Who Rejects Evolution?

Here’s Kevin Padian, paleontologist and President of the National Center for Science Education, commenting on the science/religion issue:

The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn’t really have a problem. [A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.

This is from an article in People magazine commenting on the plan by Kirk Cameron and Ray Confort to distribute doctored versions of The Origin of Species on college campuses this November. (Personally, I’m looking forward to picking up a copy.)

Padian’s statement is easily shown to be false. Still, I had intended to let it slide. I lack the enthusiasm for criticizing the NCSE possessed by people like Jerry Coyne. Whatever minor disagreements I have with them on the subject of religion, they are still the good guys, and I think they are heroes for doing the work they do. I would rather spend my time going after more deserving targets.

But then I read this post at Josh Rosenau’s blog. Specifically:

First, note that Kevin Padian is a fairly open atheist, so if this line were “anti-atheist” it would have to be a sort of self-hating atheism. Second, how is it factually wrong? Some atheists (but not all) think science and religion are incompatible. Some religious fundamentalists also think this. There are also a bunch of people in the middle of the spectrum of belief who do not think that. Whether these represent a majority of Americans depends how you ask the question and what you do with undecided responses, but it is absolutely the case that most Americans belong to religious groups whose governing bodies have asserted the compatibility of science (including evolution) and their brand of religion.

What, then, makes Padian’s factually correct statement about the beliefs of some atheists a “crack”? Is there any method at all to Coyne’s outrage?

Even before turning to the facts of the issue, we should note that Josh pretty blatantly moved the goalposts. Since atheists and religious fundamentalists together represent a small percentage of the population (even without the nebulous adjective “extreme” in front of them), Padian’s statement amounts to saying that there is an extreme fringe who thinks science and religion are incompatible, while “everyone else” disagrees. In context that “everyone else” is clearly meant to imply “just about everyone.” He does, at least, try to soften things with his final sentence (though as I will show the public opinion polls do not provide clear support even for that), but the fact remains it does not follow from what came before.

Padian said nothing about the govenring bodies of American religions. Such bodies can say whatever they want, but it is simply absurd to think they are necessarily speaking on behalf even of a majority of their members. Representatives of the NCSE routinely say things about science and religion with which I disagree, but I am still a proud member of that organization. Padian also did not say that “a bunch” of people in the middle don’t see a problem. As noted, he was saying far more than that.

Padian’s statement likened those of us who think there is a conflict between science and relgion to our hated enemies the religious fundamentalists. Among the smart set, fundamentalists are just about the lowest form of life there is. It is also generally considered a bad thing to be described as extreme. Given that, I’d say “crack” was a polite way of describing Padian’s statement.

Now let us turn to the merits of Padian’s statement. Is it true that everyone, save for a fringe of atheists and fundamentalists, think that religion and evolution get along swimmingly? If it is, then a lot of reputable polling companies have gotten things pretty badly wrong.

Let us start with this Gallup poll, from February 2009. In it we find that a scant 39% of Americans will say they “believe in evolution.” That number is down to 24% among people who attend church regularly. Granted, the phrase “believe in evolution” is rather unfortunate, but there can be little question of what is intended.

We can combine this with Gallup’s consistent finding that the percentage of people affirming their agreement with the statement “God created man pretty much in his present from at one time within the last 10,000 years” is in the mid to high forties. People have quibbled that this result is somewhat misleading, since the young-Earth option was the only anti-evolution choice and therefore includes some old-Earth creationists as well. Point taken, but it hardly matters in this context. We still have nearly half of Americans (not, mind you, self-identified Christians) who reject evolution.

Now let us consider this, more detailed, study from Pew, from 2009. We find, for example, that “Evangelical Protestants” account for 26% of the American population, but only 24% of them agree that evolution is the “best explanation for the origns of human life on Earth.” Let me remind you that fundamentalists are actually a small subset of evangelicals generally.

Among Christian groups represented in the survey, Catholics have the highest rate of acceptance of evolution, at a pokey 58%.

If you scale the rates of acceptance of evolution by religious grouping according to their level of representation in the US population, you find that the percentage of American Christians who reject evolution is roughly 57%. That does not include Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, incidentally, which would drive that number higher. (For example, Mormons represent close to 2% of the population, but only 22% of them accept evolution.)

And we should not privilege Christians in this discussion. Only 45% of American Muslims accept evolution. Does that mean the other 55% are extreme religious fundamentalists (or atheists, I guess)?

Even among Jews the rate of acceptance is only 77%. This is telling, because among American religious groups Jews are certainly among the least doctrinaire, and the least committed to particular interpretations of scripture. “Jewish dogma” is practically an oxymoron, yet still 23% of Jews reject evolution.

These numbers pretty blatantly contradict Padian’s statement. If we focus on Christians, Muslims and Jews, they do not even support the conclusion that a majority see no conflict between evolution and religion.

Josh, who is perfectly aware of these numbers, tried one gambit for getting around them. People’s views on these sorts of subjects are complex and can be hard to capture with simple polling questions. Consequently, the results are sensitive to precise phrasings of the questions. That is certainly true, but it is hardly an adequate response. The questions in these polls are pretty darn clear and the numbers are overwhelmingly against what Padian said. You can play with the question phrasings all you want, but you are not going to make Padian’s statement look reasonable.

A better counter argument is the old standby about correlation and causation. These polls might show a correlation between religious affiliation and rejection of evolution, but that does not mean that people reject evolution because of their religion. Fair enough, but permit me two points in reply. The first is that Padian was the one who made the, well, extreme, statement about what Americans believe in this area. Surely it is for him to back it up with evidence, and it is reasonable for me to point out that such data as we have do not support his conclusion.

Second, correlation does not imply causation, but correlation coupled with a strong reason for suspecting causation certainly adds up to a compelling argument. Padian’s statement was clearly meant to imply that so long as you do not insist on a hyperliteral interpretation of Genesis you should not see a conflict between evolution and religion. But contradicting the Bible is the least of the problems evolution poses for religion.

Evolution kills the argument from design in biology, which surveys have shown is one of the main reasons people give for believing in God in the first place. Evolution by natural selection is also a horribly savage and cruel business, and one that tends to diminish the standing of humanity within nature. These objections are powerful and have nothing to do with the Bible.

This is not just theoretical. Even when I am circulating among YEC’s, when I ask them what they think of Christians who have made their peace with evolution (as I have done many times), the Bible is almost never the first thing they mention in their answer. Instead it is the blow to human dignity they point to, and to the waste and savagery of the process. Granted, that is anecdotal evidence, so take it for what it is worth. I can only say that it is a lot of anecdotes accumulated over a lot of years, all of which point in a consistent direction.

So Padian’s statement is false, and Josh’s defense is utterly inadequate.

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I think science in general, and evolution in particular, pose grave, even fatal, challenges to traditional notions of religious faith. We bat those arguments around quite a bit around here. But that argument is mostly academic. People can believe whatever they like, of course, and just because I find certain things implausible does not mean everyone else has to as well.

But the argument in this case is of considerably more practical importance. If you really believe that it is only a radical fringe of biblical literalists or crazed atheists who see anything other than cordial relations between science and religion then you have not adequately understood the problem. A great many people see a big conflict, and they are right to see it that way. If the grand strategy is to convert people to more moderate, evolution-accepting varieties of religion, then our efforts are doomed to failure. So long as religion remains a dominant social force in this country, we will continue to fight this battle.

Comments

  1. #1 Skeptico
    September 27, 2009

    If you really believe that it is only a radical fringe of biblical literalists or crazed atheists who see anything other than cordial relations between science and religion then you have not adequately understood the problem.

    Exactly. And that’s why these views expressed by first the Public Information Project Director and now the President of the NSCE, are so disturbing.

  2. #2 Ryan
    September 27, 2009

    Hey Jason,

    I think you are right that we shouldn’t pussyfoot around the problems between science and religion. Science doesn’t totally destroy all forms of faith, but the fact that life has a natural explanation is a big evidential plus for atheism, and a big evidential minus for religion.

    Besides, lots of scientists, including Darwin himself, tried to make things right with religion and pretend that there was no conflict. Over a decade ago Stephen Jay Gould proposed “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” as a means of harmonizing faith and science, and that has not ended the struggles between faith heads and science. I think the best thing we can do is to tell it like it is.

  3. #3 Gav
    September 27, 2009

    Well, our Minister mentioned during his sermon couple of Sundays ago that there was no conflict, so that settles it!

    Seriously, are you saying that the main issue is not whether or not there is a conflict, but whether or not a certain number of people think there is?

  4. #4 Ross Johnson
    September 27, 2009

    Well said, Jason. Couldn’t agree more.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 27, 2009

    Gav -

    Both are important issues. As it happens though, Padian’s statement was about how many people perceive a conflict, so that was the main subject of the post. It is also a question that can be answered with a certain amount of objectivity, unlike the question of whether there is a conflict which depends on a lot of subjective judgements about plausibility and reasonableness. Reasonable people can disagree about whether there is a conflict. It is harder, though, to have a reasonable disagreement about the number of people who think there is a conflict.

  6. #6 Russell
    September 27, 2009

    Evolution poses a problem to many Christians not just because of a literal reading of Genesis, but because it makes hash of the religion’s major message. Boiled down to six words, Christianity teaches that: Christ came to save men’s souls. Without a sharp boundary between what counts as man, and therefore has a soul, and what is merely animal, and therefore doesn’t, that message makes no sense. It is a message that assumes a wall between us and the rest of life. Evolution teaches that there is nothing but gradation and continuity.

    That said, there obviously are strains of Christianity that are comfortable with evolution. I don’t know any atheist who believes that evolution disproves any and all religion.

    And that said, the core tension is between reason and faith. Religion wasn’t reasonable before Darwin. It has not become more reasonable since Darwin.

  7. #7 Explicit Atheist
    September 27, 2009

    “….I lack the enthusiasm for criticizing the NCSE possessed by people like Jerry Coyne. Whatever minor disagreements I have with them on the subject of religion, they are still the good guys, and I think they are heroes for doing the work they do. I would rather spend my time going after more deserving targets.”

    It is certainly reasonable to strategically pick our fights, but I side with Jerry Coyne. We here understand that knowledge is indifferent to whether or not it conflicts it religions but many people don’t accept this. Furthermore, this non-acceptance of the lack of relevancy of religious compatibility is the root of the problem of resistance to scientific literacy. Its not asking too much of the NCSE and other science organizations to stop giving opponents of scientific literacy the undeserved gift of accepting their assumption that knowledge must be consistent with religion in order for the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge to be acceptable. This is what the NCSE and the other science organizations are doing when they promote the compatibility of science and religion in the name of defending scientific literacy. Its what the President of the NCSE is doing when he says “The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn’t really have a problem. [A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.” Instead, our science organizations should be saying that science pursues knowledge wherever that takes us. Period. It is a substantial problem when our science organizations adopt a policy of defending the compatibility of science and religions. It is ultimately bad for science literacy to accept that linkage between support for religions and support for sciences.

  8. #8 Pseudonym
    September 28, 2009

    The question, as I see it, is not how many people do not believe in evolution, but how many people perceive a conflict.

    If that is the question, then Padian is clearly wrong. Apparently in the US you can’t move without hearing about this conflict. But I think that Padian has a point, in that it’s interesting to consider how many people would perceive a conflict if there weren’t a couple of loud camps whose apparent mission in life is to perpetuate that conflict.

    Actually, we don’t even need to wonder about that, since we have the evidence from other countries. In EU countries, roughly 18% have no form of religion, and over 70% believe in evolution.

    If you don’t believe there’s a conflict, there’s no conflict, and if you do believe there’s a conflict, there’s a conflict.

    Explicit Atheist:

    Its not asking too much of the NCSE and other science organizations to stop giving opponents of scientific literacy the undeserved gift of accepting their assumption that knowledge must be consistent with religion in order for the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge to be acceptable.

    Right now, the NCSE panders to one wing of religious thought, this is true. But if they came out and said that religion and science are in conflict, they’d be pandering to the other wing. I think it’s perfectly reasonable that if they’re inevitably giving a free gift to religion, they give it to moderates instead of the fundies. This is realpolitik at its most principled.

  9. #9 Explicit Atheist
    September 28, 2009

    “Right now, the NCSE panders to one wing of religious thought, this is true. But if they came out and said that religion and science are in conflict, they’d be pandering to the other wing. I think it’s perfectly reasonable that if they’re inevitably giving a free gift to religion, they give it to moderates instead of the fundies. This is realpolitik at its most principled.”

    There is little distinction here between “the moderates” and “the fundies”. Both share this patently false premise that a measure of the merit of the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge is its compatibility with their religious beliefs. To the extent there are any difference between them its over how serious, or maybe how flexible, they are in interpreting the demands placed on them by their religions. That is not a major difference if how seriously and flexibly one adopts religious beliefs is largely immune to adjudication by all of the evidence, if its mostly a matter of personal choice, as appears to often be the case. Indeed, the very insistence that the merit of the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge be measured by its compatibility with religion places religion before the evidence and thus outside the reach of evidence.

  10. #10 H.H.
    September 28, 2009

    I don’t believe that whether people think science is compatible with religion can be deduced from public acceptance of the theory of evolution.

    For one, I’ve heard numerous creationists avow that they have absolutely no problem with science–good science, they always stress. Evolution is bogus science, in their eyes. Even after I try to point out to them that young Earth creationism entails the rejection not only of the findings of biology, but also of archeology, paleontology, astronomy, geology, chemistry and physics; creationists still fail to see how their beliefs amount to rejecting science. You see, science produces things they enjoy, like computers and longer lifespans. They aren’t against that! They love science! They just pick out the parts that contradict their bible…and see absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    Which leads to my second point: I don’t even see why people’s opinions matter on this issue. If religion and science are epistemologically at odds with one another, do you a) expect the average man on the street to even know what the heck that means, and b) do you think that an opinion poll is capable of resolving the issue?

    I don’t believe science and religion are compatible even while admitting that many people are both scientists and religious. That’s because people are capable of contradictions. I also think people who claim science and faith don’t conflict are in denial, so hearing them voice their denial isn’t really addressing the objection. I think they are confusing what they wish to be true with what can be argued as true. Faith is the antithesis of scientific skepticism. If Josh Rosenau, Francis Collins, the NCSE or anyone else wants to argue that science and faith aren’t actually in conflict, then they have do more than simply assert it over and over. And appealing to mainstream opinions by people who have probably never considered the conflict very deeply to begin with and have no interest in having their suppositions challenged isn’t very convincing either.

  11. #11 Explicit Atheist
    September 28, 2009

    I agree with H.H., particularly on his second point. The issue here is about whether or not science organizations should appear to be endorsing the view that compatibility with religion is a proper measure of the merit of the consensus of the experts. It doesn’t matter how many people think compatibility with religion is a proper measure of the merit of the consensus of scientists, the fact is that it isn’t a proper measure. Its self-defeating for science organizations to appear to be endorsing the view that compatibility with religion is a proper measure of the merit of knowledge. That is why they shouldn’t be doing that. On the contrary, they should be directly saying that knowledge, like justice, is pursued for its own sake and we follow knowledge wherever it takes us without any pre-commitments to move toward or away from any pre-existing religious convictions. They should be upfront and straight with the public just like that.

  12. #12 Pseudonym
    September 28, 2009

    There is little distinction here between “the moderates” and “the fundies”.

    The hell there isn’t. One group is pro-science education, and the other is anti-science education. For the NCSE, given its reason for existence, that’s about as big a distinction as there is.

  13. #13 Joel
    September 28, 2009

    This was a topic that came up recently in podcast 47 of the Skeptic Zone [mp3]. In it, you’ll hear about a paper that showed (at least in Queensland, Australia) a much stronger relationship existed between the strength of religious belief and creationism – even amongst moderate denominations like Anglicanism and Catholicism.

  14. #14 Explicit Atheist
    September 28, 2009

    “The hell there isn’t. One group is pro-science education, and the other is anti-science education. For the NCSE, given its reason for existence, that’s about as big a distinction as there is.”

    You took one sentence of my argument out of context and responded to just that without addressing my argument. Again, my argument is that with respect to the question we are addressing, which is the premise that a measure of the merit of knowledge is its compatibility with their own religious beliefs, religionists of almost every stripe share this false premise. Furthermore, this premise is not only false, it is also counter-productive to the goal of science literacy. Therefore, science organizations such as the NCSE should be rejecting this premise. They are doing the opposite, they are endorsing this premise. This is a substantial mistake on the part of NCSE and other such science organizations. Instead, science organizations should emphasize the neutrality of science and its indifference to any and all pre-conceptions. This remedy doesn’t separate and target just “the fundies” like you are advocating because the problem is bigger than just “the fundies”. The real problem is this entire notion that for knowledge to be accepted it must conform to and confirm people’s pre-conceptions. Until we as a society, starting with our science organizations, reject that entirely unrealistic expectation about the proper role of knowledge we will be treading water forever over this dispute between “the fundies” and science.

  15. #15 Russell Blackford
    September 28, 2009

    Padian’s statement was not only false – it was gratuitously provocative. And Rosenau’s defence of it is pathetic. These continual attacks by NCSE personnel on thoughtful, reasonable people who are their natural allies are getting shameful.

  16. #16 Michael Fugate
    September 28, 2009

    Many Christians, who belong to churches which do not have truth claims that contradict evolution in principle, and their atheist and agnostic friends, can’t fathom the conflict that arises among those Christians who do belong to churches which have truth claims that contradict evolution. The former think that I am a Christian and I accept evolution or I know a Christian and he or she accepts evolution, so why can’t every other Christian just accept evolution – obviously those contradictory truth claims are not important to Christianity.

    Religious truth claims are a bit different than scientific truth claims and are not so easily discarded. Religious truth claims are thought to be eternal while scientific claims are ephemeral. I can read a new paper reworking the phylogeny and renaming of genera and species within a group I know well and it has little effect on me. To read what happens when believers have to confront contradictory truth claims, see this short article in Science 319:1034 (February 22 2008) entitled “Crossing the Divide”. If one questions one truth claim, then all others are suspect as well.

  17. #17 Reginald Selkirk
    September 28, 2009

    Right now, the NCSE panders to one wing of religious thought, this is true. But if they came out and said that religion and science are in conflict, they’d be pandering to the other wing. I think it’s perfectly reasonable that if they’re inevitably giving a free gift to religion, they give it to moderates instead of the fundies. This is realpolitik at its most principled.

    If you care about principles, then why not ask that NCSE refrain from commenting about the compatibility of evolution with religion? Their goal is to promote evolution in specific, and science in general, not to comment on which views of religion which are compatible with evolution are “extreme.” By the way, I believe this is Coyne’s position.

  18. #18 abb3w
    September 28, 2009

    Michael Fugate: Religious truth claims are a bit different than scientific truth claims and are not so easily discarded.

    There’s still a little bit of flaming going back and forth from the last discussion of “Ways of Knowing” about two weeks back….

  19. #19 Glen Davidson
    September 28, 2009

    Um, what is it about Padian’s framing of the issue that is difficult to understand?

    His whole point was to tar Kirk and his crowd, first, as people who only fault evolution because they don’t find it compatible with their religion (essentially true), and then as extremists for doing so. To twist the knife, he compared them to “extreme atheists.”

    It’s name-calling that can readily be questioned factually, but it wasn’t predicated upon facts. Obviously one can ask how much the truth should be bent in this matter (Padian goes farther than I would, certainly), but granting that name-calling is part of the fight, complete factual honesty isn’t really to which he should be held.

    Whether atheists should be equated with fundies in order to make the latter look bad is another question, but it probably had the effect that Padian was going for.

    Seriously, there are a lot of issues to go through (honesty matters, particularly when we’re defending honest science against highly defamatory and dishonest comments), however ignoring the fact that it was propaganda aimed at making creationists like Cameron look as bad as possible shouldn’t be forgotten, while side issues to that are treated as if they were primary matters.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  20. #20 Michael Fugate
    September 28, 2009

    I meant not so easily discarded by those religious people who hold them. Not that the claims are not easily discarded by someone who did not grow up indoctrinated with those claims.

  21. #21 Jud
    September 28, 2009

    The last poll I recall seeing on the subject had Jews accepting the theory of evolution at a rate just slightly above that of atheists.

  22. #22 H.H.
    September 28, 2009

    Religious truth claims are a bit different than scientific truth claims and are not so easily discarded.

    On the contrary, religious claims are easily discarded. Claims made without evidence can be rejected without evidence. And unevidenced claims don’t get to use the label “truth” either.

    Religious truth claims are thought to be eternal while scientific claims are ephemeral.

    Thought by whom? Those making the claims? Unfortunately for them, their opinions don’t really count for anything.

  23. #23 Tricia
    September 28, 2009

    “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:25)King James Version.
    God made all the creatures reproduce according to their own kinds. Dogs have always been dogs, cats have always been cats. End of story.

  24. #24 Michael Fugate
    September 28, 2009

    HH, if you are trying to get people to change, then you need to take these things into account. Please read the article in Science. I am not saying that religious truth claims are true, but that the people who hold them believe they are true. Josh and his buddies at NCSE seem to think because some Christians don’t make certain truth claims, then it should be easy for other Christians to drop those claims as well.

  25. #25 Josh Rosenau
    September 28, 2009

    I responded at length at TfK, but I will just say that I find it odd for all your attempt to coax numbers out of the Pew poll from February, that you totally ignored the more recent July Pew poll, in which 61% of respondents said that their religion was compatible with science. How does that make Padian’s argument “false”? What about a British Council survey this June which found that 53% of US respondents agree “it is possible to believe in a God and still hold the view that life on earth, including human life, evolved over time as a result of natural selection”?

    Russell Blackford: You complain that “These continual attacks by NCSE personnel on thoughtful, reasonable people who are their natural allies are getting shameful.” Are such attacks also shameful when directed at allies of science education and science like Francis Collins or Ken Miller or Chris Mooney or Sheril Kirshenbaum or me or Genie? NCSE is about evolution education, not science/religion. I’m happy to argue about whether I’m in fact dividing the pro-evolution camp, but I’ve watched Jerry “faitheists” Coyne and others do the same with impunity for years, and I resent the double standard.

  26. #26 H.H.
    September 28, 2009

    NCSE is about evolution education, not science/religion.

    Then why do you, Genie, Padian, and the NCSE keep making pronouncements concerning the compatibility of science and religion? If your organization had just stuck to evolution education, Josh, we wouldn’t be having this argument.

  27. #27 Josh Rosenau
    September 28, 2009

    H.H.: That question was answered months ago.

  28. #28 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 28, 2009

    Josh –

    I did not cite the more recent survey because I was not aware of it. The one I did cite was from earlier this year and contained data that blatantly contradicted what Padian said. I “coaxed” nothing. The data spoke for itself.

    In your recent post, by contrast, you went back many years to find polls to support your case, and even then the best you could do was show that if you bend over backward to phrase the question in a way that de-emphasizes the precise aspects of evolution to which people object (such as the idea that humans are a part of it) you can get numbers that are slightly less awful than the ones I cited. Talk about coaxing numbers!

    Now that I am aware of the more recent survey, I am baffled that you see numbers here that help your case. First, could you direct me to where the survey found that 61% of people said their religion is compatible with science? I could not find that figure, but it is possible that I missed it since I skimmed parts of it. The only place I found the number 61% was here:

    A majority of the public (61%) says that human and other living things have evolved over time, though when probed only about a third (32%) say this evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” while 22% say “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.” Another 31% reject evolution and say that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

    Pretty grim. We have 31% flatly rejecting even the modest statement that humans and other living things have evolved over time. Another 22% accept evolution only by giving it a distinctly religious spin that is flatly contrary to the scientific understanding of evolution.

    Do you honestly see in these numbers anything that comes close to justifying the statement

    The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn’t really have a problem.

    Extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists account for a tiny percentage of the population. The best polls and most benign interpretations you can find show that vastly more than that have religious issues with evolution.

    What Padian said was false and needlessly incendiary.

  29. #29 Explicit Atheist
    September 28, 2009

    “Pointing to religious people and organizations who have made their peace with science and evolution is appropriate, but going past that to describing particular ways of making that peace is a mistake.”

    That is the sensible and correct place to draw the line. I agree with you that Jerry Coyne has failed to make the relevant distinction between NCSE not being an association of scientists versus the NAS and AAAS which are. That difference has significant implications for their roles, it does free NCSE to be more political.

  30. #30 pough
    September 28, 2009

    …in which 61% of respondents said that their religion was compatible with science.

    I keep thinking I’m hearing the tell-tale sound of goalposts being moved, but when I look around to check I see them precisely where you have most recently claimed they have always been.

  31. #31 Russell Blackford
    September 28, 2009

    Josh, you’re being silly again. This accommodationism debate started because Chris Mooney and others decided to kick Jerry Coyne’s head over some thoughtful and civil comments that Jerry made in an extensive commissioned review of a couple of books by Christian evolutionists. The claim was made that his comments were an example of things that should not be said because they alienate allies – this was attributed by Chris Mooney to Barbara Forrest. Whether Forrest actually said this about Coyne’s review or not, Mooney endorsed her alleged words.

    Thus, the position was put that even civil, reasoned criticism of the views of theists should not be expressed publicly by atheists.

    It has gone on from there. Every time Jerry or I, or Ophelia Benson, has offered any constructive criticism of positions that we disagree with, we have been insulted, had our positions distorted, accused of naive errors that we do not in fact make (we are not idiots), told to shut up, and otherwise treated as enemies.

    The most recent phase of the debate was triggered by a blog post that I made about Eugenie Scott’s talk at Dragon*Con. My post carefully pointed out that Eugenie had generally done a good job in her talk, and that I had concern about only part of what she said; and it generally showed a fair bit of epistemic humility. I even invited corrections if I’d misunderstood anything.

    Jerry then blogged about Eugenie’s speech, carefully saying that he had misgivings about the relevant aspects IF my account was accurate. You then unfairly attacked him for talking about a speech at which he was not present. But I actually was present (you, of course, were not present at it either), and he indicated quite clearly what he was objecting to from her REPORTED statements. No one has yet shown that I misreported her or otherwise treated her unfairly. Why would I? I generally admire her and what she is doing. I simply had criticisms of the early part of her speech.

