“Scientists of Duke, be humble.”

Last Sunday Reverend Dr. Samuel Wells, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, departed from his usual sermons on matters of faith to speak about science and religion. His motivation: the success of Gnu Atheists:

The last six years have witnessed the publication of a series of books, from a variety of authors, attacking religion with a virulence not seen for a long time. This movement has been called “The New Atheism.” It believes religion should no longer be tolerated but should be exposed, challenged and refuted at every opportunity, with a conviction founded on scientific certainty. I haven’t referred to these antagonists in sermons from this pulpit because I’ve taken the advice of my sister’s housekeeper, and reckoned that the work of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others, was not worth the bullets. The New Atheists have said many new things and many true things, but the new things they’ve said are not true, and the true things they’ve said are not new.

Sadly, he doesn’t tell us what is either new or true.  But why does he depart from his usual homilies? One reason is the impending arrival of the most horrid of Gnu Atheists:

I’m making an exception this morning for three reasons. One is that in almost every Christian who’s been around a university like ours, there’s a lingering anxiety, maybe even dread, that perhaps science really has disproved it all. Maybe I’m talking about you. A second is that the most famous of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins, will be giving a lecture at Duke in a month’s time. The third reason is that it’s been my habit each year on Opening Sunday to reflect with you on a major question in the life of the university. Today I want to dwell on the place of science in our common life.

Dawkins will be speaking at Duke on October 3 as part of his book tour.

I won’t bore you with the entire three-page sermon, which you can download at the link above, except to say that it’s an absolutely typical specimen of how liberal theologians preach to scientists about Gnu Atheism (Duke has one of America’s finest programs in evolutionary biology.)  The upshot: Nonoverlapping but mutually helpful magisteria.  Wells’s argument proceeds like this:

1.  Despite Gnu atheism, religion hangs on.  In one of the most spectacularly misguided analogies I’ve seen from a preacher, Wells goes into great detail comparing the tenacity of faith with the “revival” of Glenn Close in the bathtub scene from the movie Fatal Attraction:

Her body goes limp, blood rises from the corner of her mouth, and the man and his wife finally relax. But the stalker defies apparent death and, in a scene rated #59 on Bravo’s scariest movie moments, she rises up from the bathwater to mount one final, deranged, but ultimately unsuccessful attack.

This is how the New Atheism sees religion. Given up for dead 40 years ago, like a scary scene from a movie. Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated, unhinged and eager to fight. The dismay of making such a baffling discovery almost hysterical tone adopted by some of the New Atheist arguments.

The irony of comparing religion to a murderous, sex-obsessed fanatic seems to have escaped Dr. Wells.

2  Science is wonderful because it tells us the truth about the universe.  But science should be humble.  (That word is a warning that you’re about to hear some fuzzy-minded accommodationism):

In 1928 the German Nobel physicist Max Born announced that “Physics, as we know it, will be over in six months.” It turned out not to be so. The only trustworthy science is a humble science, which acknowledges the tentativeness of the known and the vast extent of the unknown.

Wells doesn’t tell us how to recognize the earmarks of “humble” science. And that’s important because, he says, we can’t trust non-humble science. I’m worried now that my work on the genetics of speciation in Drosophila isn’t humble enough!

3. But theology should be humble too!

There is so much that remains unknown, and claiming to know more than we do, especially if it’s done with a hectoring tone and without a listening ear, substitutes arrogance and ignorance for true faith, and attracts the antagonism it deserves.

I’m with the good Rev. Dr. 100% on this one. Religion should certainly not claim to know more than it does.  But then he contrasts what science does know with what theology does know:

One branch of science goes a very long way back and dwells on the nanoseconds surrounding the Big Bang; another branch goes back to the beginning of life on earth and to the processes of evolution. These are gripping investigations. It’s useless for theologians to claim they have an inside track on the truth or falsity of scientists’ findings in such areas. Instead theologians interrogate the scriptures to ask a related, but different set of questions. One is, “Was it always in the mind and heart of God to be in relationship with creation, and for that relationship to be focused by entering creation as a co-participant at some stage in the story?” That’s not a question science can answer, but it’s hard to deny it’s an exhilarating question to set alongside the others. Just imagine the attentiveness and absorption of God in beholding the evolution of creation, and awaiting the right time to enter it in order to be a co-participant with that part of it that could show some conscience and awareness in return. That’s not a manipulative picture. That’s a picture of astounding, patient, devoted, indescribable love.

