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.

A short Francis Collins interview on the BBC

May 23, 2020 • 11:00 am

Here’s a short (7.5-minute) interview with NIH director and Templeton Prize awardee Francis Collins that was played on NPR yesterday but came from the BBC Newshour.  Collins answers questions about God, evil, coronavirus, and so on, but you may already be familiar with his theological views, which are at the preceding link.

Collins’s interview starts at 30:07 and ends at 37:34; click on the screenshot below to hear it.

You’ll hear that Collins is scientific and religious because science answers the “how” questions but—citing Steve Gould’s NOMA hypothesis—only religion can answer the “why” questions, questions like “Is there a God?”, or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Collins claims that faith provides the answer to these questions, but of course it does not. Collins knows there’s a God because humans have a “moral law” (a ridiculous idea), but I’d like to hear how his Christianity answers the second question. Is “God did it” the answer to “why is there something instead of nothing?”

When asked why the coronavirus has killed so many (the question of “physical evil”), Collins has no answer. When asked if the virus is a “God-given plague”, he says that faith provides the answer, which is “no”. But then when pressed about why God would allow so many people to suffer, and whether there’s a moral dimension to the suffering, Collins says this:

“The question of suffering and its meaning and why a loving God would allow it is one of the toughest ones that both believers and nonbelievers have to wrestle with. I don’t have an easy answer to that and I grieve for all those who are suffering and all those who have lost family members to this terrible plague. . .”

Now that’s just plain weird.  Why do nonbelievers have to wrestle with the question of suffering? It’s a non-question for atheists, or at least an empirical question that has no “why” answer. And the secular answer is better than any religious ones. All we have to say is this: “It’s a virus that’s evolved to do its thing in the cells of other organisms, and its reproduction involves killing the cells and getting passed on through respiratory droplets.” I suspect that Collins wasn’t thinking about what he was saying here.

He then rabbits on about how we have some valuable lessons to learn from the pandemic—perhaps the reason God allows that suffering!—including pondering the “significance of suffering in general” and learning that (he quotes Scripture), “humans should not expect to be free of suffering.”

Collins ends by trying further to make a virtue out of necessity by arguing that the pandemic gives us a chance to ponder the Big Questions (which is what the Templeton prize is for)—questions about suffering, about our own natures, about our relationships, about what love means, and about what happens to us when we die.  Of course we can ponder these, but faith provides no better answers—and probably worse ones—than does Collins’s evangelical Christianity.

Listen to a very smart man who has become deluded by adherence to Iron Age mythology.

Egnor claims that the evidence for God is as strong as it is for evolution and the Big Bang

March 18, 2020 • 9:30 am

Christian neurosurgeon and intelligent-design advocate Michael Egnor insists that he and I are “debating” the appropriateness of prayer in response to the coronavirus (see my post here). But there is really no “debate”, just Egnor’s assertion (and my denial) that God is real and that prayer couldn’t hurt. He insists that I am “clueless” about the watertight evidence for God’s existence and am ignorant not just about natural theology, but about natural science. (I must have fooled a lot of people over my career!)

Egnor is obsessed with attacking me, and I’m convinced it’s because Intelligent Design has failed to catch on as its advocates promised, and so they resort to pushing a theological agenda and ignoring the indubitable evidence for evolution. This is a good example of that tactic, for here Egnor reiterates Aquinas’s “Five Ways” arguments for God—arguments that have long been refuted by philosophers—and claims that they’re dispositive: God really exists, and Aquinas proved it!

I hate to keep going back and forth with this clown (and I’m not going to be respectful of him given his language towards me). If you want to see some breathtaking examples of theological casuistry, though, read his latest piece at “Mind Matters,” one of the house organs of the ID-creationist Discovery Institute (DI). Like all the DI venues, it doesn’t take readers’ comments.

I’ve archived the article, which you can access by clicking on the screenshot.

In response to my claim that any evidence for God’s existence must be empirical rather than logical, Egnor responds by citing Aquinas’s “Five Ways” as empirical arguments. Most of these five arguments are variants of the “First Cause” argument: everything is caused, there can’t be an infinite chain of causes, and therefore there must be a First Cause. And that First Cause is God—or at least, as Aquinas said, “this everyone understands to be God.” And that, he says, is an airtight empirical argument, for isn’t the observation of “cause” itself an empirical one?

