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Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 5

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October 25, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 5

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

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.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Papalinton - #37819

October 31st 2010

Hi Rich
You say, “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?”

The notion of allowing aliens as a possible progenitor of humans is apt, as Dawkins sees it.  Perfectly logical.  And at the level of philosophical and scientific probability is a higher order answer than that of being designed by a god.

[If however, aliens designed humans, who designed the aliens?  And if god designed the aliens what does that say about humans?  If humans as declaratively stated by christians as made in the image of god, would that not compromise the basic tenet of christianity?]


Papalinton - #37820

October 31st 2010

@ Rich [cont]

A more pertinent question, based on the quantum of evolutionary and biological information and knowledge we currently possess;  if the various independent fields of the sciences are converging to show that every living thing on this planet is related, and DNA pointing to a ‘singular primogenitor’ [for want of a better description],  and a similar occurrence took place on a different planet
assuming the process of natural selection is in order, who is to say that the dominant sentient species would be humanoid? 

So, on our planet man is made in the image of god, on another Jabba the Hutt is made in the image of god.  I would suggest a major rethinking of the christianities, indeed all religions, would be the order of the day.  But then christian apologetics has had two thousand years of practice at harmonisation and minimising cognitive dissonance, and so are well prepared for the coming challenge.

Rich, some food for thought.


Rich - #37837

October 31st 2010


What are you doing posting here tonight?  You should be out celebrating Halloween!  After all, it is the eve of All Saints’s Day, a day which all Christians celebrate, no? 

Well, Martin, as you know, I disagree with you about the inspiration of the Biblical books.  I’m a minimalist when it comes to that.  To me, a book can be inspired, i.e., contain inspired elements, even if all its parts are of very uneven value.  Thus, I feel quite comfortable ignoring or even contradicting parts of Biblical books, especially New Testament books which badly interpret the Jewish Scriptures.  I don’t feel I’m rejecting God’s inspiration in doing so.  I think God wants me to read the Scriptures with discernment, keeping the wheat and discarding the chaff.

I certainly don’t feel automatically bound by Old Testament exegesis that’s found in the New Testament.  Sometimes it’s fine; other times it’s contrived; other times it’s downright manipulative, reflecting the politics of the early Church vis-a-vis Judaism.  Stuff in the last two categories has no authority for me.  And remember, according to your doctrine, I have the right to interpret Scripture for myself; the Church has no authority to force my conscience. 

Ray - #37839

October 31st 2010


Ok. I’ll try not to prolong this too much but I don’t think your refutations are exactly fair:
1)Aristotle and Aquinas both use the terms Act and Potency, but Aquinas uses them differently. The claim “a potency cannot actualize itself” is original to Aquinas as far as I can tell.
2)You accuse me of the fallacy of composition, but the example Aquinas uses to demonstrate act and potency is itself based on compound objects: fire, wood, and heat, and as I said before, the problems Aristotle and Aquinas were trying to solve don’t really make any sense for fundamental particles as we understand them. They were asking questions equivalent to Michaelson and Morley’s question, “what is our velocity relative to the medium of propagation of light?”

What you seem to mean by “a potency cannot actualize itself” is that if an object acts differently than it would have had it not interacted with another object, then there must be another object. Sure, but so what? A charitable reading (probably overly so) of Aristotle or Aquinas can turn the problems they’re trying to solve into real ones, but physicists already know about those problems, and there are possible cosmologies that solve them.

BenYachov - #37841

October 31st 2010

No Ray I’m still trying to have a metaphysical philosophical argument & your still trying to have an empirical scientific one.  Read my lips God’s existence is a philosophical argument not a empirical scientific one.  Stop having a scientific argument with me I am not interested.  BTW you haven’t given a single example from even science of a potency that actualizes itself.  You supernova example doesn’t cut it.

This is futile since you refuse to learn metaphysics and still conflate it with physics.  My sources on Thomism and Aristotle say neither was not an empiricist nor a determinist why do you insist on treating them as such? 

Your mind is held captive by the picture

Your a gentlemen I give you that but this is futile & I am at a loss to help you understand.

So unless you do the reading I’ve recommended there is no point in talking any further.
Let us part as friends & leave it at that.

