Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 1

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March 28, 2013 Tags: Science & Worldviews, Science as Christian Calling

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

Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 1

Having introduced readers to the life, work, and thought of John Polkinghorne, it’s now time to let him speak for himself. In the next few months we will present edited excerpts from two of his books, starting with the opening section of the chapter, “Motivated Belief,” from Theology in the Context of Science. Most of the editing involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I will indicate by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point(s)—and sometimes inserting annotations where warranted [also enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information. Polkinghorne uses footnotes a bit sparingly, and I will usually find another way to include that information if it’s particularly important for our readers. The next words you read will be his.

Motivated Belief

As we noted earlier [in this book], scientists are not inclined to subscribe to an a priori [i.e., knowledge that is not dependent on experience or empirical evidence] concept of what is reasonable. They have found the physical world to be too surprising, too resistant to prior expectation, for a simple trust in human powers of rational prevision [i.e., foresight] to be at all persuasive. Instead, the actual character of our encounter with reality has to be allowed to shape our knowledge and thought about the object of our enquiry. Different levels of reality may be expected to have their idiosyncratic characters, and there will not be a single epistemic [knowledge-based] rule for all. A physicist, aware of the counterintuitive natures of the quantum world and of cosmic curved spacetime, is not tempted to make commonsense the sole measure of rational expectation. Because of this, we have seen that the instinctive question for the scientist to ask is not “Is it reasonable?”, as if one knew beforehand the shape that rationality had to take, but “What makes you think that might be the case?” Radical revision of expectation cannot be ruled out, but it will only be accepted if evidence is presented in support of the new point of view that is being proposed. Science trades in motivated belief.

One of the difficulties that face a scientist wanting to speak to his colleagues about the Christian faith is to get across the fact that theology also trades in motivated belief. Many scientists are both wistful and wary in their attitude towards religion. They can see that science’s story is not sufficient by itself to give a satisfying account of the many-layered reality of the world. Those who acknowledge this are open to a search for wider and deeper understanding. Hence the wistful desire for something beyond science. Religion offers such a prospect, but many scientists fear that it does so on unacceptable terms. Their wariness arises from the mistaken idea that religious faith demands that those who embrace it should be willing to believe simply on the basis of submission to some unquestionable authority—the claimed utterances of a divine being, the unchallengeable assertions of a sacred book, the authoritative decrees of a controlling community, whatever it may be—simply declared to be unproblematic deliverances of infallible truth. [This describes the attitude that Polkinghorne likes to call “top-down thinking,” vis-à-vis “bottom-up thinking,” which is mentioned at the end of this excerpt.]

The picture that many scientists have of religious revelation is that it is a collection of non-negotiable propositions, presented to be accepted without further argument or attempt at justification. According to this view, faith is simply a matter of signing on the dotted line without taking too much care about the small print. These scientists fear that religious belief would demand of them an act of intellectual suicide. I believe this to be a quite disastrous misconception. If an uncritical fideism [reliance on faith alone] is what religious belief requires, then I would have the greatest difficulty in being a religious person.

What I am always trying to do in conversation with my not-yet-believing friends is to show them that I have motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for scientific beliefs. They may not share my view of the adequacy of these motivations, but at least they should recognize that they are there on offer as matters for rational consideration and assessment. Theology conducted in the context of science must be prepared to be candid about the evidence for its beliefs. This task is one of great importance, since the difficulty of getting a hearing for Christian faith in contemporary society often seems to stem from the fact that many people have never given adequate adult consideration to the possibility of its being true, thinking that they “know” already that there can be no truth in claims so apparently at odds with notions of everyday secular expectation.

While science and religion share a common concern for motivated belief, the character of the motivating evidence is, of course, different in the two cases. [SNIP]  Theology lacks recourse to repeatable experimental confirmation (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Deuteronomy 6:16), as in fact do most other non-scientific explorations of reality. Judgments such as that of the quality of a painting, or the beauty of a piece of music, or the character of a friend, depend upon powers of sympathetic discernment, rather than being open to empirical demonstration. Moreover, I have already said that I believe that no form of human truth-seeking enquiry can attain absolute certainty about its conclusions. The realistic aspiration is that of attaining the best explanation of complex phenomena, a goal to be achieved by searching for an understanding sufficiently comprehensive and well-motivated as to afford the basis for rational commitment.

