A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 5)

Pastor Mike Clawson responds to your questions.

You can also read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

The final part will come tomorrow!

miller asked me to comment on “What I think the atheist movement gets wrong?”

My first response was to say “Yikes! This looks like a potential landmine if I ever saw one.” I don’t think I want to get into criticizing you guys or telling you everything that I disagree with. So instead I’ll just offer some advice that I think applies not just to atheists, but to Christians as well, and to anyone who desires genuine and constructive dialogue with others while still holding true to their own views.

Basically there are two ways to hold to one’s beliefs (again whether atheist or Christian or something else):

1) You can say “This is what I believe and it is the only valid/rational/intelligent/moral belief that a person could hold.”

OR

2) You could say: “This is what I believe, but I can see that there are other possible valid/rational/intelligent/moral options out there. This just happens to be the option that makes the most sense to me right now.”

I hope you all have noticed that I obviously try to take the latter approach. I have my own beliefs – what makes the most sense to me – but I want to remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong so that I can continue to dialogue and learn from others who think differently from me.

This approach also has the added benefit of improving the public perception of one’s views. If some of you really are concerned about changing the public perception that atheists are arrogant or rude then it might really help to start learning how to frame your beliefs in terms of the second approach. I can guarantee that more people will be inclined to seriously consider your views if you give them the space to not have to automatically agree with you to avoid being called irrational, stupid or whatever. (BTW, I’d most certainly give this advice to Christians as well. We obviously don’t usually do a very good job of following the second approach either.)

Of course, to take the second approach with any degree of authenticity one would actually have to agree that your own views are not the only valid option. It won’t do any good to only pretend to respect other views. To do this requires a certain degree of what I call epistemic humility. We have to come to the realization that despite all of our intelligence, when it comes right down to it, we human beings don’t really know that much. We have to come back to what Socrates told us so many millenia ago: “He is wise who knows that he is not wise.” In other words, we need to recognize the limits of our own reason and admit that while we have many possibilities with varying degrees of probability, very often we are faced with two or more possibilities which we have no conclusive way to decide between.

In my opinion theism and atheism are two such possibilities since ultimately we are talking about the existence or non-existence of entities beyond the bounds of the observable universe. There is no final proof one way or the other, and most of the arguments basically come down to how one interprets the facts at hand. In other words, we just don’t know for sure one way or the other and each of us simply chooses the way that seems best to us, so in my opinion a little more humility on both sides is in order.

And ultimately I think we’ll all be better off if we realize that agreement on ethical issues (e.g. justice, peace, diversity, compassion, etc.) are far more important than agreement on metaphysical issues. There is far too much suffering and injustice in the world for those of us who are concerned about such things to go on demonizing each other based on whether or not we happen to believe in God. It’s time for us to start working together on those things we share in common.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Pastor, Mike Clawson, Christian, Socrates, God[/tags]

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    And ultimately I think we’ll all be better off if we realize that agreement on ethical issues (e.g. justice, peace, diversity, compassion, etc.) are far more important than agreement on metaphysical issues. There is far too much suffering and injustice in the world for those of us who are concerned about such things to go on demonizing each other based on whether or not we happen to believe in God. It’s time for us to start working together on those things we share in common.

    I’m with you there. Doesn’t mean we can’t debate metaphysics when we feel like it, but ultimately agreement on ethical issues and willingness to work together is more important.

    [W]e need to recognize the limits of our own reason and admit that while we have many possibilities with varying degrees of probability, very often we are faced with two or more possibilities which we have no conclusive way to decide between….In my opinion theism and atheism are two such possibilities since ultimately we are talking about the existence or non-existence of entities beyond the bounds of the observable universe.

