christianity

Even the atheists agree: William Craig thrashed Christopher Hitchens in their recent debate. In The West Wing, we see Bartlet preparing for a debate as real politicians do, by practising against someone playing his opposition, presumably having studied the other guy first. Craig is formidable, but his arguments don’t change, so it’s odd that his opponents apparently don’t take advantage of knowing what he’s going to say. Transcripts and audio of his previous debates are available, and his arguments are also in his book, Reasonable Faith. Chris Hallquist responded convincingly to the arguments in Reasonable Faith: a review like that should be a starting point for anyone debating with Craig.

Anyhoo, Hallquist’s review of Craig’s book brought back some memories of my time in evangelicalism, specifically about how I was taught to do evangelism. (Reminder: Evangelicalism is a particular subset of Christianity, emphasising the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for personal repentance and faith; people who believe in evangelicalism are evangelicals. Evangelism is the process of making converts; people who try to make converts are evangelists. Clear? Then off we go.)

When I tap on the dashboard, I want you to recite “Two Ways to Live” as quickly and as safely as possible

Sometimes non-Christians are disturbed to learn that evangelicals commonly receive training in evangelism, as if such training were somehow cheating. But there’s nothing inherently sinister about wanting to be better at evangelism, especially if you value the sort of propositional consistency I’ve mentioned previously: evangelicals who evangelise are anticipating-as-if there’s a Hell, rather than merely speaking-as-if they believe it (I’ve previously mentioned an evangelical evangelist who definitely anticipates-as-if there’s a Hell).

The training provided to a typical church-goer doesn’t cover spanking ill-prepared atheists in formal debates, but rather the every-day evangelism which is the responsibility of every Christian. It might start off with overcoming the British reticence about religion to get Christians to casually mention to friends and colleagues what they do on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The church itself would put on fun events (film screenings, dinner parties, Ceroc nights) to which you could bring non-Christian friends, and there’d be a “short talk about Jesus” in the middle. Once people know you’re a Christian, you might get to talk to them about it, so the training goes on to having conversations about Christianity with non-Christians, maybe learning some sort of salvation schema like Two Ways to Live and some answers to common questions.

What kicked off memories of this was Hallquist’s review of Chapter 1 of Craig’s book. I remember being told to try to move the conversation away from issues like theodicy or the reliability of the Bible, to personal issues of sin and repentance. If you watch the BBC documentary on Deborah Drapper, you’ll see her doing this several times, using Ray Comfort’s Are you a good person? script. If you’d like to see Christopher Hitchens win for a change, you can also listen to an unfortunate Christian trying the script on him.

Bad faith

The advice to move the argument to personal issues reflects the common evangelical belief that philosophical debates and requests for evidence are a smokescreen: the non-Christian knows there’s a God really but just doesn’t want to worship him. One Biblical source for this belief is this passage in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where Paul says that God’s nature is clear from creation, so that people who don’t worship him have no excuse (verse 20).

Hallquist quotes Craig:

[W]hen a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. — William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, my hyperlink

Craig advises Christians to ask objectors “If I answered that objection, would you then really be ready to become a Christian?” This is something like the rationalist technique of getting to the core of disagreements by asking “Is that your true rejection?” (see also The Least Convenient Possible World). However, Craig departs from the rationalist use of this technique in that he seems to argue it cannot legitimately be applied in reverse (“If I substantiated that objection, would you be ready to leave Christianity?”). He also takes the stance that non-Christians are culpably arguing in bad faith.

Hallquist’s review does a better job of arguing against Craig than I can, so you should read that if you come across assertions that Christianity is evidenced by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, or indeed, if you should happen to get into a debate with William Lane Craig. Rather, as is traditional, let’s end by drawing out some practical applications, and then go in peace.

