christianity

Friends have been playing with Spotify, which it turns out has a whole load of Matt Redman songs (imagine U2 singing about how Jesus is their boyfriend, and you’ve got it). I heard Redman at Soul Survivor when I went, many years ago. Though the charismatic services were a little bit scary at first, the whole thing fired me up to the extent that I alarmed my parents on my return by saying I was thinking of training for the ministry (I could have been the next John W. Loftus). At one of those services, I ended up wondering whether I should ask for prayer for healing. Looking back, I can perhaps understand how the Neumanns thought it was better to pray than phone an ambulance. The question of what, if anything, God is up to these days is a tricky one, and it’s easy to get it wrong.

Praise the Prophets

A while ago, the Word of Dawkins came unto me, and the Spirit of Rationality rested upon me, and I spake forth, saying: “most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don’t go to doctors because God will heal them.” Prophetic, no? (You may say that I’d read about similar cases in the past, but I think you’re bringing a question-begging assumption of metaphysical naturalism to my text).

Rowan Williams has a map. He recently told everyone not to expect God to do much about global warming (by the way, Newsthump’s version of the story is good fun). Likewise, in the Neumanns’ situation, most Christians would call a doctor. So, I don’t think God is going to stop global warming or heal diabetics (much less amputees), and, for the most part, Christians don’t either. Of course, I don’t attempt to excuse the absence of the dragon by telling the story of the man on the roof of his house in the flood. But when you consider what we anticipate will happen, we’re not so very different after all.

Wasted youth

Dead parrotWhen I was a Christian, it seemed there was an unspoken understanding on these matters. God made all that is, seen and unseen; Jesus did all those miracles you read about in the New Testament; the statistical likelihood was that Jesus would, in the fullness of time, come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and bring fresh supplies of lemon-soaked paper napkins. God could do anything. Still, right now, you were more likely to see answers to prayer about work stress and for courage to evangelise your friends than answers to prayers for people to be healed of cancer. Or at least, it was best not to be too surprised that prayers for the big stuff might be “answered in a different way”. (That is, if someone dies, they don’t have cancer any more. No, really, this is not a joke). There were people who asked annoying questions about why God didn’t do more, dissatisfied customers if you will, but I just found them irritating. God obviously existed, so why couldn’t they just realise that?

The Neumanns did without this tacit understanding, which is unfortunate because having the understanding means you have the map: it’s what allows Christians to get along in polite society without, say, being jailed for killing their children. Rather, just as Elijah did, the Neumanns anticipated-as-if God would act. They believed Biblical promises on prayer, as reiterated by their supporters here and here.

So what went wrong? Well, regular readers will know that God isn’t real, though Christians can hardly say so. The usual excuse won’t do, alas: it can’t be that the Neumanns lacked faith. A family with sufficient faith to gather to pray around their ailing child as she lies on her deathbed is surely an example for Christians everywhere, even the ones who believe in doctors. Likewise, even if God has provided doctors, it seems mean-spirited for God to penalise the Neumanns for not using them: which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? We must look for better excuses.

Things not seen

Perhaps those Bible verses aren’t intended to be the promises they seem to be (though they seem pretty clear to me, so if you encounter this argument, I hope you will chastise the person making it for twisting the Scriptures). Perhaps, as the Neumanns apparently believe, God foreknew that the kid would eventually turn away from Jesus, and took her home early to prevent it (though I’m disappointed by their liberalism, in that after their child died, they didn’t slit the throats of the local pastors and turn instead to Baal, Satan or Dawkins, which would have been a more biblical response). Still, both these explanations are at least possible, and if the maintenance of your belief is itself a virtue, that possibility should suffice. As recent convert Sam Harris says:

These people [that is, neo-militant rationalist atheists like Jerry Coyne] are simply obsessed with finding the best explanation for the patterns we witness in natural world. But faith teaches us that the best, alas, is often the enemy of the good. For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation. Wrong question Coyne! You see, the wise have learned to ask, along with Miller, whether it is merely possible, given these facts, that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will could have created the world. Surely it is! And the heart rejoices…

Of course, one mustn’t carry this sublime inquiry too far. Some have asked whether it is possible that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will works only on Tuesdays or whether He might be especially fond of soft cheese. There is no denying that such revelations, too, are possible – and may be forthcoming. But they do not conduce to joy, chastity, homophobia, or any other terrestrial virtue – and that is the point. Men like Coyne and Dennett miss these theological nuances. Indeed, one fears that these are the very nuances they were born to miss.

