Dawkins 17, Armstrong 0

Oh Lord, can there be a match more uneven than this?  In one corner: Karen Armstrong, embracer of apophatic theology, a wooly-headed apologist who insists that we can say nothing about God but who somehow keeps cranking out book after book on the subject.  In the other: Richard Dawkins, the Oxford Mauler, who will have none of that nonsense.  The venue: the conservative Wall Street Journal.  The topic: “Man vs. God.” According to Richard, both he and Armstrong were commissioned to write on the topic “Where does evolution leave God?” Each knew that the other was writing, but neither saw the other’s essay.

The outcome: Armstrong handily k.o.’ed  But that’s nothing new.  If you want a good take (and a good laugh) on “sophisticated” modern theology — and on its contrast with clear, empirically-based thinking — have a look.  You’ll be emboldened in your rationalism, but also curious about why Armstrong keeps finding places that will publish her repetitive nonsense. If this is the best that accommodationism can produce, WE WIN!

Excerpts:

Armstrong:

Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. But can we respond religiously to evolutionary theory? Can we use it to recover a more authentic notion of God?

Darwin made it clear once again that—as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the “God beyond God.” The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.

But what of the pain and waste that Darwin unveiled? All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth (“Existence is suffering”), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.

Dawkins:

Darwinian evolution is the only process we know that is ultimately capable of generating anything as complicated as creative intelligences. Once it has done so, of course, those intelligences can create other complex things: works of art and music, advanced technology, computers, the Internet and who knows what in the future? Darwinian evolution may not be the only such generative process in the universe. There may be other “cranes” (Daniel Dennett’s term, which he opposes to “skyhooks”) that we have not yet discovered or imagined. But, however wonderful and however different from Darwinian evolution those putative cranes may be, they cannot be magic. They will share with Darwinian evolution the facility to raise up complexity, as an emergent property, out of simplicity, while never violating natural law.

Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain. God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place.

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”

Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.

Oh, the juicy takedown of Armstrong in Dawkins’s last two paragraphs!  No matter how sophisticated modern theologians like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught consider themselves, they are always too removed from the world to understand what “religion” means to most people. Hint: it’s not apophatic.

118 Comments

  1. Zarcus
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Your “wooly-headed” comment and this debate reminds of a couple things.

    First, is Stephen J. Gould’s reaction to the apologist F. Russell Stannard’s attempt to meld science and religion, more like using science to explain his religious beliefs (as offered at a Templeton Foundation conference).

    Gould remarked it was; “Wooly metaphor misportrayed as decisive content – I don’t see what such a comparison could indicate except that the human mind can embrace contradiction (an interesting point, to be sure, but not a statement about the factual character of God), and that people can construct the wildest metaphors.”

    Of course that is what Armstrong is good at, and her arguments are obviously nothing new. Also, Gould could have easily said “of Nature”, however it would be incumbent on the believer to first present that God exist in a testable way. But, unlike Dawkins, who is correct that God is real to the believer, I also know the believer does exactly what Armstrong argues, which is place (define etc.) God outside of existence (or existence itself – ie, God as the singularity etc.). That God acts within nature is what the Believer holds as true, though by admittedly claiming they do not know how – a mystery, faith. Thier claims to nature even when refuted are still often held, this is as historically true as the belief God explains and is outside, nature.

    That the human mind can embrace contradiction and create wild metaphor is fact as much as science is the greatest tool we have for understanding the universe and which guides us to offer our provisional acceptance of scientific facts.

    The overlap that people argue for between science and religion (or the non-overlap they argue against) is a phony one. Science can illuminate the claims of the believers and the beliefs, but needs not chase after fairly tales. Zarathustra (part of my nickname) said God is Dead to signify God was created by the human mind, no need to believe, this tells us God never was alive.

    Second, I reminded of something Sam Harris (paradoxically by what Armstrong argues-though the gulf is obvious) had said recently in a Bill Maher interview after forwarding how we need to be more openly skeptical of religious claims (a point I dearly hold).

    Sam said; “There is this fact, that there is this core of truth to religion we should be interested in, there is a fact that people do have transformative experiences. If Jesus really was who they say he was, or Buddha likewise, its possible perhaps, to be the Tiger Woods of compassion.”

    Armstrong above is arguing the compassion side it appears. What Sam said is not new to those that have read his thoughts on meditation and spiritualism and his defense of “mystical” language. However, it is a fine line at times to argue the beliefs of religious claims as bullshit while saying there is underlying truth to religion – that area as much as God as real or how to think of existence, can confuse.

    I am still waiting for Coyne to explain how his belief that God or a “spiritual force” exist because if something like “only bad people might get cancer” is justified. Is this a definitional argument, or is the natural phenomena mysterious enough to claim a belief without offering scientific evidence for the God. Is his belief in God scientifically justifiable, how does he know God it is behind the natural phenomena? Is it different then Darwin calling such “convincing” arguments, silly talk? Are these type arguments different from apologist (nature explains God because how else to explain, though used to counter an idea that science says nothing on the “supernatural”.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted September 12, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      What the hell are you talking about, Zarcus? That last paragraph is delusional.

      • Zarcus
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        My last paragraph is about a claim made by Coyne. I could have used a talking Mount Rushmore.

        Such as: “And, as noted above, there are other ways to scientifically document supernatural phenomena. One that Jason mentions is observing a talking Mount Rushmore.”

        Silly talk. Of course, “only bad people might get cancer”, is what may convince Coyne to believe in God, maybe you too, NEB?

        It’s how the claim “supernatural phenomenon are not completely beyond the realm of science” has been defended lately, by Coyne and a few others – just silly talk. The question would still stand; how is Coyne justifying the belief the a “supernatural force” or God is behind the natural phenomena (you see, you can’t just claim these things as “supernatural” unless you can show why – is it the “bad people”, “cancer”?). In the end you make something up about nature, or a phenomena and claimed there’s something behind it, like God or a “supernatural force.” It is the “claims” he’s actually talking about, but appears not to care, to him that being convinced there is a god by his examples is a truth regarding science studying a “supernatural phenomena”.

        Anyway, thanks, NEB.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        You took Coyne’s words completely out of context.

        It is obvious that you have a comprehension challenge. You misinterpreted all of it.

      • Zarcus
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        No NEB, you’re wrong. That is what Coyne has been arguing ever since his claim in the ‘Seeing and Believing’ essay. I’m completely within context and appropriately illustrating his argument.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        No Zarcus. I will let Coyne tell you, after he finished laughing. It could be a while.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        Zarcus, or Luke, or whatever other names he has used from time to time on Jerry’s blog (and mine) is always good for a few laughs.

      • Zarcus
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, Russell. Perhaps we could go over that essay, “Natural and Supernatural, again”, again.

        After all if God does turn out to exist, then science could deal with it, right? Your argument is full proof.

        BTW, last time around Jerry banned me from this site. Which is a laugh. I am however, glad I can amuse you, and NEB, and anyone else. I take it that you find what I have said so far on this thread is laughable, a “joke” perhaps?

      • Zarcus
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

        To be clear, Luke is the only other name I’ve used on this site.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      I’ll probably answer the rest of your comment if and when I comment on the post itself, but the last part is arguable on its own.

      First, I do think you have misinterpreted Coyne, especially when you confuse testing religious claims for “his belief”. If you can test, there is no belief required in the first place.

      Second, as regard testing religious claims such as prayer studies or talking mountains, there is no need to explain a supernatural “mechanism”. How can one, when there’s likely only natural mechanisms?

      What one need to do is to exclude natural mechanisms, such as natural agencies somehow interacting with individual’s thoughts at a distance. Neither agencies nor such interactions exist. Btw, IIRC the later is known to be impossible for reasons of entropy, there simply isn’t room for new forces of that magnitude to contribute to observed entropy increase. [I wish I had a reference, but I don’t.]