    Ah, but I might disagree with you there (unless you are interpreting ‘conclusive’ very strictly). Tolerance may have to be extended a little further than mutual agreement that ultimately we have no way of deciding. I think we do have a way of deciding. And I think that ultimately, when we look at the evidence, it comes down on the side of atheism. But if you will tolerate that, then I will tolerate your position — not to the point of never arguing with it, but to the point of not demonising it and of understanding that that argument is probably not the most important one.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    “What I think the atheist movement gets wrong?”

    First, there are different kinds of atheists, there are the “I don’t believe.. ” and the “I know there isn’t a God”. I find the first are more honest about their atheism and likely to not be most of what follows.

    Atheist fundamentalists, the more unpleasant of the “I know there isn’t a God” kind of atheist are prone to be bigots who are entirely too impressed with themselves. They attribute all kinds of dishonesty, stupidity, hypocrisy etc. to people who believe in a God (no matter what form that belief takes) and especially hostile towards “Neville Chamberlain atheists” and agnostics. It’s my direct experience of atheist fundamentalists that they are just about everything they attribute to other people and more. I will be doing an analysis on this point in the near future because I’ve been targeted by them, I am not going to take it any longer and I am more than able to defend myself.

    I actually have liked a lot of the atheists I’ve known, even my dear old Latin Teacher who tried the arguments on me and declared a truce when I pulled Sri Aurobindo Ghose on him. I would love to have more interaction with atheists who are honest and have a sense of humor and fun and my being here is an effort to let them know that they are not the target of my campaign.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Atheist fundamentalists, the more unpleasant of the “I know there isn’t a God” kind of atheist are prone to be bigots who are entirely too impressed with themselves.

    You do realise that Richard Dawkins isn’t a categorical “I know there isn’t a God” type? He’s an “I think it extremely unlikely that there is a God” type. I ask this, because those who make claims of “atheist fundamentalism” often have Dawkins at the top of the list, and if you’re accusing people like him of saying they know with absolute certainty that there isn’t a God, then that particular aspect of your argument is an unfair categorisation.

    I could just as easily call you an “I know there is no ultimate way to answer this question” fundamentalist. When I read your comments, I get this vague feeling of insult directed at those who claim to have some way of knowing one way or the other. True tolerance, as I have argued in my previous comment, does not necessarily consist in saying that we have no way of justifying one way above other. We can still have great tolerance, and agree to disagree with each other for the most part, without being forced to say that there is no way of deciding one way or another.

    If course, if you do think there is no real way of deciding one way or another, I’ll tolerate that to an extent — but that doesn’t mean I won’t argue against it when religious belief is the subject of the argument at hand.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Lynet, I have had plenty to say about Dawkins’ dishonesty, the use of probablity and a parody of evolutionary science in arguements in theology are just the beginning of it. Probability has absolutely no application in the question, he, himself, has mocked the pseudo-bayesian attempt to prove that God exists with a form of probability. While a singularly sloppy scholar of the theological literature, he is smart enough to know all the arguements there are on these subjects and so, like James Randi with his phony challenge, he gives himself an out.

    As for your exploration of any fundamentalist traits you find in what I’ve said, please, explore away. Maybe you’ll convince me. Though I’ve got a feeling that most of the people here would rather you do that elsewhere. You can begin with the post I did today at my website (shameless blogwhore that I am).

  • HappyNat

    First, there are different kinds of atheists, there are the “I don’t believe.. ” and the “I know there isn’t a God”. I find the first are more honest about their atheism and likely to not be most of what follows.

    Sure there are different types of atheists and I fall somewhere inbewteen your classifications. I lack a belief in god(s), but I know many of the gods presented in society don’t exist, as they are/have been defined by humans. There is a difference between the idea of a “god” out there somewhere and a specific god.

  • Mriana

    1) You can say “This is what I believe and it is the only valid/rational/intelligent/moral belief that a person could hold.”

    OR

    2) You could say: “This is what I believe, but I can see that there are other possible valid/rational/intelligent/moral options out there. This just happens to be the option that makes the most sense to me right now.”

