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Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 2

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March 14, 2013 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose, Science & Worldviews
Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 2
Matthias Grünewald, The Small Crucifixion (c. 1511/1520), National Gallery of Art

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

In my last post, I presented John Polkinghorne’s attitude to scientific and religious knowledge and explained his approach to natural theology. Today, we briefly examine his theology of nature and his attitude toward the Resurrection.

Understanding John Polkinghorne: Theology of Nature

John Polkinghorne’s interest in natural theology is important, but what really sets him apart from most others is that he combines it with an equally strong interest in theology of nature, which is not the same thing. Where natural theology involves, “metaquestions about the pattern and structure of the physical world,” theology of nature involves, “metaquestions about how its historical process is to be understood.” Rather than “looking to the physical world for hints of God’s existence,” we look “to God’s existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 13)

On this front, Polkinghorne advances a strongly Christocentric theology of creation, stressing Jürgen Moltmann’s notion of The Crucified God . In the context of Polkinghorne’s theology of nature, the point is that the Creator is the crucified and resurrected second person of the Trinity. Since I devoted a column to this before, I won’t say more here, except to alert readers to the singular importance this particular idea has for him—especially when facing the problem of suffering. “The insight of the Crucified God lies at the very heart of my own Christian belief, indeed of the possibility of such belief in the face of the way the world is.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 44)

Situating John Polkinghorne: The Resurrection of Jesus

Many Christians today see science as posing dangerous threats to their faith, challenging their understanding of the Bible and undermining core tenets such as the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, the historical basis on which the Christian faith stands or falls. “Evolution” is often identified as the problem, but the real danger is unbridled naturalism. A commitment to naturalistic methods, known as “methodological naturalism,” (MN) has been an integral part of science and medicine since the ancient Greeks. Those methods have been highly successful at producing a coherent, often very convincing picture of nature and the history of nature.

Advocates of Intelligent Design and some other Christians reject MN, but many Christians who work in the sciences and related fields (such as engineering, medicine, or the history and philosophy science) support MN as a properly grounded and properly limited way of understanding reality. In their view, a robust Christian faith is consistent with a commitment to MN, provided that the limits of scientific inquiry are not simply equated with the limits of rationally grounded belief. Polkinghorne fits squarely in this category.

To understand more clearly where Polkinghorne lies on the larger landscape of science and religion, let’s consider his approach to the Resurrection. Many contemporary thinkers, including some theologians and clergy, believe that “science” has somehow made it impossible to believe in the Resurrection, the deity of Jesus, and even belief in the transcendent God of the Bible.

A prime example is John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopalian bishop whose books have sold more than one million copies. Spong sees the bodily Resurrection as a figment of the disciples’ imaginations, a vestige of a theism that now we must throw away like a threadbare suit of clothes. For Spong, Christians today need to go “beyond theism” throwing out the baby of divine transcendence—the fundamental truth of monotheism—along with the bath water of the credulity and mythology of the pre-modern authors of the Bible and the ecumenical creeds. Spong’s message is that “Christianity must change or die,” and all in the name of “science.”

As Spong likes to say, his work is very controversial, and not just among rank-and-file Christians. Scholars have also railed against him. “I have been attacked in books from the religious right by such people as Alistair MacGrath [whose surname is actually spelled McGrath], N.T. Wright, and Luke Timothy Johnson,” he complains (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p. xvi).

I understand (with much sadness) that we live in a highly polarized age. Nevertheless, it’s difficult for me to grant much credibility to an author who identifies McGrath, Wright, and Johnson as representatives of the “religious right.” Indeed, if anyone here is distorting the news it is Spong, not they. As the (late) great Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown once observed, “I do not think that a single NT [New Testament] author would recognize Spong’s Jesus as the figure being proclaimed or written about.” (Birth of the Messiah, note 321 on p. 704)

Matthias Grünewald, The Resurrection (a wing of the
Isenheim Altarpiece, ca. 1515), Unterlinden Museum,
Colmar, France

Polkinghorne certainly understands science far more than Spong does, and his conclusions about the implications of science for Christian beliefs are markedly different. With respect to the Resurrection, he is basically on the same page with his friend Wright, whose profound book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, he cites with appreciation. Belief in the Resurrection is well supported by the evidence, and the Resurrection, itself, is “the pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn.” Considering authors like Spong (although he does not explicitly name him), he adds, “it would be a serious apologetic mistake if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s Resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.” (Theology in the Context of Science, pp. 135-6)


Looking Ahead

This is the Easter season, and I’ll return in a couple of weeks to begin examining Polkinghorne’s approach to the Resurrection more fully, using excerpts from the chapter on “Motivated Belief” from his recent book, Theology in the Context of Science.


Raymond E. Brown, Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (1992).

John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998).

John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009). My review for First Things online is here.

John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998).


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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sy - #77464

March 14th 2013


Your final quote from Polkinghorne is very eloquent. Being counter intuitive is an excellant description not only for the truth of the resurrection, but for most modern strictly scientific truths as well, quantum entanglement, general relativity and the observer effect, being only a few examples.

The mistake that Spong, and other  not very well educated (in the sciences) anti theists, or non theists make, is to not understand what “operating in the context of science” really is. For example, it is NOT what Dawkins or Harris or Dennet say it is, just because they say it. Polkinghorne is in the enviable position of knowing this full well, and being able to explain exactly why his position of being pro MN is completely consistent with a fully Christian view of the world, which clearly includes the resurrection. I look forward to your next chapter, which will elucidate this clearly, Im sure.  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77466

March 14th 2013

From the essay:

Rather than “looking to the physical world for hints of God’s existence,” we look “to God’s existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 13)

Right on.

Case in point.  Reality is not dualistic, because it is not, and it is triune, because God is. 

We keep reading into Reality Greek dualism, which is not there, instead of trying to understand it as a reflection of the Triune God which it is. 

Until we break this habit we are spinning our wheels, even if we have good intentions.  God is Who God is, not what we think God is.


Merv - #77467

March 14th 2013

I’m sure Spong would like to think he’s controversial among a wide audience, but I wouldn’t elevate his work to even that.  Controversy implies you’re on the edge, dancing between acceptability and non-acceptability; and Spong is well away from that edge off the far side for any who know theology or are acquainted with these issues.  I remember reading his book referenced above and wondering why he wants to bother with the label “Christian” at all.  This post jogs my memory that Spong does seem to have fallen into the most common traps and trappings of Scientism.


GJDS - #77468

March 14th 2013

The discussion becomes obscure (to put it mildly) as it is difficult to separate the (false) belief that science has the answers, from the (false) promoters of anti-theistic outlooks. This is especially so when considering so called theists-Christians who begin by denying Christ (and thus Christianity) and then put forward views dealing with the subject they have denied. Polkinghorne’s view, that we look “to God’s existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have.” is imo more difficult to understand than this statement may indicate. God’s existence is admitted by him, and he also states that this knowledge is revealed in the Bible; however by God’s existence, we generally discuss His attributes, which includes as Creator. It is difficult to mix physical existence with the manner of the development of the physical world. By this I mean, we cannot provide a scientific argument that begins with God, followed by the way the physical world is – I think this is accepted by most Christian thinkers. We may argue philosophically that as God is the ultimate reality and the prime cause of all, the creation is understood as indicative of that outlook – even though we as human beings study the phenomena (or dynamics) of the creation. We would believe that underpinning these phenomena is the reality that testifies to its Creator. The rest of the discussion on the physical world misses the point, which is the salvation of humanity from evil into the attributes of Christ and the actions of faith that lead to beneficial outcomes in this world.

Jon Garvey - #77473

March 15th 2013

Of Spong, it’s interesting how we live in an age when non-conformity is taken as a priori evidence of merit. But as Merv so rightly says, it usually turns out to be just conformity to some other norm, in this case the prevailing naturalism.

It’s like the hippie’s non-conformity of growing long hair, being left-wing and taking all the same drugs as all the other non-conformist hippies. The true rebel is the one with short hair and a tweed jacket.

Jon Garvey - #77477

March 15th 2013


There seems to me an “instability” in P’s overall position on nature - so maybe I’ve missed something key (I’m not really commenting at all about his views on the compatibility of the resurrection with science, but with his theology of nature).

On the one hand, he echoes the standard van Till/Haught/BioLogos mantra that unless God leaves creation free he is a coercive tyrant (P has a rhetorical paragraph on these lines in Debating Design that would do credit to Luther with a dental abcess).

On the other, he insists on the necessity to theism of “providential action of the Creator” in bringing creation to fruition and places it, provisionally, in God’s influencing chaotic and/or quantum (ie chance) events.

He doesn’t attempt to say to what extent God might use this ability (which is really the main point at issue and which the Bible addresses extensively), but what clearly follows from this is that God must of necessity input information into the universe that way, which is exactly equivalent to saying he would restrict its indeterminacy, aka freedom, to just the same extent, information being by definition the diminution of uncertainty. Four problems (at least) follow from trying to hold these two things together:

(1) How much is it OK for God thus to interfere with “allowing [nature] to be itself ... in its own time and in its own way”, if infinite love means infinite letting go (Haught)? Any divine action is diminishing that infinity a bit, whether or not the laws of nature remain intact.

(2) It follows that “chance” is actually a source of divine information that affects causally the nature of the world. Is it not then incumbent on science to investigate that information content if it is to understand nature properly (contra MN)?

(3) If God is no longer staying his hand from direct action (contra Ayala) then the theodical reason for insisting on divine-non-intervention in the first place is negated, and the question of why God does not fix any particular “natural evil” (wisdom teeth, back problems, viruses, parasites etc etc etc) is reopened (or, perhaps, placed back where Scripture places it, in the inscrutability of God’s will).

(4) As far as I can understand he places the locus for both natural and human freedom somehow in those same elements of randomness (chaotic and quantum): ie because law does not determine everything, there is openness for humans to choose (and molecules too, though as you know I consider the latter sheer insanity outside of process theology). That  implies a univocity in matters of freedom/will. Somehow nature itself does some of the determining, humans do some, and God does what’s left ... or some other distribution of power: perhaps one of the three has a bigger vote? On the face of it that seems to make the ordering of Creation a simplistic balance of wills, like polytheism, whereas in classical theism or Calvinism, divine and human will act concursively and harmoniously (and nature, being insentient and irrational, doesn’t have a will).

Ted Davis - #77534

March 16th 2013

Your points are well taken, Jon. I don’t fully sympathize with all of them, but I won’t attempt a detailed reply, for it will take us far afield. I’ll try to paint a bit of the larger picture instead.

Many have criticized aspects of P’s view of divine action, including its overall coherence. Perhaps his most severe (if generally friendly) critic has been Robert Russell, whose views are summarized here: http://biologos.org/blog/series/the-god-who-acts-robert-russell-on-divine-intervention-and-divine-action (I realize that you’ve read those columns with apprecation, Jon; I’m mentioning them for the benefit of other readers.)

For several years, P and Russell and several other thinkers (scientists, philosophers, and theologians) were engaged in an ongoing enquiry into the nature and possible locus of divine action in the creation. From talking with some of those folks, I have the impression that Russell was the most successful of the participants, in terms of shaping the conceptual landscape for future work. He probably persuaded P to make more of QM and less of chaos (P’s earlier views stress chaos, not quantum uncertainty). Russell also rejects open theism, where P holds it (and this is surely a main reason why you like Russell more than P). On the other hand, P’s emphasis on eschatology as the key to theodicy has influenced Russell. Perhaps P’s clear rejection of process theism (which is not the same thing as open theism, although the latter is an element of the former) also influenced Russell, though I’m not sure about that. Russell was heavily influenced by Ian Barbour, both personally and intellectually, and P is much less influenced by Barbour, so this is a possibility.

Eddie - #77547

March 16th 2013

“For several years, P and Russell and several other thinkers (scientists, philosophers, and theologians) were engaged in an ongoing enquiry into the nature and possible locus of divine action in the creation.”

