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Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 6

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November 13, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 6

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

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

The final straw man I want to torch in this series is the claim that science uses evidence and religion uses faith, with evidence being defined as “good reasons to think something is true,” and faith being defined as “the willingness to accept truth claims with nothing to support them.”

Let me start by noting that evidence is not available in the same way to all investigations. There is good evidence available to the geologists that the earth is old, to the chemists that molecules are made of atoms and nothing more, to the astronomer that the universe is expanding, to the economist that endless printing of money will lead to inflation, to the historian that Winston Churchill did indeed exist. But there is little to no evidence available to the cosmologists that there are many universes, to the psychologists that free will is real, to the economists that “trickle –down” stimulus works, to the historian that John Adams liked to sing in Latin while he was taking a bath.

The idea of an evidentiary spectrum is helpful here. At one end we have hard sciences like physics and chemistry where evidence is readily available and we should have very high expectations that truth claims will have a firm foundation. Things get a little murkier when we get to biology and a lot murkier when we consider the social sciences. Consider history as an example. Historians deal with events from the past but the available “facts” are often so incomplete that deep mysteries remain about such basic things as the population of North America when Columbus arrived in 1492.

Faith plays different roles in different disciplines. The physicist needs no faith to accept the law of the conservation of energy. There is no need for the chemist to have faith in the periodic table. The factual evidence is so great that faith is simply not needed. But evolutionary biology needs some faith. The reconstructions of the history of life on this planet require the postulation of species for which there is no direct evidence. Most of the “common ancestors” are hypothetical in the sense that they have to be constructed indirectly with methods that are far from flawless. I think the evolutionary biologists are doing a great job with this—read Coyne’s excellent Why Evolution is True, if you are skeptical—but the enterprise requires inferences that look very much like little leaps of faith.

But what about fields like sociology or economics? I think we can all agree that these are legitimate sciences, but their conclusions require an understanding of how vast populations will behave under conditions that cannot be specified with much precision. Some economists think that tax credits motivate people to buy houses, or trade in their cars. Others think such credits are a waste of money and simply subsidize purchases that were going to occur anyway.

Smart people in the Bush administration thought that temporary tax cuts were a good idea to get the economy growing. Equally smart people today think it was a terrible idea. Every night on CNBC you can hear economist Larry Kudlow extolling the power of supply side economics while economist Robert Reich says just the opposite. Obviously such disagreements cannot be based on simple “facts” for everyone has the same facts. There are some different things going on with economics than with the periodic table of the elements.

So how do we understand this? I want to suggest that the physicist, the chemist, the evolutionary biologist, the psychologist, the sociologist, the historian, the economist can all approach the problems of their fields in exactly the same way. They can make observations, formulate hypotheses and measure the explanatory power of their hypotheses against additional observations. They could do this in ways that would be recognizable to a philosopher who studied such things. But, despite the uniformity of method, the results would be different. The chemist would get things exactly right many times, while the poor economist would be all over the map and often unable to even tell if he was right or wrong.

The difference between chemistry and economics is not primarily in their methods. The difference is in the complexity of their subject matter. What chemists study is pretty trivial—LEGO® -like arrangements of atoms. What economists study is pretty complex—the collective behavior of millions of people with conflicting and uncertain motivations responding to complex stimuli. Nevertheless, both chemistry and economics can make meaningful use of evidence. This is the key point I have been trying to motivate.

A mean-spirited university chemist could certainly heap ridicule on his hapless colleagues in the economics department. “Ha. Ha. You guys have no clue. You just put blind faith in this or that half-baked idea and then hope for the best. Look at my atoms! So neat, so geometrically arranged, so clearly matching the real world. But look at your ideas! So vague, so contradictory, so disconnected from reality.” I think we would all agree that our mean spirited chemist was being unreasonable. His economics colleagues could legitimately respond: “Yes. Of course. Playing with LEGOs® is easy. How fortunate for you that real world chemistry is so much like LEGO®! Now, smash all your LEGO® into powder and build something. Then you will know what economics is like.”