    I’ll take door #2. :D I prefer that than degrading people over what they may or may not believe. I’ve been brow beaten far too many times by both sides myself and it really is not a good feeling. I say there is something numinous (definition #3 in Webster) much like the wind and part of the earth, the Secularists sometimes go nuts. Strong Atheists do go nuts. I say I see the Bible as myth and the Christians go nuts. The only ones who don’t are the Spiritual and Religious Humanist. :roll: Go figure. This does not mean I think they are wrong, but the behaviour turns me off, so I rather not act anyone who throws a tantrum about it.

    Oh and those who mentioned Dawkins, Spong wrote in a newsletter that he met Dawkins and found they both believed in the same god. Interesting. Then you would have to understand Spong’s idea of god to understand the statement.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Olvlzl, yeah, I don’t agree with all of Dawkins’ arguments either. I doubt he would be knowlingly dishonest, but I find his “ultimate 747″ argument to be a little suspect or at best a badly phrased version of a different argument. Mind you, we do have some disagreements, because I find James Randi to be pretty impressive, actually. But I won’t continue down that road; it’s blatantly off-topic.

    I might take a look at your blog post later on — if so, I’ll see you there.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Hey olvlzl,

    I’ve encountered your two types of atheists too… though I’m waiting for the firestorm to start over the fact that you dared imply that some atheists might have anything in common with fundamentalists! :o ;)

    BTW, you might find the taxonomy over at the AgnosticAtheist blog helpful. It does a good job of describing what you’re talking about.

    I have to be honest though, as much as I’ve liked some of the things you’ve had to say, I agree with Lynet that there have been times when you’ve come across as vaguely insulting and condescending. This is ironic since you seem to be critiquing these same attitudes in those you disagree with. I know I’m not perfect in this area either (I don’t always live up to my own advice in this post!) but I just want to encourage you to be careful that you don’t turn into that which you despise.

    Peace friend.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    I just want to say “rock on, Mike C.”

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Thanks Siamang! Obviously you and I have already had a lot of these conversations over at the OTM site. It’d probably be a lot more convenient if I could somehow encapsulate all of those discussions and just pass them along to others rather than having to retype all of this all over again… but well, there we are. :)

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Mike C. I’m glad that wasn’t the “agnosticism atheism” jerk I’m at war with. Thanks for the tip.

    Lynete, I am just about certain that Dawkins IS being quite dishonest. I’ve been following him since “Selfish Genes” and while he’s excellent at polemics, he’s massively dishonest in argument. It might be of interest to note that it’s through taking the side of Gould-Lewontin on the question of evolutionary psychology that I first became familiar with Dawkins, I believe both declared themselve to be atheists or materialists. That question never interested me enough to really notice until Gould came out with his Non-Overlapping Magistera idea.

    My fight with the aforementioned jerk was through a piece I did about pseudo-Skepticism in which Dawkins also played a role, as the Brightest star in the CSICOP galaxy. CSICOP is, ironically, entirely star driven. Paul Kurtz’ role in both the “Skeptics” and the “Humanist” movement is beginning to interest me, I think the frat-boy style arrogance and hazing might stem from his and his pals character defects.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I agree with Lynet that there have been times when you’ve come across as vaguely insulting and condescending.

    Mike C., Lynet, I went back and looked through the comments I put here and you are entirely right and I apologize. Maybe it’s not a good idea to come here last in my “to check” list. Those other blogs get my back up and I go all formal and snippy when that happens.

  • Tommy Huntsman

    Since the first monkey uttered his first “ugh” the word has had a spirit. The word was inspired by the Truth of it all. We are all connected by the spirit of the words we say. How does God give us more than one option? As compared to the truth of gravity and the natural laws. Is my father different to others than he is to me?

  • http://troublewitheverything.blogspot.com John

    And then there are the apatheists… those of us who don’t believe it’s possible to have a fruitful discussion about the existence or non-existence of God, and so would rather discuss the mechanisms, reasons for and effects of belief. You can’t deny that belief exists.

