In defense of creationists?

The Week appears to be a garden-variety news magazine without an obvious agenda, but it’s recently published a number of very silly articles on religion and creationism. One of the silliest appeared about a week ago, and is called “In defense of creationists,” by Michael Brendan Dougherty. Of course after reading this kind of incoherent mind-dump one wants to know who the author is; and Dougherty is described this way:

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times MagazineESPN MagazineSlate and The American Conservative.

By “creationists,” Dougherty refers to young-earth Biblical creationists, and he’s not one of them: he appears to have a somewhat hedged acceptance of evolution. So why does he defend Biblical literalists?

It’s not completely clear, but it appears to be that he has an aversion, as do many of us, against Sophisticated Believers (S.B.s) who pick and choose (without clear reasons) which parts of the Bible are literally true and which are metaphorical. Give us a diehard buy-it-all-literalist, some of us say (me included!), rather than a weaselly metaphorizer who sees himself as superior to both atheists and fundamentalists. At least the straight creationists (and atheists!) have a guiding principle for interpretation: it’s all correct (or, in the case of atheists, made up by humans)! Dougherty’s views, and this piece, were inspired by the reaction of Sophisticated Believers to the Ham/Nye debate, who held their noses when listening to Ham’s Genesis literalism.

The problem with the piece, beside its incoherence—Dougherty doesn’t seem to have thought through his own feelings on the issue, and that shows—is that in the end he buys into the same pick-and-choose mentality as do the Sophisticated Believers he rejects, undercutting his whole thesis.

Dougherty starts poorly, saying that Biblical literalism is a recent innovation:

It took until about the late 19th century and hundreds of years of liturgical self-demolition within the Protestant tradition for this rich understanding of Genesis and Revelation to be reduced to a replacement science textbook and a ripped-from-the-headlines Michael Bay–style blockbuster. Six-day-ism, the theory of the Rapture, and even the juvenile “How many bricks?” re-reading of Revelation by Jehovah’s Witnesses are all modern phenomena.

This is weaselly, for although many Christians might not have seen Revelation or a real six-day creationism as true, for millennia Church fathers and believers alike saw essential components of the Genesis story, including creation ex nihilo, Adam and Eve, and the Fall, as literal truths. Augustine and Aquinas, for instance, believed in both a symbolic and literal interpretation of scripture, so they bought the Adam and Eve story as genuine truth (i.e., a real “replacement science textbook”), but also one that bore a metaphorical interpretation. Here Dougherty deliberately misleads the reader into thinking that literalism is a recent phenomenon. This is a common trope among apologists and faitheists, but it’s a lie, and I don’t understand why it’s gotten such traction.

Before he tells us why he is defending creationism, Dougherty has to get in a few licks against science (even though he accepts it):

[The views of Sophisticated Belief are] a pose, barely more literate in science than the creationism it opposes as illiteracy. The Big Bang and evolution are subject to further refinement and perhaps dramatic refutation on evidentiary terms. To submit to the authority of science does not mean to place one’s personal and irrevocable imprimatur on today’s most supported theories. It simply means accepting the rational process of investigating claims about nature through rigorous observation and experimentation. What does it mean when laymen say they “believe in” a scientific theory? Must they decide between Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins on “punctuated equilibrium?” Who is supposed to be impressed by these declarations?

“Subject to further refinement and perhaps dramatic refutation on evidentiary terms?” Well, yes, in principle evolution and the Big Bang could be shown to be wrong, but it’s not likely, and to imply that “further refinement” may do this is simply being disingenuous. I’m not sure why the more arcane Gould vs. Dawkins debate on punctuated equilibrium is dragged in here, as most of it is resolved (yes, the fossil record often shows jerkiness rather than smooth change, but Gould was dead wrong in claiming this pattern absolutely requires a new, non-neo-Darwinian process). I suppose Dougherty, who probably knows little about that debate, wants to convince readers that the presence of any active controversies in science (and he should have used a better example, like the meaning of dark matter), undercuts the whole scientific enterprise.

Finally, Dougherty tells us why he doesn’t like the more Sophisticated Believers who badmouth Ken Ham:

As the debate between Ham and Nye unfolded, I found myself more and more disgusted with some of the self-styled “sophisticated” Christians performing their giggles at Ham for all the world to see.

There was something just a little ugly about all these Christians rushing up to their platforms, drawing attention to the sweat on their brow, putting a concerned look upon their faces, and proclaiming that fundamentalism is a “modern” error. And then when they were sure everyone was listening, lifted up their eyes heavenward to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like this mouth-breather Ken Ham.” With a great urgency, but very little understanding of cosmology or the various theories of evolution, they recited their absolute fidelity to these theories. These anxious-to-please Christians were telling important truths, but in the spirit of a lie.

