The end of god-21: God as metaphor

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post I made the point that scientists can, and should be able to, translate between colloquial and scientific descriptions of phenomena but religious believers sometimes get misled into thinking that the looser language represents what is believed by scientists.

The worst example of the misuse of metaphors in science is the word ‘god’. Scientists commonly used to use the word ‘god’ as a metaphor for the inexplicable. So you found people like Einstein saying things like “God does not play dice with the universe”, Leon Lederman writing a book about the search for the Higgs boson called The God Particle, and Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time which uses the word god repeatedly. It is not at all unusual for scientists who have made a major discovery or seen something spectacular (like the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope of the far reaches of the universe) to be struck with such awe that they strive for a superlative metaphor that can capture the magnitude of their experience. Religious language forms such a major part of our cultural heritage that its words and phrases evoking images of majesty and awe easily spring to mind when we seek such superlatives.

So it should not be surprising that god makes his appearance in the popular works of scientists, though never in technical scientific literature. (Scientists have also found, like many others, that talking about god sells more books.) But when such scientists talk of god, they are well aware that it is a metaphor. It no more signifies a belief in god than when someone says “Thank god!” upon hearing some good news or “Bless you!” when someone sneezes. For Einstein and Lederman and Hawking, god is the name they give to an as-yet-undiscovered set of laws or mathematical equations, not an intelligent entity. Thankfully, the practice of using god as a metaphor in science is falling out of favor.

Einstein’s actual view of god and religion is one of contempt as can be seen in a letter he wrote just a year before his death: “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

But religious apologists seize upon the use by scientists of words like ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ and ‘design’ to argue that scientists are either secretly religious and inadvertently revealing their beliefs in their use of such words, or that science and religion are equivalent belief structures.

For example, Dr Pete Vukusic, of the School of Physics at the University of Exeter once wrote: “It’s amazing that butterflies have evolved such sophisticated design features which can so exquisitely manipulate light and colour. Nature’s design and engineering is truly inspirational.” The IDC people seized upon his use of the word ‘Nature’s design’ to suggest that this implies that there must have been a designer of those butterflies, and that ‘nature’ was a euphemism for god.

Because these kinds of wordplay confuse the issue of what scientists really think about god, some have suggested that we should be more careful in how we use language and not be so cavalier in invoking religious metaphors. As a result the use of god as a metaphor in popular scientific writing seems to be declining and that is a good thing. Some people advocate going further, suggesting that the use of words like faith and belief be banished from the vocabulary of scientists since they can give the wrong impression and are misused by religious apologists. A letter writer to the May 2008 issue of Physics Today even recommended abandoning the use of the word theory.

I don’t agree with this approach. The words belief and faith have perfectly good secular meanings and there is no reason why we should cede them for exclusively religious use. I have also written before that I am doubtful of the effectiveness of trying to restrict the use or meanings of words. While we should strive for precision and accuracy in our choice of words to express scientific ideas, words and meanings evolve and that is what makes language so alive and fascinating. We can no more control linguistic evolution than we can hold back biological evolution. It is better to create a greater awareness amongst the general public that words mean different things in different contexts and when used by different people, and that those should be weighed in the balance when trying to figure out what people are saying.

For example, in my attempt at outlining what I believe in An Atheist’s Creed, I used the word ‘believe’ repeatedly and some other atheists suggested that I should not do so since it made the creed look like a religious affirmation. But I had anticipated this objection and took pains to explain my use of the word in the preamble:

When the word ‘believe’ is used in the creed, it is in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence ‘believe’, some things such as that the universe is billions of years old or that the force of gravity exists. It is in this sense that the word ‘believe’ is used in the creed below, as an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty.

This use is in stark contrast to the way that the word is used by religious people. They not only believe things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

Some religious apologists try to exploit the fact that the same word belief is used in both situations to suggest that atheism is as much an irrational act of faith as belief in god. This is sophistry and is simply false.

As an aside, I saw some interesting responses to my creed when it was reposted on some discussion boards. I had meant it as a merely descriptive statement of the things that I, an atheist, happen to believe. It was not meant to be a statement of what all atheists believe or should believe. Indeed, some of the beliefs I listed did not even derive from atheism. And yet, some readers took my creed as an attempt to be normative and disagreed with some or all of it, going to the extent of saying that for atheists to have a creed is a contradiction.

They are of course right. Each atheist will believe different things because we have no unifying doctrine, except a shared conviction that there is no evidence for the existence of god. Although I thought I was being clear about my intent, the misunderstanding illustrates the truth of a statement attributed to Karl Popper: “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.”

POST SCRIPT: Gonzo journalism

Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone is one of the funniest political journalists around. Here he describes to Jon Stewart his experiences as a member of John Hagee’s church, before the latter became famous because of his McCain endorsement fiasco. Hagee seems to be even wackier than I had thought.

The end of god-20: Science and scientific language

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous three posts in this series, we saw the failure of attempts to raise religious beliefs to be on a par with science. The second line of defense taken by the new apologists against the attacks of the new atheists is to try and lower science to the level of religion.

This attempt mostly uses plays on words. Apologists have tried to take advantage of the fact that words can have multiple meanings and nuances depending on the context. What they have done is, whenever scientists use certain words in the scientific context, to interpret that statement using an alternative interpretation that is advantageous to their cause.

The most obvious example is the word ‘theory’. When the scientific community labels something as a theory, say the theory of evolution or the theory of gravity, they are actually paying it a huge compliment. They are saying that this knowledge encompasses a wide array of phenomena, has a powerful explanatory structure, and has been subject to some testing. The theory of gravity and the theory of relativity are powerful bodies of knowledge. A theory in the scientific context is not a guess or hypothesis but it is in the latter senses that this word is used by lay people. Religious apologists who dislike some particular scientific theory use the lay meaning to imply that such a theory has no merit.

This argument is, of course, purely semantic and has been countered so much and so often and so thoroughly, and the use of the word theory in science has been explained with such care, that anyone who still continues to use this argument to discredit a scientific theory they dislike (like some religious people do with the theory of evolution) can justly be accused of being either deeply ignorant or willfully deceptive.