Ray - #37844

October 31st 2010

Rich @37718

If my argument reminds you of Dawkins’ argument it is because Dawkins argument is essentially correct. But it’s not just Atheists who think people like Behe aren’t doing good science—it’s also people like Ken Miller and John E Jones III and the author of this very blog. Actually though, I would argue that of these people, it is Dawkins who takes ID the most seriously. Miller basically says, you’re talking about the supernatural, so it’s automatically out of scope for science. Dawkins instead thinks about how a designer could be understood as a scientific hypothesis, uses the methods of science, and concludes that ID fails miserably in explaining biology.

His argument is not so much, who made God?, but how do you know gods are a plausible posit in the first place? In your murderer example, it is an implicit assumption that the murderer is a human. We may not know of the specific human in question, but we have loads of independent evidence that humans exist, and positing one more is no great epistemic burden. Suppose instead the murder occurred inside an apparently sealed room. Would you look for a secret exit, or would you look for a murderer who could walk through walls?

Ray - #37846

November 1st 2010


I agree, discussion of Aristotle at this point will probably not be productive. You’re convinced that a misunderstanding on my part is to blame, and I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the misunderstanding is yours.

I’m convinced that any attempt to make valid metaphysical statements without first understanding physics, or at least calculus and mathematical logic, is a fools errand. You’re convinced that Aristotle has made the attempt and succeeded.

I’ve read most of what you’ve sent me and will read the rest, but nothing has given me any reason to believe the books are worth buying thus far. I might leaf through one if I see it in a bookstore, but that’s probably all. I won’t make any further attempt to argue with you on any of the above points, but will humbly submit that learning physics will be good for you. Project Tuva (Feynman’‘s messenger lectures) is a good place to start: http://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/tuva/index.html

BenYachov - #37850

November 1st 2010

>I’m convinced that any attempt to make valid metaphysical statements without first understanding physics, or at least calculus and mathematical logic, is a fools errand.

Ah ha!!!  This is where we are 100% polar opposites!  Since I am convinced unless you first have a valid metaphysics & philosophy you cannot have a valid science.  That is some progress.

Of course I would argue I am right because to claim you must understand physical science first in order to understand metaphysics is by definition still a philosophical question and not a scientific one.  Philosophy comes first & there is no escaping it.  Anyway here are some links that might help you.

Being and Change, Potency and Act





Cheers!  Don’t let the Zombies bite you this All Hollows Eve.

Rich - #37852

November 1st 2010


Judge Jones knows beans about science.  And I much prefer Dawkins to Miller.  However, Dawkins’s “who designed the designer” argument is not “essentially correct”; it’s simply irrelevant to the question of design detection.  It’s sophomoric.

Suppose you’re the first earthman to land on a distant planet.  You find there an elaborate carving in a mountainside.  The carving is divided into regular rectangular panels, and is loaded with straight lines and circles and triangles and other precisely measured shapes; it contains images of humanoid (though not human) figures.  You find no sign of life anywhere on the planet.  You have no knowledge of any nonhuman intelligent race in the universe and you know you are the first earthman to arrive.  Can you infer that this carving was made by one or more unknown intelligent beings, even though you have never seen the beings, and have no independent knowledge of their existence?  Or should you infer that erosion and radiation etched the carving into the rock by accident?  Which is the best scientific explanation?  Which is the best explanation of any kind?  I’ve never met an anti-ID person who doesn’t evade such examples with sophistry; you can be the first.

Martin Rizley - #37856

November 1st 2010

Well, at least you are honest enough to admit your rejection of the infallible authority of the Scriptures.  A sad admission. . .but honest, and certainly light years away from Jesus’ view of the holy Scriptures.  I don’t know how you can read what Jesus said to the religious leaders of Israel in Mark 7:6-13 about their sin of “nullifying the Word of God,” and not feel rebuked for ‘picking and choosing’ which parts of the Bible you will accept as inspired and which parts you will deliberately reject as having no authority over your conscience.

Gregory - #37857

November 1st 2010

“I’m still trying to have a metaphysical philosophical argument & your still trying to have an empirical scientific one.  Read my lips God’s existence is a philosophical argument not a empirical scientific one.” - BenYachov

Good to see you back, Ben. This overlaps with a similar argument I’ve been having with ‘John’ on other threads. All science, no Science or mid-range?

Not sure I’d go as far as you in NOMA-ing science away from philosophy as it appears you are doing. Your philosophy-before-science approach runs into the neo-neo-Marxist who still talks @ bread to eat & concrete things.