Evangelism training

  • One of the less memorable new phrases invented by Neal Stephenson in Anathem is Hypotrochian Transquaestiation, which means “to change the subject in such a way as to assert, implicitly, that a controversial point has already been settled one way or the other”. Watch out for this, for example, in the switch from discussion of the existence of God to whether you are a good person.
  • Cognitive biases exist, and seeking a person’s true rejection is a useful technique if the debate seems to be going nowhere. However, it cuts both ways, so…
  • Beware of your conversational role. If you’ve accepted a passive role as potential buyer and the evangelist’s active role as sales-person, there are thoughts which won’t occur to you (like the seeking the evangelist’s true rejection).
  • If you’re aiming for dialogue rather than the buyer role, it’s probably not worth discussing things with someone who sees every argument you raise as evidence of your culpable self-deception. Craig’s position on an atheist’s motivations together with his experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit serve as a fully general counterargument to anything the atheist says (but note that knowing Craig is in possession of this argument doesn’t itself invalidate his specific arguments). If you find yourself in conversation with an evangelical evangelist, it is worth asking whether they agree with Craig.
    • One exception where it would be worth arguing is if there are people watching, as in a public debate, online, or if you found yourself at one of those evangelistic dinner parties.

Richard Carrier recently debated with William Lane Craig. That’s them in the picture, you see (I’ll leave it to you to decide which one’s which). The topic was the Resurrection of Jesus. You can listen here, though the audio is a bit crappy, or watch the debate on Youtube.

Carrier doesn’t think he did very well. He correctly says that he was a lot less organised than Craig and couldn’t keep up with all the things he’d need to rebut. As I’ve previously noted, Craig has a lot of arguments and a very polished delivery.

<lj-cut text=”Summary of the arguments”>Craig’s main points are that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea; Jesus’s tomb was empty; the tomb was discovered empty by women; Mark’s story is simple and lacks theological embellishment (unlike Matthew’s, presumably?); and finally that the earliest Jewish response, that the disciples stole the body, recorded in Matthew, pre-supposes the empty tomb. He backs these points up with references to NT scholars and historians.

Carrier’s response takes issue with Craig’s evidence. He attacks both the NT gospels and Paul’s letters. He notes that Paul says Jesus was raised and appeared to people (1 Cor 15), not specifically that Jesus’s tomb was empty. Appearances can be hallucinations. Looking at Acts and Paul’s letters, it seems the early Christians did have visions. Paul himself says his gospel came from God, not men. Carrier is not saying the early Christians were mentally ill, but rather, that hallucinations in the sane are common in some people, who may even find them comforting (Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World also makes the point that hallucinations are more common than we think and don’t mean that the person experiencing them is crazy). We know these hallucinations have a role in other religions, so why not Christianity? So far, fair enough.

Carrier then argued that that gospel accounts were full of myths, that is, stories told to express a point rather than being historical narrative. He outlined a theory that the release of Barabbas was an allegory for the scapegoat ceremony on Yom Kippur. This has been noted by scholars and also by Christian believers. Though the Christians would argue that just because something is an allegory doesn’t mean it didn’t also happen, Carrier claims that the gospels are chock full of these sorts of things, and so we cannot tell what they record as history.

Craig says in his comments prior to the debate that for the purpose of debating the Resurrection, it doesn’t matter whether the gospels are completely reliable (Craig thinks they are, but wisely doesn’t attempt to defend inerrancy in debate), because we accept that historical sources may contain errors and truths. But Carrier’s argument is that the gospels are chock-full of symbolic tales, so it’s unlikely that any given account is historical: the gospels are not just a mixture of history and myth, but mostly myth.

Carrier talks about a hypothetical world where Jesus appeared to lots of people in lots of places after his resurrection, with records of appearances in many countries. Carrier thinks that in that world he would have much greater chance of accepting that Jesus was raised, so the fact that we’re not in that world is better explained by atheism than Christianity. Craig initially refuses to address this, saying that the question of what God would do is a theological one, not a historical one. When pressed in the Q&A, Craig says that there are Christianities where it makes sense that Jesus didn’t appear all over the world: for example, one might be a universalist, that is, a Christian who believes nobody goes to hell. Of course, Craig’s not a universalist. He’s a Molinist, so he believes God knows what would have happened in every possible circumstance. If Jesus didn’t appear all over the world, Craig says it must be because doing so wouldn’t make more Christians. Craig seems fond of saying that having more evidence for God’s existence wouldn’t make more people become Christians: see, for example, this thread where robhu linked to an article of Craig’s. Yet Carrier seems to be saying he would believe in the resurrection in the hypothetical world, and a lot of ex-Christian atheists say they left the church when they realised there wasn’t enough evidence for their beliefs.

