Quote of the week: Peter Atkins on woo and faith

This is from an article (reference below) that I offered to send to readers, and many took me up on it. The quote is from pp. 99-100, and remember that for Atkins the “paranormal” includes religion.

True scientific revolutions are utterly distinct from the revolutions proposed by those who hanker for the paranormal. Real scientists have no time for the reports of such phenomena. Indeed, they scorn the reports and regard all practitioners as contemptible charlatans. Although such scornful attitudes are seen by some as politically incorrect, and at worse a conspiracy of the scientific establishment to trample underfoot the green shoots of unorthodoxy, there is good reason to believe that all claims of authentic paranormal observations are hogwash. First, there are no authenticated, reliable observations of phenomena that cannot be explained by the principles of conventional science. Second, whereas true scientific observations are like a canvas stretched over a frame of theory, purported paranormal phenomena are isolated pimples of whimsical speculation that are not grounded in a coherent corpus of knowledge. Third, were purported paranormal phenomena ever to be authenticated, they would devastate the whole structure of science, for most of them strike at two of its great foundations, the conservation of energy and causality. It is simply silly to assert in opposition to this remark that because there is a conspiracy among scientists to preserve these two pillars of rationality, intellectual police are sent to exterminate the first sign of the paranormal. If either foundation were overthrown by careful experiments on elementary particles, then there would be a Nobel prize for the overthrower; but to suppose that these two principles are best tested in the equivalent of the gambling halls of Las Vegas is frankly absurd.

One aspect of the paranormal versus real science should not go unremarked. As in other forms of obscurantist pursuit, such as religion, it is so easy to make time-wasting speculations. The paranormal is effectively unconstrained whimsicality. Original suggestions in real science emerge only after detailed study and the lengthy and often subtle process of testing whether current concepts are adequate. Only if all this hard work fails is a scientist justified in edging forward human understanding with a novel and possibly revolutionary idea. Real science is desperately hard work; the paranormal is almost entirely the fruit of armchair fantasizing. Real science is a regal application of the full power of human intellect; the paranormal is a prostitution of the brain. Worst of all, it wastes time and distorts the public’s vision of the scientific endeavour.

This is a man who is fed up with theology—as we all should be. I was talking to a famous secularist the other day, who will remain unnamed, who told me that theology was intellectually worthless because it had no real object of study: theologians simply analyze the thoughts of other theologians, immersed in a never-ending (and never progressing) stream of intellectual pablum.

I’ve read theology for a year now, and have to agree. Theology is the biggest waste of time in the history of human intellect. (I’m talking about academic thought here; if you count “all thought”, then replace “theology” with “religion.”) It makes no progress (except to discard the tenets that science disproves) and reaches no conclusions about either the existence or nature of gods.

Here is a serious question: has theology ever contributed anything to the progress of humanity?

_____________

Atkins, P. 1995. Science as truth. History of the human sciences 8:97-102.

138 Comments

  1. Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I’ve said it numerous times and I’ll say it again;

    Theology……the practice of making nonsense sound important whilst solving nothing.

  2. Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    This question would have been better phrased as: Has theology ever contributed anything positive to the progress of humanity?

    And the most honest and direct answer one could offer is NO, absolutely zero, unless, of course, one is ready to suggest that the continual slaughter of body and intellect is progress.

  3. Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I was talking to a famous secularist the other day, who will remain unnamed, who told me that theology was intellectually worthless because it had no real object of study: theologians simply analyze the thoughts of other theologians, immersed in a never-ending (and never progressing) stream of intellectual pablum.

    That quote right there said it all. Money-shot!

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      Yes. In fact, a rather vulgar phrase came to mind. Pardon if anyone finds it offensive: circle jerk.

      • Scott near Berkeley
        Posted January 1, 2013 at 12:46 am | Permalink

        Since this is the supposed “Year of the Mayan”, perhaps an image from “The Conquest of New Spain” by Bernal Diaz.

        The Spanish found that the Mayan priests engaged in a ritual in which each priest stuck his penis in the anus of the priest in front of him, until an entire circle of Mayan priests were joined as one, and moved as one in a ritual “dance”.

        At least the Mayan religion had a more physical basis. Not sure what the metaphysics were…probably lost to history.

  4. Matthew Cobb
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I suggest you tweet the pope this question. Srsly. Ypu’re unlikely to get any nay-sayers on WEIT, after all.

    • Achrachno
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      I’ll say nay!: theology has never contributed anything to human progress. But, ask the pope anyway — results might be amusing.

  5. abandonwoo
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Theology/Religion comprises a near-impermeable barrier for the apprehension of reality. Dismantling that barrier presents a challenge nearly as great as actual comprehension of reality.

  6. Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Theology is navel-gazing. The only benefit to humankind I can think of is perhaps keeping useless human beings out of everyone else’s way. But that possible benefit is more than equaled out by the harm that theology and its “my imaginary friend is better than yours so I’ll kill you” nonsense causes.

  7. jedisond
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I must have missed your post where you offered to send this paper to readers. If it’s not too late could you send it to me, please. Thank you!

    jedisond

    • Marella
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      You need to email Jerry to ask for it. Google him at Chicago University to find his address.

  8. freegrazer
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    !What would qualify as progress of humanity? Destroying the planet and poisoning everyone with pollution and never ending cancer of every kind, even in children? Creating endless things that we don’t need to survive but the side effects of such things actually cause us to die. Even overpopulation that many of you say is a terrible problem is caused by this same thing that you call progress of humanity and increase of intellect, religion has caused none of these problems. I’m not for religion but I am for the truth and the truth is that the pursuit of scientific advancement has thrown the world.out of balance and I would not call that progress or intellectually superior, not to mention what a boring world we would live in without whimsy, supernatural, paranormal ponderimgs, you consider them a waste of time but at least they don’t cause cancer and pollution or superbugs.

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      over population: see religion’s oppopsition to birth control

      and if you don’t like scientific advancement, I do have a nice mud hut for you with no modern food, no modern medicine, etc. But I suspect that as long as you get what you want, those bits of science are just fine and dandy.

      Pity that so much of that “whimsy” and supernatural nonsense gets people harmed when such things are used and fail miserably. Yep, golly, let’s waste time and money on hunting ghosts and bigfeet.

      • freegrazer
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        You are going to force me to get technical huh?
        Birth rate is not the highest contributing factor in overpopulation, it is food production levels and modern medicine which result in less deaths and extremely longer lifespans. I seriously doubt that you have a mud hut, but I do, I have it all decked out with electricity that we wired ourselves and I use a wifi hotspot connection to get on the internet which I do enjoy. I didn’t say I won’t use science’s gifts, I even enjoy learning about sciency things sometimes, I’m just saying give credit where credit is due. I don’t have running water, but I would go to the hospital or take my kids if their lives were in danger but we haven’t been in several years. I was born into this time and raised in a normal suburban lifestyle and it’s hard to go back, but I’m just saying that we could’ve survived like the Native Americans and all lived in balance with nature and never had any of these problems that science created. How is whimsy used exactly, I don’t get that, and people are going to waste their money on whatever they feel like, how does hunting for bigfoot or ghosts harm you, besides they use equipment that came about through science. What about the higgs boson, I agree that it is interesting but how does it help humanity and how much money and time was spent to figure that out, if we lived in balance we wouldn’t even need “money” we could just trade goods that actually keep us alive, I’m not proposing a solution because it will never happen, I’m just putting forth an idea that can be thought about and you can see where our modern problems have truly come from.