In other words, while science is impotent before the question of whether and how God used evolution as his tool, religion can answer that.  And it has!  God used evolution as an engrossing Cosmic Game, sort of the way Snoop Dogg plays Candyfornia in California Gurls.  And at some point he decided to tweak the system by inserting his own contribution (it’s not clear from his sermon whether it’s Jesus or Australopithecus afarensis).

I love to hear the faithful argue that science and faith are different ways of finding truth.  For when they make an argument like Wells’s, you can ask them annoying questions about their own “truths”.  Here’s a few for Dr. Wells:

a.  Why are you so sure that there’s a God?

b.  And why are you so sure that it’s the Christian God?  Why not Yahweh, or Allah? Wells is a Christian and his sermon is infused with Christianity and allusions to Jesus:

The real big bang that dominates the Christian imagination is not the detonation that inaugurated the universe, but the rolling-away of the stone that signalled the death of death.

c.  How do you know that God is characterized by “astounding, devoted, indescribable love? That’s sure not the take I get from the evolutionary process.  How do you know that God isn’t petulant, or sardonic, or has a mean streak?

d.  If science can’t answer the question of whether God used evolution as his tool, how can you?

In the end, science does find the truth—at least in the provisional sense that we see “truth”.  And in the end, religion finds no truths, unless you characterize moral prescriptions like “Do unto others” as a religious “truth.”  (It also happens to be an atheist “truth.”)

Wells ends his sermon with a call for everyone to be humble:

Scientists of Duke, be humble. Remember that science is an art, and that what you study is clay, being constantly fashioned and refashioned. Christians of Duke, be humbler still, and remember that science is a form of wonder, and that these scientists, if you let them, will teach you to wonder, to love, and to pray.

Oh dear Lord, what tripe!  I have news for you, Dr. Wells: scientists are humble.  Anyone who pretends to know more than they do is quickly cut down to size.  If you don’t load your papers with caveats, reservations, and potential problems, the reviewers will savage you. (Remember Darwin’s chapter in The Origin, “Difficulties on Theory”? Have you seen a chapter like that in a theology book?)  Our field thrives on doubt and mutual recrimination, spurning authority in favor of fact.

It is theologians like Wells who aren’t humble. While dispensing liberal, feel-good pabulum to captive parishioners, and lecturing scientists on not going beyond the evidence, they proceed to offer as irrefutable facts the existence of God, the knowledge that God is a Christian, the certainty that He is a loving and good God who used evolution as his tool to create humans, and the existence of Jesus as God’s resurrected son.

Who’s going beyond the data?

What these guys really mean when they throw about the word “humble” is this: Scientists should show humility by refraining from questioning religion.

92 Comments

  1. Eric MacDonald
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    It’s true, my education was lacking until then; but I didn’t read On the Origin of Species until I was 59 years old, and for me it was a real eyeopener. It was an eyeopener, not only because of the wonderful subtlety of Darwin’s approach, and the remarkably elegant theory that he was propounding, but because of the way he continued to say something to this effect, ‘Here are the things that would prove me wrong.’ ‘If this were to be the case, then my theory would be defeated.’ He repeats this theme throughout the book, laying out the grounds upon which his theory could be shown to be false.

    After reading theology for most of my life, this was a revelation (to use that word in an appropriate way). Theologians don’t use the subjunctive very much. They read off, from the most ambiguous texts, the most astonishingly unqualified certainties. In fact, the source of the problem is to be found clearly expressed in Dr. Well’s sermon. There, he writes:

    … theologians interrogate the scriptures to ask a related, but different set of questions.

