Category Archives: theology

Does science lead to secularism?

Some writings on the science/religion relationship are important and interesting. But we have to sieve through such a lot of rubbish to find the gems. I guess its one area where most people have their own agenda and can’t keep it out of their reasoning.

Frank James’s  article “Science and Religion in the London Library Magazine is an example of the latter agenda-driven analysis. He questions the role of science in the decline of Christianity. He claims that most modern science writing assumes an anti-religious stance. And such writings assume “that science has displaced Christianity during the 20th Century and that has been achieved solely due to science providing a ‘true’, evidence-based description of the world as opposed to mythic beliefs.”

Mind you, he provides no examples or evidence for this claim, although he obviously felt obliged to throw in the usual reference to “the strident outpourings of Richard Dawkins and others.”

In other words, a classic example of straw-mannery. I certainly have never read such a bald claim in the Dawkins’ writings, or the writings of any scientist. And certainly not in the writings of scientists who have researched religion, its origins and evolution.

But perhaps the straw man is just a literary device to enable James to convey his own onions on the relationship between science and religion and the real cause of secularism.* Let’s look at his claims:

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Science, religion and respect for meaning

Religious apologists seem to be obsessed with the relationship between religion and science. Not so much for scientists who generally just want to get on with their job of understanding reality and helping humanity make use of the resulting knowledge.

But in retirement I have had more opportunity to come across the argument’s used by apologists to explain away the differences between scientific and religious knowledge, or to deny scientific knowledge. The overwhelming impression I have is one of bafflegab, mental gymnastics, strawmannery and jelly wrestling. Certainly not honesty.

One thing that gets up my nose is the lack of respect for language, for the meaning of words. Particularly important words like “truth” and “knowledge.” An example is this comment in a review of  apologist John Lennox‘s new book at Christian News (see Can Science, Creationism Coexist? One Christian Author Says Yes):

“In his recently published book, Seven Days that Divide the World, Lennox sets out to prove that Christians can believe in the theories of science and maintain the truth of Scripture.”

These people use the word “truth,” or very often “Truth,” to describe a collection of bronze age myths, parables and mysticism!  As for science – well that’s only “theory” – and you know what meaning they usually give to that word. No, not the scientific understanding of theory as “a set of facts, propositions, or principles analysed in their relation to one another and used, especially in science, to explain phenomena.” No, more the vague popular use of “theory” as “an idea of or belief about something arrived at through speculation or conjecture.”

This always strikes me as the height of arrogance – an arrogance that often leads to problems. One has only to think of Galileo’s treatment because his persecuters thought he was daring to question the “Truth” of scripture.

Not that scientists usually use the word “truth”, and especially not “Truth” to describe scientific knowledge. We are well aware of the provisional, but progressive, nature of scientific knowledge. Always amenable to improvement and change as it is checked against reality.

Scientific knowledge is relative  – not absolute, not “Truth”, but it’s the best we have. If science cannot give us specific knowledge about reality one can be sure no other method can.

That’s the other thing that get’s up my nose. The arrogance of some apologists who will seriously suggest they have higher standards. Because while scientific knowledge is amenable to change and improvement religious knowledge is not. It is the “Truth.”

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Ideology and violence

Religious violence a concern of academics too

I want to comment here on some strawmannery from a local theologian/philosopher of religion (Matt at MandM) in his post Religion and Violence. But first two important points:

1: He concentrates on the common perception of a relationship between religion and violence made by atheist writers (he claims these “themes abound in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.”). Matt’s obsession with atheists obscures the fact that this theme is also common in academia, and indeed theology. Theologian Alister McGrath, for example, has welcomed the fact that this problem has been brought to popular attention.  And this recognised relationship between religion and violence concerns many people who for governmental or professional reasons have to deal with terrorism and its influence.