I’m not sure what he’s trying to say here.  What does he mean by accusing S.B.s of “telling important truths” (we’ll get to those “truths” later), but “in the spirit of a lie”? What is “the spirit of a lie”? I suppose he just doesn’t like some Christians denigrating the views of other Christians, even though Dougherty actually agrees with the sophisticated Christians! Here’s where it’s evident that the man doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. He simply likes the tenacity of fundamentalists, even if they’re wrong:

On the other hand, I’ve always found those Christians who hold to six-day accounts of man’s origin difficult to refute and even more difficult to despise. There is a certain strength and flexibility to their tautology. Further, even though they’re wrong on the science, they are right about the things that really matter to the human heart and to human civilization.

Flexibility? Really? Since when are fundamentalists flexible? And what is the tautology in their belief? Further, if they are right about the things that really matter to the heart and to our civilization, then so are the Sophisticated Believers! This becomes clear when Dougherty tells us why the fundamentalists are superior:

So I do not think that Ken Ham–style creationists should get to rewrite biology textbooks according to their very peculiar reading of Scripture. But I admire their bullheadedness. They have gotten lost in the woods while trying to protect the big truths of Christianity: that God created the world, that we are dependent on him, that we owe him everything, and that he loves us even though we are sinful. In the world most of us inhabit, day to day, the world of lovers, wriggling kids, disease, war, and death, the sureness of God’s love is relevant in a way that the details of early hominid fossils never will be, glorious as they are. Have some perspective, people.

. . . But the bulk of creation’s fundamentalists are deeply sincere. And, better than that, they are willing to be, in St. Paul’s words “fools for Christ’s sake.” They do not live for the world’s esteem. And so when the world next discovers a sophisticated ideology to get around “Thou shall not murder,” I’d rather have one cussed fundie next to me than the whole army of eye-rolling Christians lining up to denounce him.

But that is precisely what the Sophisticated Believers think as well. Why are fundamentalists protecting these “truths” as opposed to the S.B.s? And really, do Sophisticated Believers try to justify murder? Which ones? Dougherty doesn’t answer these pressing questions.

I guess what he really doesn’t like is that the S.B.s roll their eyes when they listen to Ken Ham. Further, it’s apparently the fundamentalists, not the S.B.s, who enforce morality and the Golden Rule, while the Evilutionists tell us it’s okay to murder and sterilize people:

In protecting that big truth of creation — that we are all made in God’s image and all endowed with supreme dignity — fundamentalists zealously guard things that follow logically from that. Things like the commandment “Thou shall not murder.” Anti-evolutionists often set themselves against “Darwinian theory” because they deplored social Darwinism, eugenics, and other evils that seemed to spring forth from minds overexcited by the latest theories of man’s origin.

Isn’t Dougherty aware that eugenics and Social Darwinism went by the board decades ago, and that almost no evolutionists embrace that stuff? Here he sounds like the fundamentalists with whom he disagrees—but sympathizes.

So here’s Dougherty’s big problem: he himself winds up behaving precisely like a Sophisticated Believer. While rejecting the fundamentalist assertion of Biblical literalness (yet admiring the bullheadedness of its adherents), Dougherty ends up picking and choosing what he sees as the Real Big Truths of Christianity:

. . . that God created the world, that we are dependent on him, that we owe him everything, and that he loves us even though we are sinful.

Could you please tell us, Mr. Dougherty, how you know that God created the world, that he loves us, and that we are sinful? Did you take those bits out of the Bible, or do you have independent evidence for those claims?

If this list of what Dougherty calls Christianity’s “big truths” doesn’t come from selective reading of the Bible, then I don’t know its origin. (Presumably he’s ignoring the Old Testament, where God doesn’t particularly love everyone.) Dougherty has no more reason to believe these “big truths” than do the fundamentalists for believing in original sin or the End Times.

The people who should be rolling their eyes are not the Sophisticated Believers, but the readers of Dougherty’s piece. He should not be allowed near a keyboard until he figures out a). what he wants to say, and b). is able to make a coherent argument while not espousing the very mindset he decries.

At any rate, I still find myself disliking the Sophisticated Believers more than the fundamentalists.  I’m not quite sure why, for the fundies do just as much damage, if not more, to science education. I suppose it’s the feeling that the S.B.s really are being intellectually dishonest, ignoring the nasty bits of scripture while deciding, without obvious guidelines, which ones are real and important.  And I can’t help but feel that S.B.s, who I presume are more educated, should be more aware of their disingenuousness. But as Michael Shermer tells us, the smarter folks are better at rationalizing their beliefs.


