bookmark_borderUS Religious Landscape Survey

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just come out with Part 2 of their massive US Religious Landscape Survey. Their description of the results:

The survey finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to their faith; for example, most do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. The survey also finds that religion is closely linked to political ideology.

The nonaffiliated are around 16%, but only about 4% are actually nonbelievers. Almost every American believes in God (92%); the overwhelming majority indicate that they are “absolutely certain” about this.

bookmark_borderChristian Student Deflates Atheist Professor (Round II)

I’m sure all of you recall fondly the Chick “Big Daddy” Tract where the Christian student chastens his unbelieving professor with preposterous anti-evolution arguments. Here is something else in that same genre, forwarded to me by a former student (hmmmmm). BTW, they did not even get absolute zero right. It is -459.67 degrees F, not -458 degrees F. Enjoy.

A science professor begins his school year with a lecture to the students, ‘Let me explain the problem science has with religion.’ The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand.

‘You’re a Christian, aren’t you, son?’


‘Yes sir,’ the student says.


‘So you believe in God?’


‘Absolutely.’


‘Is God good?’


‘Sure! God’s good.’


‘Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?’


‘Yes.’


‘Are you good or ev il?’


‘The Bible says I’m evil.’


The professor grins knowingly. ‘Aha! The Bible!’ He considers for a moment.


‘Here’s one for you. Let’s say there’s a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help him? Would you try?’


‘Yes sir, I would.’


‘So you’re good…!’


‘I wouldn’t say that.’


‘But why not say that? You’d help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn’t.’


The student does not answer, so the professor continues. ‘He doesn’t, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Hmmm? Can you answer that one?’


The student remains silent.


‘No, you can’t, can you?’ the professor says. He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax.


‘Let’s start again, young fella. Is God good?’


‘Er…yes,’ the student says.


‘Is Satan good?’


The student doesn’t hesitate on this one. ‘No.’


‘Then where does Satan come from?’


The student falters. ‘From God’


‘That’s right. God made Satan, didn’t he? Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?’


‘Yes, sir.’


‘Evil’s everywhere, isn’t it? And God did make everything, correct?’


‘Yes.’


‘So who created evil?’ The professor continued, ‘If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil.’


Again, the student has no answer. ‘Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred?

Ugliness? All these terrible things, do they exist in this world?’

The student squirms on his feet. ‘Yes.’


‘So who created them?’


The student does not answer again, so the professor repeats his question.


‘Who created them?’ There is still no answer. Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace in front of the classroom. The class is mesmerized. ‘Tell me,’ he continues onto another student. ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?’


The student’s voice betrays him and cracks. ‘Yes, professor, I do.’


The old man stops pacing. ‘Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus?’


‘No sir. I’ve never seen Him.’


‘Then tell us if you’ve ever heard your Jesus?’


‘No, sir, I have not.’


‘Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that matter?’


‘No, sir, I’m afraid I haven’t.’


‘Yet you still believe in him?’


‘Yes.’


‘According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?’


‘Nothing,’ the student replies. ‘I only have my faith.’


‘Yes, faith,’ the professor repeats . ‘And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith.’


The student stands quietly for a moment, before asking a question of His own. ‘Professor, is there such thing as heat?’

‘Yes,’ the professor replies. ‘There’s heat.’


‘And is there such a thing as cold?’


‘Yes, son, there’s cold too.’


‘No sir, there isn’t.’


The professor turns to face the student, obviously interested. The room suddenly becomes very quiet. The student begins to explain. ‘You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat, but we don’t have anything called ‘cold’. We c an hit up to 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold; otherwise we would be able to go colder than the lowest -458 degrees.’

‘Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-458 F) is the total absence of heat. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold.
Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.’

Silence across the room. A pen drops somewhere in the classroom, sounding like a hammer.


‘What about darkness, professor. Is there such a thing as darkness?’


‘Yes,’ the professor replies without hesitation. ‘What is night if it isn’t darkness?’

‘You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light, but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it’s called darkness, isn’t it? That’s the meaning we use to define the word.’

‘In reality, darkness isn’t. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?’

The professor begins to smile at the student in front of him. This will be a good semester. ‘So what point are you making, young man?’

‘Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with, and so your conclusion must also be flawed.’

The professor’s face cannot hide his surprise this time. ‘Flawed? Can you explain how?’

‘You are working on the premise of duality,’ the student explains. ‘You argue that there is life and then there’s death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can’t even explain a thought.’

‘It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the o pposite of life, just the absence of it.’