Perhaps God is not deceased, but merely pining for the fjords. This, too, is possible. And the heart rejoices…

Some theists are not far from the Republic of Heaven, it seems. Even now, I have hopes that they may turn to rationality.

First, there’s Terry Eagleton, who said in an interview in New Humanist that “If Dawkins has emancipated people, freed them from the religious closet as it were, then all credit to him. Loath as I might be to compare Dawkins to Jesus Christ, in this he resembles the heroic figure in the New Testament who comes to sweep away all the fetishism and sickness and cynicism of the neurotic religionists.”

Secondly, Richard Morgan (a Christian re-convert who was formerly a regular over at Dawkins’s site) has suggested that New Atheism may all be part of God’s plan. I have encouraged Richard to return to Dawkins in this thread. I said:

I wonder just how many de-converts who return to Christianity were ever really atheists at all. I mean, they may have looked like atheists, but were they proper atheists, like I myself am? How could they have been? Remember, posting on the Dawkins site doesn’t make you an atheist any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.

It is clear to me that these people never really had a personal relationship with Dawkins (by which I mean they read his books and sort of felt they must be true: obviously one should not be atheologically naive enough to expect any sort of clear two-way communication in a personal relationship. I did once email him, and I have every confidence he read it, plus I once got a comment on my blog and an email from Jerry Coyne, which is practically as good, surely?)

Speaking of atheological naivete, these people’s ignorance of atheism is shocking: they formerly believed in a caricatured Dawkins who advocated biological determinism and “scientism”; and they departed from orthodoxy in their concentration on Dawkins to the exclusion of the other Three Persons of the Horsemen. Doubtless some of this reflects the parlous state of teaching in atheist communities other than the ones I’m in, but I think these people have some responsibility to educate themselves. Had they even read more sophisticated atheological works? Are they familiar with Dennett on belief, Hume on miracles and on design, or Loftus on “the outsider test”? Surely not.

Richard, even now it is not too late for you. Just screw up your face and try harder, dammit.



If you’ve been moved by what you’ve heard here, there’ll be someone waiting in the comments section at the end to engage in rational debate with you. Thanks.

Neumann’s jury — six men and six women — deliberated about 15 hours over two days before convicting him. At one point, jurors asked the judge whether Neumann’s belief in faith healing made him “not liable” for not taking his daughter to the hospital even if he knew she wasn’t feeling well.

Neumann, who once studied to be a Pentecostal minister, testified Thursday that he believed God would heal his daughter and he never expected her to die. God promises in the Bible to heal, he said.

“If I go to the doctor, I am putting the doctor before God,” Neumann testified. “I am not believing what he said he would do.”

Wis. jury: Father guilty in prayer death case, MSNBC News.

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

James 5:14-16

I believe that God uses us lowly humans to enact his healing. God works his great plan through intermediaries. Sometimes, he does things himself, and that is where religious experiences come from. Things like burning bushes or bright lights that knock people to the ground on Damascus roads are of God to be sure. But, so is a doctor healing a patient. Again, God uses us humans to enact his healing and his will.

Prayer doesn’t work on its own. Ever. It requires medical intervention. Prayer is only a supplement to competent medical care.

Cory Tucholski, Josiah Concept ministries

They believed that God would heal their daughter as Jesus said, “All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye received (Greek in all manuscripts) them, and ye shall have them.” As with this verse the key to their faith is that we are already healed if we believe it. (1 Pet. 2:24) who his own self bare our sins in his body…by whose stripes ye were healed. Christians around the world and throughout New Testament history have received healing in this way when they held fast their faith, even when they could not get it in any other way.

They were attempting not to be double-minded, for which the scriptures say we will not receive (James 1:7,8). They believe that God even used their weakness to take their daughter home and that like many she may not have chosen to stay faithful to the Lord if she had been raised up in this increasingly corrupt society. (Isa. 57:1) The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart; and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil [to come].