      Since Newton we know that observations can observe actions, but we have also *observed* without exception that all natural systems reacts on actions. No assumptions made. Newton even had to make it one of his laws of mechanics.

      “Supernatural systems”, as described by way of religious agencies, aren’t naturally reacting. They are unnaturally acting. (Say, choosing to grant specific wishes/prayers but obviously not all. Or talking out of mountains. Or creating the universe on a whim.)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        “Creating the universe on a whim.”

        Actually, come to think about it, we don’t have to fall back on the impossibility to discern between “on a whim” or for a reason in the case of a nondescript agency.

        It may be more aggravating to religious minded people that it is also unnatural if we observe a supernatural agent creating the universe *on purpose*. 😀

  2. Posted September 12, 2009 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    According to Armstrong, it is scientists’ fault (especially Newton’s) that people think God is real. Before that religion is nothing more than a form of poetry. The logic is impeccable.

  3. Zarcus
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Check out Eugenie Scott’s review of the film, ‘Creation:’ A drama about the life of Charles Darwin’, over at the Panda’sThumb.

    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/09/eugenie-scott-r.html

    “If anyone has contacts with someone associated with movie distribution, send them to Creation!”

  4. Posted September 12, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    This article just illustrates the poverty of reasoning on behalf of new age apologists gone wild.

    Armstrong gets smoked. Game over.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted September 12, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      I agree exactly John Danley. That is how I characterized it on RD.net. “New Age” smoke, delusions and obfuscation – bullshit at its most refined state.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Ontological madness that infinitely transmogrifies into new forms of subjective, interpersonal insanity. It’s schizotypal relativism. The bullshit piles higher, higher, higher, higher (and higher) until we all need ventilators.

        Where’s my spirometer?

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        Nerves transfer pain information to the brain. But we are multicellular so this is the only way it can happen. In a unicellular life form there is most likely something analogous. Evolution demands it. The impulse to flee danger and damage. An amoeba or a paramecium or many other unicellular forms already exhibit the ability to sense light, to flee from something that is trying to consume them, to orient themselves etc. Yes, no nerves, but how can they do all of THAT with no nerves? It would be odd if they felt no pain. And we can never know this.

        Maybe they don’t feel it per se. But we can’t know that.

    • Posted September 12, 2009 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

      Armstrong gets smoked. Game over.
      ————
      Aren’t the two articles basically arguing different things? She’s arguing for mysticism, not God. She just calls it God, poor thing. Old habits are hard to break, apparently.

      I don’t see Dawkins’ article refuting Armstrong’s nor being defeated by it because I don’t even see Armstrongs article as on the same subject as Dawkins’. Just because she uses the word “God” doesn’t make her argument automatically refuted by a cogent Dawkins argument against theism. She’s not meaning a ‘theos’ in the sense that Dawkins is. Apples and orangutans.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

        Yes, yes, exactly, we all know how accommodationism is assumed to work!

        So what of it? Dawkins explains succinctly why it doesn’t work. And specifically why this variant is “a very lonely creek”.

  5. Posted September 12, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    “But what of the pain and waste that Darwin unveiled?”

    Oh right! Shrewd point! So silly of Dawkins not to have noticed that. What a good thing Karen Armstrong is paying attention.

    “All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible.”

    That’s her favorite mantra, the claim that “compassion lies at the heart of faith,” and it’s stark staring bullshit. Tell that to the mullahs, tell that to the pope when he instructs the multitudes not to use condoms, tell that to the inquisitors, tell it to the witch-hunters and the woman-floggers and the hand-choppers and the stoners.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted September 12, 2009 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Armstrong comes across as a ‘stoner’; in the 1960s addict sense.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

        That’s her favorite mantra, the claim that “compassion lies at the heart of faith,”
        ————-
        Well, faith is another word for accepting things based on feelings rather than facts. Not a good thing. You could also call it ‘gullibility’ depending on your viewpoint.

        I am unfamiliar with her. She sounds like a mystic more than a theist though. Could she mean ‘faith’ in a different way? She certainly means “God” in a different way.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

        However I must at least agree with her on the value of compassion. On many levels.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        First, only minds are capable of feeling suffering
        ——————-
        I would offer as a refute to that the spinal reflexes that we all posess. When you accidentally touch a stove the pain does not make it to the brain, to the mind. The spinal nerves react and you snatch your hand away. Then only afterwards “you” (mind/brain) ‘feel’ the pain of the burn in your mind, yes, but your hand felt it before “you” did.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      This is one of Armstrong’s claims that I reacted most strongly to. Because I recently saw it elsewhere, and it strikes me as so much bull.

      Albeit for other reasons than the observably wrong characterization of religion. It is also an observably wrong characterization of nature.

      First, only minds are capable of feeling suffering. And according to many, if not most, biologists minds are contingent products of evolution. Replay the tape of evolution, and there may be no multicellular organisms.

      If there is life on the discovered plethora of planets, and it likely is, then chances are it’s mostly unicellular. Un-suffering, but insufferably boring in a way.

      Second, the majority of time and majority of organisms in evolution has been without suffering.

      In summary, there is no “ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life”. It’s both eminently hypothetically escapable and observably very, very unlikely.

      Armstrong has it exactly ass-backwards with observation and she, in the typical accommodationist way, doesn’t want to recognize “the empirical dissonance”.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        So you know that unicellular life does not suffer. You must be God. Nice to finally meet you.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        If there are no nerves to sense pain, there is no pain. This is known even from humans who lose their ability.

        If you want to claim that unicellular life or plants know suffering, then show the evidence.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Nerves transfer pain information to the brain. But we are multicellular so this is the only way it can happen. In a unicellular life form there is most likely something analogous. Evolution demands it. The impulse to flee danger and damage. An amoeba or a paramecium or many other unicellular forms already exhibit the ability to sense light, to flee from something that is trying to consume them, to orient themselves etc. Yes, no nerves, but how can they do all of THAT with no nerves? It would be odd if they felt no pain. And we can never know this.

        Maybe they don’t feel it per se. But we can’t know that.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        First, only minds are capable of feeling suffering
        ——————-
        I would offer as a refute to that the spinal reflexes that we all posess. When you accidentally touch a stove the pain does not make it to the brain, to the mind. The spinal nerves react and you snatch your hand away. Then only afterwards “you” (mind/brain) ‘feel’ the pain of the burn in your mind, yes, but your hand felt it before “you” did.

        Oh, and I must apologize for misplaced posts. At first I thought it was me, but apparently it often happens that when I respond to a particular comment it posts my response to the previous one. Sorry about that.

  6. Dave C
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I agree that Armstrong is neither impressive nor persuasive, but Dawkins’ piece leaves much to be desired too. For instance, he uses Dennett’s “cranes” and “skyhooks” concepts, but never explains what they mean. Now, I’ve read “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” so I’m familiar with the terms, but I doubt the average WSJ reader is. At best, throwing those two words in there is mostly useless. At worst, it’s confusing.

    • Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      He does explain cranes briefly (and the context itself explains), and since ‘skyhooks’ is ‘as opposed to’ cranes I think the reader can get the drift well enough to follow. My guess is that a reader too thick to parse that sentence wouldn’t be reading the WSJ in the first place. I don’t think it’s confusing and I don’t think it’s really useless, because it’s illustrative.

      • Dave C
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        I think you overestimate the intellectual prowess of the average WSJ reader! 🙂

      • nick bobick
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        Agreed Dave C – I just spent an hour, or so, reading through 120 comments, that were mostly grammatically sound but logically “not even wrong”.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        So much for that guess! 🙂

      • Michael Heath
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

        I doubt the on-line comments are representative of the average WSJ subscriber, especially since this article and its comments is included in their free content partition.

