bookmark_borderScience is not democratic

Republican candidate Rick Perry is being compared to George W. Bush, our most recent president from Texas. Here is one place the comparison breaks down. Perry is not campaigning to be the “Education President,” as Bush did. Whatever its merits, Bush was president when the “No child left behind” act became law. Based on Perry’s recent comments, it looks like he is more interested in leaving every child behind.

When a little boy in New Hampshire was prompted by his mother to ask Perry about evolution, Perry replied that it’s just a theory with gaps, and added, “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” Perry, who likes to tell us the importance of following the Constitution, should know that it’s constitutional to teach creationism in a mythology class but not in a science class.

Apparently, Perry’s theory of science teaching is to tell children they are smart enough to figure out what is right and what is made up. Here are other scientific questions to ask small children: When you walk around, does the earth look flat or round? When you look at the sun in the morning and evening, does it look like the sun is moving around the earth or that the earth is moving around the sun at approximately 67,000 mph? Never mind the scientific consensus, you’re smart enough to just know.

Governor Perry is correct in saying that evolution is controversial. But the “controversy” is religious and political, not scientific. Perry and other anti-evolutionists should be asked questions like:

(1) How do scientists describe the theory of evolution by natural selection?

(2) How do scientists distinguish a hypothesis from a theory?

(3) As a scientific theory, how is creationism falsifiable?

An educated person should understand the rudiments of the scientific method. Creationism should no more be taught as an alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection than should the “stork theory” be taught as an alternative to reproduction. Creationism is an alternative to Zeus or Krishna, not to Darwin.

Only 38% of Americans say they believe in evolution, and far too many politicians are either among the other 62% or pander to them. This, to me, is evidence that democracy works best when we have an informed electorate. I agree with Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” However, science is not and should not become democratic. If 100 million people believe a wrong thing, it is still a wrong thing.

I’m even uncomfortable with the way the poll question was phrased. Evolution is not a belief; it is confirmed through scientific investigation. We don’t take polls asking people if they “believe” in gravity, though the theory of evolution is better understood by scientists than is the theory of gravity.

Some religions may feel threatened by evolution not only because it flatly contradicts a biblical worldview, but also because we now understand that the first creatures who can be called human inherited their DNA from creatures who could not be called human. The first mammals got their DNA from their reptilian ancestors. And so it goes back to the first single-celled organism. I leave it for religious people to decide where a “soul” enters this picture (and whether they want to believe in DNA).

Adults are free to make decisions for themselves, but I’m disturbed by what is happening in our educational system today. Given how the influential Religious Right opposes the teaching of evolution, or any scientific and social view that conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are becoming one nation undereducated.

bookmark_borderThe Meaning of ‘miracle’ – Part 3

Swinburne’s description of Aquinas’ concept of a ‘miracle’:

Aquinas wrote that a ‘miracle’ in a wide sense is any event brought about by a rational agent in virtue of powers greater than normal human powers; and so many events brought about by demons or angels would count as miracles. But in a strict sense, he claims, a miracle is that which occurs outside the whole system of created nature; it is that which no other agent except God has the power to bring about. See Summa Theologiae, Ia.114. (Existence of God, 2nd ed., from footnote on p.282)

3. ‘occurs outside the whole system of created nature’

This is a neccessary condition of the ‘strict sense’ of the word ‘miracle’.

The words describing this condition are unclear, even misleading. Any event involving physical objects or human beings would seem to occur inside the ‘system of created nature’ (assuming that nature was created by someone), so taking this description literally would result in ruling out just about every alleged miracle in the Bible.

The parting of the Red Sea involved the movement of physical water (if the event really happened), and that water was part of the ‘system of created nature’ (assuming that nature was created by someone), so that would be ruled out as not being a miracle. Jesus’ walking on water or turning water into wine also involved changes to physical water, which is part of the ‘system of created nature’, so those events would also be ruled out as not being miracles, it would seem.

The phrase ‘created nature’ is intended to point to a distinction between created things and God, who has always existed and who is not a created being. By limiting the scope of ‘miracle’ to events outside of ‘the whole system of created nature’, Aquinas is trying to exclude events caused by spirits other than God (e.g. by angels and demons).

On the Christian worldview there are supernatural beings who were created by God (e.g. angels and demons) and given certain supernatural powers by God. If such a being intervenes in the natural world (e.g. a demon possesses the body of some human being, or an angel causes a car to veer to the right to avoid a collision), that is a ‘supernatural’ event caused by a ‘supernatural’ being, but it is also an event caused by a creature with a created nature who is simply performing actions that God gave it the power to perform.

