Sam Harris makes a modest proposal

One of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, Sam Harris, appears to have undergone some sort of conversion. This is serious stuff.

The people over at Edge have been talking about Jerry Coyne’s book reviews and thoughts on the incompatibility of science and religion (mentioned here previously). The authors of the books, Karl Giberson and Ken Miller, have both responded to the reviews.

Yet it is Harris, a former militant atheist himself, who responds most resoundingly to Coyne (and his supporter, Dennett), in a sweeping, magisterial essay whose sophistication, not to say length, rivals the work of William Lane Craig. I commend it to you.

<lj-cut text=”Just one more thing you should know before you comment”>This is a joke, people. Do read Harris’s essay, though, it’s laugh out loud funny in some places.

Darwin award

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.”

Book: The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a successful church in New York. He’s written a book, The Reason For God, which he says is for people doubting Christianity, and for Christians wanting to answer questions from their non-Christian friends. nlj21 lent me the book, and I read it while on holiday recently. If you’d like to see Keller in action, you can watch his talk at Google, which rehearses some of the arguments from the book.

The success of Keller’s church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller’s style, I can see why he’s successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there’s no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.

Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn’t completely crazy. That’s certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.

That said, since the book is better than most Christian attempts at evangelism I’ve read or seen lately, I thought I’d do a couple of posts on it, of which this is the first.

Arguments against God

The book is divided into two parts: one dealing with the arguments against God, which Keller wants to show are faulty; and one dealing with the arguments for God. We’ll look at his responses to objections, using the chapter headings from the book.

There can’t be just one true religion

<lj-cut>There’s no logical basis for such an argument, as Keller rightly says, because there might actually be one true religion.

What people voicing this objection really seem to be worrying about is the danger that thinking you have the Truth will make you arrogant or even violent towards those who don’t agree. Keller says that the bad stuff done by Christians was against the teachings of Christianity, that is, that those people weren’t True Scotsmen.

Someone like Keller wouldn’t have gone on a Crusade and wouldn’t shoot abortionists, so those things are certainly against Keller’s sort of Christianity. However, Keller’s assertion rests on his interpretation of Christianity being the True Christianity (or at least, Truer), a view which wasn’t shared by Crusaders. As God is silent, how can Keller persuade Crusaders of his rightness? A general caution against arrogance when you think you know the absolute truth sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try believing things to the extent that we have evidence for them, for example?

How could a good God allow suffering?

<lj-cut>Keller argues that modern philosophers don’t accept that evil can be used to disprove God. God might have reasons for doing stuff which we don’t currently understand, and in fact, if he’s much cleverer than us, reasons we may be unable to understand.

This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it. To use Gareth’s analogy, if we’re told someone is a chess grandmaster, yet is is apparently playing very badly, we might at first think that he is adopting some strategy we don’t understand, but as the game goes on, as his opponent hoovers up his pieces without apparent effort, we might begin to suspect we’ve been misinformed about this so-called grandmaster.

Some Christians might respond that a dramatic reversal is on the way, but their evidence for that is poor. Even by the late New Testament period, teaching about the Second Coming is being shored up by suspicious pre-emptive excuses for why it hasn’t happened. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

Keller goes on to say that atheists have no moral basis for calling something evil, re-iterating the moral argument discussed in a previous entry. He’s wrong, of course: the basis is our dislike of our own suffering, and our empathy for others, two things which are basic experiences in most people. Someone without these might not have a moral basis for expecting God to do something about suffering, but if you don’t like suffering and aren’t a sociopath, you’ve got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

Christianity is a straitjacket

<lj-cut>The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of “The Man is keeping you down, Man” statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller’s church in New York. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

The Church is responsible for so much injustice

<lj-cut>Along with C.S. Lewis, whose works Keller treats as a sort of New New Testament, Keller argues that you shouldn’t judge Christianity by Christians, because the church attracts strange and damaged people (like me, for example) and when you meet someone, you don’t know what they’ve been through in their past.

The assumption here is that there’s a good reason for changes brought about by God to take a long time. It’s odd that it does for some people and not others, though, isn’t it? If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you’d’ve thought he wouldn’t have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

The rest of the chapter is the religion vs secularism murder drinking game (drink if the theist mentions Pol Pot or Stalin, drink if the atheist mentions the Crusades or 911, down your glass if anyone mentions Hitler). This can be fun and can motivate your side, but I’m not sure it moves the theist/atheist debate anywhere, so while I have engaged in it in the past, I now think is pretty pointless. I don’t see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn’t seem a good one. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

How can a loving God send people to Hell?