  • Tommy Huntsman

    I think that first monkey was looking up to heaven and asking “Why?” God answered and calmed his heart. He then went on his way to pick bananas for his family and to scare the other animals with his “ugh”.

  • http://atheisthussy.blogspot.com/ Intergalactic Hussy

    There is far too much suffering and injustice in the world for those of us who are concerned about such things to go on demonizing each other based on whether or not we happen to believe in God. It’s time for us to start working together on those things we share in common.

    Then why do Christians constantly tell me how their faith is the only true faith?

  • miller

    MikeC,
    Though this was a “potential landmine,” I happen to like your answer.

    The problem with categorizing people like this is that nearly everyone, at least in principal, is open-minded to the possibility of being wrong. But in practice, people are not. It is often unproductive to simply accuse people of being close-minded. It makes me think of the times I have been accused of close-mindedness for not drinking alcohol. Need I point out that it is close-minded to assume that everyone should enjoy drinking?

    I think the best indication of open-mindedness is the willingness to concede small points. Total conversions are far too rare to be of any use. Conceding a small point shows that you do not accept or reject arguments based on whether they support your view, but rather hold all arguments to a more objective standard.

    Olvlzl,
    I assume that the “jerk” you refer to is Austin Cline? You won’t see me coming to his defense. But in general, I tend to think that “fundamentalist” atheists are mostly just talk, that they are not actually as unforgiving as their tone in writing would suggest. Yes, words can hurt, but then I didn’t say I agreed with everything they do.

  • miller

    One clarification
    Mike, I realize your categories weren’t exactly the same as the categories I was referring to (close-minded vs open-minded). That’s why your categories are better!

  • http://rpkthoughts.blogspot.com Robert

    I can guarantee that more people will be inclined to seriously consider your views if you give them the space to not have to automatically agree with you to avoid being called irrational, stupid or whatever.

    I agree to a point… However, there are often times when it does not matter how well or kindly you present your beliefs or thoughts there will be those who are offended and become immediately defensive because you do not share their same beliefs/thoughts and as a result will see you as angry no matter what. This seems to happen often.

  • http://reasonableatheist.blogspot.com Bart Dorsey

    Mike, thanks for answering questions and sharing your beliefs with us. I’ve been mostly staying out of this conversation, but I think I have an important question to ask you.

    Do you think that all beliefs are of equal worth?

    Another way to phrase this is “Do you think that some beliefs are true, while others are false, and does it matter or not whether people believe things that are true?”

  • Steven Carr

    Mike claims there is a supernatural being who works by magic.

    I claim there is no evidence of such a being.

    I am quite willing to admit I will be proved wrong, as soon as somebody produces evidence of things being created by magic.

    In the meantime, I will decline Mike’s opportunity to describe myself as somebody who believes the world is round, but is willing to learn from flat-earthers….

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    In the meantime, I will decline Mike’s opportunity to describe myself as somebody who believes the world is round, but is willing to learn from flat-earthers

    Steven Carr, you know I think it was you on Occam’s razor who I answered at length today. You certain that William of Occam wasn’t a “flat-earther”? He was, I’m sorry to have to tell you, a Catholic priest, a Monk as I recall. Sorry, Steve, hand over that razor before it infects you.

  • Steven Carr

    MIKE
    There is far too much suffering and injustice in the world ….

    CARR
    Who believes in an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God who allows babies to die in house fires?

    Mike’s God presides over suffering that he could end in an instant.

    And Mike still worships a being that suffers that , if it existed, would show all the vices of uncaring , uncompassion that Mike would accuse anybody else of, if that person had allowed others to die in agony, without lifting a finger to help them.

  • Steven Carr

    MIKE
    There is far too much suffering and injustice in the world ….

    CARR
    Who believes in an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God who allows babies to die in house fires?

    Mike’s God presides over suffering that he could end in an instant.

