Defending science and reason

Book Review: The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor Stenger

Price: US$12.92
Paperback: 282 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1591027519
ISBN-13: 978-1591027515

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This book is timely. The “New Atheism” hit our awareness in the mid-part of the decade when Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith became a best-seller. This was quickly followed by more best-sellers from the authors Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger (the author of this book). And then there was the response. Many books have been written, mostly be theists, attacking the “New Atheists.” Although none of the later was a best-seller they did suggest that a new stage in the religion-atheism debate was underway.

Stenger’s new book is also useful because it helps put this whole debate in context. He summarises that nature of the “New Atheism movement” (although it is hardly a movement as there was no coordination in publishing these books). He briefly summarises the arguments of the “New Atheism” and the arguments employed by those attacking “New Atheism.” Then he shows the fallacies in the arguments employed by the “New Christians.” In some cases he reveals the way many of the “New Atheist” positions have been distorted and misrepresented. In others he deals with the substance of these arguments – particularly those dealing with scientific issues.

As an Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Stenger is an ideal person to write on this subject

The nature of New Atheism

Most of the New Atheists recognise the 2001 religiously motivated terrorist attacks in New York helped spur them to action. I suspect they were also reacting against the religious bullying characteristic of the time. Islamic threats to authors like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Christian Right attacks on abortion rights, gender rights, stem cell research and teaching evolutionary science.

I am somewhat cynical about the term “New Atheism” – as if we had suddenly discovered the subject. And the label has probably come from the critics, anyway. But there are some specific characteristics to the current wave of atheist revival worthy mentioning.

Stenger points out the well-known New Atheists are mostly science based. Sam Harris (The End of Faith – 2004 and Letter to a Christian Nation – 2006) has a degree in philosophy and is working on a Ph D in neuroscience. Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion – 2006) is a well-known biologist with years of research and science popularisation behind him. Victor J. Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis – 2007) has a long research career in physics and astronomy and has written several books popularising and defending science. Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon – 2006) is a philosopher of science who has written extensively on scientific subjects. And while Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great – 2007) is not a scientist he does defend and use science in his debates.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel – 2006) is sometimes included as a New Atheist. While her professional qualifications are in humanities rather than science she identifies strongly with many of the positions taken by the others.

New Atheist issues

These include:

God is a scientific question: After all science studies reality, statements of fact. This is implicitly conceded by many religious apologists who use science-based reasoning such as the “fine-tuning” and “big bang” arguments for the existence of their gods. Most theologians, however, strongly oppose this, preferring to keep their god safe from scientific investigation.

Religious claims should not be protected by false respect: They call for such claims to be discussed, debated and submitted to rational inquiry in the same way we do with scientific, political and sporting claims. Religion should not be allowed to make claims about reality but deny rational investigation of such claims. Faith should not be given a free pass.

This assertiveness is a characteristic feature of the “New Atheists” – one which has annoyed some other atheists as well as believers. Even some atheists accept the argument that religion has a special place and its claims should be protected against rational inquiry and normal human discussion.

Faith itself is a problem: Even when held by moderates. Promotion, even glorification, of faith is dangerous as it provides a base for extremists to justify antihuman actions. To some extent even the moderate believers must bear responsibility for supporting extremism if they promote faith against reason.

Proud defence of science and reason: They will assert these principles and oppose any attempt to make a place for those who wish to undermine science or claim territory for religion that it doesn’t deserve. This has helped disperse the idea that science and religion should be placed in separate compartments, “non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA)” (see Morals, values and the limits of science).

Stenger describes the position of many scientists and their organisations that science has nothing to say about gods and the supernatural as disingenuous. This is important today when religious apologists try to distort and misrepresent science to provide “evidence” for their gods.

Consciousness-raising: They have all been active in the consciousness-raising of people for atheism and reason. Their books, appearances, videos, lectures, etc., attract huge attention and have helped atheists to “come out” and publicly acknowledge their beliefs.

Human and democratic rights: The “New Atheists” have all spoken in defence of human and democratic rights. They have been assertive on these issues when many liberals have preferred to acquiesce against Islamic and other religious threats and customs in the belief they were advancing multiculturalism

The hostile response

The richarddawkins.net web site estimates publication of about 40 books attacking the “New Atheists,” mainly in response to Dawkins “The God Delusion.” Study of “New Atheism” and “The God Delusion” have even been incorporated into some theological education programmes.

Stenger discusses some of the reaction by authors like John Haught (God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens – 2008), Dinesh D’Souza (What’s So Great about Christianity – 2007) and Alister McGrath (The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine – 2007). Many of their arguments and claims are of course straw men and easily disposed of. However, Stenger does devote several chapters to subjects like the problem of evil, supernatural claims, the nature of science, faith and evidence, compatibility of religious and scientific views, human consciousness, morality and “being good without a god.”

This makes the book useful as a summary of the whole subject providing the arguments of both sides on all the important areas.

Some scientific issues

I was personally pleased that Stenger provides authoritative and informed rejection of some of the religious apologetics attacks on, and misrepresentation of, science used by these “New Christians.” He demolishes the arguments for a god based on formation of the universe (the “big bang” and “the singularity”) and “fine-tuning” of physical constants. I discussed the first issue (the cosmological argument) in Godless cosmology.

Stenger argues far more believers accept the cosmological design agenda behind the “fine-tuning” argument than biological intelligent design (ID). Theologians who won’t have a bar of ID will use “fine-tunign” arguments. However, he shows that is wishful thinking, that many of the claimed examples of “fine-tuning” just are not true (see Fiddling with “fine-tuning”) and the argument usually assumes that physical constants can be varied independently.

I also like the way he rejects the claim made by apologists, and some defenders of science, that science cannot study the “supernatural.” That the scientific paradigm restricts itself to only natural phenomena.  “Is this supposed to mean that scientists would ignore a miracle if they saw one?” I would add of course not! They would rush to investigate it with thoughts of Nobel Prizes in mind. After all – what are miracles but phenomena that appear to defy natural logic because we don’t yet understand them? And investigation and understanding are what scientists specialise in.

Critics of the New Atheists often accuse them of “scientism” – the idea “that science is the only means that can be used to learn about the world and humanity”. I have been accused of that myself. So am pleased Stenger disposes of this charge with the assertion these critics “cannot quote a single new atheist who has said that. We fully recognise the value of and participate in other realm of thought and activity such as art, music, literature, poetry, and moral philosophy. At the same time, where observed phenomena are at issue, we insist that scientific method has a proper role. This includes questions of the supernatural and the existence of any god who actively engages in the affairs of the universe.”

Another chauvinistic Christian assertion Stenger denies is that Christianity was somehow responsible for the rise of modern science. “Maybe, as many Christian apologists claim, Western religions helped science develop by their own looking outward for God. However, I am not ready to give religion too much credit since science goes back centuries before Jesus to the axial age in Greece.”

Eastern religion

Stenger supports suggestions from Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore that atheists should appreciate some of the insights of Buddhism and others spiritualists and mystics of the east. They believe these can help us in understanding of our own minds and in developing a calm attitude towards life. Practises such as meditation can be stripped of their dogma and supernatural explanations and help encourag mental health.