    This is typical of how the debate has gone. On one side we have a group of people with what we consider are important things to say. Some of these things are, indeed, critical of certain tendencies in the NCSE (and elsewhere), but they are said in a civil manner and a constructive, collegial spirit – though I accept that we have been showing a degree of frustration, and sometimes anger, when we attacked for our trouble. On the other side we have people like you and Padian who will accept no criticism, engage in no civil dialogue, and take the attitude that the NCSE can do no wrong.

    Yes, there is a double standard being applied, but the one I see isn’t the one you refer to. The standard is that outspoken atheists should shut up and not make even the most mild criticisms of people or positions that they disagree with (unless the people concerned are fundamentalists). We, however, are expected to put up with being demonised, attacked personally, and told to censor ourselves because we’re somehow harming the cause of science.

    I for one am sick to death of this double standard. I’ve lost my temper a couple of times with Mooney, which maybe was not a good look, but I’m human. Despite that, I’ve generally kept this discussion civil and constructive. In particular, I’ve always been careful, specific, and polite in any criticisms I’ve made of the NCSE. I’m appalled at the demonisation of friendly critics that has come from your “side”. Padian’s nasty jibe is just the latest in a long line of this sort of thing.

  32. #32 Josh Rosenau
    September 29, 2009

    Russell Blackford: Replying via email, as this is pretty far off-topic for this discussion thread. For the record, I don’t think I’ve been incivil to you, have accepted no criticism, or have been unwilling to acknowledge error on NCSE’s part. I apologize if I have, and will, of course, make corrections and amends in cases where I have done so. My goal is to raise the tone, not to degrade it.

    Jason: By “coaxed,” all I mean is that you invested a lot of effort to rescale data from one poll according to religious affiliations in another, all to answer a question not directly addressed by either poll. I don’t doubt that you were working with what you believed to be the best data available, and apologize of “coaxed” reads like anything more than that.

    I did go way back to 2004 for one poll, because I don’t know any poll which has asked that same question since then (and the consistency of views on that topic suggests that the result today wouldn’t differ much). Given your comment at TfK, I think you’ve now found the 61% figure, which is in a graphical table, not in the text. I certainly respect that a lot of people were offended by Padian’s comment. I confess that I don’t really see it, as I think it can be read as an observation, not a judgment, but I’m certainly not going to say that anyone is wrong to feel hurt. Given the level of invective flying around in this debate (not here at Evolutionblog, but in general), I’m surprised to see the level of outrage, though.

  33. #33 Pseudonym
    September 29, 2009

    Explicit Atheist:

    You took one sentence of my argument out of context and responded to just that without addressing my argument.

    I apologise if I did that. I did look back at the entire exchange, and it seems pretty clear to me that we were talking specifically about the NCSE and its brief, not about science vs religion in general.

    Having said that, I agree with you more-or-less about where the NCSE should draw its line. The NCSE should definitely point to religious people who agree with evolution, and eminent scientists who are personally religious. I’ll add that it may be okay to provide a platform for some of them to share their views if a representative sample can be found, and it’s done correctly. But the NCSE should not take (or be seen to take) a specific position on how to reconcile science and religion.

    Again, my argument is that with respect to the question we are addressing, which is the premise that a measure of the merit of knowledge is its compatibility with their own religious beliefs, religionists of almost every stripe share this false premise.

    Right, but it’s reasonable to note that the converse is arguably correct: Religious beliefs have more merit if they are compatible with science.

  34. #34 dave souza
    September 29, 2009

    As an outsider to the argument, may I just say that this seems to be hinging on yet another false duality.

    To simplify things, the NCSE in particular is focussed on teaching that evolution is scientifically valid, in a context where a significant and very vocal religious minority assert that their religious faith shows that evolutionary science must be false, and all those teaching it are essentially atheists. People who have only been exposed to that anti-evolution message can have their certainty shaken, and become open to reasoned argument that science education does not default to their theistic beliefs, when they are shown the testimony of those who share the same theistic faith and find no insuperable problem in accepting the science of evolution.

    There is a view of thoughtful and vocal atheists that science is essentially sceptical and hence incompatible with theistic religion, which is based on belief without evidence other than the sacred texts of the religion.

    That’s an argument against a majority of theists, over 50% even in the U.S., who hold their theistic faith at the same time as accepting scientific findings, and who resolve any incompatibilities with a literal interpretation of sacred texts by regarding that as a problem for theology, not a reason to reject science. There are many atheists and agnostics who will be happy with that as an attitude to science and science education, without sharing the faith of those theists. In this view, science inherently works on the basis that has been called methodological naturalism, making no supernatural assumptions while never taking the atheist position that there is no supernatural. On this, atheists and believers in theistic evolution can agree, while agreeing to differ on theism and faith. As it happens, Darwin took that view and increasingly described himself as agnostic.

    That ‘accommodation’ is rejected by anti-evolution theists and by atheists who give priority to what they see as an inescapable conflict between science and religion. The only other thing these atheists have in common with creationists is a willingess to be outspoken in the ‘controversy’.

    Within theism, an even bigger controversy which has been going on since the late 18th century is between theology that seeks to reinterpret and examine beliefs in the lights of studies of history, language and science, against various theological positions including some traditional interpretations as well as new ideas of ‘literalism’ incorporating natural theology or empirical theology which hold that science can find direct empirical evidence of physical intervention by God. That three cornered dispute, between modernists, tradionalists and creationists, has developed in the U.S. into widespread institutional ignorance of evolution and a belief by around 40% of the population that evolution is essentially atheism.

    A complex web of conflicting views and beliefs. Evolution does pose problems for many theistic doctrines, not just the argument from complexity of natural theology. Theists accepting evolution have to find a theology that reconciles the appearence of progress in evolution with the Fall of man, and reconciles belief in the soul with empirical ways of working that assign mind to the physical workings of the brain. From an atheist viewpoint that looks like attempting the impossible, for the benefit of science education it looks essential until such time as all become sceptics. Come the millenium…. oops!

  35. #35 Anton Mates
    September 29, 2009

    Even among Jews the rate of acceptance is only 77%. This is telling, because among American religious groups Jews are certainly among the least doctrinaire, and the least committed to particular interpretations of scripture. “Jewish dogma” is practically an oxymoron, yet still 23% of Jews reject evolution.

    Doesn’t that suggest that, perhaps, they’re rejecting it for reasons other than a perceived conflict with their religion?

    If you look at the same poll, you’ll find that the evolution acceptance rates of Buddhists (81%), Hindus (80%) and Jews (77%) are all higher than the acceptance rate of the “unaffiliated” (72%.) Not all of the unaffiliated are non-religious, but about 2/3 of them are either self-described atheists/agnostics, or simply say that religion plays little or no role in their lives. So this is the closest we get to a “non-religious” category.

    This particular poll suggests that some religions (Christianity and Islam) are associated with rejection of evolution, while other religions (Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism) are associated with unusually common acceptance of it. That doesn’t seem like very strong evidence to me for a general conflict between evolution and religion.

    (By the way, there’s more evidence of Hindu comfort with evolution: The British Council survey found that India was more evolution-friendly than any other country they covered, including China, Britain and Russia. A higher proportion of Indian respondents agreed that it’s possible to believe in God and evolution simultaneously, that only evolution should be taught in schools, and that scientific evidence for evolution exists.)

    These numbers pretty blatantly contradict Padian’s statement. If we focus on Christians, Muslims and Jews, they do not even support the conclusion that a majority see no conflict between evolution and religion.

    Sure, they don’t support it, but they don’t contradict it either–these numbers say nothing either way, because they’re not about whether people see a conflict between evolution and religion. The only poll that I know of that actually asked whether God and evolution are compatible is the 2009 British Council survey Josh mentioned, in which the majority of Americans did indeed agree. (53% agreed, 27% disagreed, the rest chose “neither agree nor disagree.”)

    So Padian, as far as I can tell from survey data, is perfectly correct that “[A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.” He’s also perfectly correct that a majority of Americans believe religion and evolution can coexist, given the July 2009 Pew survey Josh mentioned. The February 2009 data simply doesn’t speak to this point.

    But he’s not correct, I think, in stating that all the people who think otherwise are “extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists.” In my experience, quite a few moderate believers fall into this group, usually because they believe that evolutionary theory involves explicit atheism.

    Correcting this misconception (whatever you think the rational implications of evolutionary theory are for religion, pretty much everyone involved in the compatibility debate agrees that it doesn’t actually say there’s no god) is one of the best reasons for the NCSE to point out the existence of pro-evolution believers, IMO.

  36. #36 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 29, 2009

    Anton-

    I have no problem with pointing out pro-evolution believers and I have no problem with the idea that some religions are better than others regarding respect for evolution. I think it’s great that American Hindus and Buddhists and Jews are generally supportive of evolution. But, let us be serious, those three groups combined are less than three percent of the population.

    And of course some people reject evolution for reasons having nothing to do with their religion. I said as much in my post. No doubt some people just flat out find Behe and company convincing without holding any particular religious view. But it is simply undeniable that, as you say, many people reject evolution while not adhering to any notion of biblical literalism. It is not hard to see why they would.

    This was all written in the context of Padian’s rather extreme, and I maintain blatantly false and needlessly inflammatory, statement. You seem to agree that I was right to be annoyed with the part about only extreme atheists and extreme fundamentaists seeing a conflict. As for 53% who are willing to say that science and religion are compatible, I’m sorry but that figure is certainly nothing to celebrate.

    A final point. I have no doubt that some believers, perhaps for not having thought things through clearly, wrongly believe that evolution implies atheism. But that knife cuts both ways. A lot of people who say they do not see a conflict also have not thought things through clearly. I have met many “accommodationists” who think it is a sufficient response to say, “Evolution is God’s way of creating.” If such people were to think more clearly about what evolution is really saying they might not be so sanguine in their views.

  37. #37 Stephen Friberg
    September 29, 2009

    Hi Jason, others:

    Nice provocative posting that lays out the issues and – as it should – the biases as well: “Regular readers of this blog are aware that I think science in general, and evolution in particular, pose grave, even fatal, challenges to traditional notions of religious faith.”

    In my experience, biases readily lead to a misreading of polling results on religion and evolution. Here is why:

    If you strongly believe that religion and science are incompatible, then you will reject the view of God creating us as compatible with evolution. But lets be clear: the idea that God created us and that evolution is the historical rendering of that creation is perfectly logical and completely consistent with both science and belief in God.

    With respect to polling, when someone says that they believe God created us, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they disbelieve in evolution. They may or they may not. What it primarily means is that they view the ultimate cause as God. Evolution – whether or not it took place – is in their view at best a secondary cause.

    This is not how it looks to a diehard anti-religion evolutionist. For them, evolution is primary and religious ideas are an evolutionary heritage. Therefore, it is inconceivable that someone can legitimately have “meta-ideas” like belief in God and not be concerned about evolution. Thus, the misinterpretation of polling results that you argue for.

    Interestingly, it is this reversal – the replacement of first causes – God – by a creation story – evolution – that makes a lot of people suspect and mistrust evolution as a quasi-religion.

  38. #38 eric
    September 29, 2009

    The whole question (is religion compatible…) seems to me to be such a bad generalization that it muddies the waters rather than clarifying them.

    Religious claims about the world may conflict with scientific claims about the world. Some do. Some do not. And some some have nothing to do with the world. Since every religious person’s beliefs can vary, it is a bad generalization and sloppy thinking to talk about “religion” as if it was a monolithic set of belief claims. It isn’t.

    Then there’s the other argument: that regardless of content religion is incompatible because it subscribes to a reveletory “way of knowing,” rejected by science in favor of empiricism. Science simply does not accept the methodology of “pray/meditate for the answer” as valid. But this is also a gross generalization of religion which suffers from the same problem as claims about the world. Not every religion closes its revelations off to testing; some see revelation as providing insights – thought experiments if you will. This is completely compatible. Moreover science rejects the notion that revelation has the status of observatation not due to some a priori conflict, but because it has a bad track record. If some prophet came along and demonstrated a spectacularly good track record (the notion is laughable, but within the realm of the possible), as scientists we would investigate how that prophet is doing his thing, and possibly revise our conclusion about the viability of revelation. This is extremely unlikely but the point is that revelation is not a priori incompatible with empiricism. Its just currently unsupported and counter-indicated.

    For both these reasons, it seems to be to be very sloppy to talk about the incompatibility of religion with science.

  39. #39 H.H.
    September 29, 2009

    eric, you make some good points. I agree that people who say science and religion are compatible are thinking of the first sense, where it’s just a matter of reconciling facts; while people like myself who think them incompatible do so because of the second sense, where it’s a matter of totally irreconcilable methodologies.

    But I’m not sure I understand your conclusion:

    Moreover science rejects the notion that revelation has the status of observatation not due to some a priori conflict, but because it has a bad track record. If some prophet came along and demonstrated a spectacularly good track record (the notion is laughable, but within the realm of the possible), as scientists we would investigate how that prophet is doing his thing, and possibly revise our conclusion about the viability of revelation. This is extremely unlikely but the point is that revelation is not a priori incompatible with empiricism. Its just currently unsupported and counter-indicated.

    For both these reasons, it seems to be to be very sloppy to talk about the incompatibility of religion with science.

    Why is it “sloppy” to point out that revelation is incompatible with empiricism? You just got done saying that revelation is “unsupported and counter-indicated,” so why wouldn’t that be a valid thing to mention? Yes, we can imagine some other Universe in some other reality where science and revelation compliment one another, it just isn’t that way in our Universe and our reality. We can also imagine scenarios in which the evidence for the existence of god and the supernatural is overwhelming. But again, that isn’t the case in our present situation, which is what should all be concerning ourselves with.

    Stephen Friberg wrote:

    But lets be clear: the idea that God created us and that evolution is the historical rendering of that creation is perfectly logical and completely consistent with both science and belief in God.

    No, it’s neither perfectly logical nor perfectly consistent. It’s illogical and totally perplexing. Sure, you can force yourself to believe something like that occurred. It helps if you aren’t inclined to think about it very deeply. But let’s be perfectly clear: the idea that God created us and that evolution is the historical rendering of that creation is riddled with unsupportable assumptions, ad hoc excuses, twisted theology and bad reasoning. It’s not a position that a sane, intellectually-honest person could endorse.

  40. #40 Explicit Atheist
    September 29, 2009

    Posted by: Anton Mates | September 29, 2009 5:34 AM

    “Correcting this misconception [that evolutionary theory involves explicit atheism] (whatever you think the rational implications of evolutionary theory are for religion, pretty much everyone involved in the compatibility debate agrees that it doesn’t actually say there’s no god) is one of the best reasons for the NCSE to point out the existence of pro-evolution believers, IMO.”

    We are not criticizing the NCSE and other science organizations for merely pointing out the existence of pro-evolution believers. If that is all that they were doing then we wouldn’t be complaining about them. They are going further than that, they are taking sides regarding which religious beliefs are correct and which are false by promoting NOMA and by endorsing non-empirical ways of knowing. Eugenie Scott, for example, appears to advocate counting all sorts of ideas gained from personal insight as “knowledge”. She also appears to be claiming that science cannot deal with supernatural claims. It is our position that 1) the NCSE and other science organizations should stop relying on an unnecessarily narrow (and very dubious) view of scientific epistemology, designed to leave as much authority with religion as possible and 2) they should stop selling Gould’s intellectually bankrupt principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria on their websites and in their official statements.

    By enabling superstition, and giving credibility to irrationality NOMA-ism will, we think, hamper the evolution of a rational America. Yes, we’re on their side vis-a-vis creationism, and yes, we will be more than glad to join hands with them in fighting that scourge of rationality. But so long as our allies keep spouting half-truths and untruths about the relationship between science and religion, we’ll keep calling them to task.

    NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its very nature to the moral sphere and in principle it has as much authority in the empirical sphere as anywhere else. Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion. All that we ask from science organizations and school curricula is neutrality on these questions.

    Here are some examples of false assertions about religion and science from our science organizations (note its not just NCSE):

    “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing.” – National Academy of Science, also in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, p. 58

    “Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.” – National Science Teachers Association, in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science p. 124

    In the essays by Peter M. J. Hess that apparently are the basis of the NCSE Faith Project, there are endorsements of an adaptation of Gould’s Non Overlapping Magisteria.

    So how should science organizations respond to complaints that science promotes atheism? I think they should target the underlying false premise that knowledge has to support a particular preconception of how the world works to have merit. For example, they could respond by saying that science pursues empirically verifiable knowledge and therefore whatever direction that takes us is the direction that we will go. It is entirely appropriate and correct to respond with that mildly aggressive edge because the question is itself propagandistic. Science organizations should be disputing any such prejudiced approach to pursuing knowledge since such prejudice is itself in conflict with a scientific approach. Furthermore, science organizations should avoid being drawn into commenting on theism or atheism or supernaturalism or non-empirical “knowledge” and the like. Those are topics that are outside of their remit.

  41. #41 Stephen Friberg
    September 29, 2009

    Hi Eric:

    You disagreed with my point that there is no conflict between evolution and belief in God. Could you explain why? Reasons would be useful.

  42. #42 Anton Mates
    September 30, 2009

    Jason,

    I think it’s great that American Hindus and Buddhists and Jews are generally supportive of evolution. But, let us be serious, those three groups combined are less than three percent of the population.

    But you included Muslims in your original post, who make up about 0.6% of the population. If we’re not to “privilege Christianity,” which I agree is a good idea, then Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism are certainly as representative of religion as is Islam.

    This was all written in the context of Padian’s rather extreme, and I maintain blatantly false and needlessly inflammatory, statement. You seem to agree that I was right to be annoyed with the part about only extreme atheists and extreme fundamentaists seeing a conflict.

    I do, to some degree. I do think that that part was false, but I’m not terribly much on-board with the idea that it was inflammatory–”extreme” is not the same as “extremist,” let alone “militant,” and I personally don’t have much problem being labeled an extreme atheist. It may offend those who consider fundamentalists “hated enemies” and “the lowest form of life there is,” but that itself is a pretty extreme attitude.

    As for 53% who are willing to say that science and religion are compatible, I’m sorry but that figure is certainly nothing to celebrate.

    I’m not inclined to celebrate it, myself. I’d like to see it much higher, at least among the religious.

    A final point. I have no doubt that some believers, perhaps for not having thought things through clearly, wrongly believe that evolution implies atheism. But that knife cuts both ways. A lot of people who say they do not see a conflict also have not thought things through clearly. I have met many “accommodationists” who think it is a sufficient response to say, “Evolution is God’s way of creating.”

    It may be sufficient; I don’t see why it’s anyone’s business other than the believer’s to say what it has to be sufficient for. If they’re out to convert me they’ll have to do better than that, but otherwise, if it works for them, fine.

    If such people were to think more clearly about what evolution is really saying they might not be so sanguine in their views.

    It’s possible, but I think there’s an asymmetry there. People who wrongly believe that evolution implies atheism generally do so because they don’t understand evolution; people who wrongly believe that evolution doesn’t conflict with their religion generally do so because they don’t understand the logical implications of their religion. And only the former misunderstanding is something the NCSE needs to worry about.

    If it were true that many moderate believers accept evolution only because they get it wrong, we’d still be (regretfully) obliged to correct their misunderstanding, but I don’t think that’s the case; I don’t see a lot of moderates saying “evolution is great because it still allows for a global flood!” or anything like that.

    (conflict-of-interest disclaimer for anyone who doesn’t know–I worked at the NCSE until quite recently, when I went back to school.)

  43. #43 Anton Mates
    September 30, 2009

    Explicit atheist,

    Eugenie Scott, for example, appears to advocate counting all sorts of ideas gained from personal insight as “knowledge.”

    That may be her position; I haven’t heard her elaborate on the topic. I think it’s more likely that she’s saying people do count those sorts of ideas as knowledge, though. “Ways of knowing” is often, as in anthropology, a descriptive term–how do people arrive at beliefs and how do they justify them? Whether you or I or she accept a given justification is a separate question. So I would agree that revelation, for instance, is a way of knowing; it’s just not one I consider valid. But I don’t make the norms for everyone else.

    She also appears to be claiming that science cannot deal with supernatural claims.

    AFAIK she does claim that, as do I. There may be complex claims with both supernatural and natural elements, and science may be able to deal with the latter, but not with the former.

    Acceptance of methodological naturalism as a grounding principle in science isn’t exactly unusual; and while I didn’t poll everyone in the office during my stint at the NCSE, it seemed to be one of the few philosophical points on which most everyone agreed. Which doesn’t mean it’s right, of course, but yes, it’s definitely the angle the NCSE is coming from. And given that it’s hugely relevant to discussions of creationism and ID, I can’t see them stopping.

    2) they should stop selling Gould’s intellectually bankrupt principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria on their websites and in their official statements.

    I disagree that they’re selling it. They’re pointing out that it does apply to some religious positions, but they’re hardly hiding that it doesn’t apply to others…after all, the entire reason for the NCSE’s existence is creationism, which violates NOMA with a vengeance! (Dirty as that sounds.)

    Yes, we’re on their side vis-a-vis creationism, and yes, we will be more than glad to join hands with them in fighting that scourge of rationality. But so long as our allies keep spouting half-truths and untruths about the relationship between science and religion, we’ll keep calling them to task.

    As you should. Meanwhile, those allies will keep arguing that their claims are, in fact, truths.

    NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its very nature to the moral sphere and in principle it has as much authority in the empirical sphere as anywhere else.

    Religion need not be confined to the moral sphere to satisfy a generalized NOMA principle; it can cover metaphysical/philosophical issues that are not amenable to scientific investigation either. And religion has whatever authority its adherents choose to cede it, and some abide by a NOMA principle. This is even more true if we’re talking about the relationship between religion and a particular subset of science, evolutionary biology.

    So I don’t think NOMA is either false or true; it applies to some religions (like Peter Hess’, among others), and not to others.

    Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion.

    I’d certainly agree with the latter claim; I don’t see that anything can objectively determine an ultimate point that morality should be aiming at. But a religion can incorporate ethical precepts which someone can choose to follow, whereas a scientific theory cannot.

    “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing.” – National Academy of Science, also in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, p. 58

    That’s excessively supportive of NOMA, I agree. Mostly because it implies that religions never invoke the same ways of knowing as does science, which is empirically false.

    “Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.” – National Science Teachers Association, in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science p. 124

    In the essays by Peter M. J. Hess that apparently are the basis of the NCSE Faith Project, there are endorsements of an adaptation of Gould’s Non Overlapping Magisteria.

    As currently written (they were revised somewhat over the summer), I don’t think there are. There are acknowledgments that some religious positions satisfy a NOMA principle, and that others do not, but that’s not the same as an endorsement of either. Of course, those positions which fail to satisfy a NOMA principle are vulnerable to scientific disproof in a way that other positions aren’t, but I don’t think it constitutes an endorsement for the NCSE to point that out.

    So how should science organizations respond to complaints that science promotes atheism? I think they should target the underlying false premise that knowledge has to support a particular preconception of how the world works to have merit. For example, they could respond by saying that science pursues empirically verifiable knowledge and therefore whatever direction that takes us is the direction that we will go.

    That’s a great response, and I think most science organizations do say something along those line. But, as a response, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t address a particular misconception which seems to be common: namely, that evolution theory directly promotes atheism because it actively denies the existence of God or the possibility of a divine plan. For people with this misconception, the response you outline would simply convince them that evolution isn’t scientific, since (in their eyes) it’s making a claim that isn’t empirically verifiable.

    Furthermore, science organizations should avoid being drawn into commenting on theism or atheism or supernaturalism or non-empirical “knowledge” and the like. Those are topics that are outside of their remit.

    I disagree. Taking a position on the existence of God, or the truth of other supernatural claims, is outside their remit–but theism, atheism, and the acceptance or rejection of non-empirical ways of knowing are features of human culture/psychology, which are of great interest to science. And given the extreme relevance of these issues to the public perception of scientific topics like evolution, I don’t how science organizations can avoid discussing them.

  44. #44 Jud
    September 30, 2009

    While I agree with Jason that if the implications of evolution – and modern cosmology – are fully realized, it might cause even the “moderately religious” (whatever that may mean) concern about compatibility with their beliefs, I think it is a significant oversimplification to derive from that either of the following conclusions:

    1. Religion is the major obstacle to greater rational scientific thinking in our society.

    2. The job of teaching rational scientific thinking is easier with atheists than among the religious.

    Perhaps these conclusions should logically follow, but IMO polls showing (slightly) higher rates of acceptance of major scientific theories among adherents of certain religions than among the religiously unaffiliated demonstrate we humans may be more complex than that, and counsel caution. Religious traditions that teach a love of and respect for learning can be powerful tools in preparing people to accept rational scientific modes of thought and the knowledge that’s come from them. So, of course, can traditions of rational freethought.

  45. #45 eric
    September 30, 2009

    H.H.@39:
    Why is it “sloppy” to point out that revelation is incompatible with empiricism? You just got done saying that revelation is “unsupported and counter-indicated,” so why wouldn’t that be a valid thing to mention?

    Because not all religions treat revelation the same. Some see it as having the status of observations or trumping observations – this is incompatible with science. But others may see relevation as a hypothesis-producing machine. That is completely compatible with science (because we really don’t care how you get your hypotheses). An example of the latter is the Dalai Llama’s comment that, if Buddhist teaching ever comes into conflict with science, then Buddhism must change. Clearly he is not attributing to revealed truth an equal status with empirical observation. He’s treating revealed truth as hypotheses open to testing. This is compatible with science.

    My point about revelation being counter-indicated was really geared towards the first, more extremist view (that it is equal to or trumps observation) – I agree with you that revelation’s failed track record is completely relevant when a religious person brings tries to make this argument.

    Stephen Friberg@41:
    You disagreed with my point that there is no conflict between evolution and belief in God. Could you explain why? Reasons would be useful.

    I disagree that the statement “evolution and religion are in conflict” is useful for discussion, because I think its an overbroad generalization. Sometimes there IS conflict between a person’s belief in god and the TOE…but sometimes there isn’t. It depends on the specifics of what they believe…which was my point.

    There is no single set of beliefs that all religions subscribe to, so it is an overgeneralization to say religion is in conflict with empirical claim X (for any X). My second point was religions do not even share a single methodology for gaining religious truth. So it is also an overgeneralization to say that the religious “way of knowing” is in conflict with science. There isn’t a single religious way of knowing; there are many. Some conflict with science, some don’t.

