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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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Alex - #40886

November 20th 2010

@Greg Myers - #40831

Either you are an accomplished wit, or your mental faculties are totally fried.  I’m not very good at picking up on dry humor, so I couldn’t rule out whether you meant to be serious.

A moral obligation to agree with you exists, because “otherwise, you’ve got people threatening to kill us”.  I suppose all conflict and disagreement ought to be banned, for the public safety?

Honestly, what possible bearing does the (sinful) actions of a few have on the truth claims of the religion at stake?  I suppose, for consistency’s sake, you would be ready to judge atheism as a practical philosophy by the outcomes of the French Revolution?

Moreover, what possible standard of civil discourse do you think you’re upholding when one party can commit dishonest-to-God sacrilege and the other party is held liable for the incident, unless they’re willing to abandon their deepest held beliefs? You’re blaming a sexual assault on the rape victim, then forcing the rape victim to put out for her assailant. How do you not see how messed up your reasoning is?

Alex - #40887

November 20th 2010


You don’t understand the doctrine of transubstantiation; don’t pretend like you do.  Catholics hold that the elements don’t change, but the essence does.  Physically, it remains identical to a cracker, but in terms of the “real” (metaphysical) substance, it becomes part of the body of Christ.  Catholics, please correct me if this is at all inaccurate.

Basically, the consecrated host is considered to be in unity with Christ.  Thus, desecrating the host is the same, for a Catholic, as physically participating in the physical torture and crucifixion of Christ.  Imagine the thing you value dearest in your life torn from you, ripped to pieces, destroyed and mocked, and you may begin to grasp the psychological pain and trauma that such an experience would entail. Then to so callously brush off their indignation and emotional response, and to blame them for trying to “silence” Myers…!  It’s beyond the pale.

Finally, your continued defense of his “freedom” is a red herring, and you very well know it.  Every Christian on this thread concedes his legal right to offend Catholics. You’re obfuscate the real issue—whether his action was civil or even remotely decent—because it is an argument you cannot win.

Papalinton - #40904

November 20th 2010

Words like:
virgin birth
body of christ
consecrated host
are all words specific to theism and their attendant are concepts are solely bound within theology with no transferability to any field of science.

Science trespasses on the boundary of the sacred not because it is opposed to the sacred but because it has no concept of sacred at all.  ‘Sacred’ is a wholly religious concept, not a scientific one and not a natural one.  To science nothing is sacred , because ‘sacred’ is not part of its vocabulary.  So when science ignores religious boundaries, it handles religion roughly - like any pithed frog or pinned butterfly.  When science finds facts that refute religious claims - about man, about society, about the universe, or about god[s] - it comes as a tear of the skin that no religion welcomes or can withstand.

The point is that science conducts its affairs with utter and complete disregard and indifference to religion; if religion agrees or disagrees, it is absolutely irrelevant to science.  The indifference of science is not hostility; in a way, it is the very absence of hostility.  It may seem hostile but it is not.

Greg Myers - #40916

November 20th 2010

Alex - #40887
No, I do see how this is an offensive act.  And your use of the rape analogy suggests that no substantive discussion on the issue is possible.

As the doctrine suggests, no scientific experiment should show any physical change in the cracker.  And still, as you point out, even touching the smallest crumb of host is believed to be literally touching the actual body of Christ.  As a result, Myers’ act is perceived by believers as sacrilegious and disrespectful.

So let me see if I understand.  For millions, the bible is the literal word of God.  It is inerrant and inspired, and to suggest otherwise is to impugn the very character and utterances of God.  These believers rail against modern science and biblical scholarship, and pull their children from public school and boycott seminaries to protect their belief - this is how seriously they take this doctrine.

But it is OK to argue that they are wrong.  Because we’re just talking, right?

Except that this is literally attacking the Bible - the literally inerrant and inspired Word of God.  No wonder they are angry.  Can we actually suggest that they are reading the bible wrong without violating their deeply held religious convictions?  Should we?


Greg Myers - #40918

November 20th 2010

Alex - #40887
“You’re obfuscate the real issue—whether his action was civil or even remotely decent—because it is an argument you cannot win.”

Odd that on a site dedicating to debating sensitive religious issues, no one wants to even consider the role of free speech in a democracy.

No one seems willing to acknowledge the provocative and often deeply unpopular things done and said in the Christian tradition.