    What hubris! Imagine, suggesting that there is a parallel between the scientist’s interrogation of nature, and the theologian’s interrogation of the Bible! The routine assumption: the Bible is a source of truth. It is in itself like a force of nature. It cannot be explained in human, cultural terms. We can interrogate it and expect to find answers about eternal things. There’s the source of the problem, and that’s precisely why the theologian has nothing relevant to contribute to the contemporary conversation about what is true or about how we ought to live, because it takes a human artifact and turns it into a natural one. That’s the first step, and it seems not to be noticed how completely arrogant it is, and how arrogant it makes everything else he has to say.

    • ennui
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      He has hardened his heart, and refuses to hear the Good Gnus.

      • MadScientist
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        Don’t blame him though, after all it’s probably gawd that hardened his heart (book of Exodus) – well, that or too much bacon.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted September 11, 2010 at 12:16 am | Permalink

        No Gnus is bad Gnus.

  2. stvs
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you misunderstand the Christian concept of humility, which never means to limit oneself to what is known: for a Christian, scientists lack humility because they seek knowledge itself. St. Augustine of Hippo is clear on the perils of knowledge to a Christian, “which to know profits not, and wherein men desire nothing but to know”:

    There is another form of temptation, more complex in its peril. … It originates in an appetite for knowledge. … From this malady of curiosity are all those strange sights exhibited in the theatre. Hence do we proceed to search out the secret powers of nature (which is beside our end), which to know profits not, and wherein men desire nothing but to know.—Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (397), Book X, Chap. 35.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      So the fact that Christians have built so many of the world’s most highest ranking centers of higher education means Augustine has been abandoned?
      That is useful to know, next time someone quotes Augustine in the context of not reading the bible literally.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      What a great response to the usual use of Augustine to show the compatibility between science and religion. I had forgotten this passage, but it’s a real corker! But of course, from the religious point of view, gaining knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge is irrelevant, since the whole object and purpose of life is salvation.

      No doubt this is what the good Dr. Wells had in mind when he said that scientists should be humble, that is, they should subordinate the search for knowledge to the religious project of seeking salvation. I don’t think that scientists should be particularly impressed by this appeal. I wonder if Dr. Wells understands what he is saying? The religious tend to say things without thinking in my experience, and that’s why so much that they say is empty verbiage.

      • MadScientist
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        Augustine is generally read like the bible. Where he contradicts reality (most of the time), he is not taken literally – instead, a “deeper understanding” (“deeper bullshit” in plaintalk) is needed. I always get a good laugh when people claim that Augustine was not a literal interpreter of the bible – they conveniently ignore the fact that Augustine was a supporter of a literal interpretation, and a “deep understanding” where the bible’s literal claims were obviously bunk.

    • Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      So “the Christian concept of humility” is an oxymoron; it’s not about humility at all. Check.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Check!

  3. Pete Moulton
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    “The irony of comparing religion to a murderous, sex-obsessed fanatic seems to have escaped Dr. Wells.” I’m not so sure this is ironic, Jerry. An awful lot of murder and rape have been committed in the name of religions.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted September 11, 2010 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      And explicitly and directly commanded by most of them, to boot.

  4. llewelly
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Reverend Dr. Samuel Wells:

    Scientists of Duke, be humble. Remember that science is an art, and that what you study is clay, being constantly fashioned and refashioned

    That’s right! God can change the rules at any time. Back when Genesis was written, it was literally true! But later on God went back and changed the structure of the earth’s history, inserting zircons, dinosaur bones, and tons of geologic layers. God changed the past so that humans evolved from other apes, rather than being created ab initio. And before Jesus comes again, God will change it back. All the zircons and dinosaur bones will disappear, and the scientists will be totally wrong!

    • MosesZD
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      You made me smile.

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    It annoys me when people who believe they have a special relationship with the Creator of the universe tell me I should be humble.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Exactly. “I believe that an infinitely powerful being created the trillions of cubic light-years of the universe just for a few monkeys, but I believe it humbly.”

