Category Archives: Faith and Reason

Probably No Dawkins?

The most dramatic plenary at the recent 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics hosted by the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, was delivered by William Lane Craig, a noted — some might say, notorious — apologist who had just returned from a 10-day tour debating prominent atheists in the U.K. Craig is an avuncular philosopher in his sixties somewhat like the Eugene Levy character in “A Mighty Wind.” Well-prepped and seemingly impervious to insult, Craig was described once by Sam Harris as “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.”

Craig’s hope on his tour was to debate — see this coming? — Richard Dawkins. After Dawkins declined, Craig found a benefactor to underwrite thirty buses that drove around Oxford proclaiming: “THERE’S PROBABLY NO DAWKINS” (a parody of the British Humanist Association’s own bus campaign: “THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE”).

Craig’s bus stunt so enflamed Dawkins that he shot an editorial to the Guardian accusing Craig of being “an apologist for genocide.” Granted, the “genocide” he refers to was in ancient Canaan and may never have happened, but Craig spent over an hour at the conference teasing out Dawkins’ implicit question, one summarized by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Bart Ehrman in the subtitle to his book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.

“When I ponder the depth and extent of all the evil and suffering in the world,” said Craig, “I find it pretty hard to believe in God.”

But that doesn’t stop him. Craig’s main line of defense (the one Dawkins decried) is that life is a “blip drowned out by eternity,” what Paul called a “momentary affliction,” and “those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.”

This is an uncomfortable argument, to say the least. But it is the logical equivalent to Pascal’s Wager, which holds that it’s safer to have faith than not because the pay-off if you’re right is infinite and if you’re wrong is finite. Infinity is a very, very big number. Craig is merely being explicit about the Christian belief that salvation is eternal while life clearly is not. In mathematical terms, our lives don’t even count.

As I said, it’s an uncomfortable argument. Why seek to remedy any injustice in such a context of eternity? Why get out of bed? A lot of the seeming social inertia we find in Paul — who told married people to stay married, slaves to stay slaves, people to keep the status quo — comes from such a mindset: the end is coming soon, so why bother?

This attitude may well be a prescription for contentment, but it’s disappointing as a life philosophy.

Apologize This!

In a country where 37% of people describe themselves as “born again” and presidential candidates kick off campaigns with prayer rallies, one might assume Evangelical Christians would feel secure. But they don’t – they are arming for a siege.

There was a bunker-like atmosphere during a crisp and overcast weekend in late October as over 2,000 Evangelical academics and students gathered for the 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics sponsored by the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Their redoubt was the Northside Christian Academy (motto: “Preparing Students for Eternity”) in a leafy northern suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I used to believe Christians had two brains — one was lost and the other was out looking for it,” thundered Josh McDowell, one of a parade of electrifying, Baptist preacher-style thought leaders who relied more on rhetorical razzle than PowerPoint slides. “The problem with many Christians,” he complained, “is you can’t give me an intelligent reason why you believe what you believe.”

Like many of the conference keynotes, McDowell is absurdly media-savvy, a prolific presenter, author or co-author of 120 books including the 15 million-selling More Than a Carpenter, about you-know-who. Other far-right erudites on the agenda included Gary Habermas (36 books, half of which attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection), William Dembski (20 books, including the first on Intelligent Design published by a university press), and Michael Brown (20 books, popular radio host).

Apologetics is the opposite of an apology. The mission of the conference was to equip academic Evangelicals with talking points to defend their position on topics such as “The Nature of God,” “The Best Objection to Evolution,” “Refuting the New Atheism,” and “Philosophical Foibles of Modern Physics.” A discipline as old as religion itself, apologetics basically means “explaining our beliefs to outsiders.”

Outsiders were not much in evidence among the well-behaved crowd of believers, but they hovered in the skies like a metaphorical Death Star. Indeed, among the 120 sessions wedged into two endless 12-hour days, one by S.E.S. professor Richard Howe was called “The Religion of the Force: A Look at Star Wars.” After betraying a mastery of minutiae as impressive as that of any Star Warrior in a wookie suit, Howe concluded: “The Force in Star Wars is very much like what you find in witchcraft and the occult.”

More seriously, the assembled apologists feared what they ominously call “The Culture,” which they see as an almost overwhelming Force of God-denying moral wafflers, evolutionists and sexual predators. The most chilling presentation was Josh McDowell’s “One Click Away” about the horrors of — believe it or not — internet pornography. McDowell spewed a torrent of statistics that I can only pray are not true: 67% of 12-25 year olds go to porn sites; 56% of divorces are caused by porn; one-third of eight year-olds “regularly” view sex acts online.