There is little to fault with this book. Stenger writes in his usual style. A style that is readable, economical and clear. One rather parochial criticism – he is wrong in his claim that atheists form a majority in New Zealand. The 2006 census showed 32% of the population claiming no religion. Statistics on belief are always difficult to obtain and interpret and unfortunately he does not provide a reference for his assertion.

So, take that with a grain of salt. But if the subject interests you, whatever, your personal religious belief, this is a book you should read.

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See also: Quantum Gods my review of Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness.

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68 responses to “Defending science and reason

  1. The New Atheists have played an important role in challenging people to think critically about their beliefs. It’s not helpful when their books descend to ranting condemnation of all religious belief, but hopefully this book raises the level of discussion.

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  2. I guess one person’s “ranting condemnation” is another persons healthy discussion or reasoned argument.

    However, I am always interested when people make such sweeping staments. Is it because they are just describing an objective fact – or is it saying more about the prejudices of the person making the statement?

    So, out of curiosity. Can you give me a specific example of “ranting condemnation of all religious belief” in these books?

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  3. That was the impression gained from skimming through “the god delusion”, don’t own a copy so can’t quote it

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  4. I have just had this discussion over at MandM with Max who was asserting that Dawkins went in for personal attacks (I had said the opposite). He hasn’t (yet) been able to give me examples.

    So, I am in the habit of challenging people now when they make such statements. One day I might find someone who can give me evidence for their claims.

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  5. Thank you, Ken. Keep challenging. Funny how often vocal critics of the apocalyptic foursome rarely have read the very material they are attempting to criticize.

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  6. I remember a certain somebody who was highly critical of Dawkins.
    Despite the international fame of the book and the fact that he passionately hated it, he’d never actually read any of it.
    What was truely astounding is that he later (to show he was well-read) posted his reading list here.
    On it there were plenty of counter-publications to Dawkins and others written by obscure theologians, yet the actual original books of any of the “four horsemen” were totally absent.
    Bizzare.

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  7. I think this tendency that some theists (and others) have about believing anything negative they hear, or sometimes invent themselves, about Dawkins and similar people is an interesting phenomenon. I can understand how people react emotionally, on the basis of their convictions and prejudices, and then rationalise afterward.

    But the other aspect is how, at the current time, this tendency is being used to create a “them vs us” attitude. Maybe that comes naturally to religious people, I don’t know.

    But I think it can be sinister.

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  8. Dawkins ranting example for Ken: (God delusion chapter 2)
    “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

    Most Christians can’t be bothered with such vitriol. It should be incumbent on reviewers of Dawkins to read his material, but it’s not a prerequisite for stating an opinion. Dawkins has stated his conclusion already. The rest of the book is presumably more of the same. A better quote:
    The book is a polemic against religion and does not pretend to be fair. The outline is fairly simple. First, he takes God as a hypothesis. He then surveys the classical proofs of God, zeroing in on the proof by design. Then he makes the case that science is superior to religion in explaining the world. God fails as a hypothesis. Most of his arguments are nothing new and are better expressed by Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian.” His novelty comes in the second half of the book as he uses his own theory of memes to explain the reality and origins of religion. He ends by looking at morality and how atheist not only can be moral, but are superior morally to a theist.

    So, where to begin with Dr Dawkins? First is his assumptions have either little awareness or outright ignoring of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion. His declaration in the second edition of his book that he had no obligation to engage with theology or theological giants in order not belief in God argues for his ignoring the two different fields. He is right that he does not need to read theology if he just chooses not to believe, but he should under intellectual honesty to engage theology if he is going to publicly denounce it. He still doesn’t revealing him to be a coward. His underlining gambit of making science and religion opposing sides is just taken as self-evident proposition. Science is a methodology, while Religion is belief system, each with their own rules by which they play. As thinkers as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty and Steven Jay Gould have argued that religion and science occupy different spaces.

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  9. I’ll get back to you on this tomorrow, Ropata.

    Briefly – I have heard Dawkins refer to that particular quote as “quite humourous.” I actually have a criticism to make of it and a few similar comments in that particualr book, though.

    The quote from the review is more serious because it actually represents an attack on, and misrepresentation of science. Its actually referrd to in my review (NOMA). Apart from that – read The naked emperor again. It shows how silly some of these arguments, initially used by Terry Eagleton, are.

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  10. ropata,

    There is such a thing as tongue-in-cheek. For that matter it’s usually clearer spoken; written down you remove the tone of voice which helps convey the tongue-in-cheek aspect.

    Incidentally, I’ve seen Christians say pretty much the same of the old testament.

    The rest of the book is presumably more of the same.

    Presuming to know what others’ have done is never a bright idea. Either you know it or you don’t, I think. In your case, you’ve basically said you don’t. (That in itself is OK, but it means you can’t claim to know what he’s said!)

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  11. “To some extent even the moderate believers must bear responsibility for supporting extremism if they promote faith against reason.”

    Here’s my question: How does this make faith dangerous? You offer the above words right after saying that faith itself is dangerous. Why not just say that faith, when “promoted against reason,” is (potentially) dangerous?

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  12. Glenn, I think the point is important and it really struck home for me when I read Sam Harris’s “End of Faith.”

    The point being that if you start with an irrational proposition you can logically arrive at an inhuman conclusion and justify it. The obvious examples are the Sep 2001 NY terrorists. If you have faith in a god and faith that she talks to you (even if through your priest or Imman) then you can easily carry out actions of terror. If you have grown up amongst moderates who would not do this themselves, but who instructed you to revere faith rather than reason, then you have a good foundation to build irrational acts on later when your views become more extreme.

    We of course see this in more mundane situation – such as prefering to rely on faith and reject scientific knowledge when it comes to education and healthcare for children.

    So when a parent, or Sunday school tutor instructs children to respect or revere faith and reject reason they could be responsible for the later faith-based anti-human behaviour. Similarly, a religious community which creates that sort of climate could be providing excuse and justification to extreme elements in their midst.

    Of course, when faith is proted it is always at the expense of reason.

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  13. ropata, that’s not a rant: it’s a very funny description of the gods of the OT. Feel free to laugh. I predict that no lightening bolt will strike you if you do, but keep in mind that sometimes my predictions are, in hindsight, wrong.

    You make the mistake of using this description against these specific gods as evidence for your assertion that it is not helpful for the books of Dawkins and others to descend to a “ranting condemnation of all religious belief.” My point, and I think Ken’s, is that these books, if read in their entirety, offer a very important and cohesive criticism of some of the negative and destructive effects of religious beliefs translated into real world action. These effects cause at least as much as good, is the consensus. Because these effects are based on a common root, namely religious belief, then criticizing religious belief has to be a central tenet. Rather than appreciate this necessity, you offer what seems to me to be an apology to the sensibilities of religious people for the style of this criticism, drawing a false conclusion that all are “ranting.” That’s simply not true.

    Dennett lays out a beautiful and cohesive argument why we need to study religious belief and its effects. No ranting necessary.

    Harris explains why religious belief put into action can be so dangerous with modern weapons of mass destruction and we need to deal with influence sooner than later by promoting reason. No ranting.