I’ll just summarize a bit of Egnor’s argument, but if you want to be amused by the mental gyrations of a true believer, by all means read the rest of the short article.  Egnor’s words are indented:

Me [i.e., Egnor]: Evidence for the existence of God, as provided by Aquinas, actually consists of the same logical and evidentiary process as science itself, only with much stronger logic and more abundant evidence than any other scientific theory.

Coyne, in reply : If there are going to be arguments for god that are convincing, they will have to be empirical ones, not theoretical lucubrations of ancient theologians.

[Egnor]: Coyne is clueless. All valid proofs of God’s existence—and there are many—are empirical proofs. As St. Thomas observed, any proof of existence must contain empirical evidence in its premise, because a purely logical proof, which is valid for mathematics and logic, cannot demonstrate the existence of anything. That is why the ontological proof of God’s existence is invalid. You can’t, by pure reason alone, conclude that God (or anything) exists. You must have evidence.

Well, yes, the ontological proof of God’s existence is a bizarre non-starter (read about it here). But here’s Egnor’s argument for why Aquinas, the consummate scientist, was correct in making an inductive and empirical argument for God.

All valid scientific theories are inductive. We begin with evidence, arrange the evidence in a logical (often mathematical) framework, and draw a conclusion. Here’s the Darwinian inference, for example:

1) Living animals and fossils show certain patterns of structure (evidence)
2) These patterns imply certain causes and are inconsistent with other causes (logic)
3) All living things are related by common descent (conclusion)

This theory of common descent, which Jerry Coyne accepts, is inductive—it is not and cannot be a deductive proof.

Well, the causes of evolution are independent of the observations of common ancestry, for you can have common ancestry regardless of what causes evolution, so long as it’s a gradual process that leads to changes in lineages as well as splitting of lineages (speciation). The causes could be natural selection, genetic drift, Lamarckism, teleoglogical or theistic evolution, and so on. You will get common ancestry under any theory of change so long as it is gradual, leads to splitting of lineages, and characters are modified only gradually after splitting occurs.

On to the First Cause argument as rehashed by Egnor:

Here’s Aquinas’ First Way:

1) Change exists in nature (evidence)
2) Change is the actuation of potentiality, and an essential chain of actuations cannot go to infinite regress. A fully actual Prime Mover is necessary (logic)
3) That Prime Mover is what all men call God (conclusion)

Note, contra Coyne, that all three scientific conclusions—common ancestry, the Big Bang, and God’s existence— are structurally equivalent. The inference to God’s existence is formally in every way identical to scientific theories. The inference to God’s existence based on the Prime Mover argument is a scientific theory—supported by massive evidence (change occurs in nature) and irrefutable logic (the reality of potency and act, and the law of non-contradiction). We are more scientifically certain of God’s existence than we are of quantum mechanics or Newtonian or relativistic gravitation.

While the first claim is basically correct, though not all things change (e.g., the speed of light in a vacuum or the laws of physics), the other two claims are where Aquinas’s argument collapses. I don’t want to reiterate the many flaws of even the first of Aquinas’s Five ways, as you can find those refutations in numerous places (e.g., here, here, here, here and here; I also have an earlier post on the First Cause argument as supported by Egnor and his ID colleage Klinghoffer here).

In brief, here are a few of the many counterarguments:

a.) There is no reason a chain of actuations cannot “go to infinite regress”. If there’s a multiverse, that’s more or less what you get. See Sean Carroll’s discussion below.

b.) The Universe didn’t have to have a cause, just as the decay of an atom of a radioactive element doesn’t have a “cause” —as far as we know. Nor does the appearance of virtual particles have to have a “cause”. There is no scientific “law” that says, “Everything has a cause.” As Sean Carroll said of the origin of the Universe in his post “Does the Universe need God? (his answer was “no”):