  1. Danny
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    It’d be good to have some clarification on whether ‘weaselly’ is used metaphorically here, or if is describing something pertaining to the genus Mustela.

  2. gophergold
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    “I suppose Dougherty, who probably knows little about that debate, wants to let readers know that the presence of any active controversies in science (and he should have used a better example, like the meaning of dark matter), undercuts the whole scientific enterprise.”

    Science’s refusal to accept ANY theory as the Absolute Truth, and science’s insistence to test again and again are part and parcel of
    science. These are not weaknesses. These are science’s greatest strength.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

  3. gbjames
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink


    • francis
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink


      • jimroberts
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, me too.

  4. pktom64
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    It took until about the late 19th century and hundreds of years of liturgical self-demolition within the Protestant tradition for this rich understanding of Genesis and Revelation to be reduced to a replacement science textbook

    And then :

    There was something just a little ugly about all these Christians […] proclaiming that fundamentalism is a “modern” error.

    Isn’t that another contradiction in Dougherty’s piece?

    • steve oberski
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Apologetics – if there are no internal contradictions then you’re doing it wrong.

        Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        A sarcastic observation, but essentially insightful.

        Christianity never started with a nicely set story, but with an incoherent bundle of original distinct concepts that were never meant to relate to one another.
        The early Christian writers spent their time trying to build some sense into their assemblage and make the fragments intelligible in the framework of one invented construction after another.

        The unification of those disparate elements never succeeded in presenting something even resembling coherence and reasonableness. The Greek schools had been closed by imperial decrees, the books had been systematically burnt, and there was nobody to oppose the new irrationality.
        “I believe because it is absurd” is a rampant idea in the statements of many early Christians. Christianity became the collective folly of Europe.

        Even when the hundreds of bishops assembled at Nicaea to put together a common front, the wordings in Greek of “essence”, “substance”, were so insanely hermetic that the poor bishops didn’t know what was happening.
        They barely grasped whatever obscure meaning those words were supposed to convey, and they voted, for their peace of mind and to avoid getting arrested by Constantine’s soldiers.

        The basic incoherence was nightmarish: the “Son of the Father” is the same as the “Father”, and has been co-existing with him for all eternity, the two starting their partnership even before any creation had happened. And they were not even alone: Their magic tool, the Spirit, turned out also to be themselves in disguise, etc…
        And this was just the beginning, all the rest of the theories and dogmas were of the same mind-boggling, basically absurd, character.

        All that was expressed in fancy Greek words that the Bishops had never used. Their heads were spinning, but they had no choice but vote.
        This was nothing similar to a program like those written by Apple or Google, but a dizzying hodge-podge of concepts which never fitted together. Even Lego would have built a nice little system that stood together and be clear to everybody.

        No wonder that Christianity has always been since its very formation, ferociously hostile to Greek science, Greek logic, Greek thinking. Those twain shall never meet.

        Any attempt to fiddle with the kaleidoscopic pieces was bound to fail. This has proved a boon for educated Christian writers who had nothing else to write about for hundreds of years, but topics of “explanations”, regurgitations, and elucidations.

        This Michael Dougherty is just another one of the current crop of apologetics who claim to find new angles in the unsettled field of Christian interpretation to fuel their own purposeless writing.

  5. Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    The opinions of Shannen Doherty would be just as useful.

  6. Sastra
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    In protecting that big truth of creation — that we are all made in God’s image and all endowed with supreme dignity — fundamentalists zealously guard things that follow logically from that. Things like the commandment “Thou shall not murder.”

    No they don’t. People who rest their entire understanding of right and wrong on the Bible are as likely to help God purge the earth of the wicked as they are to try to prevent that. The Holy Spirit helps individuals interpret which sort of killing is the type God approves of (and so it’s not murder) and which isn’t (so it IS murder.)

    But the bulk of creation’s fundamentalists are deeply sincere. And, better than that, they are willing to be, in St. Paul’s words “fools for Christ’s sake.” They do not live for the world’s esteem.

    This is Dougherty’s problem with the Sophisticated Believers. They (he) aren’t passionate enough. They’re not different enough. They congratulate themselves when they make sense according to the world and forget that the main reason for religion in the first place is to not make ANY sense by secular standards. Secular bad; faith good. There’s virtue in being mocked for your religion. It means people can tell you’re religious — and so can God.

    What a standard.

    He’s giving brownie points for sincerity, certainty, enthusiasm, passion, conviction, consistency, and the willingness to live and die for a cause. THAT’S the way to do religion! That’s what it ought to be all about when it comes to God! The people sniffing and rolling their eyes in derision ought to be the atheists … right before they fall into the pits of hell and we all laugh hahaha!