    Dawkins explains why we don’t need a creative designer to explain our origins. Reason exercised through understanding and applying the science of evolution will reveal wonders about ourselves. No ranting.

    Hitchens… well, Hitch loves to stir the pot, doesn’t he? That’s why he is such a lovable curmudgeon and I appreciate his late addition not least because his over-reaching assertions and razor barbs are so well written! But ranting? Nope.

    But the point remains that criticizing cherished beliefs – like religious certainties that empower extremist actions in the name of honoring god – will inevitably ruffle the feelings of those who wish to keep their cherished beliefs insulated from any such criticism. Apologizing as you seem to be doing for the criticism itself because of its questionable tone or colouring or phrasing or what have you makes that necessary criticism just that much harder to be considered, just that much less supported.

    I’m sure you can do better for the cause of enlightenment than focus your criticism on the context rather than the content.

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  14. That should read “cause at least as much harm as good” in the second paragraph. (Evidence that god works in mysterious ways?)

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  15. @Glen. Not necessarily dangerous, but in any case a faith approach is demonstrably less useful than a reason based approach. Normally, understanding reality (at whatever level) helps when undertaking actions in reality.

    Having said the above, when the uncertainty level rises, I will start to back the instincts of somebody with deep experience in a particular area over a (pseudo?) rational process every time.

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  16. tildeb, I think the New Atheists have been a much needed counterpoint to the excesses of the neocon Bush regime. But they have been seriously off target. Unfortunately the New Atheists focus exclusively on the sins of religion, and want to rehash old battles (physical and theological) which have been laid to rest a long time ago. If the goal is reason and enlightenment, blaming present-day Christians for the Crusades and whatnot, is not really conducive to constructive dialog.

    A fairer approach is to critique aspects of the church that are patently unChristian, in the light of a better moral example.

    It is interesting that “Stenger supports suggestions from Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore that atheists should appreciate some of the insights of Buddhism and others spiritualists and mystics of the east.

    There are mystical streams within the monotheistic traditions that also emphasise such practices. Christianity is an Eastern religion too!

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  17. arrgh Ken can you please close the [a] tag following the words “better moral example” ??

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  18. Ropata:

    1: I think others have pointed out that Dawkins comment you quote is actually accurate – and has been made by Christians themselves. It’s the sort of things Christians actually need to acknowledge if they wish to have credibility in the modern world. (I compared this acknowledgment by Spong with the requirement that communists should similarly acknowledge their history in my article Crimes of Communism and Christianity).

    2: Religious people can’t go on expecting others to censor themselves because it might hurt their feelings. Why should religion be exempt from the same sort of discussion we are used to having in science, politics and sport? Randy Cohen points out in a recent NYT article that courteous and vigorous discussion as an adult thing to do. “This is a mark of respect, … To slip into kid gloves is condescending, akin to the way you would treat children or the frail or cats.”

    3: My criticism of “The God Delusion” relates to that and similar passages where Dawkins appears to by analysing and critiquing a god as if it is a real entity. To me that seems silly – although obviously it is a literary device. I felt Dawkins should have started with the point that gods were created by men and then analysed why men created such vengeful characters. Sloan Wilson also criticised the book because it did not deal with the evolutionary origins of religion. I also felt this was missing – but as Dawkins pointed out he had not intended to cover this. And one can’t include everything, anyway. The writings of Dennett and Pascal Boyer on the origins of religion are actually more useful.

    4: The reviewers comment you quote is typical of the style started by Eagleton. It’s not at all convincing and really shows reviewers up as being inadequate to properly critique what was in the book. It will only convince those readers who ant to be convinced (and there are plenty of them). Theology is a circular subject – and not one which can answer the question “is there a god.” Because it starts by saying “yes.”

    I really have no respect for people who can make such disparaging comments without dealing with the real issues. If there complaints had any substance they would back them up instead of whining about Dawkins having no right to not believe in a god because he is not a theologian. That is stupid.
    .

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  19. which have been laid to rest a long time ago

    Try saying that to creationists or IDists who, I believe, are the (main) people the “new atheists” are talking about ;-)

    A fairer approach is to critique aspects of the church that are patently unChristian

    No, this is special pleading. A fairer position is to point out immoral or illogical things regardless of who holds them. I agree with Ken’s second point on this.

    Regards point 3: I think I’ve said this several times here before (!), but people would do well to know, in an intellectually honest fashion, the history of “their thing” is whatever it is (religion, science, pottery, art, whatever). The impression I get is the relatively few people have really looked at the history of their thing. I think scientists do slightly (but only slightly) better than some because science is built on what went before, hence they’re typically aware of at least history of their particular niche.

    By contrast I get the impression few religious people have looked at religion historically, in an intellectually honest fashion that is, simply because they’re reluctant to look at it from the point of view of men doing things.

    Ken: I like your remark that “theology is circular subject”

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  20. Ken, you said:
    when faith is promoted it is always at the expense of reason
    This disparaging comment uses a very specific meaning of reason to equate it with materialistic rationalism. But there are plenty of rational reasons to affirm faith (in Christ), however unpalatable those reasons may be to an atheist. Reason is not the exclusive domain of atheists.

    Theology is a circular subject – and not one which can answer the question “is there a god.” Because it starts by saying “yes.”
    In the same way, science is ‘circular’ because it starts by assuming natural explanations for everything. That’s not a criticism, it’s just an observation. Also, it wouldn’t be theology without studying the Logos, but some renegade theologians (e.g. Geering, Spong) seem to get by without that assumption.

    If their complaints had any substance they would back them up
    They do back them up with a torrent of books produced in response.

    instead of whining about Dawkins having no right to not believe in a god because he is not a theologian.
    Back to the “Naked Emperor” argument again? I think the problem with Dawkins is that he makes a bunch of dismissive claims about the nature and character of God and the Bible, which do amount to theology, but then won’t engage with people who know more about the subject. That is arrogance.

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  21. Oops by “Logos” above I should have written “Theos” but the meaning is pretty much the same!

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  22. Ropata, you write I think the New Atheists have been a much needed counterpoint to the excesses of the neocon Bush regime. But they have been seriously off target. Unfortunately the New Atheists focus exclusively on the sins of religion, and want to rehash old battles (physical and theological) which have been laid to rest a long time ago. If the goal is reason and enlightenment, blaming present-day Christians for the Crusades and whatnot, is not really conducive to constructive dialog.

    Again, you are criticizing what you think the New Atheists have written about and not what they’ve actually written. The purpose is not to disparage religion but to reveal why religious belief is such an ongoing problem when it enters the public domain. Each author criticizes an aspect of this incursion. In Dawkins’ case (and you seem particularly aggrieved with him) it is the undermining of science in general and evolution in particular that he finds so galling… as should anyone who thinks that truth matters.