  7. Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    A Poem:

    Jesus loves me, yes I know
    Cause the Bible tells me so
    That is all I need to hear
    And so I know I’ll never fear
    Nothing else is in my head
    Except a book by guys long dead
    Science isn’t telling me
    What I can and cannot see
    I never, ever take a look
    Since I only own one book
    Jesus is my only thought
    When others ask me what I’ve bought
    I’d rather pluck out both my eyes
    So that I can’t see the lies
    That Science tells us are the truth
    I think that Science is uncouth!
    Telling me that things fall down
    And how a cricket makes a sound
    And how planets spin around the sun
    And how the gears in watches run
    I do not need to hear the facts
    I only need religious tracts
    And prayers to our Great Lord above
    Who blinded me with Bible Love
    It feels so good to be so dense
    To live behind an iron fence
    To shelter fragile minds from truth
    (Indoctrinate them in their youth)
    Feed them tales of God above
    And all of His undying Love
    And how he put things in this place
    Plain as the nose there on your face
    That seem to say that He’s not real
    That’s just the lying Science deal!
    He put them here to fool us guys
    When we try to use our eyes
    We know better, yes we do
    Science is at best, untrue
    At worst a strange Satanic plot
    To show what is real, and what is not
    Why should we care what is real?
    We still have the Christian deal
    Believe in God, at any cost
    And look to others like we’re lost
    -Saint Brian the Godless

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Good bye Brian, you will never be back here again. Good riddance to delusional crap like this. No one here will read your fantasy past the first three words of nonsense.

      • Zarcus
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        NEB, you really are a troubled individual, sorry, but the more I read of you here and elsewhere, the more I’m convinced.

      • Dave C
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Uh, did you even read his poem? If not, you might want to read it before commenting. If you did read it, you might want to go to your nearest dictionary and look up the words “sarcasm” and “parody.”

      • JD
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Bob I think you didn’t read past the first two lines. I almost did the same thing until I saw who posted it. Thanks for the laugh Brian.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        I read the first 12 lines. They look identical to creationist web sites.

        I am glad you do not like what I say Zarcus. You are so out of touch it makes me thrilled.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        I read the first 12 lines. They look identical to creationist web sites.
        -NEB
        —————-
        The first twelve?

        These lines you mean:

        Jesus loves me, yes I know
        Cause the Bible tells me so
        That is all I need to hear
        And so I know I’ll never fear
        Nothing else is in my head
        Except a book by guys long dead
        Science isn’t telling me
        What I can and cannot see
        I never, ever take a look
        Since I only own one book
        Jesus is my only thought
        When others ask me what I’ve bought
        ***

        Here’s the irony in those lines:

        Nothing else is in my head
        Except a book by guys long dead

        -Do you really think a Christian would refer to the authors of the Holy Bible as “a book by guys long dead?”

        I never, ever take a look
        Since I only own one book

        -A Christian would say this? Brag that they only own book?

        Jesus is my only thought
        When others ask me what I’ve bought

        -What I’ve bought?

        Honestly it staggers the mind that you’re apparently too dense to see this. Sure you’re not a fundy?

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        They look identical to creationist web sites.
        -NEB
        ————–
        You should have read them then, instead of just looking.

    • Posted September 12, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Good bye Brian, you will never be back here again.
      -NEB
      ———————–
      Looks like you’re wrong already. Here I am again.

      Hey dude, it doesn’t look good when someone on our side acts the delusional fool. That’s the Christian playbook.
      The poem is sarcasm, obviously. And I mean obviously. You seem fairly smart and yet that eluded you? Really? On meds perhaps?

      It’s okay, I forgive you. That’s what saints do. 🙂

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        The poem is a sort of parody, and has to be interpreted as ironic (the speaker is revealed as foolish, etc.), but why do some people insist on using the word “sarcasm” when all they mean is “irony”? It would be impossible to read the poem in a sarcastic (i.e. cutting or biting) tone, as in “You’re sooo frakking clever, aren’t you?” but the irony is pretty obvious once you read a few lines. The point, in fact, is that we imagine the speaker not saying these words in a cutting, biting tone of voice, but simply as being revealed as foolish by the words and ideas put into his/her mouth by the real author. Most irony is much more subtle than straightforward sarcasm.

        I don’t know the nationality of the other commenters here, but I see this a lot, usually from Americans. I’m getting the impression that the word “irony” is rapidly vanishing from the American lexicon and being replaced by the word “sarcasm”, which, however, has a much more specific meaning that it would be sad to lose.

        Sorry to (potentially) derail the thread with this, but, as I say, I see this a lot, so what better time than now to raise it?

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        Russell, I think it’s because people are always telling us (us Americans) that we don’t do irony!

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        Point taken Russel and I appreciate the correction. I do that one a lot. I must try to be more precise.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Although Russell, what about this?

        sar⋅casm  /ˈsɑrkæzəm/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [sahr-kaz-uhm] Show IPA
        Use sarcasm in a Sentence
        See web results for sarcasm
        See images of sarcasm
        –noun 1. harsh or bitter derision or irony.
        -dictionary.com

        Harsh irony? Wouldn’t several lines in that poem qualify?

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Are you by any chance on meds?
        -Saint Brian

        NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:07 am | Permalink
        You ramble on and on say nothing new. Everything you said here was said twelve times before you. Yawn.
        ————-
        People have asked you a dozen times if you’re on meds and informed you of the fact that you’re acting like a psycho? Not surprising.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        Only the boring you has asked. I suspect it is bus man’s holiday for your motivation.

        Yawn, again.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        Monkeys yawn a lot, but that’s no concern of mine.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 12, 2009 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Brian, The fundies are PROUD of their ignorance and their reliance only on the bible.

      I have seen much worse on creationist sights including racism, misogyny, fascism and other disgusting stuff.

      Your poem actually sucks, by the way. There is no subtlety and it looks like the work of someone with an IQ of 65.

      Honestly it staggers the mind that you’re apparently too dense to see this.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        Bob, you are apparently very, very confused. Here’s why:

        I am obviously not a fundie. And yet you insist on acting as if I were. My poem was directed at fundies, making fun of them. Theoretically, this should make you happy, not upset. You are ‘firing on your own team’ as it were. Not that I’d want to be on your team, what with your bad manners and limited intellect.

        And thank you for the random criticism of my poem. I was so sure it would win the top prize in whatever poetry contest that I chose to enter it into. Thank god for you or else I would have thought it on par with Yeats’ Second Coming. Helping out aspiring poets such as myself to realize their worthlessness is so important… You’ve made me truly realize the value of a-holes to the world of literature.

        Oh, and since you don’t get irony the above will no doubt fuel even more of your inane and apparently pointless mouthings. Go with it. Be the best that you can be.

        Peace be with you, Bob.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        You proved my point.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        What point? The one atop your head?

        Try harder Bob.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

        Brian acts seven years old. I am laughing at the pathetic display.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        Okay monkeyboy, what’s your problem? You apparently like to insult people randomly, even if they happen to agree. This is indication of deeper psychological issues. And you’re not even creative or funny about it.

        Is this your usual M.O.?

        To the other people posting here, is this Bob’s usual way of treating others? I’m new here and I just want to identify the serious posters and the ninnies. So far Bob’s in the latter group.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 12:01 am | Permalink

        See, this is the part that I don’t get:

        “Yes, Brian, The fundies are PROUD of their ignorance and their reliance only on the bible.

        I have seen much worse on creationist sights including racism, misogyny, fascism and other disgusting stuff.”

        Shit, so have I! Agreed on all points. I effing hate that stuff…
        So I am left to guess that you hate my skinny ass because we agree on the basics?

        Are you by any chance on meds?