One sometimes hears the claim that the Big Bang was the beginning of both time and space; that to ask about spacetime “before the Big Bang” is like asking about land “north of the North Pole.” This may turn out to be true, but it is not an established understanding. The singularity at the Big Bang doesn’t indicate a beginning to the universe, only an end to our theoretical comprehension. It may be that this moment does indeed correspond to a beginning, and a complete theory of quantum gravity will eventually explain how the universe started at approximately this time. But it is equally plausible that what we think of as the Big Bang is merely a phase in the history of the universe, which stretches long before that time – perhaps infinitely far in the past. The present state of the art is simply insufficient to decide between these alternatives; to do so, we will need to formulate and test a working theory of quantum gravity.

c.) If you’re going to talk about causes, then what caused God? People like Egnor who make these arguments call god the “Unmoved Mover” or the “First Cause”, and so the question “who made God?” seems to them nonsensical, but nobody has made a convincing argument why the buck must stop at God (see my post here). See (b) above. The question of “where did God come from”—if there is a god—remains viable and trenchant.

d.) This is perhaps the dumbest of Aquinas’s arguments, but it’s one that Egnor buys into: Why is the Prime Mover—even if there is one, which isn’t necessarily the case—identical to the Christian God, the very God embraced by Aquinas and Egnor? This flaw can be seen at the end of all of Aquinas’s Five Ways: they finish with a sentence that says “This everyone understands to be God.” What a fricking joke! Everyone?  What about those of other religions, whose gods (and there can be multiple gods) are not Christian gods, and not ones that have the salvific Jesus as a divine son of God.  And what if space aliens are the prime movers?

Even if you take Aquinas’s argument seriously, and even if you buy his premise that everything needs a cause—which I don’t buy, and which physicists don’t buy—all you can conclude is that there was a beginning to things. Beyond that, you can say nothing, not even that there was a “being” that started it all off with an act of creation.

Egnor and his delusional confrères (including Aquinas himself) immediately conclude that the “prime mover” must be the Christian God, with all his omnipotence, benevolence, and omniscience, but this is surely the paradigm of tendentiousness. THEY JUST DON’T KNOW, but make the assertion anyway. Is that a “scientific proof” of a divine being, much less of a Christian God? I’m burning with curiosity about how they know who the Prime Mover really is. (You know the answer: they’re going on faith.)

And so Egnor comes to the end of his tiresome affirmation of his own Christian faith:

The inference to God’s existence based on the Prime Mover argument is a scientific theory—supported by massive evidence (change occurs in nature) and irrefutable logic (the reality of potency and act, and the law of non-contradiction). We are more scientifically certain of God’s existence than we are of quantum mechanics or Newtonian or relativistic gravitation.

Really? Which God? And how do we know it was a God rather than a clever alien, or even a malicious God rather than the Christian God. But wait! There’s more!

. . . The classical proofs of God’s existence are empirical proofs based on overwhelming scientific evidence and meticulous logic—perfectly valid inductive reasoning, identical in form to all scientific theories. Proofs of God’s existence are arguments in natural theology, and they share exactly the same structure as theories in natural science.

I think I’ve shown that the reasoning is not valid for several reasons, and I’ve demonstrated that “all rational men who haven’t already embraced religious superstition know the First Cause argument to be nonsense.”

Egnor adds this:

While it is true that much of the essence of supernatural reality is beyond our comprehension, we can validly infer the existence of supernatural reality. For example, as I noted above, we can validly infer the existence of the Big Bang singularity (which is not a part of nature) from natural evidence and logic. The Big Bang singularity and black holes are not in the natural world—they are undefined singularities in gravitational field equations—but we can know of their existence using evidence and the methods of natural science. In just the same way, we can know of God’s existence using evidence and the methods of natural science.

Notice that we don’t have the same kind of evidence for Egnor’s god as we do for the Big Bang, where we can see the expanding universe and hear the echo of that Bang. Egnor’s “evidence” is the argument that “everything has a cause in a chain of actuations,” and we already know that that isn’t an empirical observation, but a claim—one that isn’t supported by data from radioactive decay or, indeed, from the existence of the Big Bang.

Perhaps in his next piece of the debate (and I’m pretty much done debating tendentious faithheads like Egnor), Dr. Egnor will explain to us how he and Aquinas can conclude that the Prime Mover just happens to coincide with the God of Scripture. Rest assured that he’ll have an answer, but you can be equally assured that it won’t make sense to those not already marinated in religious Kool-Aid.