Religious reflection is more like economics than it is like chemistry. There is evidence for the claims of the economist and for the chemist and there is evidence for religious truth claims. This is a simple fact. The New Testament contains several documents written about Jesus by smart people in the first century. These documents are evidence.

One can disagree with the documents and reject the evidence as weak or inadequate in some way. Or one can accept the evidence and be a Christian. But what one cannot do is claim that there is no evidence or dismiss the evidence because it fails to meet the standards of the chemist. If the central claim of Christianity is true—that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ—that is the most complicated and mysterious event in history and the people who tried to articulate what it was like certainly cannot be critiqued because their analyses would not meet the standards of the chemist.

The far more significant difference, of course, relates to the dynamic character of religious investigation. When Isaac Newton “leaped to the conclusion” that gravity ruled the universe, gravity did not respond by embracing Newton and healing his brokenness. When believers make their leap of faith to embrace God, God responds by entering into relationship with believers, often with transformative consequences. There is no counterpart to this response in scientific or historical investigation.

So let’s not disparage the central claims of theology just because they are so much more complicated than the function of penicillin.

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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Greg Myers - #40813

November 19th 2010

Rich - #40808
“Not even the old rationalists of the 1920s and 1930s would have done something that personally disrespectful.”  Well, the desecration of religious symbols has a long tradition, even in the Christian church.  I wonder how those classy people defended their actions?

No doubt he is fighting a different battle, with a different audience.  If you think about it, you may find that your attitude is a typical response to prophets and reformers - again, even in the Christian church. 

I think you just have to get over it.  To him, it is a cracker.  For him to respect the cracker is the opposite of the message he wants to send.  He thinks the message needs to be sent.  Just like Christians work to prevent condom use or homosexual marriage, even though these acts outrage millions.  These committed Christians outrage because they believe it needs to be done.  Is it classy to condemn people to die of aids?  To prevent loving couples from enjoying the benefits of marriages (or even civil unions)?  Or do they believe that there some other principle at stake, outweighing the indignation?  Is Myers denied the right to outrage, because he is an atheist and not (the right kind of) Christian?

Christopher Svanefalk - #40812

November 19th 2010

Again, forgive my grammar and spelling, I know far better.

Alex - #40815

November 19th 2010

@Greg Myers - #40790

I second Gregory’s second (#40770) to Rich’s motion (#40768). I’ve interacted with Papalinton in other threads, and he has a distinct argumentative style: recycling reams of unoriginal critique mixed in with plenty of vitriol, wait for a response, pick out the few lines of that response that are most susceptible to micharacterization, ignore the rest, disparage and deride, rinse and repeat.  He is, quite simple, not interested in the dialogue that BioLogos is promoting by this forum.  I’ve interacted with other atheists and agnostics, whose comments have been quite helpful in pointing out perceived weaknesses in my own position and in the BioLogos project.  Thus, this has nothing to do with Papalinton’s beliefs or opinions.  It’s just that he isn’t interested in a conversation, and I don’t see why we should pretend that he is.

Christopher Svanefalk - #40818

November 19th 2010

“Especially since Christianity had to abandon the use of coercive power to silence critics and, as a consequence, has had to learn to listen and respond (at least sometimes) in a more helpful manner.”

Such is not, and never was, the spirit or nature of Biblical Christianity in the first place! Please, take some time and get acquainted with the writings and works of the early Christian church, where do you see in their teachings and belief any room for forced conversions, torture, crusades, or anything of the sort? They just are not there, or even implicitly allowed!

Rather, the Christian spirit is this:

“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)

“And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2Ti 2:24-25, NIV)

Alex - #40820

November 19th 2010

@Greg Myers - #40807

The technical term for PZ Myer’s deed was sacrilege.  It was a deliberately provocative act, a ‘giving of the finger’ to all Christians.  It’s the equivalent of a Christian burning down a place of worship of another religion—the same degree of irreverence for something another considers holy.  You would (and I presume have, on many occasions) criticized Christianity for such deeds, but you excuse Myers for the same sort of deed.