‘Now tell me, professor. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?’

‘If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do.’

‘Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?’

The professor begins to shake his head, still smiling, as he realizes where the argument is going. A very good semester, indeed.

‘Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinio n, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?’

The class is in uproar. The student remains silent until the commotion has subsided.

‘To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, let me give you an example of what I mean.’

The student looks around the room. ‘Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor’s brain?’ The class breaks out into laughter.

‘Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor’s brain, felt the professor’s brain, touched or smelt the professor’s brain? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all due respect, sir.’

‘So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?’

Now the room is silent. The professor just stares at the student, his face unreadable.

Finally, after what seems an eternity, the old man answers. ‘I guess you’ll have to take them on faith.’

‘Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life,’ the student continues. ‘Now, sir, is there such a thing as evil?’

Now uncertain, the professor responds, ‘Of course, there is. We see it everyday. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.’

To this the student replied, ‘Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.’

The professor sat down.

bookmark_borderLunatic “science” textbooks

Every now and then I’m reminded that there’s this strange parallel world of religiously driven “science” education. One example that recently came my way is the The Quest for Right series of texts, advertising itself as “the ultimate marriage between an in-depth knowledge of biblical phenomena and natural and physical sciences.”

Apparently, “physical science” opposes evolution. But what the texts mean by physical science is very different from, well, physics. They appear to oppose quantum mechanics, indeed almost all of modern physics. High weirdness.

This is just one example. Presumably a good number (how many?) of Christian and homeschooled kids in the United States get this sort of thing in the name of science education. It won’t directly affect scientific institutions—we only need small numbers of people eventually going into basic science, and religious distortions of science tend not to affect applied science as much. But I expect this sort of thing does not help the cultural position of science, in the end.

bookmark_borderSkeptical Approaches to Miracles – Part 2

I can think of at least four different skeptical approaches to miracle claims.

The Big Guns – AtheismAtheism eliminates biblical miracles, but it is difficult to persuade religious believers that there is no God. Also, God is just one of many supernatural persons who can allegedly override the laws of nature, so disproving the existence of God leaves open the door to “miracles” performed by angels, demons, spirits, witches, shaman, etc.

The Nuclear Option – Naturalism
This approach not only eliminates all of the religious beliefs associated with the activity of God (creation, miracles, revelation, salvation, and divine judgment), it eliminates a number of other religious and New Age beliefs as well (angels, souls, afterlife, etc.). However, there is an even greater psychological resistance to naturalism than to atheism, because it completely demolishes the world (i.e. the worldview) of the religious believer.

Sniper Fire – Scientific SkepticismOne big advantage of the scientific-skepticism approach is that it is fairly non-threatening to the psyche of a religious believer, in comparison with making a case for atheism or naturalism. Furthermore, scientific skepticism can, in some cases, be very powerful and persuasive. However, scientific skeptics pick off miracle claims one at a time, and there is an endless supply of miracle claims, so the scientific-skepticism approach can never completely resolve the question of whether miracles occur.

Tank Attack – Epistemological Objections to Miracles
There are philosophical objections to miracles that do not involve sweeping metaphysical claims like atheism or naturalism and that have broader implications concerning miracles than the approach of scientific skepticism. These philosophical objections usually focus on conceptual or epistemological problems surrounding our ability to know or to prove that a miracle has occurred.

I will concentrate on these sorts of objections to miracles, because they occupy a middle ground between the broad scope of atheism/naturalism on the one hand and the narrow scope of scientific skepticism on the other hand. These philosophical objections to miracles generally meet with less psychological resistance from believers compared to atheism/naturalism, and yet they carry a significant skeptical impact that can potentially eliminate belief in all miracles, or at least belief in all miracles attributed to God.

Future essays on this topic will provide an historical survey of philosophical and epistemological objections to miracles, starting with the writings of Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677), and continuing on to skeptical philosophers in the present day.

bookmark_borderTu Quoque Apologetics

I don’t think that philosophical defenders of theism could ply their trade without employing tu quoque arguments. The use of this device in defense of theistic doctrine goes back at least to Bishop Berkeley. When atheist astronomer Edmund Halley (famous for his comet) charged that the doctrines of Christianity are incomprehensible, Berkeley composed The Analyst which offered the tu quoque argument that the concept of the infinitesimal in Newton’s calculus is as obscure and contradictory as any mystery of Christian theology is said to be. Therefore mathematicians (like Halley) should remove the beams from their own eyes before presuming to admonish Christians about the motes in theirs. More recently, Alvin Plantinga’s whole argument in God and Other Minds is an extended tu quoque. Critics have long complained that there are no good arguments for theism. Plantinga responds with the tu quoque that there is no cogent argument for the existence of other minds, but that surely even the fiercest critics of theism believe that other people have minds. He examines the arguments for other minds and offers what he thinks are knock-down criticisms. His conclusion is that if there is no epistemic sin in believing, in the absence of adequate evidence or argument, that other people have minds, then, the same judgment should be made about theism, that is, that it is rational to believe in God even if that belief is not established by argument or evidence.