But that hasn’t stopped religious apologists from still trotting out this old chestnut. But in Florida recently, that attempt boomeranged badly. What happened is that in February of 2008, that state revised its science standards and for the first time actually included the word evolution in it, a century and a half after Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s theory took its bow. Of course, this made the religious people in Florida upset and they adopted the usual strategy of demanding that the word evolution always be prefaced by the word ‘theory’, thus in their minds making it seem less credible. But in a clever countermove, the pro-science forces agreed to this provided that evolution be referred to as ‘the scientific theory of evolution’ and that for the sake of consistency, every scientific consensus theory also carry the same preamble. So now the standards refer to ‘the scientific theory of electromagnetism’, ‘the scientific theory of gravity’, etc. as well as ‘the scientific theory of evolution’.

The religious opponents of teaching evolution did not seem to realize that they have not only strengthened public awareness of the power of the word theory in science, they have also conceded that evolution is a scientific theory and put evolution on a par with other well-established scientific theories, something that they have been strenuously opposing all this time. Their strategy had been to argue that the theory of evolution was a bad theory, not worthy of inclusion alongside the ‘good’ theories of science, but the exact opposite has now happened, at least in Florida.

Other words that have been exploited by religious people to imply that scientists secretly do believe in god are ‘design’ , ‘create’, and ‘believe’.

Scientists are partly responsible for this confusion. Scientists use words that seem to imply external intelligence and intentionality to things, even though they don’t believe it, because it makes for livelier language. For example, they will say things like “a bird’s wings are designed to enable it to fly” or “a gene wants to propagate itself” or “the electron tries to move towards the positive nucleus”.

For example, in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan writes:

The existential challenge facing grasses in all but the most arid regions is how to successfully compete against trees for territory and sunlight. The evolutionary strategy they hit upon was to make their leaves nourishing and tasty to animals who in turn are nourishing and tasty to us, the big-brained creature best equipped to vanquish the trees on their behalf. (p. 129)

Language like this gives the impression that grasses have minds and will, although the author believes no such thing and is merely indulging in a rhetorical flight of fancy. But there is a danger when people use language like this because it can be wrongfully interpreted to imply that these things have human-like intelligence and agency and that there is some purpose behind their actions, or worse, have an external intelligence or agent acting on their behalf. Of course, scientists speaking this way do not intend any such thing. For them, this is just a convenient shorthand language and if necessary the same ideas can be expressed in more accurate but verbose intentionality-free language that removes the hint of a designer.

In his wonderful book The Selfish Gene (1989), Richard Dawkins repeatedly shows how to translate such metaphorical language into a more precise scientific one. For example, it is well known that cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they chirp very loudly, enough to attract the attention of dangerous predators. Therefore the foster mother bird gives the baby cuckoo more food than it gives her own chicks in order to keep it quiet and not attract predators that might attack her own chicks. Biologists speak of the baby cuckoo ‘blackmailing’ its foster mother with the threat of revealing the location of its nest to predators in order to get more than its fair share of food. But that description, although vivid and memorable, seems to ascribe all kinds of human-like thoughts and motives to birds.

Dawkins shows how to translate this loose talk into respectable, scientific language.

Cuckoo genes for screaming loudly became more numerous in the cuckoo gene pool because the loud screams increased the probability that the foster parents would feed the baby cuckoos. The reason the foster parents responded to the screams in this way was that genes for responding to the screams in this way had spread through the gene pool of the foster-species. The reason these genes spread was that individual foster parents who did not feed the cuckoos extra food, reared fewer of their own children – fewer than rival parents who did feed their cuckoos extra. This was because predators were attracted to the nest by the cuckoo cries. Although cuckoo genes for not screaming were less likely to end up in the bellies of predators than screaming genes, the non-screaming paid the greater penalty of not being fed extra rations. Therefore the screaming gene spread in the cuckoo gene pool. (p. 132)

You can see that being scientifically precise takes more words, is less vivid, and is much harder to sustain all the time. As a result, scientists tend to use the looser style whenever possible although they can, and should be able to, translate between metaphorical and scientific descriptions of any phenomena.

But religious people sometimes take the metaphorical language literally, and from there it is a short step to envisaging some intelligence acting in nature, and seeing intentional design and causation to what are merely the results of the working out of the laws of probability and natural selection.

POST SCRIPT: We are all atheists about many things

In this short video clip, Richard Dawkins makes a simple but important point.

The end of god-19: Why religious institutions do not seek evidence for god

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I said that sometimes the argument is made that the scientific community should pursue even tentative clues for the existence of god or the paranormal because the people who originally stumble over them do not have the kinds of resources and expertise to mount the kind of sophisticated studies to validate them.

It is true that good studies require resources, knowledge, and skill. But it is not as if the scientific community has a monopoly on these things and that believers in god have no access to them. After all, religion is probably the world’s biggest industry. (I am tempted to use the word racket.) Billions of people all over the world, even among the world’s poorest, are persuaded to give vast amounts of money to religious organizations. If there is one institution that has the money, the interest, the skills, and the expertise to pour into finding conclusive evidence of god, it is organized religion and its associated institutions.

So why don’t the Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox churches and Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques around the world set up research institutes to find evidence of god, instead of expecting others to do their work for them? Even if a very tiny fraction of their annual revenues were set aside to fund such institutes, those bodies would have huge budgets, enabling them to staff and resource them at a very high level, unimaginable to any secular research organization. People who have tentative evidence for god can send it to these research institutes for more thorough investigation instead of pestering scientists who have many other things to do.

So why don’t religions do this? Why don’t they go full throttle to research and find conclusive evidence once and for all for the existence of god?

I think it is because the leaders and theologians of all religions already know that they will not find any evidence and they are scared that such an effort would reveal to the world the total bankruptcy of the idea of god. They would prefer that this be a secret known only to them and atheists. That way they can continue to delude people that these non-existent gods exist, and more importantly, keep persuading people to contribute money to keep the churches and clergy and assorted hangers-on in the style to which they have grown accustomed. This would explain why religious leaders raise ‘faith’ to such high esteem when it comes to religion, while praising reason and critical thinking in all others spheres of human activity. When it comes to religion and religion alone, they insist that it virtuous to strongly believe in something in the absence of any credible evidence whatsoever, behavior that would be considered madness in any context other than religion.

A telling example of this desire to actually avoid doing any research that might reveal the bankruptcy of their ideas can be seen in the behavior of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people. In the Templeton Foundation, they have an organization that has a lot of money and is eager to fund research into finding evidence that belief in god is compatible with a scientific outlook. Physicist Bob Park gives some background into the foundation and its founder and what it seeks to achieve.

