Shermer on Science and Religion

Via Jerry Coyne I came across this brief essay from Michael Shermer on the subject of science and religion. Here’s the part that jumped out at me:

If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe — 10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.

Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God’s works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.

Surely, though, if you believe that God is loving it should matter to you that His chosen mechanism of creation is one of singular cruelty and waste. If it is part of your religion that humans occupy a special place in creation, then it must be disconcerting to learn that evolution does not seem to have had us in mind. If it is part of your faith that the Bible is holy and inerrant, it ought to bother you that science contradicts much of the first eleven chapters of the book. And if you think natural theology, in which God’s existence and attributes are inferred from the evidence of nature, is a valid project, then it has to be troubling that evolution refutes the argument from design.

The literature records many counters to these points, and individual theists will have to decide for themselves whether or not they are plausible. They are certainly not trivial, however, as evidenced by the inordinate amount of effort philosophers and theologians have gone to in answering them. And if many people think about these issues and conclude that the story of natural history as told by science makes the claims of traditional theism seem rather implausible, they deserve better than to be lectured about what is, and is not, important.

Shermer seems to be encouraging a rather unreflective sort of theism. He could as plausibly argue, “If you are a theist it should not matter to you that the world is marked by relentless cruelty and suffering, for God’s plan transcends the minutiae of our day to day experiences.” He writes as if theism is, or ought to be, a view held for reasons entirely separate from any consideration of nature. Doubtless it is that for many people. For many others, however, it is Paley-style design arguments that made theism seem so plausible in the first place. Others still were raised to have an unswerving faith in the Bible. Why should such people not alter their views of God, perhaps to the point of abandoning belief altogether, upon learning more about science?

Moving on, Shermer has replied to Jerry Coyne’s post. I liked this:

What is the right way to respond to theists and/or theism? That is the question asked at every atheism/humanism conference I’ve attended the past several years. The answer is simple: there is no one “right way”. There are multiple ways, all of which work, depending on the context. Sometimes a head-on, take-no-prisoners, full-frontal assault á la Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Jerry Coyne is the way to go. Sometimes a more conciliatory approach á la Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or your humble servant is best. It all depends on the context and what you are trying to accomplish.

Exactly right, and almost identical to the view I expressed here and in other posts.

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    November 30, 2009

    Surely, though, if you believe that God is loving it should matter to you that His chosen mechanism of creation is one of singular cruelty and waste. If it is part of your religion that humans occupy a special place in creation, then it must be disconcerting to learn that evolution does not seem to have had us in mind.

    I have a Love-Hate relationship with The Problem Of Evil. It wasn’t even in my sights back when I became an atheist as an early teen. I’ve tended to consider it an appeal to emotion and not a “good” argument against gØd. However, the more I get involved in the debate, the more TPOE just keeps coming up as the hugest thorn in the side of theistic apologists. It shows up even when where it hypothetically shouldn’t. I’m starting to think that it should be our primary weapon.

  2. #2 Divalent
    November 30, 2009

    Shermer: “If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe … it should not matter how God created life …”

    It shouldn’t matter, but the problem is that it does.

    But I did get a chuckle out of reading this. If one is an atheist, should one really be telling theists what should be the important parts of their set of beliefs? I mean, if one is an atheist, it can pretty much be assumed that they think *all* parts of the theist’s beliefs about the actions of gods are irrational.

  3. #3 Valhar2000
    December 1, 2009

    TSP: I’d say the biggest problem with TPOE is how often it is misused, bot that it lacks rhetorical or logical force in the first place. It is an argument against benevolent deities, but uncaring or malevolent deities are compatible with it. Thus, TPOE is a good reason to abandon various forms of Christianity and Islam, but not a good reason to abandon all god-belief.

    Christian fundamentalists, for example, often do not have a problem with TPOE because, even though they wouldn’t say it with those words, they do not believe their god is good. Their god lays down the law in a capricious and arbitrary manner and all humans can do is obey it and like it.

