Prometheus’ Sin

There is a sample chapter from P. Z. Myers’ book The Happy Atheist on the Random House website. The chapter’s title is “Prometheus’ Sin,” and it opens with these words:

Why are science and religion in conflict? Because changing ideas and new knowledge are sacrilegious.

The the dichotomy that is Myers’ premise, as it is explored in the chapter, is dubious.

Martin Luther is allowed to be a spokesperson for religion, supposedly opposed to new ideas and knowledge. But why is Copernicus not also allowed to be a spokesperson for religion? He was every bit as devoutly religious as Luther was.

Columbus was also devoutly religious, and a pioneering explorer – and one who held a view of the world that we today can no longer hold, and who “cooked the books” on his calculations in order to make the case for his famous expedition.

Real life, real people, real science, and real religion are messy, with edges that blur and realities that burst the bounds of stereotypes like those held by P. Z. Myers and many other atheists of his sort.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    But why is Copernicus not also allowed to be a spokesperson for religion?

    -’Cause he wasn’t the Pope. Or even someone who’s contributions to religion are remembered today. PZ Myers is completely correct here.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Martin Luther was the pope?!

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        But his contributions to religion are remembered today.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Copernicus is remembered, as are Newton, Galileo, and countless others, as people whose religious views led them to study the natural world honestly. PZ Myers has a selective memory, or rather, chooses as examples of “religion” those individuals who conform to what his atheism leads him to want to say about religion.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            study the natural world honestly

            -i.e., for their scientific contributions, not their religious ones.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              But that is precisely the point. He is pitting a religious person remembered for his contribution to religion against a religious person remembered for his contribution to science as though they illustrated a conflict between religion and science, rather than a conflict which cuts across religion, or a conflict between different views of religion and different religious views on science.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            PZ Myers has a selective memory, or rather, chooses as examples of “religion” those individuals who conform to what his atheism leads him to want to say about religion.

            -No. PZ chooses as examples of “religion” those people and ideas that are representative of religion.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Hardly.

          • Nick Gotts

            This is a gross mischaracterisation. Myers freely acknowledges, for example, that present-day Christians can also be excellent scientists. He is contrasting science and religion, not atheists and believers.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              But how is a contrast between Copernicus and Martin Luther a contrast between “science and religion” as opposed to a contrast between a scientist who was a Christian and another Christian who rejected certain new scientific ideas proposed in his time?

              • arcseconds

                Also, it seems a little… odd… to be using someone who’s famous for bringing about a complete revolution in religion (and not just in the sect he founded) to establish that religion is inherently against novelty.

                • Nick Gotts

                  Luther certainly didn’t see himself as introducing novelty, but as returning to an original Christianity that had been corrupted.

                  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    But he certainly stood for a willingness to challenge authority, and his doing so ultimately led to Protestants leading the way in critically examining the Bible, as they realized that one cannot arbitrarily stop one’s willingness to challenge authority at the edge of a compilation of texts that the church whose authority you challenged put together.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      True, but he’d have been horrified by such critical examination.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I take it you’ve never read Luther?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      No, but are you claiming he would have found the kind of critical examination which recognises that most of the Bible, including much of the New Testament as myth, acceptable? This is the man who advocated destroying synagogues and Jewish prayerbooks and forbidding rabbis from preaching, among other anti-Jewish measures, which hardly suggests an open-minded attitude to theological disagreement.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I’m not sure I see the point in trying to discuss Luther’s views with someone who is not interested in getting a nuanced and historically accurate assessment of his positive and negative aspects, but only finding proof texts about the latter because of the belief that it can be useful for ideological point-scoring. What precisely is to be gained by showing what Luther, or Copernicus or Kepler, were wrong about, in isolation from actual acquaintance with their writings and their views understood in the context of their time and place in history? Do you think you are talking with someone who does not already know about Luther’s view of Jews and find it reprehensible? But if I were to focus only on his antisemitism, or Richard Wagner’s, there are important things I would miss by doing so.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I know you’re running out of arguments when you resort to this kind of thing. Luther’s attitude to Jews is directly relevant to whether he would have found the questioning of his fundamental beliefs about religion acceptable.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      You haven’t given me the impression that you know what his fundamental beliefs about religion were, much less that you know what he would or would not have found acceptable. But your willingness to adamantly insist you have a profound understanding of the views of historical individuals whose writings you have not read seems to indicate what is really going on, and it isn’t about science or history. Don’t you think there is something ironic about chiming in here, pretending to be here to defend science against religion, and yet ending up showing that you are willing to discuss “the truth about X” (in this case Luther) in abstraction from the evidence?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I’m not pretending to have a profound understanding at all. But if there’s something specific about Luther’s views that would show I’m wrong about what his attitude would have been to fundamental criticisms of his beliefs about the Bible, why don’t you share it? As for knowing what people’s fundamental; beliefs are, and “what is really going on”, that’s rich, considering your gross misrepresentation of Myers’ beliefs.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      You have shown that you find my treatment of Myers’ statements objectionable, but in doing so you have illustrated the points I said were problematic, which scarcely seems to demonstrate that I misrepresented him.

                      Luther’s antilegomena to Revelation or James might be a good place for you to start.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve now read these. I don’t see that they indicate that Luther would have been tolerant with regard to fundamental criticisms of his beliefs about the Bible. He’s saying in a few specific cases “Well, get what you can out of these books”. Compare that with a 60,000-word anti-Jewish diatribe, written in response to the Jews’ failure to convert to Christianity, and openly espousing violence against them, with the spittle-flecked condemnation of reason Myers quotes, and with Luther’s advice on dealing with rebellious peasants: “whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and
                      stab, secretly or publicly”. On the balance of evidence, does this look like a tolerant man?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Did I say that he was a tolerant man? Presumably you have no idea what his earlier beliefs about the church and the Bible were, or otherwise you might appreciate the significance of his willingness to re-evaluate the historic church’s decisions on what belongs in its canon of Scripture.