It was initially the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and the first winner in 1973 was Mother Teresa. Winners have included Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. Billy Graham got it in 1982, Charles Colson of Watergate fame in 1993 and Paul Davies in 1995. But in 1999 Ian Barbour, a student of Fermi, was the recipient. A professor of physics and theology at Carleton College, Barbour was credited with initiating a “dialog between science and religion.” Templeton admired Barbour, and coveted his dialog. The scientific revolution, after all, led to the fantastic growth in the world economy that made him a billionaire. Templeton believes God has chosen him to show the world that, as he put it, theology and science are two windows on the same landscape. So he changed the name to the Templeton Prize for Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. It is the largest prize for intellectual accomplishment in existence, chosen to be bigger than the Nobel. Since that time, six of the last eight winners of the Templeton Prize have been physicists. They all relied on the anthropic principle in their Templeton Prize statements.

There are 8 physicists among the 34 recipients so far of the Templeton Prize, and Park says that a couple more had degrees in physics.

The Foundation is currently running a series of dialogues on the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”. The answer is, of course, a resounding “Yes!” as this series of posts has pointed out, but clearly the foundation is hoping that the answer they get is no.

So did the IDC people submit proposals to the Templeton Foundation asking for support for investigations to find evidence for an intelligent designer? Well, no. As this news report said:

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

“They never came in,” said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

What the IDC people want to do is run a purely public relations campaign, consisting of books, articles, debates, films, all of them whining about how scientists are being mean to them and ignoring the evidence of a designer. But when it comes to doing actual research to back up their claims of having evidence, they refuse to even ask for money to pursue this line of research from an organization eager to fund them.

The major religions and their theologians and religious apologists also show this strange reluctance to do any actual research to find evidence for the existence of god while simultaneously seizing on anecdotal reports of crying statues and visions and stains on highway overpasses as evidence.

There is, of course, a simple explanation for this seemingly contradictory behavior. I have said before that I think that the Pope and other high-ranking clergy and theologians of all religions are very likely to be secretly atheists. They are smart people who have thought a lot about all the arguments against the existence of god that have been raised by the new atheists and elaborated on in this series of essays. Unlike for ordinary people, these arguments cannot be new to them and they are smart enough to recognize their force. They must know in their hearts that they have absolutely no basis for believing in god. The most charitable view I can assign to them is that they believe they believe because they desperately want to believe, a form of self-delusion. The more cynical view is that these high-ranking church dignitaries are laughing all the way to the bank, amazed that there exist so many suckers in the world willing to believe in the pious platitudes they put out, and to donate money to support them and their parasitic institutions.

I am not referring to ordinary worshippers or their local clergy, many of whom are likely to be genuine believers. My cynicism is directed at those occupying the top rungs of the hierarchy, who have the means and ability to truly investigate the evidence for god but refuse to do so and instead prattle on about the virtues of evidence-free faith.

Thus the first approach of apologists, to try and elevate religious beliefs to the level of science has failed. In the next post we will look at the second approach, and see how they are trying to lower science to the level of religion.

POST SCRIPT: On being happy

We can learn a lot from the Icelanders about how to be happy.

The end of god-18: Passing the buck

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

When it is pointed out that religious people have never provided any credible evidence for the existence of god, some religious apologists argue that the evidence for god is not definitive at present but only tentative and preliminary and needs to be pursued further to become more conclusive. They claim that scientists who have such tentative evidence are unwilling to go public with it for fear of being scorned by the rest of the academy and even losing their jobs, because of the opposition of the scientific community to anything that challenges their dogmatic materialistic worldview. This is an argument that is popular with the intelligent design creationism movement.

But a close look at that argument reveals how absurd it is. The first obvious question is why god is so coy about revealing evidence for his existence. Either he wants to reveal his presence or he does not. If the former, then surely it would be easy for god to conceive of ways to do so that would be unambiguous and incontrovertible and could not be denied by even the most ardent materialist. On the other hand, if god does not want to reveal his presence then surely he would be able to easily hide the evidence, so that no tentative evidence should exist.

To overcome this problem, we are asked to accept that god is like one of the criminals one finds on TV shows like Columbo or Monk, someone who makes really careful plans to hide his tracks but then inadvertently leaves some subtle clues behind that a scientific detective stumbles over. It seems highly implausible to have a god who wants to hide evidence of his presence but then inadvertently drops clues here and there that reveal his existence. How could god be so careless?

But religious apologists counter that objection with another variant. They say that god is inscrutable in his actions (this is the favorite argument when apologists cannot explain some thing) and so he must have his reasons for wanting to leave just tantalizing clues to his existence. Maybe he likes to leave us puzzles to solve. It is not up to us to ask why he does what he does but simply investigate and go where the evidence takes us.

This argument is usually accompanied by the complaint that the scientific community is not picking up on these clues and using its expertise and resources to do the necessary follow up. This argument is echoed by those people who believe that psychic and paranormal phenomena should also be more vigorously studied by the scientific community. The reluctance of the scientific community to do so is again taken as a sign of their dogmatic opposition, based on their materialist philosophy, to believing that such phenomena exist.

This is a really curious argument. If some people believe that they have tentative clues that point to the existence of god (or other psychic and paranormal phenomena), then they are the ones who should be investigating it further to find conclusive evidence. What they are saying instead is that they want other people to devote enormous amounts of time, expertise, and resources to investigating their idea. The obvious response to this is: why should they?

The reasons for scientists not taking up this challenge are quite simple. Let me give an example. I (like almost any other scientist whose name somehow becomes known to people outside academia) occasionally hear from people who are convinced that they have some paranormal power or have some evidence of god and want me to look into it. Just recently I heard from someone who claims that she can, using her mind alone, relax a person’s bladder muscles. Really. I declined her offer for a demonstration, the way I always decline these invitations, and it was not out of fear that I might wet my pants in her presence.

The reason that scientists are unwilling to participate in things like this is for purely practical reasons, not dogma. Past experience has shown that all these investigations have produced exactly zero credible evidence for the existence for god or the power of prayer or other paranormal phenomena, so why should we waste our time pursuing what is almost certainly yet another wild-goose chase? Come to us when you have credible evidence and then we can talk. For example, perhaps the bladder-relaxing woman can go to a Cleveland Browns football game and cause every one of the spectators and players in the stadium to release their bladders at the same time. That would certainly get a lot of attention. Or if her power doesn’t extend to more than one person at a time, she could go to one public event after another and cause the chief guest (maybe even the President if she can get in to such an event) to release his or her bladder while making a speech. Such serial public urination by high profile people would surely result in calls for investigations.