    Divalent: Not all parts of theistic belief are irrational; for example, I have often found that if one starts with a certain set of assumptions (which are contradicted by everything we know about the Universe) one can deduce many of the positions held by Fundies. There are often islands of tightly knitted rationality floating in the sea of theistic belief.

  4. #4 Cafeeine
    December 1, 2009

    [quote]It is an argument against benevolent deities, but uncaring or malevolent deities are compatible with it[/quote]
    True, but many believers rely on the beneficence and benevolence of their chosen deity for comfort. Many of their arguments hinge on “God’s love”, which TPOE usually knocks out of the park.

  5. #5 rbh
    December 2, 2009

    I’ll quote a part of my recent Panda’s Thumb post on how Stephen Meyer handles the question of bad design (though not explicitly TPOE):

    A more serious problem for Meyer’s so-called “prediction” is that his two conjectures–hidden functional logic or evidence of decay–do not exhaust the universe of possible design explanations [for suboptimal structures]. There are at least three more possibilities: (c) an incompetent designer; (d) design by committee or competing designers; or (e) a whimsical designer …

    In the end I plumped for a malevolent designer.

  6. #6 Tony61
    December 2, 2009

    I always enjoy your posts on religion and science, but as the years go on I have lost my desire to engage the issue with theists anymore. Maybe my world weariness is irresponsible especially in light of the increasing need for understanding science now more than ever (more on that below), but such is life.

    Recently, I got into a minor discussion over evolution on Facebook with a group of evangelical Christians. One participant wrote:

    “We believe in creation not because of scientific evidence, but because of our faith in Jesus Christ and in His Word the Bible. The Lord Jesus is revealed in the Bible to be the Creator of all things (John 1:3, Hebrews 1:1-3), and He is for Christians the Lord of all and the Head over all things, including science (Acts 10:36, Ephesians 1:22). Jesus said something about science in John 5:45-47, namely this: If we believe in Jesus Christ, then we must believe Moses’ writings. What did Moses write about first of all? He wrote about the creation of all things by God. So we judge science by the Bible and not the other way around. “We walk by faith, not by sight.” (I Corinthians 5:7) [sic... it's actually 2 Corinthians 5:7]”

    My question is How do you argue with that? You don’t. The problem is that 30% or so of the population would agree more with this sentiment than yours or mine. While this disdain for science may have little bearing on our immediate well-being when we consider evolution, the prospect of climate change adds another pressing dimension.

    We will not change their minds. Whether climate change is occurring, and whether it is anthropogenic, will be figured out be science eventually. The question is, will it be in time? Here we are 150 years into the age of understanding evolution, with all the remarkable supporting facts, and someone can still type the above paragraph onto a message board.

    World weary.

  7. #7 James Sweet
    December 2, 2009

    “We believe in creation not because of scientific evidence, but because of our faith in Jesus Christ and in His Word the Bible….”

    My question is How do you argue with that? You don’t.

    Indeed, and for me personally, I don’t have nearly as much a problem with that particular brand of faith. If someone wants to admit they are believing something without any evidence, and that evidence wouldn’t even matter — hey, knock yourself out.

    What mostly makes my brain hurt is when people try to make the evidence support their faith. If they want to say they are going to go on faith, that is fine, but stop twisting the evidence!

  8. #8 W. Benson
    December 2, 2009

    It shouldn´t really matter if it was mud or a monkey.

  9. #9 Tony61
    December 2, 2009

    James,
    You are correct, there is no argument, their faith is pure, they bask in their irrationality. They ask nothing of science and put their entire trust in faith.

    Now imagine if you take this scenario to the extreme and everyone you see throughout the day, at work, at the store, in your neighborhood, has this same glassy-out view of the world. Their cars have a bumperstickers that say “in case of rapture this car will have no driver”, etc.

    And some potential cataclysm is on the horizon: climate change, flu pandemic, hurricane, whatever, and it will entail a basic understanding of science. What are the odds these folks won’t just say, “I’ll put my trust in Jesus to save me.”

    The extreme case is not too far a stretch from where we are.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    December 2, 2009

    Shermer’s been making that argument for a few years now, and it hasn’t grown more convincing in the interval.