Ted, can you give us some leads to where we might find records of this “ongoing enquiry”?  For example, were there sessions where these thinkers met at annual meetings of learned societies (American Philosophical Society, British Theological Society, etc.), and read papers to each other on the theme of divine action?  Were such papers ever edited together and published?

I already know of Russell’s essay in the PEC book, and of the columns excerpted here.  But I’m interested in a book or journal where we could see Russell, Polkinghorne, etc. interacting with each other in the way that you have described.  You have many times alluded to such interaction, but I’d be interested in reading the interaction, or hearing it (a recording of a radio conversation, perhaps?), and not having to rely purely on the fragments reprinted here plus your occasional remarks.  A picture is worth a thousand summaries.

Ted Davis - #77558

March 17th 2013

Would that we had such records, Eddie, but we don’t. If I’d been part of that party (I was not), I’d have made notes I could draw on now.

My reference to an ongoing enquiry means a series of in-house conferences (working conferences for academics, resulting in thematic anthologies of peer-critiqued papers) over several years, mainly in the 1990s. You can get a sense of where those scholars agree or disagree with one another by studying this set of books: http://www.ctns.org/books.html

The inaugural volume mentioned there (Physics, Philsophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, 1988) was not really about divine action, but it contains several excellent essays, including a simply splendid paper about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo by Lutheran theologian Ted Peters (http://www.plts.edu/peters.html), one of the finest scholars you can find on the science-Christianity interface. I recommend this particular paper without reservation.

Additional material relative to the ongoing enquiry can be found in various issues of the now-defunct CTNS Bulletin (1982 - 2002) and its successor, Theology and Science.

Jon Garvey - #77550

March 17th 2013

Just a quick one… I was aware that P has moved away from including chaos in his system, but have recently been reading his older stuff, which influenced my choice of words. In the end, mode of divine action is a philosophical issue - if the group had happened to include Alvin Plantinga, the provisionality and  violability of natural law would have been on the table too, so it’s hard to set too much store by the conclusions .

My main concern is the theological issue of whether, and how much, God acts in nature. Russell seems to avoid that by what amounts to a legal fiction (quantum events don’t come under natural law, so God isn’t “interfering”). That potentially bridges science and divine action, but the big rhetorical issue in TE writing is nature’s autonomy v God’s tyranny - and that’s a theological and metaphysical, not a scientific, issue, which quantum-tinkering doesn’t mitigate.

The theology, though, seems to depend (in Haught or Ayala, for instance) on using scientific data to make a metaphysical (or rather, polemic) statement about suffering, waste, horror etc, and then commenting on what is, or what is not, God’s teleological purpose in the light of it. That seems to me quite Paleyan, although Paley concludes too much about God’s benevolence from science, whilst the new generation conclude too much about his absence, or cruelty, or self-giving (according to bias).

Darwin Guy Dan - #77479

March 15th 2013

Personally, I have long thought the Austrian mathematician, Kurt Godel, has provided a way to perhaps help address some of the issues such as those raised by Polkinghorne and Spong. Surely, at least some of these issues must be resolved in a more ecumenical and scientific manner without getting bogged down in the unresolvable human created warring theologies that in the past have often left a price to pay by others.

If we take the view that mathematics is integral to science and scientific descriptions of nature, and I think there would be broad and genuine agreement among scientists that this is so, then the question regards the limits of MN and the relationship of metaphysics to natural science would seem to be decernable from within science itself. That is, at least part of the question may be answered by Kurt Godel’s ON FORMALLY UNDECIDABLE PROPOSITIONS OF PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA AND RELATED SYSTEMS ([1931], 1992) translated by B. Meltzer with an Introduction by R. B. Braithwaite.

While Godel’s mathematics would be quite challenging to those not adept at such endeavors, half of the book is Braithwaite’s Introduction. The core idea of the book is disclosed in the first sentence of Meltzer’s Preface:

“Kurt Godel’s astonishing discovery and proof, published in 1931, that even in elementary parts of arithmetic there exist propositions which cannot be proved or disproved within the system, is one of the most important contributions to logic since Aristotle.”

If I have understood Godel correctly, it seems to me that Godel’s conclusion is clearly applicable in regards to defining the limits of what we can know scientifically. I also have found the conclusion might be more broadly applicable, even outside of science, in terms of helping to eliminate bias in our evaluations. That is, one might derive a similar conclusion that one has to step outside of any system or competing systems in order to evaluate them without bias. In addition to all sciences, surely the same also applies to any metaphysics, religion, philosophy, political systems, economics, etc., and, most relevantly here, to any epistemology of Natural History Studies.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77482

March 15th 2013


You are right the problem is the assumptions inherent in philosophy and not the science.

That is why it is the philosophy/theology which musrt be discessed and not the science.

While I do not want to defend the conclusions of Bishop Spong, in some sense I would defend his intent, which is to criticize traditional philosophy, which is dualist.  The problem is that he tried to replace it with a monist point of view which is also not valid.

Following the paradigm that P is using.  The Top Down approach is the traditional Western dualist, idealist approach to Reality used by theologians.  The Bottom Up appoach is the scientific monist materialist approach used by scientists.  Spong tried to use the Bottom Up approach with theology without good results.

As I indicated in my comments in the previous essay and confirmed in this one, P is suggesting a third approach which combines the best of the Top Down and the Bottom Up, but it does not give it with a name.  Neither is it clear that he had made the necessary step of accepting the Biblical triune world view to replace the philosophical dualist world view and the scientific monist world view.

However P is on the right track.  Let us not get on the wrong track by lambasting Spong for his failed attempt to renew theology by using a Bottom Up approach when P himself says he prefers this over the Top Down. 


Darwin Guy Dan - #77511

March 16th 2013

Darwin Guy Dan - #77512

March 16th 2013


For some reason my pasted posts to you have been blocked. Is there a technical glitch?

Darwin Guy Dan - #77516

March 16th 2013

I will make another attempt without using the hash tag.  See if this works.

My take on the credit default swap fiasco that was a large part of the 2008 worldwide financial crisis—- my take on that is that those “money changers” at the top were allowed to create complicated financial instruments to their own benefit.  They were then motivated to diffusely delegate as much risk as possible to those far less omniscient and omnipotent while keeping the rewards for themselves and their posterity.  One would hope that the situation has improved.  But from what I can see, the foxes are still guarding the hen house.  What solutions do theologians and religious leaders have regards doable bottom-up (or top-down) solutions concerning morality and ethics?  I’ve been looking through one of Spong’s books and also Nelson and Giberson’s book about Polkinghorne.  I’ll keep looking.

I will also be thinking a little more about a couple of books by the quanturm physicist Amit Goswami as well as several by the more traditional physicist, complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman.  Goswami posits what he labels “monistic idealism” as the more viable alternative to the dualistic materialism of traditional physicists.  Would the philosophers, theologians, and scientists could agree on terminology.  Agreement on definitions has always seemed more relevant to me than agreement on hypotheses.  Do you not find it absurd that everyone who writes a book seems to use their own private dictionary?  Goswami also uses the terms “upward causation” and “downward causation” which I have found to be interesting and also relevant and used similarly by some in economics.

Your people best not delve into the heretical writings of Rupert Sheldrake and his ideas regarding morphic resonance and causation, morphogenetic fields, and other energetic and non-energetic fields.  There are also thinkers considering what are labeled Zero Point Fields.

a.k.a. NaturalHistoryGuy


Lou Jost - #77524

March 16th 2013

As I mentioned earlier, Sheldrake is either incompetent or a fraud. His thinking is not sound; he is making things up. I see the TEDx talks just removed his latest talk from their main site because it was pseudoscience (it is still available but now with caveats regarding its contents).

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77483

March 15th 2013

Jon wrote:

On the face of it that seems to make the ordering of Creation a simplistic balance of wills, like polytheism, whereas in classical theism or Calvinism, divine and human will act concursively and harmoniously (and nature, being insentient and irrational, doesn’t have a will).

You have outlined two possibilities. I will criticize the second first. How can the human and divine wills concur and act harmoniously, since humans are sinners, alienated from God? While nature is insentient, it is not irrational in that it is formed by a rational Logos and governed by rational laws.

If the ordering of Creation were a simple balance of wills, then there would be no balance because God’s Will would always prevail, which is what Cavin says. Now what a Trinitarian would say is that God the Father does determine the form and direction of history, but the Father has created humanity in God’s Image and given humanity freedom which God is bound to respect through the Spirit and has given the universe purpose, meaning, and autonomy which God is bound to respect through the Logos.

Thus God in God’s Sovereign Wisdom and Power has agreed to work with God’s creatures for the mutual benefit of salvation. This certainly is not simplistic and it needs to be concursive. Trinitarianism is complex in a way that simple monotheism is not, but it is unified also. It respects the basic complex/one nature of the universe and the Complex/One Nature of God in a way that simple monotheism does not.

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Lou Jost - #77487

March 15th 2013

Hi Ted,

 Many religious people think that science assumes methodological naturalism (MN). I don’t think that is quite right, as Jerry Coyne has pointed out here, and here. Science does not assume MN. There could have been evidence of the intervention of a personal god, and this could have been detected and would need explanation. For example, intercessionary prayer to the correct god might have been answered more often than chance. Or gods could have left messages for us in code in the decimal expansions of physical constants. Or gods could show up now and then and do physically-impossible things (like they supposedly did in the old days in the Middle East, ancient Greece, Scandanavia, etc). These things could have led to the necessity of including these gods in our explanatory theories.

The fact is that our world does not show such signs (though IDers will argue with that). As a result, scientists have arrived empirically at methodological naturalism. This is a contingent precept. We would give it up if there were good evidence for the interaction of a personal higher power. We would give it up with great reluctance, because in the past, every time such an interaction has been claimed, it has later been shown to be false. But if the evidence were to become strong enough, we would give it up, and it would be scientific to do so.

It is not a committment to MN that keeps science from accepting the resurrection of Jesus. It is the lack of contemporary, skeptical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The methodology of science does not exclude it a priori; it is an evidential question.

You say “Belief in the Resurrection is well supported by the evidence”. I imagine you are saying that this is what P believes. It is certainly a false statement. There are only a couple of non-contemporaneous, contradictory reports, sometimes writing as if the resurrected Jesus was physical, and sometimes not. Paul, writing prior to the Gospels, sometimes also is ambiguous on the physicality of the resurrected Jesus. Scientists should ask for really strong evidence before accepting something as wildly improbable as this and other miracles of the Bible, or the claimed miracles of other religions; Christians don’t have a monopoly on such claims. It is not because we won’t let ourselves accept it; it is because we have seen many cases of claimed miracles, even in modern times, and these have so far all proven to be due to gullible or mistaken or over-enthusiastic witnesses, or outright fraud.

Miracle claims are made by many non-Christian religions, and some of those claims are better attested than the Resurrection. Yet Christians rightly dismiss these claims. It is worthwhile to ask why Christians become decently skeptical about other religions’ miracle claims but so readily affirm the claims of their own religion.

Jon Garvey - #77489

March 15th 2013


If your denial of the existence of methodological naturalism in science is as valid as your case against the evidence for the resurrection, I don’t think we Christians have got a lot to worry about.

Lou Jost - #77492

March 15th 2013

Jon, if you read my comment with a bit more attention, you’ll see that I don’t deny the existence of MN, I deny that it is necessarily an a priori assumption of science.

And if you think Jesus rose from the dead, do you also think Aristeas of Proconnesus rose from the dead? His story is given in Herodotus’s famous history. What about Rabbi Judah, Kabir, Sabbatai Sevi, Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar? Some of these guys’ resurrections are attested by multiple witnessses. I think you will rightly discard these because the evidence is not proportionate to the claim. Yet you refuse to extend the same skepticism to the myths of your own culture.