I believe that the scientific community is perfectly justified, based on the record to date, to refuse to be drawn into any further investigations for the existence of god or the power of prayer or psychic or other paranormal powers. When scientists have done so in the past, most notably with claims of the power of prayer to heal people, nothing has come of it. It has proven to be a waste of time.

But that does not mean that such phenomena should not be investigated at all. So who should do the work?

Next: Who should investigate the evidence for god

POST SCRIPT: California gay marriage ruling

Glenn Greenwald has studied the California Supreme Court 4-3 ruling that gay couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples gay marriage.

He points out that the ruling is at once both very significant in its implications for the long term future of gay marriage but less significant in its immediate impact on the rest of the country, since the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996 allows states to not recognize marriages certified by other states. So gay people in Ohio cannot go to California and get married and then return and expect full rights. As a result, we may see a loss of gay people from Ohio and other states as they move to states that don’t have discriminatory laws on their books.

As usual, Greenwald is well worth reading. He makes an important point:

The Court did not rule that California must allow same-sex couples the right to enter into “marriage.” It merely ruled that if the state allows opposite-sex couples to do so, then same-sex couples must be treated equally. The Court explicitly left open the possibility that the state could distinguish between “marriage” (as a religious institution) and “civil unions” (as a secular institution) — i.e., that California law could leave the definition of “marriage” to religious institutions and only offer and recognize “civil unions” for legal purposes — provided that it treated opposite-sex and same-sex couples equally. The key legal issue is equal treatment by the State as a secular matter, not defining “marriage” for religious purposes.

I have long thought that it makes sense for the government to only be involved in creating civil unions for all couples. If religious institutions want to have something symbolic called marriage and restrict those to only heterosexual couples, then they should of course be free to do so. But such a status should not confer any additional legal benefits.

When good people do bad things

(Today is Memorial Day, a holiday in the US. Since I am traveling this weekend, I am reposting an old item, updated.)

Amongst Catholics, it had long been thought that children who die without being baptized have not had their original sin expunged and are thus excluded from heaven. While the church had no formal doctrine on this, there has been the belief that such children enter the state commonly called limbo, without being in communion with God.

However, it seems that concerns have been raised about this because of the growing number of children who now die without being baptized. (I am not exactly sure why this is seen as a bigger problem now than before. Is there a finite amount of space in limbo and thus a danger of overcrowding?) Anyway a recent news report says that the Catholic Church has appointed a high-powered International Theological Commission to study this problem and now thinks that there is reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven. (I always wonder what kind of “study” is involved when religious people discuss such things. It cannot involve any new data, surely. It usually boils down to people suddenly seeing in the same old texts the new meanings that they want to see.)

All Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin. This asserts that all people are sinful by their very nature. They are born that way and thus must seek forgiveness to achieve salvation. I had rejected the idea of original sin at a very early age, even when I was still religious in other ways. The idea that newborn babies are sinners struck me as just too preposterous to be taken seriously. Furthermore, since I had never accepted the Genesis story as being literally true, the famous story of Eve tempting Adam with fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge could not have occurred anyway. Since this story is the source of the ‘fall from grace’ and original sin, this made whole concept very dubious.

For me discussions about the nature of limbo (or even its existence) and the importance of baptism of infants for salvation are utterly pointless, similar to questions concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But such questions, if taken seriously, can have serious consequences in the lives of real people. Richard Dawkins describes the tragic story of Edgardo Mortara in his book The God Delusion (p 311-315), which he takes from another book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer.

Edgardo was a boy born to Jewish parents in Bologna, Italy who, as an infant, had a fourteen-year old Catholic nanny. When the baby got very sick one day, the nanny panicked and thought that he was going to die. Not wanting him to end up in limbo, she discovered that in an emergency anyone (not just priests) could baptize anyone else by sprinkling water and muttering the appropriate words, and she did so to Edgardo in order to save his soul. Edgardo fortunately recovered. However many years later, the news that he had been baptized came to the attention of church authorities, and since a baptized child was legally considered to be a Christian, it was considered intolerable for Edgardo to be brought up in a Jewish home. So in 1868 the papal police, acting legally under the orders of the Inquisition, seized the six-year old boy and brought him up in a special home used for the conversion of Jews and Muslims.

His distraught parents naturally tried everything they could to get their child back but it was to no avail. In fact, the church seemed bewildered that anyone would even make a fuss about this. After all, the child was now a Christian by virtue of having been baptized and the church thought that being brought up in Christian environment was best for the child. A Catholic newspaper in the US even defended the Pope’s action as taken on behalf of the principle of religious liberty, “the liberty of a child of being a Christian and not forced compulsorily to be a Jew . . . The Holy Father’s protection of the child, in the face of all the ferocious fanaticism of infidelity and bigotry, is the grandest moral spectacle which the world has seen for ages.”

Although Edgardo’s story was highly publicized, it was by no means unusual at that time and this is what makes the whole thing so bizarre. It was apparently routine for well-to-do Jews to hire Catholic nannies, and this kind of surreptitious baptism and taking away of children from Jewish parents had happened before.

This immediately raises the obvious question of why Jews, although aware of this potential problem, would take the risk of hiring Catholic nannies instead of Jewish ones. The reason, it turns out, is that since observant Jews are prohibited by their religion from doing a vast number of routine tasks on the Sabbath, having Catholic servants was a loophole in the rules that enabled them to get things done without offending their own god. So the risk of losing a child was seemingly outweighed by their sense of obligation to follow all the myriad rules laid down by their own god.

But even after the abduction of their child and when all their efforts to get him back through other means had failed, Edgardo’s parents still had one sure-fire remedy, and that was to agree for themselves to be baptized as Christians. Even if they did not believe in the Christian god, if they had agreed to have water sprinkled on themselves and the ritual words spoken, they would get their child back since they would now be considered Christian by the church. But they refused to do this, out of loyalty to their own Jewish god. As Dawkins says: “To some of us, the parents’ refusal indicates wanton stubbornness. To others, their principled stand elevates them into the long list of martyrs for all religions down the ages.”