  46. #46 H.H.
    September 30, 2009

    eric, I hear your point, but it seems to me that all you’re really saying is that religion and science are “compatible” when people don’t really take religious claims all that seriously and are willing to defer to the findings of science whenever they do conflict. But I don’t view that as true compatibility, since if religion really was compatible with science, it would never need to defer to science. They should converge on the same answers. The fact that they do not is pretty good evidence that they are not complimentary “ways of knowing.”

  47. #47 Stephen Friberg
    September 30, 2009

    Hi Eric:

    You wrote: “I disagree that the statement ‘evolution and religion are in conflict’ is useful for discussion, because I think its an overbroad generalization. Sometimes there IS conflict between a person’s belief in god and the TOE…but sometimes there isn’t.”

    You also wrote: “There is no single set of beliefs that all religions subscribe to, so it is an overgeneralization to say religion is in conflict with empirical claim X (for any X). My second point was religions do not even share a single methodology for gaining religious truth. So it is also an overgeneralization to say that the religious “way of knowing” is in conflict with science. There isn’t a single religious way of knowing; there are many. Some conflict with science, some don’t.”

    I agree, and I think the implications are important and should be thought through.

    The militant atheist point of view – and apparently Coyne’s point of view as well – is that evolution and religion are like oil and water. They don’t mix. If many people are perfectly fine with both of them – as I am – then the stance that they necessarily contradict is not in accord with the evidence.

    What do proponents of the conflict model do when so many people disagree with them? What I see is arguments that are essentially emotional in appeal:

    One is the “slippery slope” argument of Harris and Dawkins. From this point of view, moderate beliefs in religious are inherently unstable and either become extreme or they encourage extremism. The other is the “accommodationist” argument, which, as I understand it, is the claim that there is faulty reasoning on the part of people who claim to accommodate both points of view. Also, there appear to be frequent attacks based on a supposed weakness in holding the line on the part of those who, I’m presuming, are not thought “manly” enough to hold to the strict and narrow. I say that both are essentially emotional as both are based on the assumption that religion is inherently invalid, an emotional assumption.

    For example, consider the posting by H.H. in #39: “.. . the idea that God created us and that evolution is the historical rendering of that creation is riddled with unsupportable assumptions, ad hoc excuses, twisted theology and bad reasoning. It’s not a position that a sane, intellectually-honest person could endorse.” He is basically saying that he strongly believes – an emotional act – that evolution and belief in God are inherently at odds. Also, in a traditional emotional appeal, he holds that those who see things differently are not “sane” or “intellectually honest”. [Wow!]

    My conclusion is that, yes there are the variations that you talk of, but they don’t invalidate Padian’s broad general conclusions (the conclusion that there is broad agreement about evolution and religion being in accord). This is so even if there are diverse groups of people who disagree. A further conclusion, hinted at in my post, is that there is as strong component of emotionalism and arbitrary assumptions about the integrity of opposing points of view that drives fundamentalist and militant atheist points of view that hold evolution and belief in God to be in conflict. In other words, yes, militant atheists and fundamentalists are strongly similar in these regards.

  48. #48 eric
    September 30, 2009

    Stephem Friberg@47:
    yes there are the variations that you talk of, but they don’t invalidate Padian’s broad general conclusions (the conclusion that there is broad agreement about evolution and religion being in accord)

    That is essentially an argument from popularity: since most religious people think they are in accord, it is reasonable to say religion as a whole is in accord. I simply don’t see what you gain by making that step. How is it useful to go from accurate comments about specific claims to general, less accurate comments about religion as a whole? What public policy benefit do you expect to gain?

    Defining religion is a big, nasty, hairy philosophical debate that won’t be resolved any time soon. My advice is: stay out if it. You don’t need resolve “what religion is” to determine whether specific claims do or do not conflict with the body of scientific knowledge, or to determine which methodologies do or do not conflict with the scientific methodology.

    As an aside, I also think Jason, Jerry Coyne, et al. would reply that your observation (most religious people…) only shows that most people have not thought through the logical consequences of holding beliefs A, B, and C. I might disagree with them in specific cases. But I appreciate that they identify what specific beliefs or methodologies they think are in contradiction to science (the As, Bs, and Cs). I wish the accommodationist side would follow their lead and stop talking fuzzily about religion in general and talk more specifically about what beliefs or methodologies of religion their side finds compatable. We could then make headway, because I’m sure there are numerous specific religious claims the status of which both sides would violently agree about. Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek? Consistent by default of irrelevancy. 6k year old earth? Not consistent. Meditation/Prayer as a tool for greater self-awareness? Consistent. Meditative conclusions trumping scientific experiment? Not consistent. And so on down the list.

  49. #49 Kevin (NYC)
    September 30, 2009

    Stephen said “In my experience, biases readily lead to a misreading of polling results on religion and evolution. Here is why:If you strongly believe that religion and science are incompatible, then you will reject the view of God creating us as compatible with evolution.

    But lets be clear: the idea that God created us and that evolution is the historical rendering of that creation is perfectly logical and completely consistent with both science and belief in God.”

    No. you’re wrong.

    Your first part makes no sense. Jason’s bias (or considered opinion) has not led to mis-reading poll results; and your “here is why statement “If you strongly believe that religion and science are incompatible, then you will reject the view of God creating us as compatible with evolution” is an empty tautology, with God substituted for religion and evolution substituted for science. This provides no insight.

    Your second part is worse, because your “lets be clear” = let US be clear.. when the facts don’t support you, and your words are not clear either.

    First its not “clear” that your god can act in ANY physical capacity in this world, to effect ANYTHING, so it is very unclear that he should influence evolution, second, since your main source of knowledge of your god is the bible (if you are xtian) the evolutionary origin of man means that a) there is a mistake in the bible re genesis, and b) then there is no “original sin” and that leads to c) there is no need for a redeemer. That’s scary to people, but they don’t want to “reject” science outright, because thats dunb, so they throw out one part of the bible and then pretend that god still had a hand in there.

    You get exactly the people that Jason is talking about. THe 53% of of americans that vaguely accept evolution because if not then they would have to start answering all sorts of questions and its just better not to go there. Just like you.

    But by doing that and saying evolution was god’s means of creating man, that leads to a whole hundreds of millions of years of pain suffering and death to create flawed beings that he then condems to eternal torment after they die…. geez is that what you are argueing for?

    and do please clearly state God’s intervention mechanism for evolution.. cosmic rays?

    I left some things out but need to post this out there.

  50. #50 Kevin (NYC)
    September 30, 2009

    Stephen,

    I can’t tell if you’re faking….

    “With respect to polling, when someone says that they believe God created us, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they disbelieve in evolution.”

    yeah, that’s because they don’t understand the basic ideas of evolution. They think that it could be an externally directed process because they don’t understand inherited traits and natural selection and genetics. and to be sure there is some complicated information there.

    But it does us no good as a society for the NCSE to be declaring that god/evolution being compatiable is a valid assumption, since it is inconsiderate of the actual details involved.

    Science cannot depend on things that cannot be measured, have no agency, and exist only in our minds.

  51. #51 Kevin (NYC)
    September 30, 2009

    and one more thing!! :-)

    “For example, consider the posting ..#39 .’the idea .. is riddled with unsupportable assumptions..bad reasoning….not..endorse.’

    He is basically saying that he strongly believes – an emotional act – ..odds. Also, in a traditional emotional appeal, he holds that those who see things differently are not ‘sane’ or ‘intellectually honest’. [Wow!]”

    You are giving an excellent example of intellectually dishonest discourse right there.

    H.H. does not “believe” it. Your argument IS
    riddled with unsupportable assumptions, ad hoc excuses, twisted theology and bad reasoning.

    You can start disproving him by explaining how your god directed evolution, with some examples and some fingerprints of his actions.

  52. #52 Stephen Friberg
    September 30, 2009

    Hi Eric, Kevin:

    Eric: You are making sense, so let me try to explain myself better. Your comment is that I am making “essentially an argument from popularity: since most religious people think they are in accord, it is reasonable to say religion as a whole is in accord. I simply don’t see what you gain by making that step.”

    More tightly phrased, I would say that a sizable number of well-educated and informed folk find no contradiction between evolution and the belief in God. Their conclusions in themselves don’t resolve the issue, but the fact that a number of good and capable people familiar with both sides of the issue have concluded in this light means something.

    It means something like the following: there is probable cause to consider the hypothesis that they are right. So, outright rejection of the hypothesis has to be examined closely. It is probably due to other causes, which can include all of the reasons that people entertain false beliefs – and build communities around them.

    In particular, all the arguments that the militant atheists employ against religion have to be considered as well (i.e., it is due to tradition, hope, sectarianism, political persuasion, error, dogma, etc.). If religion is man-made and in error because of these things, it is equally likely that this is true for militant atheism and the view that science and religion are inherently in confict.

    You ask “What public policy benefit do you expect to gain?”. It is a good question, and the answer is multifold and hugely important. Science – and let me emphasize that I’m speaking of real problem-solving science – is both our way of understanding the physical world AND the teachings of religion (i.e., clearing out the underbrush of superstition, creationism, and the like). Let me leave it at this, although the advantages of science are manifold on the public policy front, especially in the harnessing of the spiritual aspects of our religious and biological heritages. Enough said, I hope.

    Your posts are rich in many ways, and I wish I could find the time to address other things you bring up.

    Kevin:

    Kevin, you wrote: “First its not “clear” that your god can act in ANY physical capacity in this world, to effect ANYTHING, so it is very unclear that he should influence evolution, second, since your main source of knowledge of your god is the bible (if you are xtian) the evolutionary origin of man means that a) there is a mistake in the bible re genesis, and b) then there is no “original sin” and that leads to c) there is no need for a redeemer.”

    Any chance we could “discourse” more on this here? I have to run now, already having spent too much time writing. As the old joke goes, if I believed in the God you don’t believe in, I would be crazy. Maybe, to make Eric happy, we could try to discover some of the common foundations of religion, not just some anti-science beliefs in this or that neck of the woods. BTW, I’m a Baha’i, not a Christian.

  53. #53 Kevin (NYC)
    September 30, 2009

    oh wow~ what’s your creation myth?

    of course discourse!

  54. #54 Explicit Atheists
    September 30, 2009

    “AFAIK she does claim that, as do I. There may be complex claims with both supernatural and natural elements, and science may be able to deal with the latter, but not with the former.”

    I disagree. Prayer effectiveness is a supernatural assertion amenable to scientific investigation. That the scientific investigation focuses on observable outcomes doesn’t change the fact that if prayer was shown to be effective in effecting outcomes then that would be a verification of a supernatural phenomenon, not a natural phenomenon. Supernatural phenomenon have observable results, otherwise they are indistinguishable from fiction and we are not talking about fiction here.

    “Furthermore, acceptance of methodological naturalism as a grounding principle in science isn’t exactly unusual; and while I didn’t poll everyone in the office during my stint at the NCSE, it seemed to be one of the few philosophical points on which most everyone agreed. Which doesn’t mean it’s right, of course, but yes, it’s definitely the angle the NCSE is coming from. And given that it’s hugely relevant to discussions of creationism and ID, I can’t see them stopping.”

    Again, we disagree. Its not a grounding principle, its a result. We have determined that supernatural explanations are useless and therefore we avoid them. In a different world, a supernatural dominated world, we would have determined that natural explanations were useless and therefore in such an alternative world scientific investigation would rely as exclusively on supernaturalism as our science relies exclusively on naturalism.

    “Religion need not be confined to the moral sphere to satisfy a generalized NOMA principle; it can cover metaphysical/philosophical issues that are not amenable to scientific investigation either. And religion has whatever authority its adherents choose to cede it, and some abide by a NOMA principle. This is even more true if we’re talking about the relationship between religion and a particular subset of science, evolutionary biology.”

    “So I don’t think NOMA is either false or true; it applies to some religions (like Peter Hess’, among others), and not to others.”

    You appear to be redefining NOMA as a synonym for giving priority to scientific consensus and then permitting religion to claim insights into the remaining gaps in our knowledge. Even if we accept that definition of NOMA, the fact remains that it is not for science organizations to endorse alternative ways of knowing. I am not alone in considering empirical verification to be the only method we have for assigning authority to a fact claim.

    When people cede unjustified authority to a claim they are undermining their own integrity as intermediary sources of knowledge. Which claims people cede authority to and which claims merit authority are two distinct forms of authority that can be in conflict simply by virtue of the fact that people are sometimes mistaken. Yet you appear to be conflating these different authorities. It seems to me that to defend NOMA you have to conflate those two distinct authorities because NOMA cedes authority to alternative methods of acquiring knowledge without justification. But I will concede that the NOMA discussion is, at present, something I am not well prepared to discuss, so I concede the criticism of NOMA is my previous post may have been too simplistic.

    “That’s a great response, and I think most science organizations do say something along those line. But, as a response, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t address a particular misconception which seems to be common: namely, that evolution theory directly promotes atheism because it actively denies the existence of God or the possibility of a divine plan. For people with this misconception, the response you outline would simply convince them that evolution isn’t scientific, since (in their eyes) it’s making a claim that isn’t empirically verifiable.”

    This is the biggest of the disagreements that we have. That reply is a better reply than the NOMA reply and the one-sided scientists are religious (without also mentioning that scientists are atheists) reply exactly because it doesn’t directly address the view that evolution opposes theism. Science organizations should never be drawn into defending science by insisting that scientific outcomes do not support some belief for no other reason than that some people are prejudiced against that belief. When science organizations do that they are rewarding the prejudiced critic by lending their prestige to that critics prejudice. Furthermore, they thus are rewarding and therefore encouraging the very criticism against science that they are supposedly trying to dispute. Whether any particular knowledge promotes monotheism, polytheism, or atheism is absolutely, totally, completely, irrelevant to the merit of that knowledge. Science is opposed to, against, in opposition to, such commitment to pre-determined, fixed outcomes that are not rooted in the weight of the evidence. That is called bias, or prejudice, or substituting tradition and authority for knowledge. Therefore it is completely wrong and counter-productive for science organizations to keep responding to such pro-theist prejudice by saying that science supports monotheism. Science does not a-priori support any pre-determined outcome and to say otherwise is to speak against science, not for science. Furthermore, EVERY time science organizations respond to the “criticism” that science promotes atheism with a “scientists are religious” response they should also say “and non-religious”. Otherwise they are not being balanced. That is another reason why it would be better if responded I suggest, my suggested response is more balanced. Furthermore, its the “scientists are religious” response that is failing to address the substance of the criticism. My suggested response targets the real substance of problem with that criticism, which is the dogmatic pre-commitment to a particular result.

    “I disagree. Taking a position on the existence of God, or the truth of other supernatural claims, is outside their remit–but theism, atheism, and the acceptance or rejection of non-empirical ways of knowing are features of human culture/psychology, which are of great interest to science. And given the extreme relevance of these issues to the public perception of scientific topics like evolution, I don’t how science organizations can avoid discussing them.”

    You are changing the topic, although I admit my wording was a little sloppy and thus I may have assisted your doing this. We aren’t discussing empirical investigations of culture/psychology, that is an entirely different topic. We are talking about scientific organizations defending non-empirical ways of knowing and consenting to measuring the merit of scientific outcomes by evaluating its conformance to religious beliefs. Again, science organizations shouldn’t be doing this at all.

  55. #55 Explicit Atheist
    September 30, 2009

    “That’s a great response, and I think most science organizations do say something along those line. But, as a response, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t address a particular misconception which seems to be common: namely, that evolution theory directly promotes atheism because it actively denies the existence of God or the possibility of a divine plan. For people with this misconception, the response you outline would simply convince them that evolution isn’t scientific, since (in their eyes) it’s making a claim that isn’t empirically verifiable.”

    I didn’t pay enough attention to your last sentence. By definition, theism gives some substance to, some real-world meaning to, divinity. God did it is the god of theism. So we can look around and evaluate whether or not this is a god did it universe. That is why theists don’t like evolution, it doesn’t fit well with a god did it universe. Evolution, properly understood, requires greatly down scaling the role of any creator god to the point where such god belief, let alone god worship, appears to be illogical. In other words, the critics of evolution are already claiming that atheism and theism are empirically supportable, if not verifiable. If they didn’t already think theism and atheism are empirically supportable then they wouldn’t be criticizing science for promoting atheism. So you are blaming my response for their state of mind that pre-dates the response and that the response is not responsible for. I agree with such theists that theism does make empirically supportable claims and also I agree with them that evolution in particular, and our knowledge more generally, poses a serious problem for theism. The problem for theism is that the weight of the evidence disfavors theism and therefore favors atheism, its not only evolution.

  56. #56 Deepak Shetty
    October 1, 2009

    Science is incompatible with religion. Science is compatible with a religious person who can either acknowledge his religion is imperfect or ignore contradictions with science.

  57. #57 eric
    October 1, 2009

    Stephen Friberg@52:
    I would say that a sizable number of well-educated and informed folk find no contradiction between evolution and the belief in God. Their conclusions in themselves don’t resolve the issue, but the fact that a number of good and capable people familiar with both sides of the issue have concluded in this light means something.

    It means that many common western religious claims do not contradict science. Nothing more. That’s not surprising considering that science keeps our water clean and airplanes in the sky. But you’re still unwarranted in making a claim about religion per se.

    I still don’t see what discussing religion as an entity gains you, vice discussing specific claims. The benefit you mention (clearing out the supernatural belief underbrush) is manifestly not a benefit that results primarily from declaring that religion is compatible with science. First, because we can clear out the underbrush without it, by discussing claims individually. Second, because historically its not clear that this declaration has helped its proponents clear out any underbrush – after all, mainline churches have been making this claim for decades, and yet they still have a large supernatural component. And finally, because the con side says they can clear out more underbrush by making the opposite declaration, so we have duelling assertions. To make your assertion stick you’re going to have to show data demonstrating that in this case you do, in fact, catch more flies with honey than with the (Dawkinsian) flyswatter.

  58. #58 Kevin (NYC)
    October 1, 2009

    “Bahá’u’lláh, the latest of these Messengers”

    clearly wrong. Bobby Henderson is the latest prophet of god, and Rev Moon and before him.

  59. #59 Stephen Friberg
    October 1, 2009

    Against Creation Myths

    Hi Kevin:

    You wrote “oh wow~ what’s your creation myth? of course discourse!”. Discourse, datcourse, of course, off course, Pebble Beach Golf Course, any will do for me.

    I’ve got to say that this whole creation myth thing is kind of weird. I think people – especially the militant atheists – have been bamboozled by it. I know that the American Native Peoples have some absolutely wonderful creation myths and as part of an oral spiritual tradition, they are great.

    But then I look at militant atheism – and Dawkins’ writings especially – and I see that a major part of his thing is creation myths. He wants people to adhere to his creation myth – the story of evolution! Like a carpenter with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail, Dawkins sometimes seems to think everything can be set right if only people were to believe in the right creation story – his!

    But of course science is not just about stories – what everybody who is not a scientist wants to call “facts” – it is about seeing for yourself, not just following some creation myth.

    So, I think creation myths are at odds with what the modern world requires. It requires everybody thinking together, finding ways to solve problems together, living together, cooperating together, not just flaunting and fighting over creation myths, be it the creation myth of creationism or the creation myth of modern science writers.

    Your turn.

  60. #60 Kevin (NYC)
    October 1, 2009

    “militant atheists” you’ve used this several times and I am very confused exactly who you think you are insulting or describing. Do you mean armed revolutionary atheists? because I don’t see any…

    you, OTOH, say very old and inflamatory things.

    You twist reality on its head and say ” He wants people to adhere to his creation myth – the story of evolution” when you know that’s a false construction. you know its not a creation myth because its a description of physical reality backed by measurable facts.

    I asked before: “how did you god create man?” if you believe that I mean. if not what is your problem with evolution? I think your problem is that you reject science and cling to imaginary powers.

    You say ” or the creation myth of modern science writers.” and I say you are either a fake starting trouble, or a seriously mentally defective person.

    end of match.

  61. #61 Stephen Friberg
    October 1, 2009

    Characterizing religion universally

    Hi Eric:

    You write “I still don’t see what discussing religion as an entity gains you, versus discussing specific claims.”

    Traditionally, science tends to look for universal principles underlying diversity. Yes, general claims as to universal principles can be wrong, as I think apparent to you in the current science vs. religion battles. It hilarious – and sad – to see folks zeroing in on some childhood belief as if it encompassed religion as a whole. So, yes, by all means, lets discuss specific issues. I’m certainly with you there.

    But, the search for universal principles shouldn’t be discarded because of botched efforts. Its still on!

    In fact, the botched efforts are part of it, provided that you review those botched efforts and learn from them.

    With that in mind, let me then propose the following as candidates for universal principles:

    1. Religious belief sees reality as extending beyond material configurations.

    2. Religious belief tends to model the universe using abstractions from experience with conscious beings – consciousness, creativity, intelligence, will and similar properties seen in ourselves, other people and animals. These are viewed as being part of reality, much in the same way that sensory experience leads to concepts of matter as extending throughout the universe (sorry for being verbose, I’ll try to reduce it next time)

    3. Thought and action throughout the ages and through-out the world today have been and are animated by religious views.

    4. I expect some quibbles on this: humankind has a deep reservoir of behaviors and thinking patterns that are spiritual, meaning based on belief in what is right and true as opposed to self-interested and non-altruistic

    Of course, we can come up with more, but you get the general idea.

    Lets talk about discussing specific claims.

    If we acknowledge that there might be universal principles, then we have to start to think about whether or not specific cases are anomalies, say, part of a tribal rites, or whether they are part of religion per se. Obviously, thinking this way starts to push and redefine categories as happens in all arenas involving serious thought.

    For example, is creationism a religious phenomena or a universal non-religious human phenomena? To what extent does it inherently involve religion and to what extent does it involve politics and general human love of leadership and perversity? These are important questions, and questions that cannot be thought through without an attempt to create a universal framework.

    The good point about militant atheism is that it is forcing this rethinking. Yes, it is still primitive – and frequently laughable – but the good part underlying it (and what will be preserved in the long run) is the push towards a more universal concept of religion.

  62. #62 Stephen Friberg
    October 1, 2009

    Hi Kevin:

    Hold on there!

  63. #63 H.H.
    October 1, 2009

    To back up my earlier point about it being largely pointless to ask people whether they see any conflict between their own religious beliefs and science, I just stumbled across this quote on Answers in Genesis about an article on the “straw man” fallacy:

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2009/09/28/logical-fallacies-straw-man

    If an evolutionist were to claim, “Creationists don’t believe in science,” this would be a straw-man fallacy. Creationists do believe in science. There are several full-time Ph.D. scientists on the Answers in Genesis staff. I’ve argued on this website, as in my book (The Ultimate Proof of Creation) that biblical creation is what makes science possible.

    When a young-Earth creationist can assert that not only are his beliefs completely consistent with science, but actually make science possible, then its clear that he’s using a definition of science wholly unrelated to what actual scientists practice. That’s why it’s totally irrelevant if the majority of people don’t see any conflict between their religious beliefs and science, because chances are they won’t acknowledge the conflict even if it exists. It’s like asking someone who repeatedly makes racist comments if they consider themselves to be a racist, and then accepting “no” for an answer. You can’t expect religious people to consider their beliefs objectively or even understand why their pet superstitions are superstitions.

  64. #64 eric
    October 1, 2009

    Stephen Friberg@59:
    He [Dawkins] wants people to adhere to his creation myth – the story of evolution!

    How are you wrong? Let me count the ways…

    Scientific theories are not ‘myths’ or ‘stories’ in the vernacular sense of being ill-supported or anecdotal. To the contrary, they are the best scientific explanations we have for explaining and predicting physical phenomena.

    Scientific theories are also not myths in the antropological sense because they have none of the social/cultural-binding aspects of myth. Nor are they meant to; that’s not how science rolls. Aerodynamics is true regardless of cultural motif. As is the descent with modification of flu viruses

    Dawkins wants to convince people that TOE is the best explanation we have by describing just how good it is at explaining and predicting phenomena. However, like any scientific theory, it is tentative and subject to revision, so ‘adherence’ is neither expected nor required.

    Lastly, while evolutionary mechanisms may apply to both living and nonliving structures and even possibly explain how the latter became the former, it is not primarily “about” creation. Its about how populations can change over time. If you insist on wrongly using the term myth, then you should at least describe it as a speciation myth.

  65. #65 Stephen Friberg
    October 1, 2009

    Hi Eric:

    You wrote: “Lastly, while evolutionary mechanisms may apply to both living and nonliving structures and even possibly explain how the latter became the former, it is not primarily “about” creation.”

    You are aware, aren’t you, that there are differences between “just-so” stories, what I call evolutionary creation myths, and evolutionary theories (you correctly talk about speciation)? I’m talking about the former, not the later.

    Think about it. The consumers of these stories, indeed some of their purveyors, hold that their creation stories show religion to be wrong. Clearly, they are jumping off the rails of science into claims of a larger and more grandiose type. This is why so many people see evolution as a quasi-religion.

    Don’t imagine for a moment that that this discounts the science.

  66. #66 Anton Mates
    October 1, 2009

    Explicit Atheist,

    I disagree. Prayer effectiveness is a supernatural assertion amenable to scientific investigation.

    The liberal Christian says that God answers some prayers and chooses not to answer others. Those he does answer, he answers in a variety of ways that the worshipper may not have been expecting, according to his ineffable will, but it all works out to the good in the end, where “the end” may lie infinitely far in the future or in an afterlife. Oh, and he doesn’t like to be tested. How would you investigate this scientifically?

    That the scientific investigation focuses on observable outcomes doesn’t change the fact that if prayer was shown to be effective in effecting outcomes then that would be a verification of a supernatural phenomenon, not a natural phenomenon.

    No, it wouldn’t. If you can’t think of natural explanations for why prayer might affect outcomes, you haven’t been reading enough sci-fi…or enough new age quantum woo. Science doesn’t bother worrying about those explanations right now because there’s no empirical evidence that prayer does affect outcomes…but if there was, scientists would be scrambling for them.

    Every phenomenon that was once considered supernatural eventually gets incorporated into our view of nature, if it turns out to be replicable and empirically observable. It’s happened with disease, lightning, celestial phenomena, poisons and drugs, mental illness…effective prayer would be no different.