Merv - #77493

March 15th 2013

Welcome back, Lou.  Your take on MN is interesting.  But I’m not sure exactly what science can do with relationships or people (let alone deities) other than analyze or attempt to analyze them reductionistically.  Psychology and sociology along with many of the humanities have made interesting inroads to much of that, but perhaps only partially with the help of science.

Regarding your list of allegedly resurrected fellows (you’re right—I’m a selective skeptic), there aren’t too many on that list that I’ve heard of!  In fact, I have to admit actually I couldn’t tell you who any of them are.  I wonder why that is, Lou?  The easy answer is probably because I’m a culturally bound ignoramus who hasn’t much researched other religions or historical claims in general.  (There would be considerable truth in that.)  But I wonder how many people today who know anything about these that you list have never heard about Jesus?  Something to mull over.

I know—you will come back with the standard reaction that prolific followership or persistence of some religion through history can’t be admitted into consideration because after all there are other major religions that have persisted for thousands of years.  And this brings us to a common fallacy that you seem to endorse:  that multiple different religions or cultures with their various claims are all cleanly and  mutually exclusive (if one is right, it is completely right and all others are completely wrong.)  This is a breathtakingly simplistic approach to religion that would be akin to someone wanting to throw out all math or all science because they have heard multiple different answers on some mathematical or scientific question (and if we have any different camps that disagree, then a right answer can’t exist at all according to your logic.)   Some Christians have this same approach, but I’m pretty sure most thinking Christians do not.  Specific claims can certainly take on that exclusive binary quality, but most religions have enough of those that they most assuredly are not going to be all completely right or completely wrong (Christianity included).  There are a nearly singular few actual claims (about Jesus) that Christianity stands or falls on and all the detailed accretions of doctrine that have been layered on over history and in widely scattered cultures will include more and more nebulous overlap with many other religions.  I don’t know any mature Christian thinkers who will insist that Buddhists or Muslims or Atheists or Hindis are wrong in everything they teach.  Apart from central claims about God or Jesus there may be considerable overlap from all these groups—more in some cases than others.   There simply is no neatly partitioned world where one winner among all of humanity today takes all in the apprehension of all truth—even truth about God.


Lou Jost - #77495

March 15th 2013

Hi Merv, thanks for the welcome back. You are right that I have been assuming most readers will dismiss the resurrections of non-Christian mystics. But I am not making the fallacy you mentioned. Even if Christians think that parts of other religions are valid, my point is that the central pillar of Christianity has no more evidence in its favor than the pillars of many lesser-known cults.

Most of the claims of these other cults are rightly dismissed by thoughtful people. The 1st century was a credulous time, full of extraordinary miracle claims about different magicians, teachers, and gurus. The evidence for the resurrection is poor and shows all the signs of post-hoc elaborations, much like the similar miracle claims of other cults. Most rational readers will doubt most of these other resurrection claims. I think a rational person should doubt all of them.

Merv - #77499

March 15th 2013

As I said in the previous post, most have heard of Jesus.  And I am probably not alone in not having heard much of the others.  There may be a reason for that goes beyond my own ignorance of particularly famous Rabbis or others.  Wisdom is known by its fruit; if that fruit is only wars, inquisitions, and justifications for greed and power (the things you choose to see) then Christianity indeed has already been lost for sometime and needs to be given the heave ho.  If that fruit includes a much better variety of things than the tunnel-visioned selection above, then Christianity takes its place among all the great contributors to the common welfare that history has seen.  Doesn’t prove it’s right about its central claims.  But for someone who is keen on evidence, it should bear some thought that we don’t seem to have many (any?) ministries to the poor in the name of Aristeas of Proconnesus.  But there seem to be a lot of missions to the poor in the name of Christ.  Just ‘sayin’.

BTW, I don’t think Bible times were necessarily any more credulous than our times now.  The disciples (not to mention Paul before his Damascus errand) seemed to have spent most of their time doubting each new event or claim that came along rather than jumping on any mystical claim bandwagons.  They had the capacity to be just as amazed about unusual events as we do.  Not the mark of a credulous culture. 


Lou Jost - #77522

March 16th 2013

In those days, people were less likely to distinguish between things which were merely unusual and things which really violated physical laws (simply because the science of physics was not well developed).

But perhaps the difference between then and now is not so marked, since people today are also credulous. Look at the popularity of astrology, psychics, and, well, religions….

As you note,  the cults started by the people I mentioned did not prosper. I agree that this suggests the evidence for their resurrections may have been weaker than for Jesus’ resurrection. My point is that many resurrection claims have been made, and many of them were serious enough that lots of people believed in them. Resurrection myths are not unique and one must evaluate the evidence for them carefully.

Merv - #77529

March 16th 2013


While science laws weren’t formalized or articulated as we have them today, they still knew some of these “laws” in concept.  Things fall (even if they didn’t realize the universality of gravity).  Rain comes from clouds.  Dead people don’t come back to life.   It’s hard to imagine any humans from any age surviving long in this world without such a grasp of such basics.  But you are right that we still do have lots of credulity today.  We are indeed motivated to believe (and not believe) many things. 


Ted Davis - #77530

March 16th 2013


Thank you very much for this very thoughtful challenge, including the links to the two articles by Jerry Coyne about whether MN is “intrinsic” to science (the usual view, outside of ID, though Coyne also objects to it) or “provisional,” adopted by scientists simply b/c it works (Coyne’s view). That’s a fascinating debate. I don’t think it’s anywhere nearly settled, and I could name Christian scientists and philosophers on either side of it, just as there are atheist scientists and philosphers on either side (as Coyne realizes, to his consternation).

As I say, this is hardly a settled matter. My reference to MN in this column wasn’t simply window dressing, but the point I was driving at is really the main thing on which you and I differ: Regardless of whether MN is intrinsic or provisional to science, the real question is whether the Resurrection is well supported by evidence. Although we obviously differ on the answer, I think we agree that this is the main issue. Is this a fair assessment of the situation?

Lou Jost - #77537

March 16th 2013

Ted, glad you found this viewpoint interesting. Larry Moran has made a similar point on his blog. I think it is correct.

You are absolutely right that the main issue is the evidence for the resurrection (Jesus’ resurrection and the others throughout history). It is the lack of evidence proportional to the claim, not the fact that the claim violates MN, which makes me reject it.

Ted Davis - #77531

March 16th 2013


I won’t try to compare Christian claims for miracles with those claimed by other religions, b/c I do not know enough about those (other) claims to say anything with confidence. Readers with sufficient knowledge to do so are invited to chime in.

Ted Davis - #77532

March 16th 2013

This is the paragraph of yours, Lou, that I’ll comment on. I’ve divided it into numbered points for reference:

“(1) You [Ted] say “Belief in the Resurrection is well supported by the evidence”. I imagine you are saying that this is what P believes. It is certainly a false statement. (2) There are only a couple of non-contemporaneous, contradictory reports, sometimes writing as if the resurrected Jesus was physical, and sometimes not. Paul, writing prior to the Gospels, sometimes also is ambiguous on the physicality of the resurrected Jesus. (3) Scientists should ask for really strong evidence before accepting something as wildly improbable as this and other miracles of the Bible, or the claimed miracles of other religions; Christians don’t have a monopoly on such claims. It is not because we won’t let ourselves accept it; it is because we have seen many cases of claimed miracles, even in modern times, and these have so far all proven to be due to gullible or mistaken or over-enthusiastic witnesses, or outright fraud.”

Concerning (3), I agree with the need for much scepticism about all claimed miracles, Christian or otherwise. (I see a need for comparable scepticism about grand “scientific” claims as well, such as the claim that the “mind” is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of the brain, and therefore “we” never actually “decide” to do anything; or, the claim that our universe is just one of an essentially infinite number of other “universes”, none of which we will ever be able to detect. But, I’ll leave those matters to one side for now.)

Lou Jost - #77538

March 16th 2013

Agreed about overly-grand claims, scientific or religious.

Ted Davis - #77533

March 16th 2013

As for (1), Lou, when it comes to something like the Resurrection, which we cannot reproduce and have not witnessed ourselves, the basic question is whether or not the reports, taken together, are sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave. From late April through (probably) June, my columns will mostly consist of lenghty, lightly edited excerpts from a chapter Polkinghorne wrote about the Resurrection, entitled “Motivated Belief.” The latter part of that chapter deals directly with the Resurrection. It’s a relatively short treatment, but to the point. It should then be clear that when I wrote, “Belief in the Resurrection is well supported by the evidence,” I was summarizing P’s position, but I was also speaking for myself. Similarly, when you say, “It is certainly a false statement,” I understand that you are speaking for yourself. We assess the evidence differently.

You will have ample opportunity to reply to P’s position in due course, Lou. In the meantime, let me borrow the words of N. T. Wright (The Resurrection of the Son of God) to make two points in response to your assessment of the evidence and in defense of mine:

“The claim can be stated once more in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. The actual bodily actual bodily resurrection of Jesus (not a mere resuscitation, but a transforming revivification) clearly provides a sufficient condition of the tomb being empty and the ‘meetings’ taking place. Nobody is likely to doubt that. Once grant that Jesus really was raised, and all the pieces of the historical jigsaw puzzle of early Christianity fall into place. My claim is stronger: that the bodily resurrection of Jesus provides a necessary condition for these things; in other words, that no other explanation could or would do. All the efforts to find alternative explanations fail, and they were bound to do so.

Many will challenge this conclusion, for many different reasons.  I do not claim that it constitutes a ‘proof’ of the resurrection in terms of some neutral standpoint.  It is, rather, a historical challenge to other explanations, other worldviews.  Precisely because at this point we are faced with worldview-level issues, there is no neutral ground, no island in the middle of the epistemological ocean, as yet uncolonized by any of the warring continents.  We cannot simply arrive at a topic and make grand declarations, as in Francis Drake’s celebrated annexation of California, and suppose that all the local inhabitants will take them as binding.  Saying that ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement, going beyond a reordering of one’s private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications.  We cannot simply leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere and sail back home to safety.” (p. 717)

As I said when I recommended Wright to you a couple of weeks ago, it’s a massive work that obviously can’t be summarized adequately here, any more than you can summarize all of the sceptical writings about the Resurrection in a few words. Neither of us can do that. However, Wright does compare a great range of ancient writings, biblical and otherwise, about the afterlife and ghosts and “resurrections”, including the story from Herodotus that you cite in another comment on this thread. He does not bring in Hindu stories or (for the most part) stories after the first century, so most of your examples are not included. Other scholars have addressed them, and I will leave them to one side, though other readers may want to digress into them. As Wright shows, the notion of “resurrection” in the minds of the New Testament authors was based on the late Jewish notion of bodily resurrection at the end times—the same idea Paul references in 1 Cor. 15:13 (But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen.) This speaks partly to your point (2), but I haven’t said enough about that one yet; whether I come back to it mainly depends on how much time I can find to do so.

The second paragraph from Wright, Lou, makes what is probably the most important point that I could make about this conversation we’re having: genuine objectivity is elusive, on a topic of this significance. This is not a glib, irresponsible attempt to escape scepticism in the name of “blind” faith. Not at all; nothing about Wright’s faith is “blind,” any more than for Polkinghorne. The first paragraph of the quotation should make that clear, even though I can’t provide the 700 pages of supporting argument for that overall conclusion. Rather, it is as he says, a challenge to other worldviews—worldviews that also involve some sort of faith commitment, for (as philosopher Roy Clouser has argued forcefully), the idea of actual religious neutrality is a “myth.” http://www.metanexus.net/essay/excerpt-myth-religious-neutrality



Lou Jost - #77541

March 16th 2013

I look forward to that discussion in April, Ted. I hope by then I’ll have had time to study Wright more.