                      But you keep saying that you are talking about “religion” rather than individuals who are religious. Except when it is convenient to focus on an individual whose views are easy to criticize. But why is it surprising that religions and religious people reflect the kinds of views that human beings have in all their diversity? You seem to still be harboring a notion that religions are divinely-revealed truths or something like that. Even if they were, your constant switches back and forth between saying you are talking about religion and not individuals, and talking about individuals, would still seem conveniently self-serving.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      This subthread was a side-track, deriving from an off-the-cuff comment I made. But you’ve repeatedly evaded the issue of whether Luther would, as I suggested, have been horrified by what his willingness to challenge authority led to. In your words:
                      “Protestants leading the way in critically examining the Bible, as they realized that one cannot arbitrarily stop one’s willingness to challenge authority at the edge of a compilation of texts that the church whose authority you challenged put together.”
                      Do you accept that he would have been horrified by “the kind of critical examination which recognises that most of the Bible, including much of the New Testament as myth”, or not? If not, on what grounds?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      How is asking “What Would Luther Do/Think?” relevant to the original topic? Are you now acknowledging that religion is what religious people think and do? Or is this an attempt to distract from the original topic?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      No, of course I don’t accept the absurd claim that religion is what religious people think and do, which would imply that if Copernicus picked his nose, that was religion. Roughly speaking, religion is what religious people think and do that non-religious people do not think and do, along with the institutional and cultural systems that influence them to do these things.

                      “Or is this an attempt to distract from the original topic?”

                      I suggest you review how we got to this point. Arcseconds pointed out that Luther was famous for bringing about a revolution in religion. I responded that he saw himself as reverting to the original faith, which had become corrupted. You then remarked that he did however give an example of opposing authority, which led to more radical questioning later. I responded that he would have hated the results of this example. At that point, you said you assumed I had not read Luther, with the implication (I thought) that there was something in Luther’s writings which would indicate that I was wrong in that last claim. Given the sequence of events, it’s ludicrous to suggest that I am attempting to distract from the original topic. And I notice that you still evade the question I asked, so I’ll repeat it once more:
                      “Do you accept that he would have been horrified by “the kind of critical examination which recognises that most of the Bible, including much of the New Testament as myth”, or not? If not, on what grounds?””

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I am not interested in your attempt to get away from the original topic through an interesting but irrelevant speculation about what Luther might or might not have said about what people did in later times.

                      As for your definition of religion, what evidence do we have of what non-religious people in Copernicus’ time thought about Copernicus? And how do you know that non-religiousness in that context or this one is not simply a mirror of what some religious people do, minus some of the mythical and symbolic ways of talking? After all, many non-religious people in our time are mirror images of religious fundamentalists.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      If you are not interested, why did you respond to it with “I take it you’ve never read Luther?”? Why do you still refuse to answer a perfectly reasonable question? The only explanation I can see is that the only honest answer would reveal your initial response as a cheap attempt to pull academic rank when in fact, my point (which itself was a response to you), was perfectly sound.

                      “As for your definition of religion, what evidence do we have of what non-religious people in Copernicus’ time thought about Copernicus?”

                      Very little, because any non-religious people who revealed themselves as such would have been likely to end up killed by religious people for their temerity. But as I said, there were good empirical grounds on which Copernicus’ views could be disputed (there’s a recent Scientific American article on this). What we can be fairly sure of, is that non-religious people would not have said that his views could be dismissed because they contradicted the biblical account of the sun standing still in the sky. You really don’t get it, do you? Just as in the thread where you boasted about how mystics had sometimes come to conclusions later arrived at scientifically, you think it’s all about whether you get the right answer, not how you go about looking for answers, and criticising proposed answers. That is the fundamental distinction between religion and science.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      The objections that people had to Copernicus and Galileo had to do as much with Aristotle, common sense, and the lack of any explanation for how the Earth could be spinning so fast without any noticeable effect on those upon it, as with the Bible. If someone appeals to the Bible to justify following the evidence where it leads, it seems to you that they would then be doing science and it would have nothing to do with religion. You complain about others not getting it, and are unable to see your voews the way others see them. People’s lives and thinking are not so easily compartmentalized. On both sides there was religion, and philosophy, and reason, and observation. The attempt to rob some things from one side and force all of other things onto the other simply does not fit what we know about these people and their views from their own writings and the writings of others about them.

              • Nick Gotts

                He’s contrasting Copernicus’s action in formulating a scientific theory, with Luther’s explicitly religiously motivated hatred of reason (describing Luther’s diatribes simply as “rejecting certain new scientific ideas” is absurd). How can you possibly claim that is not a contrast between science and religion?

                • GakuseiDon

                  Nick, Luther’s hatred of reason was not about a group of atheists using reason. His hatred was towards **Christians** love of reason, and how they used it to affect their theology. (Luther thought that reason was a gift from God, but it should play second place to theology.) So Myers’ use of Luther really shows how the Christians of Luther’s time had a great love for reason, so much that Luther objected to it; which goes against the very point that Myer is trying to make by using Luther.

                  • Nick Gotts

                    The quote from Luther at the link certainly does not look as though he thought reason a “gift from God”. And the Christians of that time had such a great love of reason they liked to set each other on fire to settle their disagreements. Myers’ point is about the attitude to novel ideas, and both sides accused the other of innovation.

