bookmark_borderHoward Van Till

Anyone getting deeply involved in debates over creationism and intelligent design eventually runs across the name of Howard Van Till, a physicist with a Calvinist Christian background who taught at Calvin College. Having him on board as a defender of science has been invaluable, especially as an example of someone who seemed theologically conservative but also had few qualms about accepting most of modern natural science. Mind you, I found some of his writing intellectually irritating, given the contortions he had to resort to to keep his faith compatible with science, but he didn’t do anything unusual among scientists who are religious.

It now appears that Van Till has moved away from his Calvinism, and taken a much more ambiguous position on religion. (Thanks to Richard Carrier for pointing this out.) On the one hand, I like this development—it means less doubletalk on science and theology and one more fellow physicist who takes a more sensible position like the majority of his colleagues. On the other hand, one less prominent person we can point to as being a solid Christian and an evolutionist might leave us in a politically slightly weakened position.

bookmark_borderGod: The Failed Hypothesis

Physicist Vic Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist is now available. It should interest most Secular Outpost readers, especially those who like to read about science and religion issues.

I wrote one of the jacket blurbs for it: “Both casual readers interested in what science has to say about religion and scholars looking to acquaint themselves with the latest science-based arguments against God will find much in this book worth their attention.” Now, the book is hardly likely to sell an extra zillion copies because of this endorsement, but I do think it’s worth reading, whether you end up cheering Stenger on or if you find yourself questioning the ambitious claims he makes.

bookmark_borderGodless Professors

At the Overcoming Bias blog, Robin Hanson raises the question of how to interpret the fact that more of the U.S. public believes in God than university professors do, more of whom in turn believe in God than their counterparts at elite universities. He offers the following as possibly relevant considerations:

  1. Information – Elite academics have better information and analysis.
  2. Social pressure – Random variations in local social pressure are a generic explanation for all behavior differences.
  3. Calm – Tyler says the academic neutral tone fits badly with charisma.
  4. Unfeeling – Academics prefer explicit reasoning, and neglect our feelings, which some call our best evidence for God.
  5. Safety – Anders suggests the safe cushy academic world doesn’t inspire fear, which inspires hope in God.
  6. Contrarian – Academics distinguish themselves from others via differing beliefs.
  7. Jealousy – God would be a threat to academics intellectual authority.
  8. Mystery – God is too hard to understand for academics to make progress using him as an explanation for things.

Hanson suggests that factors 6, 7, and 8 favor the existence of God, factor 1 favors the nonexistence of God, factor 4 is hard to interpret, and the rest seem neutral.

The post generated many comments, some of which are interesting and insightful.

bookmark_borderDo the more aggressive skeptics misunderstand religion?

I just got back from a conference on “The Evolution of Religion,” largely devoted to discussing evolutionary and cognitive science-based explanations of human religiosity. There’s some fascinating work being done, and I expect this topic will be of increasing interest to secular people as the field continues to mature. As I pointed out in my talk, current research fits in very well with my expectations as an “ambitious and lazy” physicalist. But the news is not all good for those nonbelievers who would like to see less religion in the world—it appears as if supernatural beliefs are too deep-seated a part of human nature to disappear easily.

For atheists, perhaps the most interesting presentation was by Dan Dennett, who elaborated on some themes in his Breaking the Spell. He ended up with a plea for scientists to be more forthright in their criticism of religion: Dennett thinks that even academics end up being reticent and giving religion a free pass too often.

No doubt there is a good deal of truth there. But it was interesting that the audience didn’t entirely buy it. Most people doing scientific research on religion are either outright nonbelievers or on the very liberal fringes of religiosity. But they tend to distance themselves from calls to a more activist style of nonbelief. Sometimes this has to do with reasons such as not wanting to antagonize religious people who are the subjects of their research. But also they perceive some of the more aggressively anti-religious authors out there as having a rather limited understanding of religions. Dennett received some very critical questions, some of which pointed out that a number of features of “religion” he identified specifically had to do with contemporary conservative Christianity in the United States, and did not generalize to other traditions and other times.

I challenged Dennett as well, drawing a rather testy response. I said that I was disturbed by the way that, along with himself and Richard Dawkins, he was holding up Sam Harris as a model of courageous criticism of religion. Particularly in his attacks on Islam, Harris does not follow even elementary scholarly norms, and produces a pretty nasty misrepresentation. Dennett sort of defended Harris’s listing of disgustingly violent verses from the Quran, but I pointed out that most Muslims do not respond to the Quran the way a stereotypical Protestant fundamentalist responds to a Bible translation. He said he didn’t know that. Fair enough, but why on earth would he trust Harris’s non-existent expertise in the first place?

There have been a bunch of books that have been both aggressively critical of religion and commercial successes recently, which has made a good number of nonbelievers feel better. And no doubt, there is good reason to complain about the immunity from criticism religion enjoys in much public discourse. But that does not mean that the most prominent critics have done a uniformly good job. Their understanding of religions have too often left something to be desired.

bookmark_borderEmbezzlement in the Catholic Church

As if covering up molestation by its priests were not bad enough, Trent Stamp of Charity Navigator points out that, according to researchers at Villanova University, 85% of Roman Catholic dioceses have discovered embezzlement in the last five years, and 11% report that more than $500,000 was taken.

As Stamp suggests, if this were reported by a secular charity, it would likely lose its tax-exempt status.

bookmark_borderEvolution of Religion

I’ll be off to an International Conference on the Evolution of Religion later this week. It should be interesting. The speakers are largely psychologists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists etc. with a foot in evolutionary biology, plus some biologists and religious studies types. Then there’s a smaller array of theologians and philosophers who’ll comment on the first group’s research. Daniel Dennett is one of the big-shot presenters. I think I’m the only physics-type giving a talk, though naturally it’s not directly about physics. (It’s about the version of physicalism that tends to attract us physics-types and how the evolution of religion fits into that picture.)

I expect I’ll comment on what went on once I’m back. We’ll see.