When I said that belief in the Resurrection is not well supported by the evidence, I think this is a fairly objective assessment: There are no eyewitness accounts, and the second-hand accounts are contradictory in details, and also somewhat ambiguous about whether it was a physical or phantasmal resurrection. I recognize that I am not an expert on these texts, and someone who is an expert might be able to see something I don’t. But it is hard to imagine how these few contradictory accounts could convince a neutral observer of something so improbable. Granted, it is hard to be neutral (on either side).

Ted Davis - #77559

March 17th 2013

I agree, Lou, that your assessment is “fairy objective.” I believe my assessment is also “fairly objective,” and I also think that it’s very, very difficult to go further. I am not an expert on those texts either, but (of course) we would find that the real experts themselves disagree widely about (a) the historicity of the Resurrection and (b) the nature of the event, assuming that something more than mass hysteria or self-delusion actually occurred. One thing Wright accomplishes (IMO) is to put to rest the idea that the authors of the Resurrrection accounts had a purely spiritual conception of it; almost certainly, they did not. That still leaves some uncertainty under (b), and obviously does not settle (a), but IMO it makes the views of folks like Spong almost untenable. Even Spong admits that something dramatic had to have happened, something that fundamentally altered the lives and attitudes of Jesus’ disciples after the Crucifixion; Wright shows that a spritualization of the event in minds of the NT authors is not a reasonable interpretation.

Lou Jost - #77566

March 17th 2013

I’d like to look into that latter claim in more detail. The plain words of the NT authors indicate that the resurrected Jesus was not always corporeal. Don’t you agree with that?

Ted Davis - #77586

March 18th 2013


If by “not always corporeal,” you mean not identical to matter as we find it in this world, I would agree. Those of us who believe in “heaven” can only speculate without any more evidence than what we have in a few biblical passages—not much to go on (undoubtedly you agree).

The larger issue here is that of the nature of nature as we find it, vis-a-vis what it might be like in another “universe,” if I can call it that. Ideas about that are equally speculative, but usually regarded as “scientific” in some sense (whether properly or no I leave aside for now), simply b/c they are thought to be purely naturalistic (when in fact they may really be theological speculations in a secular garb). Thus, for example, one of the founders of the modern scientific attitude and one of the greatest experimentalists ever, Robert Boyle, speculated in parallel about “other worlds” in the “scientific” sense and the “new world” that (he believed, and I with him) God would someday place us in with glorified bodies.

Here is something Boyle wrote about the former (another world in the scientific sense): “Now, in case there be other Mundane Systemes (if I may so speak) besides this visible one of ours, I think it may be probably suppos’d that God may have given peculiar and admirable instances of His inexhausted Wisedom in the Contrivance and Government of Systemes, that for ought we know may be fram’d and manag’d in a manner quite differing, from what is observ’d in that part of the Universe that is known to us.” And, shortly after this: “Now in these other Worlds; besides that we may suppose that the Original Fabrick, or that Frame into which the Omniscient Architect at first contriv’d the parts of their matter, was very differing from the structure of our Systeme; besides this, I say, we may conceive that there may be a vast difference betwixt the subsequent Phænomena, and productions observable in one of those Systemes, from what regularly happens in ours, though we should suppose no more, than that two or three Laws of Local Motion may be differing in those unknown Worlds, from the Laws that obtain in ours.”

[These are from Of the High Veneration Man’s Intellect Owes to God.]

more coming…

Ted Davis - #77587

March 18th 2013

And, here is something Boyle wrote about another type of alternative universe, that of the escatological kingdom:

The present state of things will not last always; but that future state, that must succeed it, will be eternal. And therefore, prudence directs us to regard chiefly, as well in our studies, as in our actions, that state that will most concern our everlasting welfare. The Christian virtuoso is taught by the holy scripture, not only that the fashion of this world passes away, whilst we live in it, but that afterwards the world itself, as to its present constitution, will be destroyed, by that last fire, that will dissolve the main parts, and quite shatter the frame of it. And who knows, but that in that new heaven, and new earth, (that is, by an usual Hebraism, that new world) that God will substitute for it, the primordial frames of things, and the laws of motion, and consequently, the nature of things corporeal, may be very differing from those that obtain in the present worlds. And if this prove to be the case, our formerly acquired knowledge of natural things, may either grow useless to us, or mislead us.”

[This is from the posthumously published second part of The Christian Virtuoso]

You can see what I’m getting at. One has only speculation—in either case—but the line of reasoning is virtually identical. If you can imagine other universes, Lou, in which the laws of nature might be quite different, such that matter is not as we find it here, then I can also. Perhaps you allow yourself such flights of fancy, or perhaps you don’t, but many astrophysicists and cosmologists these days certainly do. I don’t see why we should view Christian speculation about the new world any differently than we should view those others speculations. Both are about making sense of things entirely outside of our ordinary experience.

Lou Jost - #77605

March 19th 2013

But Ted, surely the Christian claim is that the resurrection took place in this world.

By the way, those were very interesting quotes from Boyle.  It shows that “multiverse” thinking was not invented by atheist physicists to escape the fine-tuning argument, as some Christians claim!

Ted Davis - #77614

March 19th 2013

Lou, you said, ” surely the Christian claim is that the resurrection took place in this world.”

I say, Yes, and No. Better to say Not Exactly. One of the things stressed by many contemporary theologians, including Polkinghorne and Robert Russell and Wright, is that the Resurrection of Jesus was not like the “resurrection” of Lazarus. The latter was an event (assuming of course that it did happen) in which Lazarus was restored to life in this world, only to die again. The former, however, has Jesus (as Paul says in 1 Cor 15) as the “first fruits of them that slept,” those who “sleep” until the general resurrection in the last days. In other words, the Resurrection (keeping the upper case R for this unique event) was about Jesus entering into the eschatological world to come, in advance of our doing the same thing at some point down the road. It represents, in other words, the new heaven and earth leaking down (if I could put it that way) into our own world, if only briefly.

I’ll follow this with a quotation from Russell…

Ted Davis - #77615

March 19th 2013

from Robert Russell (http://www.amazon.com/Cosmology-Alpha-Robert-John-Russell/dp/0800662733), p. 289:

“... in the resurrection we have the beginning of the end-times already occuring in history. This gives to eschatology its proleptic character, a view shared by several contemporary theologians working on Trinity and eschatology notably Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann, and Ted Peters.”

Ted Davis - #77616

March 19th 2013

I’m glad you liked those quotes, Lou. They are indeed pretty interesting. Boyle was awfully important, esp for the history of Christianity and science—immensely more important than (say) Newton or almost anyone else from that period. However, I am not at all sure that his “other worlds” qualifies as a “multiverse.” It might. It might not. I’d have to think about it. The theological context that drives it is just beneath the surface of that first passage: God, as the free creator of the “laws of nature,” (a termm Boyle did not hesitate to use, and often) is not in any way bound by those “laws,” such that God can and perhaps did make different laws in other parts of the universe (as Newton believed might be the case, for the same theological reasons), or could make a different world somewhere else. This isn’t like the multiverse, in that only the Author of nature (as Boyle would say) can do that; it doesn’t arise “naturally” out of something like string theory or inflation. It comes about only supernaturally, through the absolute power of a Creator who is not bound by the only “laws of nature” that we are familiar with, in our part of this world.

I am somewhat hesitant to agree with your point about atheist physicists. If this were looked into carefully, we would certainly find (indeed we do find) that some proponents of “multiverse” ideas are Christians, including (e.g.) Steven Barr, Don Page, and Gerald Cleaver. On the other hand, I bet we’d find numerous examples of atheist cosmologists who are driven to it at least partly b/c they see it as the only “naturalist” game in town, when it comes to “explaining” the fine tuning—something that is acknowledged to be needing an explanation, and that doesn’t seem to get one without either “God did it” (i.e. creation ex nihilo) or “it’s a practically infinite well of possibilities” (i.e. all bets are off), which obliterates Ockham’s razor. Or so it seems to me.

Lou Jost - #77620

March 19th 2013

Ted, I was making a different claim about atheist physicists than the motivational one you address in your comment. I just observed that Boyle’s thinking about other universes shows that atheist physicists didn’t invent this kind of thinking.

I do agree that a large part of the attraction of the multiverse idea for many scientists is that it enables us to avoid appeals to deities.

We could argue, I think, about the appropriate application of Occam’s Razor to the multiverse idea. The god hypothsis is infinitely more complex and needs far more details to flesh out than the elegantly simple hypothesis of the multiverse described by a given set of equations.

Ted Davis - #77626

March 19th 2013


Thank you for the clarification.

We could indeed argue about Ockham’s razor in this context, and our argument could go on for days (probably) with no resolution. I’ll just state my two points on that and leave it to you (if you wish) to state yours by way of reply.

(1) The question about God’s “complexity” is very far from clear. I know that Dawkins says he asked some theologians about God and complexity, getting (he says) an answer consistent with where he wanted to go with his argument. I have to wonder myself just who he asked, and (depending on whom he actually asked) whether they were asleep at the wheel. The classical view is that God is a simple being, not a complex one (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/divine-simplicity/ and http://www.dominicanablog.com/2012/04/17/cows-quarks-and-divine-simplicity/); and, we should keep in mind that this view was formulated with the full realization that the universe is not simple, even though the universe in question was far short of a multiverse.

Now, it would be disingenuous if I did not add that this view is often challenged, including by very conservative Christian scholars such as William Lane Craig (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/divine-simplicity). Robin Collins, on the other hand, defends something close to classical simplicity, unless I have misunderstood him. So, in assessing Dawkins’ argument we have to keep in mind which view of divine simplicity we’re talking about. Given the profound ignorance of religion that Dawkins is capable of showing in his non-scientific writings (his scientific ones are excellent, perhaps even brilliant on occasion), I’m not strongly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt by saying that he actually understands what he’s talking about in this case. Please forgive the frankness.

(2) Whether or not Dawkins is right, however, one might apply Ockham’s razor in another form and get the opposite answer. There are at least two classical forms of the razor. One form (the simpler explanation is to be preferred) is obviously the one Dawkins uses in this instance. The other form (do not multiply explanatory entities beyond necessity), however, IMO is simply devastating to most forms of multiverse theory. For all practical purposes, there just is no bottom to the explanatory well. Each time you dip into it and bring out another universe and it doesn’t give you what you want (namely, a universe in which life is even possible at all), then you just go back into the well and bring out one more. And one more. And one more. Virtually ad infinitum. I’m sure you see my point. Anyone who thinks this conforms to Ockham’s razor simply has no idea what the Greeks were doing when they started the idea of chemical elements. No idea at all. At least the periodic table has only a few more than 100, and quark theory brings that number down considerably.

Lou Jost - #77639

March 20th 2013

I have no opinion about the theological arguments about the complexity of god, but if you accept the voluntarist notion of creation, then it would seem that a god must be complex enough to make an informed choice about which universe to create.

But I agree that we could go round and round on this endlessly, and different formulations of the principle do give different results. It is probably more productive to look directly at the reasons for introducing multiverses.

Ted Davis - #77535

March 16th 2013


A central theme in Wright’s book is that there are no close parallels between the Second Temple Jewish understanding of bodily “resurrection” and the ghost stories, afterlife stories, and other stories often cited for comparison with Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, the authors of the New Testament were talking about something very different that makes it hard to draw such comparisons.

Ted Davis - #77488

March 15th 2013

I’ve been travelling for several days and only just got back as I write this. I’ll reply to some of these points later, though some of them go well beyond what I can try to do here. For the moment, however, let me simply repeat some information I was able to drop into the end of the comments on my previous post a few days ago:

Givven the topic of the last column on natural theology (as vs this one), let me recommend this upcoming radio program (from a public radio affiliate in San Francisco this coming Sunday) to readers: http://philosophytalk.org/shows/upcoming

It features my longtime friend and colleague, philosopher Robin Collins, discussing the fine tuning of the laws of the universe. Robin is working on a book that promises to be a superb treatment of that topic, on which he is an internationally known expert. It would be appropriate to discuss that broadcast here, since it’s highly relevant to Polkinghorne’s ideas about natural theology.