No one seems willing to acknowledge the oppressive power of privilege, where minority views are suppressed and ignored, until some subversive act propels an issue into public discourse.  Of course these opinions are seldom “...civil or even remotely decent,” because otherwise they would not need to be articulated.  They are minority opinions, for crying out loud.

And I have never suggested that Myers’ act was “...civil or even remotely decent.”  Quite the contrary.  He raises an issue that needs discussing, one that is completely ignored by power and privilege.  And if you don’t think that as Christians, you are part of the power and privilege system in the West, then you are simply not paying attention. Wealth aside, consider this: billions of adherents, with brick-and-mortar grass roots presence world-wide.

Greg Myers - #40924

November 20th 2010

“Do you fear the political power of Biologos?  What power? “

So you don’t think a group funded by the Templeton foundation isn’t connected right to the top of the power structure?  You don’t think this site wasn’t created specifically to advance an evangelical Christian agenda?  To defend the notion that government and industry must treat Christian belief on par with scientific knowledge?  Don’t you feel like you are part of a Great Cause, defending truth in an age of darkness and apostasy?  This is power.

Or perhaps you feel like a victim?  In a country where John Shimkus, perhaps the next head of the House Energy Committee can say publicly that global warming is not a problem, because God promised not to destroy the earth again, and his comments get virtually no mainstream press coverage?  This is power.

Alex - #40938

November 20th 2010

@Papalinton - #40904

Words have meaning.  Just because certain words are grounded in religion doesn’t make them meaningless.

PZ Myer’s action was not “scientific.” No experiments were involved, no discoveries were made.  It was polemic, and personal.  It was, to use the technical term, sacrilege.  Your arguments are red herrings.  This issue has nothing to do with the demarcation between science and religion, nothing to do with civil liberty, nothing to do with anything besides the gratuitous offensiveness of the act itself.

Alex - #40939

November 20th 2010

@Greg Myers

#40916—“No, I do see how this is an offensive act.”
#40918—“And I have never suggested that Myers’ act was “...civil or even remotely decent.”  Quite the contrary.”

You admit the incivility and total lack of decency of Myer’s action?  I rest my case, I guess.  But why isn’t it also “offensive,” when that word merely connotes that others took offense at it.

The rape analogy was meant to capture the psychological impression Myer’s act would have made on a believing Catholic, as well as the tortured logic of your response.

You’re conflating again.  Denying the inerrancy of the Bible is one thing, similar to denying the doctrine of transubstantiation. Publicly defecating on the Bible would be a parallel to Myer’s treatment of the consecrated host.  If you can’t see the difference, I pity you.

“No one wants to even consider the role of free speech in a democracy.”  No one wants to, because there’s been no disagreement so far.  You’re preaching to the choir when it comes to free speech.  It’s not that we’re fascists; it’s just that we’re bored.

Alex - #40940

November 20th 2010

Greg Myers - #40924

Pardon, WHAT is power?  To seek to promote your beliefs, is itself power? I’m starting to suspect you are being facetious.  I can never tell.

You indicate that your beliefs are being actively “suppressed and ignored” and that Myer’s “subversive act” was necessary to bring to light the oppressive evil of Catholicism.  Now who’s playing the victim?  You’re like the peasant in Monty Python: “Help, help, I’m being repressed!”

Also, in this post you state (in apparent seriousness) a conspiracy theory of subversive Christian foundations and their manipulation of the evangelical movement through insidious funding grants.  I’m trying to be charitable by calling you facetious, I really am.  It’s just the only other possibility seems to be visualizing you in a tin-foil hat

Greg Myers - #40951

November 20th 2010

Alex - #40939
“You’re conflating again.  Denying the inerrancy of the Bible is one thing, similar to denying the doctrine of transubstantiation. Publicly defecating on the Bible would be a parallel to Myer’s treatment of the consecrated host.  If you can’t see the difference, I pity you.”

The “debate” between advocates of tran-, sub- and con- substantiation, while perhaps very much alive to folks who think the differences are important, are viewed by most folks outside of Catholicism as esoteric quibbling (though at least 30% of US Catholics do not seem to embrace transubstantiation). 

Have you asked yourself why would someone want to do such a thing?  You seem eager to dismiss him as the worst sort of human.  Could he be making a point about the dangers of magical thinking? 