David Eells, helptheneumanns.com

“None of them lie, Inspector. There are no lies in religion. There are apparent facts that are illusions. There are words to be taken figuratively. There are ideas that are symbols of deeper truths. There are no lies. The people who sent me to the Middle East told us we would destroy an Evil Empire. They didn’t lie, either.”

The lieutenant, The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

Ruth Gledhill has written about Camp Quest UK, which describes itself as “the first residential summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view”. She doesn’t seem to approve, and spends much of the article telling us how good Christian summer camps are, before giving way to Celestine Heaton-Armstrong, a theology student who writes excitedly but a bit incoherently about the evils of Dawkins and his involvement in the camp. Dawkins! Can anything good come from there?

When I was a Christian (although, of course, not a real one), I used to help out on a LiveWires, a Scripture Union holiday for teenage Christian geeks, and good fun it was too. If you’ve seen Jesus Camp, you might come away with a terrible impression of such places. I, like many Christians, would object to a camp which used psychological manipulation or put the fear of Hell into children, but thankfully that was not my experience. It was a lot of hard work for the leaders, but very rewarding too. But for the deficiency in my current beliefs, I’d probably still be helping out. It’s nice that someone has started a camp for the rest of us, though.

So I’m not quite sure what Gledhill and Heaton-Armstrong’s objection to Camp Quest is. It seems to be that the organisers pretend to be neutral but are in fact anti-religion. The evidence for this is that the UK organiser, Samantha Stein, is “in stark contrast” to the camp’s stated policy of accepting people of any faith (I’m not sure what it means for a person to be in stark contrast to a policy, but never mind); that Stein read about the American version of Camp Quest in a footnote in The God Delusion; that the camp will teach children that religion and science are incompatible; and, worst of all, that Dawkins, a neo-strident fundamentalist atheist neo-sceptical rationalist, is involved (although not that involved, as it turns out).

I suppose that Camp Quest might be anti-religion, in the same sense that a Christian camp is anti-atheism. Looking at their web site, I’m not sure Camp Quest do pretend neutrality. That does not seem to contradict a policy of welcoming people of faith, in the sense of, say, allowing them to attend, being courteous to the when they get there, being willing to discuss things with them, and so on. I hope that Camp Quest would extend the same courtesy to theists as LiveWires did to the non-Christian teenagers who attended.

What if Camp Quest does teach that, say (so as not to use a vague term like “religion”), Christianity and science are incompatible? In one sense, they’d be wrong, but in another, where “science” is extended (perhaps over-extended) to cover good cartography, they’d be correct. Let’s have no more of this non-overlapping magisteria nonsense: Christians shouldn’t believe it, and neither should the rest of us.

What’s Dawkins’s motivation for giving a donation, if it isn’t to ensure that the kids on the camp will be forced to participate in The God Delusion study groups nightly before bed? Camp Quest’s organisers say they want to teach children how to think rather than what to think. Perhaps Dawkins, arch-enemy of religion, is confident that if people were to think critically, they’d be less likely to be religious. That was true in my case.

Channel 4 recently screened How to Find God, Jon Ronson’s documentary on the Alpha course. You can watch it online for a few weeks. Edited to add: Ronson also went on the Alpha course himself back in 2000: you can read about it in the Grauniad, and find some interesting discussion of his article on Metafilter.

The documentary follows one group of people taking the course at St Aldates, Oxford, a charismatic Anglican church. The group were a mixed bunch, from Dave, a psychology student who was feeling a bit guilty about drinking 12 pints in an evening; to my favourite, Ed, the unemployed freegan who liked to look for spare food round the back of supermarkets.

What we see of Alpha’s apologetics is pretty bad: there’s Josephus‘s reference to Jesus, Lewis’s Mad/Bad/God argument, as appropriated by McDowell, and what ophe1ia-in-red‘s own review (which you should also read) rightly calls a false dichotomy between a life of meaningless debauchery and Christianity. At one point, the male small group leader says that God once spoke to him in his head to tell him he didn’t have to give a talk he was nervous about. When the non-Christians ask how he knows it was God and not his imagination, his wife gets annoyed and accuses them of calling her husband stupid. A rationalist with too much time on their hands could probably have a bit of fun attending an Alpha Course, and it seems some have.