  6. Posted September 10, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Did you tell him you already had a slice of humble pake?

  7. Posted September 10, 2010 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    “I haven’t referred to these antagonists in sermons from this pulpit because I’ve taken the advice of my sister’s housekeeper.”

    My pool cleaner’s cousin’s dog-stylist tells me I should ignore clergyman because they’re so obviously full of crap, and they don’t seem picky about from where they get their worldview guidance.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Good one.

    • Sedona
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Glad I’m not the only one who thought the ‘sister’s housekeeper’ reference was weird!

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Well, I didn’t post the whole anecdote. Here’s the first part:

      Not long after my sister began life as an undergraduate, she had a high-noon meeting with her roommate and the dorm housekeeper. My sister had been on a couple of dates, and had seen just about enough. “Men!” she expostulated. Her roommate shared my sister’s exasperation and bewilderment. “We should shoot them all, and have done with it,” she concluded. The housekeeper interjected, in a kindly but experienced tone, “Don’t waste your energy, my lovelies. They’re not worth the bullets.”

      • gillt
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        About time someone riles up those sleepy reverends with their dreary homilies.

      • Darrell E
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        That anecdote is so cliche that surely it was contrived. Just like a used car salesman, or a carny.

  8. Posted September 10, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    “The last six years have witnessed the publication of a series of books attacking religion with a virulence not seen for a long time.”

    Yeah, it’s been a whopping 40 years since Bertrand Russell died.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      100 years since Mark Twain…

      Have you read “Letters From the Earth”?

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        You know that I have.

      • Les
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        I can’t wait until Twain’s 100-year-embargoed Autobiography comes out in November:
        “There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.”
        see
        http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec10/twain_07-07.html

        • Kevin
          Posted September 10, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          Well, that’s surely going right on my Christmas wish list!!!

    • Sajanas
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      If he had bothered to read any of them, he’d notice a distinct reason for the increase in publications over what had came before. It wasn’t money, it wasn’t a sudden weakness of religion, or a strength of atheism. It was 9/11, pure and simple, and all the atheists who thought to ignore the religious suddenly realized that they could be killed by this stuff.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        Excellent point. I know it certainly had that effect on me.

    • Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      The last six years has also seen the publication of far more books attacking irreligion with a virulence not seen since the book published yesterday, but of course that’s not worth mentioning. It’s only atheists who have to be shouted at for daring to write books.

      • Andy
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        You know, when I get some time, I’m going to actually run the exact numbers on this. I would bet that for each gnu atheist book published in the past several years, there have been no fewer than three books written explicitly attacking the gnu atheism or explicitly attacking atheists and/or defenders of science in general. The backlash has been extraordinarily disproportionate.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

          I started doing this a while back (I’m writing an editorial that mentions the imbalance); there are far more than three if you count only the Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins books. Richard give a partial list on his website, but there are others.

          • Andy
            Posted September 10, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            Can’t wait for that editorial.

            When I started to count (very casually, using Amazon)I think I included two of Vic Stenger’s books as “new atheist books.” Don’t forget that there are at least two books that are forthcoming that are “backlash books” (one by Reza Aslan, the other by someone I never heard of).

          • J.J.E.
            Posted September 10, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

            I did this a while back with Amazon rankings. I forgot where I saved it to, but if I remember, I’ll contribute it back. But basically, if you take the 10 most popular god bothering books and the 10 most popular gnu atheist books, I don’t think the most highly rated atheist book is ranked more highly than lowest faith book.

            Pretty sad on several levels. First that people whine and complain so much about how strident atheists when it is patently obvious that they aren’t the loudest voice. And sad that people read that faith pablum.

            • Andy
              Posted September 10, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

              I never even thought of looking at the rankings. Well done.

              And we’re just talking about books here. We haven’t even begun to discuss the disproportionate number of op-eds across the country that have slammed the gnu atheism versus those that have defended it.