    Passion has its place in many causes. But the willingness to go against all the wisdom of the world in order to follow God is not one of them. This fanatic enthusiasm will not look like people helping the unfortunate — because secularists do that. It will look like Young Earth Creationism. And it will look like airplanes flying into buildings.

    I can’t help but think that one of the things Dougherty admires about fundamentalist Christianity is their having strong beliefs which don’t require much thoughtful reflection. He likes that.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      I read his whole piece as being animated by guilt. He knows that the fundamentalists have a more coherent religion than he he does, that they take the Bible more seriously than he does, and he feels guilty that he can’t really be one of them. And so the incoherence, he wants to take the Bible seriously, like fundamentalists, but for whatever reason he can’t bring himself to buy a young earth, etc., so he’s stuck.

      I think most sophisticated believers feel this guilt a little bit, this sense that they aren’t really taking the Bible seriously any more, but they are not blinkered enough to go the fundamentalist route and just take it all as true nor are they brave enough to abandon belief all together. So they are stuck in limbo-land. It works for them most of the time because in their own SB churches they just don’t dwell on these things. Spectacles like the Ham-Nye debate bring these uncomfortable thoughts back to mind and make them grapple with the dissonance.

      Probably this is a prime time to move him over into the unbeliever camp because he’s displaying the dissonance that motivates such a move.

      • Doug
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        A few Christmases ago, I heard a teenage girl say, “I wish I still believed in Santa.” I imagine something similar is going on here.

  7. Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    The guy is all over the map. There are so many contradictions in his article that it makes no sense unless all he’s really trying to do is maintain “plausible denial,” regardless of whether he’s accused of being a “fundie,” or a David Bentley Hart-style “sophisticated believer.”

  8. Jeffery
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    It seems that some people just like to hear themselves talk; it doesn’t matter whether it makes any sense, or not.

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I get the impression that Biblical literalism is on a sliding scale. It seems that the full and total literalism of the fundamentalists is a modern invention, but certainly that same literalism got a big push in that direction in the Protestant Reformation (both Luther and Calvin thought many of the circulating symbolic metaphorical interpretations of the Bible were simply silly- they disagreed over whether the 6 days of creation were real or metaphor for example), while in the 19th century, Matthew Arnold wanted a far more thoroughly metaphorical reading of the Bible than had ever before been seen in Christianity, even discarding Jesus’ virgin birth, etc. (See his “Literature and Dogma”).

    The SB can same some precedent from the past, but Christians of old held sacrosanct creation ex nihilo, the virgin birth, resurrection, and the events of Pentecost. They’re in the creeds as well as the Bible. Only the modern metaphorist holds even these up for grabs. Karen Armstrong’s claim that in the old days everyone viewed most of the Bible as symbolic metaphor is simply wrong.

    My own view is that too much of the Bible is simply not morally salutary so that it doesn’t matter if it is symbolic metaphor or not. I used to be a modern SB (though I hope not too much of an SOB 🙂 ) and held that the overall story-arc of the Bible was towards a world of justice in spite of anomalies. The more thoroughly one reads the Bible and discovers what an eclectic hodge-podge/melange and overlay of conflicting viewpoints it is and how nasty so much of this is, the less sustainable this viewpoint is. The Gnostic view that the OT God is an imposter that needs to be unmasked is more internally coherent, but retains the problem that the New Testament presents us with multiple Jesus’ some of which are good guys and other of which are nasty scoundrels. (I retain a grudging admiration of SB John Shelby Spong and a few other similar figures however..)

  10. NewEnglandBob
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “So here’s Dougherty’s big problem: he himself winds up behaving precisely like a Sophisticated Believer.”

    Maybe Dougherty has a split personality and each personality wrote part of the article.

      Posted February 16, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      My feeling is that the SPLIT PERSONALITY of SOPHISTICATED BELIEVERS is real.

      And it is explained, in my view, by the survival of cherished childhood images and indoctrination that the educated adult, now accustomed to a rational, scientific, environment, simply cannot repudiate sentimentally.

      This attachment to childhood beliefs by the rational grown-up results in the expression of split beliefs.

      I have seen another acute case in a talented NT historian, R. Joseph Hoffmann, a well-known member of the famous Jesus seminar.

      Educated by Catholic nuns, he became a historian of early Christianity, and wrote notable in-depth studies of the early pagan critics of the Christian folly: Celsius, Porphyry.

      But he also wrote a scholarly study on the vital role of Marcion, a Mediterranean shipowner who circulated the first set of Paul’s epistles ca. AD 140, which launched the first attempt at dogmatic Christian doctrines (and the unsolved controversy whether Marcion had been the covert author or editor of “Paul” ‘s epistles.)