Nevertheless, I doubt that these arguments have a lot to do with Alpha’s success rate (quoted as being about 1 person in each small group of about 8). As Ronson says, “Alpha is all about rigorously structured, almost mathematical, niceness. And this structure is a huge success.” The free food (and the attractive Christian ladies serving it), friendly people and small group discussions are the most important parts of Alpha’s methods.

Despite accusations of bias from the commenters on Channel 4’s site, Ronson’s style is non-confrontational. Rachel Cooke’s review in New Statesman describes it as “like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first.” I found it a bit like the “who’s going to die this week?” stuff you used to get in the opening scenes of Casualty: Bob’s using the threshing machine and once felt a “sort of energy” when he was a bit down, Alice is on the motorway behind a tanker full of petrol and is unemployed and a bit directionless: who’s going to get Jesus’d?

The “Holy Spirit weekend”, where the potential converts go off on a weekend break and are encouraged to try speaking in tongues, is the most controversial part of Alpha. Indeed, it’s partly what lead the more conservative evangelical churches to replace Alpha with Christianity Explored (that and the conservatives’ feeling that more emphasis is needed on the fact that we’re all sinners who deserve to be tortured forever, and will be if we find ourselves unable to radically change our lives on the basis of insufficient evidence: this is what conservatives call “the Good News“). It certainly made for the most interesting part of the documentary.

After a few explanatory shots of the Toronto Blessing, we follow the group on to a conference centre near Oxford, which it turns out they’re sharing with a conference for Ford GT40 fans. There’s a Derren Brown Messiah suggestion session where everyone stands with their eyes closed, but alas, it’s interrupted by the noise from the GT40s outside (modern day iron chariots, as one of Channel 4’s commenters has it). They carry on, with the Christians singing songs and the pastor singing in tongues, but one of the non-Christians feels he’s been manipulated and walks out of the room. However, the beer-drinking psychology student likes the atmosphere, asks people to pray for him, and says he’ll be going on another Alpha Course. In the end, two of them walk away saying the experience has put them off Christianity, and the freegan says he respects Christians more now. I’d call it a no-score draw.

Prompted by Rowan Williams saying that neo-atheist fundamentalists aren’t attacking the religion ++Rowan actually believes in, the Barefoot Bum has a good bit on the role of the term “faith” in discussions with believers.

Getting killed on the next zebra crossing

The argument goes something like this: religious faith is sometimes taken by atheists to mean “belief without evidence” (Dawkins says as much in The God Delusion, for example). “Ah, no,” say believers, “that’s not what faith means, our belief is based on the evidence”. There follows an interlude for examination of this evidence, which turns out not to be so impressive. “Did we say based on? We meant compatible with,” say the believers. “That’s not good enough”, says the Bum, “all sorts of things are compatible with the evidence if you’re prepared to add ad hoc stuff to shore up the core beliefs you really don’t want to get rid of, but then those core beliefs are held without regard to evidence”. “But,” say believers, “you yourself have some core beliefs you hold without regard to evidence”. “Well,” says the Bum, “I don’t think so, but anyway, you’ve just conceded that I was right about faith, haven’t you?” “Oh dear,” say the believers, “we hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly disappear in a puff of logic.

Six impossible things before breakfast

The believers’ final attempt to parry the Bum is similar to an apologetic argument I’ve seen, whereby the believer says “If you have an unevidenced belief that your senses aren’t under the control of the Matrix or of a cartesiandaemon, why not round it off by believing in my religion?” This is an odd argument: the believer mentions beliefs you might doubt if you’re a radical sceptic (you’ll recall that you risk becoming a radical sceptic if you’re a university-educated Catholic), but which most people accept because it’s impractical not to. It turns out that belief in gods is something we can get by without. (On a related note, the folks over at Iron Chariots have a reasonable article on the proposition that atheism is based on faith).

Edited: Chris Hallquist puts it better than I did, when he says that “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

Three parts of faith

There’s another thing missing from the popular atheist definition of faith. At least for Christians, faith has an element of trust as well as acceptance of facts. After all, even the demons believe.

