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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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Ray - #38261

November 3rd 2010


I 100% agree that Intelligent Design as practiced by self-declared “design theorists” has no scientific credibility whatsoever, and has been demonstrated both within the scientific community and in court to be little more than a political front for an ideological agenda driven primarily by religious fundamentalism.

I would, however, clarify that their grave sin lies not in proposing intelligent agents as causal explanations for empirical observations, but in

1) their complete lack of interest in probing the nature of the intelligent agent(s) they claim to be studying, and
2) their use of “unwarranted biological assumptions, inappropriate mathematical modeling, and faulty logic.” in attempting to establish the existence of those agents.

There is in fact a scientific research program in good standing dedicated to the study of inferred intelligent agents—archaeology. Archaeology seeks and finds consensus about the methods, motivations, and historical actions of intelligent agents all the time. ID, however, as evidenced by its “big tent policy,” is completely uninterested in reaching any agreement about the nature of its supposed object of study, other than that the proposed object exists.

Rich - #38264

November 3rd 2010


Bad example.  Archaeologists *don’t* need to establish the characteristics of the designers of the structures they find, in order to determine that those structures are in fact designed.  You can tell that the Great Pyramid is designed, without knowing anything about the culture that produced it.  (Oddly enough, you’ve never demanded that anyone produce a “Bayesian analysis” to confirm that the lines of Nazca or the cave paintings of Altamira are designed, even though there is a finite probability that such things *could* have come about by chance.) 

Of course design theory is useful for more than proving that a designer exists.  Design theorists are inclined to look for function where others are not.  For example, it wasn’t design theorists who dogmatized about “junk DNA” and then had to eat crow when a considerable number of uses for “junk” DNA were found.  Which theorists were those?

Anyway, even if all that ID could ever establish was “that the proposed object exists,” then Dawkins, Myers, Dennett, Harris, Coyne, Provine, Shallit, etc., would be proved wrong.  That alone would be enough to justify the existence of ID.  And perhaps even enough for you to reconsider the possibility of t’shuvah. 

Ray - #38268

November 3rd 2010


That alone would be enough to justify the existence of ID.

When you can make that statement in the past indicative rather than the conditional, I might consider caring. Till then, quit digging.

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