      Hoffmann came close to even doubting the existence of Jesus, but showed himself unable to forget the sentimental images of his youth, the sweetness of the nuns and their beloved Jesus baby, the splendor of Catholic trappings and music, the majestic rituals of the papacy.

      Expressing himself also in a highly metaphorical, sometimes impenetrable, way, he, too, betrays the same ambiguity of feelings, and convictions, convinced that the vital contribution of Christianity cannot be erased.

      This appearance of split personality must be a syndrome of most modern sophisticated believers. Another example worth examining in depth: Francis Collins.

      • Sastra
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        I’ll add another example: Karen Armstrong.

        A former nun, she has basically made a career out of trying to combine accurate scholarship with her conviction that there is something very, very real and very, very noble to the process of experiencing “faith” in God. Her apophatic or negative theology then is the natural extension of what happens when people really, really want to believe what makes no realistic sense. “God” can’t be understood as what it IS; we can only understand it by what it is NOT.

        It’s a contradictory mess.

        Regarding the split personality, I read a couple of books by psychologist John Schumaker who argues that this is more or less what is happening with religious belief, hypnosis, and psychopathology. The brain’s ability to process information among multiple pathways is often used to cope with cognitive dissonance and harmonize opposing beliefs.

        • ROO BOOKAROO
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

          This processing through “multiple pathways” in the brain is what psychology popularizers and journalists call COMPARTMENTALIZATION

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I’m left with the impression that Dougherty thinks one Christian religious group criticizing another Christian religious group is impolite. It’s the same tradition of seeing atheists as gauche when they call out religious foolishness as they would any other foolishness.

  12. Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I seem to recall the Gospels having Jesus speak about Adam and Eve as if they were actual historical figures. And I further seem to recall Paul claiming that Jesus was at and participated in the Creation.

    Seems to me that, if you’re going to take the New Testament seriously about the bits which it itself takes most seriously, the only conclusion that follows from the premises is that the only eyewitness to ever speak on the matter thought it all literally happened.

    Of course, the only reasonable premise is that it’s all a really bad faery tale — but, once you’ve already gone over that particular cliff, you’re left hanging on midair with this sort of bullshit. If you reject the historicity of Adam and Eve and the rest of the Genesis story, you’re at least also rejecting the authority of the Bible, if not the credibility of Jesus. You should reject both (and a lot more), but you can’t if you want to remain a Christian.

    Checkmate, Christians — and you set the board up, yourselves.



  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    In the world most of us inhabit, day to day, the world of lovers, wriggling kids, disease, war, and death, the sureness of God’s love is relevant in a way that the details of early hominid fossils never will be, glorious as they are. Have some perspective, people.

    Never mind that the details of the early hominid record show up in our day to day world in how we love, how kids behave, how our immune system works, how we cause and resolve conflicts, and how we end our lives; never mind that facts and some of the honesty they enforce are important rather than mere relevant factors of our day to day world; never mind that faith by definition doesn’t bring sureness; we should all deem a purported magic agent more important.

    Is that what Dougherty means? Not really. What he wants to do is to use a deepity to smuggle in the claim that we know for sure that there is magic in the world and that it is his magic.

    Which of course comes back to asking the day to day relevant question of the world [really!]: how does he know that?

    Dougherty employs standard SB™ methods despite proclaiming to be non-SB. He should take a look at his own behavior and decide what he wants to be when he has apologetics-ed up.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      I forgot:

      And how is D’s deepity on “perspective”? He should be ashamed of himself for that one.

  14. Posted February 16, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    For the truly serious person why be a little dopey when you can be a complete fruitcake, or why be a little ignorant when you can be a total ignoramus.

  15. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    So let’s see. According to Dougherty, if there’s a political party in America today that leans toward by-your-bootstraps Social Darwinism, we should expect creationists and fundamentalists to vote against those guys.

    And if there’s a party that leans toward equal dignity for all, including (say) the right to marry whoever you choose, we should those same creationists and fundamentalists to vote for those guys.

    Do I have that right?

  16. JPC
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    My introduction to this website was through a Facebook friend who is a philosopher of science and a highly orthodox convert to Catholicism. He had posted a link to a New York Times article in which a certain Ross Douthat was offering a rejoinder to an article professor Coyne had written. My Facebook friend presented the article as evidence of the superior insight of Mr. Douthat, but when I read both articles and the reposte on this site, I – as a non professional philosopher – thought professor Coyne had the better side of the argument by a long shot.

    From there I went and viewed the debate with John F. Haught and it was clear why he wished to not have the video uploaded to the net. He was roundly defeated.