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:07 am | Permalink

        You ramble on and on say nothing new. Everything you said here was said twelve times before you. Yawn.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        Are you by any chance on meds?
        -Saint Brian

        NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:07 am | Permalink
        You ramble on and on say nothing new. Everything you said here was said twelve times before you. Yawn.
        ————-
        People have asked you a dozen times if you’re on meds and informed you of the fact that you’re acting like a psycho? Not surprising.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        Once again, you are repetitive, boring, pathetic and wasting all of our time. Grow up.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        Once again, you are repetitive, boring, pathetic and wasting all of our time. Grow up.
        ————
        I am very interested in you. Insanity fascinates me.

  8. Posted September 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    No one here will read your fantasy past the first three words of nonsense.
    -NEB
    —————
    Aha. That’s what happened. You only read the first three words.

    Now that’s a bad habit. Talk about short attention span.

  9. Posted September 12, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    We’re the pinnacle of a huge pyramid of evolved life, the sum total of a series of adjustments made to us by our environment as it changed over vast spans of time. For every one of standing here today, ten billion beings of some sort that weren’t as fit as our ancestors were, died before reproducing. We’re a product of the longest trial-and-error experiment of all. Our environment is what shaped us, so it would be very odd if we did not look designed. We were, by our environment.

    Now, if the conditions were identical elsewhere on another planet somewhere and life bloomed long ago there as it did here, and let’s even say that by sheer chance all the earliest life forms were virtually identical to those that came into being here (highly improbable,) even then, by now after all these eons of time whatever dominant life form on that planet would necessarily be completely and utterly different from us, since no way the zillion roulette wheels will all land on the same series of numbers twice. However, if said dominant form on said planet happened to evolve intelligence and self-awareness as we did, they might and probably would look around at all the other giant intelligent squid-caterpillars around them and say to each other “This is too perfect for chance. It MUST be design!”

    And of course, they might pray to their Giant Squid-caterpillar God, who created them in His own divine image.

    It would be absolutely CRAZY for us not to look designed for this place, and it for us. This place is what designed us, to withstand it as it changed. After all this time of weeding out the imperfect, we’d BETTER look designed to fit it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      The “‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'” puddle thinking is correct of course.

      However, this:

      We’re a product of the longest trial-and-error experiment of all. Our environment is what shaped us, so it would be very odd if we did not look designed. We were, by our environment.

      First, a nitpick. As selection AFAIU works both on negative and positive fitness, we have both trial-and-error and trial-and-reward mechanisms.

      Second, there is IMHO a good reason why people discuss “apparent design” instead of actual design. Evolution works on functions building traits, not on parts building functions.

      I.e. a designer process may result in one coffee machine design. While an evolutionary process could result in several convergent but differing coffee machine populations – or none at all, if tea works good enough. It could also have coffee_and_tea machines, as functions overlap and/or twin the underlying fabric.

      What we see as “design” is the material and/or processual fabric that implements a function. Functions aren’t designed, they are sometimes sought after indirect consequences of man made design and much more likely direct consequences of evolution.

      [To complicate matters, there are modern design methods that tries to implement designs on a functional level, such as axiomatic design and Triz. But the original solutions that these methods are based on are still designed.]

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        Torborn, points accepted as re evolution. And yes, that was nitpicking. But useful nitpicking. Its good to remember how the mechanism works. I never mind being corrected or ‘expanded upon’ or having my ‘nits picked.’ I don’t like nits very much in the first place. Besides, nit-picking is a part of our ancient primate mutual grooming behavior, so have at it, fellow monkey.

  10. Zarcus
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    One other idea this debate reminded me of…

    When Dawkins writes:

    “What if there are life forms on other planets that have evolved so far beyond our level of intelligence and creativity that we should regard them as gods, were we ever so fortunate (or unfortunate?) as to meet them? Would they indeed be gods? Wouldn’t we be tempted to fall on our knees and worship them…”

    It reminds me of ‘Shermer’s Last Law: ID, ET and God’ from his book, Why Darwin Matters.

    Michael writes:

    “One day I was thinking about what we might find if we went in search of an intelligent designer when I remember Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This led me to consider what a sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) would be indistinguishable from, which led me to formulate Shermer’s Last Law: Any advanced ETI is indistinguishable from God.”

    He follows this up by explaining that as God defined as omniscient and omnipotent, then how would we distinguish this God who has those characteristics absolutely from an ETI that has them in copious amounts relative to us. “Thus we would be unable to distinguish from absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence.”

    That more fully explains our temptation to “fall on our knees.” An even more explanatory idea of this, what Paul Kurtz has called the “Transcendental Temptation”, is Shermer’s theory of “patternicity” and “agenticity”.

    Kurtz’s book, The Transcendental Temptation, is excellent and a must read for “skeptics”!

    http://www.amazon.com/Transcendental-Temptation-Critique-Religion-Paranormal/dp/0879756454

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Shermer was AFAIU understand religious for a long time, and it shows. This is such an example. Here he goes from (say, stage) magic to religion.

      I’ve commented above on why and how we can test for unnatural systems. [The idea doesn’t originate with me. For example Victor Stenger has much more on it in his “God – the failed hypothesis”.]

      To discuss systems that we can’t today test is neither here nor there, for the same reasons as everywhere else in science. One day we will come to it. Or not. That doesn’t change what we already know, in its domain. (For example, that there isn’t any supernatural agency observed, despite hundreds of years of tests on systems.)

      Note: An “omniscient and omnipotent” supernatural agency have supernatural (i.e. theological) problems. So I wouldn’t worry about that part at all.

      That more fully explains our temptation to “fall on our knees.”

      I don’t see that at all.

      Especially in the context of above, but even if it would be an isolated observation. What we don’t understand we want to experiment with. Not stop asking questions and deify.

      Call it “curiosity” if you want to find a more general basis (than that “it works”). I believe you will find references on the web. 😀

      Unless we are specifically wooed from natural curiosity by religious tendencies, in which case “patternicity” and “agenticity” are likely hypotheses.

      • Zarcus
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        Actually the Shermer quote from his book, Why Darwin Matters, precisely mirrors what Dawkins is trying to say and offers a deeper evaluation of the context.

        The idea of not worrying about omniscient and omnipotent “supernatural” powers is also precisely what Shermer is laying out, to the point of the near absurd in the context of imagining an advanced race being God(s) to us.

        As he notes: “Thus we would be unable to distinguish from absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence.”

        This is essentially aside form arguments such as Epicurus’ “problem of evil” or theological debate.

        You wrote: “Unless we are specifically wooed from natural curiosity by religious tendencies, in which case “patternicity” and “agenticity” are likely hypotheses.”

        Perhaps you could rephrase this before I respond. It almost appears you are saying that the hypotheses are limiting somehow instead of being naturalistic explanations of why people believe in such things as “supernaturalism”, the “paranormal” etc. They are presented as current ideas which are not restraining further discovery. I almost get the impression you hold this idea of science somehow testing the “unnatural systems” (whatever the hell that is) has something to do with Mike’s ideas?

  11. Michael K Gray
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Armstrong has a career waiting for her in fields where generating endless screeds of eloquent bullshit are a requirement.
    “Politics” and “Legal Counsel” spring to mind as examples.

  12. Dan Allison
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Armstrong couldn’t produce a good argument if her life depended on it. She’s primarily an academic apologist for Islam and a loud, irritating critic of Christianity and Judaism. One wonders what the WSJ’s agenda was when they commissioned the project. They could have contracted with a real defender of Christianity, someone like NT Wright or Tim Keller. Instead, they go with a tired liberal who hasn’t had anything authentic to say since the 1970s. Mopping the floor with Dawkins should be easy for any intelligent Christian or Jew. If one finds it difficult, one is therefore not an intelligent Christian or Jew.

