises. Works to be examined likely will include Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ; a variety of artistic portrayals of Jesus at the Art Institute; The Gospel at Colonus (in conjunction with this spring’s production at Court Theater); and films by Scorsesi (The Last Temptation of Christ), Monty Python (Life of Brian), and Van der Put (The First Temptation of Christ).

I mostly object to the part in bold, which assumes that there was a real Jesus-person. I don’t see any courses that are about “The Myth of Jesus,” but I haven’t looked closely. Yes, there’s some interesting stuff in here, but is there any questioning of whether Jesus even existed as a person, divine or otherwise? If he didn’t, then this course is like “Interpreting Paul Bunyan”, “Interpreting Zeus”, or “Interpreting Leprechauns.”

Here’s another:

RELP 40800 – Field Work Practicum III

The Practicum sequence complements the MDiv Congregational Placement and offers opportunities for students to engage in critical reflection of their respective practical experiences of ministry leadership. In addition to this element of personal and practical reflections, students will engage a range of readings, written exercises, and classroom conversations to assist in articulating and refining their own practice of ministry.

Why should a university be in the business of helping its students promulgate religious mythology? I hasten to add that ministers serve sociological and psychological functions, and can be a form of social glue, but I doubt that that’s all these field work courses involve.

I’m sure I’ll get pushback from the people at the Divinity School (and I like some of them, having talked to them when I was writing Faith Versus Fact), but I’ll pose my own view on theology in the next three paragraphs in bold (I’m taking “theology” here to apply only to Abrahamic religions):

Insofar as “theology” encompasses philosophical, sociological, and historical studies of religion, which do not presuppose the existence of anything divine or supernatural, these studies can be valuable and should be taught in universities. But I don’t think they need to be lumped together in a divinity school. Remember that Thomas Jefferson, when establishing the University of Virginia, specified that it would be a nonsectarian school lacking both schools of theology or even places of worship. (And yet there is a Department of Religious Studies at U.Va, though it seems to exist to produce academic scholars of religion, much like a virus that uses a larger organism to facilitate its own replication.)

In other words, “theological” studies that have bearing on secular issues like philosophy and history, or reveal something about human actions and beliefs, or discuss religious influences on literature, art, and music, are justifiable—so long as nobody argues that the objects of theology, gods and prophets and unsubstantiated and unevidenced religious claims, should be taken seriously. Likewise, “theology” that is like “New Biblical Criticism”, dissecting Scripture as a human document, examining its genesis (so to speak), its influences, and its connections with history and other faiths, is also justifiable. 

Insofar as “theology” includes courses that presuppose the existence of the divine, take seriously the existence of God or Jesus, or prepare people for the ministry or to promulgate religious beliefs, then those courses not only have no place in a University, but are exercises in delusion. Now I think the higher-class divinity schools, like Chicago’s and Harvard’s, have very few of those courses, but there are some.  They should not be part of a secular university. 

Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that Hitchens’s razor is correct: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” That applies to any form of theology that takes gods or superstitions as real. Universities should not be in the business of taking seriously those myths that have no evidence behind them. They can, of course, teach myths, but at no point should they imply that there is evidence for their truth.

I’m sure others disagree here. Some will say I don’t go far enough in dismissing theology; others will say that I don’t give theology enough credit. And expressing your view is what the comments are for on this Christian Sabbath.