Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Reconciling Science and Religion

I think that in this year when Charles Darwin will get a hunk of press for the dual celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the first edition of his book, the question of the conflicts between science and religion will be discussed by a great many thinkers and writers, including me.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennet explained that while Darwin’s  theory of natural selection was not completely original his approach to the question of the role of science in explaining origins was the beginning of referring to our origins without pulling in the need for a Creator.  He was not original even to that, but he layed out a process that completely explains the diversity of all life with no appeal to the supernatural.

Dennet is correct in stating that there had now been a gauntlet laid at the feet of religion in 1859, which had heretofore rained supreme in explaining the existence of the human race.  The prior assumption, untestable yet undefeatable had been that we were in fact a “special creation.”

lion and lamb

lion and lamb

And here is where the real conflict lies, I think.  In early catechism I had been taught that God the Father had existed in eternity (with or without  Logos, I am still unclear on this,) and created the universe because he was lonely for companionship and need us for our love and worship.  Adam and Eve, having been given free will and a warning, sinned at their first opportunity naively thinking that they could have the same knowledge as God.  In His anger, God declared that they would forever bear the burden of their sin unto all generations.  He also cursed the animals, who had until this time never known death nor suffering.  The lions had been laying peaceably with the lambs, the foxes with the rabbits and the parasites with the hosts.  It was always win-win for the animals, if not for the plants.

Theistic evolution, at least as practiced and preached by Ken Miller, needs to have an interventionist God or else it sinks into the quandary of deism and pantheism.  With deism and pantheism, there is no original sin and then from that there is no need for the grace of Jesus’ salvation.  So, the way Miller understands God is as a tinkerer with evolution, a non-“Designer” who nevertheless placed careful modifications to evolution at the level of quantum mechanics so that evolution would still work and lead to the ascent of Man.  We would, God knew, eventually arise to fill our ecological “niche.”

So this is good for Miller, but where does it leave the possibility for reconciliation between religion and science?  It creates a new level of Creationism, in effect.  While Miller, as a crack biologist would bristle at being lumped with Creationism, it is a shoe that fits even it is not a color of his choosing.

Miller carefully avoids all of the fallacies and faults of Intelligent Design, but at the end his finely-tuned universe and his interventionist evolution both point back to his God, the Inventor.

So, I honestly think that there is a quandary for practicing scientists in evolutionary biology who are also religious (whether Christian or some other religion.)

The inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection is largely based on Darwin’s reading of Malthus’ discussion of economics and scarcity.  There is only room for so much life.  Those forms of life which successfully proceed to the next generations succeed long enough to face extinction, in the meantime branching out into populations with common ancestors who may or may not survive.

Natural selection depends on extinction, starvation and suffering.  It is an unpleasant fact.  New species can’t move in if the old ones don’t “move out.” And so nature has ways of dealing with overpopulation; hunger, the need to replicate and the need to survive better than your competitors for the limited resources.

All of this was taking place long before man, and long before Man could have committed the First Sin for which we all need redemption.  The 19th-century scientists who realized this argued that the fossils they were finding represented a separate epoch of Creation, and that it wasn’t until 6000 years ago that God embarked on his final creation; the one that included Us.

With the concept of Theistic Evolution, one would need to accept that the tender, minute touches of intervention are placed by the same being who saw the need to create a cruel world.   It is a world of beauty, yes, but perhaps beauty is all the more precious to us because we know that in large part we will all die and so will all of our fellow life.

This solves one of Epicurus’ riddles, doesn’t it?

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

There is, for the theistic evolutionist, evil in the world because life demands it. Augustine answered to Epicurus by saying that Epicurus had ignored the benefits of suffering in the world.  Indeed, Augustine’s answer is crucial to Catholic theology; it is the idea that one must die in some symbolic way (perhaps to materialism,) in order to be “reborn in Christ.”  That’s not the precise wording of Augustine, but it was the thrust of several of the youth “Teens Encounter Christ” retreats I joined when I was in my teens.  It’s also illustrative of the myth of Jesus’ death and reincarnation.  He died to give us the chance for new life in him.  Rather than dying cruelly to be reborn, we only need to accept his sacrifice; like the grain of wheat that must “die” and be buried in order to give life to a new wheat stalk. (John 12:24.)