            • Posted September 10, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

              Indeed. When it comes to major media the disproportion is elephant-to-microbe level.

  9. Posted September 10, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Science is humble *by definition*. But that does not mean scientists don’t favour some explanations over others. What theists don’t like is that leaves theological explanations at the bottom of the pile. The Reverend actually wants science to be ‘umble, which is quite different, I think.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Correction. What theists don’t like is that theological explanations don’t even get to be in the pile.

    • Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Ha, I too was thinking of Uriah Heep.

  10. Posted September 10, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Does the good reverend remember what happened about 2 seconds after Glenn Close’s character rose out of that bathtub in murderous rage?

    Wells: “she rises up from the bathwater to mount one final, deranged, but ultimately unsuccessful attack.”

    OK, maybe we’re supposed to feel sorry for the murderous psychopath that Wells uses as a symbol of religion.

  11. Kevin
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Just imagine the attentiveness and absorption of God in beholding the evolution of creation, and awaiting the right time to enter it in order to be a co-participant with that part of it that could show some conscience and awareness in return. That’s not a manipulative picture. That’s a picture of astounding, patient, devoted, indescribable love.

    Heh…he’s going for Collins’ “ensoulment” ceremony. I’ll bet that kid’s mother was pissed.

    • Bryan
      Posted September 13, 2010 at 12:04 am | Permalink

      “not manipulative”? Dear lord, maybe I need a new dictionary.

  12. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you Jerry. Your paragraph that begins with “Oh dear Lord, what tripe! …” sums it up perfectly.

    • ambulocetacean
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Agreed. The Fatal Attraction bit was funny, though. 🙂

  13. Badger3k
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Another Templeton Prize nominee?

  14. poke
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    One is, “Was it always in the mind and heart of God to be in relationship with creation, and for that relationship to be focused by entering creation as a co-participant at some stage in the story?” That’s not a question science can answer, but it’s hard to deny it’s an exhilarating question to set alongside the others.

    Can somebody explain what the question means to me so I too can be exhilarated. I feel like I’m missing out.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      If (his version of) God has a mind and heart, that limits his implicity. This should be remembered elsewhen as apologists insist the God is simple so as to avoid logical disproof.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      So, god is just kinda hanging out in his house, thinking about what to do with the next little bit of eternity that he’s outside of. And he thinks to himself, “maybe I should create a universe where there is space and time”.

      Recognizing that everyone needs a hobby, he decides to go ahead and create this space-and-time place. BANG!!!! There it is.

      10 BILLION years later, he has to figure out what else to do with it. Because for the past 10 BILLION years, it’s been pretty much like watching a terrarium without anything in it. Oh sure, the lights are pretty and everything, but after a while, it’s kinda boring.

      So he looks around and finds a place where there are the right conditions, and he makes those conditions even “righter”. Viola! Life.

      And so he messes around a bit and 3.7 BILLION YEARS later, he decides that he needs to create something just a bit more than the millions of species of creatures wandering about. Seeing a big-brained ape-thingy that is using tools, language, and fire, he decides to put a “soul” into it.

      2 MILLION years later, he decides that he has to come to this place, sacrifice himself to himself in a bloody showy human sacrifice ritual so that he can forgive himself for the fact that the ape-thingies behave pretty much like every other cooperative species on the planet, with a combination of selfishness and intra-tribal altruism god finds oddly troubling.

      2010 years later, Dr. Wells tells us we should be humble.

      Are you exhilarated yet?

      • Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        No no wait, that can’t be right – the putting the soul in part has to come before the using language part. Language is part of the soul being put in. Language is Thpecial; it comes from The Mind, and that comes from The Soul. Any fule kno that.

        • Kevin
          Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          Does that mean that dolphins, whales, and birds have souls?

          What about bees? Ants?

          Or is it just the English language that causes ensoulment? Cuz we all know the Bible was written in English (by King James).

          • Kevin
            Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

            And Oh GOSH! How could I forget talking snakes? Do talking snakes have souls, too?