    And Mike still worships a being that , if it existed, would show all the vices of uncaring , uncompassion that Mike would accuse anybody else of, if that person had allowed others to die in agony, without lifting a finger to help them.

  • monkeymind

    [de-lurking]

    Would Juergen Habermas’s concept of “discourse ethics” be relevant to this discussion? My (probably simplistic) interpretation of this concept is that people with a religious worldview can contribute and participate in the public sphere, provided that they can express their truths in a way that is universally accessible (ie w/o recourse to a sacred text.) The job of those with a secular worldview is then not so much too pass judgement on the truth claims of a particular community of faith, but to insist that arguments for or against particular public policies be expressed in a universally accessible way, ie w/o saying “god says to do it this way or we’ll burn in hell.”

    Philosophy has recurrently found in its confrontation with religious traditions (and particularly with religious writers such as Kierkegaard, who think in a post-metaphysical, but not a post- Christian vein) that it receives innovative or world-disclosing stimuli. It would not be rational to reject out of hand the conjecture that religions – as the only surviving element among the constitutive building-blocks of the Ancient cultures – manage to continue and maintain a recognized place within in the differentiated edifice of Modernity because their cognitive substance has not yet been totally exhausted. There are at any rate no good reasons for denying the possibility that religions still bear a valuable semantic potential for inspiring other people beyond the limits of the particular community of faith, once that potential is delivered in terms of its profane truth content.

    In short, post-metaphysical thought is prepared to learn from religion while remaining strictly agnostic. It insists on the difference between certainties of faith and validity claims that can be publicly criticized; but it refrains from the rationalist temptation that it can itself decide which part of the religious doctrines is rational and which part is not. Now, this ambivalent attitude to religion expresses a similar epistemic attitude which secular citizens must adopt, if they are to be able and willing to earn something from religious contributions to public debates – provided it turns out to be something that can also be spelled out o be something that can also be spelled out in a generally accessible language.

    The above quote is from the lecture “Religion in the Public Sphere,” that Habermas gave at the University of San Diego in 2005

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    olvlzl, I don’t think it makes sense to consider the be-all and end-all of Occam’s razor to be what Occam considered it to be; the concept has morphed considerably since its conception. I’m not going to belabour the actual Occam’s razor argument (actually, I prefer Sagan’s rule that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”), since that would take us off topic.

    Stephen Carr thinks he has good reason to believe there is no God. Are you willing to tolerate his position? If not, why not?

  • monkeymind

    Sorry, the first paragraph of my comment got placed in side the blockquote tag. That part is mine, the part that starts with “Philosopy…” is Habermas. Apologies!

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Lynet, he can hold whatever position he wants to. But if he’s going to give me an opening like that one I’m going to take it every time. He mocked religious believers as “flat-earthers” who he had nothing to learn from while claiming the idea of a Catholic monk as his bulwark against irrationality? Come on. The man’s spouting bigoted nonsense and being a hypocrit to boot.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Sorry I forgot this:
    I prefer Sagan’s rule that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

    Lynet, I’ve written on that one before. He borrpwed it from Marcello Truzzi, an early member of CSICOP who early on decided that the group was actually a pseudo-Skeptical group, not dedicated to exploration but to suppressing ideas they’d already made their mind up about using derision and propaganda. He’s an interesting person who should be more known.

    The idea is problematical for two reasons, who decides what is extraodinary and what are the extraodinary means that are required. That is an enormous flaw since it opens up what is supposed to be an objective process of testing to the prejudices of, well, just anyone. This violates one of the absolute bedrocks of science that it is “controlled”, that the same standards get applied to all areas of science.

    Even worse than the invitation to bias is the basic idea that the normal processes of science wouldn’t suffice to falsify claims called “extroadinary”. If the regular processes of science couldn’t find those ideas false then they are equally unable to falsify “ordinary” ideas. If Sagan’s idea was true then that cuts the legs out from under all of science. It’s pretty shocking that he wouldn’t have realized that.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Another way to phrase this is “Do you think that some beliefs are true, while others are false, and does it matter or not whether people believe things that are true?”

