On Tuesday I discussed a post by my SciBling Rob Knop on the subject of spirituality in an age of science. In that post I made three main points: (1) That Rob was badly mischaracterizing the views of Richard Dawkins on the question life’s ultimate purpose, (2) That in downplaying the role of God as creator he was conceding many of the major points made by people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, amd (3) That his reconciliation of science with religion depends on a notion of Christianity that leaves out many of the things people generally consider essential to Christian faith.

Since Tuesday there has been a lot of chatter here at Science Blogs about what Rob wrote. Rob himself has weighed in with a further post describing why he considers himself a Christian. It provides a lot of food for thought, but ultimately, in my opinion, doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.

That is not the subject of this post, however. Instead, I’d like to address a criticism levelled at me by another SciBling, Chris Rowan. In a post entitled Who Are We to Define Christianity? he takes umbrage at the idea of people passing judgment on who is, and who is not, a Christian. After quoting some of the commenters to Rob’s post he quotes my statement:

One wonders, however, what it means to describe yourself as a Christian and then write a paragraph like the one above .


In the paragraph to which I was referring Rob states specifically that religion does a terrible job at explaining the natural world. Since every Christian I have ever met believes that it is impossible adequately to understand the natural world without contemplating God’s role within it, I naturally wondered what Rob meant by the term “Christian.”

Chris was not amused:

This strikes me as a rather silly, and also rather insulting, criticism. The key lies in the second comment: in a depressingly large number of cases, if you ask a Catholic whether a Protestant or a Mormon was a Christian, they would answer no. And multiply vice versa. Hell, at the moment large chunks of the Anglican Church are accusing other parts of not being True Christians; and, to a first approximation at least, Rob’s beliefs seem to be resemble Ken Miller’s, so we have a professed Catholic who would also fall foul of a ‘hardcore Catholic’. So even within the same denomination there’s obviously a fair amount of variability in what people feel defines ‘Christian’.

The point is, ‘Christianity’ is not a discrete trait like black hair or six toes or an addiction to coffee. Christians self-identify. All religious people do. Even if Rob is in a Church of one (almost certainly not the case, I suspect) he clearly has a right to call himself a Christian, and state a belief in God, without being told that he doesn’t know his own mind.* As most of us have probably been burned ourselves by non-scientists telling scientists that science is ‘unethical, godless materialism’ (or ‘a social construct of white patriarchs’), and non-biologists telling biologists that evolution is ‘random unethical, godless materialism’, we should well know the dangers of trying to define other peoples’ terms for them.

Personally, as someone who has long been interested in trying to understand what people believe and why, I’m hoping that Rob will continue to talk about the relationship between science and his faith; I’m sure I won’t be the only person who learns something if he does.

*as distinct from discussing how his Christian beliefs differ from other peoples’. There is a difference.

Let me first respond to the narrow issue of whether my question was insulting. It wasn’t. Chris seems to think I was challenging Rob’s right to describe himself in the manner of his choosing. That wasn’t the point at all, of course. I was making a point about usages, not definitions. And it is a simple fact that most people do not use the word “Christian” in the way Rob was using that term. Given that, I fail to see anything insulting in my question.

How about silly? Strike two for Chris. Rob, you see, made it quite clear in his post that his intention was not merely to explain his own religious views, but also to show people that science and faith, particularly Christian faith, were not necessarily at loggerheads. It is perfectly reasonable to point out in that regard that he achieves his reconciliation only by throwing out a number of things most people regard as central to the faith. I think a great many Christians would read Rob’s post and conclude that a full acceptance of modern science really does require some serious compromises to their faith.

If I describe myself as a Christian on the grounds that I treat Brad Pitt as an object of worship, it is comforting that Chris would defend my right to self-identify. Most people would simply say I was misusing the word “Christian.” Christian belief may not be a rigidly defined thing, but it also is not an infinitely malleable idea. This is not necessarily to say that Rob has crossed some sort of line into apostasy. That’s a subject for a different post. It is merely to argue that it is neither silly nor insulting to ask the question.

The bigger issue here is to recognize that many of the people who so blithely declare science and Christianity to be reconcilable are in reality not reconciling anything at all. They are merely discarding the parts of the religion that are problematic from a scientific standpoint. This leaves them with a religion mostly devoid of its empirical content and shorn of many of the elements that distinguishes their religious tradition from its competitors. If people find such a religion satisfying, that is their business. They just shouldn’t act surprised when people persist in seeing a conflict between science and faith in spite of their mental gymnastics.

We should also recognize that, at least in the United States, views like those expressed by Rob do not represent the mainstream of Christian thought. I would prefer that they did, but I don’t see how anyone can maintain that view without ignoring most of recent American history. As I have said many times before, it is not the moderate sort of religion that has a stranglehold on the culture throughout the South and Midwest, and it is not the moderate sort of religion that has the ear of a major political party.

When I first developed an interest in evolution about eight years ago, I was firmly on the side of those who argued that evolution and religion were compatible. I was perfectly happy to mouth the familiar banalities about how the overwhelming majority of Christians accepted evolution and that it was only a few dogmatists from both sides who claimed otherwise.

I can prove it! In my very first published piece of writing on evolution, a review (PDF format) of Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God for Skeptic magazine, I wrote the following:

Happily, this is not primarily a book about theology. It is about science and its influence on culture. Much of what Miller has to say is simply excellent. Like Miller I deplore the rhetorical excesses of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who would blur the line between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Though I would quibble with a few of his specific examples, the chapter Miller devotes to these excesses is one of the best in the book.

Suffice it to say that I would not have writen that paragraph were I reviewing the book today.

What changed my mind was moving to Kansas for three years. Spend some time immersed in the culture in that part of the country and you lose patience with people who think that being a Christian simply means admiring the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. The sort of religion that is dominant all through the South and Midwest has no time for evasions like “God is real to me but not necessarily to other people,” or for a watered down theology in which Jesus was a great moral teacher but no more. They’re too busy making empirical statements about the world, defending them with arguments that are far more cogent than anything the theological moderates have dreamed up, and electing politicans who think like them.

Yet when a Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris comes along and shows why their empirical assertions are incorrect and how the popularity of their ideas causes considerable harm to society, they are excoriated by academics and moderates for attacking straw men, for not being up on the latest nuances in academic theology, or for only concerning themselves with an especially blinkered form of “man-on-the-street” theology.

Actually Dawkins and Harris are attacking the real thing. It is the academics and the moderates who are promoting a caricature. The inability of so many of the critics to appreciate that fact goes a long way towards explaining why academics noawadays find themselves so cartoonishly irrelevant in shaping public discourse.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeff Hebert
    March 15, 2007

    I think CS Lewis put it best in “Mere Christianity” when he argued that expanding the definition of “Christian” to mean essentially “a good person” renders the term meaningless. We already have perfectly good words that mean “good person”, all that making Christian so broad achieves is to make it useless as a term. Lewis compared it to the way the word “gentleman” started out meaning a specific kind of landowner, but got so inflated that it basically was no longer useful.

    Rob is a follower of Christ’s teachings, but he is not a Christian, if that word is to have any use whatsoever.

  2. #2 Greg Kucharo
    March 15, 2007

    Excellent. Clear, concise. Right on the money.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    March 15, 2007

    The bigger issue here is to recognize that many of the people who so blithely declare science and Christianity to be reconcilable are in reality not reconciling anything at all. They are merely discarding the parts of the religion that are problematic from a scientific standpoint.