    You appear to be redefining NOMA as a synonym for giving priority to scientific consensus and then permitting religion to claim insights into the remaining gaps in our knowledge.

    Nope. I’m defining it–generalizedly–as a state of affairs where the religion in question only makes claims which are inaccessible to science. It has nothing to do with priority; the theists I’ve seen endorse something like NOMA say that religion isn’t supposed to deal with questions of empirical fact in the first place, regardless of whether we happen to have something like science to cover that realm. You’re welcome to think of it as religion’s retreat in the face in of science’s explanatory power, but I don’t think that accurately reflects the motivations of the believers in question.

    Regardless, you’re welcome to define NOMA however you want. The NCSE pages under discussion don’t actually use the term, though so if you define it differently I may no longer agree with you that they’re even talking about NOMA at all.

    Even if we accept that definition of NOMA, the fact remains that it is not for science organizations to endorse alternative ways of knowing.

    As I said, I think Eugenie was probably using the phrase descriptively–no endorsement involved. (It would be extremely surprising if she personally claimed to accept any knowledge gained through revelation, for instance, given that she’s publicly atheist) Again, anthropologists and sociologists talk about ways of knowing all the time–you don’t have to accept them yourself to recognize that they are accepted in the culture in question. I’m fine with science organizations recognizing their existence, although I don’t think those organizations should speak to their validity.

    I am not alone in considering empirical verification to be the only method we have for assigning authority to a fact claim.

    You’re certainly not alone in considering it the only method we should have; I agree with you, for instance. But if you’re even aware of religion’s existence, you can’t possibly seriously consider it the only method we do have. Humans are obviously using all sorts of methods other than empirical verification, and have been doing so for all of recorded history.

    When people cede unjustified authority to a claim they are undermining their own integrity as intermediary sources of knowledge.

    This is pretty close to tautological. The problem is that most people do not agree with you (or me) as to exactly what makes authority justified or unjustified, and you have no way of demonstrating the truth of your position on the matter unless they’ve already accepted it.

    That reply is a better reply than the NOMA reply and the one-sided scientists are religious (without also mentioning that scientists are atheists) reply exactly because it doesn’t directly address the view that evolution opposes theism.

    Then it doesn’t address what is probably the single most persuasive argument in the creationist arsenal. And that makes it largely useless if your goal is to educate people about evolution.

    Science organizations should never be drawn into defending science by insisting that scientific outcomes do not support some belief for no other reason than that some people are prejudiced against that belief.

    In the first place, people may be “prejudiced against”–or, more neutrally, may simply reject or hold as unscientific–a belief for good reasons. A scientific theory which stated or logically implied that no god exists would be a bad theory. So would a scientific theory which stated or logically implied that pirating music over the internet is wrong. We have good reason to believe that science cannot confirm or refute these kinds of statements, so if a theory does so, it’s probably not good science. Therefore, when it’s falsely asserted that evolutionary theory says there’s no god, science organizations definitely should refute that.

    In the second place, the NCSE is an educational organization more than a scientific one, and educators don’t get to ignore their students’ objections to some piece of knowledge just because they think those objections are silly. If you’re trying to teach about climate change and some kid says they reject it because climatologists all advocate human extinction, it’s fine to say that the kid’s objection is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of theories of climate change. But that’s probably not going to do much to get the kid to learn the material; you need to also point out that, in fact, climatologists don’t do that. You may feel silly for having to say that, but that’s part of being a teacher.

    it is completely wrong and counter-productive for science organizations to keep responding to such pro-theist prejudice by saying that science supports monotheism.

    What science organization are you thinking of which says that science supports monotheism? I don’t know of one. An assertion of compatibility is very different from an assertion of support.

    Furthermore, EVERY time science organizations respond to the “criticism” that science promotes atheism with a “scientists are religious” response they should also say “and non-religious”. Otherwise they are not being balanced.

    You can find references to non-religious scientists all over the NCSE website; it’s not like they’re being hidden. But “balance” here has to be calibrated by the public understanding of the issue, and the default attitude we’re confronted with is, “Pretty much all scientists are non-religious or anti-religious, right?” This is particularly true of evolutionary biology, where the best-known public spokesperson is probably Richard Dawkins, whom half the public believe to be an ultra-strong atheist who runs into churches and drags out little old ladies to harangue them about the impossibility of God. Given this climate, there’s no reason to require a “balanced treatment act” for coverage of religious vs. nonreligious scientists; nobody anywhere is worried that it’s impossible to be an atheist and a scientist.

    You are changing the topic, although I admit my wording was a little sloppy and thus I may have assisted your doing this. We aren’t discussing empirical investigations of culture/psychology, that is an entirely different topic.

    You may not be discussing that, but the NCSE is. “Religion and science are compatible,” as the NCSE uses the term compatible, is an empirical statement about the existence of religious people who understand and accept science.

    By definition, theism gives some substance to, some real-world meaning to, divinity. God did it is the god of theism. So we can look around and evaluate whether or not this is a god did it universe.

    Great. Now who gets to decide what it is God’s supposed to have done and how, so that we can evaluate whether or not he did it?

    That is why theists don’t like evolution, it doesn’t fit well with a god did it universe. Evolution, properly understood, requires greatly down scaling the role of any creator god to the point where such god belief, let alone god worship, appears to be illogical.

    Except for those theists who do like evolution, and still don’t find belief in god to be illogical. And by and large, I don’t find their understanding of evolution to be any less “proper” than atheists’ understanding.

    In other words, the critics of evolution are already claiming that atheism and theism are empirically supportable, if not verifiable. If they didn’t already think theism and atheism are empirically supportable then they wouldn’t be criticizing science for promoting atheism.

    Logic error. A believer who endorses some sort of NOMA, and accepts that neither theism nor atheism are empirically supportable, would have every reason to criticize a scientific theory if they thought it promoted atheism. Science isn’t supposed to promote the empirically unsupportable.

    (And on a side note, I’d say that empirical supportability may be a slightly bigger category than scientific testability; plenty of theists and atheists alike would point to the observable world as providing support for their (non)belief without claiming that science does.)

    I agree with such theists that theism does make empirically supportable claims and also I agree with them that evolution in particular, and our knowledge more generally, poses a serious problem for theism.

    That’s great, but other theists do not agree with you or them on one or both of those points. Unless they suddenly stop existing, evolution remains compatible with theism.

  67. #67 Derek Bickerton
    October 1, 2009

    This science versus religion debate seems to be all about people coming at one another from prepared positions and none of them wanting to examine those positions or ask themselves how much those positions are the cause of the problem rather than its solution. No wonder it ain’t resolved.

    My response is to strongly criticize all sides from what is, I hope, as near as anyone can get to a neutral position. I see a great deal of b.s. on all sides, and I think it’s time that was pointed out, since it gets in the way of any kind of resolution of the problem. For this purpose I’ve started a blog, whose URL I won’t give you here since that can get a post removed as spam, but which you can easily find by putting the exact phrase “Beyond Science Versus Religion” into any search engine. I cordially invite you all to visit this site and post comments–you’ll see stuff there you won’t see anywhere else. Don’t be deluded by the fact that all posts so far criticize atheists–you’ve got to start somewhere. Don’t worry, the religious will get their turn.

  68. #68 Stephen Friberg
    October 1, 2009

    Hi Anton:

    Nice stuff!

    You write: “If you can’t think of natural explanations for why prayer might affect outcomes, you haven’t been reading enough sci-fi…or enough new age quantum woo. Science doesn’t bother worrying about those explanations right now because there’s no empirical evidence that prayer does affect outcomes…but if there was, scientists would be scrambling for them.”

    This not from sc-fi, but modern medicine. It is known that the placebo effect can impact health in measurable ways. In other words, belief affects physical well-being. If prayer has the same effect – and it likely does – then there should be observable outcomes. My guess is that the current studies of prayer that you mention are all designed around non-physical action-at-a-distance models, as opposed to more realistic issues of mental, spiritual, and physical state outcomes.

    My guess is that confirmation of the power of prayer will be forthcoming in this restricted sense. But it won’t be an action-at-a-distance effect that some folks want to see.

  69. #69 Anton Mates
    October 1, 2009

    Stephen,

    There have been a reasonable number of studies examining the effect of prayer on the health of the petitioner–jump on Google Scholar and you can find a bunch. By and large, AFAIK, they do tend to find small beneficial placebo-like effects, although this is often obscured by some pretty big confounders. (For instance, those who pray regularly are often older or ill to begin with, so their physical health is worse; OTOH, regular religious practice often facilitates and/or results from a high level of community involvement, which correlates with higher mental health.)

    I assumed Explicit Atheist was talking more about things like remote intercessory prayer, though, where no currently-accepted natural mechanism would explain the results. I don’t think studies have turned up much of anything in that area, although one amusingly found that prayed-for people did worse (the effect was not statistically signficant, IIRC.)

  70. #70 Explicit Atheist
    October 1, 2009

    “No, it wouldn’t. If you can’t think of natural explanations for why prayer might affect outcomes, you haven’t been reading enough sci-fi…or enough new age quantum woo. Science doesn’t bother worrying about those explanations right now because there’s no empirical evidence that prayer does affect outcomes…but if there was, scientists would be scrambling for them.

    Every phenomenon that was once considered supernatural eventually gets incorporated into our view of nature, if it turns out to be replicable and empirically observable. It’s happened with disease, lightning, celestial phenomena, poisons and drugs, mental illness…effective prayer would be no different.”

    Regarding your last paragraph, that is true because our world operates on a natural basis, not a supernatural basis. Think of Harry Potter’s world. That is a supernatural world and we know it is because objects move to mirror the movement of his wand when he saying certain words or thinking certain thoughts or holding and moving his wand a certain way. That is mind over matter, a universe where thoughts and actions and words have mechanical effect. That is supernaturalism, it is not naturalism. In a Harry Potter type of world where the supernatural is important, a focus of science would be uncovering such supernatural techniques. That is not our world. Our world is the other way around, our world is a strictly naturalistic world. If prayer were effective in changing outcomes like Harry Potter’s wand then we would also live in a supernatural world. We don’t.

    There is another detail here that you are missing, and its important. That is the issue of justification of beliefs. You seem to be insisting on some standard of evidence that includes the unknowable and then complaining that I am not considering the unknowable and therefore I am wrong. This is exemplified by your first paragraph:

    “The liberal Christian says that God answers some prayers and chooses not to answer others. Those he does answer, he answers in a variety of ways that the worshipper may not have been expecting, according to his ineffable will, but it all works out to the good in the end, where “the end” may lie infinitely far in the future or in an afterlife. Oh, and he doesn’t like to be tested. How would you investigate this scientifically?”

    The problem here is that no one has any obligation to form their beliefs based on the unknowable. On the contrary, our obligation is disregard the unknowable and focus on the evidence that we have and justify our beliefs based on that evidence. This is a matter of weight of evidence and arguments that are based on invisibility of evidence like those of your example “liberal Christian” therefore lack any weight. Such liberal Christian are simply wrong to cite such unsupported and unsupportable assertions of hiddenness as evidence for anything.

    I don’t have time to carry this conversation now. Maybe over the weekend I will look at the rest of your paragraphs in you latest post and respond. But I can tell from the first three paragraphs of your latest post together with your previous posts that we are probably going to have fundamental disagreements regarding the nature and role of evidence, belief justification, and the like.

  71. #71 Derek Bickerton
    October 2, 2009

    Kevin made a good point which nobody seems to have taken up; it involves the impossibility of being an (orthodox, whether or not liberal) Christian and accepting evolution. His argument went thuswise:
    1. If humans evolved, there was no Adam and Eve,
    2. If there was no Adam and Eve, there was no original sin.
    3. If there was no original sin, there was nothing to atone for.
    4. If there was nothing to atone for, then Christ was crucified for nothing.
    I’d like to see any Christian deal with that one.

    But that’s not all. Humans are supposed (by Christians) to have immortal souls. How did they get them? Only two possibilities that I can see.

    A. They evolved
    B. God did it.

    Take A. For anything to evolve, you have to have
    i) variation
    ii) a selective pressure
    iii) differential reproduction

    Perhaps some Christian can tell us, re (a), what would the variation consist of; re (b) what the selective pressure was; re (c), exactly how having (x% of) a soul improved your chances of reproducing your kind.

    If this is too hard, try B:

    Soul-insertion. God inserts a soul into each human foetus. So how did this start? There must have been some point at which Mom and Dad didn’t have souls but the kids did. So how did God decide at what point soul insertion began?

    This is not meant to be facetious. It’s a series of serious questions that have to be answered somehow by anyone who says, “I am a Christian and I believe in evolution”.

  72. #72 Anton Mates
    October 2, 2009

    Explicit Atheist,

    Regarding your last paragraph, that is true because our world operates on a natural basis, not a supernatural basis. Think of Harry Potter’s world. That is a supernatural world and we know it is because objects move to mirror the movement of his wand when he saying certain words or thinking certain thoughts or holding and moving his wand a certain way. That is mind over matter, a universe where thoughts and actions and words have mechanical effect. That is supernaturalism, it is not naturalism.

    Thoughts (unless you’re an epiphenomenalist) and actions and words have mechanical effect in this world. I think about moving my hand and, wow, my hand moves. I (assuming I’m a soprano for a moment) sing a high C and a wineglass shatters. I speak the right sequence of words and my computer performs an operation, or the guy sitting next to me on the bus punches me in the face. There’s nothing inherently supernatural about mind over matter–mind is matter (or a direct consequence of matter, if you’re an epiphenomenalist), and matter can interact with itself.

    Clarke’s Third Law: there’s nothing Harry Potter’s wand does that we can’t explain if we stick enough brain-scanning technology and speech-recognition software and electromagnetic effectors and whatnot inside that phoenix-feather core. There’s nothing Harry does that we can’t explain with telekinetic mutations and nanotech and fundamental forces unknown to science. And, I maintain, there’s nothing he could possibly do that we couldn’t provide natural explanations for, if he did it consistently.

    That is the issue of justification of beliefs. You seem to be insisting on some standard of evidence that includes the unknowable and then complaining that I am not considering the unknowable and therefore I am wrong.

    No, I’m not doing that. I’m a weak atheist; I don’t hold beliefs on the unknowable either. I am saying that if someone else holds beliefs on a matter you consider to be unknowable, and they follow consistent principles of justification which support those beliefs, you have no way of demonstrating that they are wrong. You can’t say that their beliefs are false, since you’ve already asserted that the truth of those beliefs is unknowable; you can say that their beliefs are unjustified in your eyes, but they have no a priori obligation to follow your theory of justification.

    I don’t have time to carry this conversation now.

    No problem; there are many things I should be doing too.

    But I can tell from the first three paragraphs of your latest post together with your previous posts that we are probably going to have fundamental disagreements regarding the nature and role of evidence, belief justification, and the like.

    Yes, that may well be the case.

  73. #73 Anton Mates
    October 2, 2009

    Derek,

    1. If humans evolved, there was no Adam and Eve,
    2. If there was no Adam and Eve, there was no original sin.
    3. If there was no original sin, there was nothing to atone for.
    4. If there was nothing to atone for, then Christ was crucified for nothing.
    I’d like to see any Christian deal with that one.

    Here’s one. For others, you might ask the regulars at Slacktivist. My impression is that most Christians who don’t buy Genesis just say that humans are inherently sinful, no matter where that tendency towards sin came from originally. So they still need Christ to perfect them.

    There must have been some point at which Mom and Dad didn’t have souls but the kids did.

    Not necessarily; 43% of Americans believe all animals go to Heaven and only 40% believe they don’t. Maybe there were souls all the way back to the RNA world.

  74. #74 Derek Bickerton
    October 2, 2009

    Well, Anton, the Adam and Eve argument was Kevin’s, not mine.

    As for the one about animals having souls, see if that would fly on a fundamentalist website–or even a serious mainline Christian website. It just ain’t Biblical! Besides, if we’re going by American majorities, there IS no evolution, so why don’t we pick up our ball and go home?

  75. #75 acne information
    October 2, 2009

    That is the issue of justification of beliefs. You seem to be insisting on some standard of evidence that includes the unknowable and then complaining that I am not considering the unknowable and therefore I am wrong.

  76. #76 Anton Mates
    October 2, 2009

    Derek,

    Well, Anton, the Adam and Eve argument was Kevin’s, not mine.

    Hey, it’s a perfectly good argument, and plenty of Christians (including almost all creationists, I imagine) would agree with it. I’m just saying, one way the ones who reject it do so is by starting from different premises about original sin. (And Christians have been arguing over the nature of original sin since before Augustine.)

    As for the one about animals having souls, see if that would fly on a fundamentalist website–or even a serious mainline Christian website. It just ain’t Biblical!

    When has that ever prevented a Christian sect from believing something?

    It’s not exactly anti-Biblical either, though; the Bible doesn’t have much to say on animal souls one way or the other. It does refer to animal “souls” or “spirits” now and then, in the original Hebrew/Greek, but that doesn’t always come across in English translations. And note Ecclesiastes 3:

    “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?”

    It’s certainly true that animals going to heaven conflicts with the official doctrine of most large Christian sects, but evidently a lot of their members believe it anyway. Wouldn’t be the first time lots of people held a belief that their stated religion officially condemned.

    Besides, if we’re going by American majorities, there IS no evolution, so why don’t we pick up our ball and go home?

    I didn’t mean to imply that what a plurality of Americans believe is true; just that they may well already have an answer to your “when did we get souls?” question. And I’m pretty sure most of the Americans who believe in Dog Heaven are religiously liberal, meaning they probably include most of the theistic evolutionists.

  77. #77 Johan
    October 2, 2009

    “As for 53% who are willing to say that science and religion are compatible, I’m sorry but that figure is certainly nothing to celebrate.”

    Agreed. Let us not also forget that even people whose opinions are clearly incompatible with science will usually deny it.

    I mean even the most extreme Sola Scriptura guys would not want to imply that God tricked mankind by making it look like evolution is true when it is not. So they will say that if you do science properly it doesn’t show evolution is true ore something similar.

  78. #78 Richard Eis
    October 2, 2009

    I fear most people who accept both do so because they do not truly understand both and the reasons why they are incompatible. That would certainly not be anything to be proud of.

  79. #79 Kevin (NYC)
    October 2, 2009

    One of the important aspects of Genesis is the question of choice, human behavior, and evil.

    “My impression is that most Christians who don’t buy Genesis just say that humans are inherently sinful, no matter where that tendency towards sin came from originally. So they still need Christ to perfect them”

    I don’t talk to too many xtians about sin, but, they don’t say that their god made men sinfull. because then wtf, he made them sinfull and then punished them for eternity, and he did that for everyone he ever made until he redeemed them. that’s harsh man.

    no, they say that god gave man a choice, and man chose to be evil, and that’s why he is punished. esp. the catholicks they love going on about “original” sin that was handed down by adam/eve.

    so, I think the question is still tough for any xtain to answer even if they say “oh well genesis was just a story” because then if it gets to an individual choice, WHY then did the guy die on a cross for them? they could have just made a choice to be free from sin.

    wierd stuff anyway.

  80. #80 John Kwok
    October 2, 2009

    I posted a version of this at Rosenau’s blog and I think it is worth repeating here:

    A few months back both Ken Miller and I independently reviewed the “religious” content at the NCSE website, and neither of us came to the conclusion – which you, Coyne, Myers, Benson etc. etc. have – that NCSE is promoting some kind of “theological” perspective. Now before you say that we both reached the same conclusion because we’re friends, then can you explain to me how a devout Roman Catholic Christian (Miller) and a Deist (yours truly) independently arrived at the same conclusion? And yes, I didn’t e-mail Ken (or vice versa), asking him, “Hey Ken, where’s all the pro-religious stuff that Militant Atheists claim does exist over at the NCSE website?”

    All that I see on the NCSE website are teaching materials designed to educate those who are devoutly religious AND skeptical of – or openly hostile to – evolution that they can retain their religious views and still accept as valid science. They do not go further – which is what Ken has stated publicly – that those who belong to faiths embracing religious views that are hostile or indifferent to modern science OUGHT TO QUIT such faiths ASAP.

    Instead of attacking NCSE each and every time, shouldn’t Jerry begin thinking as to whether his attacks – even if he believes that they are well-intended – might be misconstrued – and touted – by evolution denialists who think that all NCSE is doing is trying to promote its own “religious” agenda?

    Respectfully yours,

    John Kwok

  81. #81 Anton Mates
    October 2, 2009

    I don’t talk to too many xtians about sin, but, they don’t say that their god made men sinfull. because then wtf, he made them sinfull and then punished them for eternity, and he did that for everyone he ever made until he redeemed them. that’s harsh man.

    no, they say that god gave man a choice, and man chose to be evil, and that’s why he is punished. esp. the catholicks they love going on about “original” sin that was handed down by adam/eve.

    Well, a couple of things there. First, most of the liberal Christians I’ve talked to aren’t denying that man has a choice; they’re saying that everybody has a choice, and everybody chooses the evil route at some point in their lives. So Adam and Eve might represent the first humans to have evolved this power of choice, or the first humans to choose wrongly, or they might just represent each of us. And maybe those first humans’ bad choices influenced their descendants culturally, or maybe we inherited their genetic tendencies toward selfishness and cruelty. But none of this requires Adam and Eve to be two actual people who were perfect until they sinned, six thousand years ago, and then passed down their actual sin to the rest of us.

    Second, if you look at this Pew poll, it appears that a majority of Americans don’t actually believe God punishes everyone for eternity unless they accept Christ. Even though lots of them belong to churches that say that, the majority of believers think that members of other religions and even of no religion can go to heaven, either by being decent people or just because God sends everybody to heaven. Heck, 42% of Americans reported that atheists can go to heaven.

    So that somewhat mitigates the harshness objection; if you don’t believe that God is sending us to hell on account of original sin in the first place, you don’t have to worry as much about where original sin came from or whose fault it is. It becomes more of a “How do we explain human imperfection?” philosophical question and less of a “How do I keep myself from burning eternally in a lake of fire?” urgent self-preservation question.

    Or, if you’re a Calvinist evolutionist like David Heddle [I think] is, you can just say, yes, God did create us knowing most of us would become totally depraved, except for the few of us he chose to save through grace, and that may be harsh, but we have to deal with it.

    even if they say “oh well genesis was just a story” because then if it gets to an individual choice, WHY then did the guy die on a cross for them? they could have just made a choice to be free from sin.

    But we don’t. I mean, obviously we don’t–no one has ever actually chosen to be a completely good person for their entire life. So we still need Christ, either to inspire us to make better choices, or to actually directly redeem us.

    No, I don’t think there’s any good reason to believe this, but I also don’t think it becomes any more believable or logical if you assume that our tendency towards sin was inherited from and originated in an actual guy named Adam.

  82. #82 Explicit Atheist
    October 2, 2009

    “Thoughts (unless you’re an epiphenomenalist) and actions and words have mechanical effect in this world. I think about moving my hand and, wow, my hand moves. I (assuming I’m a soprano for a moment) sing a high C and a wineglass shatters. I speak the right sequence of words and my computer performs an operation, or the guy sitting next to me on the bus punches me in the face. There’s nothing inherently supernatural about mind over matter–mind is matter (or a direct consequence of matter, if you’re an epiphenomenalist), and matter can interact with itself.

    Clarke’s Third Law: there’s nothing Harry Potter’s wand does that we can’t explain if we stick enough brain-scanning technology and speech-recognition software and electromagnetic effectors and whatnot inside that phoenix-feather core. There’s nothing Harry does that we can’t explain with telekinetic mutations and nanotech and fundamental forces unknown to science. And, I maintain, there’s nothing he could possibly do that we couldn’t provide natural explanations for, if he did it consistently.”

    I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things. Something is supernatural if it has any mental property or power that is not reducible to a nonmental mechanism. the God of traditional theism is a pure mind, composed of nothing else but mental powers and concepts. That is indisputably supernatural. So is the ability to cause things to happen in the universe merely by willing them to happen, since that means there is no nonmental mechanism. A supernatural substance is any substance (or any comparably definable point or volume of space) imbued with mental properties or powers. If our mind could depart our brain, and survive and think without any material to sustain it, then just like a disembodied God, our mind would be supernatural, since it would then be irreducibly mental. So lets apply to this your examples.

    “I think about moving my hand and, wow, my hand moves. ”

    That is natural, it depends entirely on neurons and physical processes.

    “I (assuming I’m a soprano for a moment) sing a high C and a wineglass shatters.”

    That is natural, the force of the vibrations of the air molecules presses against and shatters the glass.

    “I speak the right sequence of words and my computer performs an operation, or the guy sitting next to me on the bus punches me in the face. ”

    AGain, natural because the speaking of words and hearing of words and punching of faces are all physical.

    Now lets contrast this with Harry Potter’s world. In Harry Potter’s world the wand has a preference for and against various individuals. An aspiring wizard may cause some damage when he encounters wands that don’t get along with him. If the wand owner is killed then the wand will accept the killer as the new wand owner. These preferences of wands have no physical basis since the wand is not alive. Thus the wand has a disembodied mind. Thus the wand is supernatural.

  83. #83 Explicit Atheist
    October 2, 2009

    “Nope. I’m defining it–generalizedly–as a state of affairs where the religion in question only makes claims which are inaccessible to science. It has nothing to do with priority; the theists I’ve seen endorse something like NOMA say that religion isn’t supposed to deal with questions of empirical fact in the first place, regardless of whether we happen to have something like science to cover that realm. You’re welcome to think of it as religion’s retreat in the face in of science’s explanatory power, but I don’t think that accurately reflects the motivations of the believers in question.”

    You keep describing what other people think. So whom am I debating, you or other people? Why don’t you speak for yourself? Why do you keep hiding behind other people? When I challenge what you argue in the name of other people, you then dispute me by suddenly declaring you didn’t really say that and your are a weak atheist. This is a double standard. I won’t continue with this discussion if you keep playing this hide and seek game. From now on, tell me what you think, argue what you think, stop claiming to argue on behalf of other people. I don’t do that, and its not fair.

    Again, “NOMA say that religion isn’t supposed to deal with questions of empirical fact in the first place” in this context means that NOMA says there is an alternative, non-empirical way to determine how the world works. There is simply no basis for that assertion. There is nothing there. Its just hand waving. Its “you can’t prove this is false” upside down methodology for a-priori declaring how the world works. Our knowledge has everything to do with giving priority to weight of the evidence, to say knowledge of how the world works “has nothing to do with priority” is silly talk.