    The sin of religion, if you wish to call their focus that, is to put faith on a pedestal and excuse the abuses and lies and interferences upon which faith is based. In Dawkins case, he tackles the issue of creationism head on. With a natural and mechanistic theory with the awesome predictive power of explanation available to all, called the theory of evolution, it is understandable that any and all religions that require a divine First Cause will feel quite properly attacked. No matter how nicely and with whatever gentle tone is required, Dawkins point is that belief in creationism undermines the science of evolution. The effect of that belief is a direct supporter of faith-based ignorance in the field of biology. Because evolutionary theory is the explanatory framework that touches so many disciplines, and because the notion of creationism interferes with even undertaking the first steps in this understanding, from Dawkins point of view his area of expertise has been under vigorous attack for more than a century. He is merely responding… perhaps with a fraction of the arrogance in such plentiful display by the devout, but an arrogance based on what’s probably true rather than what is imagined to be true in spite of an overlapping, comprehensive, verifiable, and successfully predictive framework. Where you come up with the neocon Bush focus is just bizarre, as is your misunderstanding of the actual comparison between the truth values of what’s behind science and religion that Dawkins writes about.

    If the goal is to promote what’s probably true, what’s probably accurate, what’s probably correct, and this is clearly Dawkins’ goal, then it is an important step to reveal why one explanation – evolution – is far better suited to the task in regards to our ancestry than one that so clearly, painfully, and obviously is not. If the religious want their beliefs to be respected by reasonable people, people who care about what’s probably true, then the texts and histories of organized religion are fair game for legitimate criticism, including the religiously inspired brutality and stupidity of the Crusades.

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  23. Ropata – my coment on critics of the NA on backing up there complainst was obviously meant to describe the reveiwers of the ilk you quoted – not the book writers. I can only commend them for responding, even if their arguments may not be valid.

    You are just wrong in your claim that “science starts by assuming natural explanations for everything.” It’s actually meaningless but a common current theological and apologetics attack on scientific epistemology. Science starts with the evidence. Consequently if their is no evidence for religious claims how can they be investigated. That’s where faith comes in. You wouldn’t need faith if you did have evidence.

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  24. Science starts with the evidence. Consequently if their is no evidence for religious claims how can they be investigated. That’s where faith comes in. You wouldn’t need faith if you did have evidence.
    There is plenty of evidence for religious claims but if you’re only going to look at them within a naturalistic framework you’re limiting your thinking.

    Your redefinition of “faith” as “belief without evidence” is incorrect. If you put money in the bank, you have faith that you’ll be able to retrieve it from the ATM later. There is a certain level of trust that the bank is reliable but you aren’t 100% certain. Similar with faith in God. He is unseen and requires a certain amount of trust from people, but his works are clearly evident to those who aren’t stuck in a bubble of hyper-rationality.

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  25. Ropata – what is this “naturalistic framework?” Surely you just mean evidence? What else could there be?

    In 40 years of scientific research I never encountered scientists who talked about naturalistic frameworks, etc. The fact remains that if we actually saw a “miracle,” or a claimed “supernatural” event – what do you expect we would do – ignore it? Don’t be silly – we would rush to investigate it.

    Stenger actually makes the point that scientists have often investigated supernatural claims. The power of prayer is one example. But the only way you can investigate anything is by evidence. Faith just doesn’t work.

    So forget about your “naturalistic framework.” Just accept that scientists use evidence – and that is what is missing for you guys. If it weren’t we would have some positive results – which we don’t!

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  26. In the same way, science is ‘circular’ because it starts by assuming natural explanations for everything.

    Science does not assume natural explanations, it recognises that it you can derive meaningful conclusions from evidence-based explanations.

    BTW, in assuming “G-d exists” you are assuming a specific answer; in limiting exploration to evidence-based explanations you can not limiting yourself to any specific answer.

    it wouldn’t be theology without studying the [theo-]

    Missing the point (entirely!). Studying something doesn’t mean you have to assume it exists. You can study it and question that it exists, too: that’s the more powerful study, because you’re open to all answers, not ones limited to a pre-set assumption.

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  27. Ken,
    Just accept that scientists use evidence – and that is what is missing for you guys. If it weren’t we would have some positive results – which we don’t!
    There’s no problem with “missing” evidence or lack of “positive results”. There’s a wealth of data from history, archaeology, philosophy, cosmology, biology, anthropology, psychology, corporate and personal revelation, which (to me at least) provides reasonable evidence for a God inference. Perhaps that conclusion does not meet the stringent criteria for a scientific theory — by design, it remains a matter of faith, so that people may choose to seek God by their own free choice.

    Hi Heraclides, wassup?
    Science does not assume natural explanations, it recognises that it you can derive meaningful conclusions from evidence-based explanations.
    That’s just avoiding the thrust of my argument. Science explicitly seeks natural explanations for all observable phenomena (and it’s a powerful approach that has made modern life amazing) but subjective things (beauty, love, art, philosophy, mind, meaning) are not amenable to objective scientific analysis.

    > it wouldn’t be theology without studying the [theo-]
    Missing the point (entirely!)

    Not really, I did mention Geering and Spong.

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  28. You are making completely unwarranted claims about evidence – there just isn’t any. And that’s why you need to rely on faith. You are welcome to do that but don’t then cast aspersions on honest science. Reread my review above. See what Stenger has to say about “scientism”.

    Sent from my iPod

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  29. there just isn’t any [evidence]
    I keep providing examples, but you keep saying that! Perhaps your objection is more philosophical…?

    The number π does not exist in a material sense, it’s “merely” an emergent property of reality recognised by the human mind. But it’s still pretty darn useful :)

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  30. Ropata, you are not providing evidence. All you are doing is asserting that there is evidence in various fields. The onus is on you to show this evidence before anyone can respond to what you assert supposedly exists.

    And your example of pi is not an emergent property of reality but a proof, given the axioms of Euclidean geometry in a two dimensional plane. Change the geometry to three dimensional like Krauss does regarding the interior angles of a triangle on the plane of a sphere in the video above and you end up with three ninety degree interior angles. So even here, reality does very much matter for the mathematical description of it.

    You also write that subjective things (beauty, love, art, philosophy, mind, meaning) are not amenable to objective scientific analysis. Really? If not by the scientific method, then by what method may I study the mind? Divine revelation? When a person exhibits a change in behaviour, am I to turn to a religious source to explain it because it involves mind, which you suggest is not amenable to objective scientific analysis? Isn’t that willingness to offer aid and comfort to some alternative explanation really the source for all kind of intellectual abuse in establishing causation, like asserting in the reality of the spirit world and witches and other nonsensical superstitions that end up justifying the deaths of very real people accused of possession? Is this alternative method of subjective investigation therefore preferable to a more objective form or should we just shrug when parents call church elders to come pray for a child dying from untreated diabetes rather than seeking medical attention?

    Be careful of your argument to allow non-scientific avenues of investigation any level of legitimacy because you think science cannot help us better understand subjective experiences. It carries a cost in very real terms.

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  31. Ropata, you are not providing evidence
    True, I’m “merely” linking to it. Pixels are an inadequate representation of God.

    I’ve never heard Pi described as a “proof” before. Thanks for the lesson in non-Euclidan geometry, but I wasn’t saying “reality doesn’t matter”, my point was that “conceptual stuff exists in an ideal Platonic realm” which is not exactly physical but is nevertheless intertwined in all human perceptions of physical space. Pi exists but it’s not physical, because it is defined in terms of idealised mathematical axioms that do not strictly map to material objects.