    Discarding parts of science also works. For example, you could throw away the multiple plausible explanations we’ve got on hand for the evolution of altruism and moral behavior.

    If I describe myself as a Christian on the grounds that I treat Brad Pitt as an object of worship, it is comforting that Chris would defend my right to self-identify. Most people would simply say I was misusing the word “Christian.”

    Best kind of worship I’ve heard of all day.

  4. #4 RBH
    March 15, 2007

    Actually Dawkins and Harris are attacking the real thing. It is the academics and the moderates who are promoting a caricature.

    I’m (slowly, but perhaps surely) coming to believe that too, in spite of having had ‘moderate’ Christians, at least one evangelical Christian and a devout Catholic among the strong opponents of the ID creationist nonsense on the State BOE in Ohio. Their main theme was church/state separation, not ‘evolution is compatible with my brand of Christianity’. That is, the ground for their opposition was not that they had reconciled their Christianity with science, but they were operating on a sort of Gouldian NOMA model in the church/state context.

    (Well, to be accurate, the Catholic member opposed the ID glop mainly on account of Wells being a Moonie — “I don’t want my grandkids taught by a damn Moonie!”, he said on one occasion.)

  5. #5 Lettuce
    March 15, 2007

    What if you decided to worship Christian Slater instead of Brad Pitt?

  6. #6 J. J. Ramsey
    March 15, 2007

    “It is perfectly reasonable to point out in that regard that he achieves his reconciliation only by throwing out a number of things most people regard as central to the faith.”

    Careful here. A number of the things that Knop does, like throwing out the virgin birth or resurrection, are not necessary to accommodate evolution, at least. Indeed, there is no great reason that a scientist who is a Christian layman would need to throw them out. On the other hand, a scientist who knew a thing or two about biblical scholarship, or a scientist who studied the propagation of urban legends, would look at those miracles more askance.

    “it is not the moderate sort of religion that has a stranglehold on the culture throughout the South and Midwest … Actually Dawkins and Harris are attacking the real thing. It is the academics and the moderates who are promoting a caricature.”

    Doesn’t this assume that the South and the Midwest represent the “real thing”? A dominant form of Christianity, yes, but that is not the same thing.

  7. #7 Kevin
    March 16, 2007

    JJ its “science and faith,” not evolution and faith.

    and “Indeed, there is no great reason that a scientist who is a Christian layman would need to throw them out”

    you argue that a virgin birth is scientific? remember we are talking primates not komodo dragons.

  8. #8 Pseudonym
    March 16, 2007

    Oh, man, Jason, I really feel for you. Let’s thank FSM that Kansas is just a small part of the civilised world, even if it’s an unfortunately overly influential one.

  9. #9 JohnnieCanuck
    March 16, 2007

    J. J., I don’t read that last quote in your post the way you do. The South and Midwest are just being held as leading examples of the ‘real thing’. They are vocal and they actively try to make their way the only way for everyone.

    This moderate religious stance that is ‘compatible’ with science is also not associated with any significant activities that directly impact the lives of others.

    They are not the driving force behind missionaries, they don’t try to break down the church/state barriers or picket abortion clinics or gay pride parades. They aren’t blocking sex education or the giving of contraceptive information to people in developing nations.

    There are several churches that are moving to accept homosexuals, for example. Those that do, still qualify as the real thing because they hold that their god is the creator who works miracles, listens to prayers and intervenes, etc.

    It occurs to me that there are no churches where this stripped down, science compatible god is worshipped. Well, with the possible exception of Universal Unitarians, some places.

    Science is successful and co-incidentally, science is squeezing the gaps for god smaller and smaller. To maintain their religious beliefs some try to co-opt the mantle of science. Others attack science, while many just pretend there is no conflict and hope it will go away.

    All of us pretend that our intellects are in control, unswayed by emotion. In one sense that is why the scientific method was invented. Unfortunately there are many whose high intellectual capacity is used to rationalise emotionally satisfying concepts that conflict with reality.

  10. #10 Chris Rowan
    March 16, 2007

    Jason – I should have made it clear that I was not criticising your post as a whole, just that particular comment. The differences between Rob’s beliefs and mainstream US Christian beliefs are obvious and worth discussing, but since his beliefs seems to fall within the spectrum of beliefs of other Christians I have interacted with (possibly as a result of growing up on a more moderate and wishy washy side of The Pond) it didn’t seem fair to accuse him of somehow not being a proper Christian.

    I actually agree with a lot of what you say (I actually left a comment over at Rob’s to the effect that I thought he was mischaracterising Dawkins), but I didn’t want that to get in the way of my point. My apologies if you feel unfairly singled out.

  11. #11 David Heddle
    March 16, 2007

    Jason,

    To some extent I agree with you. Rob’s spirituality would not be acceptable in any but the most liberal of Christian churches, and even then only the fringe venues.

    Of course, every time I mention that I don’t think this person or that person (Fred Phelps, for example) is a Christian, I get accused of the “True Scotsman” fallacy. But apparently there is a double standard that allows you or PZ to say that Rob is not a true Christian.

    I think there is another dynamic here as well. I am guessing that many atheists don’t want Rob to identify himself Christian because that is the ultimate, irreconcilable difference. Once you go there, you’ve crossed the line. But you like Rob, he should be one of the good guys, so you patronize him: No Rob, you’re not really a Christian. Maybe a Unitarian, or even a Spongian, but not a Christian. Heavens no.

    An aside on your comment about Dawkins and Harris. While they may have considerable impact on the culture, they are in no way a threat to Christianity. That’s on two levels: on the one hand nobody is a threat to Christianity (he who is in you is stronger than he who is in the world.) But that’s in an ultimate, spiritual sense. On a human level, of course, there can be great intellectual challenges to Christianity. A good, fairly recent example would be Bertrand Russell who raised serious, difficult objections. Neither Harris nor Dawkins is even remotely close to being at Russell’s level of intellect, at least in this regard. Unlike Russell (and others) they have posed no substantive challenge to Christian teaching and doctrine. Neither has done anything more than reiterate what has been said for millennia, that “there is no evidence for what you believe, therefore you’re a fool for believing it.” Why anyone would think that is a new insight is beyond me. I even agree with them, that if there is no evidence for what I believe, then I’m a fool to believe it.

  12. #12 windy
    March 16, 2007

    The differences between Rob’s beliefs and mainstream US Christian beliefs are obvious and worth discussing, but since his beliefs seems to fall within the spectrum of beliefs of other Christians I have interacted with…

    Really? How many of them feel that God wasn’t somehow involved in the creation of the world or the universe?

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2007

    Kevin: “you argue that a virgin birth is scientific?”

    Purported events are not “scientific.” Practices are scientific. Methodologies are scientific. Purported events are things that either did or did not happen.

    What I am saying is that most Christians who are scientists are not in the best position of recognizing that the credibility of the Bible falls far short of “an opposite proof, which is superior,” to quote Hume.

  14. #14 Caledonian
    March 16, 2007

    Or that Jesus Christ may not have existed, or if he did, he didn’t return from the dead?

    ‘Cause that’s kinda, I dunno, essential to the nature of Christianity as a religion.

  15. #15 Kevin
    March 16, 2007

    J.J.: “Indeed, there is no great reason that a scientist who is a Christian layman would need to throw them out.”

