sam harris

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.

Dawkins Our Leader was on Minnesota public radio. I was interested because some people on the radio station’s live blog of the interview were saying that Kerri Miller, the presenter, was too aggressive. I don’t think she was. Dawkins isn’t a Muslim or Christian in need of molly-coddling lest he accuse people who disagree with him of being disrespectful. Her directness got quite a few interesting responses from Dawkins:

Deism is Wrong but Respectable. There was a bit of fuss on some Christian blogs about this when he said it in the Dawkins/Lennox debate. It seems as if people have an idea of Dawkins as the Pope of Atheism. His arguments are soldiers and any concession towards theism is a sign of victory for God. As Ruth Gledhill found, he seems the opposite of the Pope of Atheism in person.

Theism is Ignorant and Infantile. Dawkins feels no shame in referring to popular theism as a belief in an imaginary friend. Rilstone says this metaphor is actually pretty close in some ways, so it’s not clear why so many Christians get upset about it.

Dawkins wonders why sophisticated theists bother to call themselves Christians when they don’t believe in any of the uniquely Christian stuff (virgin birth, water into wine, even resurrection in some cases). He shows a touching faith that a Church of England clergyman would accept this stuff (he’s talking about Polkinghorne, whose theological position I don’t know).

Theist scientists like Francis Collins show a double-mindedness that Dawkins finds curious. Not everyone is convinced that single-mindedness is a virtue, though, as recent convert Sam Harris argues: “If Francis Collins wants to believe that the historical Jesus was actually raised from the dead and still exists in an ethereal form which renders him both clairvoyant and mildly disapproving of masturbation, these beliefs do not even slightly detract from his stature as a scientist.”

Mysteries exist to be solved, not celebrated. Dawkins says he has faith (I’m looking forward to seeing the first theist quote mining of this statement), not that the mysteries will be solved, but that trying to solve them is worthwhile. The greatest mystery he’s aware of is the subjective experience of human consciousness.

What of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? Dawkins reckons the evidence is poor. Like evolution, we have to rely on the clues that remain. Those for the resurrection aren’t very good.

Will Dawkins be an atheist on his deathbed, without hoping for an afterlife? Probably: minds and brains seem to be linked, there’s no reason to think you can have a mind without a brain.

Why has Dawkins written The Greatest Show on Earth? Not to reach the dyed-in-the-wool Creationist, but the people who haven’t thought about it yet, the same people he hoped to reach with The God Delusion.

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.

robhu linked to a post on convert_me in which pooperman realises he’s an atheist after reading Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. There’s some interesting reflection on the origins of scriptural literalism, which is related to the stuff about science and truth in my last post. pooperman writes:

Basically, Harris’ has ceded–on behalf of religion, apparently–the hermeneutic of scripture to the fundamentalists. What Harris fails to understand is the scriptural basis for a more-moderate and more-metaphorical (as well as through the changing lens of historical contexts) interpretation of much of scripture. Also, Harris presumes that the literal approach to scripture is more-primitive, more-fundamental–that the “first” believers in these ancient religions understood and interpreted the texts in a straightforward and unquestioningly literal way.

There is a good chance, IMO, that Harris has this completely backwards. It is entirely possible that religious moderation is more primitive, and that literalism is a more modern corruption of religion–a corruption from the outside, not from within. What is the source of this corruption? It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of science and the increasing rhetorical value of the “objectively true” that science (and, more to the point, engineering) has infected the religious mindset and caused some of the religious to prematurely devalue the indirect truths and insights of a beautifully-complex metaphorical image and to seek to replace these images as images with a direct, parsimonious, and straightforward representation of Truth, without sacrificing the images themselves. The literalists have, I think, slit their spiritual wrists with Ockham’s razor.


I’ve often heard that evangelicalism is a modern heresy, but I’ve never seen the historical evidence for it. Does anyone have any references for that idea?