Sunday, October 15, 2006

In Search of Better Atheists

"I guess it's obvious that Santa Claus is the kid's version of God. If you get to your twenties and you're still believing in God, which I was, I feel it's a state of arrested development, as if a child was twelve and still believed in Santa Claus." -- Julia Sweeney, as heard on NPR's To the Best of our Knowledge.

Although Julia Sweeney - former cast member of SNL - could hardly be called an intellectual, I give her credit for so succinctly summarizing the fall-back position of atheistic luminaries like Dawkins, Dennett, and Sam Harris. Anyone who has encountered the writings of these bold men is quite familiar with such "God as Tooth Fairy" attacks. Indeed, the idea that religion is no more than childish fancy is one of the most treasured and nurtured thoughts among secular elites, largely because it reinforces their sense of superiority over the benighted masses. But sadly, it's a simplistic approach that betrays the ignorance and shallow thinking of its advocates. The main problem is that it misses its intended target by a mile. Sweeney's argument is correct to this extent: if any believer's conception of God actually resembled the figure of Santa Claus, then they would certainly be in a state of arrested development. But very few of the adherents of the world's major religions - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. - have such a crude conception of God. The fact that Sweeney can say that "it's obvious that Santa Claus is the kid's version of God" indicates that she has no understanding of actual faith, and that the faith she thought she had in her twenties was only a sham, and not the real deal. Apparently, she has since come to think that all believers share her simplistic notions of God.

Likewise, Dawkins and Harris have sold a lot of books with their straw-man arguments, running down a caricature of religion that primarily exists in the minds of "secular fundamentalists" like themselves. These modern atheists are not interested in understanding religion, only attacking it. Thus, Dawkins can say that "we should devote as much time to studying serious theology as we devote to studying serious fairies and serious unicorns." He makes no effort to understand the best minds of the Christian tradition - Augustine, Aquinas, or Barth - probably because it's so much easier to beat up on the likes of Pat Robertson.

The intellectual laziness of modern atheism is a shame because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Christianity needs smart atheists to keep it honest. In my estimation, the best example of a "purifying atheist" is Friedrich Nietzsche (for a wonderful synopsis of Nietzsche's contributions to Christian thought, please check out Byron Smith's post here). The son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche had a deeper understanding of Christianity than the vast majority of theologians, past and present. And unlike modern atheists, he took the idea of God very seriously. He may have reached some of the same conclusions about religion as modern atheists, but he took a very different route. His writings bear witness, not to a simple-minded dismissal of God, but to a profound confrontation with his religious heritage. In the end, his struggle may have yielded a purer and more faithful account of the Christian faith. Thus, Eberhard Jungel could say that "[Nietzsche's] thoughts come very close to the Christian truth which he was opposing. They merit special attention." A hundred years from now, I doubt that anyone will be saying the same thing about Harris' recent book.

So here's a challenge to all those aspiring atheists out there: ditch the silly "Santa Claus" argument (you're better than that!) and start engaging religion with a little sophistication. May I suggest a certain German madman?

32 comments:

Kip said...

It goes far beyond stupid.

There's a strange and ancient desire to punish (I remember this from my own atheist other life). A deep irrationality that is half rebellious child yelling 'no no no', and half jealous lover clamouring to God for attention.

Thomas Adams said...

Kip -- I would never say that atheists are stupid. As my post makes clear, there are several atheistic thinkers that I admire, Nietzsche in particular. My criticisms pertain to lazy atheists who don't bother to understand religion before they criticize it. I’m simply urging them to abandon the straw-man arguments that, while pleasing to “the choir”, fail to engage religion as it’s actually practiced.

That said, I understand your remark about the "rebellious child" and the "jealous lover". It seems to me that the passion and anger directed towards God by someone like Dawkins is just the flip-coin of the love that Christian feel for Him. Both the believer and the atheist are responding to the same reality.

Kip said...

I hate Nietzsche with a passion. If any philosopher ever deserved to drink hemlock for corrupting the young, he was it.

I wrote a suitably immoderate post about him last year on this subject.


For my money, mentally lazy is a close enough synonym for 'stupid', but I don't think most atheists are stupid, although they're clearly not rational.

The most oft-heard complaint is 'what God would make a world where people suffer', but as everyone knows, this is an incredibly weak proof for the non-existence of God. However, atheism is only weakly motivated by a rational belief in a purely material world, most atheists are angry at God because reality doesn't make sense to them. So, like Nietzsche they want to kill Him.

The typical hostile atheist is really a believer in psychic pain.

byron said...

Great post. And thanks for the link. Here's the original post.

I have found Merold Westphal's account of Nietzsche (and Marx and Freud) in Suspicion and Faith very insightful. He distinguishes between atheism of skepticism (Dawkins, Russell, Harris and others) from an atheism of suspicion (Nietzsche, Marx, Frued). The former question the truth of Christian belief, the latter question the morality of Christian belief, arguing that all-too-often, faith is a mask for self-interest. As such, these modern prophets of sin require us to first listen and repent of the log in our own eye, before we attempt to remove the speck from theirs.

FreeThinker said...

I like to think of myself as "friendly" atheist, as I have no "anger towards god" (which is absurd because I don't believe gods exist!). I'm also in the "atheism of skepticism" camp, like Richard Dawkins.

One need not know all the finer points of a religion to be an atheist, any more than one need not know all about Zoroastrianism to reject following Mithra.

I have not read Dawkin's book yet, but from what I've seen/read of him, the anger he displays is not toward a god or religion per se. It's a frustration towards humans who still cling to gods and religious belief systems.

I do understand religion and its role in culture and the mindset of believers (I've been there!). Admittedly this gives me an advantage when I debate atheism v. theism with believers, who typically have believed all their lives.

Clint said...

Atheism is a very legitimate response to the God we know in the canonical witness. But as you mention, this God should be disbelieved not as a result of trivial reasons, but exactly because of the non-triviality of who God is.

FreeThinker said...

Clint, aren't you starting with a bias ("the non-triviality of who God is")?

Atheism is a very legitimate response to the natural world; in fact, atheism is the default position. The claim that a god exists puts the burden on the claimant. (And then there's the additional burden of which particular god (or gods) is "real!")

Thomas Adams said...

Free Thinker -- I'm always delighted to meet a friendly atheist, so thanks for stopping by. However, I have to take issue with your latest comment. A quick survey of human history makes it quite clear that atheism is far from the "default" position, as nearly all cultures have been based on some sort of religious foundation. Of course, this doesn't prove the existence of God, but it suggests that humans naturally seek the divine. Even more problematic are your assertions that Clint is “biased” and that the burden of proof lies on the believer. These remarks betray a philosophical naiveté that is quite common among your kind these days. Atheists assume that, because they reject all Gods, they are off the hook with regards to justifying their decision. But this ignores the fact that atheism also involves faith in an unprovable hypothesis, namely, that God does not exist. So the burden lies on all of us; the atheist can’t take the easy way out.

You call yourself a free thinker, thereby implying that the thinking of believers is imprisoned by dogma. But we all operate with core presuppositions that are not immediately derivable from an “objective” source (for instance, reason cannot account for its own existence). Even science itself rests on philosophical foundations that cannot be ultimately proved. So, in order to avoid the “laziness” that I derided in my post, it’s important that atheists, like yourself, become conscious of your own “beliefs”. The great theologians of history were just as “free” of thinkers as any atheist. The only difference is that the theologians acknowledged a source of Truth outsides themselves, whereas most atheists are blissfully unaware of their own “leap of faith”.

Kevin Jones said...

"One need not know all the finer points of a religion to be an atheist, any more than one need not know all about Zoroastrianism to reject following Mithra."

Trouble is, Dawkins and his fellow atheistic philistines don't even know the basic points. He rails against Christianity and, occasionally, Islam, but his history is that of a bad caricaturist.

FreeThinker said...