(It would be interesting to do a survey to find out how people today answer the question: “Would you convert to another religion if that was what it took to get your child back?”)

Dawkins uses this story to make a telling point. Every person in this sorry episode was a ‘good’ person, in the traditional sense that they were acting according to the highest ideals of their religion. No one was trying to do any harm to anyone. The nanny was trying to save the child from limbo. The Pope (and the Catholic Church) honestly seemed to believe that it was in the best interests of a Christian child to be brought up by and amongst other Christians. Edgardo’s parents were trying to observe their religion by hiring a Catholic nanny (despite the known risks) so that they could faithfully observe the Sabbath. And in not agreeing to go through even an insincere baptism, they were acting to avoid incurring the wrath of their own Jewish god because he is well known to be a jealous god who gets really angry at any form of allegiance to other gods, even the Christian god. Presumably the parents felt that their god would not understand and forgive a baptismal charade, even though their motives for agreeing to a phony baptism would have been unimpeachable.

These were all ‘good’ people, not setting out deliberately to do evil. They were all acting very devoutly according to their own religious lights. But the net result of their actions was evil – a family torn apart and a child deprived of the love and companionship of his parents.

(In an ironic a post-script to this story, Edgardo himself seemed to consistently rebuff his parents’ attempts to get him back, even after reaching the adult age of 19 and being free to do so. In fact, he became a devout Catholic and at the age of 23 was ordained as a priest and became a missionary to convert Jews. Such is the power of religious indoctrination.)

This sad story illustrates better than any other the truth of Steven Weinberg’s statement: “Without [religion], you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

POST SCRIPT: Tech support in the Middle Ages

The end of god-17: The god who loves playing peek-a-boo

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

There used to be a time when religion and belief in god reigned supreme and science was secondary. It was believed to be incontrovertibly true that god existed, and one did not really need to argue in favor of that proposition. Scientists of the period earlier than (say) the 18th century took the existence of god for granted and saw their research as shedding light on how god worked. True knowledge was believed to be derived from god. Some religious apologists use the views of religious scientists of that time (like Newton) to support the contention that science supports the existence of god, since those scientists believed in god.

But all that has changed dramatically. Scientific knowledge has advanced greatly since that time while religious knowledge has remained static and this has resulted in the link between science and religion being severed. Beginning with the theory of evolution, science first shed its role of being subservient to religion and later abandoned even the pretence of trying to show that the two knowledge structures were consistent with each other. This liberation from the constraints of religious dogma has led to the dramatic advances in science and of our knowledge of how things really work. And what has become clear is that the concept of god is totally irrelevant to understanding anything about the world. Science has made god obsolete and redundant.

It is now the knowledge created by science that is supreme. Although this knowledge is not infallible and is constantly subject to change and revision, there is nothing else that comes close to it in terms of reliability and usefulness. The achievements of science are unquestionable. Science is also truly universal. Its principles transcend narrow sectarian divisions of ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Anyone who rejects modern science and its methods of evidence and reason to create new knowledge is increasingly being seen as someone who is living in the past.

As a result, religion and belief in god is being increasingly revealed as little more than an irrelevancy, a bunch of superstitions, belief structures that children are taught and might find credible while they are still young but which are childish to cling on to when one has reached adulthood.

Faced with this new reality, and not having any new evidence to produce in their favor, what religious apologists have done is try and reframe the debate. One approach that is taken by advocates of intelligent design creationism (IDC) is to argue that science is dogmatically burying its head in the sand and deliberately avoiding, ignoring, or suppressing evidence for the existence of god. The second approach is to argue that science is just like religion because they are both faith-based, and that thus they are equivalent knowledge structures that each person can accept or reject on the basis of which faith they prefer.

In the first approach, believers try to elevate religion to the level of science while in the second approach, they try to bring science down to the level of religion. Both approaches try to equate science with religion.

The first argument, that scientists, because of a dogmatic commitment to materialistic explanations for phenomena, are deliberately ignoring the evidence for god, is really rather ridiculous. The reason that scientists seek materialistic explanations is not because they have received an edict that they must do so but simply because such an approach has been extraordinarily successful for doing research

It is undoubtedly true that scientists can be and have been dogmatic. There have undoubtedly been instances where individual scientists who have been the passionate originators or supporters of some theory have ignored or even suppressed evidence for alternative theories. Scientists are all too human and can fall prey to the same kinds of failings as other people. A scientist may well suppress evidence of a rival theory that challenges his or her own work out of petty ambition or jealousy or fear of failure.

But to extend this to saying that the community as a whole is suppressing evidence of the existence of god is preposterous. After all, this is god we are talking about. You know, lord of the universe, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible, etc. A scientist who suspected that he or she had evidence of such a being would be mad to try and suppress it. After all, god could presumably easily thwart the pathetic attempts of any mere mortal to throw a cloak over him. Besides which, a scientist who tried to do that would presumably be inviting everlasting torments in hell. Scientists may be dogmatic but they are not that stupid.

It is far-fetched to think that a scientist would not reveal evidence that is unearthed for the existence of god or even the supernatural and the paranormal. After all, such a thing would be the biggest discovery in the history of the world. We live in a world so steeped in religious superstition that there are billions of people who so desperately seek a sign from god that they are even willing to accept as evidence pieces of burnt toast that seem to show an image of Jesus, despite the fact that no one knows what Jesus looked like, assuming he even existed. A scientist who revealed convincing evidence for god would be guaranteed to receive fame and fortune beyond imagination. The scientist would be even bigger than Oprah, if you can imagine that. Why would they not reveal the evidence for god? It makes no sense.

To counter this objection, religious apologists have a variant of this scientific dogma argument and that is to argue that perhaps the evidence that some scientists have for god is not definitive enough but at present is somewhat tentative and preliminary and needs to be pursued further to become more conclusive. The scientists who have such tentative evidence are unwilling to go public with it for fear of being scorned by the rest of the academy and even losing their jobs. This is the premise of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

In the next post I will examine the plausibility of this argument.

POST SCRIPT: More religious craziness

As if his other views were not problematic enough, new audio clips of his sermons have emerged where John McCain’s buddy John Hagee claims that Hitler was used by god as a ‘hunter’ to hunt the Jews in order to encourage them to go to Israel.

And of course, this craziness has to be true because Hagee says he got it from the Bible. You wonder how the Bible can say that since it was written before Hitler? You are ignoring the magic interpretive glasses that all deeply religious people have that enables them to see precisely what they want to see in their religious texts.

