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A series on NPR examining the science of God brings up a lot of interesting points, focusing primarily on brain chemistry and structure. Titled Is This Your Brain On God?, the series has five parts, each with accompanying articles and multimedia. The part that I found the most interesting was The God Chemical. Evidence has been slowly amassing for decades showing that certain chemicals or mind states can induce spirituality. These types of experiences have been documented by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her  new book Fingerprints of God.

In her interview with Diane Rehm, Barbra says that these experiences reaffirm her personal belief in god, and insists that the science is still inconclusive on whether or not god exists. The evidence could either say that god is simply a creation of certain brain chemistry or that god has set up these conditions in order to communicate with us. She seems to subscribe to the “god on a mountain” idea, that all religious experiences are different paths to the same diving being at the top. This is a lovely idea that could help bridge the divide between adherents of different religions and encourage believers of one religion to accept and value the beliefs of others. However, the similarity of spiritual experiences across religions may be evidence that these experiences are simply due to brain chemistry.

Atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people may have “religious experiences” while taking mind altering chemicals but do not believe there is a supernatural component. If these same chemicals are taken with the presupposition of the supernatural, the experience may be seen as communication with god. Is either view right or wrong? Could these shared experiences somehow help non-religious to better understand the fervor of the religious? I look forward to having this as a discussion topic in the fall semester for our student group. Any thoughts to get us started?

Crossposted at the Atheist and Agnostic Society blog.


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Well, no, of course not.  But why not?

When I was on Atheists Talk with Mike last year discussing theistic evolution, it struck me that many if not all of the questiotheistic embryology vs intelligent developmentns I faced were about belief and not about theistic evolution per se.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, in fact it was fun and stimulating (for me, at least).  But we really didn’t deal with theistic evolution as a particular kind of thought.  We discussed (briefly) the problem of evil, and PZ Myers brought out a paragraph-long question that focused (among other things) on the concept of an “interventionist” God.  Those are interesting and important questions, but they don’t seem to me to hit anything unique to theistic evolution.

So I’ve been thinking about this off and on, and when I was asked to give a talk at a symposium at the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati this summer, I decided to speak on a device that I think helps to get people thinking about what (if anything) is unique about theistic evolution.  The device is “theistic embryology” and I’d love to get some feedback on the basic premise.  So here’s the title and abstract, and let’s see what people think.

Why is there no controversy surrounding theistic embryology? Dissecting critical responses to theistic evolution.

Those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm evolutionary theory are said to espouse a position called “theistic evolution.” The view holds the peculiar distinction of being reviled by both hard-line creationists (who call it “appeasement”) and prominent atheist commentators (who deride it as fallacious). I argue that these critics typically fail to articulate objections that are specific to the view. Most creationist critics of theistic evolution object to one or both of these characteristics of the view: 1) its reliance on naturalistic explanation, a feature common to all scientific theorizing; or 2) its embrace of “random” causal events, a feature common to myriad scientific explanations. Most atheist critics of theistic evolution object to its openness to supernatural explanation, a feature of religious belief in general. Such criticisms, valid or not, fail to address anything specific to theistic evolution. In other words, attacks on theistic evolution are usually attacks on theism or attacks on evolution, but rarely represent specific criticisms of the theistic evolution position. To better understand the controversy surrounding theistic evolution, I propose that critiques of the position be considered in light of a lesser-known position we may (with tongue in cheek) call “theistic embryology.” Theistic embryology describes the thinking of those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm basic theories in human developmental biology. Although the logic is indistinguishable from that of theistic evolution, the view is uncontroversial and the term “theistic embryology” is practically non-existent. I suggest that critiques of theistic evolution be subjected to the “theistic embryology test.” Most critiques that claim to identify weaknesses in theistic evolution make arguments that are equally damaging to “theistic embryology” and so fail the test. Critiques that fail this whimsical test are likely to be arguments against belief, or against naturalistic explanation, and should be considered as such.

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If you follow the creation-evolution debate, you’ve no doubt encountered the name Ken Ham.  He’s the CEO of Answers in Genesis, the multimillion dollar organization that built the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky a few years back.  (The same museum I once visited, but did not enter, but still wrote about elsewhere.)  Back to Ham, I think ‘character’ is an appropriate word to describe him.  And his organization’s abbreviation is AiG.  Wait a minute! Isn’t that a large company brought down by unmasking fraud?