Thomas, by "default position," I mean that atheism is purely natural. God-belief and religion are supernatural. Yes, humans have been clinging to supernatural beliefs ever since we evolved into humans. This does not prove anything.

I agree that "God does not exist" is an unprovable hypothesis. Can you show me a provable hypothesis? To me, the notion that a god exists is so fantastic, the issue is closed. (As with other notions that I'm "atheistic" about, like little green men on Mars, unicorns, and leprechauns.)

The term "Freethinker" has a rich history and is defined as:

"One who forms opinions on the basis of reason independent of authority; especially one who doubts or denies religious dogma."

Kevin, on the contrary, the average atheist often knows more about religion than the average theist. I find I frequently know more about the Bible than the Christians I talk with.

How much do you need to know about something before you reject it? Assuming you reject, say, astrology, how much do you know about astrology?

Thomas Adams said...

Free Thinker -- Thanks again for your contributions - I know it can't be easy trying to reason with all these unfree thinkers. But I'm afraid your silly comment about unicorns and leprechauns proves my point about the philosophical confusion of modern atheists. Obviously, the presence of leprechauns or unicorns in the world, if they existed, could be confirmed through simple observation, just as we can verify the existence or non-existence of purple parrots. God, however, cannot be the object of observation by definition, as a God that could be observed would simply be one object among many, and not the ground of all being. Your astrology remark suffers from a similar flaw. Astrology is an endeavor that makes pseudo-scientific claims about the universe, whereas theology has never claimed scientific status. The two fields simply cannot be compared. So please stop confusing categories.

I stand by my statement that the atheist is no more a free thinker than the believer. Your comment that "the notion that a god exists is so fantastic, the issue is closed" suggests that you have prejudged the situation, and are not as open-minded as you fancy yourself.

Kip said...

Honestly, athesits who claim there is no proof of God are like the blind man who says there is no such thing as a sunrise, you just imagine it because your retinas tingle in the morning.

Every Christian I know has proved God. We experience a real and profound spiritual relationship with Him.

We speak to Him and He speaks to us. His hand moves in our lives and His spirit moves in our hearts.

If a million witnesses state that they observed an event, but one still denies it, how can one call oneself logical?

Dave Fitzgerald said...

Hi Thomas:
I’m struck by your remark on FreeThinker’s “silly comments” and “philosophical confusion.” Does the god of the Old Testament stories ever act like unobservable “the ground of all being” you describe? Adam, Abraham, Moses and the ancient Hebrews certainly treat him as something that can be observed, since he walks and talks with them, and even tries to kill Moses by a roadside inn before being satiated with a bloody foreskin (Exodus 4:24-26). The Bible is filled with similar examples of God being observed speaking from heaven, descending in the form of a dove, etc. Besides God himself, the presence of angels and demons seems no better established than leprechauns or unicorns. So what’s silly about FreeThinker’s comment?

Similarly, you correctly deride astrology as an endeavor that makes pseudo-scientific claims about the universe, but then make the astounding claim that theology has never claimed scientific status. Christianity has spent the majority of its 2000-plus years opposing science with theology, with the most brutal means at its disposal. For centuries, religious thought held that the dome of heaven was a solid firmament, inlaid with the sun, moon and stars, separating the waters above from the waters below. We still have the rabbinical debates on its size and thickness. Christians held that the earth was flat and rested on four pillars, and that the fact that the sun went around the earth was as undeniable as the virgin birth. And Theology still makes questionable claims about the universe, such as the notion that blood can be spilled to appease a god’s displeasure, or that we are all born with the sin of our earliest ancestor, or that the world began only 6000 years ago. Not only that, but theology also has demanded that it trumps science. As Martin Luther said, Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has.

It’s also quite disingenuous to assert atheists have a burden of proof to disprove every proposed imaginary deity throughout history. The burden is on anyone who claims the existence of some supernatural force or being; the atheist simply points to the natural world to make his point. Until evidence is provided for questionable objects like gods and unicorns, there is simple no reasonable grounds to believe in any of them.

Kip, you say every Christian you know “proves” God – because you experience a real and profound relationship with him, he speaks to you, his spirit moves in your hearts, etc. – is there any religion in the history of humankind that hasn’t made the exact same claim? There’s many more than a million “witnesses” that Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Falun Gong, Scientology etc., etc. are real and profound. And every thing you said about Jesus was also said, in indentical language, about Isis, Osiris and all the other personal savior gods that predated Jesus.

I don’t consider myself an “Angry atheist” either, though it’s certainly annoying to be called “deeply irrational,” “rebellious” and “stupid.” Nor do I have a “strange and ancient desire to punish” your god, whichever one that may be. Like Wafa Sultan said recently in debate against Muslim mullahs “You can worship a stone for all I care; just don’t throw it at me.”

Thuloid said...

Dave Fitzgerald--

I don't think you're stupid, angry, rebellious or irrational. Grotesquely misinformed, yes, but not stupid. I really don't have the patience to go point by point, but little you said checks out factually. Not the readings of Old or New Testaments, not your understanding of the histories of theology or science, not your silly assertions about various non-Christian religions (especially the bit about the Egyptian gods).

Well, the Luther quote does, but read it more closely--reason is a whore--she'll hook up with anybody at all. So reason is insufficient, because it's perfectly capable of supporting both sides in a debate.

Thomas Adams said...

Dear Dave – I greatly appreciate your comments, as I realize that my previous replies to Free Thinker were not as clear as they should have been. You’re absolutely right that the Bible describes encounters with God in which his actions, words, and/or presence are observable. This is what is known as revelation. However, the Bible never describes God as an object that is at man’s disposal. God reveals himself to humans, but this revelation can never be predicted or conjured. By contrast, if unicorns existed, they could presumably be trapped, placed in zoos, and dissected by scientists. In short, a unicorn would be an object among objects, and not the source and ground of all that exists (that is, God). That’s why I found Free Thinker’s comment so silly. To act as if unicorns and God exist on the same plane suggests that he doesn’t understand what believers mean by the word “God”, and thus his criticisms miss their intended target.

I agree that my comment about theology and science was imprecise. There is no doubt that, in pre-scientific times, theologians often made pseudo-scientific claims. And the Bible, in places, also makes statements about the structure of the universe that we now know are false. The Bible is not a scientific textbook, and anyone who reads it that way is plain wrong. I reject all forms of biblical literalism, and so do most modern theologians. Theology, when properly done, makes no claims to scientific status (just as science, when properly done, makes no theological or metaphysical claims. Sadly, people like Dawkins cross this line all the time, claiming scientific support for their metaphysical beliefs).

I strongly disagree with your statement that “Christianity has spent the majority of its 2000-plus years opposing science with theology, with the most brutal means at its disposal.” That’s a gross oversimplification, to put it mildly. Sure there have been conflicts, but many (if not most) of the great scientist of history have also been religious – Newton, Copernicus, etc. I myself am a Ph.D chemist and a devout Lutheran. I’ve never felt that these two aspects of my identity were in conflict, and millions of other scientists feel the same way. Of course, there are extremists on both sides who argue that religion and science are fundamentally incompatible, but they shouldn’t be listened to, as they have neither history nor the future on their side. (By the way, you have taken Luther’s statement about reason out of context. He was criticizing reason’s ability to discern the hidden ways of God, not reason’s ability to make a better microwave oven).

Moving on… I never said that atheists have a burden to disprove this or that God. My point was simply that nonbelievers should realize the atheism itself is a form of religion – a purely negative religion, of course, but a religion nevertheless. Thus, they share the same burden as everyone else – the burden of faith.

For the record, I have never said that atheists are stupid or irrational, and I have never thrown a stone at another human being (at least not since grade school). In fact, my original post made it quite clear that I have enormous respect for certain atheists. I firmly believe that atheism, in dialogue with religion, can have a purifying effect by pointing out those areas where religion has gone astray. However, such dialogue is difficult when the leading atheist of the day writes a book called The God Delusion. Let’s hope (or pray) for less arrogance and more humility from those on both sides of the debate.

