Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 5

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October 25, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 5

This is the fifth installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.

The fourth straw man I want to look at in this series is the claim that religion represents a fossilized set of ideas that only reluctantly change in the face of overwhelming pressure from science. This straw man has two faces: 1) the claim that religion does not and indeed cannot change on its own; and 2) the claim that forcing religion to change represents some kind of “triumph” of science over religion.

I am happy to concede that science does indeed trump religious truth about the natural world. Galileo and Darwin showed this only too clearly, even if it is completely lost on Ken Ham and Al Mohler. If it were not for science we would still be living on a globe we thought was flat, stationary, and 6000 years old. Kudos to science for trumping religion on those claims. But the ongoing progress of science doesn’t just trump religious ideas; it also trumps other scientific ideas.

In the first part of the 20th century Einstein dethroned Newton in ways that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier. But discovering that the venerable Newton got a few things wrong was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that a secure and settled science had been in error for more than two centuries. Einstein’s revolution was a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Such unambiguous leaps forward are rarely considered to be damning judgments on the ideas being set aside. And few scientists would say that the overturning of past ideas automatically renders current ideas suspect, since they may meet the same fate.

But is there not a strange double standard here? Theology and biblical studies move forward as well in dramatic and revolutionary ways but New Atheist critics dismiss this progress because it is not acknowledged by lay people on Main Street or in intellectual backwaters like those where Al Mohler and Ken Ham paddle about. This is a gigantic blind spot for people like Richard Dawkins, on par with failing to acknowledge that electricity has changed the world in some important ways just because there are some villages in Tibet go without it.

In The God Delusion Dawkins eloquently skewers the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament—the God that supposedly commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages and who occasionally went on his own rampages, flooding the planet or raining fire and brimstone on wicked cities. But who believes in this deity any more, besides those same fundamentalists who think the earth is 10,000 years old? Modern theology has moved past this view of God.

Traditional religious views on slavery, women, and divorce have all changed dramatically, and in response to theological, moral and ethical reflection—not scientific advances. The old views still circulate on Main Street, but then so do Newton’s old ideas about motion. Two hundred years ago many, if not most, Christians in America believed that slavery was a part of God’s ordained social order. Now almost none of them believe this. And this revolution in thought was generated largely from within by informed Christian abolitionists.

How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on Main Street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed? To insist that the authentically religious are defined by their inability to move out of the past is to create a straw man.

I am not equating scientific and theological progress. They are very different enterprises. Christianity is rooted in unique historical events that were recorded by the early church as they tried to make sense of their encounters with the risen Christ. This was a unique and mysterious event that will never be “understood” within the explanatory framework of science.

Theologians from the first century into the present have reflected on the meaning of this defining event. Christianity is anchored, in many ways, to this history that constrains change. But Christianity as a religious tradition also involves an ongoing conversation with a changing larger world, an internal dialog constantly being refreshed, and continual reflection on the received wisdom. This conversation is dynamic and, like the scientific conversation, important changes occur from time to time.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Ray - #37486

October 30th 2010

@paplinton

Thanks. I’m glad you like my words.

@sy

It’s a bit unseemly to be harping on atheists for attacking scientifically literate Christians, when it is attached to a post by one of those scientifically literate Christians entitled “exposing the straw men of new atheism part 5.” I could just as easily ask “what is your real agenda in attacking scientifically literate atheists like Dawkins and Coyne?” I don’t really want to speculate on who started this argument, but it’s being perpetuated by both sides. Not that open debate over the rationality of Christianity is a bad thing or something that would prevent collaboration on other issues like the teaching of Evolution.


Barry - #37511

October 30th 2010

Roger - #36996

“The Biblical basis for the abolition of slavery can be found in the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt”

Why wasn’t that a strong enough passage to prevent christians from supporting slavery in the first place?


Barry - #37512

October 30th 2010

sy - #37289

“what is your problem with him if he believes in the virgin birth and the resurrection? Should you not accept this person as a valuable ally in your struggle to preserve and defend the teaching of science? Isnt the the title of your favorite book and web site “Why Evolution is true”? So if someone says “I accept evolution, and love Jesus Christ” what is your problem with that?”

I couldn’t care less what you believe, I just want to point out your obvious double standard regarding HOW you conduct science on the one hand, with your inconsistent application of tests of evidence in your religious beliefs. There are perfectly natural explanations for the virgin birth and the ressurection. If you applied your scientific mind to these questions you would consider them ridiculous. So you invent all manner of “sophisticated” (call it sophistry) contorted reasoning to justify why you think they are true.

