bookmark_borderAmericans not more religious than Europeans?

There is some recent research that adds to the long-known fact that Americans inflate their religious participations in surveys. It appears that in terms of frequency of attending services, Americans are not such an outlier compared to other post-industrial nations after all. Shankar Vedantam suggests that this indicates that Americans are actually not significantly more religious than Europeans.

That, however, strikes me as relying too much on one type of research instrument as much as relying solely on survey-based methods. Religiosity is not a simple thing; it’s not even a single thing. In the overall (average and coarse-grained) picture, I think it remains safe to say that Americans remain noticeably more religious than western Europeans. I don’t expect sociology of religion texts to be rewritten, particularly since it’s been known for quite a while that Americans exaggerate their attendance at services.

bookmark_borderWhat God Cannot Do – Part 1

For the past couple of months I have been reading philosophers of religion, esp. Richard Swinburne, about divine attributes. According to most theists, omnipotence is a divine attribute, a property of God. There are some interesting problems and puzzles concerning omnipotence, a key problem being the paradox of the stone. Here is a summary of the problem by Swinburne:

The paradox arises when we ask whether God, allegedly an omnipotent being, can make a stone too heavy for himself to lift. If he cannot, the argument goes, then there is an action which God cannot perform, viz. make such a stone. If he can, then there will be a different action which he cannot perform, viz. lift the stone. Either way, the argument goes, there is an action which God cannot perform, and so…he is not omnipotent. What applies to God applies to any other being and so, the argument goes, it is not coherent to suppose that there be an omnipotent being. (The Coherence of Theism, revised edition, p.157)

I would have thought that medieval philosophers had exhausted discussion of this problem long ago, but a number of analytic philosophers have tackled the problem again in the twentieth century, including Mayo, Mavrodes and Plantinga.

It is interesting that Mayo, Mavrodes and Plantinga all make the same basic logical error in their analysis of the paradox of the stone, as Swinburne points out:

He [Mavrodes] argues that God is omnipotent, presumably by definition. But ‘on the assumption that God is omnipotent, the phrase “a stone too heavy for God to lift” becomes self contradictory’. …
But Mavrodes, like Mayo and Plantinga in their similar solutions, misses the point of the paradox. As Wade Savage pointed out, the point of the paradox is to show that the concept of omnipotence is incoherent. It is therefore begging the question to assume that a certain person, if he exists, has that property, whether by definition or not.
(COT, p.158)

This is an example, by the way, of progress in philosophical analysis on the question of the existence of God. The solution to the paradox of the stone that was presented by three different analytical philosophers has been shown to be no good, because it begs the question at issue. That doesn’t mean that we now have arrived at the correct and universally agreed upon analysis of ‘omnipotence’ and the paradox of the stone, but this is still real intellectual progress, and progress that took place in the twentieth century.

What interests me more than this bit of intellectual progress, however, are the moral implications of the idea of omnipotence, implications that Swinburne fails to recognize. In short, the divine attribute of omnipotence means that everything is easy and effortless for God, and this makes God (if God exists) a less admirable person, less worthy of worship than one might initially think.

To be continued…

bookmark_borderEvolution and its Rivals

Synthese has a special issue on “Evolution and its Rivals,” including papers by a number of people, particularly philosophers, involved in criticism of intelligent design creationism. I haven’t had a chance to read them all yet, what with just having finished a semester—I turned in final grades today. But I thought I should post, because access to the issue is free to the public until December 31. (Thanks to Glenn Branch.)

bookmark_borderExtraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

Note: This will be my last post until after the holidays. I look forward to responding to comments in a couple of weeks.

An online site called CARM—Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries—has posted an article titled “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.”
Victor Reppert’s Dangerous Idea blog linked with this site and a lively discussion followed. Since I have defended the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (I shall abbreviate this principle as ECREE), especially in my 1998 debate with William Lane Craig, I would like to add my comments on the piece.