Michael Polanyi (Source)

Neither science nor religion can entertain the hope of establishing logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny. No one can avoid some degree of intellectual precariousness, and there is a consequent need for a degree of cautious daring in the quest for truth. Experience and interpretation intertwine in an inescapable circularity. Even science cannot wholly escape this dilemma (theory interprets experiments; experiments confirm or disconfirm theories). We have seen [in another chapter] how considerations of this kind led Michael Polanyi to acknowledge the presence of a tacit dimension in scientific practice, depending on the exercise of skills of judgment, and to speak of science as necessarily being personal knowledge, not absolutely certain but still capable of eliciting justified belief. Recall that he said that he wrote Personal Knowledge to explain how he might commit himself to what he believed (scientifically) to be true, while knowing that it might be false. This stance recognizes what I believe to be the unavoidable epistemic condition of humanity.

When we turn to religious belief, it too cannot lay claim to certainty beyond a peradventure [uncertainty or doubt]—for believers live by faith and not by sight. Yet faith is by no means the irrational acceptance of unquestionable propositions. I believe my religious faith to be well motivated and that is why, for me, Christianity is worthy of acceptance and commitment. Religious people are content to bet their lives that this is so. If theology is to prove persuasive to enquirers in the context of science, it will have to set out the motivations for the assertions that it makes, expressed in as honest and careful a fashion as possible. I believe that the argument will need to have the character of bottom-up thinking, making appeal to specific forms of evidence.

Looking Ahead

In a couple of weeks we will continue exploring Polkinghorne’s approach to “motivated belief,” with further excerpts from this chapter.

References and Credits

Excerpts from John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009), copyright Yale University Press, are reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #77924

March 28th 2013

I disagree with Polkinghome that there is no way to test faith.

Every day we test our faith. It either works or it does not. “A tree is know by its fruit.”

The Bible is the story of how faith is tested. Some people passed the test while others did not. The story of Job is the story of af a test of faith. Job passed but his “comforters” did not.

Often we grow and learn from our mistakes and this cannot be done with concrete tests of faith. Of course Christianity judges success and failure different from the way science judges success and failure.

However if science would just agree that life does have meaning and purpose we would have a basis for discussion even if we do not agree to the content of that meaning and purpose.

It seems that science still is haunted by the bogey man of Teleology. Telos needs to be redefined, but this metaphysical issue should not veto human progress.


Ted Davis - #77927

March 28th 2013


I’m not sure why you say that P thinks faith can’t be tested. In other places (though not in this excerpt), P likes to invite non-believers to “come and see” that Christianity is true, based on their own experience.

GJDS - #77928

March 28th 2013

I would ask is, “Just what does Polkinghorne consider as motivated belief?” It is correct (albeit somewhat fashionable) to state that “Experience and interpretation intertwine in an inescapable circularity.” I am however, of the view that reason, and the notion that something is reasonably true, to be a useful criteria for belief in something, and that a reasonable person would conclude that something (a proposition) may be believable true (or false). With science, we scientists are acutely aware of the many mistakes and mistaken conclusions we may have reached in carrying out scientific research, and thus we have become dependent on: (a) accepting the need for continued research on the basis that we do not know, or our understanding is insufficient, and (b) that our doubts and insecurity arising from (a) can be adequately met by a belief in a scientific method. 

When we attempt to discuss faith and science we try to come to some type of harmonious appreciation of both, but I feel we often forget that science demands of us the we believe in its method – we may compartmentalise this by using –isms (scientism, naturalism, etc), but this simply shift the discussion. It is here that faith and reason need to be considered.