    Yes, I do believe some things are true and some are false and that it matters. The difficulty, of course, is knowing which things are which. As my friend Brian McLaren often says, “I’m pretty sure that I’m wrong about a third of the things I currently believe, I’m just not sure which third.” :)

    That’s why I think epistemology (questions of truth and knowledge) needs to be made secondary to ethics (questions about how to treat the Other with justice and love). For about 400 years the Western world assumed that epistemology was “first philosophy” – if we could just figure how to achieve pure and certain knowledge then we’d know how to live good and ethical lives. Unfortunately the fruit of all this effort ended up being two World Wars, mass genocide, WMD’s, environmental destruction, etc. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

    That is why some are now suggesting that ethics should be “first philosophy”. For example, Holocaust survivor and Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested that our experience of the Other is a primary fact of our own existence, thus, in his words “an ethics of responsibility precedes any objective searching after truth.”

    To put it more simply, the search for truth and falsehood should be guided first and foremost by a radical commitment to love. Without love, truth is impossible.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Great quote monkeymind! I agree with Habermas. BTW, Barack Obama said something very similar in his speech to Sojourners a while back. Has he been reading Habermas do you think? :)

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    The idea is problematical for two reasons, who decides what is extraodinary and what are the extraodinary means that are required.

    It’s a rule of thumb, that’s all. It’s not precisely formulated and it doesn’t always give the right answer. It’s just a quick way of getting an idea across without going into detail. I freely concede that the question of what is a priori unlikely (“extraordinary”) is debatable. I also freely concede that the sort of evidence that is permissible is debatable. I have opinions on both but I won’t detail them here.

    Even worse than the invitation to bias is the basic idea that the normal processes of science wouldn’t suffice to falsify claims called “extroadinary”.

    I suspect the normal processes of science will not suffice to falsify the statement that there is a china teapot orbiting somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn for a long while yet, because it’s just too big a space to search. Does this bother you?

  • monkeymind

    Has he been reading Habermas do you think? :)

    Ya think? :D

    Re: ethics and epistemology – I think there is a strong human desire to figure out how the universe “works” and to understand it in the same way we might understand a piece of machinery that we could take apart and put together again. A strong belief that is tied up with that whole approach is that the human condition (universal longings pinned to limited capacity) is somehow “fixable” with the right technology.
    What I think we’re running up against here in the 21st century is that there may just be some level of irreducible complexity inherent in the universe and that we may not ever be able to “control” nature (the Other) as much as we’d like. More power (buying power, firepower) is not really translating into peace and happiness.
    So, what I would find fault with in some neo-Atheists is the implicit belief in some kind of linear “march of progress.” What I find admirable in the discussion here is the project of finding a way to have a discussion about religious beliefs without insisting that either side has to give up anything but their insistence on being right 100% of the time!

    I think we have to figure out some way of doing civilization that is sustainable, and discussion like this can help.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    monkeymind, are you an atheist? If so, you sound like you might be the first genuinely postmodern atheist I’ve ever met! :)

    Anyhow, great thoughts!

  • Tommy Huntsman

    It is the work of the Holy Spirit to help us KNOW that “ugh” means “ugh” and not “ugh”. This is known by 5th graders. To say that what God would say then is not neccessarily what God would say now denies the work of that Holy Spirit to guide us in the understanding of His Word. To deny the Spirit means to deny the existence of God. I had some questions, but they cannot be answered here.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I suspect the normal processes of science will not suffice to falsify the statement that there is a china teapot orbiting somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn for a long while yet, because it’s just too big a space to search. Does this bother you?