The author (the essay is anonymous) recognizes that it is an uncontroversial principle of confirmation that a hypothesis that is initially very improbable will have to be supported with very strong evidence if it is to be made credible. Indeed, he recognizes that ECREE expresses a “healthy and normal skepticism” given the prevalence of humbug and con men. ECREE really is a corollary of what W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian call [epistemological] “conservatism” in their wonderful pocket guide to rationality, The Web of Belief. That is, in the absence of strong countervailing reasons, we should accept the hypothesis that requires the smallest sacrifice of our previously established beliefs. Quine and Ullian comment:
Conservatism is rather effortless on the whole, having inertia in its favor. But it is sound strategy too, since at each step it sacrifices as little as possible of the evidential support, whatever that may have been, that our overall system of beliefs has hitherto been enjoying (p. 67).
So, if acceptance of a hypothesis would require us to sacrifice some of our most deeply grounded prior beliefs, we will rightly demand extraordinary evidence for that hypothesis.
The CARM author recognizes that there will inevitably be a degree of subjectivity in deciding on how extraordinary a claim is. Different communities and individuals will have different sets of prior beliefs, and the degree of extraordinariness of a claim will vary depending upon which set of beliefs we are taking as our priors. Thus, theists hold that there is a God who is capable of performing miracles, and, further, might on various historical occasions have strong motivation to bring about such occurrences. Thus, a miracle report might not meet with an exceptional degree of skepticism from such a theist. However, atheists, with their naturalistic presuppositions, will—naturally and rightly—regard the report of a physically impossible event with very deep initial skepticism, and will therefore demand a great deal more evidence.
So far the CARM author has said nothing that any atheist need find objectionable. The author complains, however, that when he asks atheists to specify what would count as adequate extraordinary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, he generally gets “nothing sensible.” For instance, the atheist might say that a film of the event would be good evidence. However, our author objects:
Extraordinary evidence would be a film, but we know that this extraordinary evidence is not reasonable since there was no film in Jesus’ time. Therefore, can the requirement that extraordinary claims (Christ’s resurrection) require extraordinary evidence apply to Jesus’ resurrection? It would seem not. Since Jesus’ resurrection is alleged to be a historical event, then it seems logical that normal historical evidence and normal historical examination of that evidence would be all we could offer. The resurrection is supposed to be an event of history and since it claims historical validity, then typical criteria for examining historical claims should be applied.
However, there is nothing obviously unreasonable about the atheist’s demand for a film of the resurrection. The atheist’s claim may be precisely that the “normal historical evidence and normal historical examination of that evidence” are inadequate to support such a claim. That is, the resurrection of Jesus would be (for him) such an extraordinary event that the ordinary sorts of historical evidence—testimony, inference to the best explanation, etc.—would be insufficient. What would convince him, the atheist continues, would be if, contrary to fact, there had been and adequate video recording (and, presumably, proper assurances that the film was not faked). That in fact there were no such devices in Jesus’ time is not a problem for the atheist. The author’s insistence that only “normal historical evidence” may be demanded merely begs the question against the atheist. Unless the author has an argument that the atheist sets his priors for the resurrection unreasonably low—and no such argument is offered—there is no reason to object to the atheist’s rejection of “normal historical evidence” as sufficient to establish the resurrection of Jesus.
The CARM author next performs a resurrection of his own: He brings back that hoary apologetic chestnut that we do not doubt the reports of extraordinary events done by Napoleon or Alexander, so why, other than slipping in a double standard, would we not accept the historical evidence about Jesus:
We cannot, for example, prove that Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) ever lived by observing him. But, we have ancient writings from eyewitnesses concerning his existence. Skeptics readily believe in Alexander the Great without involving the scientific method and without requiring “extraordinary evidence” yet they will require it of Jesus’ existence.
Alexander did a very extraordinary thing. He conquered most of the known world. Why do atheists accept the testimony about Alexander’s extraordinary doings but not Jesus’? Our author concludes:
…people will not want what Christ said to be true and will sometimes desperately try to hold onto their presuppositions; hence, the claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
In other words, the real reason behind the atheists’ demand for extraordinary evidence is that they do not want the Christian story to be true, so they insulate their beliefs by setting the evidential bar unreasonably high. So, really, atheists are just being unreasonable. Hmmm. I must have misheard what Jesus said. He must have said this: “Love thy neighbor, unless thy neighbor disagreeth with you. Then shouldst thou call him names and cast aspersions on his character.”
Do atheists apply a double standard, believing stories about Napoleon and Alexander, while rejecting the same kind of evidence for Jesus? Of course not. First, the contemporary, eyewitness documentation of the careers and accomplishments of Napoleon and Alexander are vastly—vastly—greater than anything we have for Jesus. Napoleon and Alexander’s actions were on a massive scale and were known to millions and millions of people. They were the most famous people of their day. Their actions changed the political and social conditions of whole continents. How many first-person, eyewitness, contemporaneous accounts do we have of the career of Jesus? None. The Josephus passages are notorious forgeries. The Gospels are highly redacted, rewritten, multiply revised propaganda literature (they admit that they were written “so that you might believe”) written forty or more years after the events, and based on second or third hand oral testimony.
Second, what miracles do atheists accept relating to Napoleon and Alexander? They were certainly two amazing individuals that accomplished some extraordinary things. How did they do it? They were military geniuses who enjoyed the support of first-rate generals and who led superbly trained armies of the deadliest warriors of the day. There is no record that I am aware of, certainly none generally accepted by historians, that they called down angels to fight for them or parted the waters of oceans so that they could make a strategic retreat. In short, I, and all other atheists of my knowledge, do not accept that Napoleon and Alexander performed physically impossible, miraculous feats. The resurrection of Jesus is, paradigmatically, a physically impossible event, not just an extraordinary one. So, there is absolutely nothing objectionable about placing a higher burden of proof on those claiming the physical resurrection of Jesus than we place on ancient historians who claim that Alexander won the battle of Gaugamela. The CARM article therefore badly misfires in its criticism of atheists’ use of ECREE.

