Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Religion’ Category

Book on the Problem of Evil and Suffering

March 22, 2018

Peter Vardy, The Puzzle of Evil (HarperCollins 1992)

Back at the weekend I put up a piece about some of the books I’d read about God and religion, which might be useful to anyone wishing to explore these issues for themselves. This was in response to a request from Jo, one of the great commenters on this blog, who asked me a couple of questions about them. This is another book, which I think might help people with one of the most difficult problems in theology: the problem of evil. To put it simply, this is the question how a God, such as the one Jews, Christians and Muslims worship, who is wholly good and omnipotent, can allow evil and suffering. The counterargument frequently made is that as evil exists, God is either not all-powerful, or not good.

Peter Vardy is the lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London, and the book is written from a Christian perspective. It has the following chapters

Part 1 – The Problem of Evil

1. The Problem Stated
2 A God’s Eye View
3 the Free Will Defence
(i) The Free Will Defence Outlined
(ii) The nature of freedom
(iii) The utopia thesis
(iv) The FWD defended
4 Natural Evil
(I) The Devil and natural evil
(ii) Its this the best of all possible worlds?
(iii) Matter as evil
5 Is it all worth it?
6 Conclusion to the Problem of Evil

Part II – The Mystery of Evil
7 Introduction
8 The Euthyphro Problem
9 Albrecht Ritschl – Absolute Value Judgements
10 God Almighty
11 Can God Act in the World?
12 Animal Suffering and Physical Evil
13 Moral Evil – Job and Ivan
14 The Devil and All His Works
15 The Challenge of Freedom
16 Conclusion.

Vardy goes through and analyses and critiques arguments and attempted solutions to the problem of evil from Irenaeus, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to modern theologians and philosophers. He finds many of them inadequate, but in his conclusion fully asserts the Christian response to suffering. This is that meaning and purpose for human beings can only be found in the love and fellowship of God, that God does indeed act in the world and answer people’s prayers, but that such actions are rare and sparingly used, and that a world with less suffering could not have been created. This last is qualified with the statement that this is a matter of belief, and cannot be justified. He also states that there are forces of evil deep in the human psyche, and may be a real, independent force of evil outside of us. Which sounds very much like the Devil to me. However, that force cannot do more than persuade. It cannot take away human’s freedom. He also states ‘I am convinced that the power of evil is very real and that it needs to be fought both within us and in the world around us.’ On human free will, he states

Human beings are free to take responsibility for themselves as individuals, no matter what their circumstances, and to respond to God or not. I accept that the price for doing this will be high and that the road may be one that few will be willing to follow.

This last statement of what he considers should be the Christian attitude to evil concludes with

I accept that I could be wrong about all the above statements but am ready to stake my life on the “if” that I am right. I cannot do more. (pp. 203-4)

He also makes it very clear that Christians have a moral duty to fight evil. He writes

Augustine’s position, “I believe in order that I may understand”, rests on an opening judgement which cannot be proved, but once this is accepted then many things make sense which would not otherwise do so. The faith position is an altogether more positive and optimistic one than the assertion of meaninglessness. It maintains that although evil is a terrible reality 9it can be overcome and one of our main tasks as human individuals is to fight against it. Indeed the problem of evil is not at heart an intellectual one so much as an existential one – the presence of evil should call us to engage with it and to fight against it. As soon as we are overawed by evil’s power and allow it to have mastery we will cower beneath it in fear and trembling. We may have many excuses for doing this, we may hold that it is none of our business, or consider ourselves too weak or think that as we are not too badly affected it does not matter. Evil, however, spreads and unless it is combated its power will grow. We cannot stand idle and watch it increase – we have to face it now no matter how great the personal cost may be. Some may consider us foolish and certainly fighting evil wherever we find it (particularly in ourselves) can be a lonely and heartbreaking business. However the choice is simple: submit and be overcome or stand and fight and find freedom. This is a choice that needs to be lived out and so this book is, at the end of the day, a call to action. (Pp. 202-3)

Warning: in some places, this is not an easy book to read, as Vardy illustrates how pressing the problem is, and the terrible power of evil, with examples from ordinary life, such as the accidental death of children, to the sadistic acts of vile regimes. This includes the guards in the Nazi death camps throwing Jewish children alive into the quicklime that was used to destroy the bodies after death. He doesn’t dwell on these examples, but uses them to show that this is far more than an academic exercise.

On the other hand, he also uses the works of Tolstoy, and in particular The Brothers Karamazov, to explore the problem of evil, as well as the Book of Job in the Bible. Regarding the chapters on ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ evil, this is a distinction theologians and philosophers make between humans and the natural world. ‘Natural evil’ are disasters like earthquakes, plagues and so on, which bring terrible suffering, but the forces themselves don’t actually have free will. ‘Moral evil’ refers to humans, who do have free will, and are free to choose whether they pursue a particular course of action, or commit a crime or an atrocity, or not.

I’m very much aware that not all the readers of this blog are Christians by any means. I hope, however, that this might help those wishing to explore the problem of evil from the Christian tradition, and am aware that other religions have their own.

But I also hope that whatever our personal religious or philosophical views, we can all agree that, as human being, we do have freedom and a moral duty to fight evil and suffering.

Advertisements

Books on God and Religion

March 17, 2018

On Thursday, Jo, one of the great commenters to this blog, asked my a couple of questions on the nature of the Almighty, which I tried to answer as best I could. I offered to put up here a few books, which might help people trying to explore for themselves the theological and philosophical ideas and debates about the nature of God, faith, religion and so on. I set up this blog about a decade and a half ago to defend Christianity against attacks by the New Atheists. I don’t really want to get sidetracked back there, because some of these issues will just go on forever if you let them. And I’m far more concerned to bring people of different religions and none together to combat the attacks by the Tories and the Blairites on the remains of the welfare state, the privatisation of the NHS, and the impoverishment and murder of the British public, particularly the disabled, in order to further enrich the corporate elite. Especially as the Tories seem to want to provoke war with Russia.

But here are some books, which are written for ordinary people, which cover these issues, which have helped me and which I hope others reading about these topics for themselves will also find helpful.

The Thinker’s Guide to God, Peter Vardy and Julie Arliss (Alresford: John Hunt Publishing 2003)

This book is written by two academics from a Christian viewpoint, and discusses the Western religious tradition from Plato and Aristotle. It has the following chapters

1. Thinking About God – Plato and Aristotle
2.The God of the Philosophers
3. The God of Sacred Scripture
4. Religious Language
5. The Challenge of Anti-Realism
6. Arguments for the Existence of God
7. The Attributes of God
8. Life After Death
9. Miracles and Prayer
10. Jesus, the Trinity, and Christian Theology
11. Faith and Reason
12 Attacks on God, Darwin, Marx and Freud
13 God and Science
14 Quantum Science, Multi-Dimensions and God

God: A Guide for the Perplexed, Keith Ward, (Oxford: OneWorld 2003)

1. A Feeling for the Gods
God, literalism and poetry, A world full of Gods, Descartes and the cosmic machine, Wordsworth and Blake, the gods and poetic imagination, Conflict among the gods, Friedrich Schleiermacher: a Romantic account of the gods; Rudolf Otto: the sense of the numinous; Martin Buber: life as meeting, Epilogue: the testimony of a secularist.

2. Beyond the gods
Prophets and seers; The prophets of Israel and monotheism; Basil, Gregory Palamas and Maimonides: the apophatic way; Thomas Aquinas: the simplicity of God; The five ways of demonstrating God; Pseudo-Dyonysius the Areopagite; The doctrine of analogy; Three mystics.