        • wildhog
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

          I think it might be helpful to this side conversation to acknowledge the difference between science (the pursuit of knowledge through empirical means) and technology (the use of advanced tools to accomplish some goal).

          And I will say that the “if you dont like science, get a mud hut” defense does not get technology off the hook for what its done to the planet. Technology may make some things better, but it has certainly made a lot of things worse, especially if you can shed your human perspective and look at the world from the broader perspective of all living things.

          If a nuclear war destroys all life on earth, the blood will be on the hands of technology far more than on religion. For the worst religion can do is give us one more reason to fight. But we have no shortage of things to fight about, and never have. In fact a multitude of other species fight, and the world doesnt end. It will be technology that makes the fight the end life on earth.

          • freegrazer
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

            This is what I’m saying.

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

              techonology is not a responsible thing. It takes an action to decide to use a techonology for benefit or harm. Atomic power can be very beneficial (see radation treatments) or harmful like those bombs. Now, say we had the science of nuclear physics. IT can lead to technology, part of which is bombs. What causes people to want and to use these bombs? Technology? If so how? I would argue that it is other things, religion, politics, greed, that is the harmful factor here, not the technology that can be abused.

              • Marta
                Posted January 1, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

                “techonology is not a responsible thing. It takes an action to decide to use a techonology for benefit or harm.”

                While I can’t say that I disagree, necessarily, with this idea, I can say that it makes me . . . uncomfortable, as it isn’t difficult to substitute “gun” for “technology”. You do that, you’ve got the much debatable “guns don’t kill people, people do” thing, and the wheels come off.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

                @ Marta

                The technology would be our knowledge of combustion, ballistics, the strengths of different metals and alloys, etc. All of this is worthwhile and useful knowledge. The question is “why do we want to use our knowledge to build guns?”. So you can still say technology (knowledge) is not a problem, but guns are a problem.

          • Posted January 1, 2013 at 3:11 am | Permalink

            It’s hard to imagine that we would be better off without modern medicine and the increases in production that have made it possible for those in the west not to live hand to mouth.

            But, we have some serious problems to deal with, including climate change, population, and the distribution of wealth (locally and world wide). The people who are holding back solutions to such problems now appear to be highly correlated with the religious right wing in the U.S. and similarly in other countries.

            We have to accept the technological advances that have been made and they are a good thing provided we can learn how to manage them; and that’s going to require a higher proportion of decision makers to act rationally.

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          yep, there we go, the person who is so offended by technology that they don’t benefit from but oh when they do, that techonology is just fantastic and we simply must have it! Oh boo! high yield agriculture but yay! for internet access for you. Hypocrisy at its finest.

          As for birth rates, religion keeps them as high as it can. Is it the only reason, nope, but you said that ” religion has caused none of these problems” and that is simply not true.

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

          Science doesn’t force people to lengthen their lives. In fact, religion is most often behind attempts to criminalize euthanasia, etc, while more scientific-minded liberals advocate for choice in dying.

          Scientific methodology allows us to learn what’s going on around us, how things work. That’s all. We can use that knowledge to improve our circumstances, or in some cases, the opposite. But science doesn’t force us to go one way or the other. To talk about what we do with our knowledge you’ll have to talk about human nature.

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      “scientific advancement has thrown the world.out of balance”

      When exactly do you believe the world was “in” balance?

      • freegrazer
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        I would say that the way Native Americans lived was “in balance” with nature. That doesn’t change that there are natural disasters and such as and the like. I understand that you’re implying that there has always been natural turbulence and extinctions and disasters, but how does religion further that or how does science and intellectual thinking about reality lessen that. The question was how can humanity progress, and you are talking about the things that humans can’t control one way or another, I’m talking about the stuff we have messed up.

        • Achrachno
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

          Native Americans had no scientific understanding of game management and so killed off many (probably most) of their prey species. They were hardly in balance, even if they were in some respects.

          • freegrazer
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

            That is completely not true, we had a very good understanding of game management and how to conserve our resources. When Europeans came to North America, they were the ones who hunted food species to such low numbers and even extinction, they even hunted the predators, (wolves, bears, jaguars) because they were afraid of them and couldn’t live with them like we Natives did. The Europeans also trapped beaver and other fur animals to near extinction. I don’t know where you got your info from but that is so wrong and easily learned through a little studying of history.

            • lkr
              Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

              Dude: Go to la Brea museum and take a look at the lost megafauna. Did the Euros take out camels, elephants, s[t tigers, lions,sloths…? Report back when you’ve done your homework.

              • freegrazer
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

                Are you talking about prehistoric animals? There is a reason they call it prehistoric. I’m talking about buffalo, turkey, deer, elk, beaver, wolves, and many other modern species that lived in the historically known years, all those animals where plentiful in number and yet hunted and depended upon for survival by the Natives which proves they understood the balance required.

            • freegrazer
              Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

              To clarify, I’m saying the people who inhabited North America in the few hundred years before Europeans arrived and the study of the culture that they had at the time the Europeans did arrive. I personally believe that is a balanced great way to live and am not trying to argue aboriginal cultures all over the earth in any and every time period, that was never my meaning.

              • Notagod
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                While I don’t agree with several of your statements I do agree that the American Indian culture regarding harmony with other creatures and respect for the natural environment is commendable. However, most religions including christianity don’t have those attributes, christianity has an underlying concept that equates to, use all resources on the planet, as their gods have provided those resources for human consumption and that the planet is intended for temporary use until the christian gods are finished with their testing. That is part of the problem with religions like christianity, without that religious overtone people would likely understand the true nature of their existence on the planet and would be more concerned about leaving a healthy environment for their children. Instead of trying to bring on the “end times” so that they have a chance of being one of their god’s chosen few.

                Hunting ghosts and bigfoot may not be bad in isolation but when presented as fact instead of fantasy it warps their perception of reality and makes them susceptible to other forms of deception which can be harmful to the planet and its inhabitants as well.

              • Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                This is the myth of the noble savage. In fact the native Americans exploited the ecology just as much as they could, to the extent, for instance, of driving herds of buffalo off cliffs when they could only harvest a few. The same is true of many primitive societies:- Easter Island, for instance, is widely seen as the site of an early ecological catastrophe triggered by the natives. The reality is that in primitive societies life was nasty, brutish and short…

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

              evidence for this claim. Not just wishful thinking, FG. Yeesh, you are as bad as the GOP wiht their delusionsn about how wonderful the 1950s are. I do like your being utterly clueless on how native americans did anything and wanting to draw some imaginary line between “prehistoric” animals and the ones we see now. You don’t know much about biology either, unsurprisingly.

              Mankind is part of nature, as is our actions. We are not some magical thing placed here seperate from everything else. You have decided that you want to believe in some idiotic “noble savage” myth and have made that up along with your Christianity. A complete woomeister, willfully ignorant but sure you’re something special.

              • Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                Hmm… the prehistoric animals that are prehistoric only because they were wiped out before the current era…

                /@

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

          You’re fetishizing Aboriginal histories, then. Easter Island is a perfect example of resource depletion among less technologically advanced societies–as is the “Big Kill” of some 60 megafaunal species across North America over 1000 years (and some 50 in Australia), whereby newly arrived human populations found animals that had never had a chance to evolve alongside such predators (and as such were rather easy prey to hunt in large numbers). The implication is clear pretty much wherever you look in the paleontological timeline: the notion of finite resources took some time for us to wrap our heads around–and I highly doubt the religious conviction that this world was made *for* us, to serve our needs in every way, much helped in this regard as it advanced through linguistically-recorded history. (You can see that attitude of entitlement today among many Evangelical communities in the US.) Now, however, we recognize the world can and does survive without us, and, aided by extensive ecological and biological field research, are learning to manage the resources we need accordingly.

          “The question was how can humanity progress, and you are talking about the things that humans can’t control one way or another, I’m talking about the stuff we have messed up.”

          I take it you haven’t read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined? To that book recommendation I would add David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo and also Monster of God, (to get a better sense in particular of how notions of animality and resource management have progressed throughout the common era).

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

            While the mystic nature fetish troll is incorrect at all counts,* it is a counter fetish to hold up our own cultural failings and strike the victims with them. The Easter Island “ecocide” is so far from a perfect example to be a near certain myth, and the cause was European contact (rats for the forests, diseases and relocation for the indigens) as in so many other places:

            *** The myth and its causes ***

            “Diamond’s thesis about what happened on Easter Island is not new, building as it did on presumptions originally offered by the first Europeans to set foot on the island in the early 18th century. Sadly, this thesis was not challenged because it so conveniently confirmed 18th century prejudice about superior (European) and inferior (everyone not European) societies. Thor Heyerdahl expanded the story and added a further racist twist about lighter-skinned people who accomplished much, and darker-skinned people who incited rebellion, warfare, and ruin. Diamond simply continues the tradition by reworking the tale to remove the racist elements, relying instead upon an environmental twist put forth by popular writer Bahn and palynologist Flenley.”

            *** The facts, according to archaeologists ***

            “When the habitations are plotted in fifty-year intervals, the number of those occupied clearly shows that the first and only sustained decline, as a relative measure of the population, began only in the first interval following European contact. Before contact the data show a population that is growing and stabilizing, as reflected in their habitations across the landscape. There is no evidence of population decline, let alone “collapse” until after European contact. Indeed, there is direct, abundant evidence that population numbers grew, stabilized, and then fell only after 1722.”

            “There are those such as popular writer Paul Bahn and and palynologist John Flenley who continue to push the old doomsday, “ecocide” scenario. But recent work has shown the central significance of lithic mulch (e.g., Bork et al. 2004; Stevenson et al. 2005; Ladefoged et al. 2010; Wozniak 1999, 2003), the lack of evidence for an 1680 AD “Collapse” event (e.g., Mulrooney et al. 2009, Lipo and Hunt 2009), that mata’a are not developed weapons (Church and Rigney 1994; Church and Ellis 1995), the lack of structural integrity of palms to serve as rollers or use as canoes (e.g., Bork and Meith 2003), the lack of evidence for cannibalism (e.g., McLaughlin 2005), the shorter chronology for colonization not just for Easter, but for the entire eastern Pacific (e.g., Kennett et al. 2006; Reith et al. 2011; Wilmshurst et al. 2008, 2011), the devastating effects that rats have on island environments (e.g., Athens 2009), details about the impact that Europeans had on historic populations (e.g., Fischer 2005), direct evidence about statue transport based on analysis of moai roads (e.g., Lipo and Hunt 2005; Love 2001), the inherently nutrient poor state of soil on Rapa Nui (e.g., Ladefoged 2005) and more. These new findings point to the growing body of evidence that falsifies the basic claims made in favor of “ecocide.” And based on this evidence, the majority of archaeologists working on Easter and elsewhere in Polynesia now reject the notion that the island suffered a pre-European collapse.”

            [ http://www.marklynas.org/2011/10/the-easter-island-ecocide-never-happened-response-to-jared-diamond/ ]

            I’m a bit tired of the seeming myth. Why isn’t the archaeological results accepted and made well known?

            * It is the paranormal which is “isolated pimples of whimsical speculation” instead of a canvas over theopry, as Atkins say. And we have the observations of megafauna and continental forests extinctions mostly caused by hunterer/gatherers respectively early agrarians both.

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

              Agreed. This clinging to a ‘perfect’ myth drives me nuts especially when each and every time I counter it, the person just does not want to know. Nice to know a kindred spirit. :-)

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for posting this, Torbjörn Larsson. I can appreciate your exhaustion, but this is the first I’ve heard of other theories for Easter Island, despite having read about the shifted colonization dates. I’ll absolutely give this research a fair and open-minded read–thanks for your ample citations to that end!

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

                Ah, I’m sorry! It was recently mentioned on WEIT (well, a few weeks ago), so that was why I was exhausted by proxy. Nothing personal!

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                Also, I’m no archaeologist, so I’m relying on a fair assessment from these archaeologists. They do have set their reputation on the table.

            • Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

              Not sure that the case is so clear cut. See, for instance, http://www.marklynas.org/2011/09/the-myths-of-easter-island-jared-diamond-responds/. Looks like the science has got entangled with the the myth of the noble savage, which is another of those contentious issues where people tend to lose their objectivity. I haven’t done enough reading to take sides, although at first sight the rats/euro hypothesis seems a little suspect; but then I have a tendency to be thoroughly skeptical of noble savage ideas, so that might be affecting my judgement.

            • peter
              Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

              I also am interested to read about opposing opinions by serious archaeologists.

              But there’s just a couple of impressions that one might get from reading these quotes that Torbjorn provided, impressions which I think are not correct (not his doing of course).

              (1) Jarred Diamond is the last person anyone should feel is favouring ‘European man’s supposed superiority’ (in fact, exactly the opposite!), even if he has possibly gone along with a theory which had existed partly from early motivations along those lines. This is very clear from reading the 2nd and 3rd of his major books, “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse”. Furthermore, in the Easter Island portion of the latter book, he was much more tentative than the impression given here, I think.

              (2) The word “ecocide” is used without definition. If it is intended to mean something about ecology ruination causing major collapse of the population doing the ruining, he and others may be wrong, but the evidence in both directions is not terribly strong in my opinion. But if it means that a semi-tropical forest, which existed in abundance without a break for tens of thousands of years on Easter Island, and collapsed to essentially zero in relatively ‘the blink of an eyelash’ after humans first settled there, and before Europeans arrived, that seems to be settled and agreed to by all these people. Whether or not the human culture there took a major nosedive as a result of complete deforestation is the main dispute, I think. The original settlers brought the rats, not the Europeans. And anyway, I think there is substantial agreement that, whatever the rats did to ‘help’, it was the cutting down by humans that was the biggest factor by far causing the deforestation. The later terrible treatment of the aboriginal inhabitants by Europeans he makes very clear in that book.