Kip said...

Dave,

You cite the existence of many religions in the world as evidence that there can be no God. I assume you believe if they can't all be right, they must all be wrong. What a terrible fallacy.

The correct observation to make (as St Paul says) is that human knowledge of the spiritual dimension is almost universal - a million witnesses to an event. To condemn us all -- Christian, Bhuddist, Muslim, Jew -- because our understanding of the deeper reality is imperfect, is indeed an irrational, proud and angry response.

My goodness, if we had taken that approach to the fumbling efforts of the physical sciences we never would have progressed beyond the scarab pushing the sun across the sky.

Science and science are kin. Religion is as much a science -- a knowledge based on evidence, experiment and intellectual analysis -- as quantum physics, and in their worst moments the physical sciences, even of today, are as prone to error, prejudice and superstition as the babblings of the primitive shaman.

FreeThinker said...

A myth is a fixed way of looking at the world which cannot be destroyed because, looked at through the myth, all evidence supports the myth. -Edward De Bono

There's a bit of name-calling here, but please leave reason alone! Can we agree that reason means "logical thinking?" If Luther was decrying reason as a way to "discern the hidden ways of God," isn't he saying "stop thinking logically when you think of God?"

I have no doubt that god-believers sense their god's presence in their lives, whether it's a Muslim kneeling towards Mecca, a Catholic praying to Mary, or a Pentecostal speaking in tongues. I'm also sure that someone who wins the lottery gets a major excited rush with measurable physical body changes. Does this prove he won the lottery? No, at best it proves he thinks he won the lottery (Perhaps there was an error with the numbers!) Do you see where I'm going with this? If you define a god or gods as a perception, then I would agree it (the perception) is real. It's the claims that a god is an actual supernatural entity that don't pass muster with me. I'm open minded but not gullible.

Let me close with another quote:

Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.

Thuloid said...

Freethinky Guy--

"Can we agree that reason means "logical thinking?""

Eh, not precisely the way Luther was using the term, but whatever definition you want to pick.

"If Luther was decrying reason as a way to "discern the hidden ways of God," isn't he saying "stop thinking logically when you think of God?""

Nope. He's saying stop trying to discern the hidden ways of God and focus on the not-so-hidden ways of God. This distinction is pretty key to understanding Luther.

Dave Fitzgerald said...

Thomas
Thanks for your acknowledgement. I sincerely appreciate you listening to what I have to say and respecting it enough to take it seriously even though –especially though - we disagree with one another. With all due respect, you seem to be contradicting your earier stand. You told FreeThinker: “God, however, cannot be the object of observation by definition, as a God that could be observed would simply be one object among many, and not the ground of all being,” but then recognize that God CAN be observed, not just by his actions but by his presence (burning bush, pillar of fire, wrestling Jacob, etc) Doesn’t that completely invalidate your earlier statement? I’m not trying to put you on the spot, but honestly, it certainly seems that way to me. You say unicorns and God don’t operate on the same plane, but it seems that in many cases in the Bible, they absolutely do.

I agree with you that theologians have often made pseudo-scientific claims, and that the Bible also makes statements about the structure of the universe that we now know are false. I have to admit that this disturbs me much more than it seems to bother you. I can forgive Bronze Age people for getting it wrong, but an omnipotent creator of the universe? To me that is a major sign that the Bible is a human product.

You say, and if I understand you correctly I agree with you, that proper science makes no theological or metaphysical claims. I would argue that Dawkins et al are not claiming scientific support for any metaphysical beliefs, precisely because they are not claiming to hold any metaphysical beliefs. Their beliefs (and mine) are predicated upon a material, natural world of observable reality.

I think you are too charitable about the historical conflicts between theology and science. You and I would both have been burned as heretics simply for believing that the earth circled the sun. There’s no question that many great scientists were Christian (or Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc.) but this does nothing to mitigate that western Christianity suppressed anything that seemed to contradict its interpretation of scripture for hundreds of years, and had no qualms to kill those who dared to disagree. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that this situation changed. I also think you are too charitable to Martin Luther, I’ve never found any quote of his that supports what you are saying. (see my response to Thuloid for more from ML on reason)

I’m curious about something else you stated. You insist that atheism itself is a form of religion. I wish you could explain what you mean by that; it makes no sense to me whatsoever. What exactly is this burden of faith that atheists like me are meant to have? Atheism is not the “faith” or “certainty” that there is no god; it is simply the absence of belief in any such gods, no more, no less.

Lastly, I join you in hoping for less arrogance and more humility from those on both sides of the debate. Thanks again for a interesting blog and for a thoughtful discussion.
All the best,
-Dave Fitzgerald

Dave Fitzgerald said...

Hi again Kip:
Well actually, I didn’t cite the existence of many religions in the world as evidence that there can be no God, but surely you agree that they can’t all be right, can they? And if I did “condemn” all religious faiths as being untrue, is that so different from most Christians? After all, I only believe in one less god than you do! I am sympathetic to the religious impulse, but do I think any of these feuding sects have the one true way? No. To me they all seem to stem purely from human imagination and desires and evolve in similar ways. And I have to disagree with you; when has ANY religion ever derived its doctrine from evidence, experiment and intellectual analysis? You treat scientists as no better than a babbling shaman, but I would challenge you: As Carl Sagan pointed out long ago, scientists are human and subject to human failings, but when scientists realize they are wrong, more often then not they admit it and drop their pet theories if the evidence doesn’t support them. When do you ever see religious leaders do that?

Dave Fitzgerald said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Thuloid. I must say, it feels so much better being grotesquely misinformed than stupid, angry, rebellious or irrational. I understand you don’t have the patience to go point by point of where I’m wrong exactly, or indeed to provide any evidence at all for what you’re saying, but maybe you can help correct my understanding of the Old Testament and explain what exactly I got wrong about this passage: “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.” (Exosus 4:24-26) And maybe you could do me a favor and let me know where my understanding of the history of theology and science is off while you’re at it.

I have to admit I thought you have a strange idea of reason. So reason is a whore that will hook up with anybody? Shouldn’t that be she’ll hook up with anybody that uses reason? And is that a bad thing? I guess it is, since I took your advice and read Martin Luther closer. He says “Reason is the devil's greatest whore… Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and know nothing but the word of God… Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.” And more along those lines.

By the way, I do want to want to point out one mistake you made. When I say Kip takes about Jesus exactly the way the ancients spoke about Isis and Osiris and the other savior gods of the first century, I’m not making that up. Read Lucius Apuleius’ Metamorphosis. Like Kip, Lucius takes about the relationship with his personal savior, the goddess Isis, in whom he was born again. He tells us how Isis changed his life and gave him a gift he could never hope to repay.

Thuloid said...

Dave F.--

"but maybe you can help correct my understanding of the Old Testament and explain what exactly I got wrong about this passage:"

Well, I don't see anything much observable about God in that passage. It says he met Moses and tried to kill him, then didn't. The how and why (and even who, in the sense of description of agent) are left totally obscure. There's no climbing behind the description at all--what's presented is presented (and this is a poor passage to cite if you want to talk about God being observable in some sense--there are clearer ones), and what's not is utterly inaccessible. We get burning bushes and angels and so on--and we get again and again God speaking to somebody or another. There's a term that theologians tend to use for this--revelation. More on that in a bit (when we pick up on Luther).

As to your history of theology and science, well, it's shit. Transparently false. The trouble is that theology has been hindrance to science much less often than it's been an encouragement to it. The opposition you describe has materialized so rarely as to make its incidences particularly notable. Let's not start with Copernicus--that narrative is a little tired (and overplayed, since the challenge was primarily to classical learning and not to Christian theology, which reconciled it rather quickly). Start with the ancients--theology wasn't opposed to any of their learning about the natural world. Nor, in the middle ages, did the work of Aquinas or, say, Roger Bacon show hostility to the sciences (very far from it). Indeed, they were connected intimately--theology was considered the ruling science and the natural sciences were pursued in no small part because of their relation to theology (e.g., a doctrine of creation such that the creation is intelligible to man).