Plus, you qualify science with ‘empirical,’ but don’t so-qualify philosophy, which could also be divided into categories wrt branches, essences, beings & changes too.

My own preferred approach is to speak of a triad of realms or spheres: Natural-Physical Sciences, Human-Social Sciences & then Philosophy, Theology &/or Religious Studies in a third like-sized sphere. This way you don’t have to privilege philosophy-first or science-first, but can resolve the rueful dialectic by appealing to a third position/configuration/field that enables solution of problems & also a broad-based approach to education & learning.

Ray - #37859

November 1st 2010

Also, BenYachov,

I really shouldn’t let you get away with calling Sean Carroll a “New Atheist scientific wannabe philosopher” and a “poor sap.” Plenty of philosophers have a lot of respect for Sean (Huw Price and David Albert spring immediately to mind, but I also recall Russell Blackford siding with Sean in a disagreement with Sam Harris over meta-ethics). Anyway, for reference, here’s an example of Sean interacting with a philosopher on even terms:


Hopefully you’ll give it a fair hearing since the discussion is far removed from your sacred cow of Aristotle and Aquinas (as interpreted by Feser). The fifth Feynman lecture may be helpful for background.

But yes, let us part on good terms (at least for the moment.)

Gregory - #37860

November 1st 2010

“I’m convinced that any attempt to make valid metaphysical statements without first understanding physics, or at least calculus and mathematical logic, is a fools errand.” - Ray

Why can the two not go hand in hand, same time? ‘After the physics’ doesn’t necessarily de-prioritize metaphysics (& other branches of philosophy) from the conversation. There are many in-between areas among the spheres (viewed in 3D).

“Miller basically says, you’re talking about the supernatural, so it’s automatically out of scope for science.” - Ray

What Ken Miller is basically doing then is dipping in to check the oil, but not going deep enough to find it. He badly needs PoS & SoS.

His view of ‘automatically out of scope for science’ is a consequence of the Anglo-American view of the ‘map of knowledge/science.’ There are solutions to escape from this ‘natural’ vs. ‘supernatural’ dilemma with an alternative philosophical-religious tradition than Miller’s; one that thinks in triads & tetrads.

Science, Philosophy & Religion.

I don’t think you & Ray need to be ‘at polar opposites,’ Ben. But I think Ray should check to see if his oil-stick is deep enough dipped or not. I doubt a blog conversation can determine this.

Ray - #37865

November 1st 2010


Can you infer that this carving was made by one or more unknown intelligent beings, even though you have never seen the beings, and have no independent knowledge of their existence?

Of course you can. In fact this was an example I considered giving, but avoided for lack of space. We know roughly what state of affairs 4-billion years ago lead to life, and eventually intelligent life on Earth. We know those conditions are likely to be present elsewhere on the universe. Hence, alien civilizations are a priori likely. I can tell you know this too, since your scenario mentioned that the carvings were found on a planet, which is, by analogy with earth, by far the most likely point of origin for an alien civilization. If the patterns were found in a the swirls of a nebula rather than the surface of a planet, our first guess would still be that whoever did this originated on a planet somewhere. The reason we dismiss Alien civilizations visiting Earth is that our experience with humans tells us that technologically sophisticated visitors would be highly noticeable in ways that couldn’t be explained away by hypnotically induced delusions and people misidentifying Venus and Jupiter.

Gregory - #37866

November 1st 2010

Btw, have you tried the triad of Aristotle, Aquinas, McLuhan just yet, Ben?

Check out the third’s “The Medium & the Light” (1999, posthum) on this topic. Dynamic enough to reach the current philosopher, scientist & theologian in the electronic-information age (which the first & second lend little help in, so unelectrically long ago); yet still consistent with the train by adding a 1-2-3-caboose.

You may say Marshall was not a Saint & Thomas was. But then Aristotle was not a Saint either. Right? (Sounds like you could use charging up your Plato battery power too.) & they call McLuhan ‘sage of the wired age,’ and ‘patron saint of Wired magazine.’

Not to mention the Four Effects compliment the Four Causes, completing the circle; proportionality, positionality and communication. McLuhan’s ‘laws of media’ have gone underestimated for more than 20yrs. The book (1988) was sub-titled “The New Science.” (And it doesn’t have anything to do with ‘intelligent + design.’)

Ray - #37868

November 1st 2010


I think Ray should check to see if his oil-stick is deep enough dipped or not.