bookmark_borderIf Threatened, Call the Mounties

It is a real pleasure to be able via this medium to correspond with smart people in Britain, Australia, Greece, Finland, and all over. Though the exchanges sometimes get boisterous, they are usually thoughtful and informed. The downside is that you cannot completely exclude comments by the ignorant, the fatuous, the self-important, or the seriously deranged. In this latter category is Dennis Markuze of Montreal, Canada. He is an infamous troll of atheist and skeptical sites. He posts under a variety of guises, but his style is unmistakable. Generally, he just posts repetitive, incoherent drivel, but sometimes he makes explicit threats. This is a crime and should not be tolerated. If he threatens you, you should contact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Their contact information is as follows:


RCMP National Headquarters
Headquarters Building
1200 Vanier Parkway
Ottawa ON K1A 0R2

Phone: 613-993-7267

Fax: 613-993-0260


I used to live in Canada, and I will assure you that the Mounties do not put up with any bullshit.


bookmark_borderAnother Honor Killing

I ran across a Turkish news item that was in many respects not unusual: A newly wed couple murdered by the brother of the bride in order to restore the family honor.

Apparently the bride’s family strongly objected to the relationship, disapproving and trying to dissuade her. But this was not in a rural area but the center (not the slums) of a huge metropolis, and the bride asserted her independence. Finally, however, the older brother of the bride said that he was provoked and had no choice but to kill the couple, who had been married for only ten days.

So far, this reads like a routine honor killing. It’s urban rather than rural in character, and it’s after a marriage rather than some trivial unallowed-male-contact. And the man involved got killed as well as the woman. But Turkish news items like like this are depressingly common. Ordinarily I wouldn’t even read the details.

Here’s an unusual aspect: a major reason the wedding was contentious was that the bride and the groom belonged to different religions: Islam and Christianity. The bride’s family could not countenance the mixed marriage.

And here’s the kicker: the bride’s family are the Christians, not the Muslims. They belong to Assyrian Christianity, now a very small minority in Turkey. (One of my close high school friends is an Assyrian Christian; I’d be surprised if he doesn’t know some of the people involved.) The bride’s family had insisted that the groom convert to Christianity and that the wedding had to take place in a church. But even then they were reluctant. The couple had already tried to elope once, and the woman had returned home after threats that “only blood will cleanse this” (the offense to honor). But then, they got away again and got married in secret. They were hoping that after it was a done deal, the bride’s family would learn to live with the fait accompli.

Things didn’t work out that way.

bookmark_borderScientific proof of God! (Again!)

Here’s another example of a Muslim use of half-understood science to prove the existence of the soul and of God, published in something that is ostensibly a scientific journal. (Thanks to Glenn Branch.)

“Molecular genetic program (genome) contrasted against non-molecular invisible biosoftware in the light of the Quran and the Bible,” by Pallacken Abdul Wahid, claims that “The failure of experiments to produce life through purely chemical means or to restore life to a dead cell would in fact invalidate the molecular biological program (genome) concept. More importantly, the failure would confirm the Scriptural revelation of non-particulate nature of the divine biosoftware and the existence of God.”

Personally, I prefer the way we do things in the US. We have plenty of crank pseudoscience driveling about equivalents of the “divine biosoftware,” but we have found a way to concentrate most of this and confine it to creation-science publications. In the Islamic world, you can find this sort of dreck scattered all over the place, since it’s a lot more mainstream. Most inconvenient.

bookmark_borderOn public radio

If you’re interested in science and Islam, check out the latest in the “Science and the Search for Meaning” program by Wisconsin Public Radio, called “Can Islam and Science Coexist?”

It opens with a five minute interview with me, and goes on to talk to others, including an advocate of “Islamic science” and an Islamic creationist.

Hey, it’s not bad to get in a skeptical note in a Templeton-funded program.

bookmark_borderEaster Week: What Really Happened?

In comments on earlier posts Bradley Bowen offers some speculations about what really happened at the crucifixion. In his view, Jesus might have survived the crucifixion, and so was discovered alive on Easter morning, prompting stories of a resurrection.