I recall Moore in his “In Defence of Common Sense” argues that at least some of our beliefs about the world are absolutely certain. I would argue that our personal experiences, our joys, our tragedies, and so on, can conform to things we would find believably true. These are common to all human beings, including scientists. It is here that a discussion about what motivates us to be theists or atheists, people of good will, or ones who choose a life of crime, and so on, may be better understood. The context is that of humanity, God, faith, and choice that human beings make. The variety of human experience would then explain most of what we see around us. Within this context, I believe God chooses to work His will – and this is for our benefit - in spite of our effort to work against that purpose and outcome.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77956

March 29th 2013


This is the statement from the essay that was the basis of my response.

Theology lacks recourse to repeatable experimental confirmation (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Deuteronomy 6:16),

Maybe the problem is that the meaning of the statement in Deuteronomy is not clearly explicated.  In my opinion the loose use of scripture has been used as a cop out by some and thus a turn off to many.  It seems to me that he lost an opportunity to clarify this issue as I hoped to do in my response.  

He is correct in saying “theology lacks recourse to repeatable experimental confirmation,” but we do have recourse to repeated experiencial confirmation.  I do not think there is much difference, and I expect that the claim of Christianity that it is based on repeated historical experiencial confirmation is the real basis of the scientific method.    

Merv - #77958

March 29th 2013

Polkinghorne wrote:

Their wariness arises from the mistaken idea that religious faith demands that those who embrace it should be willing to believe simply on the basis of submission to some unquestionable authority—the claimed utterances of a divine being, the unchallengeable assertions of a sacred book, the authoritative decrees of a controlling community, whatever it may be—simply declared to be unproblematic deliverances of infallible truth.

This point is well-taken as it addresses the extreme and false caricature that science is “all about fact” while religion is nothing but blind acceptance of authority—a caricature that widely misses its mark on both ends.  But even taking a more sober appraisal, the religiously skeptical scientists are not producing this concern out of a vacuum; (or should I say ... their concern is not without motivation?)  Because as much “tasting and seeing” as we Christians may do, as much testing of the waters ... following as disciples, we do (or should if we are faithful to our convictions) come up against that opaque requirement that demands our trust.  We may have excellent reasons to bestow that trust and cling to it, to be sure; but it must be trust nonetheless.  Authority does in the end ask for our faith.  Science does not differentiate itself on this final question as the religious skeptic puts his faith (scientifically blind faith no less) in something(s) too.  But the latter faith has less-well defined sources for its authority and asks us to bestow our faith in our senses, our rationality, and a host of other things.  Religion shares in using those things as well, but sometimes asks us to hold those at arm’s length while embracing trust instead.  So I don’t see the skeptics charge as entirely unwarranted, though as usual, it accompanies a failure to realize they also are floating in a boat of faith.


Ted Davis - #77962

March 29th 2013


The crucial word in the sentence you quoted are commenting on is “simply,” which is used twice. As I said in one of the earlier columns about P, there are (frankly) some Christians who do conform to Dawkins’ stereotype of having “blind” faith, without any evidential basis whatsoever. P is very different, obviously, and so are many other Christians, including many who work in the sciences.

Lou Jost - #78013

March 30th 2013

Merv, can you elaborate on your last line when you have time?

Lou Jost - #77961

March 29th 2013

The problem with experiential tests of Christianity is that the practitioners of virtually all religions (including ones based ondrug cults, far removed from Christianity) make similar experiential claims. It looks like these kinds of experiences can be accessed in many different ways. Experiential claims of this kind are thus quite irrelevant to the truth-claims underlying the practitioner’s religion. That is why it is so important to look for empirical confirmation of those claims which can be confirmed.

Ted Davis - #77963

March 29th 2013

I don’t think it’s quite this simple, Lou. I know many people, including numerous scientists and scholars (a few of them even internationally prominent in their fields), who have come to Christianity as adults, either having grown up entirely without religious faith or having discarded a youthful religious upbringing early on. Few in this group (to the best of my knowledge) came to Christianity for “intellectual” reasons, even though many of them can give solid intellectual reasons for being Christians today. They came to Christianity in search of something that reason alone did not provide them—finding a meaning to life was very important to several of them. That is partly experiential and partly intellectual: like other very bright people, they rarely do anything entirely apart from rational reflection.

In short, it’s not “either reason, or faith,” but “both reason and faith.” This story is at least as old as Augustine.