    • Michael Heath
      Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      Dan Allison stated: “Mopping the floor with Dawkins should be easy for any intelligent Christian or Jew.”

      Care to provide some citations of Dawkins being used as a mere mop?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      Yes, do let’s have some examples of how intelligent Christians and Jews have “mopped the floor” with Dawkins. I can’t wait!

    • Zarcus
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      The Christian and Jew you have in mind, do you think they hold a belief in the same God? Would either side hold the other will be welcome into heaven?

    • Posted September 13, 2009 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      “Mopping the floor with Dawkins should be easy for any intelligent Christian or Jew. If one finds it difficult, one is therefore not an intelligent Christian or Jew.”

      One would think that, without mopping the floor, any intelligent Christian or Jewish thinker could make some reasonable argument to challenge Dawkins – and yet, so far, the challenges have been remarkably feeble. It has surprised me. With each fresh attempt I find myself thinking ‘Is that the best they can do?’

      There must be exceptions to this. And yet – if there were – surely they would have gained wide currency by now, and be deployed on every apologist blog and website. Yet we don’t see them. Strange…

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        How can there be an exception to that, Ophelia? All of their arguments are old and tired and have been pounded into oblivion. They have no new arguments that hold up. While science supplies more evidence every year, the gaps continue to shrink or disappear completely. DNA and evolutionary biology put the final nail into religionists coffin. They now deal in spiritual woo.

  13. Wes
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    What a strange comment thread…

    I don’t want to get involved in the several disputes going on here. Instead, I’ll just “contribute” to the weirdness by mocking the three dingleberries who trackbacked to this thread. (Mainly because I have nothing else to add, but I’m bored.)

    First “Darwiniana”:

    It is sad to watch the confusion of scientism overtake Armstrong after all her efforts to be a sophisticated prophet of the next Axial Age, sorry, prophetess.

    Dawkinst we know to be an idiot, a hopeless idiot, who profits too greatly from error for reform. But Armstrong, at least, might have taken a cure from her (false, it seems) Islam promos to consider the possibility of some problem in Darwin’s theory.
    She is thus an idiot, just on the verge of hopeless idiot, like Dawkins.
    She is crossing the line.
    It seems Armstrong, despite radical opinions on occasion, is too cagey about the PR trap in attacking Darwinism, bad, bad for book sales, unless you are a fundamentalist ID-ist. No such luck. Join the ranks of hopeless with Dawkins (and don’t forget Coyne)

    It’s the needless swipe at Armstrong’s gender at the beginning of this that sinks it for me: This guy couldn’t be a bigger douchebag. And a hopeless one at that.

    And from the ever-arrogant Santi Tafarella:

    Coyne wants to talk about atheism v. religion with the “gloves off” in much the same way that Radin wants to talk about psi with “seriousness.” Both intellectuals are putting their social necks out to get attention for views that are frequently treated by their career ambitious (and timid) peers with polite, smirking silence.

    But we need more people like Jerry Coyne and Dean Radin in the world

    Whereas I’m sure that Santi’s peers at Antelope Valley Community College are overawed with his astonishing insights, rather than the “smirking silence” lowlifes like Jerry must get.

    Or maybe they just think he’s a condescending prick, like the rest of us do.

    And from “Internet Monk” Michael Spencer:

    Anyone want to tell Dawkins that God doesn’t exist in the universe? This is why CS Lewis said Pantheism is so attractive. See Michael Dowd, Thank God For Evolution, for that option.

    Anyone want to tell the Internet Monk that he needs to spend a little more time outside his eCloister, since Dawkins has addressed this “objection” more than once?

    • Posted September 13, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      “It’s the needless swipe at Armstrong’s gender at the beginning of this that sinks it for me”

      Really – that jumped right out at me too. “Sorry, prophetess” for christ’s sake – what is that for?! Do women have to ask special permission from men to write stuff?

      Man I get sick of that crap.

      Please excuse my commentessette.

  14. Posted September 12, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    From Armstrong’s article:

    “Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.”

    How is this different from say, the buddhist concept of “Maya?” Or new-age style mysticism for that matter? (Some of which isn’t as stupid as some people demonize it to be, efven right here on this blog)

    What she’s calling God, ain’t the God that people think of when they say the word “God.” So why call it “God?” Her conditioning in a western monotheistic culture perhaps?

    • Posted September 12, 2009 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      The two articles are presented as if a point-and-counterpoint however I don’t see how Dawkins in any way refutes Armstrong’s version of God at all. Dawkins refutes a traditional creator god well enough but Armstrong isn’t really even talking about a God as most people think about it. Was he trying to answer her claims here or were the two articles just selected from their writings by a thrid party as opposing each other, I wonder?

      I find a lot more fault with Armstrong’s article, however. She’s cheating. She’s passing mysticism off as theism to argue for God, or claiming they’re congruent somehow. They’re not even close to each other.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

        Read what it says above:

        According to Richard, both he and Armstrong were commissioned to write on the topic “Where does evolution leave God?” Each knew that the other was writing, but neither saw the other’s essay.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        Ahh. I missed that. Thank you for rudely pointing it out to me. Nice style. Was your mother by any chance a woman of the streets?

        So apparently they both agreed that evolution leaves God out of the picture entirely. Cool.

        (Since what she defined as “God” just isn’t)

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        Brian, You are crude too. As expected.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

        Brian, the two articles were written independently (though each was told the other was writing an article). So the articles don’t directly address each other.

        By the way, I’m less down on Armstrong than people who know me might assume, and I love her opening para. Seriously, read it again (it’s even better if you drop off the last sentence).

        I think she’s wrong about many things, but if most religionists were like this I would feel no urgency about criticising religion. This kind of woolly religion is not a threat to our liberties, at least if it’s applied consistently. Armstrong is probably a genuine religious moderate, unlike the average Vatican hierarch. (Note that merely accepting the truth of evolution is not enough to make you moderate in any respectable sense.)

        And notice that Armstrong doesn’t tell Dawkins to shut up as Matt Nisbet has been known to do (and the Colgate Twins have gone very close to this, perhaps even crossing the line). For whatever reason, she is very conciliatory towards him.

        Overall, I find less cause to be cross about Armstrong than about various other people whose actual worldviews may be closer to mine, and I’ll probably get around to blogging about this. At the worst, she does a certain amount of “enabling” of more dangerous positions, but I’m not even convinced that that is true in practice.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        Okay Bob, whatever. What do you have to offer besides rudeness and a narrow mind? Not much.

        I’m surprised that you even post here. It must be very confusing for you.

      • Posted September 12, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        Russell, I think we agree on her then.

        She’s more of a mystic than a theist for sure. And mystics tend to be polite. Even misguided ones that insist on seeing the hand of a deity in their mystic beliefs.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 12:17 am | Permalink

        I should also note that she is not always this “nice” and conciliatory when discussing Dawkins. She may well have decided it was prudent to take such a tack in these circumstances. I’m not going to give her a complete free pass.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        Ah, but Russell, her apophatic faith has the side effect of ENABLING those having more pernicious faiths, something that Sam discussed in The End of Faith. Do remember that Armstrong, in her other works, has been a consistent apologist (or denier!) of the excesses of Islam, for instance.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Russell

        “And notice that Armstrong doesn’t tell Dawkins to shut up as Matt Nisbet has been known to do…For whatever reason, she is very conciliatory towards him.”

        I’m assuming that the reason is she knew he was writing a companion article and she was therefore motivated to write a non-combative article for the occasion.

        “I should also note that she is not always this “nice” and conciliatory when discussing Dawkins.”