But that only approaches what we know in the modern day as science, and there's a reason for this--our concept of science is an outgrowth of Christian theology. Its foundational thinkers tended to be conversant in both--Kepler, Newton, Leibniz and so on. Nor did, as a more modern conception of science developed, did believing Christians feel some special aversion to the new learning. It didn't suddenly become the case in the early or later Enlightenment that the philosophers, mathematicians and sciences were all atheists or "freethinkers"--in fact, the number of them who were believers dramatically outsizes that number who weren't. If all they met from theology was opposition, surely this wouldn't be the case.

Now back to Luther--yes, reason is a whore--she'll hook up with any notion in speculation about the invisible God. Luther rejects the analogy of being--that is, the concept of a commonality located in the property of being between the creation and creator--therefore, the creation does not give clear witness as to the nature of its creator. One can look at the world through reason and believe God to be good, bad or indifferent or perhaps totally absent with ample justification. But any speculation about the nature of God in this way is sinful--it claims for man what is properly not man's (the ability to perceive the invisible God), and therefore reason is the Devil's whore--she misleads into sin and error when the question of God comes into play. So revelation has to come first--Luther was insistent on a clear distinction between God as can be known in self-revelation (as through scripture) and God in his hiddenness. If we stay within the first, reason is a great aid--but that entails beginning with revelation, reason submitted to the Word of God (consider his response at Worms--"unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason...")

Non-theological problems are perfectly adequately addressed by reason, in Luther's view.

As to Jesus and the other "savior gods" of the 1st century, there doesn't really seem to be much of a category there except in the old history of religions school of thinking. That is, you just don't find a neat categorical correspondence there unless you're determined to read the Christian theological pattern back onto other cults (about whom we often have relatively little independent information from which to confirm or deny this model). Yes, I've read the Golden Ass (which is 2nd century, but that's beside the point)--Isis is a "savior goddess" here because she quite literally turns a guy back into a human being after he was transformed into an animal. I suppose you can take this as normative for ancient religious experience if you like--I'll grant some part of the psychology of it may have been. It would make sense to say that thankfulness toward perceived good favor on the part of a god would be standard reaction (but so would, say, desire to be obedient in order to avoid ill fortune). I'm not sure what kind of spiritual relationship is implied, though--Apuleius' book suggests a grant of power, material gain and secret knowledge, and the appearances of the goddess in it are quite literal. You seem to use the word "exactly" here to mean, "Rougly, with many unstated assumptions of equivalence," and "identical language" to mean "language that's occasionally similar." Heck, I don't even assume that Christians of the period used language exactly like Kip's to describe their experiences. Apuleius didn't write a story in which his protagonist becomes a good Baptist, you know (not even with all the names and titles changed).

Thomas Adams said...

Dear Dave – While I don’t think I contradicted myself, I have already acknowledged that my previous post was not sufficiently clear. My point was that God is not observable in the same way that a piece of furniture, or a whitetail deer, is observable. That is, God is never an object that can be handled, manipulated, and examined at will. God does reveal himself to humans, but this revelation cannot be subjected to scientific examination. In short, God can make his presence known in the temporal world, but he never belongs to this world in the same sense that a unicorn, if it existed, would belong to the world. God preserves his transcendence even in his gracious revelation to humans.

You and I agree that the Bible is a product of humans. I have never believed in the divine inspiration of Scripture. However, I believe that the Bible is a legitimate witness to the encounter of God with the Israelite people (O.T.), and the revelation of God in the form of Jesus Christ (N.T.). Thus, for me, the Bible is authentic and holy, but not every word of it should be taken as literal truth.

Dawkins has a chapter in his new book entitled “Why There Almost Certainly is No God.” The assertion of God’s non-existence is a metaphysical statement, which cannot be proved or disproved by science. Atheists engage in metaphysics all the time – in fact, we all do. It’s part and parcel of being human. There is no such thing a purely scientific understanding of the universe, as science itself requires certain philosophical assumptions (to put it another way, the statement that “science can explain everything” is itself a metaphysical statement). On this point, nearly all philosophers, secular and religious, would agree with me.

As from whether atheism is a form of religion, it of course depends on your definition of religion. True, atheists have no sacred ceremonies, no churches, no priests. But they do have a Creed, which strongly resembles the first line of the Nicene Creed: “I do NOT believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Like it or not, this is a theological statement, requiring faith. You’re probably correct in saying that most self-described atheists are more anti-religion than pro-atheism, and to this extent, they are not religious. Perhaps you’re more of an agnostic than an atheistic. But I stand by my statement that the committed atheist is a “believer.”

Thanks for an interesting discussion.

Dave Fitzgerald said...

Thomas:
I take your point about metaphysics, and I think you're right that perhaps it’s inescapable to avoid talking about it. That said, I think Dawkins is perfectly justified in saying from what we know of the natural world, it seems both unnecessary and unwarranted to suppose any outside supernatural force was needed to bring about the universe.

And again I have to disagree with you about the Atheist “Creed.” We don’t have “faith” that there is no god, any more than you have “faith” there is no easter bunny or great purple space hippo, or any other object or being people can dream up. I am an atheist because I simply do not have a belief in a god – no matter what I call myself. You and I don’t have – or need - a “creed” that there is no Poseidon, Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Golden Plates of Moroni. You and I (presumably) simply have never been convinced by the alleged evidence for these things. It’s a position not based on faith at all, but based on the evidence of the natural world around us.

I really do have to work on another project right now, but I want to thank you again for a stimulating blog, and I look forward to talking with you again soon. To come back to where this all started, you really should listen to the entire Julia Sweeney monologue; I think you’ll be surprised by how moving and honest her experience is. I really appreciate your openness, frankness and basic courtesy. It’s refreshing to be able to talk to someone you disagree with without any tiresome rancor.

And speaking of which, at the other end of the spectrum there’s Thuloid:

“Well, I don't see anything much observable about God in that passage. It says he met Moses and tried to kill him, then didn't. “

You don’t see much observable about God in that passage? When I hear you so cavalierly disregard bizarre passages like this, I have to wonder, does nothing in your holy book make you scratch your head and think “What the hell?” Doesn’t any of that seem uncharacteristic to you for an eternal, transcendent superbeing to behave? It does me. Along with so many other parts of the Bible - Jepthah’s daughter, Moses demanding that the Midianite women & children be killed- but keep the virgins for yourself (!), the Gospels having Jesus declare that the world would be ending in his audience’s lifetime.

And quit fooling yourself and downplaying the hinderance of science that Christianity has caused over the centuries. Any “intimate connection” between theology and science exists because of their tension between one another, not similarity. Whatever virtues Theology may have, it is not science. It does not test its hypotheses, it is fiercely unwilling to change in the face of contrary evidence, in fact it gladly dismisses mountains of evidence but holds its own tenets as unquestionable.

When you say Science is an outgrowth of Christian theology, you are mistaking its place of origin for its foundation. Christianity had a monopoly on Western civilization for centuries. Of course the founding minds of western science were Christian – everyone but the hated Jews was Christian in Europe - under pain of death. All higher learning and literacy (such as it was) was under the auspices of the church.

Even at it’s most tolerant, Theology hobbled science by persecuting anything that was a perceived threat to official dogma. Chemisty may have been “an outgrowth” of alchemy and astrophysics of astrology, but they are hardly the same thing. And our science owes much more to the ancient Greeks and the Arab mathematicians as they do from Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and all the other theologians who firmly believed that demons, witches, Jews, sex and uppity women caused windstorms and droughts.