2: Any analysis which limits violence and terrorism to the influence of religion is far too simple. Unfortunately this naivety is sometimes advanced by using Stephen Weinberg’s quote:

“With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

I criticised the way atheists sometimes use this quote in my article Sources of evil? Partly because it does lead to them being misrepresented, open to strawmannery.  I pointed out:

“None of these authors [Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris   and Michael Jordan] claim religion inevitably leads to evil. As Richard Dawkins said in a recent Newsweek article “It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists.” Nor are they denying the evil carried out in the name of non-religous causes.”

That’s why I suggested that Weinberg’s quote should have really read:

“With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes ideology.”

Bait and switch? Continue reading

Philosophical sausages

Any scientist who has experienced the frustration of debating the theologically inclined, or the philosophically inclined who have a theological bent, will appreciate this. I certainly do.

It’s from Answers in Genes: Show me the Sausages! (and thanks to Pharyngula for the link I think this is another version of The Courtier’s Reply)


Show me the Sausages!

A philosopher designs a marvellous sausage machine. A scientist comes
to marvel at this wonderful creation, and raises an eyebrow.
The philosopher says, “Ah, behold the wonderful cogs and sprockets and
temperature-controlled mixing chambers in my wonderful machine -
surely you can see how it must produce the most fantastic sausages!”
The scientist says “Yes, that is all very interesting. Show me the sausages.”
The philosopher says “How dare you, a mere scientist, question my
wonderful philosophical reasoning?”
Scientist: “I’m not questioning your reasoning – I want to know if
your machine really produces sausages.”
Philosopher: “Can you point to any flaw in my argument that it
produces sausages?”
Sci: “I don’t know – I just want to know if it produces sausages. Here
is some meat. Why don’t you feed it through and see if you get any
sausages?”
Phil: “And sully my wonderful machine with mere offal?”
Sci: “You said it was a sausage machine. I want to see the sausages.”
Phil: “Are you questioning my ingredients?”
Sci: “I’m just questioning whether it produces sausages or not. Show
me the sausages.”
Phil: “Ah, so you cannot attack my premises and you cannot attack my
argument. Therefore I’m right and you lose.”
Sci: “Don’t be such a melodramatic prancing arse. Show me the sausages.”
Phil: “The sausages inevitably flow from the argument. You see my fine
machine. You can even inspect the meat & onions. The sausages
necessarily flow.”
Sci: “Show me the sausages or I’m off to Tesco.”
Phil: “You are a mere scientist with no understanding of philosophical matters.”
Sci: “Bye.”


Love that “Don’t be such a melodramatic prancing arse.” Reminds me of a few people!

I have often thought that “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” is an important philosophical principle. Unfortunately one that some people never learn.

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Acceptance of science – dangerous for some

In the UK The Independent is reporting that a Muslim scientist is being threatened for his acceptance of evolutionary science (see Scientist Imam threatened over Darwinist views). The scientist is Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. His “crime” – he delivered a a lecture on “Islam and the theory of evolution” at his East London mosque, Masjid al-Tawhid.

Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer, has received death threats from extremists - Credit The Independent

His lecture was disrupted by fanatics who distributed leaflets claiming that “Darwin is blasphemy”. Dr Hasan told The Independent: “One man came up to me during the lecture and said ‘You are an apostate and should be killed’” .

Hasan has now been forced to retract his claim that evolutionary science is compatible with Islam. His father has also issued a statement to the mosque saying: “”I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused.” And his family has urged him not to return to the mosque, where he is a prominent imam, because of their concern for his safety.

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Overlapping Magisteria?

The relationship between science and religion, and the demarcation of their fields, or magisteria, seems to be topical at the moment. On the one had the boundary appears to be violated by religious promotion of creationism and attacks on evolutionary science. On the other, scientists are starting to make assertive comments about the nature of morality and the lack of any requirement for gods in understanding the origins of the universe and life.

This has been accompanied by debates among scientists about how to relate to religion. Whether religion should be immune from criticism or not? Should we challenge religion’s fanciful claims about reality?

So its not surprising that the concept of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” is being discussed again.

This concept has both its supporters and critics. Different people ascribe different meanings to the concept. And there are of course political and ideological reasons for this.