    “You’re certainly not alone in considering it the only method we should have; I agree with you, for instance. But if you’re even aware of religion’s existence, you can’t possibly seriously consider it the only method we do have. Humans are obviously using all sorts of methods other than empirical verification, and have been doing so for all of recorded history.”

    The issue is correct versus incorrect methods, effective versus ineffective methods. That people have been mistaken for all of recording history doesn’t change the status of an ineffective method into an effective method. You keep returning to what other people think, and arguing what other people think even while distancing yourself from what they think.

    “This is pretty close to tautological. The problem is that most people do not agree with you (or me) as to exactly what makes authority justified or unjustified, and you have no way of demonstrating the truth of your position on the matter unless they’ve already accepted it.”

    Scientists don’t put knowledge up to a general vote of the public and decide what is true and false based on the outcome of the vote. We were talking about science organizations and how they should respond to the criticism that science demotes theism. I still am, I don’t know what you are talking about anymore.

    “Then it doesn’t address what is probably the single most persuasive argument in the creationist arsenal. And that makes it largely useless if your goal is to educate people about evolution.”

    Its more useful to defend science by saying that science supports theism? I have already pointed out there are lots of problems with that approach. You seem to think that appeasement to public prejudices is the most effective policy and that doesn’t make any sense to me. As I pointed out, such appeasement is improper and by rewarding the critic it would natural tend to encourage more of the same criticism.

    ‘”In the first place, people may be “prejudiced against”–or, more neutrally, may simply reject or hold as unscientific–a belief for good reasons. A scientific theory which stated or logically implied that no god exists would be a bad theory. So would a scientific theory which stated or logically implied that pirating music over the internet is wrong. We have good reason to believe that science cannot confirm or refute these kinds of statements, so if a theory does so, it’s probably not good science. Therefore, when it’s falsely asserted that evolutionary theory says there’s no god, science organizations definitely should refute that.’

    The merit of scientific theories is ENTIRELY based on the strength of the evidence. Whether the theory favors or disfavors atheism, theism, polytheism, or whatever is ENTIRELY irrelevant to the merit of theory, as exemplified by evolution. This has nothing to do with evaluating whether pirating music over the internet is wrong, theism and polytheism and atheism are fact claims about the world. Either there is a god or gods or there isn’t. This is not at all the same sort of claim as evaluating whether pirating music over the internet is wrong.

    Of course, we could receive confirmations of the existence of a powerful creator god if that god opted to make itself known to us. You are very wrong to deny that. God could give bring the carved heads made of rocks on Mount Rushmore to life and have them reveal new knowledge. And on and on and on, the list of miracles that agod could use to reveal itself is endless.

    “In the second place, the NCSE is an educational organization more than a scientific one, and educators don’t get to ignore their students’ objections to some piece of knowledge just because they think those objections are silly. If you’re trying to teach about climate change and some kid says they reject it because climatologists all advocate human extinction, it’s fine to say that the kid’s objection is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of theories of climate change. But that’s probably not going to do much to get the kid to learn the material; you need to also point out that, in fact, climatologists don’t do that. You may feel silly for having to say that, but that’s part of being a teacher.”

    Its completely the other way around. Pointing out that irrelevant objections are irrelevant is educational, it clarifies the topic and stops confusions. Failure to point out the irrelevancy of irrelevant objections is a failure to educate.

    “What science organization are you thinking of which says that science supports monotheism? I don’t know of one. An assertion of compatibility is very different from an assertion of support.”

    Maybe. If they balance their statements by saying scientists are monotheists and atheists, religious and anti-religious, in response to complaints that science promotes atheism, then they are not supporting theism. If they just say that scientists are monotheist or religious and stop there then they are implicitly favoring monotheism.

    “You may not be discussing that, but the NCSE is. “Religion and science are compatible,” as the NCSE uses the term compatible, is an empirical statement about the existence of religious people who understand and accept science.”

    No, that is a statement about the relationship between science and religion which is different from saying religionists accept science. The latter falls well short of demonstrating the former. We don’t establish compatibility between methods of knowing simply by pointing to people who claim to rely on both methods. By that standard being a serial child molester is compatible with being a religious cleric who works alone with children. That is no standard at all, its totally corrupt.

    “Great. Now who gets to decide what it is God’s supposed to have done and how, so that we can evaluate whether or not he did it?’”

    The who is we all as individuals. Science organizations shouldn’t allow themselves to be placed in the position of defending science by claiming it compatible with any particular beliefs because such compatibility is irrelevant. They should say that knowledge may favor or disfavor some beliefs, that the merit of knowledge is not measured by compatibility with particular beliefs.

    “Except for those theists who do like evolution, and still don’t find belief in god to be illogical. And by and large, I don’t find their understanding of evolution to be any less “proper” than atheists’ understanding.”

    If they don’t find it illogical that is probably because they haven’t really thought it through or because they are selectively avoiding the contradictions via the irrational method of special pleading. I have yet to hear a reasonable justification for a moral and powerful god creating humans via evolution given that evolution describes the universe as indifferent to the fate of all life and leaves no special place to humans in the universe.

    “Science isn’t supposed to promote the empirically unsupportable. (And on a side note, I’d say that empirical supportability may be a slightly bigger category than scientific testability; plenty of theists and atheists alike would point to the observable world as providing support for their (non)belief without claiming that science does.)”

    Of course empirical supportability is a bigger category than empirical verification but science relies on both. And of course we are talking here about supportability, not about verification, we are talking about beliefs, not about proofs. My entire argument is one of weight of evidence. Furthermore, reason is prescriptive. When there is compelling evidence in front of us and we understand it, and it is clear that it implies a certain conclusion, then we ought to believe that conclusion.

    But both naturalism and supernaturalism are empirically supportable. Again,if we found evidence for non-physical minds then we would provide support for supernaturalism. Our empirical knowledge, including our knowledge from science. is relevant here, it does provide us with relevant evidence, lots of relevant evidence, and it consistently favors atheism. For example:

    The measured mass density of the universe might not have turned out to be exactly what is required for the universe to have begun from a state of zero energy, which we assume is the energy of nothing. That would have implied that a miracle, the violation of energy conservation, was required to produce the universe.

    The universe may have not been expanding but rather turned out to be a firmament (as the Bible says it is). That would have implied that a miracle, the violation of the second law of thermodynamics that requires the universe always had total entropy less than maximum in the past, was required to produce the universe.

    The age of the Earth may have turned out to be too short for the evolution of life. Fossils may have been found that were inexplicably out of sequence. Life-forms might not have all been based on the same genetic scheme. Transitional species might not have been observed. Such evidence against evolution would have implied a miracle was required to produce life.

    Human memories and thoughts may have provided evidence that cannot be plausibly accounted for by known physical processes. Science may have confirmed exceptional powers of the mind that it could not plausibly explain physically. Science may have uncovered convincing evidence for an afterlife. For example, a person who has been declared dead by every means known to science may return to life with detailed stories of an afterlife containing information he could not possibly have known and is later verified as factual, such as the location of the nearest planet with life.

    A nonphysical channel of communication may have been empirically confirmed by revelations containing information that could not have been already in the head of the person reporting the revelation.

    Physical and historical evidence may have been found for the miraculous events and the important narratives of the scriptures. For example, multiple eyewitness records may have been found of Jesus turning water into wine, turning a loaf of bread into many loaves of bread, and resurrecting Lazarus.

    The void may have been found to be absolutely stable, requiring some action to bring something rather than nothing into existence.

    The universe may have been found to be so congenial to human life that it must have been created with human life in mind. Humans may have been able to move from planet to planet, just as easily as they now move from continent to continent, and be able to survive on every planet with life support.

    Natural events may have followed some moral law, rather than morally neutral mathematical laws. For example, lightning may strike mostly wicked people; people who behave badly may fall sick more often; nuns would always survive plane crashes.

    Believers may have had a higher moral sense than nonbelievers and other measurably superior qualities. For example, the jails may be filled with atheists while all believers live happy, prosperous, contented lives surrounded by loving families and pets.

    But none of this happened. The hypothesis of God is not confirmed by the data. Indeed that hypothesis is strongly contradicted by the data.

    “That’s great, but other theists do not agree with you or them on one or both of those points. Unless they suddenly stop existing, evolution remains compatible with theism.”

    This is silly, you are simply citing that there are people who disagree with me and then declaring this fact demonstrates they are correct. People hold incompatible beliefs. The existence of people holding a set of beliefs doesn’t demonstrate that that set of beliefs are compatible.

  84. #84 tomh
    October 3, 2009

    John Kwok wrote:
    “I posted a version of this at Rosenau’s blog and I think it is worth repeating here:”

    You are mistaken. It is not worth repeating.

  85. #85 John Kwok
    October 3, 2009

    tomh,

    Au contraire, it IS WORTH repeating. Moreover, I attended a party comprised of moderate atheists in Brooklyn last Sunday and all of us were wondering when people like Harris and Hitchens would shut up about the whole “accomodationist” issue. Several prominent atheists were attending this party, but I won’t name names.

  86. #86 Explicit Atheist
    October 3, 2009

    “Au contraire, it IS WORTH repeating. Moreover, I attended a party comprised of moderate atheists in Brooklyn last Sunday and all of us were wondering when people like Harris and Hitchens would shut up about the whole “accomodationist” issue. Several prominent atheists were attending this party, but I won’t name names.”

    We need more straight talking atheists like Harris and Hitchens and Dawkins and Victor Stenger and Daniel Dennett and others. Blunt, no-holds-barred attacks on religion in different registers are needed.

    To quote from the Nation magazine http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070625/aronson/2:

    “In the past generation in the United States, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists have been a timid minority–almost voiceless, often on the defensive, routinely derided, both warned against and ignored. The most dramatic presidential address in generations took place in the National Cathedral three days after September 11, 2001, so filled with religious language that it sounded like a sermon. It was delivered by a President flanked by Jewish, Muslim and Christian representatives, a model of religious inclusiveness, without anyone standing alongside them representing the tens of millions of nonreligious Americans. At this most important collective moment in our recent history, it was as if they did not exist. This is what the polls are telling us: Virtually everyone in America believes in God.

    We know how zealously the conservative Christian denominations have politicized themselves in the past generation, how the GOP has harnessed this energy by embracing their demands–opposing stem-cell research, gay marriage and abortion rights, championing government aid to religious schools and faith-based social programs–and by appointing sympathetic judges. So effectively have they framed the issues that, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2006 report on religion and public life, fully 69 percent of Americans believe that liberals have “gone too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government.

    According to the American Religious Identification Survey, which interviewed more than 50,000 people, more than 29 million adults–one in seven Americans–declare themselves to be without religion. The more recent Baylor Religion Survey (“American Piety in the 21st Century”) of more than 1,700 people, which bills itself as “the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted,” calls for adjusting this number downward to exclude those who believe in a God but do not belong to a religion. Fair enough. But Baylor’s own Gallup survey is a bit shaky for at least two reasons. It counts anyone who believes in a “higher power” but not God as believing in God–casting a vast net over adherents of everything from spirit to history to love. Yet the study allows unbelievers only one option: to not believe in “anything beyond the physical world,” leaving no space for those who regard themselves as agnostics or skeptics, secularists or humanists. Contrast this with a more recent and more nuanced Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans and Americans that allowed respondents to declare agnosticism as well as atheism: 18 percent of the more than 2,000 American respondents chose one or the other, while 73 percent affirmed belief in God or a supreme being.

    All this helps explain the popularity of the New Atheists–Americans as a whole may not be getting too much religion, but a significant constituency must be getting fed up with being routinely marginalized, ignored and insulted. After all, unbelievers are concentrated at the higher end of the educational scale–a recent Harris American poll shows that 31 percent of those with postgraduate education do not avow belief in God (compared with only 14 percent of those with a high school education or less). The percentage rises among professors and then again among professors at research universities, reaching 93 percent among members of the National Academy of Sciences. Unbelievers are to be found concentrated among those whose professional lives emphasize science or rationality and who also have developed a relatively high level of confidence in their own intellectual faculties. And they are frequently teachers or opinion-makers.

    But over the past generation they have come to feel beleaguered and, except for rare individuals like comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher, voiceless in the public arena. The great success of the New Atheists is to have reached them, both speaking to and for them. These writers are devoted, with sledgehammer force and angry urgency, to “breaking the spell” cast by the religious ascendancy, to overcoming a situation in which every other area of life can be critically analyzed while admittedly irrational religious faith is made central to American life but exempted from serious discussion.

    This does not make for restraint. Harris displays brash self-confidence, Hitchens and Dawkins angry intellectual bite and Dennett an inexhaustible theoretical energy and range of inquiry. Harris excoriates religious moderates, accusing them of providing cover for fundamentalists at home and abroad by refusing to contest the extremists’ premises–because they share them. More upbeat, Dennett is devoted to creating the intellectual conditions for future discussions, in which religion will be treated as just another “natural” phenomenon and accordingly subjected to critical scrutiny. Dawkins bulldozes his way through every major argument for religious belief, and a great many minor ones. And Hitchens endlessly catalogues religion’s crimes and absurdities. Each man is at war, writing as if no others had preceded him, and with a passion that can only be described as political.

    Doing battle with what they see as the most pervasive and bothersome phenomenon in American life during the past generation, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens deserve praise for their courage and tenacity in shattering its spell.

    Until now the most vocal left-of-center response to the Christian right, for example by Sojourners, has been to call for more religion in politics, not less. In early June the group organized a nationally televised forum at which John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton testified to their faith, talking about the “hand of God” (Edwards), forgiveness (Obama) and prayer (Clinton). Few loud-and-clear voices have been agitating in the mainstream on behalf of the separation of church and state, for secular and public education, or demanding less rather than more political discussion of religion. Yet tens of millions of Americans worry about such things.

    A second goal of such a coalition might be a campaign to reorient American thinking about atheists and atheism. In recent polls, far more respondents have declared themselves willing to vote for a woman or African-American for President than for an atheist–atheists are more unpopular than gays. Television news viewers are encouraged to nod in agreement with such ageless gibes as “There are no atheists in foxholes” without seeing just how nasty they are. This obnoxious remark, by Katie Couric on NBC’s Today show, drew a few complaints and letters, but no wider protests or apology. A coalition determined to widen the range of socially acceptable belief could make a significant difference on such issues.”

  87. #87 John Kwok
    October 4, 2009

    @ Explicit Atheist -

    People like Hitchens, Myers, Harris, and yes, even Dawkins, are those we need less of. Instead of them, I’d recommend far more moderate – and IMHO better thinking – atheists like Austin Dacey and Greg Epstein. Both Dacey and Epstein have been promoting atheist values without finding it necessary too to denigrate religion, especially well-established mainstream faiths like Roman Catholic Christianity and Buddhism (Though, apparently, to Dawkins’s credit, he has adopted a more moderate stance towards religion in his latest book.).

    Both brothers Frank and Malachy McCourt had ample reason to hate and to despise the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, although they professed a keen interest in – and I think in Malachy’s case, outright support of – atheism, neither one has ever displayed the substantial hostility toward religion that I have seen from the likes of Myers and Hitchens, but instead, showed again and again, ample instances of religious tolerance (of which the most notable recent example is Malachy’s successful effort at saving from the wrecker’s ball the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the United States serving emigrant Irish populations in the 1840s and 1850sin the Lower East Side of New York, NY.).

  88. #88 Explicit Atheist
    October 4, 2009

    There is nothing wrong about disputing ideas and beliefs with other ideas and beliefs. There is no basis for singling out “mainstream religious faiths” as a distinct category that is exempt from the general and ongoing competition between ideas and beliefs. This attitude that publicly arguing against “mainstream religious faiths” is immoderate makes no sense. Moderation is not defined by taking an entire category of thought and declaring it off the table for critical public examination and debate. The current Vatican has no reservations about publicly harshly attacking atheism. the Vatican propagandizes for associating atheism with wickedness. The pope’s current visit to Africa includes exhibitions of this scapegoating.

    Atheists are not some second class category of people who are to be seen and not heard. We are not Boy Scouts only if we hide our atheism from public view. We are not respectable only if we are publicly agnostic. We are not lacking allegiance to the republic if we reject the notion that we are “under god”. We are not civic outsiders because we don’t trust in god. Science is not mistaken if our knowledge favors atheism over theism. And we are going to say so, confidently and publicly.

  89. #89 John Kwok
    October 4, 2009

    Explicit Atheist,

    There are many atheists who aren’t as vehement in their opinions as those who are referred to as “New Atheists” are. If they are convinced of the superiority of their beliefs and worldview over those of long-established mainstream religions, then shouldn’t they try to act accordingly? That’s a reasonable request IMHO.

    Sincerely yours,

    John

  90. #90 Explicit Atheist
    October 4, 2009

    John Kwok:

    Do you think that all beliefs equally justified or do you think that some beliefs are better justified than others? Do you you think it is unethical for people to assert that their beliefs are better justified than opposing beliefs held by others?

  91. #91 Anton Mates
    October 5, 2009

    Explicit atheist,

    I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things. Something is supernatural if it has any mental property or power that is not reducible to a nonmental mechanism. the God of traditional theism is a pure mind, composed of nothing else but mental powers and concepts. That is indisputably supernatural.

    So you’re treating “naturalism” as synonymous with materialism, basically. Well, that’s one viable definition; the Pharyngula commenter Sastra has ably defended it on a few occasions. There are a few problems with using that definition in this discussion, though.

    First, and most importantly, it’s usually not the definition that defenders of methodological-naturalism-as-fundamental-to-science are using. Nor, for that matter, does it seem to be the definition that many attackers of that position are using; the examples of scientifically accessible supernatural phenomena advanced by Jason Rosenhouse and Jerry Coyne are things like talking mountains and good people being immune to cancer, which have nothing to do with disembodied minds so far as I can see. Which makes it a bit irrelevant insofar as rebutting our claims that science has nothing to say about a certain class of religious claims, like the existence of God and of an afterlife.

    (Put it another way–if God is supernatural by my definition, and if I’m right that such entities are inaccessible to science, then it doesn’t matter if God is also supernatural by your definition and if not all supernatural-by-your-definition entities aren’t scientifically inaccessible; my argument remains valid.)

    Second, I don’t think it’s as widely applicable to God-belief as is the “unbound by natural law’ definition. For instance, the Mormon God is not pure mind, but has a physical body. So, according to most Christian denominations, does Jesus, both in his earthly incarnation and after resurrection. So does the God of the Hebrews, at least in some parts of the Old Testament. So these gods would not be supernatural by your definition–but they would be by mine, since they’re still capable of suspending or transgressing any natural law. (Well, the OT God might not be–again, it depends which bits you’re reading and how you read them.)

    Finally, so far as I can see, it’s empirically untestable. On the one hand, solipsism and various other flavors of idealism are always possibilities, so the entire universe could be fundamentally mental. On the other hand, we have no way of distinguishing a “disembodied” mind from one which merely has a body of some exotic material–and if we can actually detect the mind, presumably it can interact with material reality in some way, so we could assign material properties to its body based on those interactions. So the entire universe could be fundamentally material as well.

    Think of the Matrix, where the reality most people see is apparently material–but then some people can learn to control that reality, apparently with their minds alone–but that turns out to be because both that reality and their minds are embodied in a higher, and material, reality. Who knows where it ends?

    Now lets contrast this with Harry Potter’s world. In Harry Potter’s world the wand has a preference for and against various individuals. An aspiring wizard may cause some damage when he encounters wands that don’t get along with him. If the wand owner is killed then the wand will accept the killer as the new wand owner. These preferences of wands have no physical basis since the wand is not alive. Thus the wand has a disembodied mind. Thus the wand is supernatural.

    Why do you think that the preferences of wands have no physical basis? The wand, after all, has a body. Functional wands can only be created from certain materials, and their composition affects their behavior and capabilities. They cease to function if they sustain severe physical damage. Most of their operations require the user to be in physical contact, and their own preferences are affected by the physical characteristics of the user.

    So why can’t we say that, in the Potterverse, the laws of nature allow the construction of temperamental, semisentient AIs from holly and phoenix feathers?

  92. #92 Anton Mates
    October 5, 2009

    You keep describing what other people think. So whom am I debating, you or other people? Why don’t you speak for yourself? Why do you keep hiding behind other people? When I challenge what you argue in the name of other people, you then dispute me by suddenly declaring you didn’t really say that and your are a weak atheist. This is a double standard. I won’t continue with this discussion if you keep playing this hide and seek game. From now on, tell me what you think, argue what you think, stop claiming to argue on behalf of other people. I don’t do that, and its not fair.

    Really? You don’t? I could have sworn you’ve written things like, “That is why theists don’t like evolution, it doesn’t fit well with a god did it universe,” and “the God of traditional theism is a pure mind, composed of nothing else but mental powers and concepts.”

    But you’re not a theist, are you? So you’re just describing what other people think. For shame!

    The thing is, you’re not religious, and neither am I. So when we talk about the relationship between science and religion we are, necessarily, talking about what other people think. (Even if you or I were religious, that wouldn’t entitle either of us to define religion on behalf of the rest of humanity.) The NCSE is religiously neutral, so, again, it can only talk about religion in a descriptive sense–religion as it is accepted and practiced by this or that set of people.

    If you don’t want to talk about religion in that sense, I certainly won’t force you to continue the conversation. More tomorrow!

  93. #93 Peter Beattie
    October 5, 2009

    I think, Josh Rosenau has now made clear what his agenda is. In a comment at his site, he says:

    To the broader question, I’ve described myself as an apathistic agnostic, that is, I don’t think the existence of god(s) is knowable and I don’t much care. So I’m firmly committed to not weighing in on the truth value of claims about god(s), since I believe such discussions lack any basis for evaluating claims. Absent any knowledge (or way of getting knowledge, AFAICT) about the truth of religious claims, all I really can do is observe that many religious people do find science compatible with their faith, and say that I much prefer those people to people who rule out evolution for religious reasons.

    What he will do, he says, is to keep apathetically ignoring the non-trivial kind of compatibility and stick to the trivial kind for political reasons. I don’t think he could have been clearer on that point.

    As I have said in response over at his site, that’s even worse than philosophical illiteracy, that’s deliberate philosophical ignorance. Somebody who doesn’t even want to know about the kind of thinking that makes science work should have no business in science education of any kind.

  94. #94 Explicit Atheist
    October 5, 2009

    Posted by: Anton Mates | October 5, 2009 5:21 AM

    “Why do you think that the preferences of wands have no physical basis? The wand, after all, has a body. Functional wands can only be created from certain materials, and their composition affects their behavior and capabilities. They cease to function if they sustain severe physical damage. Most of their operations require the user to be in physical contact, and their own preferences are affected by the physical characteristics of the user.”

    Although your argument is correct, it is rooted in playing word games. We can confine ourselves to certain assumptions for the sake of argument. For example, lets confine ourselves to assumption that wood is dead wood and the mythical creatures feathers and strings and the like in the wands core are dead. We have a completely dead wand that is manufactured exactly like wands are manufactured today. Given this context (and that is a context reasonably considered implied in the Harry Potter series, although any particular such context admittedly isn’t required as its just fiction) then we have supernaturalism in the sentient behaviors of these dead pieces of stick. Since the point of our conversation is you assertion that it is not possible to distinguish supernaturalism from naturalism, I think the answer is that you are wrong, that it is possible to plausibly distinguish the supernatural from the natural.

  95. #95 Explicit Atheist
    October 5, 2009

    “First, and most importantly, it’s usually not the definition that defenders of methodological-naturalism-as-fundamental-to-science are using. Nor, for that matter, does it seem to be the definition that many attackers of that position are using; the examples of scientifically accessible supernatural phenomena advanced by Jason Rosenhouse and Jerry Coyne are things like talking mountains and good people being immune to cancer, which have nothing to do with disembodied minds so far as I can see. Which makes it a bit irrelevant insofar as rebutting our claims that science has nothing to say about a certain class of religious claims, like the existence of God and of an afterlife.”

    Talking requires a mind and thus is covered, contrary to what you are asserting. Immunity from cancer is not an example of supernaturalism, its an example of a creator god not creating a world that fulfills the implications of the creator god belief. Understand, if people have a hypothesis and the hypothesis has implications, then we can look to those implications and see if they are true or false. If they are false then the evidence goes against the hypothesis. If the hypothesis has not implications then we can dismiss that hypothesis as meaningless. That is all that Jason and Jerry are doing, and not only is this perfectly reasonable, its actually the correct thing to do. That is how we justify our beliefs. We look to the evidence and evaluate the fit of the evidence to the beliefs.

    “(Put it another way–if God is supernatural by my definition, and if I’m right that such entities are inaccessible to science, then it doesn’t matter if God is also supernatural by your definition and if not all supernatural-by-your-definition entities aren’t scientifically inaccessible; my argument remains valid.)”

    We have insufficient justification to believe in fact claims for which there are not evidence. Do you understand this concept of belief justification based on the weight of the evidence? Isn’t that the way everyone operates to navigate the world? Isn’t this a double standard to suddenly drop this single standard and arbitrarily introduce another standard for which we have no need and no demonstrations of effectiveness in achieving its asserted ability of achieving knowledge about how the world works?

    “Second, I don’t think it’s as widely applicable to God-belief as is the “unbound by natural law’ definition. For instance, the Mormon God is not pure mind, but has a physical body. So, according to most Christian denominations, does Jesus, both in his earthly incarnation and after resurrection. So does the God of the Hebrews, at least in some parts of the Old Testament. So these gods would not be supernatural by your definition–but they would be by mine, since they’re still capable of suspending or transgressing any natural law. (Well, the OT God might not be–again, it depends which bits you’re reading and how you read them.)”

    Yes, and they can transgress natural law precisely because they will it. The point is that the the physical world is a product of a transcendent purely mental source rather than the other way around. That is supernaturalism.

    “Finally, so far as I can see, it’s empirically untestable. On the one hand, solipsism and various other flavors of idealism are always possibilities, so the entire universe could be fundamentally mental. On the other hand, we have no way of distinguishing a “disembodied” mind from one which merely has a body of some exotic material–and if we can actually detect the mind, presumably it can interact with material reality in some way, so we could assign material properties to its body based on those interactions. So the entire universe could be fundamentally material as well.”