The Hitler sermon was apparently too much for McCain who has now rejected Hagee’s endorsement.

The kind of thinking that religious people like Hagee exhibit has its own weird logic. They believe in a god who is a micromanager. Hence any major event (hurricane, genocide, war) had to be planned and implemented by god. They also believe that the Bible is the blueprint for god’s plans for the world. Once you accept those premises, then it’s off to the races, trying to infer the reasons for god’s actions by combing through the Bible.

Meanwhile, another McCain backer, a major evangelical pastor Rod Parsley has been preaching violently anti-Muslim sermons.

So now that Catholics, Jews, and Muslims have been targeted, McCain only needs to add anti-Hindu and anti-Buddhist backers to his roster to have the Grand Slam.

The end of god-16: The tortured reasoning of the new apologetics

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post I discussed the fact that the new religious apologists start by arguing that a God of the Ultimate Gaps cannot be ruled out as a logical possibility and then simply assert that this means one can believe in a Personal God as well.

This raises an interesting question. Why do religious apologists take this tortured style of bait and switch arguing? Why not, right from the start, argue for the existence of a Personal God, the way that religious fundamentalists do? After all, the same logical arguments used in favor of the possibility of existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps can also be used to argue for the existence of a Personal God. In fact, such an argument can be used for the existence of anything you like, however preposterous, as was emphatically pointed out by Hermione Granger in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007, p. 411) when she says, “But that’s – I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove [the Resurrection Stone] doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of – of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!”

In order to logically argue this way for the existence of a Personal God, all you have to do is add the feature that this god, for inscrutable reasons, has decided to hide all evidence of his existence and has made his presence so undetectable that his existence is evidence-free (except for a few clues here and there) and requires unquestioning faith to accept that he exists. This is a logically impeccable stance to take since we cannot prove such a negative. We cannot logically exclude such a possibility any more than we can logically exclude the possibility of fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Of course, such arguments for the existence of god are pretty much free of any content. They do not really add anything to our knowledge and such reasoning is designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, as George Orwell so pithily put it in his classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. But since belief in god means abandoning belief in reason and evidence, this lack of content should not bother apologists.

So why is it that when you ask more sophisticated religious people why they believe in god, they will initially resort to something like that there must have been someone who initiated the big bang or first created life or the anthropic principle? This is a far cry from the kind of god they actually believe in, a Personal God. Why not simply start with the latter god and say that we cannot logically rule any type of god we wish to believe in?

I think that there are two reasons for this tortured argumentation route.

The first is that this argument is so obviously self-serving, so obviously tailored to support a pre-determined conclusion, that it invites ridicule.

The second is that sophisticated religious people are embarrassed by those religious people whom they themselves look down upon as anti-science extremists, such as religious fundamentalists and young Earth creationists, and seek to find ways to differentiate themselves from them. These latter groups people believe in a Very Personal God who micromanages everything down to the last detail, to the extent of whether they recover from an illness, whether they win the lottery, whether they get a new job or a promotion, and so on. But what is worse is that many also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that every event recorded in it is historically accurate, and reject all of science in order to cling on to their idea that the Earth is just 6,000 years old, Adam and Eve were real people, Noah’s flood actually happened, and so forth. They also reject the theory of evolution almost in its entirety, believing that god created each species individually.

Such fundamentalist believers in a Personal God are an embarrassment to the sophisticated religious apologists because the latter like to think of themselves as children of the Enlightenment, supporters of science and reason, while the former are seen as ignorant prisoners of medieval thinking. So in order to distinguish themselves from the fundamentalists, the new apologists need to resort to using the God of the Ultimate Gaps to try and establish a kind of respectable intellectual beachhead, and then sneak in a watered down version of the Personal God behind it, hoping that no one will notice the switch.

Just like people put out the good china when guests are visiting while using plastic plates in everyday life, the God of the Ultimate Gaps has become the god that sophisticated religious believers trot out for formal public occasions where the existence of god needs to be defended, while the Personal God is the one secretly believed by them in everyday life.

Next: A god who plays peek-a-boo.

POST SCRIPT: The O’Reilly gift that keeps on giving

I mentioned recently that a video clip had surfaced of Bill O’Reilly letting loose an obscenity-filled tirade at an off-camera producer on his former show Inside Edition. O’Reilly has apparently sanctimoniously chastised celebrities for using obscenities, so this example of his hypocrisy did not go unnoticed.

I showed this clip earlier of Stephen Colbert coming to the defense of his hero by revealing his own meltdown many years ago.

Perhaps you were wondering how the producer at the receiving end of O’Reilly’s anger reacted. Now someone has managed to obtain video of the producer’s reaction. (Very strong language advisory)

You can now even dance to this remix of O’Reilly. (Very strong language advisory)

The lesson is that in the internet age, be very careful if there is a camera anywhere near you.

The end of god-15: Switching gods in mid-argument

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In my previous post in this series, I argued that sophisticated religious apologists know that the only kind of god that they can argue for that can co-exist with our current state of knowledge is a God of the Ultimate Gaps, who created at one instant the universe and its laws and at a later instant created the very first form of life, and then did nothing else at all after that

But they also know that this god lacks broad appeal. After all, most people want to believe in the Personal God, an entity that has human attributes, who cares about them as individuals, listens to their prayers, and is willing and able to violate all the laws of nature to do them a personal favor. In other words, people seem to have a deep emotional need for a combination of a father figure and a powerful best buddy. It simply will not do for sophisticated religious apologists to tell them that their Personal God is dead and that all they have is an austere, aloof, retired, God of the Ultimate Gaps. Religion as we know it, a multibillion dollar international business, would quickly lose all support. People would rapidly desert their religious institutions (and more importantly not give money to them) if their Personal God is taken away from them.

So what we see in debates is that sophisticated religious apologists, after arguing for the logical possibility of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, then do a swift about-face and argue that this means they are also justified in believing in a Personal God. While this may be a somewhat watered down version of the Personal God believed in by religious fundamentalists, perhaps requiring a stated belief in just a few basic tenets such as that Jesus rose from the dead, it serves the purpose of opening the door for the entry of each and every variety of traditional and popular Personal Gods. After all, if you allow that Jesus rose from the dead, then it is not a stretch to believe that he did other miracles and from there, it becomes simple to believe that he is all around you all the time and listens to your every word.