3. The Love that moves the sun
The 613 commandments; Pigs and other animals; the two great commandments; The Ten Commandments; Jesus and the Law; Calvin and the Commandments, Faith and works; Theistic morality as fulfilling God’s purpose; Kant, the categorical imperative and faith, God as creative freedom, affective knowledge and illimitable love.

4. The God of the Philosophers

God and Job; Plato and the gods; the vision of the Good; Appearance and Reality; Augustine and creation ex nihilo, Aristotle and the Perfect Being; Augustine and Platonism; Anselm and Necessary Being; Evil, necessity and the Free Will defence; Creation as a timeless act; Faith and understanding.

5. The Poet of the World

The timeless and immutable God; The rejection of Platonism; Hegel and the philosophy of Absolute Spirit; Marx and the dialectic of history; Pantheism and panentheism; Time and creativity, The redemption of suffering; History and the purposive cosmos; Process philosophy; The collapse of the metaphysical vision.

6. The darkness between stars

Pascal: faith and scepticism; A.J. Ayer; the death of metaphysics; Scientific hypotheses and existential questions; Kierkegaard: truth as subjectivity; Sartre; freedom from a repressive God; Heidegger and Kierkegaard: the absolute
paradox; Tillich: religious symbols; Wittgenstein: pictures of human life; Religious language and forms of life; Religion and ‘seeing-as’; Spirituality without belief; Non-realism and God; The silence of the heart.

7. The personal ground of being

God as omnipotent person; The problem of evil; Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: beyond good and evil; Omniscience and creative freedom; God: person or personal; Persons as relational; The idea of the Trinity; The revelatory roots of religion; Conclusion: Seven ways of thinking about God.

Bibliography

Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion, by Mel Thompson, (London: HodderHeadline 1997)

Introduction
What is the philosophy of Religion?
Why study religion in this way?
What is involved?
The structure of this book
What this book aims to do.

1. Religious Experiences
Starting with experience
What happens when you experience something?
What is religious experience?
Induced religious experiences
Prayer
Conversion
Mysticism
Charismatic experiences
Revelation
Some features of religious experience
What can we know?
Authority and response
Conclusion

2.Religious Language
A private language?
Knowledge and description
Faith, reason and beliefs
The rational and the non-rational
Interpreting language
Cognitive and non-cognitive
Language games
The limitations of language

3. God: the concepts
God as creator
Eternal
Omnipotent
Omniscient
Transcendence and immanence
Theism, pantheism and panentheism
Atheism, agnosticism and secularism
Nietzsche: God is dead
Secular interpretations of God
A postmodernist interpretation
The Christian concept of God: the Trinity
Beliefs, language and religion
Saints?
Religious alternatives to theism
Basic beliefs

4. God: the arguments
The ontological argument
The cosmological argument
the teleological argument
the moral argument
the argument from religious experience
Conclusion

5. The Self
Bodies, minds and souls
Dualism
materialism
Idealism
Knowing our minds
Joining souls to bodies?
Identity and freedom
Freedom?
Life beyond death
Some conclusions

6. Causes, providence and miracles
Causes
Providence
Miracles
Summary

7. Suffering and evil
The challenge and the response
the problem
God as moral agent
Suffering and the major religions
Coming to terms with suffering
The devil and hell
Religion and terrorism
Summary

8. Religion and Science
The problem science poses for religion
the key issues
the changing world view
the methods of science and religion
the origin of the universe
evolution and humankind
Some conclusions

9. Religion and ethics
Natural law
Utilitarianism
absolute ethics
Morality and facts
How are religion and morality treated?
Values and choices
Conclusion

Postcript, Glossary, Taking it Further

God and Evolution: A Reader, ed. by Mary Kathleen Cunningham (London: Routledge 2007)

Part One
Methodology

1. Charles Hodge ‘The Protestant Rule of Faith’
2. Sallie McFague ‘Metaphor’
3. Mary Midgley ‘How Myths work’
4. Ian G. Barbour ‘The Structures of Science and Religion’.

Part Two
Evolutionary Theory

5. Charles Darwin, ‘On the origin of species
6. Francisco J. Ayala ‘The Evolution of life as overview
7. Michael Ruse ‘Is there are limit to our knowledge of evolution?

Part Three
Creationism

6. Genesis 1-2
7. Ronald J. Numbers ‘The Creationists’.

Part Four
Intelligent Design

10. William Paley ‘Natural Theology’
11. Michael J. Behe ‘Irreducible complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution’
12. Kenneth R. Miller, ‘Answering the biochemical argument from Design

Part Five
Naturalism

13. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’
14. Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s utility function’
15. Daniel C. Dennett, ‘God’s dangerous idea’
16. Mary Midgley, ‘The quest for a universal acid’
17. Michael Ruse, ‘Methodological naturalism under attack’.

Part Six
Evolutionary Theism

18. Howard J. Van Till, ‘The creation: intelligently designed or optimally equipped?’
19. Arthur Peacock, ‘Biological evolution-a positive theological appraisal’
20. Jurgen Moltmann, ‘God’s kenosis in the creation and consummation of the world’.
21 Elizabeth A. Johnson, ‘Does God play dice? Divine providence and chance’.

Part Seven:
Reformulations of Tradition

22. John F. Haught, ‘Evolution, tragedy, and cosmic paradox’
23. Sallie McFague, ‘God and the world’
24. Ruth Page, ‘Panentheism and pansyntheism: God is relation’
25. Gordon D. Kaufman, ‘On thinking of God as serendipitous creativity’.

Immigration, the Conservatives and the Nazis

February 28, 2014

In my last blog post, I discussed Grant Shapps’ attempt to rebrand the Tories as the ‘Workers’ Party’, and pointed out that this was exactly the same tactic the Nazis adopted in their attempt to win German workers away from the ‘Marxist’ socialism of the SPD – the German equivalent of the Labour party, the Communists, trade unions, Anarchists, Syndicalists and other genuine working class and socialist organisations.

Looking through the Nazis’ 25 point party programme, drawn up in 1920 by Hitler, Gottfried Feder and Anton Drexler, I found another similarity to the Nazis in the Tories attitude and policies towards immigration. The Nazis were, of course, bitterly hostile to non-German immigration. Point 8 of the party programme stated ‘Non-German immigration to be stopped.’ Point 4 of the programme stipulated that ‘Citizenship to be determined by race; no Jew to be a German.’ Point 5 demanded that ‘non-Germans in Germany to be ‘only’ guests and subject to appropriate laws. Point 8 made it very clear that the Nazis wanted ‘non-German immigration to be stopped.’

Now opposition to immigration does not necessarily make anyone a Nazi. Global mass immigration has become a very controversial topic, and while many people would like to see an end to mass immigration to the UK, extremely few would wish to see the rise of racism and the growth of Fascist or Neo-Nazi parties to any kind of electoral strength. All the political parties are under pressure to cut down on immigration to the UK. What struck me looking through the Nazis’ policies towards combatting non-German immigration was its virtual identity with those of Cameron’s Conservative party in Point 7 of the party programme. This stated

The livelihood of citizens to be the state’s first duty. Should the state’s resources be overstretched, non-citizens to be excluded from the state’s benefits.

The Coalition has clearly decided that the state does not have a duty of care towards its citizens in its policy of savage cuts to the welfare state that now sees about a quarter of all British children in poverty, and 80,000 children homeless last Christmas. This has been done, however, on the pretext that such cuts were necessary in order to cut the budget deficit. They have further spuriously claimed that their reforms will lift even more citizens out of poverty. Go over to Vox Political and look at today’s post Iain Duncan Smith’s new plan to prolong child poverty, which I’ve reblogged here today.

The Tories have, however, stated that they intend to exclude immigrants to Britain from state benefits. Foreign migrants to Britain may not claim Jobseeker’s allowance for at least six months, and there are extremely controversial plans to exclude illegal immigrants from being treated by the NHS. Furthermore, there have also been proposals that foreigners resident in the UK should have to pay for their medical treatment.