One friend who gives reason a large role in his conversion is Ian Hutchinson (, leader of the Alcator plasma physics team at MIT. He’s written about his conversion here ( and here (

Lou Jost - #77979

March 29th 2013

Ted, thanks for the article references. Note that I was not saying “either/or”, I was only pointing out that a wide variety of religions and cults make similar experiential claims. You mention “finding a meaning to life”, but this is also a very common claim people make about non-Christian faith. A belief that gives meaning to life is only worthwhile if it is a belief in something that is true. At least that is the way I feel. I have noticed some people don’t seem worried about the truth of their faith; if it helps them live an ethical life, provides them with experiences of awe or mystery, and gives them a sense of purpose, that is justification enough. I am puzzled by that.

Ted Davis - #78006

March 30th 2013

I am also puzzled by that. This is why I emphasized both/and rather than either/or.

GJDS - #78010

March 30th 2013

Ted and Merv,

I suggest we bring the conversation to ‘what motivates us human beings’. Polkinghorne has chosen his words well - what we do and believe (indeed almost everything human to varying degrees) is somehow motivated within us. We may reason and question ours, and others, motives, but it is hard to think we do and believe what we do, without some type of motivation. This is especially true for matters of faith, and religion in general. That is one big reason why I (and others) emphasise the good character, honesty, and good faith displayed by those who witnesses the risen Christ. This is the testimony of people we would believe because they are motivated by a desire to avoid falsehoods and reply truthfully. It is a realy realy good reason (spelling errors may be found in this).

Merv - #77967

March 29th 2013

“Experiential claims” is a broad brush, Lou.  In some Christian circles of more pentecostal or charismatic flavor one may find much emphasis placed on joyful expressions and emotional highs.  While joy certainly is present in the Christian life, to claim that intense bursts of feeling and emotion are the sum of what is meant by ‘joy’ is a mistake.  But even so, such experiences are not ruled out either, and if somebody pursues such feelings by using drugs while another is busy pursuing God through contemplative study and joyful worship, time and results (maybe even obvious results to their own bodies!) will differentiate between those practices.   And to the extent that any religion can lead to attentive care, charity, sustained and sober joy ... that will all be evidence for what that particular religion got right—not evidence that all religions must be wrong because they disagree over important questions.

We would all rightly object if someone said:  “I see that people have used scientific experimentation to produce all sorts of quackery, so obviously experimentation is not a valid means of learning anything.”   The obvious answer is that not all experimentation is created (or practiced) equally.  Just as not all experiential claims are either.  You are right that sober appraisal of claims is necessary; but that is to discern which ones are relevant.  A blanket dismissal of all such claims is a declaration that you are no longer interested in any evidence that might disturb your own a priori preconceptions.



Lou Jost - #77982

March 29th 2013

Merv, I don’t know what kind of appraisal of an experiential claim would even be relevant. Yes, “attentive care, charity, sustained and sober joy” would be evidence that the religion or cult had understood something about human nature. Beyond that, it would be hard to say much. It is not quite analogous to an empirical experiment that could actually answer a particular fact claim.

Merv - #77995

March 30th 2013

Lou wrote:  

I don’t know what kind of appraisal of an experiential claim would even be relevant.

We consult scientific authorities regarding scientific experiments.   And we have historians and theologians to consult regarding history and theology.   Not that we aren’t expected to have at least summary knowledge beyond our own area of expertise, but still ... I thank God we aren’t all scientists.  We all fall prey to the tendency to think that if we have a hammer [in your case, science] then the entire world must be nothing but a nail.


Lou Jost - #78002

March 30th 2013

But objective truth matters, in any field.

Merv - #78004

March 30th 2013

Absolutely!  Which is why we generally shouldn’t trust historians or philosophers as the highest authorities on scientific matters just like we shouldn’t appeal to some scientific method to settle difficult matters of history or philosophy.

These fields all over-lap in gloriously messy ways, of course, and far be it from me to think experts have the only corner on truth in any of these things.  But experts in each area are generally credentialed as such for a reason.


GJDS - #77978

March 29th 2013

To continue the theme of common sense: Polkinghorne says, “Neither science nor religion can entertain the hope of establishing logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny.”