    I mention this because it says a lot about sophisticated Christians if a theologian, a man’s whose life work and “scholarship” is of such a paltry and tenuous nature that a biology professor can best you in debate that turns on your alleged expertise. As Andrew Berstein writes regarding the great minds of the dark ages, they spent their lives becoming authorities on nothing.

    Another experience I had was with the highly celebrated church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan.he was lecturing at a local church near Yale University and I attended in the lecture in the hope of putting a few questions to him. When the question and answer period came, I asked about the epistemology of the church as it relates to the development of doctrine, by what specific criteria one could certify that a change in view was indeed a development and not a perversion. Pelikan hemmed and hawed, outlined Cardinal Newman’s take on the matter, expressed how the orthodox construed doctrinal development, touched on the Protestant divines and their respective starting points and left it at that.

    The people who accompanies me to the lecture were all stunned by the fact that there was no real epistemology, no concrete way of knowing, making progress or resolving conflicts of viewpoint. And that’s why, in my opinion, dismantling sophisticated christianity Is like fishing in a bucket. It’s full of holes, logical incoherence, and lacks an epistemological method.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Well put.

      Because the sophisticated apologists usually have a reasonable understanding and respect for the integrity of the scientific method and the consensus it can engender, they often realize they’re at a loss when push comes to shove and they have to — as you put it –distinguish between a development and a perversion in theology.

      How does that work? There’s no real standard to measure against because the ultimate standard is a supernatural god knowable through faith.

      That means that every theist from the most literal fundamentalist to the vaguest transcendentalist thinks they’re the one trying to understand God and the Other Guy is the one forming God in their own image. Flip and shuffle, always the same card on top. The deck is stacked.

      What often happens with the sophisticated believers I think is that the apologetics turn apologetic and subtly shift the nature of the claim. Instead of “this is what one ought to believe” we get “well, this is what I believe and why I believe it.” And so it may well be, with nothing to argue about any more because your truth may not be the same as my truth if what we’re talking about now is belief itself.

      When they’re in a group of like-minded people this change of topic won’t be noticed. “Here is what we believe and why we believe it” sounds very much like what scientists might say. It’s only when it meets sincere outside criticism from a skeptic who isn’t eager to believe that it’s revealed to be more of a profession of faith than a genuine discovery.

      • Jason
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        I was raised and educated Catholic (didn’t attend a non-Catholic school until grad school), and while I don’t know if Dougherty is Catholic, I can imagine how he got to where he is from a Catholic point of view. The Catholic Church isn’t super concerned about scripture (part of what Protestants hate about them), and the basic Catholic worldview is that you would be able to realize that Catholicism is true without ever even coming across a bible. As far as I can tell, the church’s Thomistic worldview is basically a gussied-up argument form design. I know god loves me because my body functions properly in a functioning world where I am allowed to fulfill the glory that god’s love has allowed for me. It is, presumably, because of god’s love that I’m able to find meaning in spending time with my wife or teaching my students. I guess without god’s love I’d just be flinging poop at passersby. (I suspect someone better versed in the minutiae of Catholic doctrine could explain the parts I’m missing.)

        Anyway, this has always seemed like nonsensical circular reasoning to me (and why do we have tumors if the natural world functions properly because of god’s love? Original Sin?), but it does explain how someone can “know” god loves him without resorting to scriptural support.

        • ROO BOOKAROO
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink


          This was formalized as the “presence of God”. You simply feel it, and you know it.

          The same label is applied to the “real presence of Christ”. You don’t need to read the NT, simply feel it, and you know it.
          Now Christian writers point out that this feeling of the real presence of Christ is nothing more than the effect of the Christ-Spirit affecting you and working in you.

          This Christ spirit will allow you to overcome any critical attack against the validity of the NT, to find your own guidance in life, and to feel the love for your neighbor. Let all those German historical critics talk, as long as you are filled with the Christ spirit.

          And interestingly enough, it is the ubiquity of the Christ Spirit affecting so many minds in Antiquity that sustained originally the influence of the Christian rites, like baptism and the eucharist. Early Christians had no coherent doctrine, but they all shared in the experience of the Christ Spirit.

          Spontaneous prophets then used to emerge everywhere, roaming the countryside and begging for food and hospitality, all infused with the Christ Spirit. This allowed them to speak in public, revealing the teachings and commands of the “Lord”. Christian life was filled with a cacophony of voices all claiming to recite the “Words of the Lord”. Paul simply emerged as the super-prophet of the times, with his own revelations of the commands of the Lord in his own epistles, denouncing all the other competing prophets as “false prophets”.