Yikes. Of course, the 70-ish McDowell is a professional yarn-spinner who claims to have delivered 24,000 talks over 51 years, which at an average of 1.3 per day makes one wonder. But his point is clear: Our kids are being podnapped by a liberal culture that is the moral equivalent of a pack of wild boars. This might seem beside the apologetic point until you realize the #1 Evangelical “proof” for the existence of God is the so-called “moral argument,” i.e., that there is an obvious universal standard of right and wrong that would not exist were there not a universal creator. Anyone who denies this standard – or that it comes from God – is guilty of “relativism,” about as close to a curse word as you’ll get from this crowd.

McDowell’s talk was an outlier in that he didn’t mention the Darth Vader of the conference, a man potentially more famous in Evangelical circles than in his own family: evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. Moreso than the other members of the so-called New Atheist anti-God squad of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins is seen as a deadly adversary because of his mastery of the evidence for evolution.

Why are Evangelicals so obsessed by evolution? In the words of William Dembski, a floppy-haired academic and Intelligent Design apologist with impressive credentials (Ph.D.’s in math and philosophy), “They [i.e., evolutionists] really think this makes a case for atheism.” He’s troubled by the so-called “theistic evolution” movement championed by scientist-Christians such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, who believe in God without rejecting evolution.

Next time: The most dramatic plenary!

After the Rapturin’ … I’m Still in Love with You!

Sananda from the Planet Clarion

One might think that after the failure of the long-awaited Rapture to materialize at 6pm on Saturday May 21st, legions of credulous fundies would admit defeat and join the steaming ranks of shame-based human doings. And one would be wrong.

Since the time of Jesus, committed Christians have been predicting the Apocalypse — in fact, Jesus himself probably started it. His mentor John the B. and ace publicist St. Paul certainly knew the end was near. And with so many failed predictions come pew-loads of bereft believers.

Or not. What happens when prophecy fails?

The clinical term here is “cognitive dissonance,” which is a topic in social psychology championed by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. His Theory of Cognitive Dissonance holds that when people have two conflicting “facts” in their heads, they seek to reduce the tension between them. As, say, when someone knows the world is going to end on 5/21 (Fact #1) and it doesn’t (Fact #2).

How is this tension resolved? Well, the person has to minimize the truth value of one or the other. And because of their emotional (perhaps even financial) investment in Fact #1, it’s usually Fact #2 that falls victim.

Here the games begin. Festinger didn’t think believers were stupid: they knew their conviction had bumbled. They can tweak or edit or rationalize, but there’s always some tension left. So what do they do? Something rather strange:

“There is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced,” Festinger wrote. “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct.”

Thus, failure lends emotional momentum to greater proselytizing — not apostasy. People confound.

Festinger’s original experiment, described in a recent essay by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones, is mondo gonzo. Having read a newspaper headline “Prophecy From Planet Clarion Call to City: Flee That Flood,” about a cult surrounding a Minnesota homemaker named Marian Keech, Festinger and two intrepid colleagues infiltrated the cult and started taking notes.

Keech believed she channeled Guardians via automatic writing. A being named Sananda from the planet Clarion (coordinates unknown) told the Lake City, Minnesota dweller that he was the reincarnation of Jesus and that her hometown would be destroyed by a flood on December 21st. Festinger and his new cult-buddies waited in Keech’s kitchen overnight and found they were not evacuated in alien spacecraft to elude the flood. There was no flood.

What did they do? Resolved the dissonance. Of the eleven non-spying members, only the two most “lightly committed” quit. The rest, observed Festinger, were “more strongly convinced than before.” Keech just revised the date.

Tom Hanks on Faith & Reason

Speaking of Augustine’s definition of “faith,” I was enjoying Angels & Demons on this Easter Sunday and ran across a remarkably orthodox formulation, delivered by renowned symbologist Robert Langdon (aka Tom Hanks) to the interim Pope character played by a dashing Ewan McGregor.

McGregor has just asked Langdon/Hanks if he believes in God.

HANKS: My mind tells me I will never understand God.

McGREGOR: And your heart?

HANKS (furrowed brow; pause): Tells me I’m not meant to. (crinkling brow; back to furrow; pause; pause) Faith is a gift . . . (pause) . . . I have yet to receive.

McGREGOR: Be gentle with our treasures.

There is nothing in Hanks/Langdon’s response that would be out of place in a Roman Catholic confessional — which is probably why McGregor grants him access to the super-secret Vatican archives and the diabolically encrypted Galileo manuscript . . . .

What Is Faith?