The nature of an angel (or a demon) allows it to do things that may contravene some laws of physics, but that is, in a sense, only natural for an angel (or demon), because God created angels and demons to have such power over (at least some) laws of physics. So, the possession of a human by a demonic spirit or the veering of a car caused by an angel can be viewed as events that occur inside ‘the whole system of created nature’ even though this would be a supernatural event in the sense that it involves the suspension or violation of a law of physics. The ‘whole system’ thus includes supernatural (i.e. bodiless, non-physical) beings and their powers and activities.

Only God and his actions, are outside of the ‘whole system of created nature’. But if God intervenes in ordinary physical events (e.g. the flow and position of water in the Red Sea), then God and his actions may be outside of the ‘whole system of created nature’ but the effects of this activity are still in and upon objects and events inside the ‘whole system of created nature’. (This seems analogous to the mind/body problems of dualism.)

Can we re-state the condition in a clearer way that avoids the confusion that I have pointed out? The point seems to be to isolate certain events that are such that “no other agent except God has the power to bring about”. But no such events exist, because God can grant to whomever he wishes whatever power he wishes to grant that person. If God wants to give Moses the power to part the Red Sea, then God can give that power to Moses, even though this is not a normal power for human beings to possess. So, I don’t see how this strategy can possibly work.

It seems much simpler to just add the condition that it must be God who brings about the event. This would straightforwardly eliminate events brought about by angels and demons from the scope of the word ‘miracle’.

bookmark_borderRest is a human need

At ten-years-old, while still an Orthodox Jew, I wondered why an all-powerful God had to take a day off each week to rest. I also worried about what bad things might happen to us if such a controlling God should fall asleep at the wheel of the universe. As an atheist, I now appreciate the sentiment of a perceptive biblical writer more than I did when I believed rest was a commandment from God.

Occasionally the Bible gets it right, and this is one of those occasions. Regardless of theological views, I think we all appreciate the message that humans, including presidents, should periodically take time off from their usual routines to refresh and rejuvenate. I came to this position relatively late in life. I was a workaholic who would normally get by on at most five hours of sleep per night. I felt there would be plenty of time to “sleep” when I was dead, just as I “slept” for billions of years before I was born. I knew I had one life to live, and I wanted to make the most of it.

My views began to change not after consulting holy books but by training to run marathons. I learned from experience that I could do better by alternating hard and easy days and by taking a day off each week. More is not always better. There is now considerable evidence that the ideal amount of sleep for most of us is between 6.5 and 7.5 hours per night. (,8599,1812420,00.html) I now try to get as much as 6.5, along with daily relaxation breaks.

But even when religions get it right, they get it wrong. When I was taught to rest on the Sabbath (meaning Saturday not Sunday, because I was Jewish, not Christian), I also learned what “rest” meant. My religious community said we couldn’t turn on the light (defined as “work”) to start the synagogue service, but we could ask a Shabbas Goy (Gentile) to do it for us. For the same reason, we couldn’t push an elevator button, but we could ride on an elevator that had been programmed to stop at every floor. On the other hand, we couldn’t rest in a moving car or airplane because that, too, is “work.”

As a youngster, I was fascinated by Talmudic arguments about what constitutes work. I learned that it was work to carry a handkerchief in my pocket, but I could pin one on my pocket and wear it as apparel. Perhaps these kinds of arguments help explain why so many Jews grow up to be lawyers (or atheists).

While religions are free to make rules for their adherents, my concern is when religions make rules for those outside the faith. Many communities still have “blue laws,” designed to enforce religious standards for all. This includes forcing merchants to close on Sunday and prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday. How God went from resting on Saturday to becoming a teetotaler on Sunday requires considerably more faith than I have.

In any case, we don’t need religion to give us permission or a reason to enjoy life to its fullest, and that includes taking a nap in a hammock on a warm summer day, or a week at the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. Mother Nature lets us know when we need a break, and it’s best not to mess with Mom.

bookmark_borderLaws of Supernature

On his Dangerous Idea blog Victor Reppert reprints an old exchange between us (we have been going at it for over 35 years now):

An Old Exchange between Keith Parsons and myself over theistic explanations

This is one that appears in my paper on Hume on Miracles, Frequencies and Prior Probabilities.