All this is very much in line with the above Nazi policy. So much so, that you could be forgiven for being afraid that points 4 and 5 would also be implemented.

As for Point 8, the Tories aren’t opponents of all immigration. As has been shown by the sale of very expensive home in London to rich businessmen and professionals, mainly from the Far East, the Tories don’t object to immigrants if they’re rich. It’s only the poor they dislike. But here they appear to be non-racist, as they hate the British poor as well.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 3 – David Hume and Scepticism

June 9, 2013

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one of the classic anti-religious texts. Hume was an agnostic sceptic, rather than an atheist materialist. Published after his death in 1779, the Dialogues are a sustained attack on Natural Theology. In them, Hume attacked the idea of the universe as a machine, and suggested other, organic metaphors. The universe could have grown instead like some kind of vegetable. He also criticised the idea that the features and characteristics of animals were proof of the existence of a Designer. He argued instead that an animal with a particular set of characteristics would have to follow a particular lifestyle or die out. This did not, however, show that those features were designed, or that the animal was intended to pursue this particular manner of existence. He also argued that the immense suffering in nature also argued against the existence of a benevolent deity. He also argued that the regular operation of natural laws also did not show that they were grounded in God’s will. He also argued that miracles were so highly improbably that they should not be accepted, and that if they did exist, they were not necessarily proof of God’s existence as every religion had them. As for the origin of religion itself, in his unpublished book, the Natural History of Religion, he believed that the original religion of humanity had been polytheism, the belief in many gods. This was in stark contrast to the Deists and orthodox Christians, who believed that the first religion had been monotheism. He also saw all religions as leading to fanaticism, and attacked religious virtues as being useless to society.

Hume’s Arguments not Accepted at Time, Criticism by Joseph Priestly

Hume’s Dialogues are considered by the majority of scholars as totally destroying the arguments for the Almighty’s existence based on nature. This is, however, very much a post-Darwinian view. Matt Ridley, in his collection of texts on evolution, places an extract from the dialogues in a section entitled ‘Philosophical Consequence of Evolution’. At the time it was felt that Joseph Priestley had decisively refuted Hume’s arguments in his 1780, Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. Priestley stated that

‘With respect to Mr. Hume’s metaphysical writings in general, my opinion is, that, on the whole, the world is very little the wider for them. For though, when the merits of any question were on his side, few men ever wrote with more perspicuity, the arrangement of his thoughts being natural, and his illustrations pecularliarly happy; yet I can hardly think that we are indebted to him for the least real advance in the knowledge of the human mind.’

Regarding Hume’s ideas on how humans form concepts, Priestley believed that they had all been refuted by Hartley’s Observations on Man, which Hume didn’t appear to have read.

‘He seems not to have given himself the trouble so much as to read Dr. Hartley’s Observations on Man, a work which he could not but have heard of, and which it certainly behoved him to study. The doctrine of association of ideas, as explained and extended by Dr. Hartley, supplies materials for th emost satisfactory solution of aolmost all the difficulties he has started, as I could easily show if I thought it any consequence; so that to a person acquainted with this theory of the human mind, Hume’s Essays appear the merest trifling. Compared iwth Dr. Hartley, I consider Mr. Hume as not even a child.’

Priestley was also highly critical of the quality of the arguments for the non-existence of God advanced by the character of Philo in the Dialogues. According to Priestly, the character of Philo advanced ‘nothing but common-place objections against the belief of a God, and hackneyed declamations against the plan of providence’.

Priestly was also unimpressed by Hume’s argument that analogies from animals and plants could also equally be used to explain the cosmos. Hume had suggested that if the universe were an animal, then comets could be viewed as this creature’s eggs. Priestley said of this

‘Had any friend of religion advanced an idea so completely absurd as this, what would not Mr. Hume have said to turn it into ridicule. With just a smuch probability might he have said that Glasgow grew from a seed yielded by Edinburgh, or that London and Edinburgh, marrying, by natural generation, produced York, which lies between them. With much more probability might he have said that pamphlets are the productions of large books, that boats are young ships, and the pistols will grow into great guns; and that either there never were any first towns, books, ships, or guns, or that, if there were, they no makers.

How it could come into any man’s head to imagine that a thing so complex as this world, consisting of land and water, earths and metals, plants and animals, &c &c &c should produce a seed, or egg, containing within it the elements of all its innumerable parts, is beyond my powers of comprehension.’

Hume’s Argument on Organic Nature of Universe Scientific Nonsense, According to Priestly

Priestly even suggested that this view of the origin of the cosmos was based on ignorance, not science.

‘What must have been that man’s knowledge of philosophy and nature, who could suppose for a moment, that a comet could possibly be the seed of a world? Do comets spiring from worlds, carrying with them the seeds of all the plants, &c that they contain? Do comets travel from sun to sun, or from star to star? By what force are they tossed into the unformed elements, which Mr. Hume supposes everywhere to surround the universe?> What are those elements: and what evidence has he of their existence? or supposing the comet to arrive among them, whence could arise its power of vegetating into a new system?’

Priestly had possibly missed the point about HUme’s organic analogies. They were not serious suggestions, but intended to show that the machine metaphors used for the universe were only one of several that could equally be used. Nevertheless, Priestly showed that these metaphors were just as, if not more vulnerable, to criticism as those which likened the cosmos to a machine.

Hume’s Spokesman for Design Champion of Science in these Debates

Most of Hume’s arguments against religion and the evidence for design in the universe are philosophical, not scientific. He does use Newton’s suggestion that the cosmos was permeated by an ether to argue that it was movements in this, rather than the actions of the Almighty, that resulted in the effects of gravity. Despite this it is Hume’s character, Cleanthes, who idealises and defends science. Cleanthes states that ‘The true system of the heavenly bodies is discovered and ascertained … Why must conclusions of a (relgious) nature be alone rejected on the general presumption of the insufficiency of human reason?’

Hume’s Empiricism also Used to Attack Not Yet Verified Scientific Concepts

Furthermore, Hume’s agnosticism could act against scientific investigation. Hume believed that just because two events were seen to occur together did not mean that one caused the other. Hume did not wish to attack science. He was an empiricist, and this attitude that no concepts should be accepted unless they were directly experienced could be used against scientific ideas as well as religious, if taken to extremes. Atoms and genes, for example, were theoretical suggestions long before they were verified by science. These concepts would have had to be rejected if the standards of evidence Hume levelled against religion were applied to science. Those secular scientists that did not believe in them frequently attacked them on the basis that such ideas were exactly like those of religion in their lack of a sound scientific basis. The great 19th century chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, stated:

‘I do not want chemistry to degenerate into a religion; I do not want the chemist to believe in the existence of atoms as the Christian believes in the existence of Christ in the communion wafter’.

Refutation of the Argument against Miracles and Other Arguments

As for Hume’s arguments against miracles, they have been refuted by the secular, agnostic philosopher Earman. Earman’s article attacking them was called ‘The complete Failure of Hume’s Arguments against Miracles’. Hume’s arguments against design in the cosmos have also been attacked by Robin Attfield in his Creation, Evolution and Meaning (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006). Attfield argues against atheism from a theistic evolutionist perspective.

As for Hume’s argument that monotheism originally arose from polytheism, this has been accepted by theologians as not actually affecting the truth of the Christian revelation. I was taught it at my old Anglican church school. There is another theory that the original religion was monotheism. This is based on similarities to Judeo-Christian conception of the Almighty in other cultures, and by the fact that rather than developing into monotheism, the number of gods in polytheist religions actually increases over time.