Where does magical thinking lead us?  A high-ranking member of the House of Representatives publicly stating that Genesis is a more credible source for the determining future impact of global warming than climate models, and seeking to make public policy based on that belief.  Teaching people lies about condom use during an AIDs epidemic, whipping up religious hatred as an excuse to marginalize and silence critics and opponents.

Greg Myers - #40954

November 20th 2010

You may think that you are personally much more sophisticated than that - but the posts I read here are making the same arguments.  Science, government and industry (you argue) must take our personal beliefs seriously (wherever you might be on the religious belief map), because we feel strongly (though cannot prove) that our faith is as equally valid a way of knowing as, for example, science and reason.

Has he got your attention?  I see that he has not.  But he has got the attention of others - and made his point in a way that polite discourse never will.

Why would someone be so angry at religion?  Could it be the hypocritical appearance of a pope covered in jewels, speaking from a palace on the wickedness of materialism?  Of the sex scandals, the sex scandal cover-ups, the financial corruption, the anti-intellectual tirades, the naked power grabs, the scape-goating of atheism, of science, the subverting of public policy in support of religious agendas?

Can you see how this looks from secular eyes - the world at the brink of mass conflict and tragic mistakes in judgement and public policy because religious sensibilities must be appeased?  Where you only see a gross breach of good manners, I see a wake-up call.  Wake up.

Greg Myers - #40958

November 20th 2010

Alex - #40940
Alex, it is not a conspiracy, it’s Templeton’s stated policy.  This site exists because the Templeton Foundation exercised its power to make it happen.  Not impressed?

That you take power for granted does not mean it does not exist.  You don’t think that when priests and pastors talk on a Sunday morning, what they say has no impact on Monday morning?  So when the priest or pastor says that what the bible says about “x” is as equally valid as anything science has discovered or experience and reason has taught us, and further, that we are to be guided by what he (mostly) or she says, you think this has no impact?

And when the priest or pastor says that scientists lie or manipulate the data to discredit the bible, you think this has no impact on how science is viewed?  And you may claim your take on religion does no such thing, but it is clear from the articles being posted that this is exactly the agenda - how to rub the rough edges of science off so as to preserve religion.

Isn’t it indicative of power than presidential candidates have to parade their piety, and visit the religious kingmakers, before they can have a hope of winning?

So no conspiracy, just a broad association working for similar ends.

Alex - #40960

November 20th 2010


Yes, Greg Meyer, I am truly flabbergasted by the immense and unmeasurable power of the Templeton Foundation, that they have managed to create and maintain a web site!  To overcome the immense barriers to setting up an online presence, is a true testament to their irresistible political clout.

I don’t have much to say for the rest.  You think that because some people let their faith affect their lives, and because they are free to do so, the world itself is imperiled. You consider religion to be this vast and irresistible hegemony of power and influence, because it isn’t entirely ignored.  There’s nothing I can say to dissuade you, and nothing I can add to demonstrate its absurdity.

Papalinton - #40965

November 20th 2010

Alex - #40938

“@Papalinton - #40904
Words have meaning.  Just because certain words are grounded in religion doesn’t make them meaningless.”

True, but their meaning is solely bound within the parameters of theism.  They are largely parochial and group specific, a ‘talking in tongue’, if you will, between like-minded people who like the sound of these words rolling off their tongue, as if with some magical, shamanic power.  There is no transferability of those meanings to science, to public policy generally.  In general public discourse the sound of these words and concepts infused through, say, a politician’s speech, makes people cringe.  Once heard, you know, there is an agenda being pushed and any debate on public policy is going to be filtered through the myopic lens of that politician’s brand of theism, and not cogniscent of the general interests of the diverse multiplicity of people that make up that community.


Papalinton - #40966

November 20th 2010

re Templeton,  don’t kid yourself that it is not attempting to inveigle its theist ‘bona fides’ on the coat-tails of the hard work of scientists.  Its raison d’etre is precisely to do that.  It has many, many millions of dollars each years to give as prizes, grants, stipends etc to any scientist it can buy, with the proviso, that a good, inoffensive word about christian theism can be weedled into the context of the scientific papers presented [perhaps not in the paper itself, but certainly in the publicity, and within the context surrounding how that paper came to being].

And of course, just as religion seems to operate best with the poor, when their defenses are completely down and proselytizers take the opportunity to remind the grateful poor where this goodness which they are about to receive comes from, many scientists struggle for funding for research and the offer of this money is very alluring.

