The Case for a Creator: The Radical Fringe

The Case for a Creator, Closing Thoughts

It’s been said that one of science’s greatest virtues is that it’s not dictated by a tyranny of the majority or guided by irrational human whims. After all, science is the search for the true nature of reality, and reality isn’t decided by our preferences. No matter how many people prefer an experiment to turn out one way, it may in fact turn out another, and the scientific community will just have to accept that result. There’s certainly much truth to this.

But of course, in another sense, scientific debates are settled by majority vote, because science is done by humans, and how else can a community of humans conduct business other than by consensus? When the evidence is unclear or lacking, we have no choice but to rely on the judgment of experts. The theory that wins the majority’s support, by definition, will attract the most research, the most funding, and the most talent.

There’s truth in both these views, but the reality is that they usually converge. Science works – it discovers verifiable truth about the world – and the implication is that, in any given dispute, the theory which attracts the most support from the majority of practicing, credentialed scientists is more likely than its competitors to be true. This is even more true of ideas that have survived decades of rigorous experimental tests. I don’t know of a single case where a scientific theory that reigned for so long was utterly falsified and overthrown. Far more often, we just discover that although the old theory holds true in most cases, there are special circumstances where it doesn’t; and it then becomes an approximation of its more precise successor.

The reason for this whole digression is that, in The Case for a Creator‘s appendix, Strobel offers a summary of his apologetics work in The Case for Christ. He summarizes one chapter as follows:

“Gregory Boyd… offered a devastating critique of the Jesus Seminar, a group that questions whether Jesus aid or did most of what’s attributed to him. He identified the Seminar as ‘an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking.’” [p.295]

This is extremely perilous ground for Strobel to tread on. If some group’s belonging to the “radical fringe” is a reason to reject their ideas, doesn’t that apply all the more to the ideas presented in this book?

After all, the theory of evolution has the support of the overwhelming majority of the scientific community: state, national, and international scientific societies and academies; the biology faculties of dozens of accredited colleges and universities; and, of course, over a thousand scientists named Steve. By contrast, the intelligent-design movement is sorely lacking in intellectual firepower. As I’ve pointed out, the intellectual well of creationism is so shallow that Strobel was forced to pad out a ten-chapter book with theologians, philosophers and professional Christian debaters, and even then, he had to interview one of his subjects twice!

This lack of depth speaks to the true nature of the creationist movement: not a robust academic community doing real scientific research, but a small number of pundits, lawyers and religious evangelists underwritten by right-wing Christian groups for ideological and propaganda reasons. The difference between them is the difference between an ocean and a puddle. Given Strobel’s dismissive description of the Jesus Seminar, wouldn’t it also be appropriate to identify the Discovery Institute as “an extremely small number of radical-fringe creationists, most of whom are on the far, far right wing of religious thinking, and – to top it off – most of whom lack credentials in any scientific field related to evolution”? (This is in contrast to the the Jesus Seminar, whose members, no matter how bitterly Strobel denigrates them, have legitimate credentials in textual criticism, ancient languages, and biblical studies.) Strobel relies on the argument from authority when it’s convenient, but disregards it when it’s not convenient.

Granted, a Christian apologist might think to make this argument cut both ways – how can we atheists reject the Bible when so many prominent biblical scholars believe it’s true? – but there are obstacles to doing so.

First of all, many of the theologians who express belief in biblical historicity and inerrancy work not for secular universities where the expression of diverse views is protected by tenure, but by religious schools and seminaries which force their members to affirm a statement of faith and cast out those who express unorthodox thoughts. This artificial barrier, which has no equivalent in the scientific community, makes it much more difficult for anyone who dissents in any significant way to express an opinion. (That said, there’s a lot more diversity of opinion in the biblical studies community than most lay believers realize, and there’s certainly no widespread agreement on the tenets of fundamentalism. The Jesus Seminar is just the most visible expression of methods and conclusions that have been established in the field for decades.)

Second, even disregarding the dogma and doctrinal vows, the mission of a religious college is fundamentally different. Science rewards people whose discoveries bring us closer to the truth of the world, even if those discoveries overturn established wisdom. But the purpose of religious groups is to maintain continuity – to defend orthodoxy, defend the creed, defend the beliefs that have always been held. There’s no reward for those who challenge conventional wisdom. In religion, unlike in science, you can build a career on nothing but reiterating the thoughts of your predecessors. The absence of any method of self-correction means that in religion, unlike in science, we’d be well advised to listen to the so-called radical fringe. They’re most likely to be the people who are on to something.