    So a scientist can reasonably believe that it is possible for humans to give birth by parthenogenesis?

    Do you believe this? can scientists describe the circumstances that would allow this? can we replicate the experiment? can you be a scientist and approach the world from a scientific perspective and still believe in the virgin birth?

    Chris – “but since his beliefs seems to fall within the spectrum of beliefs of other Christians ”

    I think you may have been talking to Universalist Unitarians. They can believe anything they want.

  16. #16 Kevin
    March 16, 2007

    david: “then I’m a fool to believe it.”

    OK you’re a fool, if it pleases you to hear that.

  17. #17 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2007

    Kevin: “So a scientist can reasonably believe that it is possible for humans to give birth by parthenogenesis?

    “Do you believe this? can scientists describe the circumstances that would allow this? can we replicate the experiment?”

    What is your argument here? That if a scientist accepts that the laws of nature were suspended one time to allow a miraculous virgin birth, then he/she must accept that virgin births can happen naturally? Indeed, I’m wondering if there is any argument at all. I suggest that you take one dose of Hume’s “Of Miracles” and call me in the morning.

    FWIW, my own thoughts on the matter are here: http://anirratrat.blogspot.com/2007/02/why-reject-miracles.html

    I would say that a scientist who believes in the virgin birth is giving far more credibility to the Bible than it merits, but I also consider this an understandable mistake for most laypersons.

  18. #18 Kevin
    March 16, 2007

    J.J., I must be dense.

    “Careful here. A number of the things that Knop does, like throwing out the virgin birth or resurrection, are not necessary to accommodate evolution, at least. Indeed, there is no great reason that a scientist who is a Christian layman would need to throw them out.”

    You said that. My issue/argument is that you are wrong. I was asking questions to understand what you were saying. So you appear to say that miracles can happen once and they can happen again. I’m saying that a scientist would have many reasons for throwing them out and gosh few for keeping them in.

    you say “What this means is that if a scientist were to travel back in time and discover that, in spite of all the historical inconsistencies of the Gospel birth narratives, the virgin birth nonetheless happened and that it was due to the actions of the Holy Spirit and not any biological mechanism, it would get relabeled as natural. ”

    and appear to propose a holy spirit as the cause. How is the scientist supposed to discover this? what method? what proof? ask Mary? or grill young Joe about what he and Mary were doing in the sheep-pen?

  19. #19 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 16, 2007

    Suffice it to say that I would not have writen that paragraph were I reviewing the book today.

    My own epistemological journey once centered around a more conciliatory view. Ironically, abandoning the idealistic worldview of youth to work on a realistic one has meant to drop such a priori assumptions.

    take one dose of Hume’s “Of Miracles”

    We know a great deal more about nature since Hume wrote his piece. Specifically that it is difficult to change physical laws locally without disastrous effects. There is no ‘suspension’ at work here.

    Sure, a supernatural being could possibly construct de novo a suitable sets of chromosomes inside an already ovulating egg. But if that is accompanied with an unavoidable energy release probably of the order of an atom bomb while the disturbed spacetime settles down again, what would be the use? (I assume that natural, and truly improbable, quantum fluctuations would give you no joy.)

    Or possibly your gods are micromanaging everything globally while putting up a coherent facade of quantum mechanics and gauge theories. Why would such cosmic cheaters put in that much work? And how does that view differ in nature from outright solipsism?

  20. #20 Josh
    March 16, 2007

    This post seems like an extended “No true Scotsman” argument. Sure, you argue, Rob says he’s Christian, but the only real Christians are the sanctimonious nutjobs in Kansas.

    As a temporary Kansan (like yourself) I can say that you caricature of Kansas religion is bogus. A minister serves either on the Board or in close cooperation with Kansas Citizens for Science. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of KCFS’s religious affiliations, but there are plenty of KCFSers I’ve spoken with who are Christian in the same sense that Rob is.

    One of the nicest things I’ve seen while I’ve been here in Kansas is that these voices and the clergy who agree with them are finally speaking out as loudly as the obnoxious and bogus loudmouths with TV ministries.

    Thomas Jefferson, who edited the Bible down to remove all miracles, wrote to a friend about the Jefferson Bible:

    A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw.

    You seem to side against Jefferson and with the Platonists. That’s fine. But at the end of the day, the nature of the question means that you can’t disprove Rob’s or Jefferson’s claims to Christianity as moral teaching. You seem confident that Rob and Jefferson are wrong because they are minorities among Christians. That seems flawed.

    You write:

    I describe myself as a Christian on the grounds that I treat Brad Pitt as an object of worship, it is comforting that Chris would defend my right to self-identify. Most people would simply say I was misusing the word “Christian.”

    Fine. But the etymology of the word suggests that “Christian” means a follower of Christ. The debate between Jefferson and the Platonists or Rob and you is over what it means to follow Jesus. Are the moral teachings critical, or are empirically testable claims about the world? You say that Rob’s approach “leaves [Christians] with a religion mostly devoid of its empirical content” as if that were a bad thing. It seems like Rob would consider that a positive.

  21. #21 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 16, 2007

    Josh-

    With all due respect very little of what you said relates to anything I wrote. You begin by noting that there are Kansans who adhere to a version of Christianity similar to Rob’s and different from what I describe as the dominant view. Show me where I denied that. You describe my post as a “No true Scotsmen” argument, when I was quite explicit that I was not laying down criteria for who is a Christian and who is not. You say that I accuse Rob of not being a real Christian. Again, show me where I said that. It looks to me like I specifically said that I was not passing judgment on whether Rob had crossed the line into apostasy.

    Concerning Rob’s Christian views, I have said only that he is using the term “Christian” in a way that is different from how most people use it, and that this fact is relevant considering his claim to be reconciling science with Christianity.

    Concerning the sort of religion you find in Kansas, my claim was that the dominant religious force in the state, and in that region of the country generally, is the more hardline version that would have little patience for people like Rob. The fact that a handful of folks in the KCFS feel differently is neither here nor there. If you want to claim that actually Rob’s sort of Christianity is dominant in Kansas, then at least you would have claimed something relevant to my post. You would also have claimed something that is blatantly false.

    Your next gambit is to have me take sides in some debate between Jefferson and the Platonists. I would have thought it was obvious, considering the title of the post, that I was not trying to define who is a Christian and who is not. So this point is entirely irrelevant as well.

    Your final point is that I act as if its a bad thing that Rob’s version of Christianity is devoid of empirical content. Once again, reread what I wrote and you will find that actually I passed no judgment on whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. I merely asserted that, in fact, that was what Rob had done, and that by doing so he was proposing a reconciliation of science and Christianity that would leave a lot of Christians feeling cold.

    You have developed a warped narrative of what you think I am saying and have responded to that instead of what I actually wrote. Please read more carefully next time.

  22. #22 Kevin
    March 16, 2007

    er Jason, you may notice that Josh dosen’t really interact that well. He hears voices and stuff and thinks that god is asking him to post here. (so he says)

    He is also likely to start preaching at any moment.

  23. #23 Sastra
    March 16, 2007

    Christianity seems able to stretch in almost any direction, and cover just about anything which has some connection to Jesus or the Golden Rule. The only time I bother to argue on whether or not someone is a Christian is when they’ve distorted the definition to the point where it’s clear they’re more interested in Making a Point about Jesus than Jesus himself (ie the “I belong to every religion” crowd.) And I’m also sympathetic to the idea that Bishop Spong might be pushing the envelope a bit too much (you can be an atheist and a Christian). But I have no problems placing Rob Knop as a “Christian.” Just not a mainstream one.