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

          “Are you talking about prehistoric animals? There is a reason they call it prehistoric.”

          Let me add Daniel Smail Lord’s On Deep History and the Brain to that reading list. “Prehistory” used to be measured in Western civilization as the time before the “Universal Deluge” (The Flood from the story of Noah’s Ark); only rather recently did we shift to using Sumer (the birth of written language) as the fulcrum by which we decided what is and isn’t history, and even that is predicated in large part on maintaining the same general length of “historical” time for our culture. So your comment only affirms the way in which religious thinking has created arbitrary cut-offs in the historical record.

          The trouble is, while Sumer takes us back ~6000 years, human beings have been on this planet for some 100,000-200,000 years–and modern scientific advancements, coupled with linguistic archaeology, now allow us to plot human history through genetic traces and paleolithic dig sites. (Remember, too, that the oldest cave paintings go back 90,000 years.) So we absolutely do know plenty even about human peoples that did not have written languages; they don’t exist in some amorphous historical plane removed from our normative timeline of human advancement.

          And as for your broader complaint with technology… would you at least be willing to watch the National Geographic documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyRa5P6xVo8 It’ll give you a clearer sense of how technological advancement was a rather inevitable component of existing on fertile lands that allowed for non-subsistence-level labor. Unless you’re suggesting that we should all exist like the modern-day Aboriginal persons of Papua New Guinea?

        • peter
          Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

          “…I would say that the way Native Americans lived was “in balance” with nature…”

          An “.. American” is a resident of North or South America. You would therefore presumably regard as being in balance with nature the practice child sacrifice, as practised by some Native Americans (as you call them—presumably aboriginal is a more accurate use of words—I am an native american, since I was born in america, though not necessarily a USian—so it seems like many USians suffer from ignorance of both words “native” and “american”).

          But this does raise a likely answer (from the pope perhaps) to Coyne’s last question. That answer would be that the good to humanity is the replacement of some exceedingly harmful pile of religious superstition with a new, claimed to be less harmful, pile of religious superstition. Hardly an answer, since it likely has little to do with any theologian.

    • Filippo
      Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      For starters:

      I notice that you decline to critique Biz-ness capitalist private corporate tyrannies which consider productive and creative science and engineering types their handmaidens, and consider flesh-and-blood human beings “human resources” and “human capital.” Do you yourself like the idea of some corporate popinjay viewing you as merely and solely a “resource”?

      Is it the science and engineering types who attempt to manipulate people to buy stuff they don’t need or want? Who poo-poo with their woo-woo vaccines?

      “Even overpopulation that many of you say is a terrible problem is caused by this same thing that you call progress of humanity . . . .”

      Why don’t you say whether you think overpopulation is a problem? Is it? In non-human organisms, overpopulation results in Nture’s response – starvation and death. Humans have somewhat held that off – so far. Do you think the Earth has an unlimited carrying capacity?

      Is genital mutilation “whimsy”?

  9. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Atkins FTW

    public thanks again to JC!

  10. Barry Lyons
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Again, permit me to quote Sam Harris. This time I found the exact quote (on page 5) of “Letter to a Christian Nation”:

    “Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion.”

    Can’t imagine what could be added to that. Wait a sec, I can. In fact, it’s a tweet of mine from not too long ago: “Heaven, Hell, Narnia: it’s all make-believe.”

  11. Alex Shuffell
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Theologians remind me of the million monkeys bashing at typewriters waiting for Shakespeare to emerge. A thousand theologians throwing thoughts at paper for a thousand years produces religion. Both groups are just making stuff up as they go along. The only difference is the theologian monkeys can usually have a bit of literary education.

  12. Grania Spingies
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Theology exists to make intelligent, educated believers feel better about believing in a religion based on obviously flawed, plagiarized and internally inconsistent and incoherent texts.

    To that end it probably succeeds.

  13. Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the question of whether god exists is a legitimate philosophical (and scientific) question. Theologians have decided he DOES exist and so theology is the study of Gods personality and his long list of pet peeves. I agree that its worthless but I’d love to see a rigorous attack on it from someone with serious training. For example, theologians have invented a whole list of terms and techniques for justifying the existence of God. One of these is ‘necessary being’. This idea was invented for the sole purpose of getting Gods foot in the door and has absolutely no use in the real world.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Those rigorous attacks exist. All you have to do is read books like Godless by Dan Barker, or anything by John Loftus. Those guys were trained as preachers, know tons about theology, and then became atheists. As for “necessary being,” there are plenty of refutations of that, and you don’t have to look far to find them. By the way, you don’t have to be a theologian to find the problems with mishigass like “necessary being.”

      • Achrachno
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Mishigass — my word for the day. Had to look it up: “Yiddish word meaning eccentric or crazy.”

      • Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

        OK I’ll check those out. I suppose I haven’t exactly done a rigorous search….but then again I’m not scheduled to debate William Lane Craig. Why haven’t the 70 or so people who have debated him bothered to research this topic. Craig wins debates by leading his opponents through a theological labyrinth of specious arguments. I’ve never seen anyone challenge him on these.

        • Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

          As far as I can tell, he (WLC) does the equivalent of the so-called “Gish gallop”, which is one reason I would never debate such slimeballs. (Even if I were a good speaker, which I am not, really.) The problem is that it is very easy to rattle off a whole bunch of unsupported assertions (or lies) and with fixed time limits one cannot then counter them, as it always takes longer to actually argue for something or present evidence than to simply make the opposing assertion.

      • peter
        Posted January 1, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        Coyne’s comment about “necessary being” is a bit vague, but I wouldn’t disagree.

        Relevant to this is the infamous “Ontological Argument”, which came up here a few months ago, and which should certainly be dismissed as being at all convincing as a valid argument, in my view and that of lots of others more competent than me. But in some respects, here it was dismissed in a rather shallow way. So I have since spent some time learning better what has been done on this by at least ostensibly serious scholars, if only to satisfy myself that Godel and Dana Scott certainly did correct formal logic on this, as would be shocking had they not, and however unconvincing that fact becomes after being supplemented with an attempt to make it applicable to a notorious existence question in a dubious academic pursuit called theology.

        So I was motivated by Coyne to look up the relevant article on “necessary existence” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia, by someone from philosophy at CSU, San Bernardino. Well, it is hard to read through some of this kind of stuff, so I soon skipped down to the bottom, to a recommended online paper by another called Tony Roy (from the same institution, but I suppose one ought not to hold that too much against the Stanford article—a bit too ad hominem! But it is hard not to wonder which one supervised the Ph.D. of the other!)

        This latter paper is a kind of so-called philosophical logic, as done by some 21st century philosophers. As often is the case, it apparently totally ignores the real advances in logic in the last 100 or more years by people who mostly regard themselves as mathematicians. You just get a few sentences into the paper when the guy gives a couple of examples to motivate what he is doing. Both examples have the same unfortunate but predictable property of confusing syntax with semantics. That would have been excusable before Frege around 1890, though unfortunately was indulged in a bit (as Godel criticized) by Russell/Whitehead, although they did do valuable stuff. But subsequent to 1930, nobody worth bothering with makes this blunder. It seems that much of even the technical side of modern philosophy is just not worth the bother.