Lou Jost - #77606

March 19th 2013

I hope there will be at least one whole post on fine-tuning. I think this is practically the only interesting argument for the existence of gods…unfortunately it is very very technically demanding.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77490

March 15th 2013

The problem with naturalism, methodological and/or philosophical, is that nature is not natural, that is not purely physical. 

Is math natural?  No, in that it is not composed of matter/energy, but yes, in terms that math is a part of the universe.  Math is real.  Math is a real aspect of science, but math as defined as physical is not natural and is not real in terms of Physicalism which limits Reality to matter/energy.  

Is love, truth, beauty natural?  No, in that it is not composed of matter/energy, but these ideals are part of our lives.  If we are living in a “real” world, then these ideals must be “real.”  If they are real and life has a purpose, then “naturalism” is not real, but false.

Science does not solve its conflict with philosophy and theology by denying the reality of the rational nature.  This just distorts the view of scientific reality. 

Darwin Guy Dan - #77514

March 16th 2013

R. Buckminster Fuller has an interesting take on this. In his OPERATING MANUAL FOR SPACESHIP EARTH, Fuller writes:

“All the unweighables, such as any and all our thoughts and all the abstract mathematics, are weightless. The metaphycal aspects of universe have been thought by the physical scientists to defy ‘closed system’s’ analysis. I have found, however, as we shall soon witness, that total universe including both its physical and metaphysical behaviors and aspects are scientifically definable. [....]

“I define universe, including both the physical and metaphysical, as follows. The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omnitransforming, even sequences.”

Fuller goes on to inform us that the universe is finite. Well .......

————Dan a.k.a. NaturalHistoryGuy

GJDS - #77494

March 15th 2013

One point that I think needs to be made concerning miracles in general, and the resurrection of Christ in particular – the general response to claims of miracles by people (and the Disciples of Christ) is one of disbelief and doubt. We cannot (and should not) claim that such events are common place and can be catalogued for general analysis. It is also the case that once the popular imagination has been enlivened, superstition becomes prominent. The Church has generally taught against superstition, and has also taught that miracles (which rarely happen) are a personal testimony of faith and not a general occurrence. Indeed the current position is to examine all such claims meticulously, with the understanding that in all likelihood the claimants may be mistaken. Only when the testimony of people (and often professionally qualified people) is considered overwhelming, would such a claim of a miracle be accepted.

With this in mind, one should question the motives of atheists when they repeat their inquisitorial ascertains that all claims of miracles are false, since this goes against the teachings of Christianity, and in themselves would be falsehoods. We should also admit that many charlatans have made claims of miracles, and atheists take great delight in discussing these, even in cases where Christians may have exposed these falsehoods. I guess the response will now go back to you tell me your story and I will tell you mine. Such exchanges are pointless – we accept the resurrection of Christ because of the testimony of good honest people, and because of faith. The comments about the Apostle Paul are clearly based on ignorance and a prejudicial outlook towards the Christian faith. It is a strange day when an atheist would point to Paul for his position.

Lou Jost - #77497

March 15th 2013

GJDS, you say “one should question the motives of atheists when they repeat their inquisitorial ascertains that all claims of miracles are false”.  I tried really hard to explain that I do not deny the possibility of miracles. Please read what I wrote again. I said that we should require good evidence. And we should be honest in our assessment of evidence. If you accept the evidence for the Christian resurrection, why don’t you also accept the sometimes-better evidence for the resurrection of other gurus?

I think it is not a “strange day” but a natural thing to look carefully at Paul and the Gospels (in the order they were probably written) to see how the resurrection account evolved. I do realize that there are a lot of expert opinions on this subject, and I am still learning. But I can read, and so can you. Look at those accounts and see how they differ, and note the non-corporeal appearances of post-resurrection Jesus in some of them.

GJDS - #77496

March 15th 2013

 The scientific method has been discussed over many years and it is difficult to obtain a precise ‘definition’ – my favourite I think was given in Science sometime ago: The scientific method is the methods scientists use to carry out scientific activities.

A detailed discussion of theory and science is given in a relatively easy to read introduction to Philosophy of Science by Rosenberg. He points out that “many of the models in science are definitions of unobserved, theoretical systems ...... the semantic view of theories faces the .. problems of reconciling empiricism with the indispensability of theoretical terms ... applying a model to the world requires that we connect it to what can be observed or experienced ,,,,, whether the theory (or a model) explains data as the realist holds, or only organises it as the instrumentalist holds…. the theory can do neither without recourse to claims about this realm of unobservable things ..... makes (it) problematic.”

We needs to consider the subject in depth before making simplistic remarks on such things as MN – however this reference shows that truth claims made in the name of science are often problematic, and if I indulge in some humour, can amount to superstitious beliefs in science.

Lou Jost - #77498

March 15th 2013

The really funny thing is that your life probably depends on science, and you are writing your comment on a device that requires more than superstition in order to work.


GJDS - #77500

March 15th 2013

The really funny thing Lou is that you believe my life may depend on science - what is funnier (in a tragic sense) is that it was scientifically superior people (some religious when convenient, and others not so religious) who would take this science to natives to play on their sense of amazement - and it all seemed so superstitious, don’t you think? But then this has a lot to do with what Christians believe and Biblical truths?

Lou Jost - #77519

March 16th 2013

Most people would have died before age 40 without science. Even if you are younger, most kids would not have survived childhood diseases and sicknesses without vaccines and modern medicines. Prayer and magic didn’t help. And if you live in a cold climate, your survival in winter depends on science. Not to mention that your job, whatever it is, probably depends on science. And your daily life depends on electricity and other scientific discoveries. That is what I meant by saying your life depends on science.

Merv - #77520

March 16th 2013

I’ ve been giving this [how much we should and do appreciate science] some thought too (being a high school physics and chemistry teacher myself). 

We should probably be differentiating between science and technology even though the former is certainly *one* main ingredient for the latter.  Science may need some insular protection here because I think the jury is still out on just how beneficial most technology is today.  Our grandchildren and great grandchildren may have a decidedly different perspective on just how beneficial automobiles, airplanes, guns, nuclear bombs, and internet were to their forebears and the world they inherited (that is, provided they still have the luxury of contemplating such things).   Personally I think vaccines and education are the least ambiguous things we can and should really be grateful for, though even in some of these areas it still may not be a slam dunk.  

Pure science increases our knowledge, but it has to be coupled with many other factors, motivations, and most of all wisdom before it will be well applied to make technology.  Our grandchildren may well be lamenting how we failed to use the best of our wisdom, (much of which will be religiously motivated) to process and use (or restrain our use of) all the knowledge that science makes available.  Because we have heated houses we live in places where we otherwise could not.  We build in places (flood plains or near oceans) where our distant ancestors would have had the wisdom not to build permanent structures.   Or we get such ease from our automobiles and “cheap” but petro-intensive convenience foods that we can now use our leisure to blog here while counting on advanced medicine to protect us from our sedentary lifestyles.  To call all of this ‘progress’ or ‘good’ is presumptuous, don’t you think?  Sure—I don’t want to give any of it up.  Just like the sticky-mouthed child sitting in the midst of his pile of halloween candy doesn’t want to give up any piece of that.  But given all this dreary outlook, I think we can still make a case for science, but such an endeavor will probably involve separating and protecting it from technology, not by naively assuming technology in our present western culture is automatically some great good that will vindicate science.   It looks that way now—we’ve only just begun to enjoy that pile of halloween candy (the 25% or so of us who can).  Give it some time, as wars continue over mounting inequities and ravaged environs; as the tummy ache starts getting serious, then we’ll revisit how excited you are about the fruits you wish to attribute to science.


Lou Jost - #77523

March 16th 2013

Merv, you mistake the intention of my comment. I only showed how much modern life owes to science, and that life would be immensely harder now without it. Whether our course is the best course, I didn’t say. As an environmentalist I often wish that some things hadn’t been invented, and I wish our population were much lower. I wish we valued sustainability more than growth. But this is far from our subject here….

GJDS - #77540

March 16th 2013

While we mention irony; I thank God for whatever good things life brings, you are inclined to thank science. That is ok, as your evidence may take you there while mine takes me to my position. Incidently, I recall a debate published in the Economist which asked people for the greatest scientific contribution ( I assume to the wellbeing of humanity). The large majority identified the application of Chemistry to food production during the 20th Century (nowadays we associate this with polution). Other such discussions point to sanitation (mainly an engineering feat) as possibly the most significant contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. Overall people seem to think that application of science, technology and engineering to our wellfare has been important. I am a scientist so I like to think science can do some good. I am also a human being who realises that we have not always used our knowledge (in whatever area) for the good of this planet and all that is in it. The irony is that with the benefits of applied knolwledge we also accumulate many problems - this is obvious especially to scientists these days. I take the view that faith is required to address these problems - you obviously think otherwise.

Lou Jost - #77542

March 16th 2013

I actually agree with you about all this except the faith bits.

GJDS - #77546

March 16th 2013

We need to act in good faith, otherwise there is no hope; solving problems we create with our knowledge is far from a trivial matter. This is where I see the overlap between people with differing worldviews - and I have mentioned associates who do not aspouse the Christian faith (or perhaps any faith) - but we all nonetheless endeavour to act in good faith.

Thus Lou, I cannot believe that you agree ‘except the faith bits’ (almost a pun in this - I do not believe you do not believe (?))

Lou Jost - #77567

March 17th 2013

Granted. “Acting in good faith” means something different from having faith in a god.

GJDS - #77568

March 17th 2013

Acting in good faith requires that person has faith - at the very least in the hope the outomes would be good. The Biblical statement first teaches that faith is the evidence of things hoped for and the substance of things not seen - one needs to be a person of faith, and then discuss the matters in which one has such faith. The difference you are so adament on is that of a god or gods (and it seems you have a unique take on this in that it is a comparative outlook on various gods/religion, or something like it).

GJDS - #77501

March 15th 2013

Lou #77497


Lou, I cannot understand how you as an atheist can then ‘not deny the possibility of miracles’. This to me seems to require mental gymnastics of the type I cannot imagine. I mentioned the matter of evidence, and once again you ignore this and come back with other stories (and yes, these are narrations from people). If you are concerned about gurus, why don’t you discuss this with those who believe their narrative?

What I find puzzling is that you, as a scientist, requires evidence (which is a specific thing to science) and then go on a tangent that requires testimony from people. Just what is it that you want to say? And now you seem to make a statement about the ‘order they were probably written’. Is this more of your evidence based ascertains? If so please elaborate. How would the order of written material, which all states the resurrection, amount to evidence for a scientist? I state dogmatically that I have read all of the Gospels, the Epistles, a great deal of commentary, the Patristic writings, and a some nonsense by self-confessed experts, and I cannot make sense of your comment(s). Can you make a specific statement that would make your outlook clear, besides that many people claim miracles.


Lou Jost - #77513

March 16th 2013

“Lou, I cannot understand how you as an atheist can then ‘not deny the possibility of miracles’. This to me seems to require mental gymnastics of the type I cannot imagine.” We must have such different worldviews that it is almost impossible to talk to each other. There are no mental gymnastics, just open-mindedness. I don’t believe there ever were miracles, but I do not rule them out a priori. Beliefs in such things should be a matter of evidence. I can think of evidence that, if it existed, would convince me that there is a personal power controlling the universe. However, such evidence does not exist (prayer does not work, etc).