            • Microraptor
              Posted September 11, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

              They can have souls, just not soles.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        So, god is just kinda hanging out in his house, thinking about what to do with the next little bit of eternity that he’s outside of.

        Heh. It’s a good thing that being outside of time gives one lots of time to think. Or something.

        • Kevin
          Posted September 10, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          Well, the right flipper to the pinball machine was busted, and while he was waiting for the repairman, he came up with the idea for “the universe”.

          God breaks all of his toys.

    • Thelonious Cube
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Basically it’s a question of whether The Old Man planned the whole “incarnate as my own son and get killed in order to save Mankind” bit from the very beginning or whether that was a later decision (a course-correction, you might say).

      If you’re into such things (and accept, even for the sake of argument, some of their walloping big assumptions), it impacts on free will (if he planned it from the beginning, then the Fall was fore-ordained, so maybe not a free choice, so maybe not something we could be held accountable for — as if we could be held accountable for something Eve did, even if she were real….) and all sorts of other exhilerating issues.

      Of course it all gets tangled up in the whole “can The Old Man see the future if we have free will?” question as well as questions of responsibility (one of my pet bugaboos is “how can we be guilty just because Eve ate the apple?” – basically, the whole notion of sin and guilt in Xtian theology is pretty perverted).

      • poke
        Posted September 11, 2010 at 7:17 am | Permalink

        I thought he was outside time? Surely there’s no difference between planning it from the start and coming up with the idea later? This isn’t exhilarating at all. I expected genuine exhilaration and have been left disappointed. I hear science is a form of wonder, though, might go check that out…

  15. Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Surely Born was right anyway. By 1928 the Copenhagen interpretation of QM was well on its way to being accepted, and Quantum Mechanics securely established a better view of the world that what was there before. So physics they new it in 1928 was indeed over.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      I was going to criticize that strawman, nay, FAIL too. But the context of Born’s prediction is both deeper and more illuminating on Wells’ mistakes than that. (I found a good partial description here.)

      What prompted Born’s claims was Dirac’s 1932 discovery of his equation describing the electron, ushering in a picture of a complete Standard Model (SM) for particles and their interactions. It was just that soon after the then classic particle gallery was found to be incomplete. Physicists had to wait another 40 years before the current SM was finalized.

      So Wells is wrong and Born was right, there was a Standard Model that killed the preexisting physics program.

      Today’s physics transformed to go beyond the Standard Model, of course. (Non-SM questions like: How many Higgs particles? What gives neutrino masses? And what is Dark Matter?) This yet again clarifies that Wells has no idea of what he is describing, as this would be impossible in a world where the SM was “tentative”, the science humble against tasks, and/or theology replaced it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      I believe Wells’ basic game has been described before: “science, therefore god.” It’s just that it has been transformed to “science, therefore humble.”

      Do these theologians (mythologists, as Kevin so appropriately terms them) ever think before engaging mouth? … no, wait, don’t answer that.

  16. littlejohn
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    His reference to dodging “bullets” was unfortunate. His guys have the bullets, not ours. Ask Dr. Tiller. Oh yeah. You can’t. A True Christian(TM) shot him to death.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Yes, I noticed that too. What an apt metaphor!

      The really odd thing about this is that it is the religious people who use the martial imagery, and not the atheists. You know that someone has lost the argument when they characterize criticism as attack rather than as argument.

      • Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        And apply it exclusively to the dreaded gnus, blithely ignoring the Barney Zwartzes and Michael Ruses and Andrew Browns and need I go on?

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      Hey, speak for yourself. Aw dang, I got rid of my guns almost 10 years ago (and the bullets too). But anyway, the Gnu Atheists don’t seem to be at all inclined to go shooting religious folks even if they do have guns.

  17. Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Of course, by “Be humble”, he means “Shut Up”. All this science is making for a lot of problematic sermons.

  18. Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    “Scientists of Duke, be humble. Remember that science is an art, and that what you study is clay, being constantly fashioned and refashioned. Christians of Duke, be humbler still, and remember that science is a form of wonder, and that these scientists, if you let them, will teach you to wonder, to love, and to pray what you study is nonexistent.

    • Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Argh, HTML fail. Just ignore me I guess.

  19. Kevin
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    BTW: I’m very glad I went to a public school, where we didn’t have school chaplains or anything like that.

    I actually remember clearly back in the being angry/disgusted/terrified because the fourth grade teacher I had drawn was well known for starting each morning with the Lord’s Prayer. Luckily for me, this was right when the Supreme Court said “cut it out”. (Now you can all “date” me, like a piece of old carbon.)

    I’m sure that even at that age, I would have gotten into trouble.

  20. gillt
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    What making-it-up-as-you-go looks like.

    “Was it always in the mind and heart of God to be in relationship with creation, and for that relationship to be focused by entering creation as a co-participant at some stage in the story?”

    • Kevin
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Of course, that sentence kinda makes mincemeat of the whole omniscience thing.

      So, the answer is either “yes”, or you’ve denied what is one of the primary attributes of the creature we’re supposed to worship BECAUSE of those primary attributes.

      One wonders if people of his ilk even begin to think of the downstream consequences of their flowery language…I guess not. They weren’t meant to be parsed, studied, or (heaven forbid) critiqued. Merely absorbed, like liquid across an osmotic gradient.

      I, for one, will only be satisfied when all colleges and departments of theology are renamed for what they are — departments of contemporary mythology.

  21. Jason A.
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    One is, “Was it always in the mind and heart of God to be in relationship with creation, and for that relationship to be focused by entering creation as a co-participant at some stage in the story?” That’s not a question science can answer, but it’s hard to deny it’s an exhilarating question to set alongside the others.

    Do the wuzzles steal my socks through a magic door in the back of the clothes dryer, or do they sneak up and do it after I’ve taken the clothes out of the dryer, but before I’ve folded them. That’s not a question science can answer, but it’s an exhilarating one.

    • Wowbagger
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      Gold!

    • Thelonious Cube
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      very nice!

  22. Posted September 10, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    “Scientists of Duke, be humble.”

    sure!

    “Christians of Duke, be humbler still”

    And I guess we are to infer the professional christians of Duke are the most humble of them all.

    Yes indeed, let the church signs boast!

    “DUKE CHRISTIANS ARE THE MOST HUMBLE”

    Its funny that his sister’s housekeeper told him that thing about the bullets. Its funny because I bet his house is not cleaned at all by him, but that would mean admitting he has a (gloriously, endlessly humble) maid service too, though unlike his sister I bet he doesn’t expect to pay for it.

    But that would be less humble, and we all know Duke christians have won the humbloff competition three years running, and Rev. Wells has won the “most forcefully compelling humble sermon” contest undisputed — everyone knows he’s the best at being humble, he’s a reverend!

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps they’re adopting a Humbler Than Thou attitude to complement their Holier Than Thou?

      • Microraptor
        Posted September 11, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        You mean that they’re Holier Than Thou, but very humble about it?

        Hmm, that reminds me of the lyrics to Weird Al Yankovic’s Amish Paradise.

  23. ennui
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Just imagine the attentiveness and absorption of God in beholding the evolution of creation, and awaiting the right time to enter it in order to… bork bork bork!

    Now just imagine evolution without that Jesus-humping halfwitted thing on the end.

    Now imagine that there are such things as null hypotheses and parsimony.

    Humbling, no?

  24. MosesZD
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Despite Gnu atheism, religion hangs on.

    True. And so do STDs, despite antibiotics and condoms. However, that STDs persist doesn’t mean we should give up sex or antibiotics because we can’t eradicated STDs.

    What it does mean we should talk about proper sexual conduct (condoms, health check ups, etc.) using prophylaxis. And, if they fail, science based medicine…

  25. Anonym
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Ah, but Wells, with a single swipe of internal knowledge, has cleverly obviated science entirely with the (surely) epistemologically uncontestable statement “Remember that science is an art, …”. If science is an art (and who can demur in the face of such patent authority), ‘Arts & Science’ is a mere redundance — there is only art!