    Look, I agree 100% that we don’t have absolute knowledge of everything that perfectly corresponds with everything as it really is. But we are not making any such ridiculous claim. We don’t think that we have any obligation to be absolutely right about the way the world really is. That is ridiculous, and we all think it is ridiculous. I confidently say all of us, Jerry, Jason, Richard, Victor, Sam, etc. and little insignificant, not famous, me. On the contrary, all we are doing is saying that we have a responsibility to justify our beliefs based on the weight of the evidence that is accessible to us. If we do that then we have met all of our obligations to ourselves and to each other regardless of whether or not we are ultimate right in some impossible to reach sense. Is that clear?

  96. #96 John Kwok
    October 5, 2009

    @ Explicit Atheist (@ 91) -

    I think Atheism has some powerfully reasonable assertions to
    state which organized religions need to consider, but those who are Atheists – especially the “New Atheists” (I prefer the term Militant Atheists as an apt description of their behavior.) – ought to wonder whether they can be more persuasive by stating their positions in such a clear, convincing manner without coming across as intolerant anti-religious bigots (In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t accept Atheism. I consider myself a Deist.).

    John

  97. #97 H.H.
    October 5, 2009

    Anton Mates, you seem to be employing a double-standard somewhere in your thought process. You wrote:

    The liberal Christian says that God answers some prayers and chooses not to answer others. Those he does answer, he answers in a variety of ways that the worshipper may not have been expecting, according to his ineffable will, but it all works out to the good in the end, where “the end” may lie infinitely far in the future or in an afterlife. Oh, and he doesn’t like to be tested. How would you investigate this scientifically?

    Here you seem to indicate that if a premise can be made sufficiently untestable, and thus avoid scientific disproof, then it’s by definition “compatible” with science. But that’s a problematic standard, since just about any fantastic claim can meet this feeble requirement if enough ad hoc excuses are claimed. Read Carl Sagan’s essay “The Dragon in My Garage” for a wonderful How-To guide on rendering absurd claims untestable.
    http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/Dragon.htm

    But these same standards can just as easily be used to save Young Earth Creationism from disproof. For instance, the Earth could have been recently created with merely the appearance of age, much like god created Adam as a fully-fledged adult. Or the physical laws could have operated differently in the recent past, upsetting any conclusions drawn from assumptions of consistency. I’ve seen both of these arguments made by creationists. How would you investigate them scientifically? One can’t, of course, which is the point.

    Your standards, therefore, undermine the very efforts of organizations like the NCSE which assert that Young Earth Creationism is wrong. Once you accept that unfalsifiable supernatural claims and entities are “compatible” with science, then pretty much anything goes. Science can’t make any claim of fact, including that the Earth is billions of years old, since it is always possible to dream up an unfalsifiable alternative explanation.

    But if you reject ad hoc excuses meant to salvage Young Earth Creationism from disproof, then you must also reject ad hoc excuses meant to salvage the liberal theist’s god. Anything less is inconsistent special pleading.

  98. #98 Tulse
    October 5, 2009

    Once you accept that unfalsifiable supernatural claims and entities are “compatible” with science, then pretty much anything goes. Science can’t make any claim of fact, including that the Earth is billions of years old, since it is always possible to dream up an unfalsifiable alternative explanation.

    But if you reject ad hoc excuses meant to salvage Young Earth Creationism from disproof, then you must also reject ad hoc excuses meant to salvage the liberal theist’s god. Anything less is inconsistent special pleading.

    As the young ‘uns say, “Word”. This is precisely the problem for accommodationists — if any miracles are allowed, then all bets are off. You can’t attack YEC and save the Virgin Birth without courting hypocrisy.

  99. #99 heddle
    October 5, 2009

    Tulse,

    As the young ‘uns say, “Word”. This is precisely the problem for accommodationists — if any miracles are allowed, then all bets are off. You can’t attack YEC and save the Virgin Birth without courting hypocrisy.

    I disagree.

    You can take the approach that miracles are scientifically observable, though scientifically inexplicable. That is, you can not say how God created the universe ex nihilo, but this (and any other intrusions) into the physical realm leave their signature, however faint, on the material universe.

    The miracle itself is incompatible with science–otherwise it is not a miracle. In principle, however, no extant miracle is beyond scientific study, and no consequence of a miracle is beyond detection.

    As for the 104 year old earth, its physical consequences are not what we detect. Therefore the door to the YEC view is slammed shut.

    Likewise the global flood is inexplicable (where did the water come from?) but it would have left physical scars that have not been found.

    The Virgin Birth? Like all miracles (by definition)it is inexplicable. But if you had been there you could have examined Mary–not to be indelicate–and confirmed (perhaps–the physical indicator is sometimes lost by nonsexual activity) that she was with child and yet had not engaged in intercourse.

    You could have confirmed that a man blind for forty years could now see. Etc.

    The trouble you have is that until the end of history overt miracles have, it seems, ceased. It appears there are no extant miracles to examine. God still intervenes, but it is in changing the hearts of believers. This may result in obvious and radical changes in behavior–but those can be attributed to other causes, such as brainwashing or projection.

    Nevertheless it is not true, in my opinion, that allowing miracles is a slippery slope to placing YECism beyond challenge. I don’t see why you think it is necessarily so–although maybe I misunderstood your point.

  100. #100 H.H.
    October 5, 2009

    You can take the approach that miracles are scientifically observable, though scientifically inexplicable. That is, you can not say how God created the universe ex nihilo, but this (and any other intrusions) into the physical realm leave their signature, however faint, on the material universe.

    Yes, you can take that approach. You can also take the approach that only miracles which occur on Tuesdays count, or that only miracles performed with the aid of a magic wand should be considered valid. The problem with these approaches, Heddle, is that they are completely arbitrary. We have no cause to assume that supernatural miracles should leave physical evidence of their occurrence. Indeed, the absence of such physical evidence could just as easily be attributed to another miracle–proof that what occurred was truly miraculous.

  101. #101 Tulse
    October 5, 2009

    You can take the approach that miracles are scientifically observable, though scientifically inexplicable

    Why must miracles be observable? Once you allow a god to intervene in the physical world, you have no way to rule out that they intervene in some regular manner, that would appear as a physical law. In other words, once you allow supernatural intervention, you can’t rule out occasionalism, and then all bets are off. As I’ve said elsewhere, for example, perhaps the reason that we cannot reconcile quantum mechanics and gravity is that gravity is literally miraculous — a god ensures that all particles in the universe behave as if their mass was attractive, and personally ensures this is the case for each particle, except when he wishes it otherwise (as when, say, parting seas, or causing suns to dance).

    If you allow supernatural intervention, it seems you’re stuck using special pleading to avoid the possibility of miracles everywhere that we don’t detect. It’s like suggesting that we’re only sometimes in the Matrix — once you allow that possibility sometimes, how do you know it’s not in fact all the time?

  102. #102 heddle
    October 5, 2009

    H.H.,

    It could be, except that at least from the point of view of biblical Christianity the miracles are not ever described as deceptive. (Nor are they described as willy-nilly.) Whether you believe them or not, the miracles of Jesus(and the OT) were depicted as observable and measurable to both believers and unbelievers. There is no discussion, anywhere, that the area is swept clean of all traces of the miracle.

    YECs, for example, do not argue that there is no evidence of the miracle of six-day recent creation–instead they argue (incorrectly) that the geological data support their view.

    The only case where you have a point is the pathological theory of “apparent age” or equivalently, that the scientific data are a “test of our faith.” This is contrary to the supposed character of God–so much so that even the most ardent YECs do not affirm such ideas; they are the domain of the truly lunatic fringe.

    Slippery Slope arguments are generally not convincing, as far as I am concerned. I don’t see why I can’t hold the self-consistent position that every claim of a miracle can be tested, assuming you can test what its effects would have been. That allows me to believe in miracles without abrogating my legitimate right to criticize the YEC view–precisely because the consequences of its miraculous claim are accessible and they fail the test.

  103. #103 heddle
    October 5, 2009

    Tulse,

    I can only answer it from the point of view of Biblical Christianity. Biblical Christianity has a long history, from before the scientific era, of affirming secondary causes.

    If what you say is actually a problem, then scientist/Christians would add to their list of possibilities for the explanation of experimental data: a miracle may have occurred. They never do. (Only pretender science, like ID, does that.) Why don’t they? The reason has to do with the tradition of affirming secondary causes and the non willy-nilly character of the biblical miracles. Each of the relatively few miracles served a purpose in situ. Each had a place in God’s redemptive plan. About the only thing you can say about the scientist/Christian is that if we saw Jesus returning in the clouds, we’d retire from science, put down our instruments, and go outside meet him. (And say: Aha, I knew that secret rapture view was bogus.)

  104. #104 Tulse
    October 5, 2009

    If what you say is actually a problem, then scientist/Christians would add to their list of possibilities for the explanation of experimental data: a miracle may have occurred. They never do.

    Of course they don’t, but that doesn’t mean they are justified in not doing so. The question isn’t scientists’ behaviour, since we all agree that it is possible for one to be religious and practice good science in particular domains — the issue is whether one can do so and be philosophically consistent.

    The reason has to do with the tradition of affirming secondary causes and the non willy-nilly character of the biblical miracles. Each of the relatively few miracles served a purpose in situ. Each had a place in God’s redemptive plan.

    And now you are pushing your own brand of theology. There are plenty of religions that argue for the continued presence of multitudinous miracles.

  105. #105 heddle
    October 5, 2009

    Tulse,

    Fair enough, in a generic sense, but you can take me (or any anyone one who agrees with me–I’m not an oddball here) as examples where there is no philosophical incompatibility. To wit:

    1) We believe that God set up the universe to operate through secondary causes

    2) We believe that physical miracles, i.e., rare, temporary intrusions into the material world, were used to advance God’s redemptive plan

    3) We believe God’s redemptive plan is finished

    4) Therefore we don’t believe there will be any more such miracles (until the Second Coming.)

    This religious view proposes no philosophical incompatibility with science. There is no place where science would come to loggerheads with this view. In this view, I am justified in ruling out, a priori, a miraculous explanation for any nuclear physics data I am analyzing.

    They only way that can be attacked, as far as I can tell, is to tell us that we are not allowed to hold such views. That we must allow for a miracle at any time. Even though we don’t.

    The best anyone can claim is that some religious views are philosophically incompatible with science. (No big surprise since some, like YECism, and Mormonism, are manifestly incompatible.) But the religious view outlined above is not incompatible with science, either overtly (because we all agree that the religious can be good scientists) or philosophically.

  106. #106 Kevin (NYC)
    October 5, 2009

    “I’m not an oddball here” = assertion of facts not in evidence! ;-)

    Well hello I didn’t know you had returned to posting. I have never seen your 4 points above before. They do have several advantages for the believer to assert it is correct and without contradiction with science.

    um, do you believe in prayer? that your god hears and acts on the prayers of the faithfull?

    do you believe in a divine plan, for yourself and others?

    do you believe your god will torture people who do not believe in him while they are alive, and that these people will in fact be tortured for an eternity?

    For the present debate, do you assert your god created the world and directed evolution for the creation of man, but neither left any imprint?

    seems too good to be true…

  107. #107 Anton Mates
    October 5, 2009

    Explicit atheist,

    The issue is correct versus incorrect methods, effective versus ineffective methods. That people have been mistaken for all of recording history doesn’t change the status of an ineffective method into an effective method. You keep returning to what other people think, and arguing what other people think even while distancing yourself from what they think.

    Yes, I am. Because when you try to tell other people what to think without first finding out what they think, they have no rational reason to listen; why should they accept your conclusion if they don’t accept your premises? Opening with “First, you and most of humanity have been mistaken about this for all of recorded history” is not a great educational strategy.

    So, given that most of our audience accepts at least one way of knowing other than the scientific, how do you demonstrate to them that such methods are incorrect or ineffective?

    Its more useful to defend science by saying that science supports theism? I have already pointed out there are lots of problems with that approach.

    No, it’s more useful to defend science–more properly evolution, since most people aren’t worried about the rest of science in this regard–by saying that it does not disprove theism, and that people are divided over whether it provides evidential support for theism or atheism. There’s no need to take a side on the latter question.

    The merit of scientific theories is ENTIRELY based on the strength of the evidence. Whether the theory favors or disfavors atheism, theism, polytheism, or whatever is ENTIRELY irrelevant to the merit of theory, as exemplified by evolution.

    Either you’re overlooking parsimony, or you’re rolling it into the “strength of the evidence” bit. Either way, a theory which contains untestable assertions about the existence of god(s) is imparsimonious…and no, that’s not entirely irrelevant to its merit.

    This has nothing to do with evaluating whether pirating music over the internet is wrong, theism and polytheism and atheism are fact claims about the world. Either there is a god or gods or there isn’t. This is not at all the same sort of claim as evaluating whether pirating music over the internet is wrong.

    So you’re an ethical subjectivist. That’s great, but lots of other people think that “pirating music is wrong” is a fact claim; either it’s wrong or it’s not. It’s just not a fact claim resolvable by science. Ditto for logical/mathematical claims.

    Of course, we could receive confirmations of the existence of a powerful creator god if that god opted to make itself known to us. You are very wrong to deny that. God could give bring the carved heads made of rocks on Mount Rushmore to life and have them reveal new knowledge.

    And how would you know that the talking stone heads were the work of God, as opposed to mad scientists or powerful aliens or an evolutionary process which resulted in silicon-based life? What possible demonstration could they give that would confirm, even tentatively, that their creator is the ruler and maintainer of the entire universe, able to alter any law of nature at will?

    Its completely the other way around. Pointing out that irrelevant objections are irrelevant is educational, it clarifies the topic and stops confusions. Failure to point out the irrelevancy of irrelevant objections is a failure to educate.

    Did I not just say that pointing out irrelevance is a good thing? But your student may not be convinced of that just because you say so, so if their objection is both irrelevant and false, you need to hit it on both counts. Simply ignoring the objection because you’ve decided it’s irrelevant is a bad idea.

    You know how most teachers, at some point, say something like “There are no stupid questions?” There’s a reason for that.

    If they balance their statements by saying scientists are monotheists and atheists, religious and anti-religious, in response to complaints that science promotes atheism, then they are not supporting theism.

    That shouldn’t be a problem, then. I’m not sure there’s a science organization on earth that tries to pretend like Dawkins, Gould, Feynman and Darwin don’t exist.

    “You may not be discussing that, but the NCSE is. “Religion and science are compatible,” as the NCSE uses the term compatible, is an empirical statement about the existence of religious people who understand and accept science.”

    No, that is a statement about the relationship between science and religion which is different from saying religionists accept science.

    Um, if the person making the statement explains what they mean by it, I’m going to take their interpretation over yours. Besides, accommodationists and anti-accommodationists alike have agreed that “compatible” can have such a meaning–anti-accommodationists simply object that that meaning makes the statement trivially true.

    By that standard being a serial child molester is compatible with being a religious cleric who works alone with children.

    …and? I mean, yes, child-abusing priests are bad, but what does that have to do with compatibility?

    “Except for those theists who do like evolution, and still don’t find belief in god to be illogical. And by and large, I don’t find their understanding of evolution to be any less “proper” than atheists’ understanding.”

    If they don’t find it illogical that is probably because they haven’t really thought it through or because they are selectively avoiding the contradictions via the irrational method of special pleading.

    Your opinion is noted. And discounted, until you actually present such a logical contradiction.

    Our empirical knowledge, including our knowledge from science. is relevant here, it does provide us with relevant evidence, lots of relevant evidence, and it consistently favors atheism. For example:

    The measured mass density of the universe might not have turned out to be exactly what is required for the universe to have begun from a state of zero energy, which we assume is the energy of nothing. That would have implied that a miracle, the violation of energy conservation, was required to produce the universe.

    The universe may have not been expanding but rather turned out to be a firmament (as the Bible says it is). That would have implied that a miracle, the violation of the second law of thermodynamics that requires the universe always had total entropy less than maximum in the past, was required to produce the universe.

    …or it would have implied that the known laws of thermodynamics simply don’t hold under all conditions. (Currently, we don’t even know if they do hold with respect to the entire universe.) Or it would have implied that the creation of the universe involved delivery of energy and negentropy from another universe. There are tons of possibilities.

    Really, do you assume a miracle every time an apparent “law of nature” is violated? Quantum theory violates conservation of energy on short timescales…are those really really brief miracles? When kaon decays were shown to violate CP symmetry in 1964, should the physicists have converted to theism on the spot?

    Furthermore, how does theism predict either of these possibilities? What makes you think that God prefers static universes to expanding ones? Plenty of theists argue that an expanding universe favors theism, because it shows that the universe probably had a beginning. Why should I believe that you can psychoanalyze their God any better than they can?

    The age of the Earth may have turned out to be too short for the evolution of life. Fossils may have been found that were inexplicably out of sequence. Life-forms might not have all been based on the same genetic scheme. Transitional species might not have been observed. Such evidence against evolution would have implied a miracle was required to produce life.

    You’re going with the same false dichotomy the creationists use. Modern evolutionary theory and creationism are not the only two logically possible options; what about Lamarckianism, and progressive evolution, and “natural ID” models where aliens etc. tinker with Earthly life? And on the other hand, theistic evolution predicts that we wouldn’t see any of these miracles.

    Human memories and thoughts may have provided evidence that cannot be plausibly accounted for by known physical processes. Science may have confirmed exceptional powers of the mind that it could not plausibly explain physically. Science may have uncovered convincing evidence for an afterlife. For example, a person who has been declared dead by every means known to science may return to life with detailed stories of an afterlife containing information he could not possibly have known and is later verified as factual, such as the location of the nearest planet with life.

    A nonphysical channel of communication may have been empirically confirmed by revelations containing information that could not have been already in the head of the person reporting the revelation.

    Physical and historical evidence may have been found for the miraculous events and the important narratives of the scriptures. For example, multiple eyewitness records may have been found of Jesus turning water into wine, turning a loaf of bread into many loaves of bread, and resurrecting Lazarus.

    The void may have been found to be absolutely stable, requiring some action to bring something rather than nothing into existence.

    The universe may have been found to be so congenial to human life that it must have been created with human life in mind. Humans may have been able to move from planet to planet, just as easily as they now move from continent to continent, and be able to survive on every planet with life support.

    Natural events may have followed some moral law, rather than morally neutral mathematical laws. For example, lightning may strike mostly wicked people; people who behave badly may fall sick more often; nuns would always survive plane crashes.

    Believers may have had a higher moral sense than nonbelievers and other measurably superior qualities. For example, the jails may be filled with atheists while all believers live happy, prosperous, contented lives surrounded by loving families and pets.

    But none of this happened. The hypothesis of God is not confirmed by the data. Indeed that hypothesis is strongly contradicted by the data.

    All of the scenarios you raise have the same two flaws. First, none of them are actually predicted by the hypothesis of God. God doesn’t come with a known personality, unless you have auxiliary assumptions about it. The theist God is usually described as “good,” but it’s a peculiarly ineffable, infinitely long-term, moves-in-mysterious-ways “good” that doesn’t let us predict much of anything. There is no a priori reason why a God would want bad people to be struck by lightning more often, or would want theists to be better than atheists, or would want people to be able to fly through space. Indeed, theologians have any number of explanations as to why God wouldn’t want these things. Nor does the hypothesis of God predict that Jesus would be widely seen performing miracles, nor even that he’d perform miracles at all—what if God is not the specific god of Christianity?

    Second, none of them would refute atheism. If we happened to have powers like Superman, we would be able to move between planets and survive on all of them. If religion had evolved as a critical element in our social behavior, theists would be more moral and have better social lives than atheists. A moralistic scientist with a system of weather-control satellites could have lightning only strike bad people; aliens could repair human corpses and bring them back to life with knowledge of distant planets. None of this requires a God; it simply requires various facts about the natural universe that don’t actually seem to obtain.

  108. #108 Anton Mates
    October 5, 2009

    For example, lets confine ourselves to assumption that wood is dead wood and the mythical creatures feathers and strings and the like in the wands core are dead. We have a completely dead wand that is manufactured exactly like wands are manufactured today. Given this context (and that is a context reasonably considered implied in the Harry Potter series, although any particular such context admittedly isn’t required as its just fiction) then we have supernaturalism in the sentient behaviors of these dead pieces of stick.

    A computer is made from dead metal, silicon and plastic—yet it can reason and remember things. A human is made up of countless atoms, no one of them alive, and all of them acquired from inanimate materials and the dead tissues of other organisms—yet the whole package is alive and sentient. Are these miracles? Nope. Vitalism is false; life, mind and sentience are natural, emergent phenomena.
    This is no different, in principle, from assembling wood and monster-bits in the right configuration and performing the right rituals on them and getting a sentient wand. Presumably you can’t do that in our universe (although we wouldn’t know, since we aren’t given detailed blueprints on wand construction), but that just shows that the laws of nature in our universe and in the Potterverse are different.

    Talking requires a mind and thus is covered, contrary to what you are asserting.

    The hypothetical was a talking mountain, and the problem is that it’s not a disembodied mind. Clearly it has a body—the mountain itself.

    You may respond that mountains aren’t alive and can’t embody intelligence, but that’s an empirical claim about our world. In a world with talking mountains, we would have strong evidence that it’s false. Mountains would simply be another kind of thing that can have a mind, alongside human bodies.

    Understand, if people have a hypothesis and the hypothesis has implications, then we can look to those implications and see if they are true or false.

    Of course. The problem is that you seem to be working from the hypothesis you think theists should have, rather than asking them to find out what hypotheses they do have. Not all of them have the same ones.

    Do you understand this concept of belief justification based on the weight of the evidence? Isn’t that the way everyone operates to navigate the world?

    No. No, it is not. That is precisely the point of talking about different ways of knowing; almost everyone navigates the world by justifying their beliefs in a dizzying array of ways, from “someone I trust told me this,” to “I’d feel better if I believed this” to “This just seems really really obvious to me.” If everyone justified their beliefs based on the weight of the evidence in a scientific sense, we wouldn’t need to teach people how to do science. The scientific method is not self-evident.

    Yes, and they can transgress natural law precisely because they will it. The point is that the the physical world is a product of a transcendent purely mental source rather than the other way around. That is supernaturalism.

    I just gave examples where the source is not purely mental. That “they can transgress natural law precisely because they will it” begs the question; “willing it” may be a physical as well as mental activity, just as it is for you or me.

    On the contrary, all we are doing is saying that we have a responsibility to justify our beliefs based on the weight of the evidence that is accessible to us. If we do that then we have met all of our obligations to ourselves and to each other regardless of whether or not we are ultimate right in some impossible to reach sense. Is that clear?

    Perfectly. Is it also clear that I do not accept any responsibility or obligation to justify all my beliefs according to a system you consider valid, nor do I think that others have a responsibility or obligation to justify their beliefs according to my system, nor do I think the NCSE should be telling people that they do have such a responsibility?

  109. #109 Anton Mates
    October 5, 2009

    H.H.,

    But these same standards can just as easily be used to save Young Earth Creationism from disproof. For instance, the Earth could have been recently created with merely the appearance of age, much like god created Adam as a fully-fledged adult. Or the physical laws could have operated differently in the recent past, upsetting any conclusions drawn from assumptions of consistency. I’ve seen both of these arguments made by creationists. How would you investigate them scientifically? One can’t, of course, which is the point.

    Yes! And if a creationist says that–as in Philip Gosse’s Omphalos hypothesis, entertainingly discussed by Borges–then there is no scientific way to show that they’re wrong. All you can say is that science has nothing to do with untestable hypotheses, shrug, and go your way.

    But in fact that’s not what most creationists say, and certainly not the creationists who are trying to attack evolution in science class. They say that there exists scientific evidence for creationism–that there is geological evidence for a flood, genetic evidence for the recent descent of all humans from a single pair, and so on. Even the ones who argue that physical laws and constants have changed over time generally make specific hypotheses in this area (i.e. the speed of light used to be slower) which are amenable to testing.

    And virtually every YEC, with a handful of exceptions like Kurt Wise, also argues that evolution is contradicted or severely undermined by scientific evidence.

    Your standards, therefore, undermine the very efforts of organizations like the NCSE which assert that Young Earth Creationism is wrong.

    I think you may misunderstand the NCSE’s position (and the position of most science/educational organizations.) The NCSE is asserting that Young Earth Creationism’s claims to scientific support are wrong, and that its arguments attacking the scientific status of evolution are wrong. To my knowledge, it’s not asserting that the hypothesis of a young Earth is wrong. If you want to believe that, or if you want to believe that the universe was created last Thursday, have fun. But it’s not science.

    If creationists actually admitted that it wasn’t science, and that evolution was good science–and therefore, of course, that evolution should be in science classes and creationism shouldn’t–then the NCSE would pretty much be able to close up shop.

    That said, I have a feeling that if all YECs were able to admit that, most of them would also decide that YEC is wrong. The Omphalos hypothesis has been wildly unpopular; the idea that God created the world with a false appearance of age may be unfalsifiable, but most people don’t seem to find it very palatable.

  110. #110 Anton Mates
    October 5, 2009

    Tulse,

    Why must miracles be observable? Once you allow a god to intervene in the physical world, you have no way to rule out that they intervene in some regular manner, that would appear as a physical law. In other words, once you allow supernatural intervention, you can’t rule out occasionalism, and then all bets are off.

    I’m not sure why this is a problem. I don’t think you can rule out occasionalism, if by “rule out” you mean “show to be false,” and I would imagine that a fair number of theistic scientists accept it.

    But occasionalism has the same empirical consequences as agnostic naturalism–consistent physical laws appear to exist*–and is less parsimonious than the latter, since it involves statements about God that agnostic naturalism lacks. So science can “rule it out” in a pragmatic sense. Believe it if you want, but there’s no reason to invoke it when doing science.

    *Occasionalism does allow for God to suspend or violate laws if he feels like it, but you could add “except when it doesn’t happen, sometimes” to any description of natural laws, too.

  111. #111 Explicit Atheist
    October 6, 2009

    Anton:

    “Yes, I am. Because when you try to tell other people what to think without first finding out what they think, they have no rational reason to listen; why should they accept your conclusion if they don’t accept your premises? Opening with “First, you and most of humanity have been mistaken about this for all of recorded history” is not a great educational strategy.”