“What I find puzzling is that you, as a scientist, requires evidence (which is a specific thing to science) and then go on a tangent that requires testimony from people.” The only evidence for the resurrection is second-hand  “testimony from people”. So it is hardly a tangent to consider that testimony. My comment about order refers to comparing the earliest second-hand account (Paul’s) with the later second-hand accounts (Mark, then probably Matthew and Luke, and later John). Some of Paul’s comments indicate resurrection of a spiritual body similar to that which he encountered on the road to Damascus. The oldest versions of Mark does not even describe the resurrected Jesus or indeed anything that happens after the visit of some women to the empty tomb (see N T Wright) . Matthew and Luke have additional elaborations and a sometimes-physical, sometimes-phantasmal resurrected Jesus (e.g. in Luke he disappeared as soon as the apostles recognized him). The last one, John, has a very elaborated sometimes-physical, sometimes phantasmal resurrected Jesus.

lancelot10 - #77504

March 16th 2013

EVIDENCE FOR MIRACLES - the escape from egypt needed miracles.

Google up the israeli archeologists discovery of the journey - the you tube videos are on many sites - it was also on mainstream TV.

Belief in the Books of Moses  -  you can see the pictures and videos of the real journey of the Israelites - Joshua’s alter ; chariot wheels in the red sea ; the split rock showing signs of water egress ; the burnt top of mt sinai in saudi arabia ; the underwater bridge with shallow water where the crossing was made and the chariot wheels are located.

The map at the back of most bibles is wrong   -   The pictures dont lie.

If they will not believe in the books of Moses they will not believe an angel if it stood in front of them.

Lou Jost - #77525

March 16th 2013

Care to give some citations?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77508

March 16th 2013

Come on, people.  The Resurrection of Jesus Christ in itself does not prove anything. 

The evidence or proof is in the whole story.  What would have been the effect of Jesus on the world if Pentecost would not have come?  It is not Jesus alone, but the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Resurrection is not a physical or scientific miracle, the restoring to physical life of a human being more than two days after his death.  That happened to Lazarus.   

The Resurrection is a metaphysical “miracle” demonstrating that Life does not end with the grave.  The Jews and the Gentiles both believed in a existence after death, but that was all it was, the existence of a passive “soul.”  The Resurrection demonstrated that the gift of Life to persons is permanent.

The Resurrection also demonstrates that the power of Good and Life is stronger than Evil and Death.  When we trust in God humans are not bound by the fear evil or death.  We can build our lives on Love, Hope, and Faith.  Of course people do not have to believe in this.  Clearly many if not most seem to prefer living in “rational” fear of death and anger over injustice.

The Resurrection demonstrates that Jesus is the Messiah Who saves the world from itself.  On the other hand the fact that humans know Jesus as their Savior proves the Resurrection, so we have clear proof that Jesus is LORD.             

GJDS - #77517

March 16th 2013

Lou, we would both agree that it is difficult for us to hold a detailed discussion, and I guess a ‘worldview difference’ is as good a reason for this as any other. I have stated before that an absence of belief is consistent with an atheist, but I find your approach extremely difficult to understand. 

“However, such evidence does not exist (prayer does not work, etc).” - now how does this statement fit in with an ‘open minded atheist’? Pray is a personal matter and no-one else can get into someone’s prayer, and thus decide if it works or not. I can narrate examples (rare) where a person of faith claims her prayer was answered and others who understood the details agree that it was the case. Yet I cannot see this as evidence as I was not present - just what would this mean? That someone should use this as evidence for atheists? This I find is an example of an atheist who somehow changes the meaning of the subject matter, to come to his predetermined conclusion.

You don’t believe in miracles -this is clear and understandable; the rest of your post is not. How can you be in any other position once you decide you do not believe? I am not suggesting you somehow become a believer - I simply accept your statement of non-belief and then struggle to understand the rest of your other statements, which appear to me as a mixture of disbelief and asking for ‘evidence’ which you think will cause you to believe.

I will not go into details on the Gospels except to state the obvious, that each is writen by individual authors. I would have geat difficulty if each gave exactly the same version - these are acounts of people who believed. I think they (and present day Christians) would put the notion of “evidence to convince atheists’ at the bottom of the ‘list of things to do’. It is ironic (and this is so if my memory is not mistaken) but I seem to recall that Christians were accused as atheists, I think because they did not believe in all of the Greco-Roman gods.

On evidence of a personal power that would convince you - my understanding is that God decides who has faith (or is called to be a perosn of faith). This is an example of the great difference in our outlooks. To my mind, an atheist thinking that God should come and convince him of something smacks of extreme self-importance. Nonetheless these days we all we do enjoy listening to other opinions. I must confess that your claim of an open-minded outlook is difficult to believe. (Warning spelling errors likely as I cannot spell-check this post).

Lou Jost - #77521

March 16th 2013

“However, such evidence does not exist (prayer does not work, etc).” - now how does this statement fit in with an ‘open minded atheist’? Pray is a personal matter and no-one else can get into someone’s prayer, and thus decide if it works or not.There have been many controlled studies on the efficacy of prayer. They show the results expected by chance.

“I simply accept your statement of non-belief and then struggle to understand the rest of your other statements, which appear to me as a mixture of disbelief and asking for ‘evidence’ which you think will cause you to believe.”  The reason I don’t believe in those things is because of the lack of evidence, not because I ruled out the possibility of god a priori. Why is that hard to understand? I am not asking for you to make ME believe; I am asking for you to realize that you also don’t have the evidence to support your beliefs. You confirm this in your later lines: “my understanding is that God decides who has faith” You said something similar in an earlier post, when you said you first came to your faith and then you studied and thought about it. The reverse would have been more objective.

”...an atheist thinking that God should come and convince him of something smacks of extreme self-importance.” First, I am not waiting for god to convince me, I am saying there is no decent evidence for god, so I don’t think there is one. Second, don’t you see the irony of what you’ve just said? You seriously believe that there is a creator of the universe who listens to your prayers!!!! Talk about “self-importance”!

GJDS - #77543

March 16th 2013

Lou, You are making an incorrect ascertain (again); at no point did I say I first came to my faith ..... I stated that I was born and baptised into a Christian Orthodox family and that I (it seems unlike yourself) did nor feel dissapointed - I ALSO examined my beliefs and tradition (as I continue to do so) to gaina deeper understanding and appreciation (which I have) - this means I am informed regarding my faith and all that is associated with it. I have been informed by Ted’s column in that I appreciate another tradition that seems to have begun about Boyle’s and Newton’s time amongst Protestants. This is interesting as I may appreciate a different approach to understanding the attribute of God as the Creator.

And yes, God thinks we are so important that He gave His only Son to live amongst us and die for us so that we may be saved. This is not the same as demanding God prove himself to anyone, least of all an atheist. The ressurection of Christ is central to the faith. That is why I cannot understand why an atheist like yourself would get as involved in these discussions. I assume that you have settled on your views on these matters - if so, I am intrigued as to why you become involved in discussions on Faith. If you are not settled in your atheism, then I guess I can see a reason for you involvement in discussions on faith. I do not think my comments are unreasonable. (spell warning as usual).

Lou Jost - #77544

March 16th 2013

GJDS, I stay out of purely theological discussions here, but as I have explained before, I am very interested in the relation between science and religion.

GJDS - #77545

March 16th 2013


Just to satisfy my curiosity - what is, in your view, the relationship between science and religion?

Lou Jost - #77553

March 17th 2013

Hi GJDS, thanks for the question. I have family and travel duties today and tomorrow, will answer fully when I am back on line….Lou

GJDS - #77549

March 16th 2013

Lou #77521


I suppose that we cannot get past this point in the discussion  – “There have been many controlled studies on the efficacy of prayer. They show the results expected by chance.” Whatever the case, I think it touches on the basic notion of atheists and their standard phrase, “gimme evidence or I refuse to believe”. 

A controlled study on prayer, efficacy or otherwise, is more than an oxymoron – it is a contradiction. It also displays the hubris of the atheistic/modern outlook that claims the mantle of authority from the sciences and can make such pronouncements. I do not know how you view prayer Lou, but I get an image of a so called scientist putting electrodes on a ‘case study’ who is to pray while all sorts of readings are taken – and from this the omnipotent scientist would draw evidence based conclusions. Perhaps another approach is to use a control group, and then use another group, and by comparing results you would come to your (astonishing) conclusion on efficacy of prayer.

I continue this point because I think it goes to the core of the atheist’s dilemma – their belief (which you believe illustrates an open mind) that is conditioned by experimental observations. Since any scientist understands the gulf between observational activities and truth claims, I suspect an atheist turns this conditioned mental state into a ‘Sherlock Holmes search for evidence’. I doubt if you agree with this, but I suggest to you that it is a distinct possibility regarding militant atheists.

The example of prayer illustrates this to me – (since any Christian will quickly attest that is involves ONLY the person and God) – if it is done on any other basis it is nullified and is not prayer. You as an atheist may disagree and claim this stops you from analysing the event to enable your open mind to reach a conclusion, but that is irrelevant. Additionally, you would change the nature of the act, in order to satisfy your notion that it should be measureable – or if not you, those who claim to have studied prayer and concluded on it efficacy. This is wrong on many levels, including scientific ones! The result is a disappointed atheist. However it is unreasonable for atheists to change the meaning of a subject or activity and then claim that they have reached an ‘open minded’ conclusion that they believe is supported by science.

Jon Garvey - #77552

March 17th 2013

Amen GD. In order to be a valid study, God as the principle experimental subject would have to be subject to a double-blind about which group was really praying and which group was the control group pretending to pray. And the two groups would also have to be double-blinded as to whether they were really praying or not ... the control group prayers jammed by radio waves perhaps?

Sometimes it seems that atheists are parodying themselves!

Lou Jost - #77555

March 17th 2013

Will have to get back to this later, no time now, but does it never occur to you guys to ask whether your belief in prayer is true?

Jon Garvey - #77556

March 17th 2013


After 48 years as a Christian, going through the intellectual mill of a secular University when Marxism was Lord of All; treating sick and dying people for an entire career; going through bereavement, illness and depression; counselling those who have no faith, whose faith is suffering, who have lost their faith - quite apart from being in the same world as the Holocaust and famine ... why would you think that every question about faith that you could think of hasn’t been raised a hundred times - apart, I guess, from thinking that “scientific evidence” has any bearing on such issues, which I confess I never gave any thought to even before my conversion.

But for all that, you’ve still asked the wrong question. “Belief in prayer is true”? We don’t believe in prayer; we believe in God through Jesus Christ. Prayer (apart from being a human fundamental activity, even amongst those who say they are unbelievers, Martin Robinson 1994) is what emerges from that relationship. I might just as well ask whether you ever stop to question your belief in internet posting.

Jon Garvey - #77557

March 17th 2013

Let’s expand that last post.

Faith in Christ is trusting him for, and in, everything. So, experiencing from the start of the relationship a new realisation of what he’s done for you in every sphere from creation to forgiveness, you view the world with thankfulness. Good stuff happens - you add some more thanks. Something’s more than good - awesome even - and the thanks morphs to praise. Something bad happens - the thanks morphs to prayer. Lots of bad things happen, the prayer morphs to complaint, but to God rather than about him.

Questions like “does it work?” are as inappropriate as asking if talking to my wife or children “works”. Sure, it feels good if I ask one of them to do something and they do, but that says nothing about whether we have a relationship or not. It doesn’t even govern whether they love me, since they’re people, not slot-machines created for my gratification. We talk because we’re family, even when the talk is argument.

If someone were to tell me that family is unnecessary, and that I ought to consider if I’d be better off without, I’d probably just smile benignly and go home to the wife. Though if I (and my wife) were in a good mood I might ask them back for a meal.

Lou Jost - #77561

March 17th 2013

It is shocking to me that you never wondered about the evidence of whether prayer worked more often than chance, and that you think it is a funny question. “I might just as well ask whether you ever stop to question your belief in internet posting.” I write in this comment box, and later see my comment on the internet. You guys are like an author who writes long heartfelt poems and sends them off to be published without ever asking if the address is a real one. Granted, just writing (or praying) from the heart is theraputic. But talking with an imaginary friend is sort of like self-brainwashing and self-delusion.

Science is basically a method to keep us from fooling ourselves. Religious people (of all religions) seem strangely uninterested in keeping themselves from being fooled.


