The New York Times hosts a superfluous debate on evolution vs. creationism, including more dumb accusations that science is based on faith

In a “Room for debate” feature in yesterday’s New York Times, seven scholars and public figures weigh in on the question, “Should creationism be controversial?” It’s dispiriting because it’s a complete waste of space. No points are made that haven’t been made before, and the debate is largely about how we can deal with the supposedly discomfiting implications of evolution.

What’s even worse is that this debate was apparently inspired by Virginia Heffernan’s ludicrous essay on “Why I’m a creationist,” a piece that I critiqued a while back. Why on earth would a bunch of scholars debate such a juvenile rant?

I don’t want to summarize everyone’s short essay, but I’ll say a few words on each, and deal with two pieces that are particularly misguided.

The science can be seen as purposeful, by Karl Giberson, now at Stonehill College.  Refreshingly, Karl is one of the saner voices in this debate. He accurately singles out the reason evolution bothers the faithful: it implies that humans—nobody cares about the squirrels!—are just a contingent and unpredictable result of a naturalistic process, and not deliberately produced by God in his image:

Evolutionists have fought hard to make sure we understand evolution as lacking direction or purpose. The theory has come to be strongly identified with atheism. Its most public champion is Richard Dawkins, whom Ned Flanders met in hell on a recent episode of “The Simpsons.”

Biblical creationists have fought even harder to keep evolution — the atheists’ creation story — out of Genesis. Its most public champion, Ken Ham, imposes a wooden and implausible literalism on the Bible to ensure that nobody can fit evolution in between the lines.

On Main Street, on television and in the pews of America’s many churches, leaders on both sides portray a choice between a world with purpose and one without. The trouble is, when they ask that either-or question, there’s no right answer.

Yes, Karl, there is a right answer.  We evolved via an unguided process lacking purpose or foresight.  Humans forge their meanings, their “purposes”, on their own. We weren’t given them by God.

What we risk by accepting the science, by Douglas O. Linder, a professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Move along folks, nothing to see here. Linder accepts evolution, recounts Darwin’s ambivalence about publishing his theory, and then affirms the truth of evolution.  He then raises a “challenge”:

Our challenge is to accept evolution while maintaining a sense of wonder, concern for those whose survival is beyond their own means, and a vision of a colorful and surprise-filled world.

That’s no challenge at all: those who accept evolution have no problem with this stuff. The problem is reconciling evolution with the sense of human specialness instilled by religion.

Science, too, calls for a leap of faith by Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project, Wax makes a common error, also committed by David Redlawsk (see below): he claims that both religion and science rely, in the end, on faith.

Yet science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a creator. Evidence leads us only to a point, and then we draw conclusions. People like Heffernan look at the elements of our world that appear to be designed and purposeful, and conclude that a mind is supervising the matter.

Furthermore, as her article pointed out, even those who take the naturalistic point of view tend to live as if the creation story is true. We do not see our lives as meaningless, but purposeful. We live according to values and morals; we teach our children right from wrong. When we care for ailing parents or welcome children with birth defects, we are living against the “survival of the fittest” principle of natural selection. A purely naturalistic explanation of the world’s origins does not explain the way we live. Religious stories do.

The real issue here is not merely creation or the lack thereof; it’s about the source of truth. Those who condemned Heffernan believe science is the only reliable way to discover truth. But this belief in science collapses on itself: there is no scientific evidence to prove that science is the only reliable way to discover truth. Once we take unproven hypotheses and dogmatize them, we have moved beyond scientific evidence into philosophical reflection on truth and the scientific method. Naturalist or not, when it comes to the world’s origins, we are all in the realm of faith.

Well, science can’t “prove” anything, but it can make some things seem likely or unlikely. One of those is a creator, and the universe shows no sign of such a being. But it shows definite signs of not being created by a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent being.  How can invoking such a god explain “natural evils” like earthquakes and childhood cancers? Science can explain those: geology and mutations.

As Victor Stenger always points out, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence if the evidence should be there.  This is precisely the reason why we don’t accept the existence of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.  You don’t hear people say, “science neither proves nor disproves the existence of Nessie.”

More important, Wax makes the elementary error of conflating religious “faith” with scientific belief. Here are two pretty accurate definitions of faith:

Walter Kaufmann: “Faith is intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

Oxford English Dictionary (one of several definitions): “The spiritual apprehension of divine truths, or of realities beyond the reach of sensible experience or logical proof.”

I’d say that most religious people would agree with these, or at least the second.  Science, however, doesn’t operate on that kind of faith, but rather on belief or confidence based on evidence (and evidence that is sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person).  Scientists and laypeople who trust science don’t get their “faith” from revelation or scripture, but from evidence that has passed critical scrutiny by other scientists.  And you don’t trust your doctor, or your next plane flight, based on revelation: you trust them because your doctor prescribes antibiotics based on data showing that they work, and you trust your plane because it’s designed on principles of aerodynamics.