So much for Craig, what about Carrier? In Are You a Solar Deity?, Yvain cautions against theories which can be applied to anything (the specific example Yvain uses is related to religious myths, in fact). Some of Carrier’s examples of myth seem a bit of a stretch. He needs to do more work to show that the gospels are generally unreliable, more than he has time for in a debate, it seems. He’s written a book outlining his theories, but I don’t think he’s carried out a Spot the Fakes test. I’m not convinced the gospels are mostly myth.

On the other hand, the gospels do contain mythologised history based on Old Testament passages. Christians without a prior commitment to Biblical inerrancy recognise this, as do other readers. For example, scribb1e noticed when she read through the Old Testament. (If you’re an inerrantist, you can accommodate this evidence into your web of belief in other ways, for example by saying that the OT passages were foreshadowing). Craig concedes this for the sake of argument, but says we still extract history from unreliable sources. True, but historians don’t extract belief in miracles from other sources either, do they? The apologist is right to argue that the gospels should not be treated more strictly than other historical documents, but historians don’t believe that Vespasian cured the blind, either. Without the presumption that the source is totally reliable, they’re going to treat miracles as the unreliable part.

That steers things back into the territory of the Ehrman vs Craig debate I’ve mentioned previously. When you’ve watched enough of these debates, you realise there are standard openings, like in chess. If you’re an evangelist and someone says to you that historians don’t accept your religion’s miracle, you counter by accusing the historians of metaphysical naturalism and hence of begging the question. Your sensible sceptic will say that this has nothing to do with grand philosophical statements about how everything supervenes on the physical, and more about the way everyone, even Christians, agrees that miracles are pretty uncommon. You need a lot of evidence to back up a miraculous claim, and in the case of the Resurrection, if you really start with a low prior probability, there just isn’t enough evidence.

Notice that Craig never puts numbers into his equation when he’s beating Ehrman with it (not that this would have helped Ehrman, because he’s an arts graduate, poor soul). Craig doesn’t seem very sure what his prior would be. Barefoot Bum and I argued about this, because I’d not noticed Craig talks about it in two places in the Ehrman debate: at one point he says it’s “terribly low” but then, as the Bum notes, he later says “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” Craig’s argument seems to be that there’s sufficient evidence to believe in the Resurrection if you already believe that God is the sort of God who’d do something like raise Jesus from the dead. That seems fair enough, but as an evangelist, shouldn’t Craig be concerned with how people come to believe in that sort of God? Not by examining the evidence for the Resurrection, it seems.

Still, Craig duffed Carrier up. Let’s not lose heart: over at Evangelical Agnosticism they talk about the rare atheists who don’t get duffed up by Craig. Paul Draper did well, and is well worth a listen. Also, Craig’s debating with Christopher Hitchens on 4th April, which will be entertaining, if nothing else.

A while back Andrew Brown over at the Grauniad posted a list of the 6 Points of New Atheism. There was a bit of a bun-fight among the atheists about this, because, though Brown’s an atheist, he was criticising Dawkins Our Leader. It got even more fun when Dawkins turned up in the comments. (My own contribution was to treat the 6 Points as one of those internet quiz memes: I score 2.5/6 for New Atheism, which makes me slightly more Old Skool than New, I suppose). It’s a bit like that Southpark episode where the Unified Atheist League fights the Allied Atheist Allegiance. What’s the fuss about? Here’s part of it.

Most Christians say God is omniscient and omnipresent. Yet the Christian woman whom Yellow blogged about, the one who wrote to a Christian problem page with her self-pleasuring problem, clearly doesn’t really believe God is present and watching her all the time. But she at least believes that believing those things is virtuous for a Christian. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this latter sort of faith belief in belief.

This doesn’t just apply to religion. palmer1984 posted a poll which suggest similar things apply to moral beliefs. It is virtuous to say that we should care for people in other countries as much as we do for those in our own, but most people don’t really believe it.

Some people, especially those with a scientific education (or a certain sort of evangelical Christian background), think of belief as affirmation of a set of propositions. To those people, it’s obvious that these propositions should not be internally contradictory or conflict with reality. But, as Saunt Yudkowsky observes “it is a physical fact that you can write “The sky is green!” next to a picture of a blue sky without the paper bursting into flames”. The same applies inside our heads. Dr Vilayanur Ramachandan’s fascinating experiments on anosognosia patients seem to show that explaining why a belief is valid and changing your beliefs are separate systems in the brain.