                    • GakuseiDon

                      Seriously you need to read more about Luther. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

                      “Given Luther’s critique of philosophy and his famous phrase that philosophy is the “devil’s whore,” it would be easy to assume that Luther had only contempt for philosophy and reason. Nothing could be
                      further from the truth. Luther believed, rather, that philosophy and reason had important roles to play in our lives and in the life of the
                      community.”.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  If you accept that what he is presenting is a contrast between what two religious people did and the stances they adopted, I don’t see how you can consider it “science vs. religion.” Surely it is “religion with science vs. religion without science” or simply “science vs. lack of or opposition to science.”

                  • Nick Gotts

                    Because one of them was doing science and the other was doing religion. How much more obvious could it be?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Both were doing religion. One was doing science. That is what should be obvious.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      No, when Copernicus formulated his model of the solar system, he was not doing religion, any more than he was doing either science or religion when he represented the Polish monarchy in negotiations with the Teutonic Knights.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      So the only people who are “really” practicing their religion are people who muddle things up for those doing science (or political negotiations), and not those whose religious views lead them to embrace and even contribute to the development of that which we call science?

                      That stance seems arbitrary and self-serving.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Er, what? How did you manage to squeeze that load of nonsense out of what I said? Of course Copernicus practiced his religion, but that’s not what he was doing when he practiced science or undertook political negotiation. Are you claiming that anything a religious believer does is practicing their religion? So when Copernicus picked his nose, he was practicing his religion?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      If he picked his nose for religious reasons, then yes. But I have no evidence that that was his motivation for doing so. His study of what we would call the natural world is a different matter.

                      Ironically, if you had read Luther, you would be more likely to see my point.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Questions of motivation are difficult to resolve, but in any case do not determine the nature of the activity. Scientific investigation may be motivated by curiosity, material gain, wish to please one’s parents, desire for fame, desire to benefit humanity or whatever, but what makes it scientific investigation is the methodology.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      See above, where you said that Luther’s motivation was relevant.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Well that’s a fair point, but Luther’s diatribes against reason were not just religiously motivated, they were part of his religious practice – his preaching. He was “doing religion” when he wrote them, in a way Copernicus was not doing religion, but was doing science, when he wrote De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      You are making a distinction that you have yet to justify. When Copernicus is serving as a canon in a cathedral and studying the stars, it has nothing to do with religion, but when Luther who was an Augustinian monk ends up having his students who later wrote about him attribute to him a dismissive comment about heliocentrism, that is “part of his religious practice”?

                      Can you see why I am not convinced?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      It’s not just “a dismissive comment about heliocentrism”, is it? It’s a wholesale (and as it happens, obscenely misogynistic) attack on reason, and it dismisses Copernican astronomy (against which there were, as it happens, reasonable empirical arguments), because:
                      “sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”
                      That is, for explicitly religious reasons. I quite see why you’re not convinced – it’s because your attack on Myers is based on a gross mischaracterisation which you can’t let go of.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      OK, perhaps an example would help illustrate the problem with Myers’ stance? If I were to suggest that Bill Maher’s view of vaccinations is evidence that the skeptical movement is fundamentally flawed, would you accept that reasoning? Especially if I contrasted him with Edward Jenner’s work pioneering vaccines, since I believe that he was a Christian? Or would this indicate something about these particular individuals that you would not be happy to see extended to their entire worldview?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      *sigh*
                      It’s not a question of whether someone is a Christian or not. How many times do I need to repeat this?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Until you seem to actually accept what you were trying not to, at least initially, namely that it isn’t a case of religion vs. science. The only thing that matters for science is whether you are doing science. Religion can be opposed to that or supportive of it or simply neutral.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Er, what? I’ve been consistent throughout, pointing out that Myers was contrasting science and religion, not believers and non-believers. That’s the fundamental misrepresentation of Myers I was objecting to.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      And what exactly is “religion” in this context? Apparently it is a religious worldview when it motivates people to write that a famous religious individual made a snide remark about a scientist, but it is not a religious worldview when it motivates people to undertake scientific or other research.

                      That seems awfully convenient for your stance, and a very dubious definition from my perspective.

                    • arcseconds

                      What would count as evidence against the claim that Myers makes that religion hates changing ideas and new knowledge?

                      You seem to have accepted (with some kvetching) that Luther did, in fact, cause a lot of novelty to be introduced. He challenged the authority of the established church, and established a new kind of Christianity, which the established church itself took note of the innovations and itself changed much as a result. In light of the history of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, it seems to me difficult to maintain that religion just hates change tout court, and tries its hardest never to change at all.

                      (And, of course, there’s plenty of examples. The entire history of religion is filled with new religions cropping up and reformations of existing ones of sort or another. )

                      Does this count as counter-evidence?

                      It seems now that you’re mainly defending the notion that religion is against scientific novelty, in particular.

                      But it seems to me that your argument rests on a definitional trick. We can give plenty of examples of religious people who are open to scientific change, or even promote scientific change, and they can even do this in a way which is strongly connected with their religious outlook. But if they do that, they’re ‘doing science’.

                      But when religious people resist new scientific ideas they’re ‘doing religion’.

                      So, as long as there’s at least one religious person holding out against one scientific idea, it seems there will be overwhelming evidence that religion always resists scientific ideas, won’t there?