I notice you don’t mention Ben here. Is finding God a precondition for having the stick deep enough? If so, it would seem that the majority of leading scientists and philosophers also don’t have the stick deep enough.

Rich - #37870

November 1st 2010


I’m glad you’ve admitted that the design inference in that hypothetical case is valid.  I guess it takes an atheist to be honest about it.  On other threads, I haven’t seen a TE/EC person grant it yet.

But think of what you’ve granted.  You allowed the stipulations of the scenario:  no prior knowledge of any intelligent race; no evidence of intelligent life on the planet other than the sculpture itself.  Yet the inference (design, not accidental physical causes) is valid.  Now suppose someone came along and said:  “Wait a minute, bub; who designed these unidentified designers of yours?  You don’t know?  Ha!  Gotcha!”  Would that prove that the design inference was invalid?  No, it wouldn’t.  This is why Dawkins’s “who designed the designer” argument is just silly.  It has nothing to do with the validity of the design inference itself.  You don’t need to know who created the sculptors, or even who they are, to know that the rock carving was sculpted and not a geological accident.  Once this is granted, the enterprise of ID is legitimated.  One can reject any particular ID argument from Behe, Meyer, Dembski, etc., but not the enterprise itself.

Gregory - #37871

November 1st 2010

The majority, which majority? Solely in the USAmerica? The majority of everyday people on the street that you see (assuming you live in said nation-state) *do* have their stick deep enough for oil if it is as you read my analogy, because they keep their minds & hearts open to learning & knowledge in religion & philosophy too, not just in ‘natural sciences’.

Science is only one type of verifiable or falsifiable knowledge, that ‘measures,’ observes, analyzes & systematizes, using categories, produces research programs based mainly on theoretical thoughts by visionaries & trailblazers & so on…around we go.

The ‘turn off the taps’ approach when it comes to religion/theology & also in many cases, to philosophy is valid to raise in an argument. A more rounded & balanced person will almost always do better in a general conversation than a narrow specialist. I’d take a decathlete over either a discuss thrower or a hockey player any day in terms of effectiveness in mobility, endurance, strength, total package etc.

The idea of narrowing topics of ‘origins, meaning, purpose & teleology’ to ‘natural scientific answers-facts & experiments-only’ in the secular humanist tradition seems highly idealistic.

Ray - #37876

November 1st 2010


I’m glad you think I’m honest, but what have I granted really? I still can’t envision a scenario where I would consider God as a brute fact more likely than a superhuman being which was itself the product of evolution. The best I could come up with would be a long, legibly written Bible verse in the cosmic microwave background. I’d probably think it was a hoax, but even ruling that out, a multiverse where intelligent life in one universe figured out a way to control the state of baby universes that pinched off from it seems a more parsimonious explanation.

Of course this is merely hypothetical, what the ID guys actually have is a bunch of isolated examples where we don’t have a complete explanation for how something evolved. This doesn’t seem terribly compelling because

1) Reconstructing millions of years of evolution at the single mutation level from modern forms and maybe a few fossils is expected to be hard. It’s not like we’ve searched anywhere near the whole space of possibilities.

2) Most of the examples given by Behe et al have since been explained in some detail.

3) God wanted to tinker bacterial flagella to near perfection, but not our lower back. What?

Ray - #37877

November 1st 2010

Gregory @37871:

That’s one of the most rabidly anti-intellectual things I’ve read in my life. Notice I also included philosophers, as supported here: http://wordsandnumbers.wordpress.com/2009/12/14/poll-of-philosophers-god-free-will-etc/

That said, I’ll take members of the NAS over the average American any day of the week and on almost any topic (maybe not NASCAR.) Expertise in one field doesn’t necessarily translate into expertise in another, but it’s correlated. Of course, worldwide, Christianity is only a plurality belief, and monotheism only a slight majority, so the argumentum ad populum isn’t so great either. Worse still, the Christians on this board can’t agree why I’m wrong. Is it because I dismiss ID? Most of the Christians here agree with me that ID is bunk.  Is it because I reject Aristotelian metaphysics as an incoherent mass of superficially plausible statements which fail to allow for calculus, let alone modern physics? Seems about the same. Is it because I don’t read the Bible literally and think the documentary hypothesis is mostly right? Ditto.

Given all this, it’s awfully arrogant for you to assume that if I “dipped deep enough”, I’d find God.

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