Over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton separates faith into three parts: content (faith in what?), assent (affirmation that the content is true) and trust (the part that the demons lack). Patton blames the lack of assent (which requires an examination of the evidence) for the loss of faith of the ex-Christians he’s encountered. He goes so far as to say that the statement “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart” is stupid. Patton seems quite different from other Christians, who say that the main reason they believe is the internal feeling of God’s presence, what they call the witness of the Holy Spirit. One can perhaps forgive atheists for using “faith” in a way Christians don’t like if the Christians themselves aren’t sure what it’s about.

The virtue of faith

A thought which should occur to anyone who reads Less Wrong: you can make people reluctant to give up religious faith by making them think that having faith is virtuous. And this is what we find: in Christian philosophy, the theological virtue of “faith” is holding on to belief in the face of doubt. But hang on, where is the virtue in this? Chopping and changing all the time would be impractical, but it’s hard to see why it’s wrong. I suppose that conceiving of a religion as a relationship with God makes faith seem virtuous, because then we apply our notions of faithfulness within a human relationship. But these notions do not apply to facts about the world (even the demons believe), and to think that they do is to fall victim to a cognitive trick (since if the facts of religion are not correct, maybe there’s no-one to have a relationship with). Rather, say:

If the sky is blue
I desire to believe “the sky is blue”.
If the sky is not blue
I desire to believe “the sky is not blue”.

Gambling at Rick’s Bar

According to New Scientist, Francis Collins’s BioLogos site (wherein Collins, an evangelical Christian, advocates theistic evolution) not only faces the wrath of the neo-militant atheist secularists like Coyne and Myers, but has also been criticised by the Discovery Institute, who advocate Intelligent Design. They have a new site at Faithandevolution.org where they explain why Collins is wrong by quoting the Bible.

I’m a bit puzzled by this, as I thought that Intelligent Design was a hack get around the firewall that is the United States judiciary. The courts say you can’t teach religious opinion as fact in state schools, so if you want to get creationism into public education, you attribute creation to an anonymous Designer. You can then claim that you’re shocked, shocked I tell you (your Honour), that some kids might reach the conclusion that the Designer is the Christian God. I don’t want to tell these people their business, but setting up a web-site full of New Testament quotes gives the game away, doesn’t it?

Sun, moon and bumper sticker cry “Jesus is Lord”

Anyhoo, as it happens, the Discovery Institute quotes Romans 1:20, which I’ve mentioned before as a verse that supports the common evangelical belief that everyone knows there’s a God really, even if they don’t want to admit it. The DI say that Collins’s argument that God could have made stuff happen in such a way that his intervention was undetectable goes against the Apostle Paul’s statement that God’s existence is visible from what has been made.

I got into a discussion of undetectable divine intervention over on gerald_duck‘s LJ. gerald_duck had criticised atheists for saying that evolution proves there is no god, which is a valid criticism (if indeed there are any atheists saying that), but he’s oddly attached to the idea that it’s desirable to be agnostic about unwarranted beliefs, like Collins’s belief that the Christian god did it and carefully hid his tracks. I don’t really understand this. I accept that evolution is sufficient to explain the history of life after abiogenesis, because I think there’s good evidence for it. If evolution is sufficient, I require further evidence before I can conclude that, say, a god was involved. Without that evidence, I do not believe a god was involved (if gods there be: again, this isn’t an argument about their existence), just as I do not believe that any Flying Spaghetti Monsters were involved. I can’t strictly rule it out, but gods and FSMs are one of an infinity of possible additions to the hypothesis which I don’t seem to need, so why bother with any of them?

Over at the Discovery Institute, the cdesign proponentsists part company with Collins on whether evolution is in fact a sufficient explanation. If they could show that it isn’t, and further show evidence of design, they’d be on firmer ground than Collins is. Unfortunately for them, they can’t, but they were really following the evidence (which there’s some reason to doubt), their methods would be more rational than Collins’s.

New Scientist‘s Amanda Gefter has summarised it well:

Watching the intellectual feud between the Discovery Institute and BioLogos is a bit like watching a race in which both competitors are running full speed in the opposite direction of the finish line. It’s a notable contest, but I don’t see how either is going to come out the winner.