Wax’s incursion into philosophy, which smacks of the odious Alvin Plantinga, leads him to claim that “there is no scientific evidence to prove that science is the only reliable way to discover truth.”  So bloody what? Experience, not a priori reasoning, has taught us that science is the only reliable way to discover truth, and so we rely on science and its attendant naturalism, rather than the lucubrations of religion, to discover how our cosmos works.  There are plenty of spiritualists and faith healers who derive their methodology from “revelation” (often the revelation that quackery makes you rich), but who trusts them? If you had an infection, would you take a drug that has been tested in double-blind studies to kill the bacteria, or would you go to a shaman or faith healer? Your chances of surviving are much higher if you go to the doctor. That is what the data show. We don’t need to justify this through a priori philosophical rumination.  The difference between a shaman and a doctor is the difference between scientific “belief” and religious faith. It is by the fruits that you distinguish them.

It is starting to really anger me that people like Wax make this elementary error, and it’s always made to drag science down to the level of religion. It’s a deliberate conflation of terms, because, in common parlance, you say you have “faith” in your doctor when what you really mean is that you have confidence that he knows how to help you.

The risk of reading literally, by Rev. Wil Gafney, an associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Gafney tell us to beware of reading scripture literally.  There is, he says, a way to do it that helps weed out error:

I teach students to consider three aspects, to shift from asking “is the bible true” to “how is the Bible true.” First, determine what the text says. This requires knowledge of original languages, because all translations are unreliable at points. Second, consider as much as possible what the text may have meant in its original contexts. This could mean learning which expressions were euphemisms and how language may have evolved before and after the text was written. And third, ask what the texts says in our modern contexts – which values and themes transcend time and which do not.

So tell me, Reverend Gafney, was Jesus resurrected or not? Is believing in him as savior going to guarantee us a place in heaven? And was he born of a virgin? True, Biblical analysis, combined with science and archaeology, can eliminate parts of the Bible as pure fiction, but people like Gafney always want to preserve some parts as literally true. The trouble is, his method gives us no way to determine which are the latter. There are few religious people who aren’t fundamentalists in some ways.

Save the umbrage; let’s talk calmly, by Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. This is just a flat-out defense of sharia law. As for its excesses, he blames them on government, political party, or “clergy group.”  But it’s the excesses of the clergy groups (i.e., radical Muslims) that has made sharia so odious.  At any rate, his apologetics are neither convincing nor relevant to the discussion on tap.

The story doesn’t have to be soulless“, by Mary Evelyn Tucker, senior lecturer and senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Yale Divinity School.  Tucker pulls a sleight-of-hand here.  She extols the virtues of art, music, and literature, but manages to slip in “spirituality” (read: “religion”) as a way of appreciating science and evolution:

We need not, however, enter into simplistic debates that lead to endless conflict. Rather, we can bring science and the humanities together to explore a new synergy of scientific fact and human values. Recognizing that we are now understanding these evolutionary processes through science and appreciating them through art, poetry, literature, music and spirituality gives us an opportunity to discover our own role in this unfolding story.

This is feel-good pablum dispensed by somebody who hasn’t gotten out enough. The debates are not simplistic: evolution strikes at the very heart of many people’s worldview and self-image.  Reading John Donne or e.e. cummings isn’t going to magically dispel the controversy.

Who I am, and who I am not“, by David P. Redlawsk, professor of political science at Rutgers University. Finally, and infuriatingly, Redlawsk again conflates scientific belief with religious faith.  Really, are these people as clueless as they seem, or are they so blinded by their accommodationism that they can’t see the different ways that science and religion arrive at “truth”? (Well, I don’t believe religion does arrive at truth, but believers claim it does.)

Read and weep:

This journalist, Virginia Heffernan, writes that she does not even believe evolutionary theory, and its explanation of the rise of Homo sapiens. Instead she leans toward faith that the earth and humans were both created directly by God.

It looks like faith versus evidence. But the psychology is more complicated. Most of us – even those of us who practice science for a living – have to take an awful lot on faith. I’m not a biologist; I have never actually seen a microbe in person. But I believe in them. Likewise, I take it on faith when my doctor tells me a particular medication will work in a particular way to address a particular malady.

So why do I and others not believe in creationism? Why do I have faith in science? Part of it may boil down to identity and the internal motivations to maintain our identities in the face of challenges.

If that’s why you have “faith” in science, or in your doctor, Dr Redlawsk, then you’re on shaky ground. I just took two rounds of antibiotics because my doctor told me they have been shown to kill many gut bacteria. That had nothing to do with maintaining my identity, but with maintaining my gastric health. And, sure enough, when I went to the Internet to see what I was taking, it was precisely the stuff shown to be generally efficacious against many gut infections.  Sure, not everybody does that, but trusting your doctor is not the same thing as having faith in your minister when he tells you that your kid needs to be baptized to be saved. My doctor has evidence, the priest has none.  Redlawsk goes on:

An important part of my identity is the embrace of the scientific method. Those who do not share this seem quite misguided to me. I simply cannot understand how one can deny science – like evolution – but still accept that a doctor with modern medicine developed through the scientific method can cure a disease. Identification as a creationist seems to be equally at odds with identification with science.