In other words, apologists seem to believe that allowing for the possibility of existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps allows for the possibility of existence of a watered-down Personal God which in turn allows for the existence of a full-blown Personal God which in turn allows for every superstitious belief that people have in the supernatural, all the way down to the cults and fanatics. This is how ‘moderate’ religion serves to provide intellectual cover for the beliefs of fundamentalists and extremists, even as they deplore their actions.

After spending the whole evening arguing for the possibility of the existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, in his final closing statement at the very end of the The God Delusion Debate, religious apologist John Lennox pulled off this classic bait-and switch by simply asserting, without any evidence or argument whatsoever, that he believed in the whole story of Jesus and his divinity and his actual physical resurrection. In other words, that he accepted as true the whole Christian god belief complex, miracles and all. He seemed to think that the logical possibility that a God of the Ultimate Gaps existed gave him the license to believe in anything he wanted.

His debate opponent Richard Dawkins had, of course, seen this happen before, though he seemed a little surprised that someone of the intellectual stature of Lennox would attempt such a crude rhetorical ploy. He wearily responded that it always seemed to come down to this: that religious apologists start by saying that they accept science and begin with sophisticated arguments for god that seem to be superficially compatible with science, but ultimately end up saying they believe in absurdities that violate almost every major scientific principle, such as that people can actually come back from the dead. However sophisticated religious apologists may argue intellectually, they seem to need the emotional crutch of magical thinking as much as any fundamentalist, and desperately want to believe that there is this invisible entity who is looking out for them personally. It is kind of sad.

I too see this same kind of argumentation all the time. After making the trite point that it is logically impossible, at present, to exclude the possibility of the existence of the God of the Ultimate Gaps, people then seem to think that gives them the license to believe in any and all gods and still have that considered a rational belief. It seems like they think that if atheists can be made to concede the possibility of a powerful god who can create the universe, then they must concede the possibility that this god can be a Personal God capable of doing anything, including being born of a virgin, doing miracles, rising form the dead, listening to and answering each person’s prayers, revealing his likeness on toast and on highway overpasses, etc.

It is to avoid falling prey to such a bait and switch argument that one has to, when talking to religious people, establish right at the beginning exactly what kind of god they believe in: a Personal God, a God of the Gaps, or the God of the Ultimate Gaps, so that they don’t later shift between the various gods.

Next: Why do sophisticated apologists resort to this tortured style of reasoning?

POST SCRIPT: Flying fish

This remarkable video captures a fish flying for 45 seconds. It is an amazing sight.

The Hagee chronicles

I have written before about John Hagee, head of the group called Christians United for Israel (CUFI). This is a group that is politically aligned with the extreme right wing of American and Israeli politics, opposes any land for peace deal with the Palestinians, opposes withdrawing from any of the occupied territories, and does not see violence and chaos on the Middle East as a bad thing.

What kind of idiotic thinking could possible lead to such dangerous conclusions? You can be sure that it is based on religion. Hagee and CUFI are apocalyptic, rapture-ready Christians, just waiting for the moment, which they believe is imminent, when Christ will came back to Earth and personally escort them to heaven, to escape the time of tribulation that will then be unleashed on Earth. (I have written about this crazy belief system before. See here, here, here, here, and here.)

You would think that a religious extremist like Hagee with borderline insane beliefs would be so toxic that any mainstream political candidate would shy away from any link with him. But you would be wrong. John McCain eagerly sought and obtained Hagee’s endorsement.

But then things hit a snag. It turns out that Hagee also believes in that golden oldie, that god unleashed hurricane Katrina on New Orleans because of that city’s sinfulness, particularly because of the gays there. But even being callous and hateful towards the people of New Orleans and gays was not crazy enough to make McCain keep him at arm’s length. After all, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell also stated something similar and neither was ridiculed out of the public arena.

To get a sense of how extreme Hagee’s views are, listen to this Fresh Air interview with him. Terry Gross is a gentle interviewer and is to be commended on her self-restraint in not laughing out loud at Hagee. But why does she not ask Hagee hard but simple questions based on his own view that the Bible is the inerrant word of god? Why not ask him, since he is such a fan of following every word of the Bible, whether he also supports the death penalty for each of the following transgressions: Taking the name of the Lord in vain, working on the Sabbath, children who talk back to their parents, adultery, planting different crops side by side, and wearing garments made of two different threads. All these actions are condemned by god in the Bible, sometimes specifying that burning or stoning be the method used in implementing the death sentence.

The reason that these questions are not asked by those in the mainstream media is because there is a tacit understanding that we don’t point out those things that show religion and religious texts to be extreme and foolish, unless the religion is that espoused by people we don’t like, which currently is Islam. It is perfectly acceptable to point out the absurd things in the Koran. The fact that Hagee can come on mainstream programs and have his Biblical-based ravings discussed as if they are rational ideas shows how low our exaggerated ‘respect for religion’ attitude has caused us to sink.

Some Jewish groups are understandably uneasy about being affiliated with rapture-ready groups like CUFI who see Jews as basically expendable extras playing scripted parts in an end-times spectacular in which the Christians get all the leading roles.

But others, like Joe Lieberman who has compared Hagee to the mythical Moses, are happy to have Hagee’s support. They presumably think that the rapture stuff is sheer lunacy and will never happen so why not humor the old coot since he provides unconditional Christian support for Israeli expansionist hard line policies against Palestinians that have created a state of siege in Gaza and an apartheid-like state on the West Bank?

Where Hagee seemed to step over the line and cause problems for McCain was when he attacked Catholics, calling them “The Great Whore”, an “apostate church”, and “a false cult system.” He said that this view of the Catholic Church was clearly spelled out in the Book of Revelations.

Bill Donohue, head of an outfit called the Catholic League and self-proclaimed defender of Catholicism and always ready to exploit outrage to get himself some media attention, denounced the endorsement in his usually angry tone and people started giving the Hagee endorsement of McCain some attention, although nothing close to the media frenzy over Barack Obama’s association with his former pastor.

Still, the unease was enough to cause Hagee to suddenly announce that his views on Catholicism had been revised and he has written a letter to the Catholic League apologizing. He no longer seems to consider the Catholic Church as “the Great Whore” or an “apostate church”.