I have been reading a new article by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic, which is a dual book review.  In the best tradition of literary criticism Coyne does far more than give a thumbs up or thumbs down of the books he has read.  He is also approaching his understanding of the concepts of the books.  In this case he reviews these books (c -and p because I am getting exhausted and don’t want to create footnotes:)

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution
By Karl W. Giberson
(HarperOne, 248 pp., $24.95)

Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
By Kenneth R. Miller
(Viking, 244 pp., $25.95)

Coyne says that both books miss the mark on Science-Religion and  looks to Gould for help, but even the Non-Overlapping Magisteria are not helpful becaue the NOMA only says that each science and religion should ignore each other.

As Alden said in response to Anastasia’s post , “..because, for Theists, there are no purely secular events.”  Perhaps for theists, there can be no secular science.

The observable world makes so much more sense without using God as any explanation.  Coyne relates the story of Napoleon and LaPlace:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. In the early 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his great five-volume work on the solar system, the Mechanique Celeste. Aware that the books contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” “I have had no need of that hypothesis.” And scientists have not needed it since.

Certain dispensers of modernism would do well to remember that science does not exist to displace the need for an active creator.  It just happens to work out that way.

This is, after all, a finely-tuned universe.


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Guests Stephen Matheson and Fred Whitehead

Today will be a pretty good show, and I am actually excited to stay that the show is gaining some respect and interest from a growing body of listeners.  I received some great feedback from last week’s show when Lynn talked to Kevin Olive and Jim Peeble.  

This week will have two separate segments.

In the first half hour I will be talking to Stephen Matheson of Calvin College.  Stephen is a co-blogger at Clashing Culture, and we will try to get to the bottom of Theistic Evolution.

Fred Whtehead who knows firsthand about religious discrimination against athheists, will talk about the Islamic threat of a separate court system based on Shari’ah law.  It can’t happen in the United States, and certainly not in such an enlightened country as England, right?

Produced by Minnesota Atheists.  Directed by August Berkshire.  Hosted by Mike Haubrich.  
“Defending Theistic Evolution” with Stephen Matheson, interviewed by Mike Haubrich.
Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9AM Central to hear Atheists Talk produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at radio@mnatheists.org 

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How Much Religion Do We Have to Study?

We Are All Atheists When It Comes to All of the Other Gods That Have Ever Existed

Some of us just go one God further. I think I have tracked this quote to the original source, Stephen F Roberts, and here is the original version:

Brief history of The Quote…

“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
…Stephen F Roberts

Last fall, I wrote a brief review of Hector Avalos’ Fighting Words and on the topic of inscripturation Alden complained that Avalos was quote-mining The Bible to come to his conclusion. In fairness, I had only highlighted some of Avalos’ quotes to emphasize problems with relying on scripture for proof of God. I didn’t replicate the entire book in my blog post, and my desire was for my readers to read Hector’s book. I had not intended to make the entire case in the blog post. Hector is the scholar, I am the reader and reviewer.

Avalos also uses passages from other Scriptures such as the Koran to emphasize his point that understanding of the scriptures is a scarce resource because readers need help interpreting what it says and usually rely on pastors, priests, rabbis and imams to provide that help. The teachers have the scarce resource, because they have “access” to the true insight.

At some point, those of us that have tried to access religion through the writings of theologians and scholars are simply going to throw our hands up in the air and say “None of these writers has any more access to the Truth than I do.” We reach the conclusion that no matter how deep and esoteric the arguments of apologists are, it all comes back to whether or not one can achieve Faith through study. Either we are going to have it or we aren’t.