    That aside, Knop, like most of the liberal Christians I’ve read and known, seems able to reconcile God with science by carefully and cautiously placing God in the Land of the Bad Analogy.

    Stripped to basics, God is supposed to be some sort of disembodied Consciousness, Intentionality, Goodness and/or Intelligence which either creates or sustains the universe through a non-physical intentional force. Yes, it’s supposed to be so much “more” than that, but even in Eastern religions which are theistic this is pretty much the LCD sort of definition for God. Without any of those elements at all, all you have is a vacuous placeholder for “mystery.”

    Taken straight on, that definition seems to be describing a sort of scientific hypothesis, similar to “our minds can live on after our bodies are dead” or “life is a type of energy which inhabits things.” You could think of all sorts of ways that, if true, souls or vitalism could be proven. Writing a science fiction story where their existence is as self-evident as the existence of electricity or even trees would be child’s play. Writing a fictional story where God’s existence is self-evident would be so easy a caveman could do it — or even a tribe of Bronze Age sheep herders.

    Yet there seems to be a HUGE body of liberal apologetics devoted to arguing that no, “the existence of God” is nothing like any hypothesis which could ever be tested, which could be right or wrong. Unless, of course, it is tested and turns out true, or reveals itself to everyone, empirically. But till that happens, “God exists” is more like “love exists” or “that sunset is beautiful” or “it is better to be kind than cruel.”

    Forget that a “disembodied Consciousness” is not an emotion, an aesthetic, or a moral rule. It’s not like numbers, or the laws of logic, or The Little Engine That Could. It’s not like loving your wife, or helping others. It’s not like having a sense of community, or connection to the universe, or belief that chocolate tastes better than vanilla. It’s not a sense of awe, in itself. And it’s not a mental construct which helps you frame choices and experiences into a useful and satisfying narrative. Not unless you’re an atheist, as one of the other commenters pointed out.

    I think Bad Analogy Land is a very, very large land indeed.

  24. #24 PZ Myers
    March 16, 2007

    I’m actually quite happy to let anyone who wants to call themselves “Christian” be considered a Christian. I know what you mean by the way some individuals may define the majority usage of the term, but so what? I’m content to allow “Christianity” to dissipate into an ever-expanding cloud of diffuse and vacuous application, until it reaches the point of total meaninglessness.

    It’s getting close now.

    So sure, Brad Pitt worshipers, Christian Slater worshipers, you can all fit in the church. You are helping me in my goal of watching religion evaporate.

  25. #25 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2007

    Kevin: “So you appear to say that miracles can happen once and they can happen again.”

    Nope. Not even close. Indeed there are enough hints in both my comments and the blog post to make that an obviously wrong interpretation.

    Kevin: “How is the scientist supposed to discover this? what method? what proof? ask Mary? or grill young Joe about what he and Mary were doing in the sheep-pen?”

    This is called “fighting the hypothetical.”

    Torbjörn Larsson: “We know a great deal more about nature since Hume wrote his piece. Specifically that it is difficult to change physical laws locally without disastrous effects.”

    Yes, it would take a miracle to keep those disastrous effects from happening, wouldn’t it. :)

    Do you even know what Hume’s line of argument was?

  26. #26 Kevin
    March 16, 2007

    “Indeed, there is no great reason that a scientist who is a Christian layman would need to throw them out.”

    JJ you are just talking crap. Phooey on your “hints” retract the statement above if you think there are great reasons to throw them out, or admit that you don’t want to.

    Or come back with another semi-insulting mishmash of spewl.

  27. #27 Scholar
    March 16, 2007

    Over at Retrodespicable another one of your sciblings has come out of the atheist closet too. However, she thinks it’s okay to let people believe whatever rubbish they want, and goes so far as to compare PZ’s and Dawkin’s tactics to those of a “fundie”.

  28. #28 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2007

    Kevin: “Phooey on your ‘hints’ retract the statement above if you think there are great reasons to throw them out, or admit that you don’t want to.”

    Here’s the thing, Kevin. While there are great reasons to reject miracles, those reasons are not that easy to discover. Someone studying philosophy is more likely to encounter those reasons than one studying physics. I find it all too common for atheists to fail to put forth good reasons for disbelief in miracles, and often I see what is just begging the question. Why should I expect the bulk of Christians to do better?

  29. #29 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 16, 2007

    Yes, it would take a miracle to keep those disastrous effects from happening, wouldn’t it.

    You can’t avoid the implication of the physics we know. For example, supralight signaling involved in non-local instantiation of chromosomes destabilize the gauge theories we know. I’m not competent to calculate the effect, but my guess is that it would be seen as an immense release of radiation. Trying to soak that up with more actions would only increase the affected area.

    The point is that no one can point a finger and yell “and presto, a miracle” any more.

    Do you even know what Hume’s line of argument was?

    As I said, it is inconsequential today.

    But if you insist: Hume’s piece is long and arduous to analyze. Essentially he does not claim that miracles are impossible, but improbable.

    Today we know better.

  30. #30 Josh
    March 17, 2007

    Jason, I don’t see why it matters what the dominant version of Christianity is. So what that there are Christians who would disagree with Rob’s account of Christianity? He disagrees with theirs (I quoted Jefferson because he stated that disagreement in more explicit terms than Rob).

    It seems to me that you reduced Rob’s argument to some sort of trivial nominalism, rather than engaging with the ways in which he actually does reconcile science and Christianity. Whether that reconciliation represents a current majority seems like an odd diversion from the point about whether reconciliation is possible. You wrote “The bigger issue here is to recognize that many of the people who so blithely declare science and Christianity to be reconcilable are in reality not reconciling anything at all. They are merely discarding the parts of the religion that are problematic from a scientific standpoint. This leaves them with a religion mostly devoid of its empirical content and shorn of many of the elements that distinguishes their religious tradition from its competitors.”

    Rob has explained in terms that I found interesting and compelling why he doesn’t find Christianity to be shorn of essential distinguishing elements. I’m not sure why you aren’t engaging those points, but just declaring Rob is “in reality not reconciling anything at all.” Or maybe you weren’t talking about Rob there?

    The final paragraphs of your original post suggest that Dawkins and Harris get in trouble for pointing out ways in which people make bogus claims about empirical facts. I think you know that the objection people raise is that Dawkins, et al. extrapolate from those errors to saying that the supernatural must not exist. People like Rob or the examples I cited show that one can embrace empirical knowledge firmly without rejecting the supernatural. I made an issue of Kansas because I think you mistook the vocal for the commonplace. The Kansas public has rejected creationist majorities twice, and those majorities get elected only when the public goes back to ignoring down-ticket races. Whatever people believe personally, consistent majorities oppose anti-empiricists when push comes to shove.

    And Kevin, you are thinking of a different Josh. I know there’s an annoying troll out there by the same name, but it’s a common first name. I personally am agnostic about the whole issue, and fail to understand the heat and acrimony that this topic generates.

  31. #31 J. J. Ramsey
    March 17, 2007

    Torbj�rn Larsson: “You can’t avoid the implication of the physics we know. For example, supralight signaling involved in non-local instantiation of chromosomes destabilize the gauge theories we know. I’m not competent to calculate the effect, but my guess is that it would be seen as an immense release of radiation. Trying to soak that up with more actions would only increase the affected area.”

