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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nedbrek - #37647

October 30th 2010

Zacarias, are you a good person?


Papalinton - #37656

October 30th 2010

Hi Martin
In the beginning there was the WORD.  At the end, just a cliché.
Oh sigh.

Moses, the man who led 600,000-1,000,000 people out of Egypt and wandered around in the area between Egypt and Palestine for 40+ years:  fiction.  The possible Egyptian origin of Moses and of his message has received significant scholarly attention and most agree the story of Moses is subject to so much accretion over time to suggest legend.

There is not one scintilla of archeological evidence that such a mass migration was undertaken.  In the continuing search, the consensus of the majority of scholars is strongly conceding that no such massive movement of people, in an area no bigger than 100 x 100 miles for 40 years, could have occurred without some footprint.  The corollary though,  that innumerable sites of small settlements have been unearthed [pardon the pun]  showing continuous habitation since the ‘dawn of time’ [pardon the hyperbole] but only in small and isolated groups, as would be expected given the terrain and type of geographical conditions.

Come on Martin,  you know and I know, everything said about anything in the bible is baseless assertion.

Cheers


BenYachov - #37660

October 30th 2010

I’d just thought I’d chime in.

Who said it(i.e the exodus) has to be millions?  Numbers are a funny thing in the Bible.

see here
http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/39_exodus.html

Scratch an Atheist find a fundamentalist.

Beside people may want to take a look at On the Reliability of the Old Testament by archeologist Kenneth Kitchen.

Also Rohl, DavidThe Bible: Myth or Reality, 2005

.Note:  Rohl’s is a religous Agnostic BTW & I also note though his book is very positive toward the historical accuracy of the Bible.  OTOH Kitchen (an Egyptology expert who happens to be Evangelical) hates his controversial New Chronology view with a passion.


Ray - #37665

October 30th 2010

@Rich
Obviously I don’t think being a Christian or even holding to the traditional Christian reading of the Bible makes you an antisemite. To the extent, however, that a Christian sees the writers of the Bible not as human beings in their own right, but as puppets in the drama of Jesus, he misses an opportunity to understand the descendants of the Biblical authors as fully human in the same way. This has historically lead to antisemitism, but this is by no means a necessary consequence.

On design: I am open to the idea, but I don’t think the likes of Behe et al have come anywhere close to establishing that anything in nature is designed by a superhuman being, and I’m in good company on this point, as I’m sure you already know. Nor do I find cosmological fine tuning arguments terribly compelling. Ultimately, designers are more complex than what they explain, almost by definition. Thus, they tend to be poor explanations for the state of the world, unless there is already good reason to believe the proposed designer exists (as is the case for human designers.) Intelligent designers often seem like a simple explanation for complexity in nature, but only because we confuse familiarity with simplicity.


Ray - #37668

October 30th 2010

Hi BenYachov

long time no see. I’ll agree with you that a historical Moses is not out of the question, but one who wrote Deuteronomy is, which I suppose is the relevant point. It’s pretty well established that Deuteronomy, Samuel, and Kings were written primarily by one or more close associates of King Josiah.

Papalinton’s quote: “everything said about anything in the bible is baseless assertion.” is certainly going way too far, although if you restrict it to the historical inspiration for Moses, it’s pretty close to accurate.

On a completely unrelated point, a while back, I made some effort to get Aristotelian and Thomistic terminology straight on the other thread (strawmen part II). I’m not sure I want to fully reopen that can of worms, but please check out what I wrote there at your own convenience.


BenYachov - #37674

October 31st 2010

Post in the wrong area opps!

@Ray
Hey guy!:-)

Rather that is the opinion of various scholars who knee-jerk hold too the documentary hypothesis.  I hold with Prof Kitchen that the Pentateuch is largely the product of one author thought we might have some allowance for post-Mosaic editing.

>On a completely unrelated point, a while back, I made some effort to get Aristotelian and Thomistic terminology straight on the other thread (strawmen part II). I’m not sure I want to fully reopen that can of worms, but please check out what I wrote there at your own convenience.

I reply: Yes I saw that & thought you made quite a few mistakes but I thought I’d let it go considering you at least had the good sense to consult a philosopher’s blog and not another New Atheist scientific wannabe philosopher like that poor sap Sean.  Also you did admit to misundertanding Aristotle but you said “This construction appears to be an invention of Aquinas, not Aristotle.”

Well that is factually incorrect.
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01713a.htm

If you read any annotated version of Aquinas’ treates on Potency & Actuality you will loose count as to how many times he cites Metaphysics by The Philosopher.