Declaring myself to be an atheist was based on the realization that I could never be “reasoned” into the faith that I was unable to find through prayer and serious attempts to actually connect with the God that I was raised to believe in. Honestly, I tried to connect through the Catholic Sacraments and I ate the crackers and drank the wine. I ventured into a more evangelical and less structured course of independent religion, one less formal but still based on the same Scriptures. (Some of the Catholic scriptures were excised in this new religion I tried, but the basic source was the same.) I went so far as to get “baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

Through all of this, I realized that in all of my own teaching and preaching, I was faking it. In prayer, I never could get the Faith I needed to be religious and I finally accepted that I am an atheist. From that time on, I have not only read theology, but I have read criticism of theology.

I went back to religion and tried Wicca and Asatru. I read the writings of respected witches. I read both the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, and studied the writings of Asatru. I was present at a Drawing Down of both the Moon and the Sun. It felt wonderful and magical and I could understand how a person could think that it was real; but the emotional high that I gained in that experience was very similar to what I experienced while “speaking in tongues.”

I had to finally reject even the pagan religions. Honestly, I have tried religion because I want to be a good person and the religious claim that I have to have some spiritual base in order to be a good person. (Even that is not enough to get to Heaven.) “Something, anything, is better than nothing.”

When Dawkins released the hardcover version of The God Delusion one of the sharpest criticisms of him was that a biologist has no business writing about religion and rejecting it. “He’s not a theologian,” they said, “How can he possibly reject religion or call it a delusion?” Of course, that many of his critics were people who reject evolution yet are not biologists was an irony that they didn’t recognize.

PZ Myers responded to such ridiculous criticism with “The Courtier’s Reply,” a piece that Dawkins included in the paperback version of The God Delusion. The conclusion that we come to is that no matter how fine our examinations of the description of the emperor’s clothes, the Emperor is still naked. Naked is naked when you don’t have faith.

Tangled Up in Blue Guy is often used to explain to the world (at least a very small portion of it) the reasons that I am an atheist. It would be easy for me to just say “I am an atheist” and get on with my life. Many of us spend a great deal of time examining just how atheist we are or have a right to be (weak v strong, agnostic or merely anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, anti-Hindu.)

The problem comes when we announce our lack of faith. Along with the ridiculous claims that we are atheist because we are angry at God, or something traumatic happened, or we just want to be hedonistic and reject that we will have to answer for our actions come Judgment Day; we are also challenged by people who tell us that we just haven’t looked closely enough at their religion to be able to categorically reject it.

“Come to our church, it’s not like any of the other churches. We are truly Bible-based. We aren’t like the religious right. We aren’t hypocrites. We aren’t always shaming you into tithing. We study evolution and it doesn’t conflict with our faith. We arent…..”

Greta Christina expresses her frustration, too. We have many aspects of our lives that we wish to explore and experience. We shouldn’t have to examine all religions before we completely reject the idea. The world is too fascinating and frustrating and hard to understand without spending the rest of our lives digging into all the religious teachings. We don’t have faith, and can’t be reasoned into it.

I’ll use an analogy to clarify what I am trying to say:

I like the taste of beer, but I recognize that some people don’t. They may have gotten sick when they first tried beer, and every time they think of beer it reminds them of throwing up. They may have thought it too bitter. There are many reasons that people don’t like the taste of beer. I am not going to list all possible reasons. Suffice it to say that they just don’t want to drink beer.

So, I argue with them and say “But you haven’t tried Summit Great Northern Porter. All of the other beers you may have tasted might be crap, but Great Northern Porter is made from better hops, it is smooth-brewed. It is the perfect culmination of malt and color, that will finally convince you that beer is a good thing. If you don’t believe me, read this:

Firm, round, full-bodied mouthfeel is what immediately strikes me about this beer — it’s fundamentally a remarkably soft beer. I find it equally remarkable that the coffee smells that enticed me in the aroma are far more subdued in the flavor than I’d expected, giving way to more sweetness with a little bit of a toffee character to it. Yet for a flavor profile that screams “all malt”, the brew finishes with a nice dryness that bears testament to the use of black malt rather than the softer chocolate malt that some brewers use (but that yields a less satisfactory finish). The malt can’t claim all the credit though since this beer does have a fairly substantial dose of hops, and those hops make their presence known in the flavor with a deep earthiness spiced with a peppery edge. Quite nice overall, and very well balanced.