    You throw shit and then you complain that because the response isn’t pretty its a bad response. Someone can pretty up the response. For example, maybe give particular examples of false consensus throughout history that everyone can nod their head in agreement with. That takes more time and effort and expertise than I have so you will pardon me for taking shortcuts here. Lets assume they hired a public relations expert.

    “So, given that most of our audience accepts at least one way of knowing other than the scientific, how do you demonstrate to them that such methods are incorrect or ineffective?”

    We don’t need to demonstrate any such thing for science organizations avoid asserting that other ways of knowing have merit. All we are asking is that the science organizations not respond to complaints about science failing to support religious beliefs by telling the complainers that their religious beliefs and science both represent acceptable/valid/legitimate alternative ways of knowing. NOMA is an easy way out, but it isn’t good way out and it is just isn’t correct.

    “No, it’s more useful to defend science–more properly evolution, since most people aren’t worried about the rest of science in this regard–by saying that it does not disprove theism, and that people are divided over whether it provides evidential support for theism or atheism. There’s no need to take a side on the latter question.”

    Look, science organizations don’t need to state that. My point is that science organizations should avoid responding to criticisms in ways that appear to accept the premise that conformance with theism is a good measure of knowledge’s merit when that premise is an implied basis of the criticism. That means, for example, that they shouldn’t respond to questions rooted in that premise by saying things like scientists are theists and stopping there. Instead, whatever they say in this regard should be more balanced to avoid taking the easier, but again counter-productive, route of being agreeable with the apparent bias of the critic.

    “Either you’re overlooking parsimony, or you’re rolling it into the “strength of the evidence” bit. Either way, a theory which contains untestable assertions about the existence of god(s) is imparsimonious…and no, that’s not entirely irrelevant to its merit.”

    We can be “imparsimonious” and say we don’t know if the sun will rise tomorrow (its untestable, after all). If you think saying you don’t know is more accurate than saying that after the sun rises tomorrow you will go to work then you are welcome to your unparsimonious life, but I won’t join you. The point here is that we reach decisions based on our (non-numeric) sense of the probability. Admittedly, we can’t observe as a fact that there wasn’t a dragon or a god and the like in the past. But we have good reason to think that dragons and gods are both imaginary creations of people’s minds and it seems to me to be the more parsimonious application of the evidence to conclude that is all they both are. That is, of course, my judgement. If you think its more parsiminious to say that you don’t know if dragons exist because that is an “untestable” question then you are a free man but I won’t join you.

    “So you’re an ethical subjectivist. That’s great, but lots of other people think that “pirating music is wrong” is a fact claim; either it’s wrong or it’s not. It’s just not a fact claim resolvable by science. Ditto for logical/mathematical claims.”

    As a statement about proper behavior it is true that pirating music is wrong. The wrongness of pirating music is a normative claim concerning behavior. God exists is not a normative claim about behavior. It may be desirable that people be immune from getting cancer, but we can’t declare that people are immune from cancer because we prefer that it be true. See the difference?

    “And how would you know that the talking stone heads were the work of God, as opposed to mad scientists or powerful aliens or an evolutionary process which resulted in silicon-based life? What possible demonstration could they give that would confirm, even tentatively, that their creator is the ruler and maintainer of the entire universe, able to alter any law of nature at will?”

    Insisting on 100% absolute knowledge that perfectly corresponds with everything as it really is as the measure of whether atheism and theism are viable would be a double standard. Nobody applies such an impossible standard to most of what they believe and everyone believes lots of things that are not proven, or even testable, such as that the sun will rise tomorrow. So if we drop that double standard then the answer is that we take the same approach that we take with everything else and we look more closely if we can, studying the phenomena and learning everything we can about it. The point is that such a phenomenon would be evidence favorable to god belief, not that it would be 100% proof of a creator god. As a skeptic myself I would initially be inclined to consider that to be a trick or a deception and I certainly wouldn’t conclude that such a phenomenon by itself is sufficient to establish traits such as creator of the universe and all-knowing or all-good. But I would admit that such an phenomenon would reasonably be judged to provide support for supernaturalism and therefore also be favorable for theism.

    “Did I not just say that pointing out irrelevance is a good thing? But your student may not be convinced of that just because you say so, so if their objection is both irrelevant and false, you need to hit it on both counts. Simply ignoring the objection because you’ve decided it’s irrelevant is a bad idea.”

    The point of irrelevancy is that the objection could be true but is still mistaken as an objection.

    “You know how most teachers, at some point, say something like “There are no stupid questions?” There’s a reason for that.”

    There are some phrases that have two or more meanings, this is an example of that. There are good and bad questions, ever hear the expression “that is a good question?” But there is a reason to encourage bad questions, it provides an opportunity for the teacher to correct errors. So in that sense it can be smart to ask bad questions.

    “Um, if the person making the statement explains what they mean by it, I’m going to take their interpretation over yours. Besides, accommodationists and anti-accommodationists alike have agreed that “compatible” can have such a meaning–anti-accommodationists simply object that that meaning makes the statement trivially true.”

    Take the sentence “love is only a word”. It has two meanings, one meaning is trivially true and the other meaning is, at best, controversial. Yes, words are cheap, and love is one of many cheap words. On the other hand love is an emotion and the emotion of love can have substantial influence and importance to our lives. But the sentence is trying to bleed the first, true meaning into the second, lets say more controversial and doubtful second meaning. That appears to be what is happening here with the “science and religion/theism are compatible” phrase. I must concede, however, that saying religion is compatible with both theism and atheism is balanced and that balance significantly mitigates the problem. If it is balanced like that then it becomes more of a technical problem and less of a practical problem, and I wouldn’t make an issue of that.


    Furthermore, how does theism predict either of these possibilities? What makes you think that God prefers static universes to expanding ones? Plenty of theists argue that an expanding universe favors theism, because it shows that the universe probably had a beginning. Why should I believe that you can psychoanalyze their God any better than they can?
    ….

    I need time to consider your comments. Thank you for giving your constructive criticisms.

    Theists speak of a creator god as an explanation, and that explanatory function appears to be a primary motivation for believing in god. The problem here is that God is a vacuous catch-all declaration that is intrinsically unable to identify what must be false. Valid explanations must distinquish what is true from what is false.

    “All of the scenarios you raise have the same two flaws. First, none of them are actually predicted by the hypothesis of God. God doesn’t come with a known personality, unless you have auxiliary assumptions about it. The theist God is usually described as “good,” but it’s a peculiarly ineffable, infinitely long-term, moves-in-mysterious-ways “good” that doesn’t let us predict much of anything. There is no a priori reason why a God would want bad people to be struck by lightning more often, or would want theists to be better than atheists, or would want people to be able to fly through space. Indeed, theologians have any number of explanations as to why God wouldn’t want these things. Nor does the hypothesis of God predict that Jesus would be widely seen performing miracles, nor even that he’d perform miracles at all—what if God is not the specific god of Christianity?”

    What you tend to do, and you keep doing this over and over again, is you tell me “you can’t prove that they are wrong”. I call this the “you can’t prove I am wrong” method for knowing how the world works. The problem is that that isn’t a method that we have any reason to think brings us to an understanding to how the world works.

    You don’t seem to understand the concept that it isn’t a flaw to disregard factual assertions about the way the world works that self-deny that there can be confirming or disconfirming evidence. We don’t need to deny such assertions because we literally have no reason to take such assertions seriously in the first place. The only assertions about how the world works that we have reason to take seriously are assertions that are backed by evidence. Its our common sense filter to separate the wheat from the chaff because words are cheap so there is a lot of chaff.

    Also, not all claims make any sort of true or false difference in the world. No state of affairs would count against them. They are expressions of personal desires, hopes, or feelings. They aren’t a matter of true or false, or even of right or wrong. The problem is, of course, that lots of people who are making these claims do not think that what they are doing is non-cognitive. They think that Jesus really did die for your sins, and that Jesus really does love you, and that those clichés actually mean something. It can be hard to dismiss such claims as non-cognitive when the speakers themselves insist that they are making true assertions that make all the difference in the world. The real measure of whether or not some claim is cognitive is not determined by how the believer feels about it. The believer may not appreciate the non-cognitive nature of what they are claiming.

    “Second, none of them would refute atheism. If we happened to have powers like Superman, we would be able to move between planets and survive on all of them. If religion had evolved as a critical element in our social behavior, theists would be more moral and have better social lives than atheists. A moralistic scientist with a system of weather-control satellites could have lightning only strike bad people; aliens could repair human corpses and bring them back to life with knowledge of distant planets. None of this requires a God; it simply requires various facts about the natural universe that don’t actually seem to obtain.”

    Look, we aren’t talking about proof. It is a category error to keep insisting on proof. We are talking about weight of the evidence. This is another concept that you don’t seem to grasp. You are trying to impose an artificial all or nothing dichotomy that the argument is a success if it constitutes proof otherwise the argument is failure.

    If we were able to move between planets and survive on all of them then that would be more consistent with theism than is our actual inability to do so. If the jails were filled with atheists while all believers live happy, prosperous, contented lives surrounded by loving families and pets then that would be more consistent with theism than the actual state of affairs. That is what weight of evidence is about. Its not proof by induction, its deduction on the overall weight of evidence. That is all we have and what we have is what we should use.

    Your example of a moralistic scientist with a system of weather-control satellites that makes lightning only strike bad people is obviously not needed to achieve that result if there is a god which is what we are talking about. If the lightening so struck without such a scientist then that would describe a world more suggestive of what we could reasonable expect if theism was true than is suggested by our actual experience.

  112. #112 Explicit Atheist
    October 6, 2009

    Correction, where I wrote above

    “Its not proof by induction, its deduction on the overall weight of evidence.”

    I meant to say

    “Its not proof by deduction, its induction on the overall weight of evidence.”

  113. #113 Anton Mates
    October 7, 2009

    Explicit Atheist,

    You throw shit and then you complain that because the response isn’t pretty its a bad response. Someone can pretty up the response. For example, maybe give particular examples of false consensus throughout history that everyone can nod their head in agreement with. That takes more time and effort and expertise than I have so you will pardon me for taking shortcuts here. Lets assume they hired a public relations expert.

    That’s kind of the point; in this particular arena the NCSE and other science organizations are public relations experts. So you’re welcome to take your shortcuts, but meantime why not let the public outreach people do their thing?

    (Which is not to say that there aren’t other PR experts on the other side of this mini-debate, of course. Dawkins, for instance, seems to be very very good at selling evolution using his methods. I hope he will continue to do so for a long time to come; a diversity of approaches is a major plus.)

    Admittedly, we can’t observe as a fact that there wasn’t a dragon or a god and the like in the past. But we have good reason to think that dragons and gods are both imaginary creations of people’s minds and it seems to me to be the more parsimonious application of the evidence to conclude that is all they both are. That is, of course, my judgement. If you think its more parsiminious to say that you don’t know if dragons exist because that is an “untestable” question then you are a free man but I won’t join you.

    Okay. I do think that, and I have a hard time seeing how it could be otherwise; “Dragon myths originated thusly” seems to be a clearly simpler hypothesis than “Dragon myths originated thusly, and dragons have never existed.” But you don’t have to join me in that.

    (Side note: Unless we’re talking about Sagan’s invisible intangible dragons, we can observe that there were no dragons in a way we can’t do with gods. Dragons are big animals, and we should be able to look for their bones and whatnot, and make a note of it if we can’t find any. Gods generally don’t leave bones behind.)

    As a statement about proper behavior it is true that pirating music is wrong. The wrongness of pirating music is a normative claim concerning behavior. God exists is not a normative claim about behavior. It may be desirable that people be immune from getting cancer, but we can’t declare that people are immune from cancer because we prefer that it be true. See the difference?

    Unless you’re an ethical subjectivist, you also can’t declare that pirating music is wrong because you prefer that it be true. Normative ethics is concerned with whether it is wrong, not whether people want it to be wrong or think that it’s wrong.

    “And how would you know that the talking stone heads were the work of God, as opposed to mad scientists or powerful aliens or an evolutionary process which resulted in silicon-based life? What possible demonstration could they give that would confirm, even tentatively, that their creator is the ruler and maintainer of the entire universe, able to alter any law of nature at will?”
    Insisting on 100% absolute knowledge that perfectly corresponds with everything as it really is as the measure of whether atheism and theism are viable would be a double standard.

    And that’s why I’m not doing that. Did you miss the “even tentatively” in the above?

    You make this objection in a few different places, so I think you’re misunderstanding my argument. I am not demanding proof of theism or its negation. I am saying that even tentative empirical support for either hypothesis is impossible. You can’t get to them by induction on the available evidence, because no empirical evidence bears even slightly on either hypothesis.

    Again, consider a talking Mount Rushmore. Does theism make this scenario particularly more likely than antitheism does? (I’d rather use that word than atheism, since not all atheists positively assert that there is no God.) No. You can come up with particular gods who would be interested in making Mount Rushmore talk, but you can come up with many many more who wouldn’t be. Conversely, you can come up with lots of natural, godless hypotheses about why Mount Rushmore might start talking, like those I listed above.

    In fact, for every possible god who might perform such a miracle, the antitheist can hypothesize a comparable natural entity who could perform an identical feat–an entity who is not omnipotent and omniscient, but who can exploit the laws of physics in ways we don’t yet understand to pull off tricks that seem miraculous. You say it’s Yahweh or Zeus; I say it’s Jean Grey from the X-Men, or Q from Star Trek, or the extraterrestrials the Raelians believe in.

    So if a talking Mount Rushmore is equally likely under theism and under antitheism, it can’t serve as evidence in favor of either hypothesis. As far as I can see, that’s true of any possible empirical datum. There can be evidence against extremely specific gods–for instance, there can’t be an omnipotent, omniscient God who above all else opposes the existence of penguins, because penguins do exist. But that says nothing at all against the general god hypothesis. Even the argument from evil only works against a “good” God, for a very specific definition of “good.” (And, arguably, most theists don’t actually believe in a God who is “good” in that sense.)

    There are some phrases that have two or more meanings, this is an example of that. There are good and bad questions, ever hear the expression “that is a good question?” But there is a reason to encourage bad questions, it provides an opportunity for the teacher to correct errors.

    Certainly, but a good teacher doesn’t start correcting the error by saying, “That’s a bad question.” But we may have an irreconcilable difference in educational philosophies here.

    That appears to be what is happening here with the “science and religion/theism are compatible” phrase. I must concede, however, that saying religion is compatible with both theism and atheism is balanced and that balance significantly mitigates the problem. If it is balanced like that then it becomes more of a technical problem and less of a practical problem, and I wouldn’t make an issue of that.

    Good to know. The NCSE does shoot for such a balance, hence statements like the one in Peter Hess’ God and Evolution article: “The science of evolution does not make claims about God’s existence or non-existence, any more than do other scientific theories such as gravitation, atomic structure, or plate tectonics. Just like gravity, the theory of evolution is compatible with theism, atheism, and agnosticism.”

    You don’t seem to understand the concept that it isn’t a flaw to disregard factual assertions about the way the world works that self-deny that there can be confirming or disconfirming evidence. We don’t need to deny such assertions because we literally have no reason to take such assertions seriously in the first place.

    You don’t seem to understand the distinction between “it isn’t a flaw to disregard untestable factual assertions,” and “it’s a flaw not to disregard untestable factual assertions.” I’m fine with you seeing no reason to take them seriously. Neither do I. I don’t think that’s a flaw at all. But I’m also fine with other people seeing such a reason, as long as they’re not claiming that I ought to do the same. I see no a priori way to determine whether they’re right or I am.

    If we were able to move between planets and survive on all of them then that would be more consistent with theism than is our actual inability to do so.

    Why? Is there a lost book of the Bible where God says, “And lo, I intend ye to fly through space to Mars and picnic there on the Sabbath?”

    One thing most religions’ gods seem to agree on is that we’re not supposed to be godlike in our powers. We’re supposed to be limited and fallible and know our place. Yahweh punished us for building a tower that threatened to reach the heavens; why would he want us zooming through space?

    If the jails were filled with atheists while all believers live happy, prosperous, contented lives surrounded by loving families and pets then that would be more consistent with theism than the actual state of affairs.

    Again, why? Even if belief in God is a beneficial thing–which certainly doesn’t follow from the bare hypothesis of God’s existence–perhaps God chooses to inspire belief in the poor and discontented precisely because they need him more.

    Or not. You can make arguments either way, and so far as I can see they’re all equally worthless.

    Your example of a moralistic scientist with a system of weather-control satellites that makes lightning only strike bad people is obviously not needed to achieve that result if there is a god which is what we are talking about.

    Well, yeah. And if there’s a scientist like that, we don’t need a god. The two hypotheses each explain the same data, so each makes the other unnecessary. So how can the pattern of lightning strikes serve as evidence of the god hypothesis in particular?

  114. #114 Explicit Atheist
    October 7, 2009

    “Okay. I do think that, and I have a hard time seeing how it could be otherwise; “Dragon myths originated thusly” seems to be a clearly simpler hypothesis than “Dragon myths originated thusly, and dragons have never existed.” But you don’t have to join me in that.”

    I agree that not drawing conclusions is more parsimonious than drawing conclusions. However, the principle of parsimony is not about refusing to draw conclusions, its about a preference for the least complex explanation for the evidence. One of the reasons for favoring non-existence is that the probability that our fictions will describe something that is not fictional is very tiny.

    “In fact, for every possible god who might perform such a miracle, the antitheist can hypothesize a comparable natural entity who could perform an identical feat–an entity who is not omnipotent and omniscient, but who can exploit the laws of physics in ways we don’t yet understand to pull off tricks that seem miraculous. You say it’s Yahweh or Zeus; I say it’s Jean Grey from the X-Men, or Q from Star Trek, or the extraterrestrials the Raelians believe in.

    So if a talking Mount Rushmore is equally likely under theism and under antitheism, it can’t serve as evidence in favor of either hypothesis. As far as I can see, that’s true of any possible empirical datum. There can be evidence against extremely specific gods–for instance, there can’t be an omnipotent, omniscient God who above all else opposes the existence of penguins, because penguins do exist. But that says nothing at all against the general god hypothesis. Even the argument from evil only works against a “good” God, for a very specific definition of “good.” (And, arguably, most theists don’t actually believe in a God who is “good” in that sense.)”

    When you said that Mount Rushmore sculpted heads talking could be the result of a natural evolution of silicon life I consider that implausible because we have evidence that evolution of life starts with very small, single cells and it would take a long time to develop mouths and heads and speech. We have good reason to think that life doesn’t evolve naturally to conform to the size, shape, and function of a sculpture of a head without a body.

    Sure, there is no end to speculations we could introduce, but the weight of the evidence could be more favorable for both supernaturalism and technological superior aliens messing with events on our planet than it is. Technological superior aliens would win over god if they identified themselves and demonstrated their technology. It would appear to be unlikely that powerful aliens would on the one hand interfere with events on our planet in a highly visible way that mimics supernaturalism while hiding themselves from us.

    “You don’t seem to understand the distinction between “it isn’t a flaw to disregard untestable factual assertions,” and “it’s a flaw not to disregard untestable factual assertions.” I’m fine with you seeing no reason to take them seriously. Neither do I. I don’t think that’s a flaw at all. But I’m also fine with other people seeing such a reason, as long as they’re not claiming that I ought to do the same. I see no a priori way to determine whether they’re right or I am.”

    It depends on how seriously they are taking their non-evidenced speculations. If they are insisting on accepting the truth of descriptions of the world on faith, without supporting evidence or against disfavoring evidence, particularly if they raise the status of such faith to an imperative of some sort, then I do think it is both reasonable and proper to be critical of their doing that. Now to be fair, many theists consider their theism to be supported by the evidence. But it is the evidence that should then be the focus, faith is not a proper basis/method for belief justification. You and I may disagree regarding whether we can or should sit in judgement on how people hold/justify their beliefs.

    “Again, why? Even if belief in God is a beneficial thing–which certainly doesn’t follow from the bare hypothesis of God’s existence–perhaps God chooses to inspire belief in the poor and discontented precisely because they need him more.

    Or not. You can make arguments either way, and so far as I can see they’re all equally worthless.”

    Yes, theists can make arguments all ways because theism, as a catch-all, doesn’t falsify anything. Nevertheless, if various scenarios as described were true then those scenarios being true would favor theism. We can imagine many scenarios that, if they were true, would appear to favor various varieties of theism more than is the actual case. The favoring scenarios would vary depending on the traits/attributes/motives assigned to the god.

    “Well, yeah. And if there’s a scientist like that, we don’t need a god. The two hypotheses each explain the same data, so each makes the other unnecessary. So how can the pattern of lightning strikes serve as evidence of the god hypothesis in particular?”

    Because it would suggest the kind of willful actions against transgressors of moral conduct that a creator god with judgmental traits that are commonly attributed to god should be capable of doing and could be motivated to do. Again, it suggests two possibilities, a god or powerful alien, and raises the probability that one or the other exists, so it won’t necessarily convert atheists into theists. But it would provide more justification for theism than does a lack of favoring evidence and the tendency of the overall evidence to otherwise generally disfavor theism.

    The argument here is something like this:
    P1: Empirical evidence is not neutral with regard to how the world works.
    P2: Theism makes claims about the how the world works.
    C: Empirical evidence can favor or disfavor theism.

    You try very hard to dispute P2 and C, but I think you fall short in showing that theism is immune from challenge by empirical evidence. Its not that theism is disprovable, its that the weight of the evidence can favor or disfavor theism. Either we see evidence of interventions attributable to a powerful willful force or we don’t. Since we don’t see such evidence theism is not properly justified.

  115. #115 Explicit Atheist
    October 8, 2009

    “So if a talking Mount Rushmore is equally likely under theism and under antitheism, it can’t serve as evidence in favor of either hypothesis. As far as I can see, that’s true of any possible empirical datum. There can be evidence against extremely specific gods–for instance, there can’t be an omnipotent, omniscient God who above all else opposes the existence of penguins, because penguins do exist. But that says nothing at all against the general god hypothesis. Even the argument from evil only works against a “good” God, for a very specific definition of “good.” (And, arguably, most theists don’t actually believe in a God who is “good” in that sense.)”

    Lets say that the best possible evidence for supernaturalism is always equally likely to be explained within the more narrow confines of naturalism. I am not convinced that is true, but it is arguably true and for the sake of argument I have no problem accepting that. My argument still stands since it is then based on contrasting the situation where the evidence gives supernaturalism and naturalism equal likelihood, with what I claim is the actual situation where the evidence for supernaturalism is much closer to zero or even in negative territory, if we could have negative probabilities, than 50/50. I conclude from the lack of evidence in favor of supernaturalism, plus the evidence that we do have against theisms, such as the wide diversity of self-contradictory historical theisms and the evidence of the ability and inclination of humans to create fictions from their imaginations that they confuse with non-fiction, and the evidence that historical theisms, including those where gods are naughty, are fictions, that theism is not justified and very likely false. For the most part non-fictional descriptions of how the world works do not correspond with fiction because non-fiction reality exceed the limits of human imagination and are only discovered from evidence. No one imagined special or general relativity until the weight of the evidence, plus logic, led someone there. Its the same way with gods, they are primitive fictional attempts to explain the universe. Again, the likelihood that any human fictional explanations will actually be valid explanations is very tiny.

  116. #116 Anton Mates
    October 9, 2009

    I agree that not drawing conclusions is more parsimonious than drawing conclusions. However, the principle of parsimony is not about refusing to draw conclusions, its about a preference for the least complex explanation for the evidence. One of the reasons for favoring non-existence is that the probability that our fictions will describe something that is not fictional is very tiny.

    It is? How do you know? Have you searched the universe for lots of fictional entities and established that they’re truly fictional?

    Probability calculations require data on the distributions they’re about. I can’t see how you, me or anyone else could acquire that data for this case. (See also: why probability-based fine-tuning arguments, pro and con, make no sense.)

    Now if you want to say that the probability of finding empirical evidence for a fictional entity is low, I’ll agree–we do have data on that. But that’s about us and our knowledge, it’s not a universal claim about the existence of such an entity.

    When you said that Mount Rushmore sculpted heads talking could be the result of a natural evolution of silicon life I consider that implausible because we have evidence that evolution of life starts with very small, single cells and it would take a long time to develop mouths and heads and speech. We have good reason to think that life doesn’t evolve naturally to conform to the size, shape, and function of a sculpture of a head without a body.

    Well, sure, but a big part of that good reason is that we don’t have any talking, thinking multi-headed stone figures. If we did, we’d have to start wondering whether life did evolve naturally along such a line and we just didn’t know about it before. (It need not be Earth life, either…maybe the Polycephalic Silicon-based Giants of Omicron VI like to visit Earth because of the remarkable convergence in appearance between us and them.)

    Point is, pretty much all examples of “strong evidence for the supernatural” necessarily involve blatant violations of the laws of nature as we understand them. But any such apparent miracle would suggest that, maybe, we’ve severely misunderstood the laws of nature, and so we’d have to start wondering if lots of things we’d had “good reason” to believe about evolution etc. were actually wrong.

    Technological superior aliens would win over god if they identified themselves and demonstrated their technology. It would appear to be unlikely that powerful aliens would on the one hand interfere with events on our planet in a highly visible way that mimics supernaturalism while hiding themselves from us.

    It would? Maybe they like to hide. Or maybe they’re not trying to hide, but they happen to be undetectable by our current tech. Maybe they’re actually still on their distant planet, where we can’t see them, messing with Earth at a distance thanks to their supertech. What do you or I know about the behavior of godlike aliens?

    You and I may disagree regarding whether we can or should sit in judgement on how people hold/justify their beliefs.

    I think so. It seems to me that any justification method is ultimately chosen arationally–how can you justify the method itself without assuming its validity? So I don’t feel entitled to tell others that they’re wrong in using a different one than I do. I often try to make it clear that they are using a different one, though, and I may choose not to fly on any planes they design….

    Nevertheless, if various scenarios as described were true then those scenarios being true would favor theism. We can imagine many scenarios that, if they were true, would appear to favor various varieties of theism more than is the actual case. The favoring scenarios would vary depending on the traits/attributes/motives assigned to the god.

    But I would argue that, in any such scenario, the actual theism part will be found to be empirically irrelevant to the hypothesis, and therefore won’t be favored even if the rest of the hypothesis is.

