Post hoc-ism in apologetics

I am not a political conservative, but somebody called my attention to a really cool post on a secular conservative website called “Secular Right.” While discussing my New Republic book review, the author, Heather MacDonald (a writer from New York), talks about how religion is always playing catch-up to science, something that struck me when I heard Ken Miller say that evoution was God’s way of producing humans. Here is part of what Ms. MacDonald has to say:

But what struck me most while reading the review is how post hoc theological reasoning has become. It has been reduced to forever playing catch-up to science. Whatever new insights about the universe science establishes, religious divines will immediately conclude that that is exactly the way God would have done things and what they had meant to say about him all along. Did it take 14 billion years before God’s intent to create a species that would worship him reached fruition, 14 billion years of laborious preliminaries before anything even remotely resembling human beings could have been glimpsed on the scene? Well, of course! It makes perfect sense; that’s exactly what any omnipotent God would have done. If scientists tomorrow found powerful evidence that in fact species came into existence whenever a giant sling-shot fired a wad of chewing gum at the earth, we would learn that the sling-shot is the divine instrument par excellence.

The religious might object: “But of course religious explanation proceeds in this post hoc fashion; we already know that God is the creator of all things, so science will always merely unveil his complex project and show us his design in ever more accurate detail.” Maybe so. But wouldn’t it be nice if for once the religious put out a strong and falsifiable hypothesis about God’s actions that wasn’t parasitic on science? Correct me if I am wrong, but I would say that Genesis Chapter 1 (or 2; too bad they’re not consistent) was the last such attempt, and we know how that turned out. And yet, Genesis 1 (or 2) seems a lot more plausible as a description of how a God with total power over existence and non-existence would work: if he wants a species, he just creates it, rather than waiting billions of years for random mutations to work their way through. Compare the robust agency of “Then God said, Let us make man in our image … in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” with the tortured narrative devised by Kenneth Miller to fit God into what the best physics and biology research currently tells us about the world:

“The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay.”

If you wanted to create the universe and a certain set of species, wouldn’t you just do it? Am I being too anthropomorphic here?

Kudos to Ms. Macdonald for her penetrating insights.


  1. Tyler Sneed
    Posted February 14, 2009 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    “If you wanted to create the universe and a certain set of species, wouldn’t you just do it?” This one sentence is a great summation of the issue. I feel as if those in support of religion are trying to over-complicate their own beliefs while condemning the beliefs of those in support of science because they are too complicated.

    Great post!

  2. Posted February 15, 2009 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    The penultimate paragraph (about quantum effects) was a good non technical summary of things.

    Thanks for this reveiw!!

    Johnson C. Philip, PhD (Physics)

  3. John Cozijn
    Posted February 15, 2009 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Mac Donald works for the Manhattan Institute and writes for City Journal. She is a prominent atheist right-wing intellectual with a range of decidedly unpleasant views on issues such as torture, race and immigration. However, she is extremely smart and totally fearless, and therefore has had no hesitation in periodically upsetting the Republican echo chamber with her views on religion (and one might add, Sarah Palin).

    Her take on evolutionary theists here is typical of the penetrating intellect she also deploys on the many issues I would profoundly disagree with her on. She’s scary to both her friends and her enemies 🙂

  4. Posted February 15, 2009 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    > But wouldn’t it be nice if for once the religious put out a strong and falsifiable hypothesis about God’s actions that wasn’t parasitic on science?

    But that’s exactly what they did for centuries, until science began falsifying one hypothesis after the other. Then, in order to deal with the cognitive dissonance they split: the “enlightened moderates” began playing the mentioned game of catch-up, and the fundamentalists set their foot firm (and buried their head deep) in the sand and decided whenever science and religion clashes, sciences is automatically wrong.

  5. Posted February 15, 2009 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    MacDonald has a great essay at

  6. Posted February 16, 2009 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    No she’s not being too anthropomorphic. Add in the fact that this creator/shaper deity is supposed to be loving and caring, and yet the whole scheme requires incalculable misery in the natural world … and the idea that anything like the Abrahamic God would have acted in such a way becomes totally unbelievable. To someone reasonably objective, and reasonably scientifically literate, it ought to be plain and clear that no such being exists.

  7. Posted February 17, 2009 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    If Christian apologetics depended on science in the way it is presented here, then Heather MacDonald’s criticism would have force. Intelligent Design is often misconstrued in this way, especially (though not exclusively) by ID antagonists. But science arose in Europe not to find out if God exists, not to prove God exists, but out of a conviction that God exists and a desire to learn how he has worked in His creation.

  8. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Gap theology.

  9. Lol Mahmood
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    “…science arose in Europe not to find out if God exists, not to prove God exists, but out of a conviction that God exists and a desire to learn how he has worked in His creation.”

    So: Abrahamic religion begins with the supernatural claim ‘goddidit’ and avoids falsification by repeatedly retro-fitting it to the natural realities that science gradually uncovers.

    Isn’t that the very essence of an ad hoc hypothesis?

  10. so predict something
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    A lot of the young muslim kids online that like to argue with atheists draw upon ideas from “islamic science” to show – always post hoc – how some scientific fact or numerical constant is exactly consistent with some sort of old religious text. They then claim that islam is “scientific”, often gratuitously adding that it is “more scientific than science” (I think they do this because islamic rhetoric is so exhaltational).

    The kicker always comes when you ask them to use their religious numerology and eschatology to predict something, or to explain something as yet inadequately understood in our current scientific models of reality – dark matter/energy, the unification of quantum theory and general relativity, or something like that.


    But AFTER scientific models are improved in any way, they will be sure to say that this is EXACTLY consistent with their religious system.

  11. rickflick
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    The approach reminds me of the Ptolemaic solar system. To use the Earth as the center of the whole thing, you have to produce an elaborate theoretical model with many caveats. A form of special pleading. The heliocentric view is tremendously simpler, and so coincides with our sense of rational justice.

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