        If you’ll indulge me just a bit, it really is simple. These guys seem to not even understand the difference between

        (1) saying that

        (A&B—>C) —> [(A--->C)or(B--->C)]

        (the syntactic “or” above) is a tautology in propositional logic, certainly the case; and

        (2) saying that if you have a logical proof of C from A&B, then either you have one of C from A, or you have one of C from B. This latter is of course false in propositional logic and any other logic taken seriously , and certainly does not follow from the previous tautology.

        Understanding this kind of thing should be one of the first things you try to get into the heads of beginning students in mathematical logic. Even “(A—>B)or(B—>C)” is a tautology, for crying out loud. It leads to an even more ridiculously false statement about proving things, if you can fool yourself as badly with this syntax/semantics confusion as above.

        We don’t live forever. So sometimes I think that work, supposedly in formal logic, whose references avoid anything by mathematicians, should not even begin to be read. And most modal logic and similar, other than provability logic and computer science things like dynamic logic, seem to be in that unfortunate category.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:10 am | Permalink

          Could you kindly define your operators ̶̶> and —> (sorry, that’s the best my keyboard/character map can provide). I’m not being facetious. I’d like to try and understand your point, but don’t know what these symbols mean.

          • peter
            Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, all 6 are just material implication from standard propositional logic.

            To be thorough, I prefer to take ‘not’ and ‘and’ as fundamental, neither involving any ambiguity when you come to semantics. Many do take the arrow as fundamental, simply because it occurs so often. And somehow some of my arrows were broken, some not, when it came back on this computer, but they are all the same. So with ‘not’ and ‘and’ as fundamental, the arrow is just an abbreviation:

            A—>B means not(A and not B)

            Hope this suffices.

            • HaggisForBrains
              Posted January 3, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

              If you’ll indulge me just a bit, it really is simple.

              OK, in spite of your “explanation”, I still don’t see how simple it is. Perhaps I’ll do an Open University masters in logic, then come back. Thanks anyway.

              • peter
                Posted January 3, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

                Maybe this will help: The error is to take a formula in propositional logic which happens to be a tautology (i.e. any truth evaluation of its basic ingredients yields ‘true’ for the formula) and translate it as an argument (i.e. some hypotheses, then a conclusion). Every 20th century logician should know that often fails, in that the argument can be invalid.(See the reply below to logicophilosophicus also.)

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

          And even these characters look different from what I typed!

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted January 3, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

          I couldn’t follow your symbolic logic at all. Also, I’m not clear which articles you were referring to – so somewhat lost. If you could spell out more clearly the logical error you found, and where/how exactly it was phrased in the original, I’d be interested. I might be able to comment usefully – it’s a while back, but I have studied formal logic at a serious level.

          • peter
            Posted January 3, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

            (See also my reply to Haggisforbrains above.)

            The article is

            Roy, Tony, “Making Sense of Relevant Semantics”

            which is easy to get online, and occurs at the bottom of the (pathetic) Stanford Encyclopedia essay entitled “God and other necessary beings.”

            At the start of the article we find two clearly fallacious (Roy realizes) arguments in English. Here is one:

            “If Bob is a rational animal then Bob is human. So if Bob is rational then Bob is human, or if Bob is animal then Bob is human.”

            That ‘comes’ (Roy thinks–haha!) exactly from the tautology I wrote down, namely

            (A&B–>C)–>[(A-->C)or(B-->C)],

            by taking

            A to be “Bob is rational”;

            B to be “Bob is an animal”;

            C to be “Bob is human”.

            (The formula certainly is a tautology–exercise.)

            The other fallacious argument is just as easily analyzed. Roy regards these as “paradoxes of implication”.

            I probably regard Roy and his ilk as ‘paradoxes of tenure at institutions which call themselves universities’. The patheticness
            (or patheticality! maybe patheticity!)) of theology extends to philosophy in many,many instances, and not just at cow colleges in the U.S.A. I’d guess that 90% of articles closely related to modal logic, and written by faculty members in philosophy departments, are just plain garbage. You’ll have no trouble finding plenty of such articles.

  14. M Janello
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    A common defense of religion is that it is a source of great music and art, and as a musician I’ve wrestled with this for many years. (I’ve always thought that Stephen J. Gould’s NOM idea was partly a way for him to rationalize his profound enjoyment of Bach and other sacred music (he was an amateur choir singer).)

    But some years ago I decided that ‘source’ or ‘inspiration’ for music was wrong and that ‘parasite’ was a better term.

    Religious institutions take (and shape the development of, I will not deny) the power of music and harness it to their own ends. Some of those ends coincide with the production of things beautiful and moving, but this beautiful music is beautiful because it is music not because of its religious message.

    I mean, the reason that the Iliad is so powerful and moving isn’t that Zeus is real, nor does it support the idea that Zeus is real, though proponents of Christianity often conflate the historical support of churches for art, architecture, and music (and put charity in there, too) with churches being therefore virtuous, with Christianity being therefore true.

    I now think of all of it as opera, and suspend disbelief as necessary.

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Indeed.

      I’m always freshly dismayed when I encounter a musician who doesn’t seem to perceive the real, musical reasons for a piece’s greatness, or for the effect it has on listeners. They’re far too eager to give credit to the religious subject matter of the text.

      The opening Kyrie from the B-minor mass would be no less magnificent and give me no fewer goosepimples were it to have a completely secular or even mundane text.

      Actually, the text is rather mundane, come to think about it.

      • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        Enjoying “religious” music no more implies belief in the subject matter than does, say, enjoying the Ring Cycle or the Lemminkäinen Suite.

        /@

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

          Amen.

          Just because I’m deeply moved by any of a number of Masses doesn’t mean I give a flying fuck for Christianity, any more than the fact that I find the Ring to be unspeakably powerful means I worship Wotan or that I think Monteverdi’s Orfeo is a brilliant masterpiece of some of the most moving music ever sung means I’m an Orphic cultist…or that, because I positively love A Midsummer Night’s Dream means that I believe in the Faeries at the Bottom of the garden.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • darrelle
            Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

            You old softie you.

            • Posted December 31, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

              Yeah…well…there’s a reason I majored in music, you know….

              b&

          • peter
            Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

            Though various Catholic propogandists try to dispute it, Verdi, and particularly his Requiem, are probably the best example of ostensibly religious music which isn’t:

            “..Verdi’s attitude toward religion is clearly indicated in a letter written about him by his wife, Giuseppina: ‘For some virtuous people a belief in God is necessary. Others, equally perfect, while observing every precept of the highest moral code, are happier believing in nothing.’
            Elsewhere, Giuseppina wrote: “He is a jewel among honest men; he understands and feels himself every delicate and elevated sentiment. And yet this brigand permits himself to be, I won’t say an atheist, but certainly very little of a believer, and that with an obstinacy and calm that make me want to beat him. I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc. It’s a waste of breath! He laughs in my face and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying ‘you’re all crazy,’ and unfortunately he says it with good faith.’..”