          Same thing today. The modern “prophets” who reveal the modern version of the “words of the Lord” are in fact the modern exegetes, priests, and scholars, who preach a new approach to Jesus and God. They all rely on the existential action of the Christ Spirit, that they reveal to believers essentially through their teachings in books and university courses: Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Robinson (“The Ground of our Being”).

          They teach the new mumbo-jumbo that goes with postulating the new way to stay close to God or Christ through emotional attachment.

          Albert Schweitzer had already decided that he wouldn’t pin any hopes on a historical Jesus, but remain faithful to the Spirit of Christ.
          This was, for him, treating the sick in Gabon, and abandoning scholarship, as a return to the mysticism of the “Christ of Faith”.

          • Sastra
            Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

            The “Christ Spirit” can thus gradually lose the “validity of the NT” part and come to focus on “find your own guidance in life … feel the love for your neighbor.” It has morphed from “Christ Spirit” to just “Spirit.” Ecumenical religion. Sheilaism. “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

            Spirit may or may not incorporate Christ. It borrows from whatever religious traditions help you find your own guidance in life and love your neighbor. And now there’s a dilemma.

            Do you follow that along to secular humanism — or do you try to make a big freaking deal about the spiritual metaphysics? Or do you try to combine them? How much do you love faith and how much do you hate atheism? Hey. How much do you hate atheists?

            Those questions might actually be more important than whether you believe in God, now that God has become so flexible and attenuated.

            • Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:06 am | Permalink

              I saw this and though of you…


              • Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:06 am | Permalink


              • Sastra
                Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

                Ha! That’s fun. Thanks!

                Though most New Agers would never point at Christianity and call it “silly.” They know damn well where those other fingers would point back.

                They would instead criticize it for moral failures, I think: it’s patriarchal; it’s authoritarian; it’s regimented; it’s judgmental; it’s mean. There are folks who are hybrid Christian/New Age (or New Age/Christian) and they like them just fine. Jesus is one of many spiritual leaders and his message is that religion is man’s way, but spirituality is of God/Spirit and can be found within. Mystical hippie, iow. True Christianity.

        • Abe Dana
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Permalink


          You guessed right. Michael Brendan Dougherty, who is a young guy, was once an evangelical and is now a very traditional and conservative Catholic.

          He’s not a scientist and wouldn’t claim to be. He’s a very independent thinker who fit into no easy categories which is why he used to be at The American Conservative. He’d have no place at National Review or the Weekly Standard.

  17. JPC
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for all the typos…typing on an iPad

    Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink


    Very interesting questions.

    As for myself, I think I understand what the Christ Spirit does when it enters a human mind. Especially with the fine description in Arthur Drews’s “The Christ Myth” (1909), and the various descriptions attempted by Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and Robinson.

    When it comes to the “Spirit” alone, I feel discombobulated. I have no idea what it is, and to what it relates. How does it feel when the Spirit visits or awakens? I try to understand it in terms of regular psychology, for instance New Age fantasies.

    And being “spiritual” also leaves me wondering? What on earth does that mean? I need a full-page explanation. Otherwise I suspect snake-oil marketing, an effort to sell fraudulent intellectual merchandise, or personal imaginings passed off as revelations.

    Any talk of “spirituality” puts me on alert, gets my antennas out. I need to know who’s the peddler, and what is his intent. What is it he/she wants to sell?

    Honestly, I suspect “spirituality” to be an empty word, or a cover for emotions concerning vague aspirations for supernatural imaginations.

    This, alas, shows that I must not have been visited by the Spirit. I can only let people with better experience speak about it.

    There’s this guy, Robert Wahler, who claims to know everything about spirituality and spiritual masters. He has a book out that he has even offered me as a free PDF. So far I haven’t had the courage to accept it.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      I’m also very suspicious of the term “spiritual” since it has so many definitions which seem to change according to who uses it, why they use it, and when they use it. It’s a deepity. And deepities have a dangerous tendency to be Trojan horses, concealing their ‘extraordinary but false’ intentions under a benign ‘true but trivial’ surface (“Hey, do you like sunsets — then you’re spiritual!“) Next thing you know someone is reading your aura.

      The usual meaning of Spirit involves the supernatural (even when they balk at the term.) It may be connected to some religious traditions, no religious traditions, or (confusingly and incoherently) “all” religious traditions. At best you’ve got a very basic, stripped down version of supernatural essence which can placehold for any god in particular if the arguments go deep enough.

      I’m personally more familiar with Spirit than ‘Spirit of Christ’ because I wasn’t raised Christian, went through a Transcendentalist period, and have had many Spiritual friends helpfully suggest books (from Ken Wilber to A Course in Miracles) to guide me on my spiritual path. That’s why I’ll often use the shorthand God/Spirit when dealing with theism. The meaning of “Spirit” may morph all over the place but one thing you can usually count on is that people who believe in Spirit think that atheist critiques of ‘God’ would never apply to THEIR pure and transcendent version of God.