Sheesh, this is as obvious as the nose on one’s face.  No apologetics needed here.

Greg Myers - #40969

November 20th 2010

So back to the OP

“So let’s not disparage the central claims of theology just because they are so much more complicated than the function of penicillin.”
Giberson notes that different fields have different kinds of evidence - and then replaces the concept of inference with faith.  This is an important switch.  Consider his claim “God responds by entering into relationship with believers.”  Is there any kind of evidence that could substantiate this?  I mean, given that we’ve looked, and only found natural processes and causes, what could possibly “prove” this claim?  So it isn’t really a case of complicated or ambiguous evidence, is it?  In fact, there *can* be no evidence.  What there can be is faith.  But on what basis should someone who lacks faith (or owns a different faith) accept this claim, especially since, not only is evidence lacking, but other religions offer competing explanations for the same phenomena?

Again, beyond certainty about a given inner state, what is it that is known, and why should it be privileged when it conflicts with observation and theory.

Alex - #40983

November 20th 2010

@Papalinton - #40965

You seem to be admitting that, when you hear certain “theistically-tainted” words in public discourse, you automatically assume that the person saying those words are parochial, unconcerned with the public good, and incapable of higher reasoning.  I’m not surprised that this is your instinctive prejudice against Christians or theists of all stripes; I’m just surprised you admit it so freely, when you view yourself to be an impartial man of science.

@Papalinton - #40966

The possibility of corruption does not demonstrate its inevitability or confirm its existence.  You’re attributing insidious motivations to an organization, when good-faith motivations seem sufficient (remember Occam’s Razor?)  As Christians working in faith and science issues, who believe in the harmony between the two, they want to encourage other Christians who are like them. No deeper motives are necessary to explain their conduct.

For anyone else still reading, do you pay any attention to Papalinton’s posts?  I’m just wondering whether it’s still necessary to respond, or whether refutation has become superfluous at this point.

Eye-Witness - #40984

November 20th 2010

PL: How very internationally ecumenical you are. 
However, ecumenism does not make a fairy-tale any the truer…

=I have not offerded a “fairy tale” therein;
I have presented a matchless “Empirical Mathematical Evidence” directly stemming from within the Words of Moses, David, Jesus, Muhammad. Please, take a careful look at it, first of all.

BT: Faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity are equally unsupportable by the evidence.

=If you go and take a careful look at that matcless “Empirical Mathematical Evidence,” first of all, directly in/on the WORD OF GOD itself,
perhaps, you may absolutely understand the difference between an imaginary “Flying Spaghetti Monster” and the real Most-Intelligent GOD of Abraham, therein, who has created the Universe and His own Word thus in pure and matchless “Mathematics!” 

As I said before, I do not belong to any Church, or a Synagogue, or a Mosque, but I do individually believe that Moses, Jesus, David, Muhammad were all true Messengers of one true and Most-Intelligent GOD,
based on a wonderful and matchless “Empirical Mathematical Evidence” within the WORD itself now!

Papalinton - #40986

November 21st 2010

Perhaps it’s more difficult to mount a challenge with substantive support material than to say, that’s not true, and many have already reached that point.

No, I don’t assume, but a flag is raised so that I listen much more intently to that person’s message, mostly to find I am disappointed there seems to be no connection between the religious claim and the policy in question.

I do differ with you on one matter, Alex, when you say of me “your instinctive prejudice against Christians”.  Certainly nor instinctive.  It is a position that developed over a considerable period of time through many personal experiences, both as a believer and then as an infidel.  The message has largely been the same.  There is a perceptible tension and unease in the way christians talk, act and relate to questions of ‘absolute morality’.  There always seems to me that their take on morality is not one developed from deep within the experience and understanding of the person, but an attached morality, an appendage given by god to wear, without which even the best people will steal, rape, pillage and lead meaningless lives because without god’s absolute code of morality, no person can live properly, decently.
That is anti-human.

gingoro - #41045

November 21st 2010


“For anyone else still reading, do you pay any attention to Papalinton’s posts?  I’m just wondering whether it’s still necessary to respond, or whether refutation has become superfluous at this point.”

I subscribe to BioLogos through the “news and blog reader” in my offline email program.  Through filters I have arranged not to see posts from a number of authors including Papalinton as I do not find them of interest. 
Dave W

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