    Piling on the fancy physics verbiage only serves to obscure what a nonstarter your argument is. Everyone of your objections could be answered with the counter, “What part of ‘miracle’ do you not understand?”

    Where did you get that argument anyway? Or did you come up with it yourself?

    Torbj�rn Larsson: “Hume’s piece is long and arduous to analyze.”

    Yes, it is, but it is worth it–and it is immune to the blatant weakness in your own argument.

  32. #32 windy
    March 17, 2007

    Indeed, there is no great reason that a scientist who is a Christian layman would need to throw [the virgin birth etc.] out.

    If you don’t count intellectual honesty.

    While there are great reasons to reject miracles, those reasons are not that easy to discover. Someone studying philosophy is more likely to encounter those reasons than one studying physics.

    This sounds like a whole new dimension of the Courtier’s Reply. Why can’t there be several valid reasons to doubt miracles? No argument can ever disprove miracles to 100%, so why would one argument be inherently superior?

    Hume says:

    It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages.

    This isn’t some obscure philosophical reason not to believe in miracles, it’s just common sense. People apply it to claims other than those of their own religion all the time.

  33. #33 kevin
    March 17, 2007

    “And Kevin, you are thinking of a different Josh.”

    Yes my apologies. As I was reading your post I thought you had had a personality transplant.

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    March 17, 2007

    windy: “Why can’t there be several valid reasons to doubt miracles?”

    Whoever said that there can’t be? What I said was that the good reasons that do exist aren’t that easy to find. I am NOT saying that the reasons are all that greatly complex once they are found, but I have observed that they seem to be far more hidden than they should be.

    Hume: “It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages.”

    windy: “This isn’t some obscure philosophical reason not to believe in miracles, it’s just common sense. People apply it to claims other than those of their own religion all the time.”

    Yet surprisingly, I have not found it to be a commonly cited argument against miracles.

    It is also a bit of common sense that is easier to accept in the abstract than to apply consistently to one’s own circumstances. Specifically, it is easy to imagine those of outgroups as liars, while being far more trusting of one’s ingroup. That’s just human nature. This is why, as you said, people tend to apply it to others’ religion. It is probably also why Dawkins used a bogus Thomas Jefferson quote in The God Delusion. He too was less cautious about accepting the claims of those of his ingroup–and he’s a scientist.

  35. #35 Caledonian
    March 17, 2007

    Why can’t you people detect dishonesty? Ramsey isn’t interested in intelligent discussions, he just wants to blather on about supposed philosophical justifications for his belief in miracles and the supernatural.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    March 17, 2007

    Caledonian: “Ramsey isn’t interested in intelligent discussions, he just wants to blather on about supposed philosophical justifications for his belief in miracles and the supernatural.”

    Right, because mostly agreeing with Hume is such a good way to justify belief in miracles and the supernatural.

    I remember when holland tried to make such an accusation, and I replied, “For all you know, I could be an atheist who isn’t all the way out of the closet and is a bit circumspect about admitting it.” I am no longer circumspect about that. What is funny is that this accusation came after me pointing out that the New Testament wasn’t clear or coherent about something (in this case, atonement). It was a textbook case of confusing partial defence with support. And here we go round again with the same kind of confusion.

    I am at times a bit overly sympathetic to believers, and a bit overly harsh to the atheists. I suspect this is at least partly because the believers with whom I’ve interacted have rarely acted like they just came out of the zienite mines, while the opposite was often true for the atheists. Of course, this is a very biased sample, but then the point was to explain my biases.

  37. #37 J. J. Ramsey
    March 17, 2007

    BTW, an interesting article on confusing partial defense with support: Bad Moves: Partial defence = support.

    Several of the commenters here really, really ought to read it.

  38. #38 386sx
    March 17, 2007

    Right, because mostly agreeing with Hume is such a good way to justify belief in miracles and the supernatural.

    If you say so, but I would have to see one to believe it. And then I probably wouldn’t still believe it. Maybe you should try praying to your God a little harder. Yeah, that will do it. I’m not holding my breath, though. :-)

  39. #39 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 17, 2007

    Josh-

    The relevance of what is the dominant view of Christianity and what is not is that I think many people would not see Rob’s essay as a reconciliation of Christianity with science. They would see instead someone who has simply discarded many of the central points of the faith.

    Keep in mind that this post was inspired by Chris Rowan suggesting that it was insulting and silly for me to ask Rob what he meant by the term Christian, when Rob had just written a paragraph rejecting things that are commonly implied by that term. I was defending myself against that charge. That’s why I focused so much on the common usage of the term, rather than the minutiae of Rob’s views.

    Most Christian denominations take it as essential that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that God created the world by an act of His will motivated solely by love, that Jesus was God in human form, lived a sinless life, was killed on the Cross, was bodily resurrected three days later, and that only by acknolwedging Jesus’ sacrifice can we achieve salvation and eternal life. Not just fanatical fundamentalist Christians, but perfectly ordinary mainline Christians. Yet Rob rejects most of these tenets.

    Now, you can argue that Christians are simply wrong to see these points as central to the faith. I would disagree with that argument, since I think these are the items that give Christianity its distincitive character and elevate it above being just another common sense ethical code. You don’t need Christianity to believe that you should help the poor or do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    Regardless of my personal feelings, I believe it is a fact that a majority of people who describe themselves as Christian do in fact believe these things. So if you are going to try to reconcile Christiantiy with science, evolution or just plain common sense, these are the points you need to address.

    I’m picturing someone who was raised in a typical Christian church who comes to fear that science in general and evolution in particular pose a threat to his faith. That person comes to Rob hoping to learn how to reconcile science and Christianity. Rob tells them that such reconciliation is achieved by thinking of Christianity as little more than admiring the moral example of Jesus Christ. You even have to throw out the parts of the Gospel accounts where Jesus is reportedly condemning unbelievers to Hell. I think Rob’s interlocutor will feel cheated by that reply.

    They are likely to point out that history abounds with great moral teachers, but most of them are not objects of worship. They will say that Rob is discarding so much of the Scriptures that he doesn’t really have any sound basis for determining which parts are the real thing and which are reflections of our beknighted past. They will say that Rob describes Jesus as not being a conquering, ruling figure, but maintains that description only by rejecting the parts where Jesus was discussing the fate of the unsaved in the afterlife. They will say that admiring the moral teachings of Jesus while ignoring most of the miracles comes perilously close to secular humanism. They will say that if it were possible for people to achieve eternal life without Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross then it is simply monstrous that God would allow his Son to suffer in so dramatic a fashion.

    I think these are all cogent criticisms. So cogent in fact, that instead of saying that he had reconciled Christian faith with modern science he should have said that he has fundamentally altered what is meant by the term &lduqo;Christianity.” This, incidentally, is pretty much what Micheal Ruse did in his book Can A Darwinian be a Christian?

    That’s why it’s relevant to think about the dominant use of the term Christianity in this discussion. No one doubts that you can devise a version of Christianity so devoid of empirical content that it does not contradict anything science is telling us. But most people will see that not as reconciliation, but simply as one more retreat of religion in the face of science.