It’s not necessary to agree with the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.  I don’t!  But I respect their belief that this thing is unequivocally holy, and would not dream of disrespecting it.  I have attended Catholic Mass and even though I believed in the communion of all believers I abstained from Eucharist for that reason. We are not to be stumbling blocks for each other.

This is not a dispute over “freedom”—I don’t think Myers should be arrested for it, and I strongly repudiate those Christians who threatened him.  It is a matter of basic human decency, which PZ Myers very clearly lacks.

Greg Myers - #40821

November 19th 2010

Gregory - #40799
I’ve tried to address some of your questions above, but maybe a good analogy is that I am a “friend of the court.”  I think it matters, how science and religion interact.  I think that every time religion insists on a privileged position via-a-via the concepts of truth and knowledge, science is put at risk, and the forces of superstition and ignorance are strengthened. 

Media, politicians, commercial interests, pseudo-science and religions of all stripes follow the “privilege” arguments made by mainstream religion to justify their anti-rational agenda.  Anti-rational agendas do serious harm, in the name of religion, and of the state, ethnic groups and clans, corporations, the politics of personal power, and the media.

These privilege arguments also block the adoption of more accurate models, that could enhance our understanding and practice of ethics, community, and governance.

As a result, I am interested in encouraging people of faith, and the theologians who try to shape that faith, to close the loopholes whereby they conflate beliefs concerning their inner states with something that exists in the universe we humans (and everything else) inhabits.

Greg Myers - #40822

November 19th 2010

Christopher Svanefalk - #40818
I’ve done quite a lot of reading of the early church fathers.  I think you underestimate the coercive power the church wielded from Constantine on.  I think you underestimate the power of excommunication, and ecclesiastically enforced social conformity.  Are you familiar with the “No true Scotsman” argument (if not, Google it - it may make you laugh)?  You must admit that coercion and the assumption of privilege, along with the liberal use of fines, punishments, shunning and excommunication has played a powerful role in limiting criticism of the church.  I do not say that no criticism happened - of course it did, and was often robust - but this usually required the support of political leaders, and as often as not was wrapped up in social and political movements, if not schism in the church.

So you embrace your reading of a religious ideal, and I am talking about the faith as it is.

Greg Myers - #40823

November 19th 2010

Alex - #40820
Alex, you surprise me.  Images in church are a sacrilege to some.  Yet many traditions use images anyway.  Music in church is a sacrilege to some.  Yet many churches use music.  It is a sacrilege to deny that the Holy Spirit does or does not proceed from the Father and the Son - yet millions of people so affirm every day.  Sacrilege!

What PZ did was toss a cracker in the trash, to demonstrate the need to be free from religious superstition.  Why is this sacrilege so much worse than all the other sacrileges (marriage priests, denial of the virgin birth, transubstantiation, etc)?

When one religious tradition does something that is a sacrilege in another tradition, normally they don’t do it to outrage a different tradition, but because they are making a positive statement about their beliefs.  Living in a secular society means very little if an individual’s freedom is limited by what gives no offense to large and vocal groups.  In this case, the “sacrilege” WAS the message.  And the church should have responded, “You know, it is just a cracker, and his rejection of our mythology does not diminish it for us.”  Not with “Myers is a jerk for not treating our symbol with the respect we think it deserves.”

Alex - #40826

November 19th 2010

Greg Myers - #40823

You’re conflating sacrilege (desecration of a thing belonging to a sect and considered holy by that sect) with disagreement. There is a very big difference.  I am not committing sacrilege against the Catholic Eucharist by participating in communion in my church without believing in transubstantiation.  I would be committing sacrilege against it if I did the same in a Catholic Mass.  I can worship in a different mode than someone else, but that it isn’t sacrilege—it isn’t defiling a thing someone else considers holy.  If I brought a crucifix to the church that considers such images to be idolatry, that would be sacrilege. A crucifix in my church is not.