    Regarding “mind”: you’re being relentlessly empirical. A person’s consciousness, life experiences, memories and emotions cannot be quantified, measured, and reduced to a bunch of equations. That’s extreme reductionism. I never denied the efficacy of medicine or psychology to alleviate psychosis, but not every problem comes from a chemical imbalance, there are some very effective spiritual approaches to mental illness also. Subjective trauma sometimes requires a subjective solution.

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  32. I keep providing examples, but you keep saying that! Perhaps your objection is more philosophical…?

    You provided testimonials(!!!) for goodness sake.
    Don’t you understand how shonky those are?
    The plural of anecdote is NOT EVIDENCE.
    Really bad thinking.

    In the same way, science is ‘circular’ because it starts by assuming natural explanations for everything.

    Rubbish. Science is based on evidence as has been pointed out to you several times.
    Everytime you drop clangers like this, I keep thinking that you must have read the same New Age Theistiky books that Brooks must have read.

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  33. ropata,

    You are avoiding what I wrote.

    You said:

    In the same way, science is ‘circular’ because it starts by assuming natural explanations for everything.

    I replied:

    Science does not assume natural explanations, it recognises that it you can [only] derive meaningful conclusions from evidence-based explanations.

    (Missing word added.)

    Science does not ASSUME, it RECOGNISES. Get the difference? I don’t really expect you will, because despite all your protestations you’re really just another “anti” :-)

    Not really, I did mention Geering and Spong.

    Now you’ve contradicted yourself. Go back and read how you mentioned them: as people who didn’t study theo-. Duh! :-)

    But then avoiding what other’s write seems to be all you do!

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  34. Ropata writes my point was that “conceptual stuff exists in an ideal Platonic realm” which is not exactly physical but is nevertheless intertwined in all human perceptions of physical space. Really? And where is this realm and how is it intertwined?

    As long as you parse the physical from the conceptual, you will continue to assert that both are real without any means to back it up. Pi is a adjective that describes a relationship between a circle’s circumference and its radius in a two dimensional plane. That doesn’t make it real; it makes it descriptive, just like ‘tall’ doesn’t exist in some realm but is a word we use to describe a comparison in height to something else.

    The mind/body dualism has been a significant problem and impediment to grasping the notion that everything you call subjective is first and foremost a physiological process. For dualists who believe (without evidence) that the mind and body are separate, the physiological processes the brain undergoes for every experience you mention is conveniently ignored, belittled, dismissed, and reduced to maintain the assumed separation and majesty of the personal experience. Rubbish. This is what empowers the bone-headed idea of NOMA – non-overlapping magesteria – between science and religion, as if the mental processes done by human brains are actually two different kinds of considerations – one subjective and coddled, the other objective and dissected. This is bogus, as fMRI scans done by Harris &Co. recently show: consideration of tables and chairs is identical in brain location to consideration of the Trinity. The process DOES overlap.

    Can human experiences be quantified? I haven’t a clue and neither do you. For you to suggest that it is impossible is just another empty assertion. But the point remains that subjective experiences can be better understood through scientific inquiry than assuming the hands-off approach you seem to be advocating.

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  35. Heraclides,
    >Science does not assume natural explanations, it recognises that it you can [only] derive meaningful conclusions from evidence-based explanations.
    You are just trying to have your (natural) cake and eat it (faith) too. Science may not “assume” natural explanations but it certainly PROCEEDS with naturalism: (observe natural phenomena, posit natural cause, build theory on that basis). I don’t know why that’s so hard to admit. If it were not so we’d be reading Newton’s Kabbala instead of his Principia.
    PS: Sorry if my original comment was unclear; you have got it bacwards. Let me restate: Geering and Spong are “renegade theologians” who get by [ie. study theology] without assuming God exists.
    This is often your tactic: misreading my comments and stretching the meaning beyond my intention, and then crowing over some imagined “contradiction”. Basically trying to put words in my mouth, in some kind of semantic point-scoring contest, and doesn’t address my actual arguments!! :P I guess it’s amusing for you …

    Cedric,
    Although certain kinds of evidence (hearsay, testimonials) are not considered to be useful data for your purposes, evidence it remains.

    tildeb,
    I’m not asserting strict NOMA, there is a lot of overlap. But empirical sciences and things like pure mathematics, philosophy, theology, arts are separate disciplines. All valid in their own domains.

    There are different ways of “knowing”, as Dale asserted here a few weeks back, but that’s not to claim a Gnostic spirit/body dichotomy. There can be a harmony between these domains.

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  36. ropata – you are using the word “naturalism” as another word for evidence and verification.. A non-naturalist approach would be to make a assertion and not test it against reality. No science doesn’t do the later – and we as a species would have got nowhere if it did.

    You should admit that and use the word “evidence” properly. Unsubstantiated claims are not evidence – at least in the scientific sense. Again, when we start relying on hearsay and testimonials and call them “evidence” we are trying to deceive people. And we will just be trying to undermine reliable knowledge.

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  37. ropata,

    You’re just making excuses. A more honest answer would be that you got it wrong, or didn’t write what you meant, rather than try make out that the other person out to be “misreading” you. You’re also trying to put words in my mouth, which apart from being a little insulting, is a false way to argue.

    you have got it bac[k]wards

    Rubbish, go back and read properly, go on TRY. You’re just trying to “win at all costs”. You just refuse to be honest and simply say that your “my original comment was unclear” is actually “my original comment incorrectly conveys my position” (i.e. you erred in writing incorrectly). You offer a correction to your previous statement, saying:

    Let me restate: Geering and Spong are “renegade theologians” who get by [ie. study theology] without assuming God exists.

    Yes, now look at what I wrote in the first place. Ken pointed out that theology starts with assuming G-d exists. You didn’t object to that, but rather defended it by saying that theology couldn’t exist without the ‘theo-‘, i.e. assuming G-d as the starting point of their “work” and said that Geering et al were exception to this rule. I replied:

    Missing the point (entirely!). Studying something doesn’t mean you have to assume it exists. You can study it and question that it exists, too: that’s the more powerful study, because you’re open to all answers, not ones limited to a pre-set assumption.

    DO’H

    First you defend theology assuming G-d exists, object to what I said, then you wriggle around and now claim to be “restating” your position in way that you say implies I’m wrong, but actually says precisely the point I made in the first place! You’re a moron. How on earth do you claim to be teaching others at your home schooling?

    Now look at what you wrote:

    Also, it wouldn’t be theology without studying the [Theo-], but some renegade theologians (e.g. Geering, Spong) seem to get by without that assumption.

    This does read as I explained: as people who didn’t study theo-. The only thing “that assumption” can be in that sentence is “the [Theo-]“, there is literally nothing else it can refer to.

    Try a little grammatical analysis of your own sentences before accusing others of misreading you.

    You’re welcome to say that you got your English wrong and revise your position, but you can’t claim after the fact to have said something else.

    I haven’t put any words in your mouth: I’ve quoted you literally every time. Go on, show where I’ve misquoted you.

    I’m only reading what you write, you twit. If that’s not conveying your meaning, look at your words before accusing others. (Doesn’t that “holy” book of your’s say that?)