Egnor: We need to pray during this pandemic

March 9, 2020 • 11:30 am

Once again the creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor can’t resist scrutinizing my website and trying to find flaws in what I say. I suppose this is because he and his Discovery Institute colleagues, despite their confident assurances of two decades ago, have failed to make progress in getting the scientific community to accept Intelligent Design. So, like a frustrated pigeon pecking at a leaf, he pecks at me.

He’s really surpassed himself this time, though, for in his latest diatribe he claims to show that a.) prayer works during a pandemic, despite my mocking Mike Pence’s coronavirus response team praying together; b). Science’s rejection of gods, or at least its failure to seriously entertain divine actions in science—is circular and wrong; and c.) There’s strong proof that there’s a God.

This article appears in the site Mind Matters, which is run by the creationist Discovery Institute. Its theme appears to be that materialism (what I call “naturalism”) is false and that science can’t explain the material phenomena of the world. The usual guff! Click on the screenshot for a good laugh:

Let’s take Egnor’s three claims in order. Since he’s drunk the Kool-Aid, it’s easy to respond.

1.)  Prayer works in a pandemic. Egnor’s claims are indented.

The wisdom and efficacy of prayer in a crisis depends wholly on one question: is the prayer directed to Someone who is real, or is prayer based on a delusion?

If the Object of supplication is real, then prayer is probably the first thing you want to do in a crisis. A plea to the Boss is a fine preamble to the grunt work of managing a crisis. I’m a neurosurgeon, and I pray before each operation. It really helps.

If there is no real Object of supplication, then prayer is based on a delusion. But it’s interesting to note that, as historian Rodney Stark has pointed out, prayer and Christian faith during ancient epidemics saved lives because faithful Christians stuck around during epidemics. They provided care to afflicted neighbors who would not have survived except that they had kindly courageous friends to nurse them. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital—the world’s leading cancer center for children, was founded because of a prayer. So the focus and compassion evoked by prayer saves lives, whether or not God is there to hear the prayer.

This is Pascal’s Wager applied to prayer.  First of all, what evidence does Egnor have that prayer “really helps” when he operates? And whom does it help? If it helps Egnor operate, fine; a New Ager could also be calmed by rubbing crystals before an operation.

But the true test is whether it helps the patient. I doubt Egnor has any evidence for that, as it would require controlled tests. Do religious neurosurgeons who pray before an operation have better outcomes than nonbelieving surgeons? I doubt it, but the onus is on Egnor to show it. The only really good test of the efficacy of intercessory prayer in healing—the Templeton-funded study of healing in cardiac patients—showed no effect at all of prayer in healing, not even an effect in the right direction. The only significant effect was in the direction opposite to that prediction—intercessory prayer hurt the patients in one measure of healing!

And we don’t need a Christian community now during a pandemic: that’s been replaced by epidemiologists and, most of all, medicine and medical care, all based on materialistic science. 

Finally, has Dr. Egnor asked himself this: if praying to God stops people from dying, so God has the power to cure, why did God allow coronavirus to spread in the first place? It’s not just killing off evil people, you know: it’s taking babies who haven’t even had the chance to do evil, or learn about the salvific effects of accepting Jesus.  In fact, pandemics are one bit of evidence against the existence of any god who is powerful and empathic.

2.) Science’s rejection of God and divine intervention in nature is wrong because it’s circular. This is Egnor’s dumbest argument:

Of course, if God does not exist, Coyne is right to imply that prayer is based on a delusion. But here’s the point: if God does exist, prayer is essential.

So, I ask Coyne, does God exist? Coyne’s answers to the pivotal question have been puerile. His arguments center on an astonishing line of reasoning:

1) [S]cience is about finding material explanations of the world
2) Only materialistic explanations have been found by science
3) Therefore, no non-material explanations for nature are needed.

So Coyne uses science that expunges theism to refute theism. In short, he concludes that atheism is true by using a scientific method that presupposes atheism. Oddly, Coyne finds this logic compelling.