Science is unavoidably naturalistic, or atheistic if you prefer. Science operates in terms of scrutable, independently testable entities that operate in accordance with knowable regularities. Supernatural beings, on the other hand, are essentially mysterious; claims made on their behalf are not independently checkable, and there are no “laws of supernature” governing their behavior. Furthermore, “explanations” in terms of supernatural entities are inevitably post hoc and untestable. In other words, proponents of supernaturalistic theories can glibly account for things we already know, but become strangely silent when asked to predict something new, something that would allow their theory to be tested.[18]


Even though the locus of discussions of miracles is historical rather than scientific, if it is the case that supernaturalist hypotheses are inevitably untestable, this would mean that supernaturalist claims cannot be genuinely supported by evidence. But some points can be made in response to this position. First of all, I see no in principle impossibility in “laws of supernature.” One cannot, of course, generate deterministic laws governing divine conduct, but one cannot generate such laws concerning the behavior of subatomic particles, either. One can, of course, form probabilistic expectations concerning the conduct of subatomic particles, but, as we have noted, one can generate probabilistic expectations concerning divine conduct as well. It would disconfirm belief in the Christian God if Jim Bakker were to die and rise again on the third day, ascending into heaven a few weeks later. The “laws” of supernature that Christians or other theists are inclined to postulate may not be as detailed as the laws scientists hope to discover in nature, but they leave theistic claims open to confirmation and disconfirmation.

[18] Keith Parsons, “Is there a Case for Christian Theism?” in J. P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist: The Great Debate (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990) p. 189.

I basically agree with what I wrote twenty one years ago, but I think I should clarify and expand some things. I think that hypotheses postulating powerful supernatural entities are in principle testable. A template for such a test is found in I Kings Chapter 18 where you have the famous experimentum crucis between Elijah and the priests of Baal. You recall: Elijah makes a sacrifice for Yahweh and the priests make one for Baal. The priests call all day for Baal to send fire and burn the sacrifice, to no avail. Then Elijah steps up and calls upon The Lord, and fire falls from heaven to consume the sacrifice. Elijah then leads the people in a massacre of the priests of Baal (hey, every good OT story has to have at least one massacre).

Now, of course there would be many intractable practical problems with setting up such a test. For instance, you would probably need to bring in James Randi to make sure that no trickery was involved. However, I see no reason why, in principle, such a test could not be done nor why a supernatural hypothesis could not be confirmed in this manner. The “inevitability” I mention in the above quote I would now take as referring not to the in-principle impossibility of such a test, but to the predictable refusal of religious apologists to submit their hypotheses to such testing. We could have a test like in I Kings now live on TV and broadcast worldwide. Fire falling from the sky would pretty much shut up pesky atheists like me (if, again, I could be sure that it was the real deal and not that somebody had dropped napalm). Why, then, instead of resorting to recondite philosophical arguments, do religious apologists not avail themselves of the obviously superior choice of performing a public experiment? Nullius in verba! Do the experiment! Give atheist smartasses their comeuppance! (No massacres, OK?)

Well, of course, no modern day apologist, however brash and confident his claims, will conduct such an experiment. He will probably decline mumbling something about how you should not put The Lord to the test. No such scruples bothered Elijah, and I hope that it is not too cynical to assert that were they confident of the sorts of results Elijah got, today’s theists could set aside their qualms also. Why don’t they have such confidence? This gets back to what I said about “laws of supernature.” The biggest practical problem facing a latter-day, would-be conductor of an Elijah-type demonstration is that there do not seem to be any detectable regularities governing miracle events that would provide a basis for predicting experimental results. God will send fire from heaven when and only when he damn well pleases, and when he will please seems completely unpredictable. No detectable laws appear to govern the performance of miracles. Technically, we know of no true nomological conditionals of the form “If a condition of type C were to obtain, then God would perform a token of miracle-type M.” Of course, God could tell us when to expect a miracle, but that does not seem to happen either.

Now Victor thinks that there might nevertheless be knowable (non-deterministic) laws of supernature that permit the confirmation or disconfirmation of theism. Unfortunately, the example he gives is completely unhelpful. I cannot at all see how Jim Bakker rising from the dead and ascending into heaven would disconfirm Christianity. Rather than quibble, though, I can just say “Ok, then, put up or shut up!” Less truculently: If there are laws of supernature that could support something like a scientific experiment, then name the laws and provide at least a sketch of the experimental design. Let’s do it! Enough of the endless logic chopping; let’s do the experiment.

Of course, as he indicates, Victor will reply that he did not mean that there were discoverable laws of supernature of sufficient detail and specificity to provide the basis for an actual experiment. We cannot say when and where God will perform his next miracle (e.g., the Houston Astros winning next year’s World Series). We can only make much vaguer predictions, maybe like this: Any world that God creates will have sentient creatures to be in communion with God. Obviously, there is no way to test such a “prediction” scientifically, but it could be (and is) used as the basis of a philosophical argument for theism. Philosophers can argue out whether the existence of sentient creatures in this world confirms the existence of God.