Conclusion: Hume’s Arguments Philosophical, Not Scientific, and Could be Used Against Science

Thus Hume’s arguments against religion have been attacked in turn, and were largely not based in science. Joseph Priestly, who was a scientist as well as Unitarian minister, attacked them for their lack of a scientific basis. Indeed, Hume’s empiricism, when taken to extremes, could and did occasionally act against scientific discovery, as Berthelot’s rejection of atoms shows.

Source

John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991).

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 2 – Atheist Materialism

June 8, 2013

In the first part of this essay, I examined how most of the arguments against Christianity and revealed religion used by the Deists were philosophical, rather than scientific. Science did play a part in their attacks on Christianity, but it was a subordinate role. The same is true of 18th century atheism. Most of the arguments used by Jean Meslier in his Testament, for example are again, moral, philosophical and political, rather than scientific. Meslier was a former Roman Catholic priest, who attacked Christianity and particularly Roman Catholicism for its supposed immorality. He considered that religions were artificial creations of ruling elites, intended to justify and further their own power. He attacked Christian morality for supposedly preaching an acquiescent attitude towards tyranny, like monarchist rule in contemporary France. Like many later atheists, he also attacked the idea of an immortal soul and rewards in the hereafter for discouraging people from social reform here on Earth.

The Three Scientific Developments Used to Argue for Atheism in the 18th Century

Like some of the Deists, he also believed that matter had self-organising properties. The evidence for this came from three sources. These were John Turbeville Needham’s experiments into spontaneous generation, Haller’s discovery that muscles from recently deceased animals contracted when pricked, and the hydra’s ability to regenerate when cut. Needham was an English Roman Catholic priest. In his experiments he noted the appearance of microscopic organisms from the remains of vegetable matter and even the gravy from roast meat. Albrecht von Haller was a Swiss naturalist, who believed that there was an unknown force present in the heart. This indicated that matter had its was able to move itself independently of the soul. La Mettrie, the author of the materialist, L’homme machine (Man a Machine) of 1747 incorporated it into his own arguments against the existence of the soul. The dissection of polyps showed that this creature would become two or more when cut into pieces, and so apparently disproved the idea of indivisible animals. Finally, the great 18th century atheist, Denis Diderot argued living creatures may have evolved over millions of years to produce their present forms. He suggested a kind of natural selection, in which useless or defective physiological features had died out. This gave living creatures the appearance of design, even though they were simply the products of chance evolution.

These Experiments Do Not Necessarily Lead to Atheism

In fact all three of these scientific discoveries could be interpreted in other ways that did not support materialist atheism. Needham himself did not see any danger to religion in his results. Indeed, he was attacked by Voltaire as an Irish Jesuit monger of fraudulent miracles, despite the fact that he was English, not Irish, and not a Jesuit. As for the new force of motion supposedly inherent in muscle tissue, Haller believed it was similar to gravity. Both forces were known through their effects, but were ultimately instruments of a Creator God. He considered the presence of this so-called “irritability” in muscle tissue was much less important than contemporary debates in embryology in supporting or leading to atheism. At the time Haller was engaged in an argument with C.F. Wolff over the nature of the development of the embryo. The debate centred around two rival concepts, epigenesis and pre-formation. Epigenesis was the view that the embryo developed from the less organised material of the egg. Pref-formation, by contrast, was the view that creature already existed, pre-formed in the egg or sperm of the animal. Haller strongly supported pre-formation. He considered that the development of living beings from unorganised matter would indicate that similarly life itself had originated through these forces without the action of a creator God. Wolff believed that his observation of chick embryos had indeed shown that individual organisms develop from the primordial, undifferentiated matter of the egg. Unlike Haller, he did not see any theological difference whether one believed in either theory. He stated that ‘Nothing is demonstrated against the existence of divine power, even if bodies are produced by natural forces and causes, for these very forces and causes … claim an author for themselves just as much as organic bodies do.’ Thus immaterial forces and the matter they shaped were both grounded in God.

AS for Abraham Trembley’s experiments with the polyp, this was only felt to show that polyps did not have indivisible souls. It was not believed to be relevant to other animals and humans. Indeed, more conservative naturalists believed that the polyp was actually a missing link in God’s great chain of being between plants and animals.

Joseph Priestley: Scientist, Revolutionary and Unitarian, Rational Christianity

Some Unitarians, such as the Dissenting Minister Joseph Priestly, also managed to combine materialism with a form of Christianity. Priestly was an active scientific research. His experiments on the various gases included the production of what he termed ‘dephlogisticated air’, which was later called ‘oxygen’ by Lavoisier. Priestly attempted to show that materialist science would serve to purify Christianity of what he considered to be superstitious features derived from ancient Platonism, such as, he believed, the doctrine of the Trinity. Priestly was a philosophical monist, who believed that God worked through forces that were neither physical or immaterial as commonly understood. They could be identified with matter, but this was a matter that possessed active powers of motion and organisation. He did not believe in an immaterial soul, but did look forward to the Resurrection. He also accepted miracles, and argued as proof that without them, Christianity could not possibly have spread. He was also an egalitarian, who supported first the French, and then the American Revolutions. He finally moved to America after the War of Independence. In an 1802 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Priestly described how he was looking forward to living under the protection of the American Constitution. He praised this as ‘the most favourable to political liberty, and private happiness, of any in the world’. Despite his scientific scepticism of orthodox Christianity, he always denied that he was an atheist. When one of his French materialist friends at a dinner stated that he no more believed in Christianity than they did, he replied that he was indeed a Christian believer.

Science as Means for Purifying Christianity, Unitarians Active in Scientific Advances of Industrial Revolution

For Priestly, scientific progress was ‘the means under God of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped ahtority in the business of religion as well as science’. These views were shared by other Unitarians in the main British manufacturing towns. These Unitarians were active in scientific research and their practical application in industry. They were particularly prominent in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, but were also strongly present in most of scientific societies outside London. William Turner, another Unitarian, was the dominant figure behind the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. Turner has been described as believing that the Industrial Revolution was not happening behind God’s back, but at His express command.

Conclusion: 18th Century Science Not Necessarily atheist, Could Lead instead to Rational, Unitarian Christianity

Thus, scientific developments also played only a small role in the atheist arguments that arose during the 18th century. Like the arguments of the Deists, these were also primarily moral, philosophical and political. The three major scientific observations that did seem to argue for atheism and materialism – Needham’s observation of spontaneous generation, the response of dissected muscle tissue to stimulation and the polyp were largely seen as having no relevance to the wider debate about the Almighty. In the case of the continued activity in muscle tissue, this was seen as like Newton’s force of gravity in being based in God, and as a force through which the Lord worked.
Finally, Joseph Priestly and his fellow Unitarian scientists showed how some Dissenters combined a belief in science to produce an unorthodox form of rational Christianity.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 1 – The Deists

June 7, 2013

Atheists and other critics of religion frequently state that their beliefs are scientific. The examination of religious scepticism in the 18th century actually reveals that most of the religious scepticism then was based on philosophical, political and moral objections to Christianity, rather than science. When science was used as part of their arguments, it was either a particular interpretation of a scientific fact or the science was altered in order to fit the point the religious sceptic was trying to make.

The Deist John Toland, for example, in his Christianity Not Mysterious of 1696 argued that Christianity should be reformed to reject everything that was paradoxical or miraculous. It was to become simply a set of rationalistic moral teachings. He believed that nature was self-sufficient and self-organising. He did so using the concepts of animist forces inherent in nature that permeated the work of Giordano Bruno. He explicitly rejected Newton’s interpretation of his physical laws, stating that they were instead ‘capable of r4eceiving an interpretation favourable to my opinion’.