There’s no circularity here. Science is perfectly capable of sussing out supernatural explanations for things, as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. If prayer worked, that would be one hint of a god or gods, and you can test that (n.b., it doesn’t work). If only CHRISTIAN prayers worked and not those of Jews or Muslims, that would be even more evidence for a god. And I discuss scenarios in my book which would convince many, including me, that there was a god. It’s just too bad for Egnor that none of this evidence has ever come to light.

In fact, there was a time when the supernatural and religion were part of science: when Newton thought God’s twiddling was necessary to keep the planets in their orbits, because Newton thought their orbits were otherwise unstable. Then Laplace showed that a naturalistic explanation explained the stability. There was a time when everyone thought the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals, as well as their origins, required a divine creator. Then Darwin came along and gave the correct naturalistic explanation. Over the history of humanity, one divine explanation after another for things like lightning, diseases, and plagues have been replaced by naturalistic explanation.

So here’s the lesson, which I’ll put in bold.  Science doesn’t reject divine or supernatural explanations because we rule them out in advance. We reject them because they haven’t been shown to work. (Sadly, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once gave an unwise quote that has served repeatedly as ammunition for creationists who claim that scientists are sworn not to accept any evidence for gods, divinity or the supernatural. We’re not! Science investigates supernatural claims all the time.)

3.) Finally, Egnor says that the arguments for God’s existence are convincing. Here’s how he proves God:

It is noteworthy that Coyne’s efforts to refute the actual arguments for God’s existence consist of his insistence that he really isn’t so stupid and he provides a few links. He obviously doesn’t understand the arguments, nor does he wish to learn them.

If God exists, prayer in crisis is warranted and even essential. The arguments for God’s existence are irrefutable. Aquina’s Five Ways are a handy summary:

Aquinas’ First Way and a Stack of Books

Irrefutable, Impeccable, Inescapable: Aquinas’ Second Way

Aquinas’ Third Way: An Analogy to Moonlight

Evidence for the existence of God, as provided by Aquinas, actually consists of the same logical and evidentiary process as science itself, only with much stronger logic and more abundant evidence than any other scientific theory.

And, as Porky said,

And it is all. If there are going to be arguments for god that are convincing, they will have to be empirical ones, not theoretical lucubrations of ancient theologians.

Science versus religion: Are they “gifts” to each other?

November 29, 2019 • 10:30 am

Reader Mark called my attention to an accommodationist essay in Aeon by Tom McLeish, described as “a professor of natural philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York in the UK. He is the author of Faith and Wisdom in Science (2014), Let There Be Science (2016) and The Poetry and Music of Science (2019)”.

McLeish, to be sure, is a scientist of some accomplishment, having been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and has been awarded several academic medals. He’s also had an ecclesiastical award, having received the Lanfranc Medal from the Archbishop of Canterbury last year “as one of the most outstanding scientists of his generation, and the leading contemporary lay Anglican voice in the dialogue of science and faith..” But, as you might guess from his piece, he’s also not only been funded by the John Templeton Foundation (see here, for instance), but also is trustee of the Foundation. I suspect that be a trustee you have to have a demonstrated commitment to accommodationism.

Click on the screenshot below to read the latest attempt to show that science and religion are best buddies:

First, McLeish tries to dispose of the “conflict theory”, which is sometimes framed as the claim that science and religion have constantly been in conflict on all fronts. McLeish (all his quotes are indented):

The late-Victorian origin of the ‘alternative history’ of unavoidable conflict is fascinating in its own right, but also damaging in that it has multiplied through so much public and educational discourse in the 20th century in both secular and religious communities. That is the topic of a new and fascinating study by the historian James Ungureanu, Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition (2019). Finally, the concomitant assumption that scientists must, by logical force, adopt non-theistic worldviews is roundly rebutted by recent and global social science, such as Elaine Eklund’s major survey, also published in a new bookSecularity and Science (2019).

Well, even if you frame the theory McLeish’s way, it’s clear that there have indeed been sporadic but strong conflicts between science and religion, beginning with Galileo and extending through the creation-versus-evolution battle that started 160 years ago and continues to this day in the U.S. and Muslim world. But, as I explain in Faith Versus Fact, I do see the conflict as “unavoidable” in an important sense: both science and religion make statements about what’s true in the universe, but only science has a way to verify or falsify these statements. That’s why there are so many religions making competing truth claims, with no way to discern a “true” religion.