      Oh yes they do.

    Posted February 16, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    OK, since this is Sunday, here it is. This is how the Christian is “reborn” (“renatus”) when the Spirit of Christ enters him, to start a new life, which is one of continual happiness, superior power, and ecstasy.

    I hope this is not too technical. It is the best description I have found.


    “But what man gains in the union with the body of Christ is the ‘Spirit’ of Christ, which holds the members of the body together, shows itself to be active in everything which belongs to the body, and acts in man as a supernatural power.

    This spirit, as it dwells henceforth in the redeemed man, works and directs and drives him on to every action; lifts man in idea far above all the limitations of his fleshly nature; strengthens him in his weakness; shows him existence in a new light, so that henceforth he feels himself no longer bound; gives him the victory over the powers of earth, and enables him to anticipate, even in this life, the blessedness of his real and final redemption in a life to come (Gal. 2:20).

    But the spirit of Christ as such is equally the divine spirit. So that the redeemed, as they receive the spirit of Christ, are the ‘sons’ of God himself… they ‘inherit the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Gal. 8:14). For… ‘the Lord is the spirit; but where the spirit is, there is freedom’ (2 Cor. 3:17).

    So that when the Christian feels himself transformed into a ‘new creature,’ equipped with power of knowledge and of virtue, blest in the consciousness of his victorious strength over carnal desires, and wins his peace in faith, this is only the consequence of a superhuman spirit working in him. Hence the Christian virtues of Brotherly Love, Humility, Obedience, &c., are necessary consequences of the possession of the Spirit: ‘If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk’ (Gal. 5:26).

    And if the faithful suddenly develop a fulness of new and wonderful powers, which exceed man’s ordinary nature such as facility in ‘tongues,’ in prophecy, and in the healing of the sick – this is, in the superstitious view of the age, only to be explained by the indwelling activity of a supernatural spirit-being that has entered man from the outside.” (p. 201-202)

  20. David Andrews
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I admire both your intellect and persistence, but I wonder why you keep beating this horse. I realize it’s not dead yet, but why should we care?

    I remember being at a meeting with Steve Gould (years ago, obviously) with a bunch of aspiring science writers, and someone asked him why he wasn’t more vocal about the creationists. He was somewhat nonplussed, and (I’m putting words in his mouth) thought the battle was won, or wasn’t worth contending anymore. Why not let them believe their garbage?

    So, why not?

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      I care because they’re still trying to force their doctrine into schools, and unless someone opposes that, children will be taught lies about biology. You know, of course, that creationism is always busy, always trying to get its religious message snuck into the public schools. Besides a violation of science, it’s a violation of the American constitution.

      Gould, by the way, was plenty vocal about creationism, though perhaps not as much as I. So yes, I don’t care if creationists “believe their garbage,” but I do care when they try to make others believe it, especially impressionable schoolchildren.

      Or do you think that we should all ignore it and let them take over the state education standards one by one?

      Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      I couldn’t disagree more with David Andrews.

      His position is that science has won, there are still a few hard-core believers in the bushes, and best is to let them stew in their own juice, and for us to keep going on with our glorious advance in science and knowledge. The war has been won.

      But this is not the real picture of the current scene.
      Instead of receding, creationism and supernaturalism have been gaining ground thanks to fundamentalism.

      The fact that Ken Ham was able to come to the US and build his Creation Museum (probably the only one of that magnitude in the Western World) is proof enough that he’s been able to raise sufficient financing.
      The churches do the same, and, even if receding, have not faded. The suggestion that they can be ignored overlooks the tremendous funding creationism is able to raise.

      Science and rationalism have not gained their place under the sun from the merits of their arguments alone, but always because they have been vigorously promoted by zealous activists, all through the ages.

      Any kind of propaganda and publicity has its value. The printing press, then radio, films and TV have been excellent instruments of dissemination of new scientific ideas.
      Now is the age of Internet, and the smart thing to do is to use this new medium to continue the fight against religion, supernaturalism, and it denigration of science and evolution.

      Children are naturally attracted by the fairy tales of the Bible and the theatrical charade of the Creation Museum.
      Belief in the supernatural is just more spontaneous, easier and quicker than going through the laborious demonstrations of evolution science, and having to read thick books to begin to appreciate the validity of evolutionary knowledge.

      The contest between both sides has always been in a spirit of warfare, and the uncontested success of science, even in the 20th c., has not ended the confrontation.

      As this site has not ceased illustrating, scientific views still are under pressure from religious views through guerrilla tactics supported by enormous funding power. Activism remains a necessity.

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