    Concerning Dawkins and Harris, people have raised a great many criticisms of their work. The one I was discussing in the final paragraphs of this post, however, was that in spending so much time on things like the argument from design or on the cultural harm of religion they were attacking straw men. This was the centerpiece of the reviews by Terry Eagleton and the one in Harpers (I don’t remember the author), and has featured in some form in most of the negative reviews of their work. Sure, the critics say, there is the idiot wing of religion that suffers from the faults Dawkins identifies. But that’s just a fringe element, and shouldn’t really be the focal point of a book meant to criticize religion.

    My criticism of the critics is that Dawkins and Harris are attacking perfectly mainstream religious views, and that it reflects badly on the critics that they don’t recognize that fact.

    You raise a separate issue, that they are not justfied, on the grounds that every attempt at a rational argument for God’s existence fails, to conclude that God in fact does not exist. This is not relevant to the point I was making here. As it happens, I addressed this point, and many others related to Rob’s specific views, in this post.

    Regarding Kansas, I hope you’re right that the political climate is mellowing since the time I was there. Governor Sibelius seems pretty popular, and the school board victories are comforting. For most of the time I was there, by contrast, the state had a very conservative governor and had little trouble electing people like Phil Kline to Attorney General.

    On the other hand, both of your Senators rank among the most culturally conservative in the country, and Kansas voted overwhlemingly for Bush in 2000 and 2004. I don’t think a few school board victories give me a reason to change my views of the dominant religious culture in the state.

  40. #40 Leni
    March 17, 2007

    About the OP- bingo. Very well said.

  41. #41 Josh
    March 17, 2007

    Working roughly in reverse, I’d point out that we kicked creationist Jim Ryun out of Congress, Pat Roberts is looking scared, and Sebelius is likely to run for Brownback’s seat in 2010. Her Lieutenant Guv is a good guy and likely to hold the governorship.

    To avoid going back over the Dawkins issue, I’ll just say that I see the distinction you are drawing, but am not convinced it’s more than semantic. No, Dawkins doesn’t attack a straw man, but he doesn’t really address all of religion (or all supernatural belief) either.

    As to whether Rob has redefined Christianity, or just understands the definition differently, we also seem to disagree. You cite catechism, and I can toss out the Nicene Creed’s opening “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Rob’s understanding of God as Sustainer and Redeemer seems to encompass that.

    The idea of God the Sustainer goes back at least to Aquinas, where God sustains existence from moment to moment, not creating along the way, but sustaining. Extend that concept back past the beginning of the universe and you have a sort of panentheism, in which God exists in and beyond the universe, sustaining its causal structure without being a proximate cause of anything. God is the ultimate cause, but not the proximate cause.

    And so forth. Rob rests his claim to Christianity on his belief in redemption through Jesus. No other religion makes that claim. No other religion believes that Jesus died to redeem the sins of humanity, or as the Nicene Creed puts it “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; … who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” He says he isn’t big on the resurrection, and most of the theology of the Holy Ghost seems outside his belief system, but we aren’t talking about “Holy Ghostianity.”

    The idea that Rob’s claims are dubious because many Christians would disagree doesn’t cut it. The same might have been said of Luther in a different era. Christian doctrine changes, albeit slowly. It changes because of people like Rob who stand up for their beliefs within the existing tradition and reform it.

  42. #42 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 18, 2007

    Piling on the fancy physics verbiage only serves to obscure what a nonstarter your argument is.

    Let us unpack the compressed explanation.

    Bell test experiments show that there can be no local hidden variables in quantum mechanics. (Technically, it is not a certainty, but tested to such high degree of probability that not many physicist believe otherwise.)

    To ‘poof’ chromosomes into existence therefore demand some sort of non-local interaction converging on the spacetime volume. And to make the effect local would need to bypass our ordinary, light-speed (lorenz) invariant physics.

    Processes with supraluminal modes in (our) isotropic spacetime give instabilities in the light-cone of our gauge theories ( http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-th/pdf/0606/0606091.pdf ), and the unstable energy conditions described there give instabilities in the spacetime metric. (Not surprisingly, since we are trying to impart a considerable amount of energy to the vacua to build persistent particles.)

    Finally, unstable metrics relaxes through tachyons (see for example Wikipedia), but how much energy is released will be difficult to estimate – in any case, I don’t know enough to do this. But considering the affected volume (the convergence volume above) I would guess it will be a considerable amount.

    This analysis would need rigorous calculations sooner or later up to and possibly including the energy release – I haven’t even started because I must learn about gauges first. But for now, since it is you who posits that miracles are possible, it is up to you to show one. Otherwise your argument is a non-starter, as I claim in turn.

    it is immune to the blatant weakness in your own argument.

    It is true that stronger claims are weaker in a discussion. But Hume and you blithely assumes they are possible in a philosophical analysis, while a little analysis incorporating the latest science on energy conditions and gauges predicts that it is not.

  43. #43 J. J. Ramsey
    March 18, 2007

    Torbjörn Larsson: “But for now, since it is you who posits that miracles are possible, it is up to you to show one.”

    Why? I obviously don’t think miracles are a realistic possibility. Any cursory browsing of the discussion would show that. I just don’t like bad arguments against them.

    Torbjörn Larsson: “To ‘poof’ chromosomes into existence therefore demand some sort of non-local interaction converging on the spacetime volume. And to make the effect local would need to bypass our ordinary, light-speed (lorenz) invariant physics.”

    By saying, “to make the effect local would need to bypass our ordinary, light-speed (lorenz) invariant physics,” you’ve just torpedoed your own argument. We’re already talking about a scenario where the laws of physics are purportedly bypassed. Someone claiming that this scenario actually happened could easily accept that our ordinary, light-speed invariant physics were bypassed in this instance.

  44. #44 Caledonian
    March 18, 2007

    Why is a person who doesn’t like bad arguments suggesting hypothetical scenarios where the laws of physisc are violated?

  45. #45 J. J. Ramsey
    March 18, 2007

    Caledonian: “Why is a person who doesn’t like bad arguments suggesting hypothetical scenarios where the laws of physisc are violated?”

    Because this person is talking about the merits of various arguments against miracles, a topic that inevitably involves discussing violation of the laws of physics.

  46. #46 Kevin
    March 18, 2007

    while a little analysis incorporating the latest science on energy conditions and gauges predicts that it is not.

    Posted by: Torbjörn Larsson | March 18, 2007 03:31 AM

    Please provide link latest science quickest. (stop) need to review for daughter’s pregnacy (stop) urge utmost privacy (stop)(end)

  47. #47 Rob Plop
    March 18, 2007

    Rob Knop Rob Knop Rob Knop Rob Knop. Okay got that out of my system… People who agree with Shelly Bats and Rob Knop that religion is OKAY, this is for you, so you can better understand why religion must be stamped out…

    Deuteronomy 22: 28 If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. 29 Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her

    Deuteronomy 7:1 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations … then you must destroy them totally. 2 Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

    Leviticus 21: 9 And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father; she shall be burnt with fire.

    Shelly, I would like to buy into this Bible stuff like you do, but it seems too violent for modern society. Here is how a moderate Christian defends abortion…

    “The Book of Exodus clearly indicates that the fetus does not have the same legal status as a person (Chapter 21:22-23). That verse indicates that if a man pushes a pregnant woman and she then miscarries, he is required only to pay a fine. If the fetus were considered a full person, he would be punished more severely as though he had taken a life.”