Tu quoque arguments definitely have their uses, and though elementary logic texts always stigmatize the tu quoque as a fallacy, I think that we should not proscribe its use entirely. The problem with using tu quoque in the defense of theism is that these arguments often have considerable rhetorical bark but little logical bite. A case in point is an argument given by Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan in their recent book The Agnostic Inquirer, a book that I reviewed last April for the on-line Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Menssen and Sullivan say that their book is aimed at unbelievers, the “agnostics” in their title, who honestly inquire about the possibility that there is a good God who has revealed himself to humanity. Much of their book addresses qualms that the “agnostics” are likely to have that could serve a stumbling blocks preventing them from seriously and fairly considering the possibility of divine revelation. One of these likely qualms is the objection that it is inconceivable that a disembodied entity, like God or a Cartesian soul, could causally interact with matter. Here is their argument and my response from the review:

An agnostic inquirer in Menssen and Sullivan’s sense is likely to be, at least, a methodological physicalist, that is, one who, as a matter of methodological or heuristic principle, requires that physical phenomena be explained exclusively in terms of hypotheses postulating physical entities, forces, or processes. One chief motivator of physicalism as a methodological or heuristic principle has been the longstanding and intractable difficulty of understanding how an immaterial entity, like God or a Cartesian mind, could cause a physical effect, e.g., by making a piece of matter move. Menssen and Sullivan admit that we have no idea how mind can move matter (p. 108), and they reply with a tu quoque: We have no idea how matter moves matter. Hence, they imply, it is unreasonable to reject supernatural causal explanations on the grounds that they are less informative than physical ones. With all forms of causality we are stuck where Hume left us, with nothing more than an account of consistent conjunction.

We should not be frightened by Hume’s ghost. Much of the success of science is due to the fact that it progressively acquires ever deeper and richer causal accounts of natural phenomena. We now possess many well-confirmed and copiously detailed explanations of how physical effects are brought about. Indeed, one of the major challenges facing a student in a field such as molecular biology is the sheer weight of detail that has to be mastered to comprehend how molecular processes accomplish their effects. Perhaps Menssen and Sullivan would reply that such accounts, however detailed, merely scratch the surface and do not tell us what is really, fundamentally going on when physical causation occurs. At the most basic level, they might claim, at the level of our theories of fundamental forces and their interactions, all we can say is that things do happen in a given way.

But the point is precisely that with many scientific causal accounts, there is a great wealth of explanatory detail before we reach causal bedrock. Even at the presumably rock-bottom level of quarks, electrons, and photons we have well-confirmed, mathematically precise theories, like quantum electrodynamics, that often make astonishingly accurate predictions. These theories do not just tell us that fundamental particles interact, but give us much information about the way that they do. With supernatural causal explanations, on the other hand, our inquiry simply hits a wall. An advocate of the Cartesian theory of mind can only say that mind does move things by a power which, as Menssen and Sullivan admit, is occult. This is Owen Flanagan’s point when he says that for the Cartesian the mind performs psychokinesis with every voluntary action (Flanagan, 2002, p. 58). Theistic explanations are no better. The evolutionary account of, say, the beginning of mammals is replete with factual and theoretical detail. The creationist story, by contrast, can hardly improve upon the author of the first chapter of Genesis: “God said ‘Let there be…,’ and it was so.” Clearly, compared to the richness of many scientific causal accounts, supernatural causal scenarios are extremely exiguous in content. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for methodological physicalists to demand naturalistic causal accounts.

bookmark_borderRumors about Bush converting to Catholicism

Apparently, there are rumors that George W. Bush might be thinking of converting to Catholicism.

Interesting. If true, I wonder if the attraction is to a kind of theocon authoritarianism that often shows itself in the Catholic hierarchy. If you want a tradition with a long history, intellectual depth (not incompatible with being basically bullshit), heavy-handed social conservatism, and strength of organization and numbers, conservative Catholicism might be the way to go, after all.

bookmark_borderFremouw article

Take a look at Ed Fremouw’s short article, “Science and Religion: A Personal Synthesis,” in The Compass, the online newsletter of The Jefferson Center.