            I myself wouldn’t put his Requiem quite in the league of the B-minor nor Missa Solemnis, but less far behind than many musicologists do.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

          On a less elevated level, though more topical, I just love carol singing at this time of year, and due to a Presbyterian upbringing can still sing along with most of the words. “Adeste Fideles” and “Hark the Herald Angels” are my favourites. This sometimes puzzles people who know my attitude to religion.

          • Posted January 2, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

            Then you may be

          • Posted January 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

            Then you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that the music to which the text “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” was written by Felix Mendelssohn as part of a cantata commemorating Gutenberg and his moveable type innovation. The Wesley text was set to Mendelssohn’s tune later on by somebody else.

            • Posted January 2, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

              *to which the text “HHAS” was set was written…*

            • HaggisForBrains
              Posted January 2, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

              Thanks mb, that is interesting, particularly as his violin concerto is a personal favourite.

              • Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                Then you should enjoy this.

                In all seriousness, you will not find a more technically proficient nor impassioned recording of the work.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted January 3, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                Ah, Ben. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le violon!

              • Posted January 3, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                Précisément!

                b&

            • Filippo
              Posted January 2, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

              In a church once, when the choir and congregation were singing the hymn, “Lead on O King Eternal,” a small boy was overheard singing, “Lead on O Kinky Turtle.”

            • Posted January 2, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

              Ah! Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Säkularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst! Interesting!

              Do you know of an available performance of this? What’s the relationship to his second symphony, also (apparently) commemorating Gutenberg?

              /@

              • Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                Seems all the most promising hits I’m getting are of people bemoaning the fact that nobody’s recorded Mendelssohn’s original version.

                The score is at the IMSLP, though. If I remember, I’ll suggest to one of my conductor friends to put it on a concert in December.

                b&

              • Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

                Holy fuck — I just finished downloading the PDF.

                Mendelssohn himself scored it for double brass choir! And a largish one, too — four trumpets; four horns; alto, tenor, and bass trombones; and ophiclide (a sort of keyed tuba, the bass member of the cornetto family, and a rather peculiar beastie) in the first; and then the same but substituting timpani for the ohpiclide in the second.

                How the Hell did I not know about this?

                b&

              • Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

                Ant,
                I don’t know of any recordings. I heard portions of it live at a concert organized by a director who heavily favors lesser-known works in his programs (but he seems oblivious to the reasons many of those works aren’t well-known, i. e., they’re often pieces of shit).

                Mendelssohn’s 2nd symphony (Lobgesang) was written for the same 1840 event for which the Gutenberg cantata was written. It is phenomenal. I was lucky enough to be able to play the organ part for several performances of this epic work. If you search my blog for “Mendelsohnian Musings”, you’ll find an excellent performance of a couple of movements.

                Ben,
                If you ever arrange for a performance of the Gutenberg cantata, I’d like to request (although I know this may be a tricky thing legally) a recording. You can get in touch with me via my blog.

              • Posted January 3, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

                musical beef, any recording would have to be left up to the conductor to arrange…but, these days, there’s usually a camcorder somewhere and it gets posted to YouTube. If it happens, I’ll hopefully remember to let you (and Jerry) know.

                b&

          • Posted January 2, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

            It’s “Gaudete” for me!

            /@

            • HaggisForBrains
              Posted January 3, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

              Can’t argue, as a Steeleye Span fan. It features on my personal Xmas CD.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        I suspect one of religion’s chief contributions to music in bygone days was supplying large enclosed spaces (aka ‘churches’) for the performance in which the music sounded best.

        This role has since been taken over by secular concert halls and sports arenas…

    • Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      When I went to Sienna one had to put some money in a slot, in order to see Donatello’s statue of John The Baptist. That rather made me wonder if religious people have any understanding where the power of religious art lies…

  15. Dominic
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I just listened to an ancient cassette recording from July 1989 of an interview between A.J.Ayer & Ted Honderich, a month before Ayer died. I was struck by this quotation; “I think you can treat, if you’re very careful, the affirmation of God’s existence as a vacuous hypothesis, in which case it would be, I suppose, false.”

    As I understand it Ayer early on held that the concept of god was meaningless so he did not call himself an atheist. I understand the writer/director/broadcaster Jonathan Miller takes a similar stance.
    The interview is transcribed in A. J. Ayer: Memorial Essays By A. Phillips Griffiths

    • Dominic
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      PS Can anyone explain how the US senate has a chaplain & starts sessions with a prayer?!

      • Achrachno
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        The crazies have us outnumbered.

        • Nikos Apostolakis
          Posted December 31, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

          +1

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      As I understand it Ayer early on held that the concept of god was meaningless so he did not call himself an atheist.

      There is a not-so-common term to describe that position: igtheism. It’s not a term I go out of the way to apply to myself, but it’s not one I reject, either.

      b&

      • Marella
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        Oh cool! A new word! I am an igtheist, I shall call myself this in future and flummox everyone. ;-)

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted January 1, 2013 at 2:28 am | Permalink

        I don’t think it’s a real word, despite the long tradition of usage since… 1992. The phonology is just wrong.

        In Greek, if there was a prefix ‘ig’ [which there's not, afaik] attached to the stem ‘theist’, the resultant word would be ‘ichtheist’. That (almost) means something quite different.

        • Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

          Be careful of the claim “not a real word”. If people use a sound (or inscription) enough with a well defined enough meaning, it becomes a word. Shakespeare fans can chime in. :)

          • Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

            Quite! How many years’ usage does it take for a word to become “real”. “Omnishambles”?

            /@

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted January 3, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          I believe it’s a portmanteau word, combining “ignorant” and “theism” rather than using a prefix as such. The implication is that since you don’t (or can’t) know what “God” means, you can’t have a belief about “God”. Presumably the coining is influenced by, or echoes, agnostic (a-gnostic) and ignoble (in-gnobilis originally)- there’s no “g” in the prefix.

  16. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    A year of reading theology has led JAC to the point where Heinlein was when he wrote:

    The most preposterous notion that H. sapiens has ever dreamed up is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not receive this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history. The second most preposterous notion is that copulation is inherently sinful.

    Heinlein had some goofy ideas, but he was dead-on here.

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Careful, there! Heinlein was my hero, and Stranger in a Strange Land the one book that ever came close to functioning as a bible for me, for some 40 years now. Heinlein rocked!!!!
      (Thanks, so much, for quoting him, here.)

  17. Mateus
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Jerry, does the offer still stand?

    • Dominic
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Me too Jerry – we only have it from 1999…!

      Thanks!

      And a merry nude year to all WEIT readers.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        Or along the themes on WEIT:

        A hippo gnu deer!

  18. Gabriel
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Hi! First time poster. I would also like to have that Atkins article!

  19. Veroxitatis
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    God is an undefinable concept and therefore falls neatly into Wittgenstein’s aphorism – “Of that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.” Telepathy and Psychokinesis however are clearly definable and are surely proper matters for scientific study. The word “scientific” does of course require emphasis.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      “Gods” are excellently definable, they are included in magic by the descriptive notions of believers as non-observable “beings”, prayers and rites as communication, presumed creative acts or miracles, et cetera. I don’t think I have seen any notions of “gods” that fall outside the notions of magic.