The fact that scientists maintain this contradictory and philosophically inconsistent reasoning give the real religious nutcases a veneer of “respectability” and protection they don’t deserve. You should be ashamed to even pose the question.


Martin Rizley - #37520

October 30th 2010

Ray,  We obviously are coming at the question of biblical interpretation from two different perspectives of what the Bible is.  I, like many of your Jewish ancestors, regard the Bible as a divinely inspired book that cannot contradict itself, because its divine author is God, who always agrees with Himself.  Though He used many different authors in writing the Bible, who expressed many complementary perspectives, these perspectives never cancel each other out, for the whole is from God.  Thus, the theology of Isaiah MUST be harmonized with that of Deuteronomy, to interpret either book correctly.  To ignore the theology of Deuteronomy is to ignore the wider theological context in which Isaiah was written.  Isaiah 52:5 says nothing about the guiltlessness of Israel.  When God says, “My people have been taken away for nothing. . .” He does not mean “for no reason at all,” as if they were taken captive despite their blamelessness; rather, He means that their enemies paid no money for them to seize them and carry them away as slaves, and take control of Jerusalem (see verse 3).  So this verse lends no support to the idea that the people are guiltless.  (continued)


Martin Rizley - #37524

October 30th 2010

Moreover, although it is true that Isaiah sometimes uses the word “servant” in Isaiah 40-55 with reference to the nation of Israel, in other passages, the term servant he is clearly speaking of one special individual who will redeem Israel from sin, much as God speaks in other passages of “My servant Moses” or “My servant David.”  If at times, the distinction between this individual servant and Israel as God’s servant appears to be blurred (as in Isaiah 49:3), that is because the Messiah represents the true israel of God, the faithful Israel who fulfills the demands of the Law on behalf of the people, thus redeeming them from their sins.  The word ‘servant’ in Isaiah 49:3 cannot mean literally national Isarel, since in verse 5 this servant is seen as having a mission to Israel:  “Is it too small a thing for you to be my servant, to restore TRIBES OF ISRAEL and bring back THOSE OF ISRAEL I have kept.  I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the end of the earth.”  So God’s servant here is the idea “Israel” who will succeed where national Israel failed.  He redeems by His own faithful obedience to God those sold into captivity for their sins.


Martin Rizley - #37525

October 30th 2010

Correction:  “idea Israel” should read “ideal Israel”


Rich - #37530

October 30th 2010

Ray:

I don’t think it’s possible to be a Christian without having some disagreement with Judaism over Scriptural interpretation, but I think it’s possible to be a Christian without being anti-Semitic and without relying on plainly distortive proof-texting of the Jewish Scriptures.  As one who has studied the Bible under Jewish teachers, I find myself often in disagreement with Christian readings of the Tanakh, and I find most evangelical Christians abysmally ignorant of Jews and Judaism.  However, I want to focus on this statement of yours:

“I think instead, we should work together to honestly answer where we came from, with no preconditions on the answers we get.”

Agreed; but that means that the question whether nature indicates design must be left open; a subscription of faith in “non-design” cannot be demanded of scientists as such.  But that is exactly what Coyne and Dawkins and others demand.

Are you open to the possibility of design in nature?  Are you open to arguments, as long as they are derived only from empirical evidence and logical reasoning, not from revelation?  Or do you rule out design a priori, as a pre-emptive strike, to cut off any potential argument from nature to God?


Steve Cornell - #37545

October 30th 2010

Atheists contradict themselves:
http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/atheists-contradict-themselves/

Under the leadership of militant atheists like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, a new wave of radical atheism is pounding the streets. But look carefully because their writings are full of self-contradictory arguments. One thing that is especially striking is how (in a strange way) these atheist indirectly validate belief with the intensity of their unbelief.


Martin Rizley - #37555

October 30th 2010

Rich,
I don’t know what you are referring to as ‘plainly distortive proof-texting of the Jewish Scriptures.” Surely, you cannot mean to suggest that seeing Jesus’ redemptive death on the cross plainly foretold in Isaiah 53 is “distortive proof-texting.” if that’s what you mean, then you set yourself at odds with Philip’s inspired instruction to the Ethiopian eunuch concerning the identity of God’s Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.  When the eunuch asked Philip, “Of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?”  Philip “beginning at this scripture, preached Jesus to him.”  (see Acts 8:26-37).  In other words, Philip used Isaiah 53 as a ‘proof text’ to show to this Ethiopian eunuch that Jesus, who had just died and been raised from the dead, was in fact the ‘suffering Servant” of whom Isaiah spoke.  Please don’t be ashamed of Christian ‘proof-texting’ from the Old Testament, lest you put yourself at odds with the apostolic method of ‘proving’ to the Jewish people that Jesus is in fact THEIR Messiah, proven to be such by THEIR OWN Scriptures.