    Again yet again with you writing: You are just trying to have your (natural) cake and eat it (faith) too.

    No, I’m and don’t put word in my mouth.

    To repeat the absolutely obvious, you wrote:

    You are just trying to have your (natural) cake and eat it (faith) too.

    Note very carefully YOU wrote assuming.

    But now you want to say Science may not “assume” natural explanations, i.e. YOU are trying to have your cake and eat it too, but pre-emptively accuse me of that. (Which makes you a very low form of life. I’ll be polite here.) You cannot by any stretch of word games or lying to both have previously said it assuming and later said “well, OK it doesn’t” and claim not to be changing your position.

    Again, if you want to change you position or admit your writing simply isn’t conveying what you mean, go right ahead. But don’t accuse others of something they haven’t done and make pathetic excuses and cover-ups in it’s place.

    On another note, I’m guessing you parrot the Logos stuff, though :-) Freudian slip and all that.

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  38. Heraclides,

    Don’t assume you have an infallible interpretation of what I wrote, and what my position is, when language itself is an imperfect tool. I actually agreed with your point about Spong and Geering. Admittedly it was not expressed clearly, so I tried to rectify it. I can’t do much more than that.

    I don’t think I put words in your mouth, I did criticise your tactics though. It’s difficult to parse the “he-said/she-said” stuff in your last few paragraphs, are you denying methodological naturalism? Are you saying that the scientific method precludes Faith? I have no idea, but if you just write what you think, instead of raising endless points of order, you might make more sense.

    To restate my contention another way: Science is an objective, empirical, “natural” philosophy. Faith allows for other sorts of explanations. No contradiction is necessary (although yes historically there has been).

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  39. Ropata, you keep using the word “naturalism”. Could you explain what you mean by it? How does it relate to verifiable evidence? And how does it differ from “faith”?

    Then, how can you check the reliability of any conclusion based on “faith”?

    And why should I as a scientist attempting to understand reality, pay any attention to a “faith”-based explanation without verifiable evidence? Sent from my iPod

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  40. Naturalism .. I’m using the term to signify a philosophical approach that restricts itself to theories of a physical, chemical,or statistical nature, to explain all observed phenomena. Measurable and repeatable data is preferred to facilitate independent verification of a theory.

    Faith differs as it’s highly subjective, attempts to codify its revelations with sacred texts, and attempts to elevate humanity with its values and meaning. The reliability of a faith based conclusion is best assessed in light of the teachings of Christ, commonly accepted Bible teachings, personal revelation, and scientific data.

    You should pay attention to the Gospel because it will facilitate the ongoing work of God, bringing blessing to your life and to the world. It is verifiable by personal encounter with the Holy Spirit or prayers answered.

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  41. Of course science does not restrict itself to physical, chemical and statistical. Why should it? It might miss something. We take what is coming – no prejuiduced preconceptions. All we ask for is data, evidence.

    Verification, testing against reality is of course fundamental to science.

    Checking against a bible of course is not a reality check. I am not aware of any faith conclusion which are verified with scientific data. Are you? Really? Properly verified?

    You are welome to your faith if it helps you in some sort of way. I don’t need it. I am quite happy to live alongside people who think differently to me – but I think I have the right not to have their beliefs imposed on me. And I especially don’t want faith interfering with my science. Sent from my iPod

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  42. @ken, yes, and musicians could be surgeons, but …

    science is totally crippled by its very basis for conducting experiments outside of the physical …

    they cannot deal with what they don’t have a model for, and then are limited by their model ..

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  43. Gregory, wrong. We don’t need a model to start investgating. Just an phenomenon with which we can interact. Hypothesis, theories and mods can come later as we collect data, evidence, via that interaction.

    Sent from my iPod

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  44. A note in support of one of ropata’s points: testimonials and first person accounts ARE evidence, although it is the weakest kind because, as you point out, Ken, it is very unreliable and hard to verify. On the ranking of kinds of evidence, testimonials and personal accounts are at the bottom.

    I take issue with the model that there are various ways of knowing. I understand what is meant – that we use a variety of responses to perceive stimuli differently (hardly a comprehensive definition but good enough for now) – but I think it is very misleading.

    If I set up a filter for interpreting my perceptions and cognition – I’ll call this filter ‘faith’ for now – and then interpret data only after passing it through that filter, then my understanding is going to be different than if I set up another filter – I’ll call this one ‘science’ for now – and then interpret data only after passing it through that filter. After considering my conclusions from each filtered method, I can claim that each is a different way to know… mostly because the results can be so different in some aspects and so similar in others. The similarity bolsters the notion that each kind of filter is accurate in its own way, and the differences bolsters the notion that the way we can know is also different.

    But is this model accurate?

    If we change the phrase ‘ways of knowing’ to the more honest question ‘does it work?’, then I think we can begin to see a rather important difference in the approach to data between the two.

    The first way – faith – inserts a filter that is, as I’ve pointed out, assumed to be legitimate. It starts, for lack of a better description, with the answer which is then used to ‘explain’ all the incoming data. But this explanation is hardly consistent. Thus, various people hailed as visionaries of ‘correct’ interpretation branch off into sects of separate agreement. The problem here, of course, is that when theistic accounts of why something is the way it is can be tested, and by ‘it’ I mean its various truth claims about the operation of the ‘natural’ world, we find all faiths do a pretty poor job. In a metaphorical sense, I think it can be argued that most faiths offer us some kind of narrative that does contain some gems of wisdom. I find more valuable narratives in the works of Shakespeare, but then I don’t pretend his stories are literal or a coded message from some other plane of existence and I don’t use them to justify the undermining of the rights of others.

    The second way – science – in my simple model removes a filter… the subjective as authoritative. This method of coming to know is a disciplined process – to withhold personal judgment, personal interpretation and turn to the more objective before forming a conclusion. And that conclusion is not the final product – the Truth – but another step in the process of coming to know: by asking that important question ‘Does it work?’, we test the conclusion not by our preferences and personal biases (which are always present) but by the answer to our question in the wider world. And it is rarely a final answer, although by the time a framework of understanding reaches the point of being a theory, the preponderance of evidence elevates the probability of the answer to very close to true, accurate, and right.

    But what has any of that to do with the way to know through love or beauty? The question “Does it work?’ can be seen to be inadequate. It is the wrong question. But that doesn’t make the way of knowing through love or what have you any more true, accurate, or right. It means that we have defined these experiences improperly: they are not ways of knowing anything about any objective truth claim; they are simply different intensities of limbic experiences. How we interpret those charged experiences brings us back to the question ‘Does our interpretation work?’ If the answer is reliant on the subjective, then it has failed the test in the same way that my answer of cutting up a cake to me means the whole thing divided into one fifth for you, one quarter for our mutual friend, and the rest for me, which may work on a subjective level very nicely, thank you very much… greedy piggy that I am. But my biased calculation and cutting interpretation of what I think is fair hardly ranks as another way to know about equivalent fractions and we shouldn’t pretend that it does to suit the delicate sensibilities of other greedy piggies.