    That is the kind of stuff that Christians like Shelley are fine letting others believe. Here is another example…

    “By our deepest convictions about Christian standards and teaching, the war in Iraq was not just a well-intended mistake or only mismanaged. THIS WAR, FROM A CHRISTIAN POINT OF VIEW, IS MORALLY WRONG – AND WAS FROM THE VERY START. It cannot be justified with either the teachings of Jesus Christ OR the criteria of St. Augustine’s just war. It simply doesn’t pass either test and did not from its beginning. This war is not just an offense against the young Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice or to the Iraqis who have paid such a horrible price. This war is not only an offense to the poor at home and around the world who have paid the price of misdirected resources and priorities. This war is also an offense against God.”

    Seems like that Christian has actually arrived at the right destination (one of the few who has), AMAZING! I guess the only problem remaining here is the compass (RELIGION), which can be unreliable and is easily misinterpreted.

    http://www.beliefnet.com/blogs/godspolitics/

    Leviticus 20: 27 A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones; their blood shall be upon them.

    Cheers to PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (and myself), who can see the danger in sadistic “fairy tales”.

  48. #48 windy
    March 18, 2007

    Josh wrote: You cite catechism, and I can toss out the Nicene Creed’s opening “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Rob’s understanding of God as Sustainer and Redeemer seems to encompass that.

    ? Rob specifically rejected the Creator role. Maker = Creator.

    As for the role as Sustainer, that traditionally refers to God upholding his whole creation at each moment, including the physical part, as opposed to a “clockmaker god” that simply created the universe way back when. The former definition seems to be even more at odds with science than the latter.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_the_Sustainer

    Like you said:
    The idea of God the Sustainer goes back at least to Aquinas, where God sustains existence from moment to moment, not creating along the way, but sustaining.

    While Rob said:
    Obviously, God does not provide physical sustenance.
    Ie. does not sustain existence.

    If someone wants to redefine ‘Sustaining’ as God providing some spiritual sustenance to believers while not interfering with the material universe at all, fine*. But let’s not pretend that that concept is essentially the same as the traditional concept.

    (*Although this raises the question of the mechanism of God’s ‘sustenance’, if one considers consciousness an emergent property of physical matter)

  49. #49 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 18, 2007

    Josh-

    Okay, I think that’s a reasonable place to leave this discussion for now. I hope you’re right that mainstream Christian opinion is moving in Rob’s direction, and that the cultural climate in Kansas is changing, but I’m not optimisitc that you are. Thanks for the comments.

  50. #50 Leni
    March 18, 2007

    Josh wrote:

    The idea that Rob’s claims are dubious because many Christians would disagree doesn’t cut it.

    The idea is not that Rob’s claims are dubious. The idea is that they are largely inapplicable. He did not reconcile Christianity in general with science.

    What Rob has done is reconcile his own faith in his own way. Which is, of course, fine. But Jason R. is right. Rob has simply molded his beliefs to be more consistant with the facts. Which I think is an eminently rational thing to do (for a person who wants to continue beleiving in their religion). That is in general what I think we all should do about everything- not just religion. So while I empathize with him, and do not cosider him “stupid” for being a believer, I don’t think he really has any business speaking for Christians in general, simply because he is so far outside the mainstream.

    To be fair to him, I don’t think was his intent to speak for all christians. I think it was his intent to show it could be done. But what he showed was that in order to do it he has to disregard some of the most prominent claims to be found in the Christian faith. Which is in effect conceding the point that they can’t really be reconciled. Not without one or the other undergoing drastic changes- perhaps even to the point even of unrecognizability.

    It’s ironic though. It’s as if a speciation has occured. Biologists have similar problems defining species as well, and sometimes the lines are a little blurry. It’s difficult to pick out the most important defining traits, and often times there really isn’t one. Thus the taxonomical battles ensue…

    But in this case, I think Jason is right. He’s made a compelling argument that Rob’s species of Christianity is probably isolated enough from the larger population that we are probbaly justified in treating it as a distinct entity. It doesn’t mean Rob’s claims are dubious, it just means they don’t apply to general population.

  51. #51 Blue Devil Knight
    March 18, 2007

    This is usually a great blog, but I am disappointed that the author has conflated Christianity with right-wing batshit crazy Pat Robertson Christianity. It is unfortunate that those nutballs have succeeded in distorting the definition of Christianity even amongst nonChristians. I can be a Christian and take NONE of the Bible literally, be a metaphysical naturalist. If I try to model my life after the moral precepts of Christ, if I struggle to interpret the Bible (a la’ Joseph Campbell) metaphorically, as offering a picture of the good life, with Christ at the center of my hermeneutics, I would be very happy calling myself a Christian.

    I have lived in crazy right-wing places like Kansas. When in such situations, it is all-too-easy to get a distorted picture of the norm, a distorted picture of the varieties of Christianity out there (e.g., none of my theology professors were literalists).

    The wingnut Christians are not only alienating Christians, but making nonChristians think they have to believe crazy supernatural crap to be Christians. It ain’t true.

  52. #52 Kevin
    March 19, 2007

    “but I am disappointed that the author has conflated Christianity with right-wing batshit crazy Pat Robertson Christianity”

    He has not done so.

    “I can be a Christian and take NONE of the Bible literally, be a metaphysical naturalist. ”

    Yes but do you, as Rob SEEMS to do, deny the divinity of christ, the resurrection and the virgin birth? (or the lazarus story or creation or assumption or….etc.)

    If so then I would say what I said to Rob. “Dude! You’re a Universalist Unitarian!”

  53. #53 Rieux
    March 19, 2007

    Uh, Kevin–we’re called “Unitarian Universalists,” not “Universalist Unitarians” or “Universal Unitarians.”

    Plus (as you may know–I’m not sure), plenty of us UUs are atheists, not to mention Rosenhouse and Myers fans.

  54. #54 kevin
    March 19, 2007

    Hey it was late…I was close…..

    I was saying that if you want to belong to a religion in which you can throw out things you don’t like and believe what you want and worship or celebrate in a manner pleasing to yourself

    you might want to check out the local UU store!

  55. #55 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 19, 2007

    J:

    Why?

    As I said, your argument posits miracles. You said “Everyone of your objections could be answered with the counter, “What part of ‘miracle’ do you not understand?”"

    Well, what part of a miracle don’t I understand? How do you understand a miracle?

    Btw, when I said in my earlier comment that Hume’s piece is long and arduous to analyze, it was to point out that it isn’t worth it. We know from observations that miracles are improbable, so Hume contribution can be a good analysis. But since it in itself is open to interpretations (also according to philosophical references) it isn’t helping.

    By saying, “to make the effect local would need to bypass our ordinary, light-speed (lorenz) invariant physics,” you’ve just torpedoed your own argument.

    No, I’m talking about such things as changing spacetime geometry, tachyons or possibly new physics.

    The other possibility is that our physics is a sham, and gods micromanages it behind the curtain. But why would such cosmic cheaters care? And on the theology of such beliefs, what would it say about the morality of your gods and why choose to believe in something that is functionally equivalent to solipsism?

    Kevin:

    Please provide link latest science quickest.

    Then I recommend http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2007/03/its_about_usages_not_definitio.php . :-)

  56. #56 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 19, 2007

    The other possibility is that our physics is a sham, and gods micromanages it behind the curtain.