However, such a reply concedes my original point in the passage quoted, which concerned science, not philosophy. My argument was that trying to support theism with science is dicey, in part, because theistic hypotheses just do not seem amenable (in practice if not in principle) to confirmation or disconfirmation with the sorts of experiments and tests regularly employed in the natural sciences. As far as I can tell, Victor here has said nothing to challenge that claim.

bookmark_borderHuman solutions for human problems

Prayer, at best, can be an effective placebo. It helps believers feel they are doing something positive, and prayers might even “cure” some psychosomatic disorders.

Now let’s look at the prayers of politicians. Several presidential candidates asked God whether they should run, and God said “yes.” Funny how God’s plan always seems to be the same as that of the politician who asks for guidance. God even told Tim Scott, my congressman, that he should oppose the Boehner Bill to raise the debt ceiling. ( Who would have thought that the infallible ruler of the universe would be such a micro-manager?

When the Rev. Bailey Smith was head of the Southern Baptist Convention, he said, “God does not hear the prayers of a Jew.” ( As an atheist, I agree with the reverend. It would also appear that God does not hear the prayers of Texas Governor Rick Perry. After Perry officially declared three days of prayer for rain in the state of Texas, (, the drought continued. That didn’t deter Perry from trying to do for the nation what he tried to do for his state. Throw up his hands (literally) and ask God to solve the nation’s problems.

A more effective way to solve problems would be to seek guidance from another book with talking animals, Aesop’s Fables. In one fable, the wheels of a wagon get stuck in the mud and the driver gets on his knees to pray. Hercules appears to him and says, “Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel. The gods help them that help themselves.” ( Ben Franklin also made this statement a number of centuries later, but with a singular God. In other words, only humans can solve human problems.

If Governor Perry should become President Perry (which might happen if God tells him to run), perhaps he will recommend as the next justice for the Supreme Court someone from the legal team of the American Family Association, sponsor of the national prayer event. This “pro-family” Christian group claims that only Christians have freedom of religion. ( It’s bad enough when constitutionally-ignorant politicians go around spouting, “We have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” The natural next step might be, “We have freedom of Christianity, not freedom from Christianity.” Welcome to the Dark Ages.

Our secular government must be governed by secular principles. Our political leaders work best when they examine relevant evidence and look for the best available solutions to a problem. Politics is the art of negotiation and compromise, while religious fundamentalism espouses an uncompromising and absolutist worldview. There is lots of blame to go around for the current fiscal crisis that put our wheels in the mud, but neither prayers nor uncompromising principles will get us out. Humans need to find solutions.

bookmark_borderThe Day of Prayin’ and Eatin’

Our Governor Goodhair held his fundamentalist pep rally in Houston Saturday. Though only 8000 had registered for the event about 30,000 attended as megachurches—like John Hagee’s in San Antonio—bused in the faithful. Except for a few mentions of abortion, the speakers kept it strictly apolitical, scrupulously avoiding the wedge issues that have inflamed the culture wars. Good to know the event had nothing to do with politics. It wasn’t an even with a likely presidential candidate currying favor with fundamentalist voters or anything like that. Good to know.

Perry’s Prayerapalooza, officially known as “The Response,” was billed as “a day of prayer and fasting.” It turns out that my skepticism about that last bit was justified. According to The Houston Chronicle lines at the concession stands were long and the worshipers piously scarfed mass quantities of loaves and fishes—make that peanuts, hot dogs, and nachos. The governor enjoyed a dinner with the event’s organizers that evening.

While it was 100 degrees outside Reliant Stadium, where about 100 protestors braved the steam, attendees of The Response were maintained in crisp, alpine comfort by the stadium’s 12,000 tons of air conditioners. In the shadow of Reliant, however, are neighborhoods where the poor and elderly were sweating it out in the hottest summer in Houston history with no AC because they cannot afford their power bills. This was not supposed to happen. When the electric companies were deregulated a few years back, a $1 charge was attached to everyone’s power bill to provide for a fund directed towards the alleviation of onerous charges that would fall on the poor and elderly. What happened to that money?