    If we want to know what’s probably true, probably accurate, probably correct, then we have to first decide if we want meaningful answers. By meaningful, I means answers that work beyond just myself, answers that are informed by more than just what I would prefer, answers that provide a way to know for others. This way of knowing is a process that requires some discipline but at the very least, it is honest inquiry because it is NOT personal, and it crosses all disciplines that truly inquires. If this way of knowing it is not needed nor respected in theology, if it is seen as a threat and a problem and a dark force, then what does that tell us about the level of respect granted to honest inquiry by that faith? It tells us that theology is closed. It doesn’t care about what’s true; it cares about being accepted as right… without merit. And a merit-less way of knowing is just another way to say ‘I don’t know and I don’t care to know’.

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  45. Similarly, with this utilitarian approach, everybody should remove the right hemisphere of their brain! Who needs this creative, numinous, sense of wonder anyway…

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  46. Similarly, with this utilitarian approach, everybody should remove the right hemisphere of their brain!

    Talk about a target-rich environment. ;)
    But no!
    I will resist.
    ….(Must resist)…..
    I will not pick such low-hanging fruit.

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  47. Ditto, CK

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  48. Ropata -you probably wish you had not said: “Similarly, with this utilitarian approach, everybody should remove the right hemisphere of their brain! Who needs this creative, numinous, sense of wonder anyway…”

    However, it is a common slander against science and scientists – similarly the “scientism” charge. This slander, commonly coming from religious apologists these day, is the sort of thing that turns children away from science (together with bad teaching).

    Personally I think this should be turned around. Because a scientific approach to reality does involve the “creative, numinous, sense of wonder.” On the other hand the religious approach is sterile and lacks imagination. The religious stories are just so anemic and paltry compared with the scientific endeavour. Satisfaction with the “god did it” “explanations” really shows limited thinking and no imagination.

    It is great that we have some really good popularisers of science who can communicate the creativity of the scientific endeavour and also the feeling of the numinous and sense of awe. People like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Carolyn Porco, Ken Miller, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brain Greene, etc., etc. This list will include some religious people – but none of the religious apologists whose message about science to young people is negative

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  49. Ken, my previous (sarcastic) comment was a response to tildeb’s last couple of paragraphs which mischaracterise and slander theology in several ways. Faith is not science but OF COURSE it seeks Truth, and OF COURSE theology is open to criticism. The contention that God is just a ‘limbic experience’ has been addressed by theologians for EVER. It’s not very useful or interesting, and contributes little.

    The answer to tildeb’s central question ‘Does it work?’ is an emphatic YES for millions of people… it works as a very good way of living and relating and building a better society. It works as a way of knowing God and fulfilling the spiritual yearning of the human soul. It works as literature and song and wisdom that reflects some of the most inspired insights of the human mind.

    Why else is the church so successful around the world? Of course it works, and God is actively building his Kingdom.

    I do enjoy reading popular science (Krauss, Pinker, Hawking are on my shelf) and yes they are creative, wondrous too. Science does not have a monopoly on truth-seeking, wonder, or self-criticism.

    Like any other endeavour, both scientists or theologians can make mistakes, indulge in politics, turf wars, obstinacy, or show lack of imagination. It doesn’t make the whole enterprise ‘anaemic and paltry'; it makes it human.

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  50. My point is that the religious story itself is paltry and anemic besides reality and the scientific endeavour. Nothing to do with mistakes.

    However, you are right that religion may “work” for many people. After all they seek a community and acceptance – not truth. Many of us, of course, get our community and acceptance without having to listen to, or give lip-service to, “supernatural” rubbish.

    I don’t think religion or faith is a way of actually obtaining truth – although it often (unjustly and dishonestly) claims Truth – always with a capital T.

    If we could rely on religion and faith to obtain truth, to understand reality, we wouldn’t need science – would we. A few priests would be a lot cheaper than the LHC. (Although we would have to keep an eye on our children)

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  51. The human race survived OK for millennia without science. But religion has a vast and rich history … I commend to you this “Modest Plea for a Historically Responsible Atheism” at The Dunedin School blog;

    We cannot ignore Christianity as a whole and the problematic of the Incarnation in particular, Žižek claims, because these things from an essential part of the intellectual world of modernity. Christianity achieves its unique position in history because it is an essential element of modernity itself, an essential piece of the dominant logic of a globalising capitalist modernity. After the onslaught of ‘school-yard’ atheists, reactionaries like Hitchens and Harris as well as better-informed critics like Dawkins; in Žižek’s arguments, we find that ‘the supposition of naive atheists that the West can leave behind either Christology or ecclesiology is worthy to be greeting only with ironic laughter’ (181). One cannot blithely ignore the centuries of theological thinking that lies at the back of any assertion of atheism, … not if there is to be actual, productive debate – not just people shouting at each other or simply restating their own presuppositions over and over again.

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  52. To understand physics I might read Newton, Hawking, or Tipler, and possibly try some basic experiments. To understand cognition I might read Pinker, Freud or Robert Winston, or talk to a shrink. To understand biology I might read Gould or Dawkins or Darwin. etc etc. There is truth in all these domains: the hard yards in these sciences has been done to a great extent.

    To understand God I might read the Bible, C.S. Lewis, Aquinas, N.T. Wright, or even Geering! I might also visit a church, try prayer/ worship/ communion, and talk to people about God. These are all ways of finding truth. The religious genius of the human race is captured in Scripture that speaks to modern man even through the mists of ancient history … It’s a fascinating journey.

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  53. Already read the article and thought it a bit pretentious. Certainly not down to earth. Or accurate in some of its claims.

    Humanity moves on, doesn’t it. Science has replaced so much of the old roles religion had (and religion is desperately fighting back). But we move on.

    Obviously we will have superstitions and god beliefs for some time – perhaps an unlimited time. And, fine, if you think that way – go to a church. IO can appreciate it fulfills a purpose for you.

    But for us who don’t believe we are quite happy to go our own way, let you lot go your way. (It won’t lead you to any truth though).

    All we ask is that you realise it is disrespectful to keep preaching at us. And quite ineffective.

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  54. Pingback: Science != Atheism « earth is my favourite planet

  55. To understand physics I might…
    To understand cognition I might…
    To understand biology I might …
    To understand God I might…

    “One of these things is not like the other things,
    one of these things just doesn’t belong,
    can you guess which thing is not like the other thing,
    before I finish my song?”
    (Thank you, Mr Cookie Monster)

    The human race survived OK for millennia without science.

    ropata, this is easily the most disturbing thing you have ever posted here. Genuinely creepy.

    “Without science, we’re as lost and scared as a Homo Erectus in a thunderstorm. Sure, science makes us all healthier and wealthier and all that. But to only ever ask what practical benefits science can bring is to live the life of an animal in clothes.

    Ultimately, science is important for the same reasons that music, freedom or love are important: to populate the dark, cold universe with amazing little beings which seek to do more with their brief existence than merely make it more comfortable, or less brief.

    Science provides natural explanations for your existence – a map which tells us where you are and what you are. If you don’t think such explanations are important, existence is probably wasted on you.”