                      But this is because nothing is allowed to count as anything else.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      As it happens, I don’t wholly agree with Myers, but you, like James McGrath, are fundamentally mischaracterising what he’s doing, which is contrasting spheres of human actrivity, not individuals. As I’ve already pointed out, Myers is very clear that religious believers can do excellent science.
                      ” The entire history of religion is filled with new religions cropping up and reformations of existing ones of sort or another.”
                      Reformations almost invariably claim that they are returning to the purity of the original doctrine – that is, that they are reversing the contamination brought about by change. So, indeed, do some new religions – Islam, for example, claims that the Jews were originally Muslims, but then corrupted the one true religion. Even with those new religions that admit they are new, the claim is then that the truth has now been established for all time, and further change would be wrong. The only exceptions to this fundamentally negative attitude to change in religious doctrine I can think of are in the modern woolly religions – newage spirituality, pomo versions of Christianity, etc.
                      “But it seems to me that your argument rests on a definitional trick.”
                      On the contrary, I’m resisting the definitional trick of saying that whatever religious believers do counts as religion.
                      “But when religious people resist new scientific ideas they’re ‘doing religion’.”

                      That depends, of course, on how and why they are resisting them. When religious believers do good science, they of course adopt the scientific attitude to adapting beliefs to the evidence. But you’ve only got to look at Biologos (for example) to see how many of those who respect and value science resist doing the same when it comes to their religion – the absurd contortions they go through about Adam and Eve, the resurrection, the problem of evil, etc.

                    • arcseconds

                      I accept that you and Myers admit that religious people can be excellent scientists.

                      But by reifying religion and science as ‘spheres of endeavour’ and talking as if they interact with one another one their own rather than as being human activities that interact with one another only in so far as human beings act in scientific and religious ways, this allows you to pull a sneaky trick and count every time a religious person does good science as a point for science (even though in their minds this might be motivated by their religious beliefs, and not separate from their religious practice) , and every time a religious person resists science for exactly the same kinds of considerations, that counts as a point against religion.

                      This is a little unfair, don’t you think? Heads I win, tails you lose?

                      Plus, it’s looking awfully like an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Isn’t that supposed to be a problem for you sciencey types? Again, I repeat my request for what would count as evidence against your claim here. It doesn’t seem to me that anything could: on most scientific issues most religions say almost nothing, on science in general these days the major forms of most religions are, if anything, somewhat enthusiastic (“you find out about God’s creation!”), there are plenty of religious scientists as you admit, but somehow none of that counts in the face of some resistance from some sects on a small number of issues.

                      The honest thing to say here is that sometimes religion resist science. Not that they always, and by there very nature, do so.

                      You could make a similar argument that religions are always anti-music. Despite the fact that religions frequently use music, that a lot of music has been motivated by religion, there are oodles of religious composers, some of whom have held religious positions. Because music is a distinct sphere of endeavour, and whenever anyone makes music that’s doing music, no matter what their motivation, and whenever anyone resists music for religious reasons, they’re doing religion, ergo religion is always anti-music. Similarly anti-alcohol.

                      Your characterisation of religion as always been about being static is just false. You know as well as I do that generally speaking attempts to re-establish an original form of a religion just create a new form of the religion, so at best your point can only be about what they think they’re doing, and not what they actually do. I don’t think it can be denied that these new ‘old’ forms of religion
                      frequently have all of the features of genuine innovation: imagination to think it up, the courage to make the change, creative adaptation of existing forms of practice to fit the ‘old’ requirements, new prayers, new music, new hymns, etc.

                      And they frequently think of themselves explicitly as innovating. You are aware that there’s a whole area called ‘theology’ that’s been around for centuries, right? If you think that all theologians think of themselves as re-establishing old truths, you really need to learn more about the area. This might explain Luther, but it does not explain Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas or Abelard, all of them thought of themselves as presenting new information about God, not just rehashing old ideas. I think you’d find most theologians think of their activity in this way. The Roman Catholic church explicitly sees theology as a progressive enterprise and reason as a route to discovering new things about God.

                      And of course there’s no shortage of examples of religiously-motivated attempts (and even successes) to reform society. For at least the last 200 years these have frequently been thought of as attempting to change existing society for the better, not to turn back the clock to something that existed in the halcyon days of the past.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      “allows you to pull a sneaky trick and count every time a religious person does good science as a point for science (even though in their minds this might be motivated by their religious beliefs, and not separate from their religious practice) , and every time a religious
                      person resists science for exactly the same kinds of considerations, that counts as a point against religion.This is a little unfair, don’t you think?”

                      It would be if I did that, but I don’t.

                      “Again, I repeat my request for what would count as evidence against your claim here.”

                      I’ve already conceded that there are counterexamples on the religion side, with respect to newage spirituality and pomo Christianity. Counterexamples on the science side would be cases of insisting that an existing scientific theory should be maintained in the face of mounting evidence against it. This does happen, but there are powerful cultural and institutional forces working against such abuses.

                      “most religions say almost nothing, on science in general these days the major forms of most religions are, if anything, somewhat enthusiastic”

                      Hahahahahahaha!

                      Oh, you were serious? Polls show that around 40% of Americans deny evolution altogether, and the majority of the rest think it’s “guided” by God, despite the total absence of any evidence for such a claim. I’d be surprised if there are any majority Muslim countries where numbers of evolution-deniers are any lower. Many Hindu religious leaders insist on their own form of creationism. That’s the three largest religions.

                      “You could make a similar argument that religions are always anti-music…”

                      Since I don’t make the analogous claim about science, your analogy is otiose.

                      “so at best your point can only be about what they think they’re doing”

                      Er, yes, that is exactly my point. Being aware that you are innovating, and having a positive attitude to innovation, rather than pretending to yourself that you’re not, make a huge difference.