Merv - #77562

March 17th 2013

Lou, Jon gave you an excellent answer!  I find it shocking that you think of relationships in terms of (as Jon states) “slot machines”.  If there were this sort of vending machine god—-plug in quarter (or properly worded prayer) and out pops desired result, then while a lot of people would rush to believe in such a god, please be assured that this “dispensor apparatus” would be about as far apart from any true God as one could get.  If I subject some family member (say a rich uncle) to such a test and ask them for $500 every day and then dutifully record the percentage of days I got the desired result, I might well have to conclude that they don’t really exist.  


Lou Jost - #77564

March 17th 2013

Merv, you and Jon both seem to think people should not ask the question whether there is evidence that prayer ever works. I don’t expect prayer to work like a slot machine. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to ask if there is any evidence that prayer ever works more often than expected by chance, or that any of your/our other religious or scientific beliefs are true. To not ask such questions is to embrace self-deception.

Eddie - #77569

March 17th 2013


It seems to me that the very form of your question implies that prayer is “asking God for certain desired results” and that the test is “whether or not those results are obtained.”  But what if prayer is more like, “God, I very much desire that my loved one should be healed, but thy will be done”?  What if the most important part of prayer is not asking for something, and receiving it (or not), but establishing a certain personal attitude toward God?  What if the notion of prayer that you are criticizing is essentially a pagan rather than a Christian one?

I also find it impossible to imagine that Jon has not thought about all the usual skeptical responses to the idea of prayer.  In addition to his evident grasp of Christian theological literature, he was a doctor for 30 years and could not have avoided situations where the question of prayer would have come up.  Nor would he have been able to turn off his Cambridge-trained scientific brain in thinking about those questions.  You aren’t giving his response above enough credit.

I’m not claiming to have a proof that prayer has any worldly effects beyond what we would expect of chance, and I’m not sure that Jon has claimed this, either.  What I’m saying (and maybe Jon would agree) is that to make the question of the value of prayer into some sort of empirical question is to miss the point.  I don’t think proving the efficacy of prayer is important, as I don’t think proving the historicity of the Resurrection is important.  The whole idea of treating religious belief as something like a scientific or historical hypothesis is revolting to me.  But that’s me talking now, and Jon and Merv might not follow me that far.

Lou Jost - #77572

March 17th 2013

Hi Eddie,

I certainly might have misunderstood Jon, but I was reacting to this: ”...apart, I guess, from thinking that “scientific evidence” has any bearing on such issues, which I confess I never gave any thought to even before my conversion”.

If the historicity of the resurrection is unimportant to you, then I gather you have a more abstract idea of god than most here. The more abstract your views, the less reason I have to criticize them. The thing that seems crazy to me is to claim that some particular holy book (which invariably makes empirical claims) is authoritative, even when it contradicts reality. In that sense, there is an empirical component to choice of religious outlook. Surely the outlook one chooses should not mock reality.

Eddie - #77576

March 17th 2013


I can’t speak for Jon.  I assumed that he meant that he never, even prior to becoming Christian, thought that the question of the value or efficacy of prayer was one that could be settled by the methods of natural science.  And I gather from your words that you do think that the value or efficacy of prayer could, at least in principle, be settled by the use of the methods of natural science.

Two questions need to be separated:  (1) Is prayer of any value or efficacy?  (2) Is that question the kind of question that can be settled by scientific investigation?  I take it that your answers to these questions are:  (1) No, and (2) Yes; and I take it that Jon’s answers are:  (1) Yes, and (2) No.

I didn’t say the historicity of the Resurrection was unimportant to me.  What was unimportant to me, I said, was coming up with scientific or historical proofs of the Resurrection.  First of all, I don’t think any such proof will ever be possible; and second, given that no such proof is available, all we have of a “scientific” nature is probabilities, which form a pretty shallow basis for religious faith.  I’ll expand on the second point.

Let’s say that after investigation, I conclude that it’s three-quarters likely that the Resurrection happened.  So do I therefore resolve that, since Jesus probably rose from the dead, henceforth I will give up my life for my brother, renounce lustful gazes, and turn the other cheek to my enemies?  And, on the other hand, if I should calculate that it is only one-quarter likely that the Resurrection happened, should I henceforth resolve that, since Jesus probably did not rise from the dead, there is no point in giving up my life for my brother, missing out on the titillations of pornographic web sites, or refraining from crushing my enemies?  This sort of calculation strikes me as incredibly vulgar and un-spiritual.

I don’t regard as authoritative any holy book which “contradicts reality.”  But I don’t know what you mean by “contradicting reality.”  I don’t see the essential teachings of the Bible as “contradicting reality”—though if you took individual story elements out of their literary context, and regarded them as an ancient version of photojournalism, you would doubtless conclude that the Bible represents as fact things that are not fact, e.g., waters above a hard heavenly dome which pour through windows when it rains, or daylight existing before the sun.  But there the problem is not that the Bible contradicts reality, but that some modern Christians read the Bible within the mindset of scientific positivism and without the slightest training or natural ability in interpreting ancient and/or poetic literature.

Lou Jost - #77621

March 19th 2013

Eddie, yes, I do think the efficacy of intercessionary prayer might be statistically demonstrable if it were real. You want to lump this with the “value” of prayer, but it is important to keep that question separate from the efficacy of intercessionary prayer. Prayer may be valuable for the people involved for purely naturalistic reasons; this would not have evidential value regarding the existence of gods.

Your probability example ignores the existence of competing claims about other, often contradictory gods and their associated ethics. Why do you accept the precepts of the Bible rather than the Quran (these precepts do sometimes differ)? You have to make some kind of judgement about the value of the evidence for these competing accounts of the supernatural world.

Many of the dramatic contradictions between the Bible and reality (and between one part of the bible and the other) are written in plain language and don’t appear to be metaphor. If your view is that the parts contradicting reality (or contradicting each other) must be metaphor, then you have enshrined the “inerrancy” hypothesis to the point where it cannot be falsified.

Lou Jost - #77642

March 20th 2013

Also, Eddie, I think this is a remarkably silly thing to say:  “if I should calculate that it is only one-quarter likely that the Resurrection happened, should I henceforth resolve that, since Jesus probably did not rise from the dead, there is no point in giving up my life for my brother, missing out on the titillations of pornographic web sites, or refraining from crushing my enemies?”

Do you honestly think that people are no good without Jesus? Do you think there were no good, selfless people before Jesus? That is an extraordinarily insulting claim. Godless people can construct good societies. As I mentioned before, some of today’s most secular societies (like those of northern Europe) are, by virtually every measure, the healthiest, safest, most transparent, most caring societies on the planet today. 

Eddie - #77647

March 20th 2013


I never said or implied that “people are no good without Jesus” or “there were no good, selfless people before Jesus.”  

I suspect you are continuing to read into my words connections and arguments that you have encountered in debating with other Christians.  I would advise you to respond only to my arguments as stated, and not what you think they probably mean (working on the assumption that I think like those others).

Of course people can be good without Jesus.  I have known many atheists and agnostics of higher morality than fundamentalists and evangelicals.  Believing in Jesus, is, alas, no guarantee that one will live up to the teaching of Jesus, or even try very hard to do so.  And failure to believe in Jesus does not automatically indicate moral degradation, worldly pride, etc.  

However, and purely as an aside, I do not believe that in the long run a godless population can sustain a healthy and moral and truly human society.  The Europe you speak of—and you portray it in much rosier colors than it possesses—has the virtues that it has because it is a secularized embodiment of Biblical and Christian beliefs.  Nations that have adopted modern secular humanisms of various sorts that have not had a prehistory of centuries of Biblical and Christian shaping—e.g., Communist China—have been brutal to their citizens.  As have nations—e.g., Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia—that have adopted a philosophy which is antithetical to their Christian origins.

But back to the main point.  Do you really think that any number of miracles—walking on water, poofing food into existence, raising people from the dead—could convince someone to stop hating his enemies and turn the other cheek to them?  The inner transformation required for that attitude is a greater miracle than a thousand Resurrections.  That is the thing which the world has always found hardest to accept about Christianity.

During the so-called “Age of Faith” people believed in every silly story of the miracles of saints and that every vial of blood or piece of bone in some cathedral was from some Biblical character and so on.  But many of these faithful Christians were selfish and vindictive in their private lives; and when they became Inquisitors—and I’m sure all the Inquisitors believed in a literal bodily Resurrection—they did the most unChristlike deeds.

I see no reason to connect a purely intellectual “acknowledgment that a miracle has happened” with the inner transformation which turns one from an atheist or a pagan into a Christian.  And I think that any Christian who makes such a connection is making a theological error, amounting to:  “Because I can do miracles that you can’t explain, you have to do everything I tell you in your religious and moral life, and because the guy on the other block can’t do the miracles I can do, don’t pay attention to how he tells you to live your life or speak about God.”  This is shallow beyond belief.  I want no part of any Christianity that is based on such crude empiricism, and I think your critique of Christianity attacks a form of belief that I don’t recognize as my own.

Lou Jost - #77663

March 20th 2013

Eddie, the statement of yours that I quoted in my #77642 does imply that you think rejection of the resurrection account will lead to immorality. And your own rebuttal repeats that assumption: “I do not believe that in the long run a godless population can sustain a healthy and moral and truly human society.”

Eddie - #77671

March 20th 2013


My words did not imply what you say they did.  First of all, they were in question form, not statement form; and second of all, even as questions, they were questions posed for the dialogical purpose of showing you how I interpreted your argument—an argument I don’t agree with.  When you are trying to understand people’s words, you need to read them in context, and the context is sometimes an entire discussion, not just a sentence or two.

You were arguing—as far as I can tell—that people should give up on the Christian religion if the “evidence” for things like the Resurrection, granted prayers, etc. is not strong enough.  And my point is that if I decide (for whatever complex set of reasons) that the Christian way of life is the best way of life, then fluctuations in the “evidence” for certain things—Christ’s resurrection among others—aren’t going to make any difference.  There will never be complete proof or disproof of such singular historical events.  Thus, in terms of actual lived religious life (outside of fundamentalism, anyway), the order of reasoning is more like the reverse of what you imagine:  Christians don’t “accept the evidence” then adopt the religious point of view; rather, having adopted the religious point of view, usually for existential reasons that have little to do with science or history, they maintain it even as the fickle “evidence” for particular historical events goes up and down, just as a firm Democrat keeps voting Democrat even as the quality of Democratic Presidential and Congressional candidates goes up and down.  Religious faith plays the long game.

Further, I had not said that the only basis for morality was a Christian one; my point was that a Christian is not going to give up Christian morality merely because the “probability of the Resurrection,” according to some new scholarly argument, has dropped from 60% to 40%.  Any Christian who did so would be contemptibly shallow in spirituality.

Finally, your second statement also misconstrues my argument; my previous remark had been about a specifically Christian notion—the resurrection; the later remark was about the role of religion in society in general—I said “a godless society,” not “a non-Christian society.”  There are other Gods beside the Christian God, and there are cultural traditions that make little or no use of the idea of God but are still “religious” in a sense accepted by trained scholars of religion.  I used the example of Christian Europe, but my remark applies also to places like Buddhist Burma (Myanmar).  The military regime there will inevitably lead to the decay of Burmese society, because it undermines the spiritual foundations of traditional Buddhist society.  I do not know of any long-lasting society in the history of the planet which has not been sustained by religion.  But as I indicated, that was an aside; the main point is that your “empirical” treatment of Christian faith is something I reject.

Eddie - #77646

March 20th 2013


I don’t think you see how radical my position is.

I don’t have to compare the relative efficacy of Christian, Islamic, Hindu, etc. prayer, because I think that the “efficacy of prayer” is an irrelevant category in assessing the truth of a religion.  I’m not a Christian because of answered prayers, and I wouldn’t become a Muslim if “evidence” showed that Muslim prayers were answered more often than Christian prayers by three to one.  I think that people who base their religion on such things have not grasped the meaning of the book of Job.