Matthew Tindal, in his 1730 Christianity as Old as the Creation argued for a natural religion and the existence of a set of ancient moral obligations to which the Christian revelation could add nothing. The morality he advanced consisted in the citizen’s duty to obey society’s laws. He believed that God had placed the light of nature within humans to guide them. Happiness could be obtained by following this inner light, implanted by a benevolent deity. Tindal did base some of his arguments on science. He used the discovery of the Copernican system to argue that science and faith were rarely in agreement. Elsewhere he attacked Christ and St. Paul for stating that a seed died in the earth before it bore fruit. He also argued that the success of the sciences showed that people could have confidence in the ability of human reason to discover truth, and that the god of infinite wisdom and benevolence he advanced could be deduced from the laws of nature. Tindal mostly used science to try to make common religious practices appear superstitious and unreasonable. Science was not, however, his main line of argument. Instead Tindal argued from the existence of other cultures. The Chinese had a high civilisation despite knowing nothing of Christ. Most of his arguments were intended to show that reason, rather than scripture, was the only sure basis for religious faith. In fact the prospect of scientific argument was turned against Tindal by Christianity’s defenders. Joseph Butler in his The Analogy of Religion of 1736 argued that what was presently obscure in scripture might eventually be cleared up, in the way that science was gradually making clear everything that had previously been unknown about the natural world.

Thus science played only a subordinate role in 18th century Deist arguments against Christianity and revealed religion. Most of the arguments they used were moral, philosophical and political to establish the primacy of reason, and truth of a ‘religion of nature’, which they felt Christianity had obscured or perverted.

Human Fertility and the Problem of the Origin of Religion

June 2, 2013

One of the other arguments I had with the atheists on this blog a few years ago was about the role of human fertility as the origin of religion. According to one atheist, religion evolved so that humans would have more children. It’s easy to see how this idea came about. There are religions that encourage their members to have many children. In the West, Roman Catholicism is the best known example. In the ancient world, including the Bible, people hoped that God or the gods would provide them with many children and as well as abundant crops and livestock. Children and descendants and agricultural fertility were not just benefits, they were absolute necessities as famine and starvation were all too real. One estimate of child mortality in the ancient world at the time of Carthage suggests that 5-6 out of ten children died in infancy. People, tribes and states thus wished to have plenty of children not just to remain wealthy, powerful, with a strong army and an abundant labour forces, but also simply to survive. The Canaanite religion of ancient Syria made the conflict against sterility and death part of its religion. In its mythology, Baal fought a long battle against his adversary, Mot, whose name meant sterility or death.

There are certainly scholars of religion, such as John Bowker, who do consider the encouragement of fertility as the origin, but not the total explanation, of religion. In his article, ‘Religion’ in The oxford Dictionary of World Religions, states ‘Religions are the earliest cultural systems of which we have evidence for theprotection of gene-replication and the nurture of children.’ This is true even of those religions that consider celibacy to be a higher vocation. Boker himself is certainly not uncritical of this explanation. He states clearly that ‘there is much that is clearly wrong’, and has written a book tackling the subject, Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture and Relgion. His view is that genetic inheritance and Darwinian evolution can only explain the emergence of humans capacity for certain activities and behaviours. This accounts why religions frequently share similar features. It does not, however, determine what people do with this biological preparedness.

Religions are also multi-faceted and include a number of different features. This means it is difficult for materialist explanations of religion to reduce its origin and function to any single factor. Early attempts to explain religion materialistically viewed them as attempts by early humans to explain natural phenomena. The sociologist Emile Durkheim believed religion served to organise society and create a vital sense of social solidarity. The view that religion emerged to encourage fertility appears to have been advanced in the 1990s as an attempt by socio-biology and later evolutionary psychology to provide an explanation of religion in accorance with evolutionary biology. This view also has its flaws. Bowker himself was aware that this evolutionary biological theory of the origin of religion was problematic and had its opponents. One of the problems of this view is the role of asceticism in many religions. If religion evolved solely to encourage increased reproduction, it would not explain the ascetism that also forms part of many faiths. Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, have members who withdraw from the world to lead celibate lives. In Christianity this includes the clergy in Roman Catholicism, and the higher clergy in eastern Orthodoxy. Monasticism is a part of both Christianity and Buddhism, while Hinduism has sadhus, yogis and yoginis, ascetics, who pursue their devotions in solitude. The ancient Babylonians also had orders of priestesses, who were required to remain celibate. They were aware of the dangers of overpopulation, and these religious orders, as well as disease, natural disasters and infertility, were viewed as being divinely established to prevent it.

The Atrahasis epic, the earliest flood myth from Mesopotamia, states that the humans were originally created by the gods to do their work for them. Over the centuries humanity increased so that

‘Twelve hundred years had not yet passed
When the land extended and the people multiplied.
The earth was bellowing like a bull,
The gods got distressed with their uproar.’

The gods then attempted to reduce humanity’s numbers with disease, followed by a drought. Humans go on breeding, however, and soon are reduced to starvation and cannibalism. People are forced to eat their children. The gods then send a flood to wipe them out completely, but the god Ea warns, and so saves, Atrahasis. The epic ends with Ea advising the mother-goddess Mami/ Nintu on how the danger of overpopulation is to be avoided in the future through the Malthusian checks of sterility, infant mortality and celibacy. He says to her

‘O Lady of Birth, creatress of the Fates…
Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women,
Let there be among the people a Pahittu-demon,
Let is seize the baby from the mother’s lap,
Establish Ugbabtu priestesses, Entu priestesses and Igisitu-priestesses.
They shall indeed be tabooed, and thus cut-off child-bearing.

Now this awareness and desire to avoid overpopulation is just one aspect of Babylonian religion. Nevertheless it, and asceticism and celibacy in other religions, as well as the incredibly varied nature of religion and religious experience, suggest that while fertility generally remains an important part of religion, it cannot be considered its origin.

Sources

John Bowker, ‘Religion’, in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997) xv-xxiv.

Anton Jirku, The World of the Bible (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967)

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq 3rd edition (London: Penguin 1992).

Communism’s Basis in Atheism

May 30, 2013

A few years ago I got into a long argument with some atheists on here about my assertion that atheism was an integral part of Communism. Marx was influenced by Feuerbach’s view that God was a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature. For Feuerbach and his followers, humanity could improve itself by rediscovering its own creativity through a new ‘religion of humanity’. The atheists contended that atheism was not integral to Marxism by arguing firstly, that Marx wrote little about religion or atheism. Secondly, Marx’s conception of the origin of religion was different from Feuerbach’s. Lastly the connection between atheism and Communism was disproved by the granting of freedom of religion and worship by the Soviet authorities in the last days of Communism under Gorbachev.

Atheism of Marx and Feuerbach

Marx’s own view of atheism was certainly different from Feuerbach’s. Marx took from Feuerbach the idea that religion, and human culture in general, was formed through the material conditions in which people lived. Where they differed is that Feuerbach saw this as affecting only humanity in the abstract, while Marx held that it defined human society and their communities. There’s also a difference in that although Feuerbach was an atheist, he was not an anti-theist. He has even been described as a ‘pious atheist’, as he did not deny religious values.

Influence of Feuerbach on Friedrich Engels

Feuerbach’s influence on Marx’s friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, can be seen in Engel’s review of Thomas Carlyle’s 1844 Past and Present, ‘The Condition of England’. One of Engel’s criticisms of the book was that Carlyle failed to realise that the roots of the hollow, rotten state of British culture with its soullessness, irreligion and atheism, lay in religion itself, explicitly following Feuerbach’s critique of religion.
The next five pages are more or less one long rant against religion. This is explicitly anti-Christian:

‘We too attack the hypocrisy of the present Christian state of the world; the struggle against it, our liberation from it and the liberation of the world from it are ultimately our sole occupation’. Again in this section he cites Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer as exposing religion’s true nature. Engels then proceeds to state very clearly that the Communists aim to attack and destroy religion:

‘We want to put an end to atheism, as Carlyle portrays it, by giving back to the man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance, and this whole process of giving back is no more than simply the awakening of self-consciousness. We want to sweep away everything that claims to be supernatural and super-human, and thereby get rid of untruthfulness, for the root of all untruth and lying is the pretension of the human and the nature to be superhuman and supernatural. For that reason we have once and for all declared war on religion and religious ideas and care little whether we are called atheists or anything else’.