                      “This might explain Luther, but it does not explain Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas or Abelard, all of them thought of themselves as presenting new
                      information about God, not just rehashing old ideas.”

                      But this “new information” always had to be presented as compatible with what was held to be the original, divinely inspired doctrine. Surely you can see what a difference this makes?

                      “The Roman Catholic church explicitly sees theology as a progressive enterprise and reason as a route to discovering new things about God.”

                      Yeah, yeah. Let me know when they say “Jesus got it wrong here.” or even “Paul got it wrong there.”

                      “And of course there’s no shortage of examples of religiously-motivated attempts (and even successes) to reform society. For at least the last 200 years these have frequently been thought of as attempting to change
                      existing society for the better, not to turn back the clock to something that existed in the halcyon days of the past.”

                      That is, post-Enlightenment, when the idea of progress was well-established, and religion was in retreat. As I said, I don’t wholly agree with Myers’ claim – I think it’s somewhat overstated – but as a general rule, it holds up pretty well.

                    • arcseconds

                      Hahahahahahaha!

                      Oh, you were serious?

                      Ah, Nick, I was wondering when we were going to get around to the overblown dramatics. You know how hilarious I find them, and you’ve been holding back on me until now! Maniacal laughter and sarcasm! Maybe we can have some eyerolling and melodramatic sighs next?

                      Polls show that around 40% of Americans deny evolution altogether,

                      OK, given that about 84% of Americans are religious, even if we assume that the entire 40% who reject evolution altogether are religious, that means over half (around 53%) of the religious people accept evolution in some form or another.

                      Is it really relevant to look at what individuals do? I thought we were talking about religions as platonic entities. In which case shouldn’t we look at the official teachings of the religions? The Roman Catholic church and mainline protestant churches don’t have any beef with evolution, and they account for 64% of Christians in America.

                      So, yeah, you pick the most famous ‘religion denies science’ issue , and pick statistics from by far and away the worst of the developed countries on this issue, and even then it shows that only a minority of religious people actually do this. So we can now reject Myers’ claim completely, right? Even if we reduce it to saying ‘usually’ it would be wrong.

                      (which, of course, rather puts the boot on the other foot as far as your dramatics are concerned. Do I get to laugh maniacally now? Or is that too much like copy-catting? Maybe a little ironic clearing of the throat would do:

                      *cough*

                      there. )

                      I did say ‘on some issues’, too. Myers is making a very general claim that religions always resist new knowledge, but they don’t, in fact, offer any resistance whatsoever to most scientific claims. Where is the wholescale religious uprising against chemistry?

                      I must admit I’ve gotten a little lost in the downgrading from a bold sweeping claim about the very nature of religion as being against newness and therefore against science, into something that you admit involves a whole lot of exceptions, caveats, and re-interpretations.

                      Now you’re saying it holds up as a general rule, but aren’t we now at ‘religion isn’t always against newness, but only sometimes, and isn’t always against science, but only sometimes, and sometimes when they’re actually engaging in novelty they dress it up as a return to an earlier form, particularly pre-Enlightenment (!), but then sometimes they admit they’re trying out new stuff, particularly post-Enlightenment’

                      But in the face of all of that, you’re still prepared to support Myers’ claim as a general rule? I don’t know what to say to that. How on earth could you prefer telling someone that about religion, rather than my vastly more accurate statement in quotes above?

                      It just looks like a gross stereotype to me, which is so inaccurate as to be worse than useless. Even if it were true in a majority of cases, in the face of a substantial minority surely the minority should be admitted to. But as it happens even then the number of caveats and clarifications you’d need to put in place to avoid substantially misleading people seem great.

                      I think we might have to face facts, Nick. You’re supporting a piece of propaganda here, and not actually after a fair and accurate assessment of religion’s attitude towards novelty or science.

                      (Your point about the Enlightenment is particularly, um… unenlightening. Religion tended to be particularly backward-looking in days when the entire society was backward-looking, including it’s politics and what passed for science? And became progressive-looking when society became progressive looking? and this demonstrates what, exactly? )

                    • Nick Gotts

                      “OK, given that about 84% of Americans are religious, even if we assume that the entire 40% who reject evolution altogether are religious, that means over half (around 53%) of the religious people accept evolution in
                      some form or another.”

                      And the majority of those give it a religious interpretation wholly unjustified by any evidence whatever.

                      “The Roman Catholic church and mainline protestant churches don’t have any beef with evolution”

                      Really? Here’s something Pius XII said in 1950:
                      “When there is a question of another conjectural opinion, namely, of polygenism so-called, then the sons of the Church in no way enjoy such freedom. For the faithful in Christ cannot accept this view, which holdseither that after Adam there existed men on this earth who did not receive their origin by natural generation from him, the first parent of all, or that Adam signifies some kind of multiple first parents; for it is by no means apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with what the sources of revealed truth and the acts of the magisterium of the
                      Church teaches about original sin, which proceeds from a sin truly committed by one Adam, and which is transmitted to all by generation, and exists in each one as his own.” (Humani Generis 37)

                      As far as I know, that is still the Church’s position. Catholics must accept – regardless of the evidence – that we are all descendants of a single couple and that no men (and I assume, women) lived after that couple who were not descended from them. This is decisively refuted by evolutionary genetics, but even if it were not, it would demonstrate that the Catholic Church “has no beef” with science only when it does not conflict with doctrine. It also “has a beef” with embryonic stem cell and IVF research, and tries to use its muscle to prevent anyone – not just Catholics – pursuing it. Cardinals lie about HIV being able to penetrate condoms and are not rebuked, and the church as a whole denies the clear evidence that condom distribution is an important part of programmes to reduce HIV transmission.