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Philosophical problems

Here’s a post I wrote several years ago. OK, it’s a filler as I am out of town but still relevant – especially with the current philosophical arguments raving on here.

You must watch the Monty Python video.

I seem to have upset someone with my comment “bugger the ‘philosophy’” in a recent discussion. Of course I wasn’t trying to deny the value and role of philosophy – just the way it is sometimes used. My comment was meant in the same way that a previous Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jim Bolger, commented “bugger the polsters” on election night 1993. He did so to underline that the pre-election polls were wrong – and this was shown by the election itself.

I am amazed at how often people will use ‘philosophical’ arguments to support unscientific positions, such as creationism/intelligent design. ‘Philosophical’ arguments also seem to play a central role in theology.

Philosophical and logical arguments have their place. In many ways mathematics can be seen as arguments by logic. The danger lies in using them as a substitute for real experience. Such arguments easily become divorced from reality and can then be used to justify conclusions which conflict with reality. In particular they give free reign to subjective opinions, personal prejudices and emotional commitment to conclusions.

I guess that is why some people prefer ‘philosophical’ and ‘logical’ arguments to consideration of empirical evidence.

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“Other ways of knowing” purpose?

A recent panel discussion in Mexico debated the question “Does the universe have a purpose?” The speakers for the affirmative were Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig and Douglas Geivett. And for the negative Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins.

I don’t think the discussion was very good. Contributions were short and the original video is in Spanish. It’s also full of hoopla. Reminds we of an international scientific congress I attended in Mexico some time ago. All the official meetings involved many young women as decoration. And the Mexicans are certainly a very musical people. Music was everywhere.

However, I have included a video below of the short contribution made by Richard Dawkins in this discussion. It gives an idea of the issues discussed:

Prof.Richard Dawkins destroys Dr.William Lane C…, posted with vodpod

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Secularism is important

Book Review: The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur

Price: US$26.95; NZ$53.97
Paperback: 328 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (September 7, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

It’s funny how some people allow their emotional reactions to interfere with their understanding of, and reaction to, words and their meaning. Almost 40 years ago I had a problem posting a letter to an address in the former East Germany. The women behind the counter in the post office refused to accept it because its address included the words “German Democratic Republic.” While she muttered things like “Soviet Zone,” and I was expecting her to starting foaming at the mouth, her colleague had to take over and provide me with the correct stamp.

Some people react the same way to words like secular and secularism. They equate these with atheism, or “worse.” So they animate their definitions of such words by their personal aversion to denial of their gods.

Pope Benedict XVI often warns of the “moral dangers” of secularism and many theologians and apologists wilfully equate secularism with attempts to destroy or eliminate religion.

Definitions and common understandings of words are important- especially where there is emotional baggage. So the first chapter of Paul Cliteur’s book is welcome – and probably necessary. “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism” reviews the possible definitions of these words and argues the case for a consistent and accurate meaning – taking 50 pages to do so.

And far from secularism being hostile to religion Cliteur sees it as “an essential precondition for the free development of religion. . . . It would be a serious mistake to consider the values espoused in the secular outlook as in any way inimical to religion or the rights of religious believers. On the contrary, secularism is the only perspective under which people of different religious persuasions can live together.”

The book devotes much of its content to justification of free thought. Chapter 2 argues that criticism of religion as central to free thought.

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Waking up to morality

I have come to the conclusion that a lot of what is said and written about morality is rubbish. So I am pleased to see that, at last, science is opening up to the idea that it can investigate this area of human interest.

Part of that rubbish has been the idea that morality is “off limits to science.” That it is ring-fenced. I think this attitude partly explains the hostility we see expressed towards the scientific study of morality and scientists speaking out on the topic. And this hostility is coming from some scientists, as well as theologians and philosophers.

So I am looking forward to any debate resulting from the recent New Scientist opinion special “Science Wakes up to Morality.” (See October 16 issue No 2782).

This includes short articles by eight scientists, philosophers and journalists. Well worth reading.

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