        Indeed not. In particular she apparently has a habit of feeding lines to people like Madeleine Bunting so that they can do the flamey stuff and she can maintain her psuedo-academic dignity.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        Ah, but Russell, her apophatic faith has the side effect of ENABLING those having more pernicious faiths, something that Sam discussed in The End of Faith. Do remember that Armstrong, in her other works, has been a consistent apologist (or denier!) of the excesses of Islam, for instance.
        —————–
        Oh, that isn’t good. Both Islam and Christianity are pernicious mind-neutering religions by nature. Too bad. As I said, I am not at all familiar with her.

  15. articulett
    Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    Read Jerry’s last paragraph. He’s pointing out that Armstrong’s ineffable god is not the god most people believe in. She’s talking about a “god of the mind”– not a god that exists in the real world that answers prayers, etc.

    Accommodationists might think this airy-fairy talk appeals to believers– and it might… -believers tend to hear what they want to hear and ignore anything that is a threat to their faith. But once believers understand that the accommodationists don’t really believe in an existing real god nor the Jesus who did miracles, etc. they will treat the accommodationists the way they treat atheists and others who don’t share their faith. (And for good reason.)

    Karen Armstrong, like Mooney, comes across as a patronizing parent promoting the wonder and fantasy of believing in Santa Claus. Even the slowest creotard will catch on eventually. Karen Armstrong is NOT advocating for belief in the god that most people believe in; She’s advocating what Dennett calls “belief in belief”. At least, I think that’s what she’s advocating. I don’t really speak and understand woo, and I suspect most people don’t–they just extrapolate the message they want to hear. I do understand Dawkins and Coyne however– they are so clear and concise and easy to sum up. I think it takes work NOT to understand them.

    Faith needs a group of people giving “testimony” to keep the faith alive… and they need a group of nonbelievers–enemies to unite against. Believers can be slow, but eventually they come to recognize those who are a threat to the delusion they’ve come to need. So if Karen Armstrong is the best they’ve got… then we’ve won– as Jerry said.

    The question was: “Where does evolution leave god?”, and Dawkins was the only one who answered that question. God is, at best, superfluous,… an add on… science PLUS an invisible undetectable magic man that we can’t really know anything about. And a magician is more magical than the magic he creates, so in a world where complexity always comes from the bottom up, a God built from the top down is a non-answer. It’s a bigger conundrum than the thing it was created to explain. Using god as an explanation for the good things that which we don’t understand is on par with claiming bad things are caused by gremlins! If the best rational argument for god is the argument that makes god irrelevant, unknowable, “outside nature”, or indistinguishable from other delusions–then god has lost his place in the science magisteria.

    He is relegated to the same spot as gremlins and ghosties, and things that go bump in the night–the “woo” magisteria.

    These victories are the way to shame religion into the closet and behind closed doors where we keep other superstitions and crazy thoughts-the same closed doors that theists want those who don’t share their beliefs to cower behind!

    If an argument for god is no better than an argument for Xenu or Scientology, then the person making the argument has no more claim to respect than the they would give a Scientologist. Does Karen Armstrong’s “belief in belief” extend to Scientology? Wiccans? Satanists? Animists? Ancestor worshippers? Voo-doo? Because it could. And that’s what makes it such a crappy argument.

    Where does evolution leave God?– The same place it leaves Xenu, Thor, Satan, witches, Santa, fairies, ghosts, and gremlins.

    And if compassion was truly at the heart of faith, as Karen Armstrong says, then that should be measurable– the faithful should be more compassionate than the skeptical. And yet, there is no evidence to show this is the case at all. In fact, atheists are more generous according to KIVA http://www.kiva.org/community/viewTeam?team_id=94&repost They are more likely to donate blood and be organ donors too. Some of the largest philanthropists in the world are atheists including Bill and Melinda Gates. And some of the least compassionate acts in history were performed because of religion (The Inquisition.) Moreover, religion did nothing to make the Nazis (primarily Protest and and Catholic) more compassionate to the Jews, did it. (Although, they became more united with each other in having a common enemy.)

    Karen Armstrong’s argument is bankrupt. All arguments for god are bankrupt when compared to the evidence. If god exists, evolution shows that he is too inefficient, slow, wasteful, and sadistic to be worthy of worship. He is also indistinguishable from the entities humans have invented throughout history to expain that which they could not understand.

    • ennui
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      hear, hear! your well-reasoned comment has vastly improved S/N in this place.

      It seems to me that Armstrong is answering a different question than the one posed; she is ultimately responding to the question: What increases empathy and compassion? Pity she doesn’t bring any evidence to back her conclusion.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Indeed, nor does she show that secular compassion would be any less powerful than faith-based compassion.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      We can also look at Chimpanzees and Bonobos to see compassion, empathy and sympathy. There is no evidence of religious faith in those species.

  16. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    ok, people, let’s give the insults and back-and-forths a rest on this thread. If people want to continue insulting each other, please do it by private email. I don’t want this place to degenerate into flame wars.

    • Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      Right. Done.

      • Posted September 13, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

        With respect, since you are the author and moderator and I do like this place a lot, I only kept responding because I don’t understand why someone that is apparently in agreement with me on the basic “science versus religious silliness” question decided to persecute me as if we disagreed intensely. I never did get an answer to that. However I see that my continued responses to him is only making matters worse, so I will desist.

  17. Zarcus
    Posted September 13, 2009 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    I’m noticing an odd feature to many of the latest comments that has flourished the last couple of years, but which at times can seem as paradoxical and incoherent as the arguments they fight against.

    To simplify I suppose I could take this idea of “accomodation” and run with it since a couple posters have expanded on Armstrong’s argument to attach to others such as Chris Mooney – I’m guessing part of this move is a power of suggestion motive since this is Jerry’s blog and he puts the word “accomodationist” in the entry.

    However, that would minimize what I recognize. To summarize my observation I could simplify by saying something such as: The question and concern of many seems to be religious “fundamentalist” and those prone to violence our of their faith. A less than “fundy” religionist would be either a moderate or liberal, who is good at “cherry picking” sacred text, tends toward a “new age” ideal and may have a “coexist” bumper sticker on their car. Of course it is certainly not easy to classify people this way, but for the sake of my argument I will.

    From there we hit a snare, the question of how to minimize the “fundy” problem (with its violence, rejection of science and intellectualism, tendency to isolation and paranoia etc.) is transformed in a way when the religious moderate, liberal and nominally religious scientist and theologian (and philosopher) and recognized as aiding, elevating and protecting the “fundy” groups. It is then they are accused of this (which makes them explicitly responsible in many ways for the atrocities of the “fundy”).

    What is asked for then is that the moderate, liberal and nominally religious scientist etc. may focus a skeptical and judgmental eye toward the “fundy”. But, often the refrain is actually to remind them that they are detrimental to our discourse in this time of modernity.

    • Zarcus
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      Just in case someone does respond to my post, I’d like to head off a potential ill-founded criticism.

      In no way does my statement above reflect a desire not to challenge religious claims, behavior or moral codes. This goes for liberals, moderates, fundy etc. My goal mainly focuses on skepticism towards religion in general, forwarding science and reason and the advancement of “critical thinking”. At times my harshest criticism is focused on those within my own community, I believe scientific rationality, like science itself flourishes do to inherent skepticism of claims, both from within and without.

      • articulett
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        I’m having trouble parsing Zarcus, as well.

        Zarcus, can you sum up Karen Armstrong’s response to the question “Where does evolution leave God?” Do you think she answered the question? Do you think God has more of a relevancy in scientific discussions than Satan? Is associating transcendent feelings with “God” more honest than attributing vile feelings/behavior to Satan?

        Does God have more of a role in the evolution discussion than Satan? Because in evolution, there are many aspects that horrify humans… a plethora of suffering for example– just as there are many things that cause transcendant feelings… babies giggling, for example.