How can someone not love beer after reading this? (As a side note, for anyone who is planning to buy me a beer someday soon, Summit Great Northern Porter really is my favorite beer of all time. I was at a bar in St. Paul and ordered a pint. The beertender accidendally poured me a Guiness Stout, and I nearly spit out the swill. She offered it to me for free and was shocked that I didn’t want it.)

A person can reject beer without having tasted Great Northern Porter. I am not comparing religious faith to beer in order to demean people who have deeply-rooted faith. I am only trying to point out that it makes no sense to continually come at an atheist with a parade of religions and theologies in order to try to get us to have faith in a God or Gods or Goddesses. We don’t have faith, and there I times I just wonder why I have to deny the specific tenets of every religion in order to have my atheism taken seriously.

Cross-posting from Tangled Up in Blue Guy.

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Godless Academia

Is Our Children Learning Atheism?

If, during this U.S. Presidential election, candidates fight over who is less elitist, pay attention.  I see the problem as being one of anti-intellectualism seeking to justify horrific public policy decisions that turn out to be disastrous.  One candidate is accused more often than the other of being the elitist favorite, while the other is on the “straight talk express” unencumbered by serious examination.  Fiill in the blanks yourself as to which is which.

Anti-intellectuals claim that our schools and universities are ruled by liberal atheists, and so the larnin’ that comes out of these institutions is suspect.  One can make a good case for the liberalism aspect of the claim, but the atheism is harder to defend based on surveys of academics. Razib at the ScienceBlog “Gene Expression” reports on the results of a recent survey published in Profiles of the American University: Volume II: Religious Beliefs and Behavior of  College Faculty. (permission to copy in whole or in part not granted, but there is a link to the pdf of the report from Razib’s article.  It’s 97 pages.)

In the survey, the authors show that while faculty tend to be more likely to be liberal/religous than conservative/religious, only 4% directly declare themselves to be godless. Numbers on surveys are hard to verify because of the faults of self-reporting, but that seems to be a lower portion than among the general populace.

I am going to leave it up to Scienceblogs to police the possible copyright violations of Razib’s post, and I am not going to copy the tables nor provide quotes (I don’t want to put Clashing Cultures at risk!) I think that you should go over and read the post.

Aside from the question of godlessness, Razib also addresses a topic near and dear to my co-blogger Anastasia, that of the selective nature of skepticality among faculty (italics mine:)

Am I the only one who has had the experience of a non-science background friend who is surprised that I’m not terrified by the idea of fish genes being spliced into tomatoes? In other words, yes, a modern liberal arts education might make one more skeptical of conventional “mainstream” world-views, but that skepticism is often not complemented much with a commitment toward rational & empirical analysis of the issues at hand. So naturally intuitive morality with roots in our cognitive hardware kick in.

Anastasia has written many posts in which she analyzes the hating on GMO because of Monsanto Foods’ involvement.  People who should know better refuse to accept the science independently.  I don’t know how much of the anti-GMO sentiment there is on campuses, but it  seems as though Razib runs into it from liberal arts and humanities colleagues.

My impression is that the accusation of godlessness is based on the same style of reasoning as people apply to the question of whether or not GMO foods should be studied.  It’s an accusation without in-depth analysis.

Of course, requesting people to apply in-depth analysis is elitist, isnt it?

Who would you rather have a beer with?