    Dr Mark Lewney: musician and science presenter, winner of the first NESTA FameLab competition in 2005 and presenter of the 2008 Schools Lecture Tour for the Institute of Physics, entitled “Rock Guitar in 11 Dimensions”.

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  56. Cedric, no need to get panicky. It’s just a historical comparison in response to an earlier comment.

    I really like your above quote BTW — it reminds me of the title of Sagan’s book “The Demon Haunted World : Science as a Candle in the Dark”. So it has been. But the Gospel has also been a candle in the dark, and I think that’s a significant omission.

    Here’s a satirical John Cleese clip for ya. :P

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  57. But the Gospel has also been a candle in the dark…

    All you have are testamonials.
    It’s not acceptable.
    It’s meaningless babble.
    It makes no more sense to take your word about the Gospels than it does to give credence to any other dopey old book on any other dopey old religion.
    If you have evidence that your god exists, then present it.
    Put up or shut up.

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  58. Ropata, sorry to test your ability to understand my points. ‘Does it work’ is the phrase I used to describe TRUTH CLAIMS, not assumptions about supernatural omnipotent critters. Wax poetically all you want about god and religion and how well it suits the comforting of old ladies but the reasoning works just as well for believing in the power of carrots. It is from carrots that we derive our morality, our sense of wonder, our inspired literature and art, blah, blah, blah. The prickly point is that you provide no LINK between your poetic descriptions and god anymore than I provide a link between my poetics and carrots. Such a link is a TRUTH CLAIM. You make it, but you don’t substantiate it. Prove, provide evidence other than testimonials for, that link. Otherwise, all your assertions are just that. Call them truth if you want, but don’t pretend that your claim makes them worth anything more than a substitute word for carrots.

    You write The contention that God is just a ‘limbic experience’ has been addressed by theologians for EVER. It’s not very useful or interesting, and contributes little.

    Bullshit. It is useful, interesting, and finally contributes hard evidence that Dawkins book about his Noodley Appendage was well named.

    And don’t try to claim that if only I read the great theologians I would know differently. I have. The limbic response that directly links various common religious experiences to specific (and often impaired) brain function is hardly the topic covered by an Aquinas or Augustine. Don’t presume I mean emotions when I write limbic response. I mean the actual, factual, measurable, knowable limbic responses in the brain to various stimuli real and imagined, where it occurs, when it occurs, for how long, with what chemicals, and what effect this response has in perception. Kant, believe or not, did not write books on neural biology, nor did Spinoza delve into neural anatomy.

    Wave your hand and dismiss such trivial pursuits as to what actually happens in the human brain, and replace this examination with more poetry about the truth we can know through god, but such a dismissal is hardly an auspicious beginning to finding that truth.

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  59. ropata,

    Don’t assume you have an infallible interpretation of what I wrote

    I didn’t, but you insisted on accusing me of a bunch of things instead of reading what I wrote. Think about that.

    Admittedly it was not expressed clearly, so I tried to rectify it. I can’t do much more than that.

    No, you did more than that. You tried to have your cake and eat it too, but on one hand claiming to correct your previous wording and on the other claim that I was misreading your original words. You can’t both.

    You have shifted positions, whether by saying these are “corrections” or not. If you don’t realist that, re-read my previous reply.

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  60. Hi Ken & others, on the topic of defending science, I am interested in peoples views regarding the sacking of Professor David Nutt in the UK. This looks like an interesting case to me as it speaks directly to the problems that science is having in feeding into rational policy making. There is an interesting BBC blog posting in the link below on this topic.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markeaston/2009/11/why_was_david_nutt_sacked.html

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  61. I suggest you try the link without the added bit at the end:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markeaston/2009/11/

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  62. Thanks for the link, Nick. Was only vaguely aware of it but will keep an eye on it now as I think there will be some important issues discussed. It must be a difficult position to be a science advisor. So easy for politicians to use you to confirm their predetermined positions.

    I was watching one of the Perimeter Institute panels where someone made the point (for the UK) that politicians and administrators suffer from not having a science background. This make communication with science difficult – and there will be a less rational culture. Apparently the situation is actually better in countries like China & India (and many African countries) where politicians are more likely to have a science or engineering education.

    Sent from my iPod

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  63. The fact is the Jesus Christ walked on this Earth 2000 years ago, demonstrated his divinity many times, blessed many a thirsty soul with his words, and his Spirit is at work even now. The old theologians may not have contended with neuroscience but they certainly addressed the facile claim that God is imaginary. I believe God *is* verified by science, and He has revealed himself in numerous ways to many people throughout history and in the present day. Admittedly personal inclinations are probably a factor but atheists should admit their own inclinations also — a personal Creator is anathema judging by some of the responses here.

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  64. ropata writes The old theologians may not have contended with neuroscience but they certainly addressed the facile claim that God is imaginary.

    Facile claim? Yes, they didn’t have to deal with what is: they could make up whatever they wanted, insert god into whatever gaps there were, and pass those deepities on to the rest of us under the banner of theological expertise. What a heritage. Today, some of us are more blessed in our belief by such vigorously vacuous inquiries than others.

    A personal creator? That’s a really weird idea. In my case I have always called them Mom and Dad… plural, as in co-creators. And I’m pretty sure they called their co-creators the same. As did their grandparents, and their parents, and the parents before them, and so on. Where, exactly comes anathema to interrupt this ancestry with a supernatural intervention? Gee, I’m not sure… maybe because there is not a jot of evidence to suggest as much. And, admittedly, I have always been averse to respecting mind-bending insertions of woo where no insertion is necessary, required, or wanted.

    My atheism has emerged as a result of inquiry, not the format for it. I doubt the same can be said of religious belief: starting an inquiry with belief in the right conclusion without regard for contrary facts or lack of evidence I would hope is anathema for anyone who cares about intellectual integrity and the truth.

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  65. tildeb,
    So atheism confers superior rationality and humanity? I beg to differ. From a physicist On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism

    Authors like Weinberg and Dawkins helped me maintain a kind of physical addiction to the atheistic outlook. I certainly took pleasure in reading them far beyond what was justified by the content, which, as we’ve seen, was deeply pessimistic in tone and without value as argument. Thus there was probably something chemical going on in my brain… Just as smokers continue to light up in order to relieve nicotine anxiety… so did I find comfort in reading such statements, though small comfort, from the ever present sense of despair that came with my bleak view of the universe as a place without meaning.

    My own evolution from atheist to theist took many years, and I was not consciously open on the question until near the end of that time. There’s no turning back the clock, but I feel very blessed that I didn’t die before I changed. I recommend to anyone at all open to the quest for God to try to become yet more open. If you are looking for Truth you are already on the right path.

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  66. What is your problem Ropata. Atheist envy?

    Just accept that everone is different. We all get on with our lives. Some of us don’t need a sky pilot. Perhaps you do.

    But please, recognise that I don’t and leave me alone.

    I am quite happy to discuss rational things with you but don’t need this sort of rubbish.

    Please respect my wishes.

    Sent from my iPod

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  67. ropata, you’re welcome to continue this discussion over at my blog, at:

    http://questionablemotives.wordpress.com

    because I think unjustified beliefs are the bane of humanity. Religious beliefs, including yours, fall into this category.

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