Time to close some browser tabs by writing about what’s in them:

Ehrman not out to destroy Christianity

Bart Ehrman has a new book out. Jesus, Interrupted aims to make stuff about the Bible that Christian ministers are taught in seminaries available to the public. Ehrman was interviewed at Salon. Despite Ehrman’s adoption by the neo-atheist fundamentalist secularists, he seems pretty mild-mannered about religion. In the Washington Post, Ehrman says he’s not out to destroy Christianity, although he hopes that his book will show up the problems with an evangelical approach to the Bible.

Why is God hidden?

There’s a good post from Jeffrey at Failing the Insider Test on the problem of why God is hidden if he wants people to know him. In previous discussions here, apologists say there’s no evidence that God being more obvious would make people come into a loving relationship with him. They say the Bible contains examples of people who saw miracles and didn’t believe, and as the Epistle of James says, even the demons believe (and tremble). Yet even granted the premise that the Bible’s account is accurate (which seems to be generalising from fictional evidence), Jeffrey points out that the Bible itself contains examples of people who believe on evidence from God. Jesus complains that if Sodom had seen his miracles, it would have repented, unlike the towns he’s been visiting. While compelling evidence doesn’t reliably produce the relationship Christians say God wants, it can hardly make it less likely.

Morality again

John W Loftus mentioned a debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan of Yale. You can listen here. Kagan does well against Craig, thus proving that it is possible to beat him.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the moral argument for the existence of God is pretty unclear to me: some people just seem to feel that if there’s no God, there can’t be “real” morality. Kagan talks about what rational agents would do and the idea of a veil of ignorance. Craig doesn’t see how being moral matters if the universe will die a Heat Death. Kagan says that there is significance even if this significance is not eternal, and that eternal significance is not needed for morality.

I’m being oppressed

Slacktivist talks about that awful video which the National Organization for Marriage made, and the tendency of American evangelicals to believe both that they are, and should be, in a Chrisitan nation and that Christians are horribly persecuted.

I suspect that American evangelicals’ persecution complex is an inevitable side effect of sectarian hegemony. Once you believe that your faith requires cultural dominance, and that it deserves it, then any threat to that dominance — even just the unwelcome reminder of the existence of alternative points of view — is perceived as a threat, as a kind of persecution.

The NOM video has spawned many parodies, of which A Gaythering Storm is perhaps the best. NOM were even advertising here on LJ until LJ’s staff booted them. Well done, LJ.

Following on from his review of two books by theistic evolutionists, Jerry Coyne recently wrote an article criticising the US National Academy of Sciences for saying that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Richard Hoppe at Panda’s Thumb disagrees with Coyne, but P Z Myers supports him. Atheist fight!

Is evolution compatible with Christianity? Well, yes and no. I was a Christian who believed in evolution. This means not having good answers to some stuff Christians might care about: was the Fall a real event, and if not, where does original sin come from? Did physical death really enter the world through sin? If, as Christians usually argue as part of their theodicy on natural disasters, creation itself was corrupted in the Fall (whatever the Fall was), how exactly does that work? If you’re a Christian who accepts evolution, you don’t need atheists to ask these awkward questions, your creationist brothers (and sisters) will do a much better job of it.

But that doesn’t show incompatibility. If you keep running into these problems and have to keep adding ad hoc patches to your theory, you should consider discarding it, but there are things I don’t have good answers to as an atheist, and that hasn’t stopped me being one.

I was a student of science who was a Christian. That seems to be where the real problem lies. Theistic evolutionists tend to say stuff like “Evolution could have been the way God did it” or “Maybe God nudges electrons from time to time”. They might make a wider point about “other ways of knowing”. At some point, someone is probably going to say “well, Science cannot prove your wife loves you, but you believe that, don’t you?”

The Less Wrong crowd recently discussed whether their community is and should be welcoming to theists. Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted is a good post which deserves reading on its own merits, but I was particularly interested in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s comment about compartmentalising rationality.