      Magic is, as Atkins already have noted, rejected by conservation of energy, so we can simply define is at an observation of breaking that conservation law.

      I differ from Atkins in that I don’t think we need to say that any observation of magic would topple science. But that it can be strengthened as we can quantify and nowadays test it. Science has scored up enough examples of such systems, selection bias and all, to test the hypothesis that _everything_ is non-magical.

      • Veroxitatis
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. Perhaps it would have been better to have made a comparison between gods which cannot be falsified and supposed supranormal activities such as those referred to which can be.

        • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          But which god is posited that do not indulge in supranormal activities that can be falsified?

          Only a deistic and pan[en]theistic “god”, perhaps.

          /@

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

            *does not

          • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            A pantheistic god is but a synonym for “universe” (in the old pre-multiverse sense) or Sagan’s “Cosmos.” As such it is pointless obfuscation; from personal observation, those who propose it generally only do so as the start of an argument whose conclusion is inevitably, “ergo Jesus.”

            And Larry Krauss and Stephen Hawking have recently dealt terminal blows to even the hypothetical possibility of a deistic god. We may never know exactly what caused the Big Bang, but we’re never going to have an hypothesis that’s worse than quantum fluctuations — and gods of any sort are far worse than quantum fluctuations.

            b&

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

              I could have been a pantheist at one stage, but I never had the slightest temptation to go ‘ergo Jesus’. I used to like the novels of Thomas Hardy, who was a noted pantheist. Also a cynic –
              “And then the main drain had to cross
              So we shifted the lot some time ago
              And packed ‘em away in the general foss
              With hundreds more, but their folks don’t know.
              And as soon cry over a new-laid drain
              As anything else, to ease your pain”

              I’d note there is no evidence whatever for pantheism, but so far as I know, no pantheist has ever perpetrated massacres of the unbelievers (I could be wrong about that though)

      • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        I still maintain that gods (and miracles) are best understood as literary devices.

        The whole point of both is to serve as instances of the impossible, and to explore the implications of what it would mean if the impossible actually were to occur.

        But, if it ever really did occur, it’d no longer be miraculous or divine, by very definition.

        b&

  20. Greg Peterson
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    For me the answer to the question of whether theology has contributed anything to humanity reminds me of the scene in “Awakenings” where Robin Williams’ character is being interviewed for a job at a facility and they asked him (Dr. Sayer) about his accomplishments. He says he was on an “emmense project…to extract 1 decigram of myelin from 4 tons of earthworms.” He goes on to say that he spent 5 years on the project and everyone else said it could not be done. “It can’t,” said the doctor interviewing Sayer. And Sayer replies, a little too excitedly, “I know that now. I proved it.”

    Theology has been on a centuries-long quest to see if they could wring some utility out of the god idea–as necessary creator and sustainer, as source of morality and meaning, whatever. And now I think it has come to the time where theology can, in candor, look us in the eyes and say, “We know the answer now. We proved it.”

    That’s a contribution of sorts. God. One less thing to worry about.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Theology as mashed earth-worms.

      I like it.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        “earthworms” (and _now_ my dictionary agrees :-/).

  21. darrelle
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I suppose it all depends on your point of view. I think theology has contributed to the progress of humanity. And I hope that its contributions are more widely recognized in the near future.

    1) Theology provides lots of good evidence against the existence of gods. After all that time, effort and devotion theology’s best arguments can be dismantled by a bright 8 year old without prompting, as long as the ridiculous specialized terminology is explained in plain language. Surly if gods actually did exist theology would have been able to produce some evidence, or even a good argument, that a rational unbiased person would consider convincing?

    2) Theology provides lots of good evidence that reasoning, logic and philosophizing unconstrained by reality is ineffectual.

    3) Theology provides lots of good evidence that the methods of inquiry typical referred to these days as the scientific method, or more generally methods that rely on empirical verification to ascertain the probability of accuracy, are the best method to use to gain an accurate and useful understanding of how reality works. We have the example provided by theology which after thousands of years has not produced any accurate or useful information about how reality works vs science (in the general sense) which, in addition to the cornucopia it has produced, has shown all theologically derived claims about reality to be wrong, wrong, wrong.

    4) Theology provides lots of good evidence that human beings, no matter how intelligent or educated, are very capable of fooling themselves into believing the most ridiculous things imaginable, literally. This is very important and should never be forgotten for a moment.

    5) Theology provides lots of good evidence that even otherwise decent people can justify the most immoral, unethical, hideous behavior in support of something they really really want to be true.

    I’m sure there are many others. In short theology is a gold mine of evidence of how not to do things, and human weaknesses that we need to remember and find ways to compensate for. I am not saying that theology was necessary, or even worth it. But, as the saying goes, let’s make all the sacrifice worth it by making good use of all the evidence theology has provided.

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      There comes a time when it’s worth no longer banging your head against the wall merely because you like the way the pain goes away when you take a break….

      b&

      • darrelle
        Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        Well, pain is central to the desert dogmas. If you ain’t suffering you can’t be a true believer.

        I think you may have hit upon the true reason for many believers’ seemingly manic pursuit of theology.

    • peter
      Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      To slightly dispute one small aspect of this:

      Details of (particularly several details coming after Wigner wrote) “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” certainly does provide good evidence that reasoning and logic unconstrained by reality can turn out to be effectual in understanding reality. Note that I have omitted “philosophizing”. One earlier example would be the discovery of ‘spin’ by Elie Cartan and maybe Hermann Weyl well before Paul Dirac saw its importance in physics. And Dirac himself was a strong advocate of the point I am making.

      That does not dispute darrelle’s statement:
      “Theology provides lots of good evidence that reasoning, logic and philosophizing unconstrained by reality is ineffectual”, but there is evidence in the other direction as well, and the situation is not that simple.

      • darrelle
        Posted January 1, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Interesting, thank you.

      • Posted January 1, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        It’s a pity to tar philosophy with the same brush as theology, even if many theologians wish to gain respectability by calling themselves philosophers. The problem is that pseudo philosophy isn’t as easy to pin down as pseudo science.

  22. MNb
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    “has theology ever contributed anything to the progress of humanity?”
    Has physics ever contributed anything to the progress of humanity? The answer probably will be referring to Archimedes, Copernicus or whoever who expanded our knowledge and understanding. So the question becomes: has there ever been a theologian contributing to human knowledge and understanding?
    Yes. Augustinus of Hippo speculated about creation and its consequences for the world he new. His thoughts about time are still spot on; just replace creation by Big Bang.
    As for good contemporary theology try God in the Age of Science by Herman Philipse.

    • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Hmm… Augustine’s speculations are no contribution to human knowledge an understanding if they rely on knowledge (the Big Bang) that was unavailable to him. Just because his notions were sufficiently elastic that they could be later stretched like a rubber sheet over something more sinewy (as Atkins might say) doesn’t make them valuable.