If Myers tossed an ordinary cracker into the garbage, to make the same point, fine.  It would have the same moral weight as me throwing away spoiled food. But he took a consecrated host, and drove a rusty nail into it, and then threw it, and then poured coffee grounds on top of it just for good measure.  In what universe do you inhabit that such an act is not incontrovertibly the act of a boor, who has no consideration or respect for those who disagree with him.?

Alex - #40827

November 19th 2010

Two final notes:

You write: “And the church should have responded, “You know, it is just a cracker, and his rejection of our mythology does not diminish it for us.”


If that wasn’t meant to be facetious… oh dear.  You think the church *should* have responded in a way that denies the fundamental doctrine (“just a cracker”) and denigrates their tradition (“our mythology”).  You think a moral obligation exists for them to agree with PZ Myers?  Sheesh.

Also, you wrote: “Living in a secular society means very little if an individual’s freedom is limited by what gives no offense to large and vocal groups.”

You seem to have forgotten to read final paragraph, above.  I’ll reprise it here.

“This is not a dispute over “freedom”—I don’t think Myers should be arrested for it, and I strongly repudiate those Christians who threatened him.  It is a matter of basic human decency, which PZ Myers very clearly lacks.”

If you can’t make the distinction between your freedom to do something and the prudence, civility, or virtue of doing it, then you’re no longer disagreeing with me, you’re disagreeing with the Oxford English Dictionary and the lexicographic community.

Greg Myers - #40829

November 19th 2010

Alex - #40826
Oh, that’s why you find all those defaced statues in Catholic churches and monasteries in Europe during the Reformation… oh, no, those were destroyed by anti-Catholic mobs reacting to the sacrilege of icons in the church.

I continue to be astonished.  The Bible is full of people who made the lives of believers miserable.  They ridiculed, they condemned, they destroyed idols.  Review your Ezekiel or Jeremiah (I am not suggesting Myers is a prophet, only that the tradition you embrace has a long history of authority figures who behaved exactly as you decry).  Myers did what he did to communicate a message about superstition (very Jeremiah-like). 

But let’s bring this back to science and faith.  Myers argues that the communion wafer is just a cracker.  Many Catholics insist that it be privileged as the body of Jesus.  So this conflict is emblematic of the way that faith places arbitrary limits on how we can understand the world.  The church insists that everyone (not just its adherents) treat the cracker as the body of Christ.  Myers insists that the wafer just a cracker, and that it is a positive harm to obey the Church’s directive in this.  Must he remain silent, or at least inoffensive?  Did the prophets?

Rich - #40830

November 19th 2010


Your continued defense of Myers is just pathetic.  No one forces Myers to worship in a Catholic Church.  No one forces Myers to affirm that the cracker is the Body of Christ in order to keep his job.  No one forces any friend or relative of Myers, or any citizen, to become Catholic, or affirm that the cracker is the Body.  Catholics, in believing what they believe and in doing what they do in Communion, do no harm to non-Catholics, and do no harm to the peace or freedom of America.  Myers is a rebel without a cause.

If Myers had accidentally stumbled on a communion wafer by a bench in Central Park, and picked it up, and someone said to him:  that’s a communion wafer; you should return it to the nearest priest; it might be consecrated; and Myers said “It’s just a cracker,” and pitched it in the nearest litter bin without other anti-religious comment, that would be one thing; but he sought out a consecrated wafer specifically to desecrate it. 

This has nothing to do with political freedom, as you’re trying to make out.  Myers has the right to talk and act like a jerk.  That doesn’t make him right to talk and act like a jerk.  There’s a big difference between those two “rights.”

Greg Myers - #40831

November 19th 2010

Alex - #40827

“....  You think a moral obligation exists for them to agree with PZ Myers?  Sheesh.”