<lj-cut>Keller says that our problem with judgement is cultural, and that other cultures exposed to Christianity like the judgement stuff but don’t like the turning the other cheek stuff. He says he asked one person who objected to Hell whether she would say that her culture was superior to non-Western ones. The right answer to this is “Well, I think my personal morality is, otherwise what the Hell am I doing?” or possibly “Well, maybe not in general, but I’m fairly sure eternal torture is a bad thing”. Keller’s politically correct one-up-manship is a good way to make woolly relativists back down, so presumably works against the liberals who turn up at his New York church.

Keller then moves on to argue that God doesn’t send people to Hell, as such. His view of judgement owes more to the bowdlerisation of Hell in C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament than it does to the New Testament. Lewis and Keller think that Hell is a continuation of the soul’s trajectory at death, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, that Hell is ultimately God saying “have it your way”. Lewis says “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud”.

To support Lewis’s ideas, Keller quotes Romans 1:24-26, a passage about God “giving people over” to their sins. This passage is actually about red-hot girl-on-girl action, not the fires of Hell. The New Testament is a bit less reticent about God’s role in sending people to Hell than Keller. Reading it, you’ll find that God has appointed a day, and a judge who will condemn people to the fire. It’s hard to fit this positive action from God into Keller’s scheme.

So where did Keller’s ideas come from? Lewis’s (and hence Keller’s) Hell is the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts realm, but without the possibility of rebirth. People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction.

Alas, you’ll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment). Keller quotes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in support of the Hungry Ghost Hell. His exposition of the passage talks about how the Rich Man is self-centred in that he still expects Lazarus to fetch water for him, but unfortunately ignores the fact that this is because the Rich Man is being tortured by fire.

Since Keller’s Hell is the Hungry Ghosts realm, I wondered what his response would be to people attempting to avoid self-centredness by other means. Keller says that “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy”. This claim is asserted without evidence.

Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible’s actual view is less palatable than Lewis’s, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God’s express command. If you believe in the Bible’s version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one. It’s no wonder that most evangelicals (with some notable exceptions) believe they should believe in Hell, but don’t actually believe in it.

Science has disproved Christianity

<lj-cut>Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone’s arguing there can’t be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they’re assuming their conclusion. I wouldn’t disagree here.

Keller goes into an extensive digression about how many scientists believe in God. Like the murder drinking game, we need to be a bit careful here, both when reading Dawkins and when reading Keller. What counts as evidence for God’s activity (or lack of it) is the opinion of domain experts in areas where God is said to have acted (like, say, the opinion of biologists and geologists on creationism, or the opinion of psychologists and anthropologists on religious experiences). The rest is pretty much irrelevant: there’s nothing so stupid that you can’t find someone with a PhD who believes it.

He talks a lot about evolution, probably because creationism is an embarrassment to Christianity for scientifically educated people who turn up at his church. He says he accepts some form of evolution, but, unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t accept evolution as a worldview. The argument is quite confused at this point, and it’s not clear what he means by “evolution as a worldview”. Quotable quote: “When evolution is turned into an all-encompassing theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel and do as the product of natural selection, then we were not in the arena of science, but of philosophy”. Keller appears to have mixed up Dawkins’s views on evolution with Dawkins’s general belief in naturalism, since I doubt Dawkins supports the quoted position.

Keller says he himself believes that God guided some kind of process of natural selection (making it a process of supernatural selection, I suppose). Keller has effectively retrofitted Genesis to modern scientific theories. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn’t mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

Keller tells his readers not to worry about all this disagreement among Christians about evolution. Look at the core claims of Christianity, he says, not at this side issue. Unfortunately, some of those core claims conflict with evolution. For example, there’s the claim that, just as death entered the world through Adam’s sin, Jesus’s death for humanity’s sins conquered sin and hence death, as demonstrated by the Resurrection. Does Keller think that the Fall was an event in history, and is he arguing that nothing died before the Fall? If Keller has answers to those sorts of objections (which usually come from other Christians, namely the creationists), he doesn’t tell us what they are and how he knows they’re right.

He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can’t be used to show that theistic evolution didn’t happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he’s responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It’s a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn’t really prove anything. Perhaps a more interesting objection to claims of God’s activity in the world would be to say that God is inert and ask someone like Keller to show why anyone would believe otherwise.

You can’t take the Bible literally

<lj-cut>Keller limits himself to talking about the Gospels. He says that they were written too soon after Jesus’s life to be fictionalised accounts, because their first readers could have checked up on their accuracy; their content isn’t what we’d expect of legends composed by the early church (the female witnesses to the Resurrection, Peter’s denial of Jesus when Peter went on to head the church); and that the gospels have the literary form of eye-witness accounts, but the modern novel had not been invented yet, so they are intended as reportage.