As I have argued elsewhere (see my essay in The Empty Tomb), I do not think that we have enough information to establish ANY account about what really happened during “Easter Week.”
If I had to conjecture, I would imagine a scenario (and a scenario is all we can have) something like this:
After his crucifixion Jesus was not buried in an honorable tomb, but tossed into a common grave, a limed pit where criminals were dishonorably interred. The Joseph of Arimathea tales and the empty tomb stories are legendary accretions that grew up to cover Christians’ shame over the ignominious treatment of Jesus’ corpse. You can actually watch the Joseph of Arimathea legends grow as you read the Gospels. In Mark, Joseph is merely a good, pious, and respected member of the Sanhedrin. In Luke, he is depicted as actively dissenting from the Sanhedrin’s policy. In Matthew he is described as a disciple of Jesus, and in John he is a disciple, but a secret one “for fear of the Jews.” Further, as Gerd Ludemann notes, the burial itself is described in increasingly positive tones. Mark merely says that it was a rock tomb. Even better, John locates it in a garden. Matthew, Luke, and John describe the tomb as new, which would be a mark of distinction.
After Jesus’ arrest and execution, the disciples, never the most intrepid lot, anyway, went into hiding, perhaps even returning to Galilee. While thus sequestered, two or more disciples had hallucinations, visions, or perhaps just intense dreams of Jesus, and became convinced that he had risen from the dead. Hallucinations of the recently deceased are a quite common phenomenon, especially among those who have a strong sense of isolation, rejection, or depression. If two or more had such experiences, it would be easy for them to convince each other that they had encountered Jesus after his death. Returning to Jerusalem some time later, some of the disciples gathered with other followers of Jesus and hear a very strange story from Mary Magdalene about how she had found an empty tomb on Easter morning. Now Mary was a mentally unstable person (Jesus is said to have cast seven devils out of her), and it is not clear what she experienced. Nevertheless, her story would seem to corroborate the visionary or hallucinatory experiences of some of the disciples. Like sightings of Elvis, such stories and bizarre experiences feed off each other and snowball.
Also, consider that all sorts of crazy stories can grow up around historical events, even with people claiming to be eyewitnesses to things that provably did not occur. Consider the famous “Darwin legend.” Within a short time after Darwin’s death in 1882, stories began to spread that before his death he had repudiated evolution and accepted salvation through Christ. Sermons were preached on the topic and the story circulated in evangelical circles. In 1915 one Lady Hope published an account in which she claimed to have interviewed Darwin six months before his demise and said that he expressed regret for his theory of evolution and professed faith in Christ. The Darwin children, who were present throughout Darwin’s final illness and at his deathbed, consistently and vehemently repudiated Lady Hope’s story as a total fabrication, yet it continued to spread. I heard Jimmy Swaggert give a version of it in a sermon a year or two before his downfall.
Of course, we will never know what really happened. It was too long ago and the sources are just too exiguous and unreliable. Still, it is fun to speculate. When you consider the power of strange experiences and how convincing they are to the people who have them, and the various complex dynamics that make crazy stories grow and spread, you can at least get a general idea of how miracle claims get traction.

bookmark_borderIs Critique Secular?

I’ve just read Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood. Asad and Mahmood make some interesting observations, but the contributions by Brown and Butler consist largely of postmodern, Foucault-genuflecting pseudoradical posturing.

A couple of interesting points that stick with me after what was largely a waste of time:

  • Asad makes a good point that the standard liberal distinction between coercion and reasoned choice is not quite so clear. His example of something in between and ambiguous is seduction. “Thus in liberal democracies the individual as consumer and as voter is subjected to a variety of allurements through appeals to greed, vanity, envy, revenge, and so on. What in other circumstances may be identified and condemned as moral failings are here essential to the functioning of a particular kind of economy and polity.” (p. 31.) Secular liberals see no problem with seduction, ridicule and so forth, including in an antireligious context such as blasphemous cartoons. Others, for example many Muslims, deeply object not only to the insult but the attempted seduction away from the faith.
  • Saba Mahmood refers to a contradiction in liberal legal traditions others have also noticed: speech is supposed to be free and everyone is equal before the law, but the law is also concerned with maintaining public order. But public order must inevitably privilege the majority culture. So European courts, for example, much more readily penalize offenses against Christian sensibilities compared to blasphemy against Islam.
  • Judith Butler takes up the cause of Muslim immigrants offended by the Danish cartoons, suggesting that somehow the cartoons did violence to Muslims. But her moral indignation in favor of immigrant minorities touches very little on the specifics of Muslim communities or the actual political ideals of Muslim protestors. They stand in for some kind of generic innocence wronged by some equally generic liberal capitalism Butler is unhappy with—their overwhelming social conservatism and typically pro-capitalist attitudes vanishes out of sight.

I don’t know what I get out of all this, other than another confirmation that postmodern humanities-types are, in effect, apologists for cultural conservatism, as long as it’s somebody else’s culture.