Now you can say, well, in popular forms of religion belief in answered prayers is important.  I grant it.  But popular forms of religion do not necessarily get at the deepest truths of religion.  And in any case, even uneducated believers accept that sometimes God says “No” to requests made in prayer, so a failure on God’s part to give what was asked for does not, for those believers, count as evidence against the existence of God.  

I didn’t say anything about “inerrancy.”  I’m not a fundamentalist.  You will have to argue with people who champion “inerrancy.”  I’ll just say that the term, as popularly understood in the USA, i.e., as connected with a sort of wooden literalism, is to my mind a term that should not be used in explications of Christian faith.  It just plays into the Enlightenment frame of mind that fundamentalism is attacking.  And that’s the irony:  fundamentalism and the Enlightenment are in many ways two sides of the same metaphysical error. 

As for plain language, Genesis 1 is written in “plain language,” but was never meant to be understood as an eyewitness chronicle of events as they happened. Plain language is capable of depth and subtlety and suggestion.  Indeed, in the Early Church, the “literal meaning” of the text did not mean what it means today (the meaning has been narrowed by the intellectual and cultural limitations of American fundamentalists), but included meanings that we would now call non-literal.  Certainly Augustine did not take the six days “literally” in the modern sense—and he was the principal Father of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity in the West. 

Lou Jost - #77691

March 21st 2013

“I think that the “efficacy of prayer” is an irrelevant category in assessing the truth of a religion.”

So if Muslim prayers were answered more often than expected by chance, and this didn’t happen for other religions, this would not constitute evidence for believing in the reality of the Muslim god?

If you just thought religion was about how to live an ethical life, with no fact claims about supernatural entities, I’d understand your position. But as you clarified above, you do make fact claims, such as that Jesus rose from the dead. You say you reject the empirical approach to religion; I take this to mean you don’t care whether there is evidence that your fact claims are true. I find that puzzling.

Not all ethical systems are alike. You think yours comes from your god; others think the same about their conflicting ethical systems. Many of these conflicting religions, including yours, make fact-claims about the world. If there was evidence for the supernatural fact-claims of one religion over those of another, then shouldn’t this affect your judgement about which of these ethical systems are really based on divine revelation? Surely you don’t judge ethical systems just based on how they fit with your preconceptions?

Eddie - #77703

March 21st 2013


It might save time if I gave you some background on myself, as you have given me on yourself.  I started out my university with a science scholarship, but after a couple of years switched to the arts, and ended up with a doctorate in religion, and a good deal of study in philosophy and ancient languages as well.  So, having spent many years reading Plato and the New Testament and other texts in Greek, and the Old Testament in Hebrew, and having studied the major Western philosophers and Christian theology and Eastern thought as well, and surrounded by colleagues who were discussing comparative religion all the time, I’m familiar with all of the considerations that you bring forth here.  It is not as if I am some sort of fundamentalist who has lived a sheltered life and has never given thought to these things.  I just happen, upon reflection, to have drawn different conclusions about religion than you have.

On prayer, I don’t believe that any studies can be done that would test it scientifically.  Nor should we expect that this should be the case, especially for the Biblical God, whom we are not supposed to test in that way.  How would you do it—deliberately pray that half the children that have cancer recover, and not pray for the others?  That would be utterly inhuman, and forbidden, for a believer in religion; and for a non-believer, the prayer wouldn’t be a prayer in any case, but just a scientist going through the motions of praying (on the logical possibility that there might be a god).  That’s not prayer, but a mockery of prayer.  And only someone steeped in the spirit of scientific positivism would even suggest such a vile “experiment”—or any other experiment with prayer.  Even thinking about prayer in that way is possible only in a society that has passed beyond religious belief into secularism.

I made no fact claims.  But to the extent that I would make fact claims, my grounds for asserting them must necessarily be grounds of faith (broadly construed), not “evidence.”  And here I must respectfully disagree with people like Wright.  I don’t think investigations trying to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, or even to put a high probability upon it, are of any epistemological value.  They never convince anyone who isn’t already quite willing to be convinced on other grounds.

What you don’t see is that I am both a religious believer and a ferocious skeptic at once.  I think that a good number of reasons given for religious belief are weak ones, and I refuse to engage in religious apologetics—at least, of the “evidence that demands a verdict” kind.  The grounds for religious belief are for me experiential, aesthetic, ethical, and mystical, not historical and scientific.  This of course is compatible with believing in certain historical events—but I think it’s silly to think that such events can be proved to have happened.  They are unique and can never be recovered; belief in them will always be on the basis of faith and reflection, not testing, experiments, evidence, documents, etc.

Finally, power does not entitle a being to be worshipped.  Hitler and Stalin had power, but were not worthy of worship.  So what if some member of some religion seems to be able call upon supernatural aid more often than others? The source of the aid might just as easily be a devil as the true God.  I am sure that some practictioners of Voodoo believe that Dhamballa rewards their prayers more often that would be expected by “chance”—and I am equally sure that some Christians would admit the fact of Dhamballa’s power but attribute it to one of Satan’s minions, if not Satan himself.  And the Bible explicitly says—see Deuteronomy—that if a wonder-worker should arise who performs all kinds of miracles, but teaches something different from the Law, that wonder-worker is not to be followed.  So religious life does not revolve around shows of divine power.

You still have not answered my question:  what claims does the Christian religion—the real Christian religion, not the caricature of that religion found in many American fundamentalists—make against “reality”?  There may be some, but you haven’t yet provided any.

Merv - #77570

March 17th 2013

I don’t think you grasp my point since you continue to conflate religious beliefs (or indeed all beliefs of any kind) with scientific belief as if science were the only lens through which we can understand truth or that all truth must come kneel before the throne of science to await its edict of endorsement or dismissal.  How is a refusal to embrace this core tenet of your particular religion a mark of self-deception?  And I remind you that you have no scientific evidence of any kind that science is the only avenue to truth.


p.s.  I do believe prayer makes a difference.  I just don’t think it’s within the reach of science to mechanize it [God] into an experiment that will force faith into some form of compulsory knowledge.

Lou Jost - #77574

March 17th 2013

Merv, note that if religion makes empirical claims, these can be tested by science.

GJDS - #77571

March 17th 2013

Hi Lou,

I guess I struggle with this one also, so here goes - what is it about prayer that you think should work? My understanding is that prayer is part of the religious way of life, and yes all major religions encourage the faithful to pray. A great deal of this is part of the ritual of worship which helps define the congregation and their tradition.

So how is this to lead to self-deception? This is another strangely incoherent remark - do you think there is mass hypnosys at work here? Or are you focusing on (what I initially felt you meant) a private prayer some may make for their personal spiritual life? Even in this, how do you arrive at ‘does it work’? or self deception notion. Surely if you do not believe in prayer you woud not pray. If others do so, they pray. I think your remarks are difficult to understand and when examined appear to indicate confusion on your part. 

Lou Jost - #77573

March 17th 2013

GJDS, I can’t pretend to understand everyone’s different ideas about prayer. I was referring to the intercessionary prayer, the common claim of many religious people to pray for some desired outcome (maybe curing someone of an illness, etc). My comments obviously don’t apply to a simple ritual set of declarations.

Self-deception is possible if people talk to gods that are just in their heads.

GJDS - #77575

March 17th 2013

Although I am aware of such prayer, I think that it is rare (or perhaps for me unheard of) that someone would make a prayer for a specific outcome (be it healing or for money or other gains). Prayer as I understand it is to ask for God’s grace for something that is important to a person (and mostly those they care about) - including dealing with illness and other things. i.e. we do everything we can and hope that God through His mercy would help us. As to talking to gods in people’s heads, I find such a statement demeaning and not part of civilised conversation - we know that some people may suffer mental illness - I hope you do not equate faith with this.

Lou Jost - #77623

March 19th 2013

When someone thinks of prayer as a “conversation with god”, he is deceiving himself. He is really just having a conversation with himself. I don’t deny this can have great value. People can find their inner strengths by such conversations, find guidance about life’s problems, etc. One may be able to tap one’s subconscious by this kind of prayer and learn valuable lessons. But he is not talking with god.

When I asked if prayer works, I meant “intercessionary prayer”: asking god to do something. This is a common thing to do in the Catholic church, and in many other religions. Does this kind of prayer actually have any direct effect (statistically speaking) on the world, beyond that expected by chance and/or the workings of naturalistic mechanisms?  If so, it would be evidence for the existence of a god.



GJDS - #77624

March 19th 2013

We may meditate, achieve inner peace, and generally seek ways to improve our mental and emotional well being - this is done in various religions and cultures. I do not know of a conversation with god, as you put it. Intercession is initial by Christ,as He can do this for us before God. The liturgical aspects of Christianity inlcude the (symbolic) role of the priest acting in a similar role, and the congregation is part of the worship of God, which amongst other things also involves  interceeding and asking for forgiveness for us. Individuals also pray, but this is private and is understood as between the person and God, and this act is an act of faith - it does not replace the other forms of prayer I mentioned.

There are instances where (I speak of an actual case I have read) a woman prayed to be cured. She still went to her doctor, who made a correct diagnosis that she was ill, and this continued for some time. When she was cured, the woman believed this to be from God, while her doctor could not give an explanation on medical grounds. This may or may not be statistically significant and no-one would prove it either way (and non one should try). This is because, as the the Gosples state so many times, it is a person’s faith that is relevant before God - not if some atheist thinks he may have found evidence for god. I suggest to you Lou, that “you are barking up the wrong tree” on this one.

GJDS - #77551

March 17th 2013


I feel a comment on the basic notions on this topic may be useful for this discussion, as I think it conforms to a good degree with Polkinghorne’s outlook. My starting position is God is Creator and we are informed by the Christian faith; we may reconcile this with the insights of the sciences. Atheists believe there is no purpose and postulate a beginning from nothingness. Theists and atheists may debate this, but for now we can avoid this. We believe the Universe is created to serve God’s purpose (salvation of humanity). The insights from science generally are:

1                    Highly accurate data from the physical sciences are consistent with a unique creation (constants and the basic building blocks of the Universe).

2                    The notion of laws of nature is a logical necessity or contingent. A debate about God working through laws of nature, or is constrained by them; a basic difference between belief that God intervenes, or allows nature freedom; i.e. He is an onlooker to His creation.

3                    The notion of randomness as opposed to determined (or predetermined) outcomes to nature. A middle ground is sought by the notion that God may foresee outcomes and/or frontloads nature to ensure a somewhat nebulous purpose.

4                    Generally the TE (BioLogos) position appears to me to accept science, but concentrates on theories of evolution on the assumption that it is “how God has gone about creating life on earth (and perhaps elsewhere)”.

5                    The BioLogos position is that evolution (Drawin’s idea(s)) is a fact of science; their effort is to reconcile the Biblical understanding of creationists, (YEC, OEC, etc) with evolution – thus term theistic evolution (TE).

6                    Others accept theories of evolution, but add intelligent designe and this satisfies the purposeful aspect of nature (to create human kind).

I think most of the debates in various ways revolve about points 5and 6, with lip-service paid to points 1 to 4. My view is the scientific basis for point 5 and 6 are the weakest within the overall scientific understanding. This leads me to the conclusion that the notions of TE, YEC, ID etc are built on a foundation of sand.

If my view is considered credible, what can we make of points 1 to 4? And if the theories of evolution eventually are replaced by a sound theory, what could this imply to the faith-science discussion? 

I will not try and give answers in a short post, accept to say that the nature of scientific progress includes a level of coherence – simply put, since points 1 to 4 are consistent with God as the Creator, and the uniqueness of the Universe is on solid scientific insights, we would have confidence that this would eventually become the case in the bio-sciences; these are especially complicated and are currently not founded on fundamental scientific insights as is the case for the exact sciences. I am sure we will have a chance to discuss particulars in future posts.

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