        I, am a scientist and science teacher. The god issue is no more valid to me than discussions about demons or ancestor souls. It’s magical thinking, and science is the best tool we have for ameliorating the ways in which we humans are prone to fool ourselves. I strongly think that god belief should be treated the way we treat other unfounded beliefs. It’s not ennobling to think like a child.

        The biggest promoters of “faith in faith” is religion. Religion enables and ennobles magical thinking which is anathema to scientific rationality. It pits fact against faith and claims the higher ground even though faiths all conflict with each other, and there is only one truth. Religious apologetics makes relatively smart people (like Karen Armstrong) confuse transcendent feelings with faith –so that a straw man argument can be made about atheists lacking compassion or the ability to feel awe or whatever else it is she attributes to faith. It promotes this silly lie that the faithful are somehow more moral or feeling than those who don’t believe in ANY invisible magical unknowable beings or entities. I am so tired of this straw man, and I’m disgusted with those who promote this lie under the guise of trying to be some sort of peacekeeper or moderate between religion and science. Reality doesn’t need moderators.

        If a person really understands evolution, and s/he still believes in god, what does that say about the god they believe in? That god is either irrelevent, absent, superfluous, slow, wasteful, whimsical, egomaniacal, smarmy and/or sadistic. Or, rather, if he was a human being, we’d certainly put those adjectives upon him if we weren’t afraid he’d make us suffer forever for saying so. But, as is, he’s indistinguishable from a delusion. And, so science is right to treat god belief the same way it would treat any other delusion.

        Dawkins and Coyne are on topic. The apologists and accomodationists can’t even stick to the original question. They lost track of the topic as soon as it threatened the faith they feel good about promoting.

        It’s the proverbial “courtier’s reply”… The faith-in-faith crowd cannot bear to address the question of whether god actually exists… whether god belief is more “sane” than belief in Satan. So, instead, they go off on tangents and fling poo at all who threaten the faith or opinion they feel so grand for holding.

      • Zarcus
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        articulett,

        You wrote: “Zarcus, (1)can you sum up Karen Armstrong’s response to the question “Where does evolution leave God?” (2)Do you think she answered the question? (3)Do you think God has more of a relevancy in scientific discussions than Satan? (4) Is associating transcendent feelings with “God” more honest than attributing vile feelings/behavior to Satan?”

        1. No, wouldn’t bother.
        2. Not in any comprehensive way, it is familiar territory though. I don’t think it can actually be done in rational way. When believers look to scientific evidences about the natural world to find ways to incorporate God, they are often showing a lack in faith while trying to define their faith.
        3. Absolutely not.
        4. Ha! – Just in case you’re serious – No.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      I find it terribly difficult to parse some of your comments.

      Here, are suggesting that it is meaningful to identify which groups that behaviors such as fundamentalists, apologists and accommodationists come from?

      That is hard work, and potentially impossible. (Not enough statistics, nor research varying parameters.)

      And what will it add to the analysis? “Belief in belief causes accommodationism” is a testable hypotheses, “nominally religious people are often accommodationists if not apologists” too. But what would “nominally religious people believe in belief” gain?

      Also, are you suggesting that one should ask apologists and accomodationists start being skeptical of fundies, instead of criticizing their belief?

      They are often skeptical of fundies, which is why they hold their own beliefs. Or vice versa. What remains then is criticizing their specific belief as such.

      And there is always a need for criticism. Not because a position is “detrimental to our discourse”, but because criticism is essential to discourse.

      • Zarcus
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        In a way these are interesting thoughts, even though they tend to deviate from what I have said. Your ideas of course have a familiar ring, but they brought something to mind as a response to my post.

        I do welcome open skepticism of religious claims as I had said.

        The question I’m addressing is how to tamper fundamentalist. One aspect is that we don’t target fundies at all, that we get at the fence sitters (Dawkins has offered greater ridicule and contempt to what is now widely seen as potentially better because “no one like to be laughed at” and look we got on our side).

        In one way we could combine the idea of going at the fence sitters as a way to topple the fundies if we are arguing that the fundies are enabled and stabilized by the moderates and liberal type fence sitters (one problem here of course is “moderate”, “liberal” areas of fence sitter, or are we talking about “agnostic” types etc., oh well).

        I tend to think that the approach of targeting religious beliefs is good, if done right. I think bringing in the religious to the skeptical side is good. I think a “culture war” approach, though necessary on many levels, especially political, will in the long runharden not only the “enemies of reason” but also the “atheist” (especially when continuously reinforced by the idea that up to now EVERYONE has failed – leaving aside arguments about how long modern science has been around and how far we have come, as well as openly being able to express doubt in many areas and the constant battle to keep at bay the encroachment of “creationist” etc. – those are not failures).

        The constant “accomodationist” talk is largely nonsense. Another word to rally around, a way to label and pigeon hole.

  18. Michael Heath
    Posted September 13, 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I agree Dawkins delivered a convincing smackdown. In fact, all of Armstrong’s article was a general preemptive concession to Dawkins’ argument with the exception of her last paragraph.

    That last paragraph put her argument into the category of the absurd, especially the point that the ‘heart of faith’ is meditating on ubiquitous suffering. My observation is that faith is merely ‘delusional capital’ that irrationally justifies avoiding the hard work of understanding reality coupled to a celebration of this attribute in a manner that maintains or improves one’s social standing within a group of like-minded sheeple.

    However, I find her to be a net plus in the public square and disagree with the distance taken in this thread by Dr. Coyne and others in disparaging her in general beyond this article.

    We wouldn’t get such a devastating analysis in Sam Harris’ ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ if Armstrong’s then-prescient conflation of fundamentalist Islam and Christianity weren’t spot-on in her pre-9/11 / pre-Bush era book “The Battle for God”. A book which fully revealed beyond previous milquetoast criticisms the asymetrical risks both movements placed upon on civilization rather than merely being an aggravating legacy of progress as they were treated previously.

    In addition, I don’t see her acting in an accommodationist manner like we see now with Eugenie Scott or Chris Mooney where they request we lower our standards to better market our position. Their position is objectionable because it asks us to yield or concede on points where we are correct and it would produce less useful arguments of understanding. I see Armstrong on the opposite side of the coin, spending most of her past energy getting religionists to concede on points we’ve clearly falsified. I view Armstrong more in the vein of Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is providing society a beneficial service by getting thinking Christians to adapt their beliefs to better match reality and provide an argument for them to reject the fundie tendencies in their circle of influence. We need this service, not everyone will consider what the so called new-atheists think.

    However, I hear her next book might tack more towards the Mooney / Scott / Robert Wright aspect and if that’s true, then I too will join in castigating her in general.

    • Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      “I view Armstrong more in the vein of Bishop John Shelby Spong”

      Except that unlike Spong (as far as I know) she insists that her version of ‘God’ is the correct one and that atheists miss the point by not understanding that.

    • articulett
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I think there is a tendency to exaggerate any criticism or attempt at parsing the accommodationist or apologist. What did someone say about Karen Armstrong here that is “more attacking” than her smarmy allusions regarding the “new atheists”?

      What the meanest “attack” on Karen Armstrong ore of an “attack” then her straw man insinuation that atheists lack compassion–which is apparently at the “heart of faith”?

      Karen Armstrong didn’t answer the question. It’s not attacking to point that out. Dawkins did. I suggest that those who feel that Dawkins, Coyne, or others here are being strident… highlight the most offensive quotes, and lets compare them to the quotes of the person that is supposedly being attacked.

      I suspect some people may be unaware as to how they protect some brands of faith from scrutiny by hearing evil intent or “stridency”, “militancy”, and “shrillness” where it doesn’t exist while ignoring more clear examples in the faith protectors.