The next one and a half pages are an explicit attack on the Christian conception of history and the central position within it of the Lord’s incarnation, again stating Feuerbach’s idea that God is merely humanity’s own projection of its alienated nature. Engels felt that the Christian belief in the incarnation made the 1800 years since Christ’s birth meaningless. In fact the incarnation demonstrates that there isa transcendent meaning to history through the deep involvement in it of a loving God. God’s involvement in history did not end with Christ ascension into heaven. Rather, God remains active in the world, as St. Paul states. In Him we live and move and have our being. He is at work bringing good out of evil until the end of time when the world will be renewed and He will once again dwell with us.

Marx on the Economic Basis of Religion

Marx’s own views on the basis of religion in the economic structure of society is stated in the section ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in volume I of Das Kapital. In it Marx stated that the form of society’s religion depended on its stage of social development. Christianity was suitable for contemporary society and its developed capitalism. The ancient world did not have trading societies except at their margins, and so these ancient societies were based on the worship of nature. This view of the nature of primitive religion is also highly flawed. Both the Phoenicians and their great colony, Cathage, were powerful trading civilisations with outposts all over the Mediterranean. The extent of their mercantile contacts is shown by the fact that objects from ancient Egypt have been found in Spain, where they had been brought through Carthaginian merchants. Archaeologists have discovered how extensive trading networks in Europe were as far back as the Bronze Age. These were not capitalist societies, and Marx was correct in viewing some of them as based on subjection. Nevertheless, trade was widespread and important.

Marxism Based in Atheist Materialism, including that of Ancient Greeks

Marx himself was an atheist materialist while at university, before he adopted Hegelian philosophy. His dissertation was on Democritus and ancient materialism and scepticism, and he always considered his own political philosophy to be a continuation of that tradition. This for Marx himself, Marxism was inherently atheistic. The atheist with whom I was arguing also raised the point that it would be possible to adopt a Communist or socialist economic programme without basing it in atheism. This is true. There have been a number of ‘red priests’, clergy with Communist sympathies, in the various Christian churches, including the Anglican. However, Marxism is based on an exclusively materialist conception of the world: there is no God, therefore reality is defined and determined purely through material processes and natural laws. Human society is no different. Any form of belief in God, or a transcendent reality, such as Spiritualism, directly challenges this fundamental assumption, even if their believers adopt a Communist programme for other, moral reasons. Hence the Communists persecution of religion, and Lenin’s denunciation of his ideological opponents as philosophical Idealists, for the supposed basis of their views in a separate, transcendant realm.

Freedom of Religion in Last Days of Communism due to Pressure from Democracies and Human Rights Groups, not Based in Communism

Finally, there is the issue of Soviet state’s recognition of freedom of worship and conscience under Mikhail Gorbachev. Now Gorbachev was a convinced Communist. Indeed, he has been described as the last Communist, and he continued to beleive in the Communist system even as it crumbled around him. He tried to prevent its finally dissolution for as long as possible. He was, however, a radical reformer of Communism, which he believed was necessary for it to survive. In his book, Perestroika, he claimed to base these reforms in Lenin and the democratic nature of Soviet socialism, declaring that the solution was ‘More socialism, more democracy’. Yet Lenin was extremely autocratic, who persecuted the Orthodox Church. Gorbachev’s claims were therefore not convincing. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had been under immense diplomatic pressure to grant freedom of religious belief and conscience since the 1950s and particular after the foundation of human rights groups in the 1970s, such as Charter 77. The granting of religious freedom was to accommodate these groups, not from any rejection of the materialist basis of Communism itself. Gorbachev himself has made it clear that he is an atheist, but appears to have a sympathetic interest in religion. He has published a book with the Dalai Lama, and has visited and contemplated the Vatican. Regardless of his view of religion, I feel that Gorbachev should be admired simply because it was through his relationship with President Reagan that the Cold War finally ended. By stopping Soviet troops entering the satellites during the Velvet Revolution, Gorbachev secured these nations’ freedom and independence. These countries have suffered greatly during the transition to capitalism and democracy. However, the threat of war with Soviet bloc that hung over three generations since 1917 revolution has been lifted. People are now free to travel to and from the former Soviet countries largely unimpeded, to set up businesses and make friends. And that truly is an awesome achievement and one reason to be cheerful in this often threatening world.

Failure of Communism as Philosophical and Economic System, and Its Brutality

As for Communism, that resulted in monumental alienation, oppression and brutality on a massive scale. Marxism continues to have some intellectual vigour through its view of economics as the motive force of history. As an economic system, it has been largely discredited. Amongst the various explanations of the origin of religion, the views of Feuerbach and Marx are now unfashionable and Hegelianism has also been attacked. Even in the Soviet Union, scientists rejected the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. As the despair, alcoholism and drug abuse that permeated Soviet society demonstrates, Marxism did not provide its citizens with a sense of meaning, nor did it reconcile them to nature. The massive engineering projects have caused immense ecological damage to vast swathes of the former Soviet Union. The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe is only one example. In fact the fall of Communism as an atheist system has been remarked on by at least one historian. Looking through one of the bookshops a few weeks ago, I found one history of the Fall of Communism that paid explicit homage to Sigmund Freud’s atheist attack on religion, The Future of an Illusion. This history bore the title The Failure of an Illusion. Despite Marx and Engel’s splenetic denunciations, Communism has been shown to be as, or even more, fallible and illusory as the religions it claimed to supersede and attack.

Sources

R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

F. Engels ‘The Condition of England: Review of Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactoins to ‘Political Economy(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986) 85-95

K. Marx ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, ibid, 96-104.

P.Z. Myers on Science and the Irrationality of Religion

June 16, 2009

Several months ago, Wakefield made the following remarks on P.Z. Myers’ view of religion and theology, and wondered about a response to them:

‘Second, I wanted to follow up from where he’s written elsewhere that in his mind there is no real methodology to religious belief. For something to hold water and muster, it must be rigorously researched and demonstrable. Failing this, Myers places things in the “Creationist” box, which (apparently) is a rather large
residual category for every idea or notion (certainly faith qualifies) that does not meet with scientific rigor to this man’s liking. His many defenders of course would claim these rules supercede Dr. Myers and despite Dr. Myer’s antics, still apply to science at large, whether we religious types like them or not.

Observe, that when “Creationists” (meaning anyone believing God had something to do with the Known Universe, and not just “literalists”) get “cornered” on the “facts” of biology and life and the failures of prayer, whatnot:

(Quoting verbatum from Jim Lippard’s blog honoring PZ’s many insights)

They resort to,

Key features:

1. Conspiracy
2. Selectivity
3. The fake expert(s)
4. Impossible expectations
5. The metaphor
6. The quote mine
7. Appeal to consequences ’

I’m sorry I’ve taken a while to get round to answering this. However, let’s examine some of these statements and the underlying assumptions.