Other posts in this series:

Prayer Can’t Fight Ebola
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Tacroy

    Second, even disregarding the dogma and doctrinal vows, the mission of a religious college is fundamentally different. Science rewards people whose discoveries bring us closer to the truth of the world, even if those discoveries overturn established wisdom. But the purpose of religious groups is to maintain continuity – to defend orthodoxy, defend the creed, defend the beliefs that have always been held.

    I would argue, in fact, that the fundamental nature of science is that the statements that come from it are verifiable. Religious statements are unverifiable; that’s why religions splinter into sects. When a priest makes inflammatory religious statements, there is literally no way of verifying what he says. On the other hand, if a scientist makes inflammatory scientific statements, it is expected that other scientists make sure they’re not just making stuff up.

  • bbk

    Ebon, I have never seen anyone so thoroughly dispel a volume of Christian apologetics from start to end. There are about 45 posts on a 10 chapter book, every one of which is rich with references, examples, and vivid analogies. If it were me, I would just throw the book away after the first few pages and forget I ever started reading such rubbish. I did read most of the way through Case for Christ, but it was so boring! So now that you’ve eviscerated Strobel, what are you going to do next?

  • Kennypo65

    Religious college, a waste of money,resources and time(You won’t get those four years back). For what? to perpetuate mythology? You certainly aren’t going to learn anything useful, like biology or physics. However, you will learn to be more dogmatic and judgemental.

  • D

    Your preamble is excellent! So many fail to grasp that both modes of operation apply, instead insisting that one or the other is entirely the case for all the time always. The system is flawed and built upon compromises, but it works reasonably well and it’s continuously improving itself (though we still sometimes get fooled). Complaining that civilization’s running on agreement somehow taints the purity of the scientific enterprise strikes me as rather like complaining that building an arch requires an unsightly scaffold.

    That said, Ebon, you clearly don’t understand that when right-wingers talk about the lunatic fringe, it always means “people with whom we disagree”. Over there, on the far right, that’s not the fringe! That’s just right, and the farther you get from right, the wronger you are. Duh. And all those scientists, with their “peer review” and their “consensus”, they’re all clearly conspiring against the truth and only able to do so because they use all the people in the middle. Those beleaguered few have the One Truth of the Universe, and everybody else is just bat-shit crazy for placing their trust in one big-ol’ institution (i.e. every competent biologist in the last century and a half) but not another big-ol’ institution (i.e. the church). Because everybody knows that all forms of trust are equally well-founded, and all big-ol’ institutions are equally reputable. Tru Fax.

  • TommyP

    Ebon, you ought to consider an Annotated version of The Case For A Creator… I’d buy it. You could market it in many genres. Science, current events, religion, and thanks to the effective take-down, humor. I have laughed so often simply due to the joy of a brilliant argument against the unwitting faithful. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s gotten a good laugh out of this series. I’d pay good money to get this in book form.

  • Nathaniel

    Second on the annotated version idea.

    I’ve long suspected that for many Christians such as Strobel, the fact that Science doesn’t operate by authority is a bug, not a feature. The largest and most powerful churches have always been strictly hierarchical, and it seems hard for the people involved to imagine cultural institutions operating any other way.

  • Kennypo65

    I must apologize, but whenever I think of hierarchy, I think of the monkeys that shake their dicks at their subordinates to show their dominance. In fact, whenever someone tries to use argument from authority, I picture in my mind a monkey shaking his dick at me, that includes when a cop pulls me over.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Where the hell are you driving, Kenny?

  • Zietlos

    Thump: Apparently, in a maniacal magic madcap monkey mayhem motocross mansion.

    On Annotations: I have read a few books that have done the “back and forth” style of one side presenting what may seem to be evidence, the other tearing it apart (one book on ghosts did it, it was a really good read, a shame I can’t remember the name). And unlike a book with (dare I say) a purpose, this one alternated the evidence and the destroying, so by the end of the book, you don’t really have an opinion, because you’re convinced both sides are idiots, but you know a bit more about both sides.

    As aforementioned, shame I can’t remember the name… But oh well. It is good to get both sides of a story, something that Strobel does not really attempt to do (despite his supposed “hard headed”… Hard nosed? No, definitely hard headed… reporting). Of course, Ebon is doing a great job breaking down the arguments, but I’d love to read a book that is written in itself with both sides, not needing to go to another area to get the other side. Like, mix Strobel’s “Cases for” with a few of, I dunno, Dawkins’ works, kind of thing, and co-author an essay series/book like that. Probably good money in it for both of them, and it would probably be more entertaining analyzing the argument and counter-argument form, like a debate, but with an editor and more fact-checking and quote-mining.

    Hey, it would sell. Of course, if one side seemed too convincing, the church would probably ban it. :p

  • Brock Wyant

    You know… Most folks used to think the world was flat too.

    And with that, I think your argument is as good as dead. Have a nice day though.