As for the family resemblance of Christianity and the pagan Mystery faiths, if you refuse to see it, I can hardly make you change your mind without unpacking way more evidence and arguments than I want to spend here, and besides I’ve already spilled a lot of ink elsewhere on the topic, so for now I’m just going to leave it. Thomas, thanks again and I’ll talk to you again another time when I get the chance. Frankly, I honestly don’t have the time or desire to listen to Thuloid spout off anymore; he’s somehow managed to combine the worst traits of both Ned Flanders and the Comic Book Guy in a single person.
-DF

Thuloid said...

Thuloid--

"You don’t see much observable about God in that passage? When I hear you so cavalierly disregard bizarre passages like this, I have to wonder, does nothing in your holy book make you scratch your head and think “What the hell?” "

All the time. And in that passage too--but your question was more specific. Observable? Not necessarily--we're given nothing at all there by which to observe God. As I said, if you want that, look at some different passages, not that one. Heck, I'll make it easy--calling Jesus the image of the invisible God is making God observable. But since my point was reinforcing the distinction between hidden and revealed, I don't see how that's a problem. Nor do I have any idea why you throw a grab-bag of unrelated strange episodes at me here; do you think that if you point out enough difficult Bible verses your arguments will somehow come together on their own?

"And quit fooling yourself and downplaying the hinderance of science that Christianity has caused over the centuries."

You try to characterize the history of science as essentially a struggle against theology, with theology always attemptiong to exert its power over science. I would suggest, given the total absence of any fact, name or reference from the response that you simply have a poor understanding of the history of science and probably an even poorer one of the history of theology. Perhaps I'm wrong about that, but I doubt it--that you weren't capable of interpreting that Luther remark is suggestive. You can keep making the same assertions if you want, but emphatic assertion isn't argument.

It's ironic that you cite the contributions of Arab (btw, in the case of mathematics we're more indebted to certain Persians) and Greek thinkers and then dismiss Aquinas, or that you cite the debt to Greek thought and simultaneously criticize theology for holding back science, when in the relatively few pronounced cases of serious ecclesial obstruction to science we see the privileging of this same Greek thought over empirical research.

"Of course the founding minds of western science were Christian – everyone but the hated Jews was Christian in Europe - under pain of death."

Not just the "founding minds"--plenty of our most significant scientists well into the present day have been Christians. The fact that many people were does not account for the theological activity of the likes of Kepler, Leibniz, Descartes (who does seem to have been much indebeted to Augustine, btw), Pascal--but these are just minor contributors, right? Or hell, just look at a few major German Lutheran mathematicians over the centuries(Euler, Gauss, Riemann). Perhaps these are insignificant, too. If not, maybe you'd like to account for how these folks managed to overcome the constant oppression of theology without even perceiving it as such. On a more basic level, consider the ways that realist and nominalist ontologies squared off in medieval thought, how this contributed to the development of empiricism and rationalism and what this meant to the history of science. You won't do any of this, of course--you've got your ridiculous model and you're sticking to it.

Richard Carrier said...

I won't comment on how to interpret Luther since I know too little about that to say anything worthwhile on the subject. But the history of science is my Ph.D. field so I can comment on that with some authority.

It is becoming popular now to claim Christianity "responsible" for the scientific revolution (Stark, Jaaki, etc.). My dissertation will refute much of that thesis, in about two chapters altogether. But everyone here needs to keep distinct the claim that Christianity did not actively oppose science (which is sometimes true, depending on how you define "oppose") and the claim that Christianity was necessary for the scientific revolution (which is certainly not true), as well as various claims in the middle--like "Christianity wasn't necessary, but helped," which again depends on how you define "helped"; or "all theologies can find a compatible incentive towards science, and Christianity is a theology like any other," which is true, depending on how you define "Christianity" and "theology"; and so on. Likewise "our concept of science is an outgrowth of Christian theology" is no more true than "our concept of science is an outgrowth of pagan theology," since modern science literally grew up in a Christian context, but only by re-embracing ancient scientific values against the grain of the original Christian mindset, and those ancient scientific values also literally grew up in a pagan context. But as in the case with Christianity, that's not causality, it's just circumstance.

However, in all this the one claim that cannot be sustained is that Christianity "encouraged" science. Had that been the case, then there would not have been almost a thousand years (from roughly 300 to 1250 AD) of absolutely zero significant advances in science, in contrast with the previous thousand years (from roughly 400 BC to 300 AD), which witnessed incredible advances in the sciences in continuous succession every century, culminating in theorists whose ideas and findings came so tantalizingly close to the scientific revolution in the 2nd century AD. You can't propose a cause that failed to have an effect despite being constantly in place for a thousand years, especially when in its absence science had made far more progress. Science picked up again in the 1200's precisely where the ancients had left off, by rediscovering their findings and methods and epistemic values and continuing the process they had begun.

Sure, this was done by Christians, but only against the dominant grain, and at first only very slowly, and only by redefining what it meant to be a Christian, in a way that would have been nearly unrecognizable to the Christians of the first four centuries, and was diametrically the opposite of what Christians of the early middle ages would have tolerated. A paradigm example is the treatment of John Philopon in the 6th century, the only experimental scientist in the whole of Christian history before the 13th century: he was branded a heretic and everything he did in the sciences was effectively ignored. Though he wasn't condemned for being a scientist, he was condemned for thinking for himself in matters of theology, precisely in his effort to make science and religion compatible. But by opposing exactly that process, the Church killed any prospect for science under its watch for nearly ten whole centuries. You can call it collateral damage, but it's damage all the same. An accidentally dead Iraqi is still a victim of war, and so was medieval science a victim of Christianity.

Aquinas and Roger Bacon have been wheeled out here, but they are also paradigm examples: both post 1200 AD (hence again a thousand years too late), and both responding to the revival of ancient (pagan) scientific and philosophical literature and ways of thinking. At that point, that meant only some Aristotle--whose work was already largely obsolete even in antiquity. The real discoveries of what the ancients had achieved after him would take another century or more. But again, the new ideas under Aquinas and Bacon were not inspired by Christianity but in spite of it. They were inspired, instead, by the ideas of ancient pagans, and the challenges they posed to Christian ways of thinking.

Moreover, neither Aquinas nor Bacon did anything significant in science. Neither conducted any significant experiments or advanced any scientific field in any notable way. Bacon's protoscientific work has been much exaggerated and misrepresented in the literature, and Aquinas didn't do anything scientific at all, proto or otherwise--in fact, he fathered the "scholastic" approach to natural philosophy, which was the antithesis of science and the butt of every joke among scientists of the Renaissance. Thus, neither of them represent examples of "encouragement to science." At best they represent examples of attempting to find a compatibility between two otherwise alien ways of thinking, with mixed and insufficient results. And even then they were not representative of their times--they were both acting against the grain (the Church had only recently banned the study of Aristotle and only reluctantly changed its mind), in efforts to reconcile Christianity as-it-was with better ways of thinking. They were both arguing that Christianity had to change, and change fundamentally, to allow improvement, and yet neither of them understood science anywhere near as well as the ancients did, nor did either have any idea what the results would be of what they were asking for--had they known, they might both have changed their minds about their respective projects.

Even so, it is still wrong to say "Christianity has spent the majority of its 2000-plus years opposing science with theology, with the most brutal means at its disposal." Thomas Adams says "that’s a gross oversimplification" and he is right. That kind of claim is exaggerated and excessive. But so is the claim that Christianity never presented any obstacles to science, or that it only occasionally did so. The reality is that it constantly presented obstacles, usually indirectly but just as potently, and sometimes directly, but rarely "with the most brutal means at its disposal." In effect, using a whole arsenal of tactics, early and early medieval Christianity bitch-slapped all thinking that could have any tendency to support and inspire an embrace and pursuit of scientific values. This hostility and effort wasn't aimed at science directly, but at liberality of thought, and most of all, at the notion that only evidence available to everyone is the supreme authority in all debates of substance. The Church very definitely and actively opposed that idea. And even before the consolidation of the Church, most Christians were uniformly hostile to the whole system of scientific values, condemning them as vain, idolatrous, arrogant, and unnecessary, if not outright dangerous. It took a long, gradual process to finally change minds on that score.