For the most part, to accept the other’s position would be to challenge one’s own identity, the sense of who we are. Yet there is a certain irony that both sides in this debate are taking their positions mostly on faith, drawn from teachings we did or did not accept over time. And we are doing so, probably because this faith reinforces an identity that says “this is who I am.”

This is pure postmodern bullpucky, claiming that what’s important is not evidence but our own self-image.  Yes, evolution does attack a lot of people’s self-image, but I don’t accept evolution, or antibiotics, because “that’s who I am.” I accept them because I want evidence for the things I believe. Science has it, religion doesn’t.  And those who line up with science are not doing so based “mostly on faith.”

Hey, you apologists, accommodationists, and religionists, could you please stop trying to drag science into the benighted realms of religion by claiming they’re both based on faith?

84 Comments

  1. Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    //

    • jesperbothpedersen1
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

      sub

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    The stupid burns. That is a collection of stupid people and I refuse to believe these people can be so malicious. Delusion rapes rationality.

  3. lemonwax
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t know about Redlawsk, but I’m busy cultivating the “self-image” of someone who cares enough to find out what’s actually true about our universe, and trying my best to live by the lights of that knowledge. Giving up the artificial certainty of “revealed truth” was the best thing that ever happened to my “self-image.”

    • Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Marella
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes, my self-image as someone who requires evidence to believe things is very important to me, otherwise I’d feel like an idiot.

  4. jesperbothpedersen1
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    sub

  5. Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    +1

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    It looks to me like there are a couple of different conflaters (conflationists?) out there:

    1)People who know better, but choose to conflate the acceptance of religious dogma based on faith and acceptance of scientific facts based on evidence in some pathological need to unite the two. These authors fall into this category.

    2) People who are not consciously aware that they ever accepted anything outside of religious faith so they assume that science is just like their religion. These are the regular folk.

    So both groups treat us to the fallacious assertion that science is just another religion, there are “other ways of knowing” (that’s right, that phrase DESERVES scare quotes), accepting science is accepting dogma and so on. Once their initial fallacy is exposed to the light of reason, however their whole argument burns up like the vampiric demons they all think we are!

  7. Tony Halfpenny
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I’ve just input the terms “faith, hope, belief” into the Google Ngram program
    which counts the use of words – over the last 200 years – in english texts.
    The use of the first two terms has fallen to about the same level as the word
    “belief” which has stayed constant over this period. I think many who should
    be using the term “hope” in their arguments have begun to hijack the term
    “belief” to make them sound a little more scientific.

    http://books.google.com/ngrams

  8. Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    You fail to comment on the most notable feature of this “debate”; the total absence of anyone who knows anything about its subject matter.

  9. Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I mention, frequently, in these columns, that North Americans are still trying to wrestle the dirty pig called ‘religion’ rather than walk away. (Step around the rubble!) I am a great student of The History of Ideas, and the one plangent reoccurring point is that religious reformers never seem to want to chuck the whole belief away, but to revise it to give religious belief extended life. They have usually tried to repair their foundering ship ‘from the inside’; i.e. by using fresh religious tropes to try to repair older, torn, religious tropes. I have called it ‘Internal Patching’. I don’t think that you can apply ‘reforms’ to religion; it has to die slowly of a lack of credibility. Like prayer, astrology, dinosaurs in the bible, Gas Bag travel such as the Hindenburg, ‘The World Series’, or America’s chances in the World Cup football next year in Brazil.
    Every time science is put against religion, it is a kind of internal patching of old religious beliefs, as if religion can be given a new, scientifically-accommodated lease of life. I think it best for scientists not to use religious terms, not to repeat religious argument, and not to try to argue the religiously deluded out of their faith by applying argument that is religious in nature. Hence always refer to ‘their gods’ and not to ‘God’. Stress differentiation, not ‘compare and contrast’.
    As North Americans go through the transition from national madness (where the cults of belligerent god-botherers have replaced McCarthy and Communism) to the calm of a world without ‘maximal great beings’, that rite of passage is best facilitated by uninvolved and rather distant expressions of incredulity. Don’t argue point for point; just scoff at the lot of it! In my experience, a well-aimed ‘scoff’, is like a hand-grenade in the engine-room.
    “Dr Lane Craig, tell me about your ‘maximally great being’ again. It all sounds very exciting!”

    • Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      You have some points worth thinking about there. Any time an unbeliever uses the word “God” with a capital G there is an unstated acceptance of the idea that the word has some coherent, widely agreed-upon meaning. But of course it doesn’t, as quickly becomes apparent if you read the great diversity of things that have been written about “God”. Better to say “your god”. And you’re right: trying to argue rationally with a religious person often quickly becomes an exercise in futility. Once you’ve ascertained that the person you’re talking to is living in la-la land it’s just better to walk away, or as you say, scoff (“Wow! He really rose from the dead? Tell me more!”).