As far as Dr. Eckland is concerned, she has spent her career pushing the misleading idea that science and religion are in harmony because many scientists are religious. As I’ve argued many times before, all this shows is that some scientists can wall off a superstitious, faith-based way of ascertaining truth from a scientific, empirically-based way of ascertaining truth. It’s amazing to me that Ecklund has risen through the academic ranks by pushing this specious argument, but of course that’s what many people want to hear, including many nonbelievers who just want everybody to get along. (Ecklund, of course, is also heavily funded by Templeton.)

And so McLeish poses his questions:

It seems a good time to ask the ‘so what?’ questions, however, especially since there has been less work in that direction. If Islamic, Jewish and Christian theologies were demonstrably central in the construction of our current scientific methodologies, for example, then what might such a reassessment imply for fruitful development of the role that science plays in our modern world? In what ways might religious communities support science especially under the shadow of a ‘post-truth’ political order? What implications and resources might a rethink of science and religion offer for the anguished science-educational discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, and for the emerging international discussions on ‘science-literacy’?

Frankly, I’m tired of the claim that the foundations of modern science, and of its methods, are deeply rooted in Abrahamic religion. You can show that some early scientists, like Newton, thought that their work was revealing God’s plan, but even so they made progress by relying not on faith but on empirical observation. The methods of science are not the methods of religion, and were developed independently. Further, most good scientists in our day are atheists, and you’d be hard pressed to argue that they’re unwittingly using methods based on religion. Even if faith once motivated men like Newton, that motivation is defunct.

As for the other two questions, well, meh. How, for instance, is the creation-evolution debate going to be ameliorated and resolved by “a rethink of science and religion”?

Onward and upward. What points does the sweating professor make in his essay? I’ll give four. Briefly, they are these (McLeish’s words are indented):

1.) Without theology, the purpose of science is unclear, and even distorted. 

 . . . theology has retained a set of critical tools that address the essential human experience of purpose, value and ethics in regard to a capacity or endeavour.

Intriguingly, it appears that some of the social frustrations that science now experiences result from missing, inadequate or even damaging cultural narratives of science. Absence of a narrative that delineates what science is for leave it open to hijacking by personal or corporate sectarian interests alone, such as the purely economic framings of much government policy. It also muddies educational waters, resulting in an over-instrumental approach to science formation. I have elsewhere attempted to tease out a longer argument for what a ‘theology of science’ might look like, but even a summary must begin with examples of the fresh (though ancient) sources that a late-modern theological project of this kind requires.

Seriously, do you imagine that atheistic societies, like those in Scandinavia, would have a kind of science that is inferior to that of a more religious country like the U.S.? I doubt it. Britain is less religious than the U.S., and yet both Anglophonic countries do science the same way.

And if science is distorted by economic needs, well, sometimes those needs should be met, and at any rate that distortion is often the result of capitalism, or, as in the case of Lysenko’s Russia, of Communism. The fact is that any ideology can distort science, including theology.

You might be amused by McLeish’s contention that the Book of Job gives us material that is absolutely crucial to a theology of science. But I will drop that hot potato and pass on, giving just one specimen of McLeish’s muddled thought and writing:

The call to a questioning relationship of the mind from this ancient and enigmatic source [The Book of Job] feeds questions of purpose in the human engagement with nature from a cultural depth that a restriction to contemporary discourse does not touch.

I’m not sure that that’s even English. Why must these people write so turgidly?

2.)  Theology also promotes the doing of good science. 

A project on the human purpose for science that draws on theological thinking might, in this light, draw on writing from periods when this was an academically developed topic, such as the scientific renaissances of the 13th and 17th centuries. Both saw considerable scientific progress (such as, respectively, the development of geometric optics to explain the rainbow phenomenon, and the establishment of heliocentricity). Furthermore, both periods, while perfectly distinguishing ‘natural philosophy’ from theology, worked in an intellectual atmosphere that encouraged a fluidity of thought between them.