Firstly, Myers seems to make the Positivist assumption that science is the supreme method for acquiring knowledge about the world, and that it is indeed the only true form of knowledge. However, there are real problems with this. One major criticism of the Positivist position is that science, by itself, cannot prove that only science alone provides true knowledge of the world, contrary to the claims of philosophy. Indeed, in order to demonstrate that science provides true knowledge of the world, it requires philosophy and metaphysics, which Positivists like Von Carnap in the 1920s rejected and denounced as ‘disreputable’. So in these, areas, the Positivist claim for the unique ability of science to provide information about the true nature of the Cosmos fails.

There is also the problem in that science is merely one of a number of different methods of acquiring knowledge about the Cosmos, and that there are areas of knowledge and experience where its methods are inapplicable. For example, in history the primary method of investigating the past is through the study of texts. Now clearly science can and does add immensely to the study of history. Psychology can provide insight into the minds and motivations of the people involved in the events of the past, and archaeology has provided immense information on the development of past societies, the way they lived and their culture. The primary source for history is still historical texts, as one cannot recreate the great events of the past in a laboratory. Moreover, the philosopher Mary Midgeley has also pointed out that other areas of human culture, such as poetry, will also produce great insights about the nature of the Cosmos before or apart from those of science. So there are areas of human knowledge, investigation and experience, where science cannot be the primary method for discovering truth.

Now let’s deal with the statement that religion is somehow wrong, because it doesn’t use the methods of science. This attitude is mistaken, because it attempts to promote the scientific method, or judge one area of human experience and culture, by scientific methods that may not apply to it. As philosophers of religion such as Martin Buber have pointed out, at the heart of religion isn’t the attempt to provide a coherent, rational description of the universe, but the sense of a personal, transcendent presence within its phenomena or beyond it. Thus the ancient Egyptian religion included a number of different gods, some of whom, offered different explanations for the phenomena they observed. Yet this did not lead to friction within the religion as the religion was based on a personal experience of these deities, not whether they simply provided a rational explanation of the Cosmos.

Now religion is a highly complex phenomenon to the point where it is difficult even to give a precise definition of it. Despite this, there are certain forms of religion – or religious investigation – that may be highly rational. For example, Neoplatonic philosophy in ancient Rome attempted to use reason to lead one into the contemplation of God, described as ‘the One’ or ‘the Good’. It was a philosophical school, but has been described as ‘the mind’s road to God’, and in this sense it could be described as a philosophical religion. So, in the case of Neo-Platonism, there certainly was a rational method of inquiry and investigation at the heart of a form of religion.

Furthermore, different religions do possess different rules governing experience and observance. Subsequent revelations or statements from transcendent entities may deepen the basic revelation at the heart of that religion, but they may not contradict it. In the Mosaic Law, any prophet who demanded the worship of any other gods than the Lord was to be rejected, as this violated the basis of Judaism in monotheism, and the revelation that there was only one God. Similarly, St. Paul recommends that Christians test every spirit they encounter, because not all spirits are from God, and some of those spirits encountered may deliberately give wrong information to mislead Christians. Judaism, Christianity and Islam also developed distinct methods to govern the interpretation of Scripture and religious worship and observance. Thomas Aquinas discussed whether theology was a science, and concluded that it was, as it possessed a distinct methodology of its own. In fact, during the Middle Ages theology used the very same methods that contemporary scientists also used in their studies – Aristotelian logic, and discussions of natural theology very often included discussions of scientific subjects and phenomena. Thus in the Middle Ages, at least, science and Christian theology certainly did possess some of the same methodology and features.

Theologians have also used science to ascertain whether some religious phenomena – miracles – are genuine. In the 18th century, the Roman Catholic clergyman leading the official investigation of reports of miracles, Prosper Lambertini, later Pope Benedict IX, compiled a handbook for their proper examination. Lambertini stipulated that this should include an examination of the miracle and the evidence for it by scientists and doctors, and his handbook has remained one of the standard, if not the standard text for the investigation of such phenomena by the Vatican until today.

Thus, while religion is a completely different area of human experience to science, nevertheless it also possesses its own relevant methodology and may include science and its methodology in order to discover the truth about some phenomena, which may be considered supernatural.

Now let’s deal with the list of seven features Myers and Lippard feel are typical of Creationists.

1. Conspiracy

This probably refers to the tactic of some Creationist groups of using two different approaches to have their views accepted by secular and religious schools. For example, some of the Creationist groups produced two different versions of their textbooks according to whether they were to be used in the public, state schools or by Christian schools. Those for use in the state schools stressed the scientific aspects of the case against evolution, but did not contain any references to the Bible, while those intended for use in Christian schools did contain references and arguments from Scripture. I suspect that Myers and Lippard consider this a conspiracy in the sense that the Creationist groups who adopt such a tactic are deliberately disguising their true intentions to reintroduce an explicitly religious doctrine into schools. Now, while some Creationists probably would like to see religious education re-introduced into schools, other Creationists traditionally didn’t, preferring that their children should be taught a view of the creation of the world and its creatures based on a literal interpretation of Genesis outside of school. These people distrusted attempts to establish a particular religious view through legislation. Thus, such tactics are only used, or have traditionally only been used, by some, but not all, Creationists.

It’s also the case that some groups critical of Darwinism have stated that they don’t want a particular view of Creation taught in schools. Members of the Discovery Institute, for example, have repeatedly stated that Intelligent Design makes no statement over who the Designer is, and don’t want a literal view of Creation taught in school or even see Intelligent Design itself taught, just the arguments against Darwinism presented alongside those for it. Now clearly many supporters of Intelligent Design are religious, but that does not mean that the arguments for it are necessarily flawed, or that their reasons for questioning the philosophical naturalism in some textbooks are unreasonable.

2. Selectivity.

This probably means the deliberately use of specific examples from biology and palaeontology to challenge the general Darwinian account of the development of life, without discussing or excluding the evidence for it. The problem with this is that while there are undoubtedly some texts that may be highly selective in their presentation of information and arguments, there are other that present a variety of arguments and information from a number of different approaches and sources. Michael Denton’s book, Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, which inspired the Intelligent Design movement, presents a number of arguments against Darwinism, as well as various examples from biology, where it could be argued that Natural Selection is inadequate as an explanation.

3. The Fake Experts

I’ve absolutely no doubt that there are a number of Creationist writers, who have little scientific expertise and who present spurious information and arguments to the public. A number of them have been strongly criticised by various Christian groups and writers on the net, who maintain websites attacking them and their views. This does not, however, mean that all the experts who reject Darwin are fakes. Some of the scientists who rejected Darwinism are extremely distinguished, such as Dr. Duane Gish, Wilder-Smith and Dr. Leonid Korochkin of the Institute of Developmental Biology of the former Soviet National Academy of Science.

4. Impossible Expectations

This looks like an attempt to counter the criticism of Darwinism that there isn’t enough supporting evidence for it. The assumption here is that people have too high expectations of the amount of evidence required to support Darwinian evolution. However, while there is indeed a vast amount of evidence to support Darwinism, some scientists have remarked that the evidence for it is not as complete or as strong as it has appeared, or was expected by scientists themselves. Thus, while some people doubtless expect too much from the evidence for Darwinism, there may indeed be real problems with it. Michael Denton, in his book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, indeed presents statistical arguments that there is a genuine lack of evidence for evolution, rather than the evidence exists, but has not been discovered yet.

5. The Metaphor

This might refer to the way people of faith, and particularly Creationists, view the world as an artefact created by the Almighty, often in terms very much like the way a human craftsman makes their products. However, merely because this view metaphorical does not mean it is incorrect, and that the world does not possess some of the characteristics of an artefact through its creation by an intelligent creator, in the same way that humans, who participate in God’s intelligence, also create artefacts.

6. The Quote Mine

This probably refers to use of quotes by Creationists by scientists discussing the lack of evidence, or apparent lack of evidence for Darwinism by various scientists, who may then go on in the following passage to address this problem. However, that does not mean that there isn’t a problem with the evidence for Darwinism, even if the view taken of this by a Creationist is different from that of the scientist addressing it.