I take Yudkowsky’s point that speaking of belief doesn’t capture the psychology here precisely because “beliefs” are often taken to be propositional sentences, but our brains don’t deal in those much. Instead of talking about what someone “really believes”, I suppose he’d prefer to say that the woman speaks-as-if she believes God is omnipotent and omnipresent, but, at least in some instances, behaves-as-if God is not.

Brown says he’s annoyed with neo-atheist rationalist fundamentalist sceptics because neo-atheists think that all brains work like theirs or can be convinced to do so, but that thinking is wildly optimistic. This is the point of Brown’s Freud vs God post, which you should all go and read. See you in 5 minutes.

Back? Brown’s getting this stuff from Dennett and from anthropologists who study religion, such as Pascal Boyer. Boyer details his views over at a sceptics’ website, where he tells sceptics off for their narrow understanding of religion. Another anthropologist, Scott Atran, does a similar thing on edge.org, responding to Sam Harris and others in the wake of the Beyond Belief conference back in 2006.

The anthropologists say that religious beliefs should not be understood as propositional statements about the world, however much they resemble them. What of God’s omnipresence and omniscience? One thing religious people do with this belief is check whether an action is morally right by imagining what their model of God would think of it. This might be done retrospectively, if a religious context provokes thoughts of God. They certainly don’t anticipate-as-if God is in the room and watching.

Brown has linked the ideas of the anthropologists with the observation that most people don’t try to formulate coherent propositions on anything, including religion. I don’t know whether the anthropologists would agree with this, I’d need to read more of their stuff to tell. It’s clear that most religious people do try to draw a map of the real world. As Yudkowsky illustrates with his dragon-believer example, 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; or as heroes of the faith for showing such belief, like the monks and martyrs. I’d paraphrase Brown’s argument as “most people don’t see the virtue of having one map for all occasions, or of being able to articulate it”.

Of course, if you’re a religious believer, you might find the anthropologists’ approach a little patronising. Some of you seem to have beliefs which are propositions about how the world is. As I said over on robhu‘s journal a while back, Dawkins at least does believers the courtesy of taking them at their word. What do you think?

Inasmuch as there’s an atheist movement (Dawkins for Pope!), it seems pretty male dominated, both online and off. So, what about the atheist women? They’re out there, and this is a post to link to some of them.

  • Greta Christina is gay and atheist, and draws some parallels between the two. Atheism seems to be a lot harder in the USA than it is here. Greta writes about how to be an ally to atheists in the same way that you might speak of being an ally to any other disadvantaged class of people.

  • Mathurine (not her real name, for obvious reasons) is an ex-Muslim woman. She wrote a three guest posts over at Tree Dreamer: one the hijab, another on making atheist communities friendly to ex-Muslims, and another answering atheists’ questions on Islam.

  • Lily originally blogged at Leaving Eden, writing about her experiences as a closet atheist at Wheaton College, a Christian college in the USA. Since graduating, she’s been blogging as Peaceful Atheist (I’ve mentioned her before in my posting on doubt). There’s an article over there specifically on women in atheism.

  • No Longer Quivering is the blog of two women who were once part of the Quiverfull movement. As Salon explains in an article about them, that means that as well as accepting the standard evangelical stuff on male leadership, they also rejected birth control and sought to have as many kids as possible. They got out, and are blogging about how they feel about it.

    I traditionally googlebomb the word complementarian with a link to Houseplants of Gor. Of course, there are differences between the Gor series and the Bible: one is a historically-based fantasy which, although some people have found it rich enough to base their lives on, undoubtedly advocates a patriarchy based on the “natural roles” of men and women; and the other is a set of books by John Norman.

  • Deborah Drapper isn’t an atheist. She’s the Christian girl who was the subject of Deborah 13: Servant of God, a BBC documentary about her and her family (the link goes to a post on the Dawkins site where you can watch it on Youtube). She’s something unusual in this country: she’s part of a large family (there are hints that they subscribe to the Quiverfull idea) and home-schooled. I was reminded of her after No Longer Quivering because of the point in the documentary where she explains that she belongs to her father until she marries someone.

    Deborah comes across as bright, articulate and a firm believer in evangelical Christianity. Her blog has been inundated after the screening of the documentary, but I hope she’ll continue to write. Her father also has a blog where you can find out about how the EU is part of the coming world government of the Antichrist, and that the King James Version of the Bible was inspired by God.