Zacarias - #37559

October 30th 2010

the best case against belief in any of the numerous gods past and present is not that essentially every claim made by them concerning cosmology, geology, biology, and history are demonstrably inaccurate. nor their dubious and ever self contradicting versions of morality and who may or may not have used them to cause havoc. it is instead the glaring provincialism of these ideas. the observable Universe is so astoundingly large, so incredibly ancient and contains a mind numbing quantity of massive objects that to entertain the notion it was ‘created’ by a distinctly human-like super-being for a species of ape on a tiny planet in a remote and unremarkable suburb of a similarly unremarkable galaxy among hundreds of billions of others just seems silly. that’s as far as I ever get with religion before I start looking around and wondering how anyone could get past that into the varied and largely incoherent details of these obviously human mythologies.


penman - #37586

October 30th 2010

Zacarias - #37559
“the observable Universe is so astoundingly large, so incredibly ancient and contains a mind numbing quantity of massive objects that to entertain the notion it was ‘created’ by a distinctly human-like super-being for a species of ape on a tiny planet in a remote and unremarkable suburb of a similarly unremarkable galaxy among hundreds of billions of others just seems silly.”

No doubt - but why assume the whole universe was created “for” the inhabitants of earth? See the mind-expanding poem “Christ in the Universe” by the Catholic poet Alice Meynell. You’ll find it here -

http://poetry.elcore.net/CatholicPoets/Meynell/Meynell074.html

I would post the actual poem but I’m not sure if I’d be breaking some copyright rule.


Barry - #37597

October 30th 2010

Steve Cornell - #37545

“One thing that is especially striking is how (in a strange way) these atheist indirectly validate belief with the intensity of their unbelief.”

I read the article. It claimed contradictions. I didn’t see any contradictions at all. Care to elaborate?

How does “intensity of unbelief”...“validate belief”?


Steve Cornell - #37603

October 30th 2010

If consistent, on their system of thought, no claims or beliefs are permitted to hold superiority over other beliefs. One human opinion vs. another is what they are ranting against. Nothing more; nothing less. To suggest that their way of seeing things is in some sense superior lacks logical credibility on their own commitment to relativism. Yet they rant on in their writings and expect readers to feel obliged to see things their way. Are they making themselves into some new form of religious leaders? Are they validating the necessity of some kind of moral code that is superior to human opinion? Ironically, they feel at liberty to criticize others in a way that invalidates their own theories.


sy - #37619

October 30th 2010

@Barry

“I couldn’t care less what you believe, I just want to point out your obvious double standard regarding HOW you conduct science on the one hand, with your inconsistent application of tests of evidence in your religious beliefs”

Yes, now you got it. Of course there is inconsistency between science and faith. Science requires and uses evidence while faith is a gift of God. It is outside of proof. In fact faith exists and prospers in the absence of proof, thats why its called faith. It doesnt have to be right.

Having said that, I follow the Biologos idea that nature is the work of God, and therefoe the study of nature (science) is part of my worship of God.


Papalinton - #37631

October 30th 2010

Hi Martin
You say, “Thus, the theology of Isaiah MUST be harmonized with that of Deuteronomy, to interpret either book correctly. “

No it doesn’t. The two books were written by two different groups of people for two differing reasons and purposes.  It is only the advent of Apologetics that suggests a need for ‘harmonisation’.  This is the nature and the core of the discipline,  to minimise cognitive dissonance. 

Ray is logically and reasonably correct in saying “you can’t dismiss an interpretation of one part of the Bible just because a completely different Biblical author, with a completely different theology says contradictory things.”

You see, the analogy would be like putting Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, The Three Little Pigs and any number of great stories into a single tome and then endeavour to syncretize the didactic nature of their messages into a unified harmonising theme.

The only difference is that there seems no need for that to occur for these timeless and wonderful children’s stories as they are individually robust enough to stand alone over time.