The Clergy Letter Project‘s periodic email newsletter relayed an account of how Ken Ham declared moral outrage over an encounter strikingly similar to activities he had been complicit with about a year ago.  Yes, I know it’s easy to point out hypocrisy in others.  So before I go any further, I will admit that there are plenty of times in my past that I’ve not “practiced what I’ve preached.”

Any way, this blogworthy item falls well within the definition of hypocrisy!

On his blog yesterday, Ham railed against the BBC for “ambushing” a member of his staff.  As you’ll see if you read the link, Ham claims that his astrophysicist Jason Lisle was surprised to find that a scheduled interview on the BBC was actually to be a debate with Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. (I’ve not been able to track down the segment.  I’m guessing that the debate was more like an interview of two people with opposing opinions. )  Anyway, on his blog,  Ham summarizes the situation as follows:

By the way—the BBC has not responded to our publicist who has challenged them concerning their deception. Then again, for those people who don’t believe in God and there is no absolute authority, not telling the truth and deception would not be ethically wrong—as they have no basis for right and wrong!


So far, this just sounds like typical spin.  What makes Ham’s complaints hypocritical is that he participated in a similar “ambush” a year ago.  Only it was the head of the Clergy Letter Project and Dean of Butler University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Michael Zimmerman who was ambushed.  He was scheduled to do an interview on a fundamentalist Christian radio show only to discover, upon going on the air, that Ken Ham was also on the line, ready to debate.  When asked why neither the host nor Ham had the courtesy to inform Dr. Zimmerman that he was to participate in a debate rather than in an interview, they told him they thought he wouldn’t have accepted their offer had he been told the truth.  The best part of there response (in Zimmerman’s own words) is:

When I questioned them about the deception, I was told that since the debate was to further God’s wishes, a minor deception of this sort was acceptable.

I wonder what else counts as a minor deception…

In the end, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the tactic of debates is one that works well for creationists when they rig the game.  And as soon as the tables are turned, they cry foul.

Much of this account was adapted from the Clergy Letter Project‘s periodic email update and was used by permission from Michael Zimmerman.

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I haven’t had cable for quite some time, but we decided to get it again a few days ago. I’ve noticed a ridiculously large number of shows, especially on the science-type chanels, about things like “The Science of the Bible” and “The Science of Jesus”. I can sort of understand why a person might feel the need to find a scientific basis for thier beleifs, but isn’t this counter to the idea of faith? Furthermore, if we read the bible and learn something useful that we can apply to our lives, does it matter if it can be explained with science? The way I see it, whether Jesus was god or man, real or imaginary, there are some great lessons in his parables. I don’t need a dissertation on how exactly Lasarus might have seemed to rise from the dead.

Are these shows always on, or is it special for the holidays?

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What makes for a healthy society? In today’s world, critical thinking and understanding of basic science must be at the top of the list.  It seems reasonable that people with a higher degree of science literacy would have better prospects regarding jobs and such, but perhaps that isn’t so important. I think that people with a higher degree of science literacy have greater understanding of and greater control of themselves, and of their own sexuality.  By that, I mean lower rates of sexually transmitted disease and fewer unintended pregnancies and thus fewer abortions. While these of course aren’t the only indications of a healthy society, I think we can all agree they are pretty important.

I am surprised by how little research has been done attempting to correlate societal health (or even STD rates for a start) with science literacy, although there has been at least one attempt to make a correlation of societal health with religion. In a somewhat contested 2005 paper, Gregory S. Paul (a paleontologist and illustrator) posited that Societies worse off ‘when they have God on their side’. Paul says,

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

Even though it wasn’t tested, I have to think that the correlation isn’t between devotion and social ills but between science literacy and social ills. I can’t imagine any causation that might exist between faith and gonorrhea rates. I can, however, imagine that understanding how STDs are transmitted might lead to lower STD infection rates. I can also imagine that there is a negative correlation between science literacy and religious devotion, at least from what I’ve seen in the US .