      /@

  23. Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    His comments regarding how to do science are too dogmatic. He claims “Real scientists have no time for the reports of such phenomena” because, among other things, “were purported paranormal phenomena ever to be authenticated, they would devastate the whole structure of science, for most of them strike at two of its great foundations, the conservation of energy and causality.” By this criterion, “real scientists” would never have considered classical quantum mechanics either. Relativity also shook pillars of science–absolute space and absolute time. His dogmatic assertions embody the antithesis of the scientific spirit.

    He should have stopped when he said there was no reliable evidence for paranormal phenomena. That is the ONLY reason “real scientists” should shun them. By arguing that science should be bound by adherence to a specific set of laws, he is worse than those who argue that science is bound by methodological naturalism. Religious folk would be right to criticize him on this.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      ” He claims “Real scientists have no time for the reports of such phenomena” because, among other things, “were purported paranormal phenomena ever to be authenticated, they would devastate the whole structure of science, for most of them strike at two of its great foundations, the conservation of energy and causality.”

      It may be that you have misunderstood Atkins. The remainder of the paragraph following the “strike at two foundations” is very relevant for context. Also, he didn’t say “Real scientists have no time for the reports of such phenomena because . . .” What he said is,

      “. . ., there is good reason to believe that all claims of authentic paranormal observations are hogwash. (because 1, 2, 3)

      I think what he was suggesting is that if paranormal claims were true, then the “two foundations” that current science rests on would be incorrect, and thus all the science as well. And since that is not the case, that is good reason to believe paranormal claims are false.

      I don’t read anything in the above Atkins quote as saying that science should not ever investigate paranormal claims. In fact he goes on to say that if someone were able to provide solid evidence for paranormal claims they would receive a Nobel prize. He does, however, say that the idea that claims contrary to the “two foundational principles” are better tested by making stuff up, as opposed to science, is “absurd.”

      • Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        I tried re-reading it, but it still reads the same to me.

  24. MadScientist
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Unconstrained whimsicality and armchair fantasizing – yeah, that sounds like religion and a whole host of other woowoo.

  25. DV
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    The consumers of theology are the front-line dispensers of dogma – priests and rabbis and imams. The congregations need profound-sounding bullshit fed to them to paste over the cracks of cognitive dissonance in their everyday lives. The priests are too busy ministering and buggering to come up with BS on their own, so they rely on professional theologians.

    Contributed anything to the progress of humanity? Well, if we consider pacifying the sheep as a component of societal progress then probably theology has some contribution.

  26. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Theology has frequently rationalized very bad political ideas and once in a blue moon rationalized good ones (Martin Luther King).

    IN the latter case, theology acts less as a source of light than as a conductor of light as Sherlock Holmes once said concerning some off-target speculations of Doctor Watson which led him to the correct answer.

  27. Posted December 31, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Theology is the subject without a subject!
    ” God is in a worse position than the Scarecrow who had a body to which a mind could enter, whilst He has neither! He is that square circle.No wonder He is ineffable!’ Ignostic Morgan [me]
    “Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate meaning to which neither God nor the future state can further validate.” Inquiring Lynn [me]
    “Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr. Griggs
    Note their begged questions and their arguments from personal incredulity and from ignorance which underlie most of their other arguments.
    Lamberth’s the argument from the conservation- background- of knowledge ,people use when they find something actually wrong.
    I make explicit what is implicit in our literature and name arguments after their originators’.
    WEIT, I take on those advanced theologians: they are as silly as any others!
    All theologians ranks with Sylvia Brown[e],James van Praagh and John Edward. The late Paul Kurtz calls the supernatural and its twin the paranormal ” The Transcendental Temptation,” a must read book.
    Note telepathic and clairvoyant God!
    Here is the biggy against theistm: how can He operate in the Cosmos? Unless they can show in general how He can do so, they have no case, because otherwise He does so by the magic of let it be!
    The Fuller-Lamberth argument from inherency is that He would be just a secondary cause like us, because the descriptions -laws-of Nature themselves, and chaos,order and regularity inhere in the Cosmos as the primary cause!
    Aquinas’ superfluity argument argues that He is redundant as an explanation,thus boomeranging on his failed five ways! For theists to argue that this is a category mistake would be to beg the question. That bane!

  28. TheBrummell
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I tried to find “Science as Truth” on Amazon.ca, but came up empty, I guess it is long out of print. “Peter Atkins” turns out to not be a particularly rare name for authors, but I assume the piles of physical chemistry textbooks attributed to that name are authored by the same person who wrote “Science as Truth” (rather than the former Microsoft employee now providing “live your life well” advice, or the husband in the husband-and-wife team writing prayer books (!) for children).

    I found “On Being: A scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence”, reprint edition October 2012; one of the reviews from the publisher is credited to Richard Dawkins so I’m guessing it’s the right guy. I’ve added that to my amazon wish list for the next time I’m feeling spendy-towards-books.

    I also found several books about the modern food industry, with co-authors; does anyone know if these might be authored by the same Peter Atkins? They look interesting, in any case.

    • Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      I’m reading On Being at the moment, and it’s… OK…

      The preface was good, along the lines of the article Jerry quotes from, but the Beginnings chapter was thin stuff.

      /@

      • Posted January 4, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

        The Progression chapter is really good; very pithy. Atkins pulls no punches when discussing Creationists and is clearly a-teleogical: “Evolution is not about the purposeful acquisition of complexity; it is about the random generation of successful junk.”

        /@

  29. Daniel
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Here is a serious question: has theology ever contributed anything to the progress of humanity?

    As I see it, theology contributes to humanity in one way only.

    Religion applies great friction to social progress. Some theology can be used as post-hoc rationalization, allowing believers to accept a positive social development that they may have otherwise rejected on religious grounds.

    One example of this that springs to mind was Alcuin of York’s argument to Charlemagne about the death penalty for paganism. From Wikipedia:

    In this role as adviser, he [Alcuin] tackled the emperor over his policy of forcing pagans to be baptised on pain of death, arguing, “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe.” His arguments seem to have prevailed – Charlemagne abolished the death penalty for paganism in 797.

    Of course, this view of the contribution to humanity of theology should be contrasted against the fact that much of the friction to social progress that religion exerts is the fault of theology in the first place.

    • Daniel
      Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

      I just realized: Posting that particular comment might be seen as Jerry-baiting on the subject of free will.

      This was not my intention!

      Ack. I really should have thought that example through more. :P

  30. logicophilosophicus
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    “Here is a serious question: has theology ever contributed anything to the progress of humanity?”

    Certainly. Aquinas was the major figure in replacing submissive Monastic thinking with Sholastic debate. This new logical rigour was an improvement, and the changed status given to Aristotle particularly within Christian theology provided a springboard for the Renaissance.

    If I had to choose between living in the 12th or the 14th Century in Western Europe I’d say the latter without a doubt, and that largely because of Thomas Aquinas’s theology and its influence on culture.

  31. James
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Why is it that people inflicted by religious nonsense cannot comprehend that the idea of a god was instigated by the brain to explain all natural phenomenon? When their brains die, the non-existing god dies also, only perpetuated in the minds of the religion deranged living. The Universe is a reality, religion is not, but only made so by minds so afflicted. Read the book, “On Being: a scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence.” by Peter Atkins page 21, last paragraph. There is no better explanation for our existence.


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