And yet the rise of modern biology since Darwin, including molecular biology and genetics, has nothing to do with theology. Jim Watson told me that Francis Crick in particular was motivated to discover the structure of DNA by his antitheism:  Crick wanted to demonstrate that the “secret of life” was purely physiochemical in nature.

What McLeish is doing is mistaking correlation for causation. As for the “scientific renaissance of the 13th century”, I know of no such thing. McLeish mentions a few names, but I’m not impressed with the work.

3.) The method of doing scientific experiments derives from theology.


The rise of experimentation in science as we now know it is itself a counterintuitive turn, in spite the hindsight-fuelled criticism of ancient, renaissance and medieval natural philosophers for their failure to adopt it. Yet the notion that one could learn anything general about the workings of nature by acts as specific and as artificial as those constituting an experiment was not at all evident, even after the foundation of the Royal Society. The 17th-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish was among the clearest of critics in her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1668).

For as much as a natural man differs from an artificial statue or picture of a man, so much differs a natural effect from an artificial…

Paradoxically perhaps, it was the theologically informed imagination of the medieval and early modern teleology of science that motivated the counterintuitive step that won against Cavendish’s critique.

Now how did that happen? Because, argues McLeish, Francis Bacon formulated his “experimental philosophy” in theological terms. Adjudicating that claim is above my pay grade, but I’ll add that Galileo (who lived at the same time as Bacon) and the Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, who worked on optics, also used the experimental methods, with hypotheses and tests. And did every experimentalist rely on Bacon’s “theology”?

Finally, as I’m growing weary, there’s this:

4.) We need more than the reason inherent in science to do science properly. Here McLeish quotes the critic and philosopher George Steiner to somehow confect a rapprochement between science and theology. If you can understand this kind of postmodern obfuscation, you’re better than I:

[Steiner} Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter…

Steiner’s relational language is full of religious resonance – for re-ligio is simply at source the re-connection of the broken. Yet, once we are prepared to situate science within the same relationship to the humanities as enjoyed by the arts, then it also fits rather snugly into a framing of ‘making accessible the sheer inhuman otherness of matter’. What else, on reflection, does science do?

(The superfluous dissection of words, like that of “religio” in the antepenultimate sentence, is a marker of postmodern writing. It’s showoffy but always contrived.)

What else does science do? Is matter really perceived as “inhuman”? Are the advances of geology and physics scary unless they’re somehow “humanized”? In truth, I don’t know what McLeish is talking about here, and I have a suspicion that neither does he.

In the end, McLeish reveals a motivation for accommodationism that I suspected from the beginning of his piece: his realization that religion, which he apparently embraces, is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world; and he has to show that it’s still relevant. And so he says this:

Although both theology and philosophy suffer frequent accusations of irrelevance, on this point of brokenness and confusion in the relationship of humans to the world, current public debate on crucial science and technology indicate that both strands of thought are on the mark. Climate change, vaccination, artificial intelligence – these and other topics are marked in the quality of public and political discourse by anything but enlightenment values.

Yes, irrationality, confirmation bias, and other psychological distortions of reality are pervasive, and while philosophy itself can contribute to clearing up confusion and framing discussion, theology—which is simply philosophy bent out of shape by a belief in the nonexistent—has nothing of relevance to contribute to matters like climate change and vaccination. Look how theology has already intruded uselessly into discussions of abortion and human reproduction!

And so, and I draw to a close, McLeish’s defense of religion’s value to science strains credulity, drawing on postmodernist Bruno Latour’s “call. . . for a re-examination of the connection between mastery, technology and theology as a route out of the environmental impasse.” If you understand that, call me. But here’s how McLeish uses Latour:

What forms would an answer to Latour’s call take? One is simply the strong yet gentle repeating of truth to power that a confessional voice for science, and evidence-based thinking, can have when it is resting on deep foundations of a theology that understands science as a gift rather than a threat. One reason that Katharine Hayhoe, the Texan climate scientist, is such a powerful advocate in the United States for taking climate change seriously is that she is able to explicitly work through a theological argument for environmental care with those who resonate with that, but whose ideological commitments are impervious to secular voices.