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      “always refer to ‘their gods’ and not to ‘God’”

      I discovered this for myself about a year ago. Don’t accept the word “God”. Use the phrase “the gods”. And then throw it in the pile with “santa claus” and “faeries”. This really knocks them off their high ground.

      • Posted August 18, 2013 at 4:35 am | Permalink

        I usually say god/ess/es. I think the “ess” bothers them more than the “es”.

      • Posted August 18, 2013 at 4:49 am | Permalink

        To Christian…
        “…Let’s get it straight; you’re not talking about the Hindu gods here, are you? Not Hanuman the monkey god? Nor the Muslim gods? And certainly not the Egyptian gods like Horus? And not the Great Krishna? Nor the Greek gods of Apollo and Zeus? And not the Roman gods of Mars and Jupiter? And I guess not the Nordic god Thor? Your gods are different to all these, is that right?
        ….
        If your Christian god made the whole universe, how come that only about one person in 3000 truly believes in him? You’d think that such a powerful man would have a greater following, wouldn’t you? Am I missing something here, or is your Christian god really quite a tiny little fella, something on the level of Jay Leno?

        Yeah, I really like cults like yours… all those rules about what hat to wear, what you are allowed to eat, and who you can have sex with… Since I became an adult I kinda miss it all…

        From the wonderful late British comedienne, Linda Smith…
        “If god wanted us to believe in him, he would have existed!”

      • godstuff
        Posted August 20, 2013 at 2:08 am | Permalink

        I like sky friends.

        “If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse”
        -Woody Allen

  10. jh
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    The idiocy of many academics just boggles the mind. Do these people understand the difference between a scientific theory and blind faith? Apparently not. Just underscores the degenerate nature of basic science education in the US, given that you can be a highly respected academic in your chosen field and yet sound as idiotic as a creationist when talking about science.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      They also don’t seem to be able to distinguish between “believing in love” and “believing in a loving God.”

      Category confusion. If you can’t see love under a microscope but you “believe in” it anyway: therefore, it’s spiritual. You can’t see God under a microscope either. They must be the same sort of thing. Spiritual stuff.

      I used to valiantly go forth and insist that atheists and agnostics must take “spirituality” back from religion and anchor spiritual meaning, spiritual attitudes and spiritual ‘truths’ firmly in humanism and the natural world. Yes, atheists are spiritual — in fact, we’re even more spiritual than you are! (Once you define the term properly, that is.) “Spirituality” is such a useful, valuable word encompassing all sorts of emotions and values which have nothing to do with God or Higher Consciousness or other supernatural flim flam. Let’s embrace it as our own!

      Ah! But I have gotten older and wiser more jaded. Now, every time I hear the word “spiritual,” I reach for my gun.

      • jh
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        But without spirituality, we would be missing out on all the profound woo of writers like Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer, plus countless others that don’t come to mind at the moment cmon.

        • Jeff D
          Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          “Spirituality,” as a word and a label, has been ruined, for me, by its routine use as an all-purpose Potempkin Village / lipstick-on-a-pig / detailing kit to take stale, vague, incoherent ideas and make them seem profound.

          I no longer use “spirituality” as a label for that mixture of awe, wonder, joy, and humility that all thoughtful, rational, non-superstitious people can feel about their connections to the universe and to the rest of life. but I haven’t settled on even a mediocre replacement word.

          • vall
            Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

            I like numinous.

            • Sastra
              Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

              I think “numinous” is even worse:

              Numinous …taken from the Latin Numen (Spirit), and used by some to describe the power or presence of a divinity… The numinous experience also has a personal quality, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy and/or the transcendent.

              It’s an esoteric word used almost exclusively by the religious and is connected to the sacred, the holy, and the divine. We’d probably have better luck with the more popular (and sloppy) term “spiritual.”

              • vall
                Posted August 17, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

                I agree it is very similar, but I don’t see it used as often as spiritual. I dislike the word spiritual for some of the same reasons Jeff listed, so my only reason for preference is how often the word is used. Just my own peculiarity.

                As I write this, I was wondering if this is only a problem in English. Maybe another language has a word we could borrow.

            • Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

              I like non-rational.

          • Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

            Nail. Head.

            “Spiritual” is too vague and even, as you wrote, incoherent a term.

            Better to speak with specificity.

            After listening to great music, the last thing I’d say is “it was a spiritual experience”. I want to talk specifically about how and in what ways the music engaged me. Using “spiritual” is imposing a glass ceiling on your ability to understand your experiences. A cop-out.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

            Yes, it makes me squirm to use it. When someone says “spiritual”, I hear “enchanted pixies”.

            • Jim Sweeney
              Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

              It’s got “spirit” right in it, which ought to warn us away.

              “1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. 2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul. 3. Of, from, or pertaining to God; deific.”

              I don’t think this word can or should be redeemed, but then, when I say I “believe” something, I’m saying I’ve forgotten or I’m not sure — it’s a warning rather than an affirmation.

              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted August 18, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

                My belief in and love of gin & tonic is purely spiritual.