      Karen Armstrong, not only failed to answer the question… she managed to slur atheism in the process by implying that faith is essential for compassion. She did this in a mish mash of gobbledy gook which will allow the faithful to extrapolate whatever they want to hear while leaving the rational completely confused at what the hell her point is. And, on top of that, her defenders will come to think of those who point this out as “the bad guys”.

      Defenders of the faith are protecting a naked emperor. Tsk-tsking those who point this out doesn’t change the facts. And it doesn’t make the truth tellers into bad guys anywhere except in the heads of the delusional.

      • articulett
        Posted September 13, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        speaking of gobbledy gook, ignore my second paragraph.

        I’m just trying to understand what was the meanest thing said about Karen Armstrong. I wanted to compare it to what she insinuates about faithless.

        Karen Armstrong is defending a brand of god that very few people appear to believe in.

    • articulett
      Posted September 13, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      What is the comment that you find most “disparaging”? Do you think it’s true or, at least, a valuable opinion?

      To, me, this isn’t a discussion about whether Karen Armstrong is so helpful for some cause that we shouldn’t criticize her. It’s about her answer to the question of “Where does evolution leave God?” It’s true that some believers might find Armstrong’s answer better than Dawkins’, but that doesn’t mean it’s true or that she answered the question or that Dawkin’s was disparaging. It just means that they can use her words to shore up what they feel special for “believing in”. They can also shore up their biases against “new atheists” as they imagine themselves as more compassionate than them.

      I think Dawkins, Coyne, etc. should be as free to offer their opinion on her answer as you are… just as Karen is free to offer her opinion on “Where evolution leaves God?” I don’t think anyone is shielding Dawkins from peoples’ opinions on his commentary. Myself, I prefer to read Dawkins, Coyne, etc. because I understand them better, and I find their answers more truthful, coherent, and edifying. I don’t think the truth is a “cause” nor do I think that there are “sides” to reality. I don’t see Coyne and Dawkins suggesting that others stop their pussyfooting approach whereby they coddle god belief in a way they wouldn’t coddle other superstitions, but I see a lot of people trying to silence those who refuse to do so by claiming there’s malice and disparagement in commentary that has neither.

      I want no part of the accommodationist crowd. It feels dishonest to me. Others are free to kiss the ass of any brands of magical thinking or superstition they desire, but I want no part of it. I think a lot of hubris, ignorance, and harm comes from the enablement and ennoblement of such lies; it also fuels dislike and distrust of nonbelievers. I don’t find god belief any more worthy of protection than gremlin belief, and I want to hear more from people who feel the same way and less from the critics who’d have them “tone it down” for some “cause” they imagine they are a spokesperson for.

      My lack of belief in god is identical to my lack of belief in gremlins, and I don’t like insinuation that I lack compassion because of the invisible entities I don’t “believe in”. Moreover, I don’t like those who try to get god belief respected and coddled more than gremlin belief by putting down those who point out that such beliefs are cut from the same cloth.

      I like Eugenie Scott. I became a Biology Teacher because of her. I don’t like the way some superstitions are coddled by the NCSE. I think they should be ignored like all the other superstitions are. Sure, we can accommodate god belief just like we can accommodate gremlin belief– we’ll just call it “outside nature”. But is it honest and respectable to do so? Where does it end? How do we know which “brands” of invisible entity to “accomodate”. Shall we be equally accomodating of demon belief? Devil possession? It’s just silly.

  19. Marylyn
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    possibly mr. dawkins k.o.-no pun intended- ms armstrong, but in fairness, mr dawkins arguments were just down right minimal, at best, hard to believe his article was published-i.e: all the nonsense about extraterrestial-sic- life and so on- and what is “darwinian life” exactly”??

    • articulett
      Posted September 16, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      I think your comprehension skills may be what is minimal… not Dawkins’ argument.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 16, 2009 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        Just like her lack of communication skills.

      • Posted September 16, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        Ad Hominums? Not polite.

        Marilyn, just wanted you to know that not everyone is dying to jump down your throat here.

  20. Posted September 14, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    As Jorge Luis Borges once wrote:

    [A]t the end of the fifth century, the unknown author of the Corpus Dionysiacum declares that no affirmative predicate is fitting for God. Nothing should be affirmed of Him, everything can be denied. Schopenhauer notes dryly: “That theology is the only true one, but it has no content.”

    (From a 1950 essay, “De alguien a nadie” [From Someone to Nobody], translated in Selected Non-Fictions, p. 341.)

  21. ennui
    Posted September 15, 2009 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Jesus and Mo

    • ennui
      Posted September 15, 2009 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      i’m just saying…

  22. Blake Adams
    Posted September 25, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m a little dismayed by the attitude everyone takes against Armstrong here. I mean, is it true that she has woefully mistitled her book, and that it makes no case for God whatsoever but quite the contrary? Yes. Is it true that she is actually an ‘atheist’ in the modern sense, as Dawkins says? Yes. Is it nonsense to claim (or imply) that “real” religious people don’t make empirical claims that are in fact false? Yes.

    But we can grant that the positivist frame of mind is indeed a relatively recent phenomenon and that people were once able to be more flexible with texts that tradition had left them. It is in fact true, and not a vacuous bit of pseudotheological excuse-making, that the deepest of the theologians have throughout history regarded it as naive to think that the statements they made about Jesus were supposed to be literally true. Is this much more than an attempt to admit that they were NOT true while still finding them useful? No. Armstrong is also right that literalism in religion emerged at the same time as the scientific endeavor– before the gradual development and impact of science, the empirical facts of the world and the analogical “therapies” of religion and myth just were not that well distinguished. All of these are good points, and they do help us understand the impasse that has developed between religion and science.

    Armstrong doesn’t seem to have a mystic’s sense of that awe-inspiring feeling that the universe is bigger and wilder than we can understand. To people whose minds are used to “positivist” thinking, science itself gives us more of that sense of awe than religious language can. Contemplating the fact that my mind evolved to analyze large-scale Newtonian motions, and that it is literally unequipped with any device for conceptualizing how an electron can be a particle and a wave at the same time, fills me with an overwhelming sense that there are indeed limits on the human mind, albeit greatly extended by the mathematical language of science. For us, the “ineffable” is reached through the rumination on the world itself, not through religious metaphors and symbols.

    That doesn’t mean she’s actually wrong; it just means that she’s actually on the same side as we are. We should consider her argument a double victory– the best and brightest in the history of religion have pointed beyond the inadequacy of faith and belief.


11 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. […] Dawkins 17, Armstrong 0 […]

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  5. […] the question: Where does evolution leave God?  For a few atheist reactions you can check here and here.  Here’s Armstrong’s excellent opener: Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of […]

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  7. […] with the religious ideas of serious thinkers like Armstrong, Terry Eagleton, or John Haught. Yet, says Jerrry Coyne: No matter how sophisticated modern theologians like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught consider […]

  8. […] I’m late to the party again.  This has already been addressed by Jerry Coyne, Jason Rosenhouse, PZ Myers, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, […]

  9. […] doctor Coyne es ateo, materialista y reconoce que la razón es la facultad que permite a los seres humanos identificar e integrar toda […]

  10. […] Réponse sur une autre partie du texte qui n’a rien à voir. Il est en effet pas évident de reposer brutalement la question sans mettre un peu de texte autour. Plutôt que de répondre à la question d’origine, il saute sur l’occasion de digresser sur la trivialité de ses question pseudo-intelligentes. Oui, ces questions sont triviales, mais , encore une fois, il fait une tentative pour faire croire que ce qu’il dit n’est pas aussi simple que l’on penserait et que, lui, est capable d’appréhender la complexité du sujet (encore une diversion). On se croirait face à ces théologiens sophistiqués. […]

  11. […] we usually have little time for the equivocation of metaphorical “truths”. Blog after blog ridiculed and dismissed this “apophatic” concept as self-serving nonsense or […]

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