    And to be perfectly clear, I’m here answering to the comment about alternate theories. This is not going to be a scientific theory since it is unparsimonious, which is why it doesn’t affect the impossibility of miracles.

  57. #57 Smokey
    March 20, 2007

    Kevin wrote:
    “can scientists describe the circumstances that would allow this? can we replicate the experiment? can you be a scientist and approach the world from a scientific perspective and still believe in the virgin birth?”

    One can be a Christian and not believe in the virgin birth. Hell, my minister doesn’t even believe in it.

    Is the UCC not big enough to be a major part of Christianity? You might try learning something before pontificating:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Church_of_Christ
    http://ucc.org/

  58. #58 J. J. Ramsey
    March 20, 2007

    Me: “By saying, “to make the effect local would need to bypass our ordinary, light-speed (lorenz) invariant physics,” you’ve just torpedoed your own argument.”

    Torbjörn Larsson: “No, I’m talking about such things as changing spacetime geometry, tachyons or possibly new physics.”

    And again, someone who has already swallowed the camel about a god doing otherwise impossible things is hardly going to blink about said god changing spacetime geometry or tachyons.

  59. #59 MarkP
    March 20, 2007

    Precisely why reasoning with such people is a fools’ errand. One might sooner logically persuade your average 3-year old that there is no Santa Claus.

  60. #60 J. J. Ramsey
    March 20, 2007

    MarkP: “One might sooner logically persuade your average 3-year old that there is no Santa Claus.”

    The problem is that telling a 3-year old that Santa is impossible because reindeer can’t fly doesn’t work, because the kid has already been told that Santa Claus is magic and doesn’t do things by the normal rules of the everyday world. A big part of learning that Santa doesn’t exist is learning how people lie about him.

  61. #61 Another Jason
    March 20, 2007

    Is the UCC not big enough to be a major part of Christianity?

    No, it’s not. It’s not even a major part of contemporary American Christianity, let alone Christianity in the world as whole, either historically or today.

  62. #62 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 20, 2007

    someone who has already swallowed the camel about a god doing otherwise impossible things is hardly going to blink about said god changing spacetime geometry or tachyons.

    You are missing the point. As I described above the effects can’t be contained in a universe that works as we observe it.

    This gives two results. First, they can’t give the wanted results, since they destroy the systems they are supposed to affect. For example, the virgin birth miracle I described.

    Second, they would have a very distinct signature.

  63. #63 J. J. Ramsey
    March 21, 2007

    Torbjörn Larsson: “As I described above the effects can’t be contained in a universe that works as we observe it.”

    But all you have demonstrated is that Zeus or Cthulhu would have to do more than just pop the chromosomes into existence in order to effect a virgin birth. Your argument boils down to a failure of imagination, and you haven’t really grasped just how big a camel has been swallowed by the opposition.

  64. #64 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 21, 2007

    But all you have demonstrated is that Zeus or Cthulhu would have to do more than just pop the chromosomes into existence in order to effect a virgin birth.

    You don’t get the model at all – your gods can’t make local ‘miracles’ except if it is supposed to look like the equivalent of an atomic bomb. The larger volume that is ‘fixed’, the effect grows.

    Your “do more” needs a better description. If it is compatible with physics, is it a miracle?

    Which comes back to a point I made earlier, miracles can’t just be supposed to be possible. In essence, it is the same problem that ID faces – not only do we know that not describing a mechanism (“goddidit”) is insufficient to make a description of reality, we know that it is incompatible with physics. (In their case, biology.)

  65. #65 J. J. Ramsey
    March 21, 2007

    Torbjörn Larsson: “You don’t get the model at all”

    I get the general gist. Given the physics that we know, an attempt to do local changes would have very non-local ripple effects. But it’s the “Given the physics that we know” that is the problem with your whole argument. You are implicitly assuming that some of the laws of physics must hold at the time and place where the miracle is, since otherwise you have no way of doing the math to determine how much radiation would be released. Again, you haven’t really grasped just how big a camel has been swallowed.

  66. #66 Kevin
    March 21, 2007

    Smokey,

    I’ll assume you mean pontificate as in “infailably correct”

    Are Unitarians Christian? Top

    Modern Unitarianism and Universalism were born out of the same protestant reformation that saw the creation of many Christian sects, such as Lutherans and Calvanism. We have Christian members and we honour our Judeo-Christian heritage. We also welcome and encourage a wide spectrum of beliefs, including earth-based faiths and humanism. Thus, the short answer is no, we are not officially a Christian faith, but Christians are certainly welcome to celebrate with us

    and I’m a lot happier with earth-based faiths and humanism than any xtian sect! so lighten up with the “You might try learning something ..” stuff.

  67. #67 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 22, 2007

    You are implicitly assuming that some of the laws of physics must hold at the time and place where the miracle is,

    Just as I said, you don’t get it. I’m only assuming that the physics we observe is holding in the surrounding universe. You are discussing wholesale cosmic cheaters again. There are no camels here.

    Since this argument now has started to go in circles, specifically yours, it seems it is appropriate to stop here.

  68. #68 J. J. Ramsey
    March 23, 2007

    Torbjörn Larsson: “I’m only assuming that the physics we observe is holding in the surrounding universe.”

    You think that is what you are assuming, but that surrounding universe has to have some relationship with the bits whose laws are being fiddled with. The problem is that since you don’t know what fiddling is supposedly being done, you have no idea what that relationship is–and you need that information to do the math and determine what radiation has been released.

  69. #69 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 24, 2007

    You think that is what you are assuming, but that surrounding universe has to have some relationship with the bits whose laws are being fiddled with.

    Again, and perhaps for the last time, you are assuming stuff that isn’t there. It is already in the model: “To ‘poof’ chromosomes into existence therefore demand some sort of non-local interaction converging on the spacetime volume. And to make the effect local would need to bypass our ordinary, light-speed (lorenz) invariant physics.”

    As I have repeated over and over, you can’t just assume that you can “fiddle” with volumes of spacetime without consistency problems in nearby space. You yourself intuit that “surrounding universe has to have some relationship with the bits whose laws are being fiddled with”.

  70. #70 J. J. Ramsey
    March 24, 2007

    Torbjörn Larsson: “You yourself intuit that ‘surrounding universe has to have some relationship with the bits whose laws are being fiddled with’.”

    Exactly. And as I said following that: “The problem is that since you don’t know what fiddling is supposedly being done, you have no idea what that relationship is.” Your argument runs like this:

    Premise 1: Suppose the laws of physics are locally violated.
    Premise 2: At the boundary between where they are violated and where they are not, we know X must be the case.
    Premise 3: Because of X, bad things happen.

    The problem is that you really don’t know X. On one side of the boundary we have the laws of physics. On both the other side and the boundary, we have Loki knows what. You at least need knowledge of the boundary to apply your model, and you just don’t have that.

  71. #71 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 28, 2007

    Sorry about the delay.

    Your argument runs like this:

    No.

    Premise 2 would be: To affect the local violation, a certain non-local effect must take place in the surrounding spacetime (since you can’t just impose X on a boundary).

    Premise 3: This effect distorts surrounding spacetime irrevocably.

    I’m sorry, but this analysis of my argument is too slow going to be interesting, though I appreciate the effort.

  72. #72 Tyler DiPietro
    March 28, 2007

    Of topic, but Torbjorn, I’ve been looking for you. Can you send me an email if you have a second? The address is in my blogger profile.