Well, it turns out that the Texas State Legislature has let nearly all of that money just sit and accrue interest while paying out only a small portion to help the poor and elderly afford electricity. Why? Because that money sitting there and drawing interest adds to the state’s bottom line so that legislators can appease Grover Norquist types by saying that they have maintained financial solvency without raising taxes on the rich or corporations. Neat trick, huh? And the beauty of it is that all you have to do establish your bona fides as a budget hawk is to boil alive some people who are too powerless to fight back! (If you think my “boil alive” remark is over the top, you try spending a summer in Houston in a cramped house with no AC).

Now if Jesus was anything at all like the portrayal in the Gospels, it seems clear to me that he would much rather that Gov. Perry be out fighting to get relief to the overheated instead of making a very public display of his piety. Further, if the orthodox Christian notion of the afterlife is anywhere close to right, hypocrites who garner political favor while making the helpless suffer are headed for a place even warmer that Houston in August.

bookmark_borderIn Defense of the Prayerapalloza

Since I believe in fair and balanced blogging (ahem), and since I have been very critical of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s fundamentalist pep rally to be held at Houston’s Reliant Stadium tomorrow, I am reprinting here a letter to the editor of The Houston Chronicle defending the event:

Satan deceives

I was totally disgusted by the article “Perry day at Reliant: Piety and politics?” (Page A1, Sunday). The article criticized Gov. Rick Perry for calling a prayer meeting for our nation that will be attended by fundamental Christians. It stated that “Houston’s most prominent ministers” oppose the prayer meeting. It should have stated that Houston’s least prominent ministers oppose the rally. Houston’s most prominent ministers, among them Joel Osteen and Ed Young, are supporting the prayer meeting. If you look up the ministers who are opposing the prayer meeting, you will find that they are pastors of alternative types of churches.

Then you have to ask yourself the question, who would oppose a prayer meeting for our nation? The answer of course is Satan and those who are deceived by him, including atheists, gay pastors, the Democratic Party and the Houston Chronicle. If they were having a big homosexual rights rally or a Muslim prayer meeting at Reliant, I bet the Houston Chronicle would not be attacking it.

The article said the American Family Association opposes gay rights and evolution. Evolution is a myth that was believed before modern science discovered DNA and the complex design of the human cell and the solar system. Recent scientific discoveries prove that the universe and life have a complex design and if there is a design, there has to be a designer. Nothing happens by chance, including life and a complex universe. The one good thing about the article is that it clearly shows that the Houston Chronicle is opposed to fundamental Christians practicing their faith and expressing their beliefs in public.

Bob Hankins, West Columbia

Wow. I am tempted to say that it takes genius to pack that much stupidity into one little letter. The “prominent” ministers he mentions are Joel Osteen and Ed Young. Osteen is the Pastor of the Lakewood Church which has Sunday services for 20,000 in, as I recall, a former basketball arena. Osteen is a proponent of the feel-good “power of positive thinking” version of Christianity. Ed Young is the pastor of the even larger Second Baptist Church, which is so bloated that it has five “campuses,” i.e., five different sanctuaries in various places around town. Pastor Young advertises heavily on local TV, and his ads prominently feature Ed Young and only Ed Young. Clearly, the guy has an ego the Smithsonian could not hold. His commercials should say “The Ed Young show, brought to you by Jesus.”

Mr. Hankins dismisses the pastoral critics of Perry as pastors of “alternative type churches.” Like Methodists? Let’s see: Methodism is an “alternative” form of Christianity while Osteen’s Feelgoodism and Ed Young’s Cult of Ed are not?

Mr. Hankins next informs us that the only opponents of the Day of Prayer event are minions of Satan including “atheists, gay pastors, the Democratic Party and the Houston Chronicle.” Now, atheists, gays, Democrats, and newspaper editors are all clearly bound for hay-ull, but the Anti-Defamation League has also come out strongly against the event also. I guess they are in the clutches of Satan too.

Mr. Hankins bets (hmmmm. Should a good Christian be betting?) that the Chronicle would not object if there were a big Muslim prayer meeting at Reliant Stadium. Well, gee, of course not if it were not initiated and promoted by a prominent, ambitious politician for obviously self-promoting purposes. If a prominent politician had staged a Muslim prayer event, Mr. Hankins and his ilk would be frothing and howling like mad dogs.

And, folks, you heard it here first: The discovery of DNA disproves evolution! Poor Charles Darwin had no idea that life was complex and that is why he came up with that silly theory.

The upshot, Mr. Hankins concludes, is that the Chronicle (damn them lib-rul fish wrappers!) is opposed to fundamental Christians practicing their beliefs. But every Sunday hundreds of thousands of “fundamental” Christians practice their faith in the Houston area, without a word of criticism from the Chronicle. As for making a public display of piety; the Chronicle does not need to criticize that. Jesus already did.