      • squidmaster
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        Some very nice folks, on learning that I’m an atheist, have said, “Oh, but you’re so spiritual!”, presumably because they think the ‘spiritual’ tag ameliorates the mind numbing soullessness of atheism. When I replay, that, no, I’m not the least bit ‘spiritual’, they often give examples of my ‘spirituality’: “You’re kind, you recite poetry, you love art, you helped me when I was down, you’re funny & c.” I agree readily that, yes, I’m a nice person who likes art, literature, science, music and a whole host of human endeavors [and cats]– but I’m still an atheist and still not spiritual.

        Most folks just look puzzled, although there’s been the occasional recalcitrant who insists that I’m still spiritual, I just don’t call it that.

        So far, I’ve refrained from replying, “AM NOT!!!”

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 18, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

          Interesting, so they conflate “spiritual” with “empathy”, “morality” and “cultural literacy”. I guess these are the things that make a person seem like they have a soul. They must think atheists are empty shells of people who exist as cold automatons.

          • Sastra
            Posted August 18, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            No, only true atheists are empty shells of people who exist as cold automatons. The others are implicitly recognizing God/the existence of God — but are too afraid or stubborn to admit it.

            At this point in my life, I think an atheist agreeing that being empathetic, moral, and aesthetic are what makes one “spiritual” sounds to me suspiciously like a black person agreeing that being honest, hardworking, and loyal makes a person “white on the inside.”

            The motivation may be good, but in the long run it’s more likely to feed the very stereotype you’re trying to dispel. Language can pack a punch.

        • Posted August 19, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

          Did it ever occur to the “spiritualism-ists” that there may be certain traits of mentation and attitude that would have a survival advantage for a tribe of primates? For example, empathy, a love of words and word play (including poetry), a sense of humor, curiosity (interest in the natural world = science), and maybe even a love of music (may improve “IQ.” HMM….

          There is certainly no reason to think the FSM gave these to us by reaching in/across/through from the invisible world where he is alleged to reside.

  11. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    We live according to values and morals; we teach our children right from wrong. When we care for ailing parents or welcome children with birth defects, we are living against the “survival of the fittest” principle of natural selection.

    I’m surprised you didn’t come down hard on this nonsense. Natural selection compels us to care for the kin who carry our genes. It does not require us to dispassionately evaluate their fitness and abandon them if they don’t measure up.

    • Richard Olson
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      On more than one occasion, I wanted this retort to a sneering, condescending dismissal from a fatheist confused about the difference between Herbert Spencer’s social behavior concept and species perpetuation.

  12. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I know that you’ve taken Giberson’s comments from a broader context, but to the narrowly stated question “Does the world have a purpose?”, I agree with uncle Karl – there is no right or wrong answer. To the question, “Does God provide a purpose to the world?” – obviously there is zero reliable evidence that he does and a huge amount of circumstantial evidence that suggests that to think that God provides a purpose is preposterous. Of course, it may be that we can decide upon whether we have purpose – but I doubt that was what Karl had in mind.

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      oops = italics fail

      • Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        As always, Euthyphro’s dilemma. Even if the Universe was created by a Deity for Its own purposes, why (apart from reasons of prudence) should we go along with them?

        WE are the only agents who can create meaning in our lives. those who claim to get it from religion are denying their own responsibility in choosing to accept what they find there.

        • Sastra
          Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          Hm, my comment seems to have disappeared.

          I’d pointed out that people who think that being created “for a reason” is the only way to give life meaning never seem to carry these implications into their own lives, and think in human terms. If your parents deliberately conceived you in order to do their taxes, are you infinitely one up on those whose conception was a surprise, and/or those whose parents want you to choose your career for yourself?

          Perhaps those who insist that only God grants life meaning have personal issues with feeling “unwanted” as children — and are playing this drama out into the cosmos. Otherwise, it’s just puzzling when you think about it.

          • Jim Sweeney
            Posted August 17, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

            People want to be the heroes of their own stories, so it’s satisfying to be told that everything happens for a reason. The alternative, that we’re the helpless playthings of fortune, is not nearly as appealing.

  13. Sastra
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Again and again, the religious, the spiritual, and the accomodationists who accommodate them conflate two different meanings of the term “faith.” There’s the causal sort of “faith” we all apply in our daily lives, where we have a provisional trust or confidence based on more or less good evidence — and then there is “religious faith,” where holding on dogmatically to a belief is seen as being on par with standing loyally by a loved one, living up to a commitment, or persevering bravely and heroically in the face of overwhelming odds. Stop mixing these two interpretations up.

    Okay, let’s say someone says they have ‘faith’ in their doctor and compares this to having faith in God or Jesus or “mind supervising matter.” Tell me — do they have a religious faith in their doctor? Do they believe in their doctor’s competence with the same attitude and approach they use when believing in God?

    Let’s hope not. If you had a religious faith in your doctor then there is literally nothing your doctor could do to break your confidence. If they cut the healthy leg off in an operation instead of the gangrenous one … then it’s better that way. If they poison their patients with the wrong medication, well, we simply need to step back and figure out why that “wrong” medication was actually the right one: what did people learn? How did they grow?