From Aquinas and Bacon (and their peers) to the dawn of the scientific revolution spans a period of roughly 300 years, and it took over a thousand years for Christians to finally produce an Aquinas or a Bacon--at least in terms of actual intellectual authority and influence. In most other respects, Origen and Philopon were comparable to Aquinas and Bacon, but both were branded heretics and their scientific values rejected by Christians generally. And even in the 13th and later centuries opposition remained, despite a growing tide against it. And though that opposition has gradually dwindled ever since, it remains large and powerful enough to elect the presidents of a world superpower. It's not a problem to be regarded flippantly. This is the bugbear in Christianity's closet, and it has failed to kill it for two thousand years. Christianity must be judged by that very failure.

Likewise, Adams notes that "sure there have been conflicts, but many (if not most) of the great scientist of history have also been religious – Newton, Copernicus, etc. I myself am a Ph.D chemist and a devout Lutheran." And many of the greatest scientists in antiquity were also religious. Galen and Ptolemy were pagans. All that proves is that people can manipulate their religions to be compatible with a scientific mindset--often by compartmentalizing, i.e. only embracing scientific epistemic values when answering questions that don't challenge precious religious dogmas, which is really the issue. A religion will be capable of being made compatible with science only insofar as it restrains its dogmatic commitments far enough that science is unlikely to encroach upon them. The problem is that science always will encroach upon them eventually, and when that happens there will be only two responses to choose from: give up precious dogmas (i.e. change your religion to be compatible again with science) or stand your ground and oppose science (which is how the Intelligent Design movement has responded to evolution, for example, and soon will respond to advances in neuroscience).

Adams is right that Christianity, like all religions, can be "retooled" to go either way, but not everyone will go the same way, hence there are Christians who are okay with science, and Christians who fight it tooth and nail. The problem with religion is exactly this: it keeps around this tendency to push a segment of the population against science, even as other segments find ways to make religion and science compatible. This tension is inherent in religious thinking and will never go away until religion goes away altogether. And this is not unique to Christianity. It existed even in the pagan world before Christianity. Anaxagoras was prosecuted by the Athenians for blasphemy simply for theorizing the sun is a hot stone. Other pagans tried to launch a blasphemy prosecution against Aristarchus when he claimed the earth revolves around the sun. Lucian had a contract put out on his head for claiming the miracles of a certain cult had natural explanations in ordinary fraud. Likewise, Neoplatonism was very similar to medieval Christianity in its disinterest in empirical studies and obsession with mystical approaches to science, often through arm chair reasoning and "inspired intuition."

But there was one enormous difference: science-hating pagans never had the institutional power and clout to enforce their views on the general society (all Anaxagoras and Aristarchus had to do to avoid their influence was leave town), but the Christians achieved and maintained precisely that for many centuries, and so pervasively there was no way to escape their influence. What they did with that power was sufficiently scary that we should never want that to happen again.

-- Richard Carrier, author of Sense and Goodness without God and contributing author of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

Thuloid said...

"However, in all this the one claim that cannot be sustained is that Christianity "encouraged" science. Had that been the case, then there would not have been almost a thousand years (from roughly 300 to 1250 AD) of absolutely zero significant advances in science, in contrast with the previous thousand years (from roughly 400 BC to 300 AD), which witnessed incredible advances in the sciences in continuous succession every century, culminating in theorists whose ideas and findings came so tantalizingly close to the scientific revolution in the 2nd century AD. "

I think this is faulty reasoning. That Christianity encouraged science in specific times and places is different from the claim that Christian theology necessarily and uniformly encouraged science (which would be an obviously false claim). Christian theology and practice have been anything but uniform (one of Dave Fitzgerald's silly assumptions).

"Though he wasn't condemned for being a scientist, he was condemned for thinking for himself in matters of theology, precisely in his effort to make science and religion compatible. But by opposing exactly that process, the Church killed any prospect for science under its watch for nearly ten whole centuries. "

So far as I know, he was criticized for unusual ideas about the Trinity, but if you're right, then it most certainly lays the groundwork for my suggestion that Christianity encouraged science--you've just pointed to a Christian thinker who tried to use theology to do just that, succesfully or not. You dismiss mention of Aquinas and Bacon, but surely they did something along these lines (along with others). You mention Origen as well, and again we have criticism on a strictly theological basis. That makes me curious as to how you believe this process actually worked itself out, historically--you presume a developed (or at any rate developing) scientific ideology over some 700 years, then its rapid disappearance; but this gives no account to the variety of thinking in late antiquity. Surely it was characteristic of Christian theology in that day to borrow liberally from pagan philosophy of varying sorts; indeed, from the same pagan thinkers whom you credit for rapid scientific advances. And you say that "this hostility and effort wasn't aimed at science directly, but at liberality of thought, and most of all, at the notion that only evidence available to everyone is the supreme authority in all debates of substance. The Church very definitely and actively opposed that idea." But here we have a puzzle. The Christian scriptures and later writings were most certainly publicly available in late antiquity. Appeal to them would generally be appeal to "evidence available to everyone"--unlike, say, the teachings of many pagan cults and certain philosophical schools (and here the distinction between philosophy and religion, or between religion and magic, gets rather fuzzy). Further, you have the likes of Augustine's warning that Christians should not make fools of themselves by denying what was already publicly known among learned pagans. Such a statement cuts both ways--it shows that Augustine had cause to worry about just such a phenomenon, but it's also an assertion by the single most influential intellectual figure in Western Christianity. But then, as you say, the Church was not yet at that point what it would become. Still, the puzzle is hard to fit together--if this concept did not come from Augustine, then it must have come from elsewhere in Christian theology. Had Christianity such a swift and overwhelming cultural influence in the 3rd and 4th centuries as to blot out a 900 year course of scientific progress by itself? Which concepts were responsible for this? Surely not those (and here we speak of a broad range) adopted from pagan philosophy? Simply laying it at the feet of an attack on "liberality of thought" isn't good enough--what liberality? Characterizing classical antiquity as encouraging a general "liberality of thought" is at best simplistic, and in many cases false. Those 700 years you point to surely weren't uniform in this respect, even in any confined geographic area. And you recognize this, with stories of persecution of pagan thinkers as well. So I don't think we're far off from an answer.

But you point to authority as the culprit. Strangely, you assume that Christianity was possessed of an authority to enforce their views radically unlike what had gone before. Does this view hold up under scrutiny? As I suggested, your 700 year early scientific revolution terminates too early for Christian authority to be the culprit. If any authority terminates it, it would have to have been a pagan one, or one amenable to both Christian and pagan ideas. Constantine is no good as an answer, or even an introduction to an answer; not yet enough specifically Christian "clout" nor uniformity of thought. Further, you severely undercount the power of pagan authorities--was Rome so impotent or ideologically neutral? If Athens became hostile to a thinker, what more liberal Greek city could he have turned to? And furthermore, didn't you just explain how influence well short of brutality was usually sufficient to cripple science? That is, simply ignoring, declaiming or shunning a would-be scientist sufficing in most cases to do the job? No overwhelming power is required for this; if we apply the same standard to the ancient world, we ought to find that no science was done at all. But this isn't what we find. So somehow, the account is flawed.

I'm further concerned that we don't assume the concept of science is strictly a negative one--as if a mere lack of inhibition by religion were sufficient to support it. You say more than that, though, by way of reference to evidence available to everyone--and if this is the case, then positive philosophy and theology might have a great deal to say for or against the approach. I've no quarrel with the assertion that medieval Christianity became quite hostile to this --but the developed medieval concept of authority isn't what Christians seem to have believed in the year 400, even less in the year 200 (as best we can tell). Medieval Christianity itself was roiled by these questions; in this light, disputes about popes and councils, scripture and reason, nominalism and realism all have significance for the concept of science. Epistemology was not unhinged from metaphysics--not in the ancient or medieval worlds.