Wandering around the web recently, I found Prisoner of Narnia, an article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker from 2005. It’s about the life of C.S. Lewis, and the enduring attraction of the Narnia books.

The link to the article came from Daylight Atheism, where they liked this bit:

A startling thing in Lewis’s letters to other believers is how much energy and practical advice is dispensed about how to keep your belief going: they are constantly writing to each other about the state of their beliefs, as chronic sinus sufferers might write to each other about the state of their noses. Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes — the thought not occurring that a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn’t really a belief but a very strong desire to believe.

It’s that belief in belief thing again. This has also come up in my sporadic discussion with apdraper2000, where he’s asking why I spend so much time blogging about theism. If you want to know what my motivation is, you can read the thread.

Of course, any Christian worth their salt would be able to you that the reason it’s so hard to keep believing in the existence of God as compared to say, believing in the existence of atoms, is because the world is currently a hostile place, where the believer is a footsoldier in a cosmic battle, facing the flaming arrows of Original Sin, Satan, Dust, the BBC’s blatant bias, the Patriarchy, the Illuminati, New Labour, Zionists, and Communists. Let us waste no more time on the naive idea that if you keep having to shore up your belief in something, it just might be because you’re wrong.

Rather, it’s the article’s insight into Lewis’s psyche which is interesting. Gopnik portrays Lewis as a mystic who saw Christianity as a way to keep the magic, the joy of life, real. I was reminded of Jesus in John’s gospel, promising life in all its fullness.

Cardinal Manning agonized over eating too much cake, and was eventually drawn to the Church of Rome to keep himself from doing it again. Lewis didn’t embrace Christianity because he had eaten too much cake; he embraced it because he thought that it would keep the cake coming, that the Anglican Church was God’s own bakery. “The story of Christ is simply a true myth,” he says he discovered that night, “a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

It sounds like Lewis might have agreed with my contention that scriptural religion is lived fan-fiction, although, of course, he’d have said it was fan-truth.

Gopnik says that the believer and unbeliever can agree on the importance of imagination and stories as a way to reach the parts that both institutional Christianity and a narrow materialism do not reach. The final couple of paragraphs are particularly good, and we learn a lot about Lewis and Tolkien along they way. Definitely worth a read.

Edited: I changed “it just might be because it’s bollocks” to “it just might be because you’re wrong” after a Christian found the former form offensive. I’m recording that here so it doesn’t look like I’m hiding something.

I recall reading the description of CUWoCS in the Freshers’ Handbook a decade or so ago. Like many religions, they said, we believe that our god will return and condemn people to horrible torture; unlike other religions, however, we don’t claim that this somehow means our god is good.

I mention this partly because there’s a bit more discussion on C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller’s view on Hell in a thread on my last posting.

However, I mention Great Cthulhu because of a vision that has been given to, no, vouchsafed unto, me, of the time when the Stars are Right and He returns. You can see the full horror. This is a stark reminder of the choice we all face: who will be eaten first?

Thanks to scribb1e, the D&Ders, and the Cthulhu Crochet blog.

I’m talking about doubt in a few places at the moment. The feeds of my comments don’t cover stuff outside LJ (I was using CoComment, but decided that was too risky), so here’s where the action is:

Over at Hermant the Friendly Atheist‘s place, top Christian evangelist Lee Strobel turns the tables on us, and invites other Christian authors to ask atheists hard questions about atheism. You can see my responses over there. Greta Christina has some good thoughts on the questions.

The most interesting questions were Plantinga‘s stuff on whether having brains which evolved means we can’t trust them, and Mike Licona‘s question: what would make you doubt your atheism?

Lily the Peaceful Atheist (by the way, what’s with all these atheists being nice and fluffy? I want to be a fundamentalist atheist rationalist neo-humanistic secular militant like my hero, Richard Dawkins) talks about doubting atheism in a two part posting (part 1, part 2). She’s not impressed with Strobel and friends, but rather, talks about the “emotional doubts” of the ex-Christian: the fear of death, and the feelings evoked by Christian music. I understand those sorts of feelings, having had them myself. Still, I’m enough of a scientist (and enough of an evangelical) to want facts rather than emotion.

I said that I ought to be able to doubt atheism, and also other long held beliefs. The problem with saying “I want to doubt” is that it’s a noble statement, but if that’s all it is, it’s useless. As gjm11 says, half the problem is knowing what to doubt. With that in mind, I thought I’d ask you lot:

What should I doubt?