BenYachov - #37675

October 31st 2010

Also you wrote “[Stars]..Without any outside intervention, they will actualize that potential about 10 to 100 million years after their birth.” that was the Fallacy of Composition.  A Star may explode because it happens to be super massive and when it fuses a sufficient amount of hydrogen the balance of gravity & fusion go out of wack and gravity loses then BOOM!!!  In order for the potential of a star to supernova to actualize itself you would have to give an example of a star that just explodes without it fusing a sufficient amount hydrogen or being effected by the natural conclusion to any natural physical process whatsoever. You are treating the star as a whole and not the sum of various processes(which is where the actuality of potencies is taking place).  If I throw a football in zero G it has the potential to stop that might be actualized if it hits a wall, another object or encounters gravity.  But it can’t just stop and you can’t say it “stopped itself” if you just happened to put a mini-retro-rocket on the nose & set to go off in 3 minutes.

For a potency to actualize itself it would have to give itself something it doesn’t possess & that is not possible anymore than 2+2=5.


Papalinton - #37676

October 31st 2010

Hi Ray

You are perfectly right and I do agree with your,  “Papalinton’s quote: “everything said about anything in the bible is baseless assertion” is certainly going way too far, although if you restrict it to the historical inspiration for Moses, it’s pretty close to accurate.” 

But sometimes, just sometimes the dark side gets the better of me and the alluring siren call of the grand declarative statement [with the nonchalant half-circular wave of the arm] is simply too juicy to resist. 

Sorry.

Cheers


BenYachov - #37678

October 31st 2010

@Ray

Anyway I’m not really qualified to explain Aristotle’s Metaphysics to you or defend him in such a way as to appeal to your scientific sensibilities. You need to learn real philosophy.

So I will leave it to the experts

In Defence of Aristotelian Metaphysics
by TUOMAS E. TAHKO
http://www.ttahko.net/papers/aristotelian.pdf

With that I again bail on you.  BTW take my advice from the other thread.
Aristolte for Everybody by Adler and THE LAST SUPERSTITION by Feser are must reads.

Cheers!


Papalinton - #37679

October 31st 2010

Hi Ben Yachov

I appreciate your list of scholars re Moses, but the extant situation is, non-biblical writings about Jews, with references to the role of Moses, first appears at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, the zenith of Greek influence in the ancient world, from 323 BCE to about 146 BCE.  The usual cadre of Judeo-Roman and Judeo-Hellenic historians such as Josephus, and Philo and a few others together with a few non-Jewish historians including Hecataeus of Abdera, Tacitus and Porphyry do make reference to Moses. The extent to which any of these accounts rely on earlier sources is unknown.  There are no written records from Egypt, Assyria, etc. [if there were any], indisputably referring to the stories of the Bible or its main characters before ca. 850s BCE and there is no known physical evidence (such as pottery shards or stone tablets) to corroborate Moses’ existence nor the Exodus, either in Egypt or the Sinai.

Cheers


BenYachov - #37680

October 31st 2010

Papalinton,

Rohl & Kitchen say A & you say “not A”.

Whom should I listen too?  The guys who go out there and dig & do Archeological science or you who just channel the stuff you read on Jesus Mythers New Atheist websites?

Even if I deny God tomorrow I find your analysis simplistic and nothing more then kneejerk sceptically.


BenYachov - #37681

October 31st 2010

Oh wait Papalinton!  The guy who believes in Nazareth Mytherism & who accused me of advocating Child abuse & violence against Beaglelady.

I still have nothing to say to you.


BenYachov - #37682

October 31st 2010

BTW someone whose Brother is an archeologist in near eastern studies commented on Papalintion’s Nazareth Mytherism.

From this thread.
http://biologos.org/blog/are-we-cramming-religion-down-our-childrens-throats/#comments

I’m out of here.  Halloween is here & I have some Zombie flicks to watch.


Zacarias - #37698

October 31st 2010

nedbrek

I try I suppose. why is that relevant? I’m afraid I suspect you may be attempting to correlate what I see as a vaguely defined notion of ‘goodness’ with your favored deity. if so I am unconvinced that there is any connection at all and certainly there is no basis to claim that any religion is the sole proprietor of morality. in addition anyone who requires bribes (heaven) or threats (hell) to behave in a basically moral way is not very trustworthy in my view.

these conversations about the scholarly readings of religious texts seems to me like people who study star trek too closely. the obvious topic that never gets examined is perhaps there are no truths to be teased out of the language, no enlightenment in the periphery, perhaps its just mediocre writing.