Yep, ‘fraid so.  In fact, it is critical.  Otherwise, you’ve got people threatening to kill us unless we “respect” their traditions.  Oh, I know *you* decry the violence.  But after all, it was the body of Christ.  Everyone can’t be as calm as you are.

Except that you and I know it is not.  You may believe that it is also the body of Christ - but not, hopefully, in any material sense.  ‘Cause the science confirms that it is a cracker.  So not the body of Christ - right?  So you mean “body of Christ” in some sort of metaphorical sense, right?  Cause we can demonstrate that in the real world, it is a cracker.  So why not say to the faithful, “Yeah, it is a cracker, but for us, it is the body of Christ.  So Myers did not throw the body of Christ in the trash.  What he threw away was a cracker.  He did it to express his constitutionally protected right to disagree with our beliefs and traditions, because he thinks they are dangerous.  This is a right we affirm, and one we also practice, for example when we oppose condom use and same-sex marriage.  If it is good for us, it is also good for Myers.”

Rich - #40833

November 19th 2010

Greg (40809):

“But I am really keen to break through to a meaningful dialog”

Really?  Then why do you not answer my genuinely friendly query about your spiritual history, so that we can understand you better?

And why do you persist in defending a man (Myers) who willfully and gratuitously insults the faith of millions of Americans, to the point where even the Protestants here are offended by his treatment of the Catholic sacrament?  Do you expect to generate “meaningful dialog,” and to make the environment here less “hostile” to you by defending the man who is probably the most odious of all the New Atheists?

And who is threatening your freedom to be an atheist?  I, for calling atheistic arguments stale and shallow?  How does that take away your right to make and believe such arguments?  Do you fear the political power of Biologos?  What power?  It’s three or four full-time columnists and a few occasional columnists, plus a small number of admirers, all on a blog site that has no influence on Washington or any State government.  (And if it has any influence politically, it will be to promote more Darwinism in the schools, which should suit you fine.)  So where is this great threat to your freedom?

Greg Myers - #40834

November 19th 2010

Rich - #40830
For someone who wants to encourage dialog, you sure do a lot of name calling.

” Myers is a rebel without a cause.”

Hardly.  Perhaps you are too affronted to pay attention.

1. The Christian tradition includes intentionally offensive behavior and actions, from the prophets in the Bible to evangelism to social justice work.
2. Myers has publicly stated the specific reasons for his actions, rooted in his strong disagreement with the Catholic church in specific, and religion in general (I think this is what is known as a cause).
3. Free speech that is limited to what is inoffensive is not really free speech (as the coercive practices of the church when invested with the power of the state demonstrates so well)
4. It is specifically germane to this forum, because it touches upon the insistence of religious folks that their unsubstantiated beliefs be treated as fact.
5. The church itself reserves the right to engage in behavior that is offensive to others when it believes a core principle is at stake (i.e. condom use and opposition to same sex marriage).

Gregory - #40837

November 20th 2010

Since it looks like you are unwilling to admit your error re: ‘Jonathan Haidt’ (i.e. not Joseph) as it would make it appear that you don’t really know what you’re talking about, let me address something else from your #40374.

‘Scientism’ is not an ‘ethnic slur.’ It is a technical term for an ideology that (especially) many USAmericans have come to ‘believe’. It is an ideology that is easily identified by people who do not elevate ‘science’ into being a worldview that has.

Do you accept the ideology of scientism? PZ Myers quite obviously does in privileging ‘scientific’ knowledge above other types of legitimate knowledge.

I agree that it would be helpful to hear about why/how you came to reject the Church, after completing an MDiv. If you don’t feel it is to invasive to share this, please do so.

As with you, I am also encouraging people to open their eyes and to look around them. As a scholar, I do this every day. Religion is not a barrier to this; neither is revelation. But for some reason, you seem to think it is.

Rather than being ‘hobbled’ or ‘restricted’ by revelation, people are freer to express their true humanity (& I include pre- or non-Christians in this), doing science not excepted.