                      Even if you were right about the USA and other rich countries (you’re not), it seems to escape your notice that most religious believers live in poor ones, and it is there that the influence of religion is greatest. But maybe people in poor countries don’t strike you as being of much significance. Even in parts of Europe (mostly, the more religious parts), acceptance of the reality of evolution is lower than often thought, see here, while according to the same survey, “only 8% of Egyptians, 11% of Malaysians, 14% of Pakistanis, 16% of Indonesians, and 22% of Turks” accept it. Benjamin C. Heddy and Louis S. Nadelson (2012) “A Global Perspective of the Variables Associated with Acceptance of Evolution”, Evo Edu Outreach, found a -.81 correlation (p<.0005) between religiosity and acceptance of the reality of evolution across countries.

                      "I must admit I've gotten a little lost in the downgrading from a bold sweeping claim about the very nature of religion as being against newness and therefore against science, into something that you admit involves a whole lot of exceptions, caveats, and re-interpretations."

                      My objection was to the crass misrepresentation of what Myers is saying. I don't have to agree with him completely, or indeed at all, to object to that. Kindly point out where I ever said I did completely agree with him, if you want to maintain your claim that I have "downgraded" my position.

                      "I think we might have to face facts, Nick."

                      I think it would be an excellent idea if you faced up to the facts I provide above about the relationship between religiosity and science denial, but I know you too well to be under any illusion that you will.

                      "Religion tended to be particularly backward-looking in days when the entire society was backward-looking, including it's politics and what passed for science? And became progressive-looking when society became progressive looking? and this demonstrates what, exactly?"

                      If you were interested in an honest assessment of the facts, you would admit that society became "progressive-looking" precisely as religiosity declined. Indeed, the negative association between being "progressive-looking" and reliigosity persists today, with regard to attitudes to science, as shown above, and with regard to income inequality and various indices of personal insecurity, as shown here. Of course, the direction of causation is hard to determine, but the association is abundantly clear.

  • beau_quilter

    Perhaps Myers is overstating his case to characterize all religion in this way. He spends most of this chapter excerpt on the Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis. He does go on to argue that “fundamentalist Christianity isn’t at all unusual”, and uses Martin Luther as his beginning illustration.’

    Perhaps he is wrong to characterize all religion as in conflict with changing ideas and new knowledge. But it’s certainly true that a heck of a lot of religion, dare I say, most religion is in conflict with changing ideas and new knowledge.

    To someone like Myers, who sees religious ideology as the root of the problem, your response may sound something like this:

    “Why is Hitler allowed to be a spokesperson for antisemitism? Why not Henry Ford, Richard Wagner, or Charles Lindbergh?”

    • Andrew Dowling

      “To someone like Myers, who sees religious ideology as the root of the problem, your response may sound something like this:

      “Why is Hitler allowed to be a spokesperson for antisemitism? Why not Henry Ford, Richard Wagner, or Charles Lindbergh?”

      Well that would a stupid comment to make, comparing a directed negative ideology like antisemitism to something as incredibly varied as “religion.” For starters, within religions themselves are there ALWAYS progressive and conservative fundamentalists forces that can serve as catalysts for change itself or reactively fight against it. And there are some religions (particularly in the East) that don’t really care about changing ideas one way to the other; issues pertaining to science and historical validity of past supernaturalism is a complete non-issue.

      Martin Luther? The Reformers were more conservative and fundamentalist than the Roman Church was! Why won’t Myers quote someone like Abelard or Calcidius? Because they don’t fit his caricature.

      • beau_quilter

        Well, I did use an ideology (antisemitism) that most universally agree is wrong, in order to highlight the fact that Myers’ problem isn’t just with religion’s representation, but with it’s basic ideas.

        You are right; there are examples of religious ideology that do not conform to this negative characterization. But there is such a vast amount of religious ideology around the world that does – I can easily see why someone who does not espouse any religious ideology would see it as a problem.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I don’t think it is a good analogy, simply because all antisemites are antisemites, whereas not all Christians or even the majority are anti-science.

          • beau_quilter

            Are you sure about that majority? Would you be as sure if we extended it to all religions?

            Even Creationists would say that they are not anti-science (by their definition of science).

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              I would be even more confident if we took it beyond English language Christianity, which is uniquely fixated on evolution (although it has spread its fixation both to other languages and to other religions, to some extent). And I am talking about genuinely being anti-science and not just saying one is or isn’t.

              • beau_quilter

                I won’t be argumentative about it, because I truly hope you’re right.

              • arcseconds

                How about American Christianity? The rest of the English-speaking world doesn’t have nearly the same fixation on evolution. The majority of Christians in the English-speaking countries apart from the United States are either members of the Anglican communion or Roman Catholics, and neither group officially has a beef with evolution per se. Maybe some Anglican churches do, but I’m pretty sure that the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Australia, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia do not.

                Plus politically it’s nowhere near the same kind of issue.

                • beau_quilter

                  I think you hit the nail on the head. I’m probably letting the fact that I was raised in American evangelicalism and news of Islamic abuses around the world, color my view of just how widespread anti-science religious views really are.

                • beau_quilter

                  The Catholic Church has campaigned against birth control, including condoms in countries where it could stem the tide of the aids. I wonder if we we might categorize that as an anti-science position.

                  • arcseconds

                    I could only see that working if you don’t believe in the is/ought distinction, and as I do believe in that distinction, I don’t see it working for me :-)

                    It strikes me that this is really about values, not about facts-about-the-world. As far as I know, in doing this they don’t deny anything about AIDS or how condoms work, it’s just that when push comes to shove, they are not willing to interfere with God’s plan for procreation even if they can save lives by doing so.