I would argue that there is often a greater probability of hearing a reasonable and sensible response to many religious questions (and questions generally relevant on a way of life) from people without post-graduate degrees, then from those with such. It seems that the modern, and post-modern intellectuals have given a new dimension and meaning to the notion of a fool. Yet it is often these ‘fools’ who assume the authority of science, philosophy and ethics, as they are able to use the various forms of media to put themselves in the public eye. Many will commence with a notion that can only means ‘nothing is true’ (except what they put forward), add outrageous ascertains (to offend those they disagree with), and then claim they are intellectually honest; I have seen and heard intellectual hypocrisy and dishonesty that is jaw dropping from many atheists, while they ridicule all that base their life on faith. 

While I agree with the general thrust of Polkinghorne’s argument, I add that authority, and an authoritative view of the Christian faith, is an important aspect, as is a fiercely inquisitive approach to the big questions of the Sciences. I am reminded of the views I have heard from ‘simple’ Christians, and also enlightened atheists, who together recognise the importance of the way we live, the type of people we are, and the values we espouse. The compelling arguments I have heard from atheists have been directed at abuses of (so called) religious organisations and people, and not of much of the faith itself (although some, in their ignorance, equate the two).  

GJDS - #77983

March 29th 2013

As an aside, Moore commenced his philosophy by criticising idealism, in that perception is equivalent to the truth of an object. I quote, “Moore maintained that the object of any experience must be clearly distinguished from the experience itself. Indeed, experience itself should be analyzed as an irreducible relation between an external object and the perceiver’s conscious awareness of that object. If we begin with this view of the perceptual situation, Moore supposed, the reality of the object is beyond question. Of course, this position is itself an assumption, for the truth of which he offered no proof other than the un-tenability of the idealist alternative.”

Moore systematically considered beliefs, experience and truth statements. A deeper understanding of his philosophy requires reading Moore, and I am not suggesting that I consider myself an expert on Moore or am a philosopher. I find what he wrote interesting, and have relied more often than not on general treatments offered by textbooks on philosophy. Having said that, it is worthwhile considering the notion of truth that is so often bandied about as some sort of testable proposition that particularly atheists claim, with the improbability that these atheists can make sensible comments – by this I mean if much of what they say conforms to Moore’s notion of common sense. For example, “Moore began with a simple list of “common-sense” beliefs that each of us holds about many things, including my own body, other human bodies, my own experiences, and the experiences of other human beings. He then declared further that we all know that each of these simple beliefs is wholly true in just the (unanalysed) sense in which they are commonly meant.”

I understand that philosophers disagree on many things, and I am sure they have a lot to say about Moore – however he was extremely influential, especially in Analytical Philosophy (in opposition to Idealism), and I think his outlook is well worth considering. It certainly puts aside the ascertain by some atheists, that they are motivated by ‘truth’ (which they seem to claim is their domain), while others must, by default, be otherwise.

GJDS - #78009

March 30th 2013

I sense a ‘divine sense of humour’ in the turnaround that we witness nowadays. It seems a mere century of two ago, theists of any shade were claimed dogmatically they were only source of truth (and God somehow depended on them to do His work). Atheists were by necessity the work of the Devil and everything was neatly put in these two ‘proper places’. Nowadays we have atheists (at least the vocal ones) proclaiming their ‘objective truth(s)’ while theists and people of faith have subjective ‘goofy’ feelings and imaginations, but are devoid of this truth that is somehow accessible to atheists. Is this where we say, “Has the wheel turned?”  Or is it more about what seems fashionable for the times? I guess with sufficient experimentation we may answer these questions as well, ‘in an objective way’, of course! (I jest). 

Objective truth is generally understood to mean ‘independent of the mind that purports to know it’. It is indeed a brave person who would claim that ‘the truth is out there’ independent of the knower. Many misunderstand this and conflate it with data that is obtained using mechanical/instrumental methods. This somehow separates them from the method of obtaining the data and they ‘joylessly’ proclaim they have obtained this objective truth. Indeed it is their belief in this procedure that has filled them with such satisfaction.