If Wednesday [the child of Mormons mentioned in the article] can partition, that puts an upper bound on her ability as a rationalist; it means she doesn’t get on a deep level why the rules are what they are. She doesn’t get, say, that the laws regarding evidence are not social customs that can be different from one place to another, but, rather, manifestations of the principle that you have to walk through a city in order to draw an accurate map of it.

Sam Harris mocks this compartmentalisation in his satirical response to Coyne’s critics (the paragraphs following “Finally, Kenneth Miller, arrives” are the key ones). Science is one manifestation of the principle that you draw a map by walking the streets, not by sitting in your room and thinking hard about it. There are other legitimate forms of cartography, such as the one you apply when you conclude that someone loves you (assuming you’re not actually a stalker). Perhaps, like the Tube map, they’re not doing quite the same precise measurement as you’d expect from science, but they make useful maps.

Recall the original point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, before it developed into a cod-religion for annoying Christians with, like the worship of Invisible Pink Unicorn (PBUHHH). The FSM’s inventor used it to point out that if you’re going to say your god created the universe because you sat your room and had a strong inner conviction about it, on your own argument, the FSM revealed to me as a Pastafarian is as legitimate as the creator your conviction revealed to you. This point is not lessened if you say your god sometimes happens to do stuff in a way which isn’t directly incompatible with known science.

Perhaps theism isn’t incompatible with evolution, but it is incompatible with good cartography.

Irregular Apocalypse

The other Red Ken has a new book out. The Night Sessions is set in a future where the USA and UK have pretty much abandoned religion as a bad job. In the book’s alternate history, the War on Terror became the Faith Wars, which culminated in tactical nuclear exchanges as part of a tank battle in the Valley of Megiddo (ya, rly). The US/UK won a Pyrrhic victory, and the people of those countries decided that it wasn’t just the neo-cons who were to blame, but religion. Thus began what the churches referred to as the Great Rejection. Christians were persecuted, Muslims sent to filtration camps. The book opens in 2037. In the independent republic of Scotland, religion is now ignored as part of a policy of official “non-cognisance”. Then a Roman Catholic priest is murdered by a bomb, and the Edinburgh police (some of whom were in the “God Squads” which put down protests by Christians about the closing of churches and church schools) have to investigate.

No More Mr Nice Guy

MacLeod’s future Edinburgh seemed a bit like Iain M. Banks’s Culture, writ small. The religious people are the ones who have, prior to the opening of the book, learned the hard way that you “don’t fuck with the Culture”. The coppers are aided by sarcastic demilitarised combat robots, who attained consciousness on the battlefield as the result of getting better and better at modelling other combatants’ minds. There are the polybdsmfurrygoths in their silent nightclub (which used to be a church, naturally). The Great Rejection seems like unrealistic atheist wish-fulfilment.

God Told Me To Do It

Still, MacLeod has fun with his setting. The American fundies have buggered off to New Zealand and set up a creationist theme park, where one of the protagonists, John Campbell works. In the prologue, we meet him on a flight to Edinburgh, where he introduces a fellow passenger to the delights of presuppositionalism. If you doubt that people like Campbell exist in real life, check out what this guy thinks of people who allow evidence to modify their beliefs: I don’t know MacLeod’s own religious experiences, but he’s done his research. There are jokes you probably need some acquaintance with Christianity to get.

MacLeod isn’t silly enough to portray the religious characters unsympathetically. Campbell turns out to be a sensitive soul, rejected by one sect after another for increasingly hilarious reasons, who can’t quite understand why people find his theology hard to get on with. Grace Mazvabo, an Christian academic who studies the history of her religion, is well drawn.

The first part of the story is a sort of police procedural with lots of satisfying SF stuff about the kit the coppers have access to. Other reviewers say that MacLeod deliberately avoided making DI Adam Ferguson a hard-drinking future-Rebus, which is fair enough, but he and the other police seem a bit thin, somehow (the one exception being the, ahem, undercover agent who spends a lot of time around the polybdsmfurrygoths).

In fact, my main criticism of the book is that everything’s too thin. I wanted to know more about the world, and more about the characters. Maybe I’ve read too much Neal Stephenson, but I found the book too short. Still, it’s a mark of how much fun I had with it that I wanted more. Worth a read.