    Hell, if your faith in your doctor is actually religious in nature then he or she could run throughout a children’s cancer ward shooting the sick little darlings with a shotgun and all you’d do is whinge about how your faith is now “shaken” and you’re “struggling” to make sense of it but after all nobody is perfect so I guess the physician should be trusted to have done the right thing here. I mean, otherwise we give up hope. We become arrogant. We think we know everything.

    Jerry wrote:

    You don’t hear people say, “science neither proves nor disproves the existence of Nessie.”

    Yes you do. You hear it from people who believe in the Loch Ness monster after their ‘evidence’ is put into serious question. I’m sad to say I know people like this. They also used it for “fairies.”

    It’s what happens when you imbue ordinary people with the idea that there is nothing more important, more sensitive, and more open-minded and character-building than the capacity to have faith in implausible things. It sets you apart as especially humble.

    I’m tempted to say that you need to get out more but no … no, Jerry does not need to hang out with “fairyists.” You can spare yourself that. But be careful of having too much confidence in what you ‘don’t hear people say.’

    • Sastra
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      I left off:

      But be careful of having too much confidence in what you ‘don’t hear people say.’ Some of us do.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 17, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        You probably won’t have to look far to find people who will argue for the existence of just about anything, however you don’t see a preoccupation in popular media (news outlets, debates) with bringing together the Nessieists and the scientists. There is no Loch Ness institute trying to create their own Wedge Document. No academics are wringing their hands over how to reconcile the scientifically minded with the Nessie believers. Nessie even got booted out of the YEC infested biology textbooks.

        So it appears that people in general (even creationists) evaluate the evidence for Nessie and based on the lack of tangible evidence fairly quickly deem the Nessie story false. At the same time, however, the population at large is willing to accept that faith is perfectly compatible in areas like religion and that acceptance of facts based on evidence is really just faith by another name.

        Therein lies the paradox.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      That was very good, Sastra…except that its “faeries” don’t you know!

    • Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      The doctor/god analogy is perfect.

  14. jh
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    “An important part of my identity is the embrace of the scientific method.”

    This one particularly boggles the mind. So the acceptance of reality is now a matter of identity politics? I identify with reality, but I respect some one else who identifies with delusion and fantasy.

  15. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Epic takedown.

  16. Sastra
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    For the most part, to accept the other’s position would be to challenge one’s own identity, the sense of who we are. Yet there is a certain irony that both sides in this debate are taking their positions mostly on faith, drawn from teachings we did or did not accept over time. And we are doing so, probably because this faith reinforces an identity that says “this is who I am.”

    No, no, no no! As jh points out above, this is not only mind-boggling, it plays right into the idea that prejudice and bias are not only inescapable, but we shouldn’t even try to be objective. There is no common ground, there is no human progress, and there is no way of learning anything about anything other than through examiningh our own inner desires. We choose our beliefs based on what and who we want to be.

    If you try to persuade someone to change their mind, then you’re attacking their very identity.

    That’s anti-humanist to the core and as divisive as hell. It’s also a very dangerous approach for an atheist to take, let alone a scientist. Coming to conclusions based on “this is who I am” is interpreted very, very darkly when the way you are is “I don’t believe in God because I don’t want to be the KIND of person who does believe in God.”

    Every religion, every form of spirituality, scorns and diminishes the person who rejects God in principle. If God is everything sweet and good and noble, then the types who cringe away are never sweet, good, or noble. They’re arrogant.

    Turning our conclusions into ways to reinforce our identity takes away all our actual reasons. The evidence, the argument, the method that attempts to avoid self-deception and follow the truth where it seems to lead — all gone! All reduced to “I don’t want to be one kind of person; I want to be another.” Apparently, we want to be a dark, warped, cold, evil kind which turns away from the light.

    But respect me anyway for my ‘choice’ — because I respect your choice, too!

    Yeah, that can’t go wrong.

  17. Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a biologist; I have never actually seen a microbe in person.

    This seems strange to me: only this morning I was admiring the colour of a colony of mould that’d grown out of nowhere on the bread I’d intended to have for breakfast this morning. Admittedly a colony is not “a [single] microbe”, but enough of them and you can see them — no ‘faith’ required. Then again, I am a biologist so perhaps I’m not getting the point here. :p

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      You could use that mold to make penicillin so you’ll be ready for end times. ;)

  18. Alexander Hellemans
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    “When we care for ailing parents or welcome children with birth defects, we are living against the “survival of the fittest” principle of natural selection.”

    Of course, is this not something that every medical doctor does? You don’t have to have religious beliefs to pledge to follow the Hippocratic oath.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Wax’s remark betrays an extremely superficial understanding of natural selection that naively equates “fitness” with health, strength, and ruthlessness.

      Anybody who’s bothered to read (say) The Selfish Gene knows that the reality is much more complicated. In fact a plausible case could be made that the Hippocratic Oath enhances fitness by conferring above-average wealth and social status.