Paul did consider the relationship between religious devotion and acceptance of evolution, and of religious devotion and STD and abortion rates, but I think he could have gone much further. The presentation of the data in the paper is very strange. It would have been nice to see some trend lines. Some critics of the paper argue that Paul chose only a narrow range of countries. I don’t think this is a problem, since we can’t quite compare a relatively prosperous democracy with a poor dictatorship. Regardless of its inadequacies, it’s certainly worth a read. If nothing else, there are tons of intriguing references.

While this isn’t really relevant to the point I’m making here, Paul also spent a lot of time on homicide rather than sexual health, which I don’t think is as strong an indicator of societal health.  The correlation between death and the duality of good and evil was explored further by Gary F. Jensen in response to Paul’s work, although Jensen didn’t even mention the complication of reincarnation.


Gregory S. Paul (2005). Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies Journal of Religion & Society, 7

Gary F. Jensen (2006). Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates among Nations Journal of Religion & Society, 8

Note: I am not a social scientist by any means, but enjoy thinking about the relationships between what some people might think are unrelated phenomena.

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It is understandably typical for Christians to consider evolution as something that confronts and challenges faith. To say that North American evangelicals consider evolution to be largely incompatible with Christian belief is to state the painfully obvious. An evangelical who will just admit that common descent might be true is a progressive thinker, and much of the current discussion is dominated by attempts to push back on evolution by suggesting that it really isn’t a completely accurate – or even minimally accurate – description of the development of life in God’s world.

Almost certainly because of perceived “incompatibilities,” evangelical theological reflection on the implications of various scientific conclusions, specifically with regard to biblical interpretation, is regularly decried as dangerously inadequate. (Consider Peter Enns’ recent review of a new book on the age of the earth by two of my most excellent colleagues. HT: David Opderbeck.) In other words, many thinking evangelicals are concerned about the lack of serious evangelical engagement of evolutionary theory.

But help is on the way. I’ve already mentioned Gordon Glover’s wonderful Beyond the Firmament (and I reviewed it for the forthcoming issue of the Reports of the NCSE). I haven’t seen Denis Lamoureux’s Evolutionary Creation yet, but if it’s as good as Mike Beidler says, then the landscape is looking a lot less barren. And now we have a very significant new voice in the conversation: my friend Daniel Harrell, associate minister at Park Street Church in Boston, a brilliant reformed preacher and gifted thinker whose ministry had a profound impact on myself and my family at a critical juncture in our spiritual lives.

Daniel has written an excellent and interesting book on evolution and Christianity, and I give it my highest possible recommendation. It’s called Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, and you can buy it at Amazon or CBD right now. I read it a few months ago and blurbed it, and sometime in the next few months I hope to review it here. In the meantime, look for occasional comments and quotes. But for now, here’s an excerpt from the Introduction, presented with permission from the publisher. In fact, this is the bulk of the Introduction, but the final paragraph is the paragraph I would have chosen to capture the essence of Daniel’s approach and his project.

Walking across the Boston Common one cold winter’s eve, I was approached by a gentleman, somewhat agitated, who recognized me from church.

“Are you the minister who’s writing the book on evolution?”

This didn’t sound good. “Uh, … yes?” I replied, bracing myself.

“Do you believe in the word of God? Do you believe that God created the heavens and the earth in six days, like the Bible says?” His articulation was semiautomatic—as was his tone.

I assured him that yes, I believed the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. I also believe that rivers clap their hands and that mountains sing (Ps 98:9) because the Bible says that too. But I don’t think that the Bible means six twenty-four-hour days any more than I believe that the Bible means that rivers have literal hands.

He worried that I suffered from delusion (which as far as I am concerned is never outside the realm of possibility). However, I reminded him that there are two types of delusion. There is the delusion that believes something that is not true, and there is the delusion that fails to believe something that is true. If evolution is an accurate description of the emergence of life, as science attests, then believing it alongside the Bible should pose no threat. There’s no need to fear any honest search for truth because in the end, all honest searches for truth inevitably lead back to God.

Historically, religious faith, particularly Christianity, served as the loom onto which the discoveries of science were woven. It was within a Christian theological framework that scientific disclosure found its transcendent meaning. Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, believers all, saw their work not as replacements for faith, but as extensions of it. The idea was that the best of science and the best of theology concerted to give human beings deeper insight into the workings of the universe and, subsequently, into the divine character. Scientific discovery was received with gratitude to the Almighty for the wonder of his creation. Scientists, alongside the psalmist, would proclaim, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps 19:1 NIV).