Greg Myers - #40842

November 20th 2010

Gregory - #40837
Oh come on Gregory. Why respond to your noting a first name coreection that is easily verified?  Unless you know of two J haidts who have identified five moral foundations?  Yes,  you sure are right about Haidt’s first name!  Seems like you could have made a substantive response, unless your only goal is some sort of pedantic one upmanship.

Not so much your points about scientism. I didn’t say it was an ethnic slur, I said it was being used like an ethnic slur, to prejudice the discussion.  As your follow-on comments make clear. Myers is not a proponent of scientism. In fact, I don’t know anyone who actually adopts the parody of science you deem scientism. You seem to be copting what I view as a useful discussion about how we know by dismissing anyone who disagrees with you as unworthy of discussion.

But if I have misjudged you, please, respond to the post.

In my experience, personal stories are best shared in a safe environment. So far, the prospects don’t feel so good.

Papalinton - #40848

November 20th 2010

Hi Christopher Svanefalk -

At #40811 you say,  “However, what I believe everyone in Christian circles agree on is that the message itself is indeed inspired and uncorrupted, as it is presented.”

Please, before you make a decision Christopher about the inerrancy of the bible and acceptance of the bible, take a genuine moment to read the Koran.  My muslim friends tell me, in all sincerity,  the actual word of god [Allah]  is truly inspired and uncorrupted.  It was delivered to Muhammad fully 600 years after the New Testament,  and is the latest, most updated and revised message,  with the most current directives,  from god.
Both are from the Abrahamic stable.  So, it would be remiss of you to choose a book equivalent to Newton’s physics rather than to go for the latest and most up-to-date version of Einsteinian physics.  If you want the best, go for the latest, if theism is your thing.

Indeed I would suggest you consider the christianity of the Latter-day Saints.  Mormonism is perhaps the most recent of REVELATIONS absolutely direct from god only some 150 years ago, not 2,000 years ago.

Please reconsider, particularly if you are considering your intellectual health.  Go for the latest revelations.


Papalinton - #40849

November 20th 2010


At #40768 you say,  “In fact, a denominational affiliation would be downright misleading, as I’m against all flags.
In any case, what does it matter?  Your arguments over the past several months show beyond a doubt that you reject all forms of Christianity, so your pretence that the denomination is important is disingenuous.”

I am honest enough to indicate that I do indeed question all forms of christianity simply because the strength of the bases of any of its mutations is unabashedly underwhelming.  Tradition and dogma are simply not sufficient claims for veracity. 

To remain anonymous in the courage of your convictions is perhaps a form of cowardice. 
You know my perspective. You know I will challenge your particular perspective, regardless of what denomination it is.  That is true, I don’t resile from that.  But it does become tiring when one puts forward a mature argument for refuting or conceding, and hopefully a healthy debate, only to be told, “that’s not the kind of christianity I believe in, so your argument is invalid.”

Now that is galling, and I say again, that strategy from common theists is a form of cowardice to seriously engage in debate.


Papalinton - #40851

November 20th 2010

Greg Myers

At #40821, you say,  “These privilege arguments also block the adoption of more accurate models, that could enhance our understanding and practice of ethics, community, and governance.
As a result, I am interested in encouraging people of faith, and the theologians who try to shape that faith, to close the loopholes whereby they conflate beliefs concerning their inner states with something that exists in the universe we humans (and everything else) inhabits.”

Very thoughtful words.  The overrepresentation of religious privilege and undeserved acquiescence to religious leaders in the public domain,  particularly in the formulation of public policy,  and its adverse effects to the forming of effective policy, is a no-brainer.  Disparate and competing religious argument do compromise ethics, community and governance.
The ardent religiose must recognise and acknowledge that all communities are diverse and multi-cultural and the imposition of a one-size-fits-all overview is both unsustainable and folly. 

I too wish for a change in ideation from that which currently revolves around the theists defend-at-all-cost of tradition and dogma of a past era.  Such conservatism is counter to good and inclusive governance.

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