                    Now, that position is a pretty fucked up one for all sorts of reasons, but it’s not anti-science.

                    • beau_quilter

                      Interesting distinction. I guess this is the same way one might regard those who refuse blood transfusions and other medical treatments for themselves or their children. Religion can stand in the way of scientific improvements in our lives (including life-saving techniques) without actually being anti-science.

                    • arcseconds

                      Well, that’s an interesting example, because up until now I might have vaguely agreed that the blood transfusion thing was anti-science (although maybe not wholeheartedly).

                      But now I’ve articulated this distinction, which I think does make sense of the Vatican’s opposition to contraception even for the sake of saving lives, I think I’ll stick to it and say that that is also not anti-science — and certainly there’s a distinction to be made between refusing blood transfusions and young-earth creationism, as the former isn’t saying that mainstream scientists have anything factually wrong about what blood does.

                      However, they are asserting blood has metaphysical properties (causal properties, what’s more) that no-one else thinks it does. This does seem a bit more directly in the realm of science than the Vatican’s attitude towards contraception.

                      I suppose things having functions is a metaphysical position, too, but few are denying there’s at least a sense in which the (or a) function of sex is procreation.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Actually, very senior Catholics long maintained the lie that HIV could get through condoms, and the Church still denies the evidence that promotion of condom use is an effective way of reducing the spread of the virus, see the meta-analysis here.

                    • arcseconds

                      (*shrug*) not sure why you’re posting that link… I thought it was going to show that the Roman Catholic church denied that condom use could reduce the spread of the virus (and was wondering why that needed a meta-analysis, or alternatively whether the RC church has taken to doing advanced sociological research to support their claims).

                      But instead it seems to be proving that condoms can be effective at reducing the spread of HIV… did you think someone was disputing that? Or even was likely to dispute that?

                      Anyway, even if individuals have from time to time denied that condoms would work against AIDS, this is not why they oppose the use of condoms, it’s not the account I’ve normally seen coming from the church, and I doubt it represents the official position.

                      What I’ve normally seen is a hand-wringing, circumlocutory rationale where they keep going on about how the Church can’t do violence to the human condition by promoting sin and an unnatural and dehumanizing sexual ethos, plus how abstinence is the solution to all woes (and they’re probably right that it would be even better at stopping HIV. And if I had a hundred thousand cubic meters of hydrogen I’d be the Graf Zeppelin). Plus they fret about condoms possibly making things worse, because it just encourages people to have sex (there’s a valid concern somewhere in there, I think).

                      If their argument was simply that it doesn’t work, even the Vatican wouldn’t communicate it like this, surely.

                      Anyway, while I don’t want to minimize the harm they’ve caused by their truly baroquely loopy take on contraception, as far as science-denial goes qua science-denial, denying that a public policy will have or had the desired effect is no more than what every political party that’s been around for a few years has done. It’s not on the same level as denying evolution.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      “But instead it seems to be proving that condoms can be effective at reducing the spread of HIV… did you think someone was disputing that? Or even was likely to dispute that?”

                      Dear me, I’ve underestimated your ignorance.. Sorry about that. Ratzinger said:

                      “”if there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help [by responsible behaviour], the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it”

                      There is not a scintilla of evidence that distributing condoms increases transmission of HIV, as far as I am aware, and Ratzinger of course did not provide any.

                      See my response above for the Catholic Church on evolution. Further to that, here is an NCSE report on a conference on “Creation and Evolution” with Ratzinger, which reveals how far he and the Catholic theologians invovled are from accepting evolutionary science as it actually exists.

    • arcseconds

      If someone was denigrating Hitler on the one hand as being an antisemite, and lauding Wagner on the other as being a fantastic composer, and on a third hand asking why music and antisemitism are always in conflict, it does seem appropriate for someone to ask ‘why are you ignoring the fact that Wagner was a notable antisemite?’

      Someone could reply as Enopoletus Harding has done that it’s appropriate to ignore the fact that Wagner was an antisemite because today he’s remembered for his contributions to music, but I would hope that the dissembling and the selective memory would be quite obvious.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Great analogy!

        • beau_quilter

          I agree!

      • beau_quilter

        Yes, that’s helpful – thank you for putting my faulty analogy into perspective.

        • arcseconds

          Well, you had cleverly put it into the mouth of ‘someone like PZ Meyers’, and I think it might actually get at something in their account, so maybe it’s really not a faulty analogy: it’s an accurate analogy that exposes the flaw :-)

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        If Hitler criticized Wagner, I might think your point legitimate.

        • arcseconds

          I can’t see why you’d say that, so I think you must have misunderstood the analogy.

          The analogy is, in the way I’ve formulated it, intending to show that making a hard-and-fast distinction between religion and science to set them up as permanent conflciting camps in eternal struggle with one another is as silly as setting up antisemitism and music as permanently confllicting camps in eternal struggle with one another.

          One can only argue that the real world shows either case by tailoring one’s facts to fit the world.

          What you’re asking for is for the analogy to represent the fact that religious people often crticise one another.

          Why would it be important for it to contain that fact, when the purpose is to point out people trying to establish a false dichotomy?

          (Also, as it happens, antisemites often do crticise one another. But I can’t see why this is important.)

  • GakuseiDon

    PZ Myers use of Martin Luther’s comment about reason being the devil’s whore seems to go against his point, since Luther is complaining about Christian intellectuals of the time using Aristotle and other Greek philosophers in universities and in their theology. Yet Myers is using Luther to show that Christians abhorred reason? Very strange. Gunshot, meet Myers’ foot.