When I search for a label to identify my spiritual perspective, my literal self suggests “scientific rationalist” or at least, without equivocation, “natural materialist.” With at least equal comfort, however, I choose the more frequently heard “religious humanist.”

bookmark_borderPurtill “Defining Miracles” – Part 3

Objections to Condition (5)

I have previously argued that the following condition in Richard Purtill’s definition of “miracle” should be rejected (see Purtill’s essay “Defining Miraclies” in Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997):

(5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (p.72)

This condition is based on an unappealing conception of God that draws from the Bible, but that does not fit with the assumption that God is a perfectly good person. It also makes the concept of a miracle too subjective, so that whether an event counts as a miracle depends on the specific beliefs and attitudes of the particular people who happen to observe the event.

Do Miracles Have Some Other Essential Purpose?

Is there some other purpose that is essential for an event to count as a miracle? We previously looked at one possible suggestion of an alternative requirement:

(5a) for the purpose of rescuing some person who is in danger, curing some person of an illness, or providing for a basic need of some person.

But this condition appears to be too restrictive, in that it excludes events in which God performs a supernatural feat in order to do something positive and beneficial for someone other than helping that person to escape from danger or illness, and other than providing for a basic need (e.g. food, shelter, and clothing).

Let’s try a revision of the above condition that includes a broader range of purposes:

(5b) for the purpose of helping or benefiting some person.

What about non-human animals? If we imperfect humans can care about the safety, health, and well-being of non-human animals (e.g. dolphins, monkeys, whales, horses, cats, dogs), then certainly a perfectly good person (like God) would also have some concern for the safety, health, and well-being of non-human animals.

So, if a starving puppy is scrounging through a trash bin in a grimy third-world country, God might have mercy on this creature and create a meal ex nihilo for the puppy, to ease the pain of hunger and to provide nutrition that would keep the puppy from starving to death. This would be a miracle, even though God would be helping a creature that was not a person.

I’ll try again:

(5c) for the purpose of helping or benefiting some sentient creature.

This still does not appear to allow a sufficiently broad range of purposes. Helping others is a good and admirable thing to do, but there is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits oneself or that satisfies a personal desire or a personal objective. It is only obsessive or excessive focus on one’s own needs, desires, and objectives that constitutes selfishness or cold heartedness.

Thus, God might intervene in history in a particular instance not to help or benefit some creature, but to benefit himself or to satisfy a personal objective. For example, God might intervene in history to increase the beauty or symmetry of something from his own point of view (as opposed to making something look more beautiful to human beings). So long as indulging in this expression of himself did not create negative consequences for humans and other sentient creatures, I see no reason to exclude such an event from being considered a miracle.

It might be difficult in practice to determine whether a specific event was caused by God for the purpose of increasing the beauty or symmetry of something from a divine point of view, but if one could get past the epistemic difficulties and arrive at a justified belief that this was the case, then the word “miracle” would properly apply.

One way to expand the scope of purposes further would be to focus on exclusion of certain specified purposes, and allow all other sorts of purposes in relation to events that can be classed as miracles:

(5d) for any purpose other than to hinder or harm some sentient creature.

This gets around the starving orphan example, the starving puppy example, the example of creating a horse as a gift for a young woman, and the example of supernatural intervention for satisfaction of God’s personal objectives. However, this still excludes too much.

Sometimes it is good to hinder or harm evil and dangerous people. A sniper on a SWAT team might intentionally put a bullet through the brain of a violent kidnapper in order to rescue innocent children from immanent danger. If one of my daughters were held captive by a violent criminal who was threatening to harm or kill her, and if a SWAT sniper ended the crisis with a clean shot through the skull of the criminal, I would thank and praise the sniper for his/her excellent work.

If God intervened in history to cause Hitler to spontaneously burst into flames, and if God had caused Hitler to die in this manner prior to the operation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and if God’s purpose in creating this supernatural event was to kill Hitler and to hinder him from implementing the “Final Solution”, then there would be no objection to calling this event a miracle. So, it is not hindering or harming that is objectionable, but doing so when this is not morally justified.

So, if we want to restrict the character of events to exclude some undesirable events from being considered miracles, moral justification appears to be a key concept:

(5e) unless it is morally wrong to produce that event.

To be continued…

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