      • Posted August 17, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        Thomas Henry Huxley and Herbert Spencer have a lot to answer for. If only Petr Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid had become more widely known … (Yes, I’ve just read Micheal Shermer’s foreword to Don Prothero’s Evolution!)

        /@

  19. Jeff D
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I saw this “Room for Debate” train wreck early Friday morning and felt infuriated, as I usually do, by the Times editors’ reflexive propping up of wounded religious feelings. I don’t know why I bother anymore (as with T. M. Luhrmann’s essays), but here was the response I submitted:

    [Should creationism be controversial?] It would be better to ask: Are any of the claims of creationism true? No, they aren’t.

    There is no “science” in “creation science” or in creationism’s reboot, “intelligent design”: no research program, no results. Just repeated lies, denials, and the constant recycling of old, discredited arguments. The promoters of creationism and I.D. have only blank cartridges in their guns, and most of them know this but won’t admit it.

    Creationism provides a crutch and reassurance to believers in Biblical literalism and inerrancy. These believers feel threatened and insecure in the face of the well-established findings of biology, earth sciences, and astronomy over the past 150 years and more. The evidentiary support for these findings, and the mutually reinforcing connections between them, has only grown stronger with the passage of time. None of this matters to those who believe in creationism.

    The Times does not help the situation when it concocts a “Room for Debate” topic like this one, and then invites “discussion” from a group in which apologists for organized religion are over-represented. The only scientist on the panel, Dr. Giberson, is a physicist, not a biologist, and he has made a second career out of trying — and failing — to make the science of evolutionary biology seem consistent with some sort of reading of Biblical creation stories. Why attempt to defend Virginia Heffernan’s fashionable, po-mo, fact-free embrace of creationism in this forum?

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for submitting a response.

  20. MAUCH
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    When someone asks me if I believe in evolution I state that I do not. I instead state that I accept the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution. Science is not a belief, it is a process. As apposed to religious belief it is a process that brings us testable results that effectively describes our natural world.

  21. Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    The real problem was that there was no evolutionary biologist on the panel.

  22. Leigh
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    “Our challenge is to accept evolution while maintaining a sense of wonder, concern for those whose survival is beyond their own means, and a vision of a colorful and surprise-filled world”

    WHAT! SCIENCE is what instills the sense of wonder and vision of a surprise-filled world.
    Where else, how else could these feelings derive? As for compassion – that derives from millions of years of biological evolution and is not limited to humans. I will have to write to this professor to express my profound disgust at his comments. My apologies for inflicting my outrage on the group.

  23. Posted August 17, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    The difference between the ways of knowing: error bars.

  24. Marella
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Humans forge their meanings, their “purposes”, on their own. We weren’t given them by God.

    What I’d really like to know is exactly HOW believing in gods gives meaning and purpose to life. I really don’t get it. If God’s love gives purpose or meaning, why is that more efficacious than one’s parents’, children’s or friends’ love? If improving your afterlife-staying out of hell-is your purpose, then why isn’t improving your current life, or the lives of others just as good or even better? I really do not understand why this “religion provides purpose and meaning” line has been allowed to persist for so long without question. I cannot think of anything religion can do that reality can’t do, except provide the illusory comfort of life after death, and I don’t see how imagining that you continue in heaven gives this current life meaning. If anything I would have thought it would suck the meaning out of it.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      I think believers find meaning in their lives because their god tells them that they are special, the centre of everything and better than all the other creatures (not even animals, but separate from them). So it’s like a big narcissistic trip that makes them all warm inside.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      If God has a plan for you then you’re not just some anonymous jerk trying to muddle through; you’re a character in a cosmic drama. Joining God’s team lifts you out of the cheap seats and onto the playing field where what you do matters in the grand scheme of things.

  25. Marvin Jacoby
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Although Wax (Trevin) may wane, no one can hold a candle to him for his “Leap of Faith”. Trevin be nimble, Trevin be quick, Trevin jump over etc. etc.

  26. Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    What point do theists or accomodationists think they are making when they argue that science also requires faith?

    To begin with, it’s nothing but a tu quoque fallacy.

    Not to mention, are they suggesting faith is undesirable?

    And on top of all that, even if science did require taking some things on faith, it can’t hold a candle to religion, which requires taking everything on faith. So science still wins.

    • Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

      Oh, and Linder’s “challenge”:

      Can you say “non-sequitur”?

      If we accept the heliocentric model of the solar system, we must meet the challenge not to gruesomely murder our neighbors and store their body parts in our basement freezer.

      Wait. What?