    • Bryan
      Posted September 13, 2010 at 12:14 am | Permalink

      I thought that line was funny too. “Science is an art” and “giving words meaningful definitions would totally limit my ability to sound profound”

  26. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    But the same is true of theology. There is so much that remains unknown, and claiming to know more than we do, especially if it’s done with a hectoring tone and without a listening ear, substitutes arrogance and ignorance for true faith, and attracts the antagonism it deserves.

    Um, what in theology is not unknown? What theological claims have been made that are demonstrably true, or even demonstrably better than competing and contradictory claims?

    • Tulse
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      And what in theology demands humility? In science one knows that one can be demonstrably wrong — what process is there in theology to determine the truth or falsity of specific beliefs?

      • MadScientist
        Posted September 10, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t it ironic how theologies love to toss about words like “humility” and it does so with the greatest chutzpah?

        • Posted September 10, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

          Be humble! Because the creator of the entire universe loves you, knew you before you were born, wants to be with you (IF you follow the rules!) for ever and ever, and has a plan for you and saves you parking spots, and has someone in mind for you and is watching you every single instant of your entire life with the supreme love of total unresponsive absence!

    • Andrew B.
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Wait, what exactly IS “True Faith ™” if not arrogance and ignorance?

  27. MadScientist
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I hope the audience pointed at him and laughed – or is that too much to hope for?

    Well, if he deconverted at least one scientist I’ll be happy, even though there may now be more sanctimonious twits ambling about and whining about those Gnu Atheists.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 10, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      “Today I want to dwell on the place of science in our common life.”

      Ah, the usual: “Let me tell you how god wants it.”

  28. Posted September 10, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    One is, “Was it always in the mind and heart of God to be in relationship with creation, and for that relationship to be focused by entering creation as a co-participant at some stage in the story?” That’s not a question science can answer, but it’s hard to deny it’s an exhilarating question to set alongside the others.

    Actually, it would be a question that science would very much be able to answer. It sounds like an excellent research project for the scientists at the Templeton Foundation, to work out exactly the physical mechanism by which god interacts or manipulates matter. Imagine the power, the POWER, that would come from being able to use that power for ourselves! Bwahahahah.

    • Posted September 10, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      I believe there is already a t-shirt describing what you are talking about

  29. Posted September 10, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    “Just imagine the attentiveness and absorption of God in beholding the evolution of creation, and awaiting the right time to enter it in order to be a co-participant with that part of it that could show some conscience and awareness in return.”
    I’m finding it hard to just imagine that AND just imagine a God who is outside of time and space. I do wish they’d make up their minds.

  30. Michael Kingsford Gray
    Posted September 11, 2010 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    For what it is worth, I see these flailing exercises in thurificative futility as symbolic of the death-throes of the leech-like hierarchy who have for so long parasitised the unlearned & the gullible.
    And good riddance to the lazy bastards.

  31. Posted September 21, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    It seems as though the debate is alive and well. I advocate a careful study of those who have witnessed a debate by Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins and Harris and would like to study the ideas of attendees of their debates with the likes of Chopra, Sharpton, etc. I will contend that Hitchens is the sharpest with regard to verbal retorts, while Dawkins and Dennett do a much better job of writing. One cannot compare the God delusion to Hitchen’s, God is not great. But then again, Harris drops his guard several times in his Letter to a Christian nation. Of the four, the only truly peer reviewed scholars are Dawkins and Dennett, although Sam has acquired a PhD in neuroscience.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Benson Category: Notes and Comment Blog I lifted this sermon preached at Duke last Sunday from Jerry. I’m always lifting items from Jerry. What can I tell you? He finds interesting stuff. […]

  2. […] not being humble. How is this lack of humility manifested? Well, it appears that it shows up every time a scientists asks a theologian for evidence to support their claims (for the existence of their deity or the existence of a deity at all). In other words, when you […]

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