Last, I'm skeptical about this seemingly eternal (that is, ahistorical) thing you want to call the scientific mindset. It apparently doesn't belong to any period or context and has a minimum of content. You have a parallel concept in "religion"--whatever the specifics, you're speaking of some basically eternal essence. I guess you feel you have to do this, otherwise you couldn't talk about a dialectic of "science" and "religion" playing itself out in 5th century BC Athens, 13th century Italy or early 21st century America in anything like the same sense. But it looks like historical sleight-of-hand.

craig fotheringham said...

Thomas - I am an atheist, but I do agree with the basic contention of your post. There is a laziness about the arguments of Dawkins et al.

However, you also show a little bit of laziness yourself.

'Even science itself rests on philosophical foundations that cannot be ultimately proved'

'Nothing can be ultimately proved' therefore faith is always required is lazy. Nothing can be 'ultimately proved'. Yet we bump up against reality on a daily basis.

Experience, shared and verified is what allows knowledge to increase. This is what science does, and it does it very successfully.

Language and philosophical foundations are representations of reality, not reality itself. Language is capable of paradox.(e.g. 'this sentence is untrue') Language has limitations and therefore must always be judged against shared, tested reality.

'nothing can be ultimately proved' is an argument that takes place only in langauge and ignores reality.

Richard Carrier said...

Contra Thuloid:

First, let me remind everyone what I did and didn't say:

1. I did not say Christianity caused the fall of the Roman Empire (see my discussion The Rise of World Christianity), only that it failed to take up the values, especially the scientific values, that the pre-fall Romans had embraced, and that this had the effect of stalling scientific progress for a thousand years. That's an observable and undeniable fact.

2. I also never said Christianity "necessarily and uniformly" stomps out science, only that one cannot claim Christianity "encouraged" science during its first thousand years, nor can one claim Christianity didn't throw up a great many obstacles to the recovery of pagan scientific values during and after that thousand years, and to a lesser extent is still doing today.

3. I also specifically said not all Christianity does this today, but that Christianity will always generate factions that do, as it always has, and the last thing we want is to let one such faction back in power, as had been the case over those first thousand years.

Now to particulars...

4. I did not dismiss Aquinas and Bacon, but explained what their role in the history of science actually was.

5. Philopon was rejected by Christian society for many reasons, all of which were the result of his attempt to reconcile theology with what he believed to be scientific fact and reason. Philopon was also, exactly as I said, a fluke, unrepresentative of the entire religion as a movement, as history undeniably demonstrates. When your religion generates only one significant scientist in a thousand years spanning hundreds of millions of adherents, you cannot claim Christianity "encouraged" science. That's like finding a single poodle juggler in a thousand years of Christian history and claiming Christianity encouraged poodle juggling.

6. Whatever Christianity borrowed from the pagans, it didn't borrow their scientific values. As I said, there was a developing (and highly developed) scientific ideology before the age of Christian power, all of which was, indeed, abandoned, as the historical record demonstrates. Regardless of why this happened (which is a completely different matter), it happened.

7. That "appeal to" the scriptures "would generally be appeal to evidence available to everyone" unlike the supposedly secret doctrines of pagan cults and schools, is simply not true. First, there were indeed secret doctrines in the Christian Church (see the second half of my answer to an unrelated question). Second, regardless of the availability of documents, no one was allowed to interpret what they said or meant, or even choose which documents would count, except the central authority, and anyone who suggested the contrary was, as I said, bitch-slapped for even suggesting they could. That is exactly the contrary of letting actual evidence be the central authority, as is the case in science, where only consensus through persuasion, not intimidation, bribery, or coercion, establishes accepted doctrine.

8. Augustine's warning was rarely heeded. Otherwise, Lactantius, who vehemently denied the earth was round, would not have remained throughout the Western middle ages one of the most respected of Church Fathers. Moreover, Augustine's warning made no reference to the actual values of science, but simply to whatever lore he thought it would be foolish to contradict, much of which was in fact not science at all, but balderdash. And again, this is all irrelevant: the fact remains that Christianity inspired no significant science of any sort whatever for a thousand years, and opposed many of the fundamental values of science, and in the West lost a considerable amount of scientific knowledge, which it only recovered during the Renaissance, and even then it did not recover all there had been.

9. Freedom of thought not only existed, but was widely practiced and embraced, across the whole of the Roman world before Christianity came to power. The vast diversity of philosophical and scientific sects and schools demonstrates this. That could not have been the case had freethought been effectively opposed, and would not have been the case had it not been widely enough encouraged. Indeed, the phenomenon of "eclecticism," a widespread independence of thought whereby scientists and philosophers could pick and choose principles and theories from among all sects and schools as they themselves saw fit (rather than aligning themselves with only one) was the dominant intellectual fashion under the Greeks and especially the Romans. There is nothing simplistic about saying this. It is a fact of the times, a social and intellectual phenomenon that Christianity openly attacked and then effectively eliminated.

10. In contrast, as I said, the groups that opposed science in classical antiquity were small, few, rare, and ultimately powerless. That is exactly the opposite of what happened under Christianity. Neither Aristarchus nor Anaxagoras (nor any other scientist in the whole of antiquity) were killed or jailed or fined or affected in any significant way at all. Their work continued uninterrupted, and their books were faithfully preserved and disseminated--until Christians (yes, Christians) decided they weren't worth copying anymore. Hence they are lost to us. We have a hundred volumes of Jerome's inordinately boring letters, but not a single volume on Aristarchan heliocentric theory (yes, heliocentric theory--over a thousand years before Copernicus). That is the measure of medieval Christian values.

11. Sure, my "700 year early scientific revolution terminates too early for Christian authority to be the culprit," but I never said Christianity "was the culprit." To the contrary, I said even late antique paganism was almost as bad. What I did say is that Christianity as a social movement did not adopt or encourage any significant scientific work or values, at any time before it came to power, nor for a thousand years after it came to power, and therefore it is false to say that it encouraged science. Instead, it is correct to say that it maintained constant obstacles to science that had to be overcome only with considerable difficulty, and very much against the dominant grain. Perhaps, indeed, had Christianity collapsed and Neoplatonism became a universal Church in the 4th century and thereafter for a thousand years, it, too, would have failed to encourage any significant scientific thinking. In which case I would be saying the same thing I am now: religion, whether Neoplatonic or Christian, is bad for science and always will be, so long as it has any power to undermine or impede freethought, and insofar as it will (and it will) always generate antiscientific enclaves whom we will forever have to battle just to maintain the status of scientific knowledge and values.

12. Rome was not impotent, but it was ideologically neutral toward science and scientific values--until it became Christian. This is an undeniable fact of the historical record.

13. "If Athens became hostile to a thinker, what more liberal Greek city could he have turned to?" Almost anywhere. Alexandria. Rome. Rhodes. Samos. Antioch. Ephesus. Pergamum. London. Marseilles. Samos...I could list at least a dozen "more liberal" cities (where, in fact, most science in antiquity was actually done--almost none got done at Athens, in the whole history of antiquity--even most of Aristotle's scientific work was conducted on Lesbos). And under the Romans, what the Athenians attempted would have been outright illegal--which is why Lucian had to be dispatched clandestinely by assassination: his religious foes could no longer use the government to suppress his intellectual freedoms, exactly the opposite of the way things were under the thumb of the Church.

14. Thuloid asks, "didn't you just explain how influence well short of brutality was usually sufficient to cripple science?" so wouldn't what the Athenians did be sufficient "in most cases to do the job?" If there was nowhere for a scientist to go, yes. That's exactly my point: only under Christian power was there nowhere to go. Before that, there was always someplace to go--in fact, almost everywhere, so rarely was opposition realized. That's why science made steady progress for a thousand years before Christians came to power.