    By analogy, suppose I hypothesize that uranium atoms are intelligent, and choose to split apart their own nuclei out of bitterness and self-loathing. This has the prediction that uranium atoms will be observed to decay; and, indeed, we’ve observed them decaying all over the place. But does this evidence favor my hypothesis? Of course not; the only part of my hypothesis that was actually relevant to the prediction was the “uranium atoms undergo nuclear decay” part. All the rest has no support at all. Of course this evidence doesn’t show that uranium atoms are not intelligent, either…it just doesn’t speak to that issue at all.

    Similarly, you could prune the hypothesis, “God hates bad people and smites them with lightning,” down to a much simpler version, “only bad people get hit by lightning,” and get exactly the same predictions. Therefore, even a scenario where those predictions come true can’t be said to favor the God bit.

    “Well, yeah. And if there’s a scientist like that, we don’t need a god. The two hypotheses each explain the same data, so each makes the other unnecessary. So how can the pattern of lightning strikes serve as evidence of the god hypothesis in particular?”

    Because it would suggest the kind of willful actions against transgressors of moral conduct that a creator god with judgmental traits that are commonly attributed to god should be capable of doing and could be motivated to do.

    But gods are also commonly described–sometimes even by the same people–as merciful rather than judgmental, or as uninterested in human affairs. Conversely, we have very good evidence that natural beings take willful action against transgressors of moral laws–after all, humans do that!

    So it would fit with some gods and not with others; it would also fit with some non-gods and not with others.

    Again, it suggests two possibilities, a god or powerful alien, and raises the probability that one or the other exists, so it won’t necessarily convert atheists into theists. But it would provide more justification for theism than does a lack of favoring evidence and the tendency of the overall evidence to otherwise generally disfavor theism.

    Actually, it suggests an infinite number of possibilities, including a human super-scientist and time-travelers and morally judgmental electrical beings living in our atmosphere.

    For evidence to favor a hypothesis, it has to increase the probability of that hypothesis more than it increases the probability of competing hypotheses. I don’t think this scenario would actually make the god hypothesis more likely, since it would fit with some gods but not with others, and would be irrelevant to most conceivable gods. And it would make lots of competing hypotheses more likely, like super-scientists and aliens and whatnot. So this scenario can’t be said to favor theism.

    Lets say that the best possible evidence for supernaturalism is always equally likely to be explained within the more narrow confines of naturalism. I am not convinced that is true, but it is arguably true and for the sake of argument I have no problem accepting that. My argument still stands since it is then based on contrasting the situation where the evidence gives supernaturalism and naturalism equal likelihood, with what I claim is the actual situation where the evidence for supernaturalism is much closer to zero or even in negative territory, if we could have negative probabilities, than 50/50.

    But my argument is that supernaturalism and naturalism have equal likelihood (or, more precisely, that their relative likelihoods are incalculable) given any possible set of evidence. I don’t think that evidence against the supernatural is possible any more than evidence for it; what possible universe couldn’t have been made by a god who happened to like that sort of world?

    Even if every one of us was born, lived and died in utter misery, without learning much of anything or teaching anyone else, that could be some god’s will. He might be a particularly nasty god, but he’d still be as likely as any other sort–and as a matter of fact, I don’t think he’d be any nastier than many gods who have actually been worshipped. Both Fred Phelps’ god and David Heddle’s are morally capable of running such a universe. (I’m not trying to insult Heddle by saying that; I think he would agree that his god is not morally obligated to provide even one human being with happiness.)

  117. #117 H.H.
    October 9, 2009

    It seems to me that any justification method is ultimately chosen arationally–how can you justify the method itself without assuming its validity? So I don’t feel entitled to tell others that they’re wrong in using a different one than I do.

    Anton Mates, are you saying you can’t articulate any reasons why you trust science over “other ways of knowing” that aren’t purely personal or arbitrary? I trust it because science works. It has results we can point to, hold in our hands. That’s not “arational,” that’s just pragmatic. And it’s enough of a foundation to stand on to justify dismissing competing methods. In short, you really should feel completely entitled in telling others that they’re wrong in using a different method than you do. You method works. Theirs does not, at least not in any way they can demonstrate. So they lose. Where’s the problem? I don’t even see how they can argue the result, since they admit to having nothing substantial they can point to. No successes. No confirmed predictions. Nothing. It’s not even a close race. Why should it be so hard to call? Science wins. The end.

    I often try to make it clear that they are using a different one, though, and I may choose not to fly on any planes they design….

    You really should go further than that. You should explain to them that they have no business ever flying on modern airplanes–or indeed use any other invention or discovery made possible by the scientific method–unless they wish to admit to being immoral hypocrites. Because all of this airy philosophical talk about how we must remain agnostic about unfalsifiable assertions is only ever hauled out when some theist wants to protect a cherished superstition. If they actually lived like they believed their own bullshit the other 99.999% of the time, I might be inclined to agree that they are entitled to their alternate epistemology. But we both know it’s a game designed to protect certain fantasies, nothing more. They want to be able to “switch off” science when it says something uncomfortable about their beliefs and turn it back on for everything else. It’s utterly intellectually dishonest behavior, and it should be called out as such.

  118. #118 Explicit Atheists
    October 9, 2009

    “It is? How do you know? Have you searched the universe for lots of fictional entities and established that they’re truly fictional?

    Probability calculations require data on the distributions they’re about. I can’t see how you, me or anyone else could acquire that data for this case. (See also: why probability-based fine-tuning arguments, pro and con, make no sense.)

    Now if you want to say that the probability of finding empirical evidence for a fictional entity is low, I’ll agree–we do have data on that. But that’s about us and our knowledge, it’s not a universal claim about the existence of such an entity.”

    I am confident about this because 1) each single validated explanation can often be replaced with lots of false fictional explanations and 2) most validated explanations were never preceded by fictions that correctly depicted the explanation.

    Again, as I have said before, we routinely make decisions based on non-numerical evaluations of the probabilities of various alternatives. So I am using the term “probablities” in this non-numeric sense because we are talking about decision making. In this context it is about whether some claim is expected and likely and plausible or unexpected and unlikely and implausible and about a ranking hierarchy along a line with endpoints but without placing or locating the possibilities to a particular numbered point. It is simply a denial of reality to deny that we evaluate possibilities in terms of our evaluations of liklihoods and make decisions accordingly.

    “Well, sure, but a big part of that good reason is that we don’t have any talking, thinking multi-headed stone figures. If we did, we’d have to start wondering whether life did evolve naturally along such a line and we just didn’t know about it before. (It need not be Earth life, either…maybe the Polycephalic Silicon-based Giants of Omicron VI like to visit Earth because of the remarkable convergence in appearance between us and them.)

    Point is, pretty much all examples of “strong evidence for the supernatural” necessarily involve blatant violations of the laws of nature as we understand them. But any such apparent miracle would suggest that, maybe, we’ve severely misunderstood the laws of nature, and so we’d have to start wondering if lots of things we’d had “good reason” to believe about evolution etc. were actually wrong.”

    I don’t think it is that simple, its also about evidence for a great intelligence with great powers causing events to reflect that intelligence’s will. For example, if the rock sculptures starting speaking fluent English and all other languages, even extinct historical languages, and providing us with knowledge that we didn’t have then that isn’t only about violations of the laws of nature, its about the existence of an intelligence that controls those laws of nature.

    “It would? Maybe they like to hide. Or maybe they’re not trying to hide, but they happen to be undetectable by our current tech. Maybe they’re actually still on their distant planet, where we can’t see them, messing with Earth at a distance thanks to their supertech. What do you or I know about the behavior of godlike aliens?”

    Again, if the evidence fit godlike beings then that gives theism empirical support. If that same evidence also supports godlike aliens then all the better for both the gods and godlike aliens hypothesis.

    “I think so. It seems to me that any justification method is ultimately chosen arationally–how can you justify the method itself without assuming its validity? So I don’t feel entitled to tell others that they’re wrong in using a different one than I do. I often try to make it clear that they are using a different one, though, and I may choose not to fly on any planes they design….”

    Your relativism here regarding knowledge is little different in substance than refusing to accept that the concepts of right and wrong are rooted in real harms and thus have an objective basis. If there is any alternative to empirical evidence that points us in the correct direction, let alone any need to rely on any alternative method, I have yet to hear anyone make a cogent case.

    “But I would argue that, in any such scenario, the actual theism part will be found to be empirically irrelevant to the hypothesis, and therefore won’t be favored even if the rest of the hypothesis is.

    By analogy, suppose I hypothesize that uranium atoms are intelligent, and choose to split apart their own nuclei out of bitterness and self-loathing. This has the prediction that uranium atoms will be observed to decay; and, indeed, we’ve observed them decaying all over the place. But does this evidence favor my hypothesis? Of course not; the only part of my hypothesis that was actually relevant to the prediction was the “uranium atoms undergo nuclear decay” part. All the rest has no support at all. Of course this evidence doesn’t show that uranium atoms are not intelligent, either…it just doesn’t speak to that issue at all.

    Similarly, you could prune the hypothesis, “God hates bad people and smites them with lightning,” down to a much simpler version, “only bad people get hit by lightning,” and get exactly the same predictions. Therefore, even a scenario where those predictions come true can’t be said to favor the God bit.”

    Again, what matters is the evidence and which way it points and we do have evidence against uranium being intelligent, you are just mistaken to claim otherwise. All the evidence we have is that intelligence requires brain-like biological structures. Therefore we are not justified in placing intelligence anywhere else. We have knowledge about the sources of radioactive decay, how various elements decay and the forces at work that make them unstable. The lightening example is different because the selectivity of the lightening would suggest an awareness of people’s behavior and the intelligence to identify which behaviors are bad. The evidence we have suggests that accurately identifying bad people presupposes an intelligent conscience awareness. So we would then have self-contradictory evidence regarding intelligence, and that would a problem, but that would still be change from our current evidence which is not self-contradictory regarding the physical source of intelligence. We could be wrong about all of these assumptions rooted in our extrapolating from the evidence as we experience it, you are right about that, But being perfectly and comprehensively correct about everything is impossible. Such perfect and comprehensive correctness about everything is not a standard that anyone can expect to meet. What we want is to do the best we can by applying the only method that we have any reason is going to guide us in the right direction. There is literally nothing that we can do that is better than relying on the empirical evidence.

    “But gods are also commonly described–sometimes even by the same people–as merciful rather than judgmental, or as uninterested in human affairs. Conversely, we have very good evidence that natural beings take willful action against transgressors of moral laws–after all, humans do that!”

    So it would fit with some gods and not with others; it would also fit with some non-gods and not with others.”

    Again, the interventions could be judgemental, they could be merciful, whatever they are, if they appear to be interventions of the sort a god would be capable of, but that a human, or even a technolgoically superior alien, would not be capable of, then such interventions would be evidence favoring belief in a god of the conforming description. The god who is uninterested in human affairs is the “you can’t prove I am wrong” god, we have no good justification in believing in such aloof gods because there is no evidence for them even in principle.

    “Actually, it suggests an infinite number of possibilities, including a human super-scientist and time-travelers and morally judgmental electrical beings living in our atmosphere.

    For evidence to favor a hypothesis, it has to increase the probability of that hypothesis more than it increases the probability of competing hypotheses. I don’t think this scenario would actually make the god hypothesis more likely, since it would fit with some gods but not with others, and would be irrelevant to most conceivable gods. And it would make lots of competing hypotheses more likely, like super-scientists and aliens and whatnot. So this scenario can’t be said to favor theism.”

    The same evidence would likewise fit some super powerfull aliens and not others. We could have an infinite number of different gods conforming to the same evidence that an infinite number of different super powerfull aliens conform to.

    “But my argument is that supernaturalism and naturalism have equal likelihood (or, more precisely, that their relative likelihoods are incalculable) given any possible set of evidence. I don’t think that evidence against the supernatural is possible any more than evidence for it; what possible universe couldn’t have been made by a god who happened to like that sort of world?

    Even if every one of us was born, lived and died in utter misery, without learning much of anything or teaching anyone else, that could be some god’s will. He might be a particularly nasty god, but he’d still be as likely as any other sort–and as a matter of fact, I don’t think he’d be any nastier than many gods who have actually been worshipped. Both Fred Phelps’ god and David Heddle’s are morally capable of running such a universe. (I’m not trying to insult Heddle by saying that; I think he would agree that his god is not morally obligated to provide even one human being with happiness.)”

    The fact that any possible universe could be a product of a creator god doesn’t change the fact that a god could also provide evidence of its presence by intervening in a way that would be appear to us to be an intelligent intervention. So the absence of such evidence still reduces the odds that a god exists. Since we don’t have comprehensive knowledge of everything that is true or false, the best we can do is rely on the empirical evidence. It is not only possible, contrary to what you are saying, to have evidence favoring interventions of the sort that favor a god versus contrary evidence that no interventions appear to be occurring, it is a fact that the evidence we have falls into that latter category. No one says this disproves gods, we just say that belief in gods is not justified by the evidence and that we should follow the evidence.

  119. #119 Anton Mates
    October 11, 2009

    H.H.,

    Anton Mates, are you saying you can’t articulate any reasons why you trust science over “other ways of knowing” that aren’t purely personal or arbitrary? I trust it because science works. It has results we can point to, hold in our hands. That’s not “arational,” that’s just pragmatic.

    First, pragmatism itself is arational; it’s a way of approaching the world, and can’t provide external justification for itself. How do you know that science works? Because you’ve seen what scientists have produced in the past. But the former does not follow logically from the latter. It requires the scientific method itself, even if in some generalized and hand-wavy form, to argue that “Because it consistently looks like it has worked, it probably will work.” I’m not trying to be particularly new or profound here–I just don’t think anyone has ever actually solved the problem of induction. The best we can do is explain why we don’t care to worry about it.

    Second, any liberal believer would tell you that religion works too, at least for them. It makes them happier, kinder, wiser, more patient people; it matches their intuitive convictions; it explains otherwise insoluble questions they have about the universe. (You may respond that religion makes other people nastier and more miserable, but the liberal believer isn’t usually demanding that everyone else be religious, just that their own faith is justified.) For some, it even justifies the scientific method itself, by explaining why the laws of the universe should be consistent and rationally comprehensible by humans. Of course, for you or me, these aren’t the right kind of pragmatic results to justify belief. But the believer disagrees…and they certainly are empirical results, even if they can’t be held in your hand.

    And it’s enough of a foundation to stand on to justify dismissing competing methods. In short, you really should feel completely entitled in telling others that they’re wrong in using a different method than you do. You method works. Theirs does not, at least not in any way they can demonstrate.

    But they can demonstrate it. The liberal believer points to his record of service at charity drives and soup kitchens, or to the fact that he hasn’t been overcome by depression and killed himself. Those are significant benefits. That the “methods of religious belief” might not provide me with such benefits is irrelevant so long as the believer isn’t trying to convert me; whether such benefits should justify belief is, again, a matter of what justification methods you’re using in the first place.

    Because all of this airy philosophical talk about how we must remain agnostic about unfalsifiable assertions is only ever hauled out when some theist wants to protect a cherished superstition.

    Who’s saying that, though? The liberal theist is usually arguing that we don’t have to remain agnostic about them. The theist is free to take one position, the strong atheist or antitheist to take the opposite, the weak atheist to remain agnostic.

    If they actually lived like they believed their own bullshit the other 99.999% of the time, I might be inclined to agree that they are entitled to their alternate epistemology. But we both know it’s a game designed to protect certain fantasies, nothing more. They want to be able to “switch off” science when it says something uncomfortable about their beliefs and turn it back on for everything else.

    How do we know that? I’ve seen many a believer say that followers of different religions were equally entitled to their beliefs. (Of course, I’ve also seen many a believer say the opposite. “They” are not a monolithic group.) You’re welcome to argue that this is all a game designed to maintain their religion’s market share in a science-dominated world, but I don’t see evidence for this claim that’s remotely strong enough to justify scrapping the principle of charity.

    Just because you wouldn’t live as they do if you believed what they do, doesn’t mean they don’t actually believe it.

  120. #120 H.H.
    October 11, 2009

    Anton Mates:

    Second, any liberal believer would tell you that religion works too, at least for them. It makes them happier, kinder, wiser, more patient people; it matches their intuitive convictions; it explains otherwise insoluble questions they have about the universe.

    First of all, when I said science “works,” I meant it works as an epistemology, a system of knowledge, a “way of knowing.” That religion “works” in a self-help kind of way is really beside the point. We’re talking empirical truths here. External reality. Not subjective experience. As far as offering explanations for insoluble mysteries, religion definitely does that. The problem is, being unverifiable, the explanations are absolutely worthless. So no points for religion there either.

    How do we know that? I’ve seen many a believer say that followers of different religions were equally entitled to their beliefs. (Of course, I’ve also seen many a believer say the opposite. “They” are not a monolithic group.) You’re welcome to argue that this is all a game designed to maintain their religion’s market share in a science-dominated world, but I don’t see evidence for this claim that’s remotely strong enough to justify scrapping the principle of charity.

    Just because you wouldn’t live as they do if you believed what they do, doesn’t mean they don’t actually believe it.

    You’ve really lost me here. First of all, I don’t understand how anything I’ve said would involve scrapping the principle of charity. Nor am I saying that religious acolytes don’t really believe whatever it is they claim to believe. What I am saying is that, concerning matters of external reality, you only get to pick one epistemology. If you’d like that to be science, great! Pick science then. If you want to choose faith and revelation, great! Pick those then. But don’t pretend the two systems are remotely compatible or that you can freely switch back and forth between them at whim. That’s intellectually dishonest.

    Richard Feynman said, “The first principle [of science] is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Faith, by contrast, is believing what you know ain’t so. It’s fooling yourself on purpose. Obviously these two things are wholly incompatible. Pick one or the other and there’s no conflict. But try to employ them both, even at different occasions and on different matters, and both become compromised. I’d rather religious people remain shamanistic Luddites who shunned all scientific advances. At least that would demonstrate honest conviction on their part.

  121. #121 Anton Mates
    October 12, 2009

    Explicit Atheist, I’ll have to beg your patience for another day or two before I respond; right now work beckons.

    H.H.,

    First of all, when I said science “works,” I meant it works as an epistemology, a system of knowledge, a “way of knowing.” That religion “works” in a self-help kind of way is really beside the point.

    And there’s your arational commitment, right there.

    Science “works” by, as you said, having “results we can point to, hold in our hands.” Presumably you mean things like fire and airplanes and vaccinations and moon missions–all the technology and procedures that keep our lives from being nasty, brutish and short. But how did you leap from that kind of “working” to “working” as an epistemology? We can’t point to truth or hold it in our hands, and even a scientific theory which we eventually reject as false (like Newtonian mechanics, say) can give us lasting technological benefits.

    So there’s no logical reason why accepting science’s pragmatic utility forces you to accept it as a source of knowledge. You and I choose to do that (or can’t help doing it), and reject the idea that religion’s “self-help” utility should justify the same leap. The liberal believer disagrees, and generally says that both science and religion “work” in ways that mean they can be taken as ways of knowing. That just means that their flavor of pragmatism is somewhat different from ours.

    First of all, I don’t understand how anything I’ve said would involve scrapping the principle of charity.

    You said, “If they actually lived like they believed their own bullshit the other 99.999% of the time, I might be inclined to agree that they are entitled to their alternate epistemology.” To me, that implies that you’re rejecting their argument because you think they don’t actually mean it. Otherwise, what would it matter how they live?

    What I am saying is that, concerning matters of external reality, you only get to pick one epistemology.

    In the first place, says who? There’s no global Ministry of Epistemology. Why is it okay to switch between epistemologies for empirical vs. mathematical vs. moral vs. aesthetic vs. metaphysical questions–I’m guessing you probably use different rulesets to determine truth in at least two of those realms, unless you’re as unabashedly positivist as I am–but not for testable vs. untestable questions about “external reality?”

    In the second place, a single epistemology can involve multiple rules. “If you can test it, use the scientific method; if you can’t test it, use faith” is a perfectly good, and perfectly unified, epistemology. Science itself does the same thing: “If you can distinguish between hypotheses based on their testable predictions, use the results of those predictions to decide which hypothesis to accept; if not, use parsimony.”

    Faith, by contrast, is believing what you know ain’t so.

    Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen–if we’re doing dueling epigrams. Twain was funnier, but I’m not sure he knew more about faith than Paul did.

    I’d rather religious people remain shamanistic Luddites who shunned all scientific advances. At least that would demonstrate honest conviction on their part.

    Given that religious people–if only through sheer numbers–gave us most of our scientific advances, I doubt very much that being a Luddite is required for “honest conviction.”

  122. #122 Anton Mates
    October 15, 2009

    Explicit Atheist,

    I am confident about this because 1) each single validated explanation can often be replaced with lots of false fictional explanations and 2) most validated explanations were never preceded by fictions that correctly depicted the explanation.

    1) Each single validated explanation can also be replaced with an infinitely large number of false non-fictional explanations, and 2) most validated explanations, necessarily, were never preceded by the right explanation in any form–fictional or otherwise. Moreover, “validated” and true are not the same thing; as I said, it’s definitely true that we haven’t found evidence for lots of fictional phenomena, but that’s not necessarily evidence for their nonexistence.

    So neither of those points supports the claim that fictional explanations are particularly likely to be false.

    Again, as I have said before, we routinely make decisions based on non-numerical evaluations of the probabilities of various alternatives.

    Well, sure we do. But unless we can formalize those evaluations numerically, they’re neither scientifically nor mathematically justified. In fact, intuitive hunches about probability are a great example of “another way of knowing.” You use them to decide that a god seems unlikely given this universe; the theist uses them to decide that a god seems likely.

    I don’t think it is that simple, its also about evidence for a great intelligence with great powers causing events to reflect that intelligence’s will. For example, if the rock sculptures starting speaking fluent English and all other languages, even extinct historical languages, and providing us with knowledge that we didn’t have then that isn’t only about violations of the laws of nature, its about the existence of an intelligence that controls those laws of nature.

    Except that we already know that natural intelligences can speak all those languages, because we do. And there’s no reason to think that a natural intelligence couldn’t have knowledge we don’t.

    So sure, this would be good evidence that the rock sculptures are either intelligent themselves, or are being manipulated by an intelligence. But that advances the “controls the laws of nature” part of your hypothesis not at all. Does this intelligence seem to have great powers? Sure. Are they supernatural powers? No evidence.

    Again, if the evidence fit godlike beings then that gives theism empirical support. If that same evidence also supports godlike aliens then all the better for both the gods and godlike aliens hypothesis.

    But theism isn’t about godlike beings, it’s about gods. If the evidence is consistent with both gods and godlike aliens (and myriad other hypotheses, some of which I already mentioned), then it can’t be said to support any one of those hypotheses.

    Your relativism here regarding knowledge is little different in substance than refusing to accept that the concepts of right and wrong are rooted in real harms and thus have an objective basis.

    I would hope the two positions are analogous, since I’m a moral subjectivist as well. But I’m a little surprised to hear you say that right and wrong have an objective basis. Didn’t you claim earlier that right and wrong were “normative claims,” and that we can declare something right or wrong “because we prefer that it be true?”

    If there is any alternative to empirical evidence that points us in the correct direction, let alone any need to rely on any alternative method, I have yet to hear anyone make a cogent case.

    I’m not trying to make that case. Nor is the liberal theist, in general. They merely reject your claim that alternative ways of knowing point us in the wrong direction, and that we need to not rely on those methods.

    Again, what matters is the evidence and which way it points and we do have evidence against uranium being intelligent, you are just mistaken to claim otherwise. All the evidence we have is that intelligence requires brain-like biological structures. Therefore we are not justified in placing intelligence anywhere else.

    You haven’t provided any evidence against the intelligence of atoms here. You’ve just said that we don’t have any evidence for it–because all our examples of known intelligences are those with biological brains–and then jumped to “so you shouldn’t believe it.”

    The lightening example is different because the selectivity of the lightening would suggest an awareness of people’s behavior and the intelligence to identify which behaviors are bad. The evidence we have suggests that accurately identifying bad people presupposes an intelligent conscience awareness.

    But it wasn’t the intelligence part I was attacking in the lightning example, it was the theism part. I was just using intelligence to play an analogous role in the uranium atom example. No evidence we have suggests that accurately identifying bad people presupposes divinity, so we would be scientifically unjustified in concluding that the intelligence behind the lightning strikes was a god.

    Again, the interventions could be judgemental, they could be merciful, whatever they are, if they appear to be interventions of the sort a god would be capable of, but that a human, or even a technolgoically superior alien, would not be capable of, then such interventions would be evidence favoring belief in a god of the conforming description.

    What possible interventions could a technologically superior alien (or a human, for that matter) not be capable of, and how do you know?

    The god who is uninterested in human affairs is the “you can’t prove I am wrong” god, we have no good justification in believing in such aloof gods because there is no evidence for them even in principle.

    The uninterested-in-humans god is defended via fine-tuning arguments, cosmological arguments, and even apparent miracles (provided they aren’t thought to be aimed at impressing humanity.) You don’t think that any of that could provide evidence even in principle, but talking mountains could provide evidence of an interested god?

    The same evidence would likewise fit some super powerfull aliens and not others. We could have an infinite number of different gods conforming to the same evidence that an infinite number of different super powerfull aliens conform to.

    Quite true! Therefore, it’s not particularly good evidence for super-powerful aliens either. In fact, it’s not good evidence for any hypothesis which involves such specific claims. Scientifically speaking, all we could say is, “Lightning tends to strike bad people, and that’s all we know–maybe later we can narrow down the possible explanations for this effect.”

    The fact that any possible universe could be a product of a creator god doesn’t change the fact that a god could also provide evidence of its presence by intervening in a way that would be appear to us to be an intelligent intervention.

    What? Of course it does. If any possible universe could be a product of a creator god, then we have no way to distinguish a theistic universe from an atheistic one. So no possible data could be evidence of divine intervention; this is a textbook unfalsifiable hypothesis.

  123. #123 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    January 8, 2010

    Explicit Atheist, I’ll now spread knowledge of your empirical argument against the existence of the Ground of Being or for many, Sky Pappy. It goes with Lamberth’s atelic argument that the weight of evidence illustrates no teleology acting through natural causes and furthermore, would contradict those teleonomic causes. And both underpin the presumption of naturalism that natural causes are the sufficient reason. These two demolish theism!

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