This little word “faith” troubles believers and unbelievers alike. Some say it’s trusting in fairy tales; others, submitting to authority.

Our brother from another mother, Augustine, has a lovely definition tucked deep inside his City of God:

“But the peace which is peculiar to ourselves we enjoy now with God by faith, and shall hereafter enjoy eternally with Him by sight. But the peace which we enjoy in this life … is rather the solace of our misery than the positive enjoyment of felicity.”


“Our very righteousness … is yet in this life of such a kind that it consists rather in the remission of sins than in the perfecting of virtues.”

We are constantly fighting a losing battle.

So what is faith?

It’s like this: You are the Vikings and you’re in the Super Bowl. Now imagine, as the game starts, you KNOW you are going to win. You relax. Peace, right?

That’s an analogy to the kind of peace Augustine claims is known in this life by those who have faith.

The journey itself may be arduous, of course. But if you KNOW it’s going to end well, it’s easier. So faith is not the same as believing a fact. It’s more like time travel.

But You Just Don’t Understand!

Let me give you two quotes separated by 1700 years and tell me if you see the problem:

  1. “Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available?” – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
  2. “[Stoics] ascribed to the bodily senses that expertness in disputation which they so ardently love, called by them dialectic, asserting that from the senses the mind conceives the ideas of those things which they explicate by definition. … I often wonder, with respect to this, how they can say that ‘none are beautiful but the wise’; for by what bodily sense have they perceived that beauty, by what eyes of the flesh have they seen wisdom’s comeliness of form?” — Augustine, City of God (VIII:7)

See it? It’s there, brothers.

Dawkins has decided that God is a “scientific hypothesis” that should be tested using evidence of the senses. Augustine says the Stoics, who had a similar approach, are guilty of hypocrisy. By what sense, he says, do you perceive Wisdom?

So here’s the problem: Since the beginning — Augustine is about as beginning as it gets, at least for Christianity — people who should know have denied God is a “scientific hypothesis.” They spent 2,000 years and billions of words describing what else It is. Dawkins appears. He says, actually, theologians don’t know God at all. He knows God: God is a physical entity.

Seems to me there’s a massive disrespectin’ going on both sides of the Atheist-Believer DMZ. At the edges, people can not believe what they’re hearing from the Bozos on the other side. This disturbs me. Why?

Yesterday, doing some spadework for yet another mind-blowing post on religious epistemology, I stumbled across a lab-tested (So there, Dawkins!) phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect that explains a lot.

Here’s the thing. People tend to believe a lot of propositions based on very little evidence, or distorted evidence. For example, I believe that other people exist even when I can’t see them. I don’t really have any evidence they exist — not right now. I believe I’m a pretty important guy, in my own little world; when I take a day off at work, colleagues struggle, and some perhaps break down and cry. There is no evidence for this. Etc.

Turns out, we have a lot of irrational views about ourselves. The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes a very interesting phenomenon that I can sum up like this:

  • People who are unskilled at a task tend to vastly overestimate their competence, and their lack of knowledge actually makes them unable to see their own deficiency
  • People who are skilled at a task tend to overestimate the competence of others — which causes them to underrate their own abilities

The Effect gets its name from Justin Dunning and David Kruger of Cornell, who put it forward in 1999 based on studies of undergraduates: “Participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability.” Me gots good gramma!

There is definitely some of this going on in the current Religion Wars. Dawkins can ridicule Aquinas — a genius by any definition — like he’s some geriatric reptile because he hasn’t spent what philosopher Martin Versfeld (my namesake!) claimed were the requisite 10 years preparing to read him. Yet still he can tell all those brilliant theologians what God really is.

And vice versa. What do the 25% of Americans who say they “don’t believe in Evolution” really know about it? There is a lot going for that theory, people. More than you know.

The Conflict of Science & Satan (aka the Vatican)!

Draper BookAs we were saying, John William Draper’s History of the Conflict of Religion and Science has set the story arc for much of the modern blah blah on faith and reason. Which is too bad, because even a quick glance at the book (as opposed to positive glosses by Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, William Manchester, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Dawkins) reveals it to be an orgy of anti-Catholic buggery from cover to cover, without even the decency of a wrap-around footnote or bibliography.

Draper’s mega-bestselling diatribe has twelve chapters, eight of which contain the word “Conflict” or “Controversy.” Chapter II sets an ominous tone: “The Origin of Christianity — Its Transformation on Attaining Imperial Status.” (Close up on the Pope polishing his jack-boots!)

Writing in 1876, Draper notes optimistically “there is a great and rapidly-increasing departure from the public religious faith,” particularly among “the intelligent.” Whew!