I’m no historian, so I’m not really able to check these claims out. I’d be interested to know what my readers think, and I’ll probably be looking into this stuff at some point in the future. My meta-problem with this stuff is having to rely on ancient written accounts of stuff I give very low credence to by default. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.

Keller then addresses cultural, rather than historical, objections to the Bible, arguing, along with New New Testament author C.S. Lewis, that such objections may be assuming that older societies were “primitive”, but that our grandchildren may find some of our beliefs equally primitive. Imagine Anglo-Saxons and modern Brits reading two stories, Jesus’s claim that he will judge the world, and Peter’s denial of Jesus and later restoration. The responses to the two stories will be quite different, Keller argues, so who are we to say that judgement is bad and wrong but Jesus’s forgiveness of Peter is right.

So, Keller argues, rather than saying “bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament and New New Testament, which hadn’t been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.

Summing up

Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily. In other cases (theodicy and Hell), his method is to argue that there’s still a chance that Christianity is true, so the objections aren’t completely conclusive. I don’t find this that impressive, because the sensible objector isn’t claiming that their objections are conclusive, merely that they’re strong evidence. To defeat that, one must produce stronger evidence, which as we’ll see in the next part, Keller fails to do.

Dilbert’s a creationist

Mattghg posted something about how Scott Adams, the Dilbert artist, doesn’t believe in evolution. I responded:

Scott Adams also thinks that gravity is caused by the fact that everything is expanding, and that if you write down something you want to happen several times a day, it will come to pass. While this doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong about evolution, I think he’s a contrarian who likes to throw out wild ideas about how the scientists are wrong. To deny evolution is on a par with the expansion=gravity idea: it’s only Americans who think there is a controversy, because of the wedge strategy of the creationists (now known as intelligent design advocates).

Matt has made another post about my last sentence, taking issue with my assertion that there is no controversy. He links to Jerry Fodor’s recent article in the LRB as an example of a someone who says that there is a controversy. He also objects to me lumping the Intelligent Design (ID) crowd in with the Young Earth Creationists.

I have at least two PhD biologists on my friends’ list. They know much more about this stuff than me, so I hope they’ll point out my errors in what follows. That said, I thought I’d have a go anyway. So:

I probably should have said that by “controversy” I mean the specific idea that ID-ers want taught in schools, namely that there’s some serious disagreement among biologists about whether an intelligent designer is required to explain some biological structures. I’m not saying all biologists agree on every detail of how evolution works.

That said, Fodor’s article is, I’d guess, a typical example of someone from outside the field misunderstanding the details of debates within it (hence my hope that my biologist friends will correct me where I’m wrong). He talks about the constraints of embryology and existing forms as if this were breaking news to people like Dawkins. As it happens, I’m reading Climbing Mount Improbable as the moment, where Dawkins, writing back in 1996, talks about the evolution of the eye. He tells us that “Once a good eye has started to evolve with its retina back-to-front, the only way to ascend [the fitness landscape] is to improve the present design of the eye… the vertebrate retina faces the way it does because of the way it develops in the embryo, and this certainly goes back to its distant ancestors”. A recent entry by davegodfrey, a paleobiologist, addresses some of the other oddities in Fodor’s essay.

But biologists do disagree. ID-ers like to see this disagreement, because it allows them to tell the biologists that the resolution is right in front of their noses: God did it! (if you doubt that the ID-ers’ intelligent designer is God, read their own strategy document, which lays out the aims of the movement). This is just the sort of “me too Daddy” helpfulness that you get from New Agers about quantum physics. Unfortunately it loses its charm when grown-ups do it (and it’s not made any more convincing by the fact that some very distinguished scientists go along with it: there’s no idea so silly that you can’t find a PhD, or even a Nobel prizewinner, who’ll agree with it). No wonder the biologists are annoyed by this sort of thing.

ID-ers assume that if there is a disagreement among biologists, evolutionary theory is in crisis, and that the solution must be ID. As the ID-er linked to by Matt said “Of course, one of those alternatives, not mentioned by Fodor, is ID.” There’s a reason by Fodor didn’t mention that alternative. As Dawkins and Coyne said in their Guardian article: “The other side is never required to produce one iota of evidence, but is deemed to have won automatically, the moment the first side encounters a difficulty – the sort of difficulty that all sciences encounter every day, and go to work to solve, with relish.”

On the point of what “creationism” means, it’s clear from the Discovery Institute’s own documentation that their aim is to provide a stepping stone to creationism while sneaking around the American restrictions on the establishment of religion, specifically on the teaching of creationism in schools. This is so well known that I suspect ID will need to reinvent itself soon in its continual game of cat-and-mouse with the US court system. Wikipedia links to Panda’s Thumb, which claims that “critical analysis of evolution” is the new buzz phrase. We’ll have to see how that one works out for them, I suppose.