So what caused Hagee to revise his sour view of Catholics? Some new evidence? Some new research? Some new facts? Of course not. Those things are for wimpy rationalists. As a deeply religious man, all he needed was a revelation that his earlier views were wrong. That’s it.

The ease with which religious people like Hagee can reverse course should (but probably won’t) give enablers like Lieberman pause. Religious people can change their views on a dime because those views do not depend on reason or evidence or even basic logic. Hence such people make very undependable allies.

For example, on May 17, a group that had spent six months in an underground cavern waiting for the rapture gave up, after two of their members had died. If at some point enough of these rapture-ready Christians get fed up waiting for a Christ who seems to be really tardy, their leaders may suddenly have a new ‘revelation’ that this is because it is the Jews and Israel who are somehow holding Jesus back or some other crackpot idea, and they may suddenly start to view all Jews as the enemy. Remember, they don’t need any reasons to believe anything. They start, like all religious believers, by first deciding what they want to believe, then making up the reasons afterwards, finding appropriate passages of support in their religious texts.

We have to stop giving credence to religious people unless they have something useful to say based on the same criteria we apply to everything else: that it be based on fact and reason and evidence and logical argument.

What the Bible or Koran or any other supposedly holy book says should not count for anything in the world of politics. Otherwise our politics and even world peace will be held hostage to this kind of irrationality.

POST SCRIPT: Stand up and be a man!

Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and John Hagee are not, unfortunately, the only people with weird religious views in America. There exists a kind of minor league farm system that provides a steady supply of people with bizarre ideas derived from religion.

For example, do you know what the real problem with America is? Pastor Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist Church does will tell you and he is not taking things sitting down. It is straight from the Bible so it has to be true.

Jesus’ General thinks that Pastor Anderson is just the man to head up a new project he has in mind.

The end of god-14: Sleight-of-hand arguments for god

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

When religious apologists like D’Souza appeal to Augustine’s statement that the universe had a beginning as evidence that Christianity is right, they do not spell out the full implications of what they are saying because that would show the ridiculousness of the argument. If they really believe that Augustine’s ‘prediction’ is not just a lucky guess but is really an argument in favor of god, that must mean they are saying that god whispered this revelation in his ear.

But if so, why is god so stingy with revealing information, only telling Augustine something that he had a fifty percent chance of guessing right anyway? Why didn’t god tell him, way back in the 4th century, something that would have made for a truly spectacular prediction, such as that the universe is bathed in a cosmic microwave background radiation at a temperature of 2.7K? Why is it that every one of the ‘predictions’ of Augustine or the Bible that apologists point to is entirely consistent with what any person living at the time the Bible was written could have guessed at with high probability?

The fact that in the 21st century religious apologists are using such weak arguments in favor of religion is a sign of desperation.

The current use of arguments initially proposed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century is another example of this. Aquinas is often quoted as the source of the ‘first cause’ argument, that every created thing must have a creator and that thus one can argue backwards to the existence of an ultimate creator.

Aquinas thought that by starting from the recognition of the distinction between what things are, their essences, and that they are, their existence, one could reason conclusively to an absolutely first cause which causes the existence of everything that is.

Thus Aquinas’s ideas are the foundation of the new apologists’ argument for a God of the Ultimate Gaps. But as I have argued, the theories of evolution and big bang cosmology have shown how complexity can naturally arise out of simplicity and thus that the fact that some things in nature appear to be created is just an illusion. So while the origins of the universe and of life still have no satisfactory answers, the chain of reasoning used by Aquinas to argue that they must have a creator is no longer valid. Aquinas’ argument has ceased to be an argument in any meaningful sense of the word and become merely an ad hoc assumption.

A notable feature of the new apologetics is the use of sleight of hand arguments. One saw this on full display in the way John Lennox argued with Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion Debate. Lennox has impeccable academic credentials, and thus makes an ideal, sophisticated, religious apologist. He is a mathematician and philosopher of science, a Reader at Oxford University (‘Reader’ is a very senior academic rank in the British university system and equivalent to a full professor in the US), and a practicing Christian. He is not some third-tier pundit like D’Souza. He is a serious person so when he says that it was his study of science that brought him to Christianity, his arguments are worth listening to.

Lennox stated right at the beginning of the debate that the god he believed in was not a God of the Gaps. As I have said before, all sophisticated religious apologists now routinely make this disavowal because modern science has explained all the old gaps that earlier religious people had depended upon as evidence of god at work. Then for nearly the entire debate, Lennox argued on a highly sophisticated plane, arguing that science has not provided convincing answers to the big questions of how the universe was created and how the first life forms came into being. He also invoked the anthropic principle (that the universe seems to have just the right properties necessary for us to exist) as a further argument.

I have dealt with the flaws of anthropic principle argument before and will not repeat them here, except to quote physicist Bob Park who ridicules the anthropic principle (that “The fundamental parameters of the universe are such as to permit the creation of observers within it”) saying, “I believe an equivalent wording would be: “If things were different, things would not be the way things are.””

What Lennox says about the unanswered big questions is, of course, true, and any atheist would concede that. He also argued that god was a possible explanation for these two unsolved problems and that there was no logical basis by which science could rule that explanation out. Of course any atheist would concede that point too. (He also suggested that since the Bible spoke of the world having a beginning, it could be said that the Bible predicted the big-bang theory. This is, of course, a common but worthless argument, as I have pointed out earlier with respect to Saint Augustine’s similar ‘prediction’.)

So throughout the debate, Lennox was arguing for the possibility of the existence of what I have called the God of the Ultimate Gaps, some non-sectarian, powerful, amorphous entity who acted just twice in all of time: who created at one instant the universe and its laws with just the right properties to produce the universe we have billions of years later, and at a later instant created the very first form of life to set evolution in motion, and then did nothing else at all after that. This is a logically defensible position, given our current state of knowledge, and one can understand why sophisticated apologists are fond of it.

Of course, such an argument does not really add anything to our knowledge. Can one think of anything more useless than invoking god to explain the unexplained, such as the origin of the universe or the creation of the first replicator? This is the basic problem with theology. As H. L. Mencken said, “Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.” (Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 560).

But as we will see in the next post, after to going to all this trouble to establish the logical possibility of the existence of the God of the Ultimate Gaps, sophisticated religious apologists abruptly switch arguments on you, hoping no one will notice.

POST SCRIPT: Weird videos

The BBC has compiled ten weird videos for the week, including a short clip of the robot Asimo conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.