Of course, it’s still true that “divine revelation must necessarily be intolerant of contradiction.” As he sees it: “The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests in the other.”

In particular, “the Papacy … insists on a political supremacy … and a restoration of the medieval order of things” — which, to be fair, is a pretty accurate description of Catholicism in the 1870s. That was the era of the idiot-megalomaniacal Pope Pius IX and his infamous “Syllabus of Errors,” which condemned, among other things, free speech, public schools, and the separation of church and state. As well as the First Vatican Council, which gave us Papal Infallibility and explicitly demoted reason to a status below that of faith. Modern Catholics (like me) look back with well-earned embarrassment on this reactionary moment.

Draper’s story quickly becomes a battle between Good and Evil: “Science … has never attempted to throw odium or inflict social ruin on any human being,” he says.  On the other hand, Satan — I mean, “The Vatican … They have been steeped in blood!” (He likes exclamation points, as does The God Project Dot Net!)

Draper’s simple narrative begins with Christianity and “its incorporation with paganism” at the conversion of Constantine. The first big Conflict he (puzzlingly) calls the Southern Reformation. Somehow, as Draper sees it, the Church’s insistence on Creeds and whatnot caused the Roman Empire to lose the Middle East, which then became a thriving center of science, while the Christian West descended into the Dark Ages.

Draper sees the 16th Century Reformation not as a conflict of Protestants vs. Catholics but as a chapter in the battle of Reason vs. Power-Mad Evil. Luther, though religious, stood for “intellectual freedom.” And so into the 19th century, which he sees as a battle of rational progress against “divine intervention” (i.e., irrational stasis).

Seeing history as a series of progressive conflicts is very Hegelian, of course, and Draper’s narrative is of a piece with Hegel’s prevailing thesis-antithesis-synthesis system. In fact, the system overwhelms the facts, as Draper recklessly edits, misquotes, unbalances and otherwise distorts a history he probably knew to fit the epic script he definitely believed. And I think he knew exactly what he was doing: “It is impossible to comprehend justly the doings of persons who lived many years ago,” he warns us in the Preface.

As Johns Hopkins Professor Lawrence Principe points out in a sweet set of lectures on “Science and Religion,” Draper’s book “is not good history: historical ‘facts’ are confected, and causes and chronologies are twisted to the author’s purpose.”

For example, Draper blames the Catholic Church’s bias against sex for depressing the population of Europe during the Middle Ages. Another battle: Lust vs. the Pope. Draper says it is well-known that the “generative force [i.e., horniness] will double a population in twenty-five years.” But England’s population “scarcely doubled” from two million to four million between 1066 and the Reformation. According to Draper’s “math,” England’s population in 1500 — without the evil influence of Rome — should have been 2.1 trillion. (p263)

Draper has a chapter on the age of the earth and of course trots out (with no citations) the statement that “the Fathers of the Church” believed that “the date of Creation was comparatively recent, not more than four or five thousand years before Christ” and that “the act of Creation occupied the space of six ordinary days.”

However, our friend Augustine — about as Church Father-ly as it’s possible to get — wrote early and often that the Biblical “days” of Genesis could not possibly be literal days because time requires change, change requires matter, and God had not created matter in the beginning but only light. So time did not exist … in the beginning. The six-literal-day thesis has always been a fringe opinion, especially among Catholics.

And so on. Draper had a near contemporary, a Cornell historian named Andrew Dickson White, who also published a book in 1876 (“The Warfare of Science“) and a much longer, two-volume doorstop called “A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology” 20 years later. Despite having footnotes, White was no more judicious than Draper. He’s now known as the guy who made a century of American schoolkids believe that before Columbus, everybody thought the Earth was flat and the Church opposed sphericity, on principle.

In reality, anyone who looks out at the ocean horizon can see the world is round, and the Ancient Greeks had done exactly that.

* Since this is now officially my longest post ever, I figure there’s no harm in really going for it and making it longer … I recently read a fun historical mystery set in the 17th century, part of a series by a young woman named S. J. Parris featuring the mystic-scientist Giordano Bruno. Coincidentally, this series is very much in the tradition of Draper and White, Sagan and Bronowski: Parris sets a very rational astronomer (Bruno) against the Church, and claims on almost every page that Bruno’s belief in a heliocentric universe and planetary systems made him a hunted man. White says the same thing (“[Bruno] was hunted from land to land”). However, the historical record is much more ambiguous. Apparently, we don’t know why Bruno was persecuted, but according to historian Frances Yates, he was certainly a self-proclaimed magician who worshipped the Sun and wanted to start his own religion. And, of course, solve mysteries.