Well, yes, theology should recognize science as a gift rather than a threat. But the fact that McLeish needs to say that already shows anti-science currents among some theologians. And really, citing one religious climate scientist shows that theology is the way forward in solving global warming? Give me a break! If Greta Thunberg—the 16-year-old whose activities have prompted worldwide activism against anthropogenic climate change—is religious, it’s news to me. Thunberg is powerful because she’s angry, highly motivated, and representative of a younger generation that will experience more serious effects of climate change.

McLeish’s piece reads to me like muddleheaded palaver. But what else do you expect when a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation has to justify the value of religion for science? Everyone else besides the faithful already knows that religion has nothing useful to say to science.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ evidence

September 4, 2019 • 10:45 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “being”, once again highlights the bizarre world of theology. I needn’t expand on this, for it’s certainly true that many believers mistake “conviction” (or “revelation” or “feeling”) for evidence. And the last panel gives the whole thing a kind of ontological-argument feel:

A philosopher at the NYT writes about the incoherence of most people’s theism

April 8, 2019 • 12:00 pm

It’s surprising that the New York Times would publish an atheistic op-ed showing that most people’s notion of God is incoherent, but the piece below (click on the screenshot), is actually Unsophisticated Atheism in at least part of its argument. And the parts that aren’t weird are old and familiar arguments.

Well, perhaps believers need to hear arguments about God that have been repeated to previous generations, explaining why Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, attacks the claim that God can be omnipotent. He first trots out the old bromide “Can God make a stone so big He can’t lift it?” and then asks, “Can God create a world in which evil does not exist?” The first question is barely worth arguing, but the second is. And, as has been pointed out many times before, the existence of moral evil in the world, while explained by theologians as necessary for the action of free will (NOTE: it’s libertarian, you-can-do-otherwise free will this argument uses), does not explain the existence of physical evils like the suffering of animals, the diseases like leukemia that kill children, tsunamis that sweep away the innocent, and so on. As I’ve said before, the existence of physical evil is the Achilles Heel of Abrahamic religion and the death knell for the idea of an omnibenevolent God. Only through tortuous and unconvincing logic can you explain why God allows little kids to get leukemia.

And there’s no reason God couldn’t have created a world in which people can choose freely, but always choose to do the right and moral thing. Free will and The Best of All Possible Worlds are not logically inconsistent.

But here’s the bit that gets me: God couldn’t be omniscient because if he were, he’d be touched with evil. Or so Atterton maintains:

. . . if God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know. But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection. Why?

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God. As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

What about malice? Could God know what malice is like and still retain His divine goodness? The 19-century German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was perhaps the first philosopher to draw attention to what he called the “diabolical” in his work “On Human Nature”

. . . It might be argued, of course, that this is precisely what distinguishes humans from God. Human beings are inherently sinful whereas God is morally perfect. But if God knows everything, then God must know at least as much as human beings do. And if human beings know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake, without any other benefit, then so does God. But to say that God knows what it is like to want to inflict pain on others is to say that God is capable of malicious enjoyment.

However, this cannot be true if it really is the case that God is morally perfect. A morally perfect being would never get enjoyment from causing pain to others. Therefore, God doesn’t know what it is like to be human. In that case He doesn’t know what we know. But if God doesn’t know what we know, God is not all knowing, and the concept of God is contradictory. God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.

I don’t really get this. You can understand what it’s like to sin without being a sinner yourself; all you have to do, if you’re God, is say, “Okay, let me be imbued with the feeling that somebody gets when he kicks a dog.” That doesn’t make God a dog-kicker, someone who enjoys kicking dogs, or in any way sinful—at least in my view. If God were omniscient, he’d know what it would feel like to sin without having sinned himself.

Now there’s another issue not discussed: if God knows everything, then he knows how we’re going to decide to act. Doesn’t that obviate the libertarian free will beloved of religionists? You might say that it doesn’t, but if libertarian free will means anything in a theistic world, it has to be a choice that is made without the knowledge of God. Otherwise the concept of eternal reward and punishment have no meaning, and we’d be a bunch of Calvinists whose fate is already known to God.

But I don’t believe in either God or free will, so I leave this vexing questions to the theologians.