  27. Al
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the argument that science is also based on faith. Come to think of it, a lot of basic principles behind science have to be taken on faith. The validity of rules of logic, the capacity to perceive and probe the world through senses and instruments, the comprehensibility of reality to a particular biological species with a brain not evolved for this purpose – all of this have to be taken on faith. In a way, the scientific method requires more faith-based assumptions than religion which just requires total faith in god(s) and his actions. Now the assumptions behind science are more deep (subjectively) and also have led to significant technological progress which seems to confirm their usefulness but doesn’t make them any less based on faith.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted August 18, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

      I’m not so sure. I think I accept the rules of logic because they work and have proven very useful. I think I have a lot of confidence in them, but I would throw them out if they failed in one domain or another.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 18, 2013 at 5:34 am | Permalink

      Sounds like you didn’t even bother reading the article.

      Religion depends on non-evidenced based faith. Science depends on evidence-based belief. That’s a big difference. The assumptions of science have been supported with 150 years of evidence. Science works. That is evidence that the assumptions of science are correct.

      There is nothing similar with religion. It is just made up nonsense with each of the 10,000 religions that have ever existed making up its own nonsense. There is only one science

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 18, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Well not exactly. You see that the rules of logic work when you apply them. The scientific method works so that’s why we use it….even a regular person like me uses the scientific method when I do my work because it yields results (financial and more).

      You also build on the findings of others so you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” and those findings are well documented.

      As a lay person of course, I don’t have the training, resources, time, etc. to validate what most science tells me but I can learn the basics and I can recognize when there is scientific consensus on a fact.

  28. Posted August 17, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    The real reason the religious don’t like evolution is because evolution proves there was no Adam and Eve!

    If there was no Adam and Eve, then there was no first sin of eating the forbidden fruit.

    If there was no original sin, then there was no need for a saviour Christ.

    Thus no need for Christianity.

    Thus Christians wil fight and lie to keep their fairy tales, fables and myths, by trying to refute science. No other reason.

    Most religious don’t know how to do science, just how to feel guilty and try to make others feel guilty.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 18, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      The common female ancestor of all humans alive today and the common male ancestor of all humans alive today lived about 60,000 years apart. No Adam and Eve. No original sin. No need for a god to send his son to Earth to die for us. Genetics has killed Christianity stone dead.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 18, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        I always thought the humans being created in the image of god was nonsensical but I didn’t realize how funny until I heard Shaun Majumder do a bit about little proto humans that would wander around and if they got frightened, throw their poo and that just cracked him up because that must be what god is like.

  29. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    “You don’t hear people say, “science neither proves nor disproves the existence of Nessie.””

    Well maybe I’m about to say that.

    Can anyone tell me (or give me a link) to where science has disproved the existence of Nessie (or, to avoid quibbles, has shown the existence of Nessie to be overwhelmingly improbable). I’ll accept Stenger’s point that absence of evidence *where evidence should be there* can be taken as evidence of absence. Has anyone actually done the numbers and demonstrated that there couldn’t be a large aquatic animal living in the loch?

    Incidentally, I consider Nessie to be far more probable than God, simply because God’s mere existence would violate a number of the laws of physics (or invoke phenomena never seen before), whereas Nessie could quite happily exist without contravening one law of physics or even, I’d guess, biology.

    • Posted August 18, 2013 at 3:51 am | Permalink

      I don’t have a link, but it’s commonly pointed out that you would need a breeding colony, that there are well-known relationships between sizeof a habitat and the maximum load it can carry, and that Loch Ness does not contain enough animal or vegetable life to maintain such a colony.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 18, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

        Well, there could be just one Nessie. She just has to have lived for a very long time.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 18, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

          OMG Nessie is the one from Highlander! :D

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 18, 2013 at 5:41 am | Permalink

        Well, there could be just one Nessie. She just needs to have lived for a very long time.

  30. Jerzy
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    I’m getting sick of people who think they can choose what the reality is and how it works. It is not a matter of opinion or faith. Evidence and facts matter.

  31. ridelo
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I admire your way of putting the finger on the sore spots.

  32. Jesus Smith
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    The point of science is that it doesn’t require *any* beliefs it requires testable evidence and sound reasoning. Sound science goes to great pains to exclude beliefs and other forms of bias.

    Talking about scientific beliefs is little different from talking about square circles.

    Beliefs may be adaptive for children but they’re unethical and immoral in those who’ve reached the age of reason.

    We get on perfectly well with knowledge and values – no beliefs required.

    Knowledge seems confined to logic, mathematics and skills.
    Values come in two types, our moral and ethical stances and the probabilities we assign to experiences and propositions – probabilities ideally derived from evidence-based logico-mathematical reasoning.

    If I believe that The Eiffel Tower is in Paris, my belief adds nothing to the fact or to the probability that my belief is correct.
    If I believe that it’s in London the belief serves only to deceive.

    We really should be avoiding the word “belief” because it means two diametrically opposed things …
    1) The false representation of baseless propositions as truth and
    2) Assent to provably or probably (in the legal sense) true propositions.

  33. Jimmy
    Posted August 19, 2013 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    Rev. Wil Gafney is a she, not a he.

    Otherwise, excellent points all round. :)

  34. Taylor M. Brown
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    “There is, he says, a way to do it that helps weed out error:”

    “The trouble is, his method gives us no way to determine which are the latter.”

    Wil Gafney is a woman.


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