Cheers


Martin Rizley - #37633

October 30th 2010

Zacarias, You write that the size of the universe and the seeming insignificance of our species “on a tiny planet in a remote and unremarkable suburb of a similarly unremarkable galaxy among hundreds of billions of others” makes belief in a Creator “just seem silly.”  If you replace the word ‘silly’ with the words ‘strange, remarkable, astounding,incredible,’ I would agree with you, and so would all believers in God.  Even the psalmist David, who had no conception of the vast size of the universe, found it hard to believe that God could really take an interest in an infinitessimal speck like himself:  “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have ordained, what is man that You mindful of him, and the son of man that you visit him?”  (Psalm 8:3-5)  It seemed incredible to him that an infinite, all-powerful Being could take an interest in dust speck like man.  But who can deny that the world we live in is fully of many incredibler realities?  Just look at spider spinning its web, a flamingo taking a nap, or an owl turning its head backwards.  We live in an exceedingly strange, bizarre world— a world in which size and significance obviously have no correlation at all.


Papalinton - #37634

October 30th 2010

Hi Steve Cornell

“If consistent, on their system of thought, no claims or beliefs are permitted to hold superiority over other beliefs. One human opinion vs. another is what they are ranting against. Nothing more; nothing less. To suggest that their way of seeing things is in some sense superior lacks logical credibility on their own commitment to relativism. Yet they rant on in their writings and expect readers to feel obliged to see things their way. Are they making themselves into some new form of religious leaders? Are they validating the necessity of some kind of moral code that is superior to human opinion? Ironically, they feel at liberty to criticize others in a way that invalidates their own theories.”

What the   ***k are you trying to say?  Wipe the froth from your mouth.  Surely you know you have the guiding spirit on your side so why do you care what the other side thinks?  Don’t be so thin-skinned.

I was stunned, I thought I was experiencing a truly deep personal revelation the other day when I saw a sleeping baby ghost from the other world.  Alas, it was only a white handkerchief on the floor.

Sheesh


Martin Rizley - #37637

October 30th 2010

Papalinton,  Of course, you write these things as one who is assuming that there was no divine Spirit who guided the composition of the Scriptures over the centuries, moving the prophets to say what they said, weaving the whole tapestry of poems, historical narratives,  speeches, prophecies, proverbial wisdom, etc., into a single, unified message that was progressively revealed to mankind.  I do not share your naturalistics assumptions, nor do I believe those assumptions are confirmed by the evidence, because I see in the Scriptures a remarkable unity of theme and message that defies a naturalistic explanation.  The ‘seed of the woman’ spoken of in Genesis 3:15 is gradually unveiled in a way that points to and is fulfilled in one man.  His lineage, His birthplace, His works, His remarkable character, His sufferings, death, and resurrection were all foretold hundreds of years before they occurred.  In this, I see a confirmation of my ‘supernaturalistic’ beliefs regarding the origin of the Scriptures.  I see my faith confirmed, and your faith refuted, by the evidence.  No one can convince me, for example, that Isaiah 53 does not paint in remarkable detail the events that took place around 30 A. D.


Martin Rizley - #37638

October 30th 2010

Papalinton, One weakness in your illustration is that the fairy tales you mention are disconnected from one another and are totally unrelated to each other.  That is not true of the writings of the Hebrew prophets.  Later prophets frequently allude to things that found in the earlier prophets.  Their minds were steeped in the theology of the Torah, so you cannot ignore the theological background of the Torah for accurately interpreting their writings.  The whole reason the prophets charge Israel with unfaithfulness to God is because of their unfaithfulness to the covenant that God established with them through Moses at Mt. Sinai.  So to suggest that Isaiah had a different view of Israel than that which Moses expressed earlier in Deuteronomy—that he regarded Israel as good and deserving of salvation, in contrast to Moses, who regarded Israel as a stiff-necked people deserving— is a baseless assertion.  Both prophets share the same essential vision of God, of man, of sin and redemption, etc.  There is one unified message gradually unfolded, not many disparate, contradictory theologies.


Zacarias - #37639

October 30th 2010

sorry brothers, but mentioning things that are intricate or aesthetic does not constitute any sort of statement of fact other than the observable universe is intense, which we knew anyway and was the reason why religion got invented in the first place. nor does quoting religious texts, no matter how creatively interpreted, sway me in the least. what ever your god is, it is no different from any other notion of a deity from any human culture present or past. and is subject the same disregard afforded to those myths of yesteryear.


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