7. The Argument to Consequences

This refers to the criticism of Darwinism and evolutionary theory by Creationists and other people of faith on the grounds of some of what they consider to be the social consequences of evolutionary theory. These include eugenics and the development of a worldview that apparently devalues human life, based on the view that if humanity is solely the product of evolutionary forces, then there are no transcendent values. For many people of faith, this worldview has resulted in a nihilistic culture that promotes abortion and divorce. Now the consequences of such an atheist interpretation of evolutionary theory does not mean that the theory itself is incorrect. It does, however, mean that the attempt to base morality purely on evolution, with no regard to the existence of objective, transcendent moral values, is severely flawed.

P.Z. Myers on Religion and Hats

April 6, 2009

Wakefield Tolbert, commenting on my post, ‘Faith and the Abdication of Reason’, notes how some atheists attempt to argue against religion by stating that although one cannot prove a negative, and so disprove God’s existence, the evidence for the Almighty is insufficient to support a rational belief in God. Indeed, some of the atheists, who adopt this argument, then argue further that the belief in God is no more vital to society than other, transient social phenomena, such as the fashion for hats. P.Z. Myers, who runs the Pharyngula blog attacking Creationism and religion, in particular has argued that the belief in God is like this, and that even if belief in God disappeared, there would be no ill effects.

Quoting part of my argument, Wakefield states
‘A person may be perfectly justified in believing in God, but be unable to provide any justification for this belief. Felis considers that this is wrong, because humans have no distinct faculty for discerning right or wrong, and so have to use reason, and if they can’t justify their beliefs using reason, then they’re wrong to hold them, both intellectually and morally. Now this statement itself can be attacked on several grounds, one of which is that atheists themselves accept as true certain beliefs, which are not rationally justified.
I think when pressed on the topic, most atheists, while being dogmatic in all other formats, would revert to the fallback position that you can NOT prove a negative. Their favorite pinup is the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster. I cannot prove it does NOT exist. But for the atheist and in my case alike this entity’s existence is either not manifest enough to warrant my serious attention (they claim the same for supposed manifestations of God’s presence, or that of any deity) or has some myriad ways of disguise. Either way, as with UFO’s and Bigfoot here in the US Southeast, there is not enough direct evidence, physical or even proposition to the atheist, to warrant a real glance.
They claim that unlike other falsities or probable unprovables, “God” is a more serious issue as it relates or influences politics and entire ideologies that they claim cause harm. There is their curt reply of course to the quip of why few people talk more about God than atheists.
So of course Dawkins and the really nasty ones like PZ Myers (the US’s Minnesota equivalent of the far more affable chap Dawkins, and is given to name calling and howling on the “culture wars”) claim this obsession is warranted, unlike one over an Easter Bunny, etc.
Myers for his part has a follow up to Dostoyevsky’s quip to the effect that if God is gone from all life, from all equations or considerations and gone from culture, then “all things are possible.”
Myers makes some kind of crack about hats.
Yes. Hats.
As my Brit friends would say it, the short version of this crackery works like this.
“Right.
Well, notice that men used to wear hats more often in times past. Everyone sported a hat on the streets of London and Yorkshire. Hats later went out of style a little at a time a while after the Victorian Age, though they can be seen cropping up from time to time in the US and other places as the last holdouts in the 1950s. But not long after that they went the way of the dodo. Religion likewise will soon be out of fashion. But what happened to the world? Did it really get worse now that hats are out of fashion. No, it didn’t, did it? One might say that with the exception of UV radiation prevention on the monk’s cap, hats really no longer serve any purpose as societal status. In the time since hats left the world as common fashion, scientific discoveries galore have surrounded the common and rich man of landed gentry alike.
We’re not really worse for the wear (or lack or wear!) now are we?
Now Myers follows up by claiming that in his fantastically simple analogy to entire moral codes based on whole belief systems being akin to hats, we are no worse the wear morally or scientifically or medicinally (or any other LY-social indicator or measure) if religion fades out sorta like the smile of the Cheshire Cat or gets rapidly pushed to the margins of society as in the Scandinavian lands, etc.’
Firstly, many religions and philosophers of religion have developed criteria to distinguish genuine religious experiences and phenomena from false, such as those produced through hallucinations resulting from madness or disease, such as Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a satire on the Argument from Design. However, to be effective it has to contradict the other theistic arguments about the nature and existence of God and revelation. Belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is therefore rejected, not just because there isn’t enough evidence for its existence, but because it also contradicts these other arguments and claims.
Now let’s deal with the comparison between God and other paranormal or supernatural entities. These suffer from the same flaws as Myers’ arguments about hats, or Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot. They assume that God is like any other object in the universe, and that His existence does not otherwise alter its nature. However, God is not just another object in the universe: He is its author, who is present and active in the cosmos and in the objects and creatures within it, who has created humans for communion with Him. Moreover, as God is perfectly good and just, there exists a transcendent realm of moral values, which profoundly affect the nature of human actions. An action is not just moral or immoral because of its consequences, but because the act itself is, by its nature, good or evil. Moreover, it is considered that there is a divine purpose working through the cosmos itself, which affects both its nature and its fate, and those of the creatures within it, particularly humans. The existence of Bigfoot and real, nuts and bolts flying saucers would not affect the nature of the universe as a whole, although they would cause the reconsideration of certain aspects of primate evolution and extraterrestrial life. However, the existence of God profoundly affects the nature of the universe. Without God, there is no transcendent meaning and morality.
As for the comparison between God and the fashion for wearing hats, this assumes that the existence of God is merely an intellectual fashion, and does not affect human behaviour, morality and society. But western society is based on and has been formed by the Christian worldview and morality, although this influence is not always obvious. For example, the assumption that all humans are equal is derived from the Biblical view that everyone is equal in the sight of the Lord. Some Christian and religious philosophers, such as Roger Trigg, in his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized?, have noted that although this idea is central to democracy, generally most people assume that it is true and there is little rational argument for it. He considers that if Christianity is rejected, then the philosophical argument for human equality and democracy is also seriously weakened. In that instance, there is a profound consequence both for morality and western society. Moreover, it can be argued that although religion has considerably declined in Scandinavian society, those societies continue to function successfully because they have largely retained their basis in Christian values and worldview, while rejecting some elements of the Judaeo-Christian worldview, such as the prohibition on certain forms of sexual activity.
Now Myers’ also assumes that even if religion disappeared, science would still continue to enrich humanity. Now this assumes the existence of transcendent moral values, and that science constitutes an intrinsic good in itself. But if God does not exist, then the case for transcendent moral values is considerably weakened. If transcendent moral values do not exist, then science cannot be said to enrich people’s lives. All that can be said is that science becomes a pursuit that most people and society value highly, but the pursuit of science and its benefits cannot be considered to be more moral or more enriching than other activities and worldviews which people may pursue or create. Indeed, science itself is based on the assumption that the universe is ordered and can be rationally understood, concepts taken from the Judaeo-Christian worldview. If this is removed, then the rational basis for scientific investigation is further weakened, and is based simple belief that the universe is intelligible with little supporting philosophical argument. Even Myers’ belief that science will continue to progress may be unfounded. The science writer, John Horgan, for example, in his book, The End of Science, suggested that scientific discovery may be near its end as all the resent scientific discoveries are based on those of the last century or so, and that completely new scientific discoveries that have revolutionised their respects fields have become significantly rarer.
Thus, belief in God is therefore not like belief in Bigfoot, UFOs or wearing hats, and far from not affecting the nature of the cosmos, God’s existence profoundly affects the nature of morality, society and even reality itself, including the scientific enterprise.