The closest thing that a scientist may claim to an objective truth is pure maths – and we have seen that this is a dubious claim at best – it is claimed as this because some mathematicians believe the world is somehow grounded in maths (more a philosophical statement I should think). The interesting question is why we human beings can make such sense of the world using maths. However, we can safely put aside the notion that objective truth is something anyone can pick up on the side-walk of life, but somehow many of us (of faith) close our eyes to this. This is hubris at its extreme.

Ted Davis - #78017

March 31st 2013

On this joyous Easter morning, I praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for raising him from the dead into eternal life. Please join with me in raising our voices to God, the giver of life and the author of hope. To that end, I borrow the words of the English poet George Herbert (, who wrote so eloquently of this in his poem, “Easter,” which was so beautifully set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (, who was (ironically) an agnostic himself. I invite readers to hear the music  ( as they read:

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise

Without delays,

Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise

With him may’st rise;

That, as his death calcined thee to dust,

His life may make thee gold, and much more, Just.


Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all thy art.

The cross taught all wood to resound his name

Who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.


Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song

Pleasant and long:

Or since all music is but three parts vied,

And multiplied;

O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,

And make up our defects with his sweet art.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78023

March 31st 2013

Lou wrote:

A belief that gives meaning to life is only worthwhile if it is a belief in something that is true. At least that is the way I feel. I have noticed some people don’t seem worried about the truth of their faith; if it helps them live an ethical life, provides them with experiences of awe or mystery, and gives them a sense of purpose, that is justification enough.

Ahh! Subjective faith and objective truth. 

Darwin reported that objectively nature worked on the principle of Dog eat dog, survival of the fitest.  Isn’t this objective truth?  But Dawkins while proclaiming the Selfish Gene also says that humans are not supposed to be the product of their selfish genes. 

Are humans supposed to obey the objective “truth” of evolution or the subjective truth of humanism?  Are humans just a collection of molecules or are they created in the image of God?  Are all persons created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, or should we be subject to discrimination based on race, color, creed, gender, class, country of origin, sexual preference, etc?        

Lou Jost - #78027

March 31st 2013

“Are humans just a collection of molecules or are they created in the image of God?” Of course we are a collection of molecules and of course we were not created by gods. The theory of evolution explains, better than any holy books, where we came from, and even provides hints about where our ethical senses came from. We are slowly learning to extend empathy to more and more distant groups. We don’t need gods to tell us that this is the right thing to do.

Merv - #78045

April 1st 2013

You presume that different levels of explanation are in competition.  A chemist can insist that a love poem is nothing more than paper and organized bits of ink.  The poet and the lover know that it is quite a bit more than that actually, and it is silly for the chemist to argue otherwise.


Lou Jost - #78049

April 1st 2013

No, I presume that a level of explanation should actually explain.

Merv - #78051

April 1st 2013

Well, if “paper and bits of ink make up a poem” and “molecules make up a man” is the only level of explanation that interests you, I can’t help you.  As for me, I think I’ll keep a broader view, enjoying poetry and personhood to its fullest—molecules and so much more.  


Ted Davis - #78078

April 2nd 2013

It all depends, Lou, on what one means by “explain,” doesn’t it? For example, when Carl Hempel ( tried to extend “deductive-nomological explanation” (i.e., lawlike explanation as in the sciences) into history, the result was almost humorous. No historian I know recognized it as an appropriate way of thinking.

Lou Jost - #78138

April 3rd 2013

Merv and Ted, sure, it depends what one means by explanation. Merv, the human level is of course an appropriate level to explain a love poem. A biblical “explanation” of the origin of evil is at best so metaphorical that it adds little or nothing that we did not already know without it.

Ted Davis - #78173

April 4th 2013


The kinds of things that Genesis tells us (those of us who believe that it is true on some level) cannot be put on the same level as the things that science tells us—although in some instances they may seem to match fairly closely (such as the view that all humans have an innate tendency to do evil), I think that we should not make too much of the coincidence (if I can call it that) even though it may have some value.