15. I demonstrate in my dissertation that hostility to scientific values is universal from the dawn of Christianity and consistent throughout all of its first three centuries. Even the most liberal minded men, like Origen, were only less hostile to scientific values, and those were rare men, and heretics to boot. You'll just have to wait for the publication of my next book to see why.

16. I mean by "religion" here those belief systems that place faith above evidence and reason, and then only accept evidence and reason when they do not conflict with the accepted set of faith-claims. Hence my distinction between the two options for a religious person when faced with scientific facts that contradict his faith: he can change his faith (and thus place science, and hence evidence, first in authority when choosing what to believe) or oppose science. Religion always produces the latter, even when it produces both, and that's what's wrong with it. In contrast, what I mean by "scientific ideas," "scientific values," and a "scientific mindset," all of which I intend to encompass the same essential content, is a belief that (a) universally available evidence and reason trump all authority in explaining what is and can be, (b) persuasion by appeal to observable evidence and sound logic is the only valid means of gaining consensus about the truths of this world (which entails embracing everyone's intellectual freedom to accept, reject, or propose any idea they please), and (c) it is valuable and good to devote one's life to pursuing progress in the understanding of any aspect of nature through these very means, and these means alone. The full set of values (a)-(c) represent the scientific values of which I speak.

Anonymous said...

I do not think Nietszche is a good example of someone who is a great atheist. i say this because most of the things people are criticising the church for, like killing thousands of people, Nietszche would have been fine withm its will to power.

Nietszche's criticism of religion does not hinge on whether God exists or not, it hinges on the fact that even if god existed, it would not matter because it is wring to follow his moral codes. He calls it slave morality.

In a sense, Nietszche's statement God is dead is not an atheistics statement but merely stating that god is an anachronism. one could make a comaprison to the Queen of England (though I love the Queen and support monarchy), in that she exists, but no one listens to her anyways so it does not really matter.

The difference between Dawkins and Nietszche is that nietszche doesnt care if God exists, only that people listen to him, where Dawkins is absessed with disproving God. Nietszche was basically an anti-moralist, someone who believed that individuals should dow hatever they need to to secure more power, at anyones expense. DOminance and submission are major points in his philosophy, and people overlook this. Nietszche is not criticising religion but the institution of civilised society.

Anonymous said...

There is an awful lot of crap in these comments. I got tired reading about half way through them. Here's what I think, and I'm an agnostic.

First, the question of God's existence is starkly different than the question of the existence of Zeus or the existence of unicorns. God, as understood by the Abrahamic religions at least, is the existential principle on which the existence of everything else hinges. There is only one such principle; Christianity does not imagine God as an old man snowboarding in the sky while rocking out to Iron Maiden. God is the cause of all causes, the principle of existence. The details surrounding that is what contributes, in part, to the variety of religions. When Dawkins equates it with the question of the existence of Zeus, he is in profound error. Zeus, like all pagan gods and goddesses, is an imaginative personification of natural forces and phenomenon,part and parcel of the natural order. The question of the cause of the natural order was far from the ancient Greek or pagan mind. The comparison of Zeus to God is even worse than apples to oranges, and it's even worse when you bring unicorns into the picture.

Second, Dawkins is, like other representatives of the New Atheism, unable to handle the possibility of the existence of things which seem fantastical. He is obsessed with a peculiar kind of certainty about the real. Are there little green men on Mars? I don't know. But why should it bother me? It's possible, and we may never know the answer to that question. For Dawkins, if it is impossible or really, really impractical to demonstrate the existence of something, then it does not exist. Intellectually, this is shear mediocrity and arrogance. The possibilities, due to either our ignorance or the inherent potential in the universe to realize them, are endless. To dismiss the possibilities as irrelevant or impossible is not reason. It's immature, emotional fancy.

Third, there is no such thing as a default position in logic; that's called bias. When you make an assertion, you make an assertion. That's it. You can accept the proposition "God exists", or "God doesn't exist", as a postulate, but to assign any truth value to it is to make an assertion about its truth. Occasionally, atheists will assert that they simply don't have a position about God's existence, but that's absurd. Only someone unfamiliar with the idea of God can have no position in the matter (although, he cannot claim it adamantly himself, because then he would have an idea about God, and thus, would have a position about his existence: yes, no, not sure). Atheism is no "cleaner" or "purer" of a position than theism. Assertions of atheism's supposed moral high ground or "naturalness" are pure fantasy, intended to induce feelings of comfort in their asserter.

Fourth, neither the Church or Catholic theology has every been opposed to "science". The opposition is largely the product of atheists all too eager to create a palatable, comic book picture wherein the Church is the antithesis of science. Historically, the Church is credited with the rise of science (note that science didn't go very far in any civilization except in the West). The reasons are too many to address, but Jaki offers an interesting elaboration of the subject.

In that vein, there is nothing a New Atheist loves citing more than the Galileo affair. The Galileo affair is frequently presented in sweeping mythological fashion about how the Good, Great Science was attacked by the evil, backwards Church. See http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0005.html

Anonymous said...

There is an awful lot of crap in these comments. I got tired reading about half way through them. Here's what I think, and I'm an agnostic.

First, the question of God's existence is starkly different than the question of the existence of Zeus or the existence of unicorns. God, as understood by the Abrahamic religions at least, is the existential principle on which the existence of everything else hinges. There is only one such principle; Christianity does not imagine God as an old man snowboarding in the sky while rocking out to Iron Maiden. God is the cause of all causes, the principle of existence. The details surrounding that is what contributes, in part, to the variety of religions. When Dawkins equates it with the question of the existence of Zeus, he is in profound error. Zeus, like all pagan gods and goddesses, is an imaginative personification of natural forces and phenomenon,part and parcel of the natural order. The question of the cause of the natural order was far from the ancient Greek or pagan mind. The comparison of Zeus to God is even worse than apples to oranges, and it's even worse when you bring unicorns into the picture.

Second, Dawkins is, like other representatives of the New Atheism, unable to handle the possibility of the existence of things which seem fantastical. He is obsessed with a peculiar kind of certainty about the real. Are there little green men on Mars? I don't know. But why should it bother me? It's possible, and we may never know the answer to that question. For Dawkins, if it is impossible or really, really impractical to demonstrate the existence of something, then it does not exist. Intellectually, this is shear mediocrity and arrogance. The possibilities, due to either our ignorance or the inherent potential in the universe to realize them, are endless. To dismiss the possibilities as irrelevant or impossible is not reason. It's immature, emotional fancy.

Third, there is no such thing as a default position in logic; that's called bias. When you make an assertion, you make an assertion. That's it. You can accept the proposition "God exists", or "God doesn't exist", as a postulate, but to assign any truth value to it is to make an assertion about its truth. Occasionally, atheists will assert that they simply don't have a position about God's existence, but that's absurd. Only someone unfamiliar with the idea of God can have no position in the matter (although, he cannot claim it adamantly himself, because then he would have an idea about God, and thus, would have a position about his existence: yes, no, not sure). Atheism is no "cleaner" or "purer" of a position than theism. Assertions of atheism's supposed moral high ground or "naturalness" are pure fantasy, intended to induce feelings of comfort in their asserter.

Fourth, neither the Church or Catholic theology has every been opposed to "science". The opposition is largely the product of atheists all too eager to create a palatable, comic book picture wherein the Church is the antithesis of science. Historically, the Church is credited with the rise of science (note that science didn't go very far in any civilization except in the West). The reasons are too many to address, but Jaki offers an interesting elaboration of the subject.

In that vein, there is nothing a New Atheist loves citing more than the Galileo affair. The Galileo affair is frequently presented in sweeping mythological fashion about how the Good, Great Science was attacked by the evil, backwards Church. See http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0005.html