This doesn’t have to be religion/atheism, of course, although you’re welcome to suggest that if you like (<evil grin>).

Here’s a list of stuff I think about religion, philosophy, science and politics, so you can tell me where you think I could be wrong. Anonymous comments are allowed edited: but please sign yourself with some kind of nickname so I can tell you apart from other anonymous commenters.

<lj-cut text=”Stuff I think. Prepare to be alienated.”>Religion/philosophy: The sort of god that I used to believe in almost certainly doesn’t exist. Jesus probably existed, but God’s not saying much these days, so who cares? Non-evangelical sorts of god are too vague to bother with. Philosophically, I am a tentative materialist, and an interventionist moral relativist.

Science: global warming is real and caused by humans, but I don’t know what I personally should do about it. I don’t fly much because it’s dull and the security theatre is frustrating (“Time to spare, go by air” © my Dad), but I do drive to work. David Mackay’s book made me think we should build more nuclear power stations. Homeopathy works by the placebo effect. The MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. Ben Goldacre is god.

Politically, I’m left wing in that I’m in favour of a social safety net, the NHS, and so on. That said, New Labour have become high-handed and irrational wrt ID cards and other civil liberties issues, and on that basis I won’t shed too many tears when they lose the next election. Capitalism seems to be the least bad way of organising stuff. The Communists and whatnot I see in blogland seem to relish the moment when they’ll take power and hang the oppressors: like Christians talking about hell, the fact that this will never happen doesn’t make it any more morally acceptable. I am not a cultural relativist in the usual sense of that phrase.

I think the US-influenced identity politics that seems so popular here on LiveJournal is often bulshytt, and more interested in piety than achieving its stated goals (see also). As a white, male etc. etc., getting into discussions about it is like stepping on the third rail: unless I’m talking to someone I already know to be rational, it’s not worth the trouble. That said, I think certain classes of people have systematic advantages over others, but sometimes the concept of privilege is misused in the same way that the opposition misuses evolutionary psychology. Men and women are different at the biological level and this influences brains, but popular reporting of this stuff never talks about standard deviations and whatnot.

So, fire away 🙂

In other news:

Jerry Coyne has an article in The New Republic. It’s notionally a review of new books by two Christians who defend evolution against creationism, whether it be traditional young Earth creationism, or creationism’s more recent adaption to a major predator (the US court system), intelligent design. One of the Christians is the biologist Kenneth Miller, who testified against the IDists in the Dover School District trial; the other is Karl Giberson, a physicist.

Coyne argues that, while there are Christians who are accept evolution, this does not mean that these things are compatible (“It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers”). Having dismissed IDists’ attempt to have the definition of science extended to religion, and the God of the liberal theologians, a god who almost nobody actually believes in, Coyne moves on to address Miller and Giberson’s attempts to harmonise science and religion. He does so with civility and directness:

<lj-cut text=”Good bits”> (Note: The links below are to places where we’ve discussed similar ideas before; they do not form part of Coyne’s text)

[According to Miller] God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.




Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature.

In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that “if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God’s name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics.” Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky.




In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.


He concludes that:

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

Coyne does, I think, over-commit himself to one particular answer to the Fine Tuning Argument (just as Dawkins does), and he mis-states what the Strong Anthropic Principle is, but overall the article is excellent, and you should all read it.

There is a difference between creationisms (like YEC and ID) which contradict well established scientific theories, and Miller and Giberson’s efforts to argue that God did it but carefully hid his tracks (or that God set things up so that intelligent life would arise on Earth, though Coyne argues that this argument is contradicted by science to some extent). With YEC and ID, we’ve good reasons not to believe them. With a God who carefully hides his tracks, we must instead ask how we’d know if we were wrong (we might also ponder the arguments from God’s silence). The problem with Miller and Gibson is not facts but method.

If we accept a proposition merely because we can’t show it’s wrong, we might believe all sorts of things, so why credit the Christian God rather than my particular favourite deities? It seems that Miller and Giberson’s theories start from the conviction that God did it and work backwards to an explanation which is not directly contradicted by current science. As we saw when talking about biblical inerrancy, there’s always a logical way to make that sort of thing work; yet to do it is unskillful, the opposite of the fourth and seventh virtues in the Noble Twelvefold Path. In science “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”