According to most of the theologians and biblical scholars I’ve read or talked to, Genesis teaches us that none of the things we observe or touch (i.e., the things science studies) are divine, either individually (polytheism) or taken together (pantheism). This is especially apparent from the way in which the sun and moon are presented on the fourth day of creation: they are not named, even though the Hebrews had names for them; and, as an afterthought, the stars are also de-divinized by being placed into the category of creatures (the sense of the text there is “by the way, he made the stars also,” according to the experts). This theological rhetoric was directed at the beliefs and practices of other cultures in Egypt and the Middle East. For a beautifully written presentation of these ideas, see

(Note also that the term “dinosaur religion” applies not only to those who make the Bible into a scientific text, but also to those who use the results of science to replace religion. Conrad Hyers (the author) was on target in both cases, IMO, even though the latter move was less common at the time he wrote that piece.)

Ted Davis - #78175

April 4th 2013

As for evil, Lou, once again the biblical categories aren’t going to be a close match to modern scientific categories. The biblical text gives rise to deeply reflective conversations about the human moral predicament and God’s relationship to our predicament. Those conversations, seen (e.g.) in Jewish and Christian commentaries and theological works (not to mention works of art and literature), don’t look at all to me like scientific analyses, any more than Picasso’s “Guernica” is a high-resolution photograph of that terrible event. IMO, it is precisely the metaphorical nature of the biblical stories that makes them so powerful (I realize they do not seem so to you, and I’m not trying to exclude you). IMO, they “explain” a great deal, in the sense of calling to our attention our tremendous capacity to do harm—to the relationships we have with one another, with the rest of creation, and with the Creator. You say that we already knew those things. I say that the Bible itself is one of the reasons that we already knew those things. The modern scientific picture sheds some light on this, to be sure—it shows that we inherited (e.g.) aggression from our evolutionary history, and it’s helpful to know that. But, I fail to see how science tells us what to do about that, or why. When (e.g.) Dawkins ends The Selfish Gene with implicit advice for us to “rebel against the tyrrany of the selfish replicators,” I am left scratching my head about how or why.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #78076

April 2nd 2013

Lou wrote:

We are slowly learning to extend empathy to more and more distant groups. We don’t need gods to tell us that this is the right thing to do.

The problem with that statement is that God told humanity long ago that empathy or love is the right way to go.  To say that humans would have found this out on their own cannot be proven.  The fact is that we did not find this out on our own and I know of no evidence that indicates that humans would have done so.

Thus your statement is a statement of belief not supported by historical evidence.  The other problem is who is the “we” that you refer to?  Is humanity in general becoming more empathetic and is science making us that way?  Don’t forget that Nazi Germany was the most scientifically advanced nation of its time.      

Lou Jost - #78079

April 2nd 2013

 Lots of non-Christian cultures also had ethical precepts much like the Christian ones.  These ethical sentiments and limited altruism would be expected to arise natually by evolution in intelligent animals that lived in small, closely-knit groups. We can even see it happening in our close relatives, the other apes. And the evolutionary roots of our ethical feelings are still obvious when we consider how the strength of our ethical sentiments toward a group tends to decrease as our relationship with that group becomes more distant. We care most about our kids (like nearly every animal that provides parental care); we care next for our partners and our closest relatives, and gradually outward until we are quite content to declare war on people who are sufficiently different from us. This is not the pattern expected if the Christian god instilled our ethical feelings inside us. It is the pattern you would expect from naturalistic evolution.

I know religious people like to blame science or atheism for Nazism. But Nazism was also heavily influenced by Luther (who was a rabid anti-Semite). Don’t forget what the Nazi army belt buckles said: “GOTT MIT UNS” (“God is with us”).

Lou Jost - #78081

April 2nd 2013

Forgot to answer this “Is humanity in general becoming more empathetic and is science making us that way?” Yes, I think as people interact more with members of other societies, empathy may increase. I would not say science is involved (except insofar as it has made interactions easier). I don’t think religion is responsible either, except indirectly. It is just a natural human quality instilled by our our evolutionary history (as have many other qualities, both good and bad).

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78087

April 2nd 2013

While I hope that life is improving, I do not see it improving automatically by nature which is built on conflict. 

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