Papalinton - #37716

October 31st 2010

Hi Ben Yachov

“BTW someone whose Brother is an archeologist in near eastern studies commented on Papalintion’s Nazareth Mytherism.

From this thread.
http://biologos.org/blog/are-we-cramming-religion-down-our-childrens-throats/#comments

I’m out of here.  Halloween is here & I have some Zombie flicks to watch.”


Hi Ben
I took the opportunity to respond to that comment re Nazareth.  You may wish to refer to it at your leisure.  And I welcome others to read and comment.

Cheers


Rich - #37717

October 31st 2010

Ray:

Thanks for your reply regarding the Bible and anti-Semitism.  I can only say that I don’t see the writers of the Hebrew Bible as puppets, or primarily as set-ups for Jesus, and that I take the religion of their descendants very seriously, and this probably has a lot to do with the fact that I studied in an environment where Christians, Jews and agnostics worked on the Bible together.  This has a humanizing effect on all concerned, and one that I don’t believe can be duplicated in even the best-intentioned Christian seminary.

Regarding design, I think you are asking for too much.  You seem to think that even if one could prove that a designer existed, based on the design, that would not be adequate, because that would not explain where the designer came from.  But why is the latter a goal of design detection?  When a coroner determines that the deceased was murdered, we do not say that his verdict is faulty because he cannot produce the murderer.  His science does not extend that far.  He can distinguish murder from accident and natural causes, but he can’t pinpoint the murderer—at least, not usually.  Is forensic science invalid because it can’t explain everything that happened?  (continued)


Rich - #37718

October 31st 2010

Ray:

Your argument reminds of that of Dawkins.  When an argument for design is produced, he answers:  “Well, then, who designed the designer!  Ha! Gotcha!”  But this is puerile. 

Interestingly enough, Dawkins allows alien designers of life on earth as a possibility.  So if he sees the logic of the design inference when the designer is an alien, why does the logic fail if the designer is God?  Answer:  the logic doesn’t fail, because it’s the same logic.  The barrier is Dawkins’s disinclination to believe in God. 

It seems to me that two arguments against design are usually conflated by atheist/agnostic critics:  (1) the design arguments so far advanced in biology are inadequate to establish design; (2) the designer might be God, and I don’t like that, so I am going to try to find any picky little flaw in any design argument I come across, in order to prevent that argument from being made.

Now (1) is a reasonable stance to take, but so often it is accompanied by rage and insults motivated by (2) that it raises the question whether the critic is genuinely open to design arguments.  I’m not accusing you of rage and insults, but you surely know that many of your confreres do betray the animus I’m speaking of.


nedbrek - #37719

October 31st 2010

Zacarias (37698) “I try I suppose. why is that relevant? I’m afraid I suspect you may be attempting to correlate what I see as a vaguely defined notion of ‘goodness’ with your favored deity. if so I am unconvinced that there is any connection at all and certainly there is no basis to claim that any religion is the sole proprietor of morality.”

No, I find it interesting that nearly everyone claims to be good (Proverbs 20:6).  But, the Bible says that every one falls short, no one meets God’s standard.  And anyone who breaks the law must pay the price.  “Do the crime, pay the time” so to say.

“in addition anyone who requires bribes (heaven) or threats (hell) to behave in a basically moral way is not very trustworthy in my view.

I agree.


Martin Rizley - #37798

October 31st 2010

Rich,  You write,  “I don’t see the writers of the Hebrew Bible, , ,primarily as set-ups for Jesus,”  What do you say about the book of Hebrews?  Can you deny that the writer of the Hebrews presents all the worship forms and institutions of Old Covenant as in some sense a divinely designed “set up” pointing to a future fulfillment in the spiritual realities of the New Covenant?  The Aaronic priesthood was a type pointing to the priesthood of Christ; the animals sacrifices were types pointing to the one perfect sacrifice of Christ; the temple in Jerusalem was a type pointing to the ‘true temple, not made with hands,’ where Jesus presents Himself to God as the High Priest of His people.  The rest of Canaan was a type pointing to the eschatological rest of heaven, etc., etc.  Clearly, there is a sense in which all the worship practices of the Old Covenant were a ‘set up’ for something greater that would supersede that covenant and render it obsolete.  How would that in any way denigrate the Law of Moses to recognize its preparatory nature and divinely designed fulfillment in Christ and the New Covenant that He established?


Barry - #37810

October 31st 2010

sy - #37619

“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”

But science doesn’t deal in “proof”, never has, never will. Science can never be “right” in an absolute sense, it is always provisional. This puts it in stark contrast to the certainty of your faith, hence the double standard…hence the inconsistency.


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