The balance between faith and science (or reason) was established in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, building on Augustine, established a delicate equilibrium between theology (reasoning down from faith) and philosophy, analogous to science (reasoning up from sensory data). Aquinas, unlike the Reformers who would follow, taught that human senses and rational faculties, as made by God, were competent for understanding reality, albeit from a limited standpoint. The limits were filled in by theology. Aquinas asserted that God acted through “secondary causes,” creating the world according to his laws and then giving nature room to unfold in accordance with God’s laws. Whatever was good science was good as far as God is concerned; science simply described what God had already done.

However, if God operated mostly behind the scenes as the prime cause, then it wasn’t long before people started wondering whether he was there at all. In time, reliance upon divine revelation gave way to human reason in its Enlightenment form, and soon the supernatural was rendered superfluous. As science advanced, Christians reacted by retreating into a sort of Manichean dualism whereby science was demonized and faith grew reliant on a super-supernatural world where any ordinary explanation raised suspicion. With battle lines so starkly drawn, scientists were left to assume that any move toward Christian faith was akin to committing intellectual suicide. Conversely, the faithful relied on science for their medicine or the weather forecast, but much more than that was to attempt spiritual suicide. Let a spark of evolution in the door and you were liable to catch the whole house on fire.

The controversy between Christian faith and evolution is exacerbated by increasing mounds of scientific data that lend weight to evolution. Paleontology, biochemistry, cosmology, physics, genetics—you name the discipline—each regularly puts forth newly discovered evidence in support of Darwin’s simple idea of descent with modification. While some people of faith choose to keep their doors closed, shutting out science is not necessary. Christian faith by definition defies human conceptions of reality (1 Cor 3:19). Its claims are grounded in extraordinary events that defy scientific explanation (most importantly the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus). But God is not only present where science is silent; he remains present even where science speaks loudest. The expansiveness of the universe, the beauty and complexity of organic life and the remarkable makeup of human consciousness—naturally explicable occurrences—are also interpreted by Christians as manifestations of God (Rom 1:20). Christianity consistently asserts that all truth is God’s truth, implying that faith and science, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what is. Why bother talking about God if God has no relation to observable reality?

An avalanche of books has been devoted to the controversy between Christianity and evolution. Don’t expect a contribution to that debate here. There are plenty of other places where that conversation occurs. Instead, I’d like to look at Christian faith in the face of evolution as essentially true as most scientists assert. Now I know that just because a particular theory makes sense of the way something could have happened, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually happened that way. But if evolution truly provides an accurate description of life on earth, and things did happen the way evolution describes, how might we rethink the way we think about what the Bible says? To rethink what we think about the Bible is not to rewrite Scripture, nor is it to capitulate to Christianity’s detractors. Instead, rethinking and reworking our theology in light of accurate data results in a more dependable and resilient theology. To be a serious Christian is to seek truth and find it as revealed by God both in Scripture and in nature. If God is the maker of heaven and earth, as we believe, then the heavens and earth, as science describes them, have something to say about God. Natural selection need not imply godless selection. To be reliable witnesses of creation can’t help but make us more reliable witnesses to the Creator.

I hope you’re intrigued. Go buy the book—you’ll love it—then look for occasional conversations here or at Quintessence of Dust about some of Daniel’s ideas.

Note: crossposted from Quintessence of Dust; originally posted there 23 October.

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A New Carnival

Skeptical Parent CrossingI am sure that soon there will be a rash of original posts here at Clashing Culture, but that is the drag of a secondary blog.  In the meantime, we hope that you enjoy this link to a new carnival.  One of the posts that originated here has been included in “Skeptical Parent Crossing.”

The topic of the carnival is an approach by both parents on how to birth and raise their kids and for how to teach kids to think critically about the the world around them.  There are some bloggers that I was all ready familiar with, such as C. L. Hanson (who I met and found to be really cool,) and Kylie from Podblack Cat, the Australian Skeptic.

Please take the time to read through the blog, and consider your on topical submissions for the next issue.  Clashing Culture will be hosting our own edition.  In May, about the time that school is out.

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