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Rationality and Religion

No One is Purely Rational

One of the chief complaints I have against my fellow atheists is the smug position they claim on rationality. We are the sane, we are the rational, we are the perfectly rational. It’s part of the reason that I could never bring myself to adopt the term “Bright.” I thought it was stupid when it first came out, and the fact that it is still not catching on bears out that it wasn’t such a bright concept.


Years ago, I was a member of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Humanists. It was a time shortly after I had decided that religion really would add little to my life, and I didn’t like the personalities I had encountered at the Minnesota Atheists (we have become a much more fun group since I recently joined.) At a monthly meeting, a Unitarian Atheist/Humanist something-or-other preacher stood up and made the bold statement that poetic references to the emotions of the heart are silly and irrational and that humanists should reject them. “Emotions come from the brain,” he said. “Not from the heart.”

Well, my first reaciton was “Duh.” My second was “So what?” I really had no idea what his point was, because he was not making it very clearly. And he hadn’t inspired me to dig any deeper into a subject I thought everyone had understood since first grade (or perhaps before.)

The guy had an irrational position on rationality, and he was an atheist. From my experience, there is no one who is capable of purely rational thought in every area of our life. We can’t even truly design software that is purely rational (beyond instructions to choose between “off and on.”) So, the atheist claim to be any more rational is rather arrogant. And I am guilty of it sometimes, and often catch myself when I am about to make that sort of grandiose claim.

I would way that the beauty of the scientific method is that it involves checks and cross-checks. It is a recognition of human faults, in that it provides a method to objectively determine the nature of causation and relation against the investigator’s personal bias. Religion provides no such means of checks and balances, so it has no objective measures with which to test reality. Does that make it irrational? No, I don’t think so.

Don’t take comfort in this, Christians, because you probably won’t agree with the reasons that I think this way. Hector Avalos’s two most recent books, Fighting Words and The End of Biblical Studies approach inscripturation as a scarce resource first and then examine historical and textual criticisms of The Bible second.

As inscripturation, the Word is set apart for understanding by a select few. Even the invention of the printing press and the “democratization” of scripture, which at least wrested the Bible from the clutches of the priesthood, created the need for faith to guide one’s reading of the Word. It is interesting to me that when I ask about the contradictions between various translations of The Bible (and even different sections of The Bible,) I am assured that with the guidance of The Holy Spirit and with the gift of Faith the contradictions are broken and the Word makes sense.

Of course, my own experience as a young Christian didn’t bear that out and so it doesn’t make sense to me still to approach an apology that way. So, why do I think that religion (in my argument here I am limiting myself to Christianity, but I think it applies to all inscripturated religions) is rational.

Well, as inscripuration creates a scarce resource of understanding, then faith is the commodity which gives it worth. Faith is that which you hold in order to make understanding of the Word. Even if, as I think, one has to fudge the words in order to give them that value.

gold bullionFaith is a commodity which some people are given at birth, when they are born and raised in their parents’ religion. Even Stephen, who was raised a Catholic and found that the Christian Reformed Church meets his faith needs more effectively, is still holding onto the Christian version of the commodity. Others take it later on life if they convert from non-religion to religion.

The commodity is the societal value placed in faith, the constant message that subtly plays in our media and culture that faith is valuable and that people with faith have more of an understanding of their role in this life. It is a given, as communicated on our money and in the Pledge of Allegiance and few people even think to question its role. In our politics it is taken as the measure of our potential leaders as to whether we can trust them to make the right decision. That this assumption is cynically abused by politicians is the subject for another post.

Faith is also the commodity that buys “understanding of the word.” Letting go of such a commodity, so dearly held for so many years and which Christians value as a precious gift from God, would be irrational if it can’t be traded for something in return. No one gives up something as valuable as faith easily. Only an atheist would be so irrational.

That’s why it was so hard for me to accept that I am an atheist. And I accept that it was irrational, if unavoidable. I just had to be honest with myself.

Did I mention that I also buy lottery tickets? See? I am a highly irrational atheist.

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