  • Gary

    Georges Lemaître vs Fred Hoyle: Contrasting Characters in Science and Religion.
    Google it. Classic example of a religious person against an atheist. Biologists should not act too uppity.

  • plectrophenax

    I was remembering the medieval philosophers who worked on the idea of secondary causation, which is a kind of primitive form of methodological naturalism, for example, Albert the Great. But this leads to the sponsoring of the natural sciences, doesn’t it? I think Myers stacks the deck, and then deals a rigged hand.

  • Nick Gotts

    “you’re not staying on target”
    I’ve been answering points made by you and James McGrath that were not directly related to the issue I originally raised. What is supposed to be wrong with that?

    “You also say it’s not about individuals, but about religion per se. I’m not sure what this really means, frankly,”

    If you don’t recognise that there is a phenomenon called “religion”, and another called “science”, which both have cloudy edges, but which are, nonetheless, clearly distinguishable, I admit I am unable to educate you, as it would take far more time and effort than I have available, and given your stubborn refusal to understand what you don’t want to, would likely be wasted time and effort anyway.

    “or what would count as evidence for or against it, if we’re not allowed to look at religious individuals and see what they do, or even entire religious groups and see what their attitude is (if we’re not allowed to look at individuals,
    why cite poll data?). Perhaps you’d like to clarify this.”

    Of course we are; but in the case of individuals, we need to consider which of the things they think or do are actually thought or done because of their religion. Really, this isn’t a very difficult point.

    ” I keep asking what would count as proof against this thesis, but you never answer this.”

    That’s simply false. I said above: “I’ve already conceded that there are counterexamples on the religion
    side, with respect to newage spirituality and pomo Christianity. Counterexamples on the science side would be cases of insisting that an existing scientific theory should be maintained in the face of mounting evidence against it.”

    “You think you’ve grasped the platonic form of religion”

    Wrong, as usual. I’m an anti-essentialist, but denying that things have Platonic essenses does not entail denying they have any distinguishable properties at all, which appears to be your position with regard to religion and science.

    ” It also explains why you dismiss liberal christianity as ‘pomo’”
    I don’t: I define explicitly post-modernist religion as “pomo”.

    “And it would also explain why you pounce upon the few examples you have of modern religions in developed countries resisting new ideas with such glee”

    Your tendentiousness is remarkable: I raise points that support my argument, and you descirbe this as pouncing on them with glee. Why does this description apply to my points and not yours?

    ” It doesn’t hold true in cultures where scientific culture holds considerable sway, and it’s unremarkable if it does hold true in cultures where scientific culture is relatively unimportant”
    That is, religion makes changes only when forced to give ground by the cultural power of science. I think you just conceded the argument.

    “OK, I’m not going to argue the case on the Vatican’s view of the origin of humanity. For the sake of the argument I concede that point. So you’ve managed to find one scientific fact that the Vatican resists, or maybe even a handful. What you need to do for the Roman
    Catholic church to count as evidence that Myers’s statement is generally true is to resist most new scientific ideas”

    No I don’t, because what the RCC resists, is, of course, changes in Catholic doctrine (I concede that they recently changed the doctrine on limbo). Most new scientific ideas have no specific relation to Catholic doctrine. Where either ideas or scientific practice (embryonic stem cell research, IVF) do so, they are resisted.

    “I’m sorry, what am I wrong about? The level of acceptance of evolution in the developed world? I was basing that on your data, Nick. Were you
    wrong when you said that 40% of Americans don’t believe in evolution? Or did I do my sums wrong?”

    Actually, I didn’t say that – those are your words. I would not count those who insist on a completely unevidenced divine guidance, or a real Adam and Eve, as “believing in evolution” in the sense that biological science does.
    You also said I:
    “pick statistics from by far and away the worst of the developed countries on this issue”
    and I noted that many of the more religous European countries are little better.
    You also said;
    “The Roman Catholic church and mainline protestant churches don’t have any beef with evolution, and they account for 64% of Christians in America.”
    And I showed that the RCC most certainly does have a beef with evolution. As for Protestants have a lok here. Clear majorities of Protestant pastors polled reject human evolution and believe Adam and Eve were real people. So basically, arcseconds, you’re plain wrong on this point, and if you were an honest person, you’d admit it.

    “You’ve admitted plenty of outright counter examples.”
    Which disproves your dishonest claim that I haven’t said what would count as evidence against the general thesis. Maybe you’d like to apologise?

    “You started off giving data for the USA. So by parity of reasoning, I can only assume that you both think most religious people live in the USA, and know that most religious people live outside the USA but don’t give a damn about them!”

    Another outright falsehood. If you look back, you’ll see that I also referred to Muslim-majority countries and to Hinduism in the very next sentence. Why is it you need to include so many false claims about what I’ve said?

  • Nick Gotts

    Gosh, for someone who wasn’t hurt, you needed an awful lot of words to express that lack of hurt, and to hit back at me! Yes, I did think you were questioning whether the RCC disputed that condoms could reduce the spread of HIV, possibly because it appeared to me that you implied as much in your previous comment:
    “If their argument was simply that it doesn’t work, even the Vatican wouldn’t communicate it like this, surely.”
    Oh, and:
    “By the way I thought you were going to reflect on the way you engage with people. Is this the result of this reflection? Perhaps there’s been a slight improvement, the insults and dramatics seem to come into play a little later, maybe, but it seems to me there’s room for further work.”
    How kind of you to remind me.


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