The Agenda television show broadcast yesterday on TVO is now archived at this site, but you can see the individual segments in order by clicking on the screenshots below. The theme of Steve Paikin’s show was “Science, Religion, and Atheism.”
I went first, with the segment described like this:
Since Galileo’s lifetime house arrest in 1632 for his claim of a sun-centered solar system, the question has remained: are science and religion compatible? Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is unequivocal. “Absolutely not,” he says. He discusses his book, “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.”
I won’t comment on my own statements here; readers will be familiar with them, and I said what I thought.
The second segment featured Andrew Newberg, described as “the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital [it’s in Philadelphia]. He is also the author of How God Changes Your Brain.” The segment is described like this:
Why do we believe what we believe? Are the brains of atheists and religious people different? What happens to a person’s brain when they are praying or meditating or communing with God? Andrew Newberg has been studying these questions for years. He calls it Neurotheology, a discipline that “seeks to understand the relationship specifically between the brain and theology.” He joins Steve Paikin to discuss the neuroscience of religion.
Although he says he disagrees with me about the compatibility of science and religion, Newberg clearly didn’t listen to what I said, for he claims that the existence of religious scientists demonstrates that compatibility, a form of compatibility that I discussed and dismissed. Further, he claims that the compatibility is evidenced by the fact that scientists like him can study the religious beliefs of billions of people. This is a view I find completely bizarre. Science can study beliefs in ESP and Bigfoot, but that doesn’t mean that beliefs in those phenomena are compatible with science.
He then makes a deeply tautological argument, saying that people with brains that reject the supernatural tend not to be religious, and vice versa. This has nothing to do with his claim that there are differences between the faithful and the non-religious in how the brain works.
He also argues that meditation and other “spiritual” activities affect brain function, but of course, as Diane MacPherson noted yesterday, he doesn’t discuss whether meditating atheists show brain patterns different from those of meditating religionists. The fact that meditating or thinking about matters numinous affects brain activity is not a justification for the existence of the numinous, though Newberg does not make that explicit. Nor does he deal effectively with Paikin’s very good question that perhaps those folks prone to such brain patterns are a priori likely to become more religious.
In the end, Newberg argues that our brain is somehow wired, through either God or evolution, to have a propensity for religious or spiritual experiences. Perhaps he’s right, but if that’s the case, I must have bad wiring. At 15:47, he argues that we all have “faith”, a conflation of different meanings of “faith.”
On the whole, Newberg was articulate and didn’t argue strongly for the truth of religious claims; his main point was apparently that humans seem to be hardwired for some kind of spiritual experiences, and those experiences correlate with brain activity. His main problem, I think, was failing to disentangle the many meanings of the world “spiritual.”
Finally, Paikin interviewed Pamela Klassen, “a professor in the department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto” and Amarnath Amarangam, editor of Religion and the New Atheism. The segment is this:
Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens are all known as the “New Atheists,” authors of best-selling anti-God and anti-religion books. But, what exactly is New Atheism? What are its goals? How do they rightly or wrongly view religion? And has it succeeded in selling atheism, or simply angering religious people? The Agenda explores the New Atheism movement.
Klassen faults New Atheism for being strident and unproductive of thought, largely because, as she says, it is a movement dominanted by white males. In contrast the less strident women “New Atheists”, like Jennifer Hecht and Susan Jacoby, have promoted genuinely thoughtful discussion. (She seems to neglect Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and the like). Amarangam then agrees with Reza Aslan that New Atheists caricature religion, neglecting faiths like Buddhism and Jainism.
Both panelists, however, completely fail to consider whether religious claims are true. To them, the question, which at least Amarangam sees as the focus of New Atheism, is unimportant. Instead, they concentrate more on the “little people” argument: that religion is, in the main, good regardless of its truth. Klassen also emphasizes the “communal” aspect of religion, further neglecting whether the claims on which religious practices rest are true. Does she think it matters? Amarangam correctly notes that New Atheists ask for evidence for the claims of faith, but argues that such evidence drops into insignificance when one sees religion as a “lived practice.”
Klassen has an obvious aversion to the word “faith,” preferring to discuss practice, yet theologians have no problem with the word “faith.” She needs to get out more, and to look at the statistics about what religionists really do believe. I am of course biased on this issue, but I saw this segment largely as an exercise in atheist-bashing rather than a discussion of a). are the claims of religion really true?; b). To what extent do believers base their actions and “communality” on those claims?; and c). If the truth claims are wrong, and yet buttress an entire system of belief, action, and morality, what does that mean for society?
As one commenter noted about this pair:
I can’t help but feel that the people in the program are mainly trying to get their little place in the limelight by vaguely attacking, not what the “New Atheists” say and stand for, but what these people claim the New Atheists say and stand for, i.e. they are pulling out the old straw man.
I fully agree with Amarnath Amarasingam that the New Atheists see the god debate as an intellectual exercise. It is, and it is a simple one at that. The Bible is a fictional book and if you claim otherwise, you have not read it, you are lying, or you are mentally deficient. When a “university” such as Biola *requires* its staff to accept the inerrancy of the Bible, then you know you are dealing with charlatans. It is no more difficult than that.
It is, to some degree, a valid criticism to say that the main god of the Bible is their favourite target, but how would that be wrong? The god of the Bible happens to be a fairly important subject in Western society, since this god (or its promoters) has had some influence on the culture, and still does. I would say that this god is therefore more than just marginally more interesting a topic for our culture than, say, Jainism and Buddishm, which do not have gods.
. . . Pamela Klaassen pulls out the old “I am offended” chestnut, and essentially excludes herself from the debate. “I am offended” is not a valid discussion point in this context.
My final comment is that Paikin is a very good interviewer: he knows what he’s about and asks the right questions. Even when he asks challenging questions, he asks them in a non-confrontational way, i.e., he seems to want to get at the truth, not just create controversy. It was a pleasure to be on his show.