    Lynet, the question doesn’t bother me. However, if you find a person who believes that there is a china teapot orbiting somewhere in the vacinity you mention I might ask them how it got there. And they aren’t able to tell me how it got there I would probably tolerate their eccentricity, unless they gave me reason to think they were a danger to themself or others. Who do you know that believes this?

    As to what you said about the matter of something being “extraordinary” any number of the established ideas of science were “extraordinary” when they were proposed. Can you verify that they were subjected to “extraordinary” tests? I’d really rather not have to go through the problems that preceeded the adoption of evolution again, things are bad enough with the creationists. And genetic inheritance, now, what would happen if Carr had to watch Fr. Mendel’s idea go through that wringer again. Oh, yes. Father Mendel, an Augustinian I seem to remember. Looks like he’s going to have to do without that bit of science as well.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    And then there are the apatheists… those of us who don’t believe it’s possible to have a fruitful discussion about the existence or non-existence of God, and so would rather discuss the mechanisms, reasons for and effects of belief. You can’t deny that belief exists.

    That sounds like an interesting conversation to have too, John!

  • monkeymind

    monkeymind, are you an atheist?

    I have been accused of being a “closet atheist” but I don’t believe it.
    I’m in the Wittgensteinian “what cannot be spoken of must be passed over in silence” camp. I tend to think of fundamentalism as a symptom of a cultural sickness rather than its cause. I have met too many good religious people in various peace and justice movements to think that the abolition of religion would be an unmitigated gain.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Then why do Christians constantly tell me how their faith is the only true faith?

    Because like I said, sometimes we suck at embracing the second option too. :)

  • Pingback: Emergent Christianity « Everyday Atheism

  • Steven Carr

    OLVLZ
    He mocked religious believers as “flat-earthers” who he had nothing to learn from while claiming the idea of a Catholic monk as his bulwark against irrationality? Come on. The man’s spouting bigoted nonsense and being a hypocrit to boot.

    CARR
    What the hell is this guy on about?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    I have been accused of being a “closet atheist” but I don’t believe it.
    I’m in the Wittgensteinian “what cannot be spoken of must be passed over in silence” camp.

    Ah, well, I knew you were a “postmodern” anyway. (You can’t appreciate Wittgenstein and not be, IMO. ;) )

    BTW, you might appreciate Peter Rollins’ book “How (Not) to Speak of God”. He begins the introduction with that exact quote from the Tractatus, upholding it as true and valuable, but then pairs it (paradoxically) with the insight that “That which we cannot speak of is the one subject about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.” The rest of the (short) book is an exploration of how to both speak of God and not speak of God at the same time. In fact at one point he even explains why Christians must be both theists and a/theists since we are always in a position of believing in God while remaining dubious about what we believe about God. Anyhow, for only being a 140 pages long, it contains some surprisingly deep philosophy and theology.

  • monkeymind

    Peter Rollins’ book “How (Not) to Speak of God”

    I think I have heard of that book before. That’s basically apophatic theology or the Via Negativa, right? Sounds worth checking out if someone is reviving it in western Christianity.

    Wittgenstein I think means something specific by “speaking” and “silence” in that quote – he’s not just dismissing “what cannot be spoken of” as unimportant or to be ignored, just that it much be approached indirectly.
    This is one of my favorite from the Tractatus:

    6.53
    The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other — he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy — but it would be the only strictly correct method.

    That and

    We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.

  • monkeymind

    Mike C: I either just failed to make a comment on your blog, or I made the same comment 4 times. Sorry!

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    CARR
    What the hell is this guy on about?

    Maybe you’ll find the answer with that “flat-earther” Occam. Don’t try higher math, though, infected by Descartes, Pascal, and any number of other “flat-earthers”. Lucky you, no one is certain if the guy who invented Algebra was one, though the Al-Maqala was first brought to Europe in the 11th or 12th century and, almost certainly, would have be copied by those flat-earthers in the monastic scriptoria. Better not risk it, Carr. And, “hell”. Carr? Looks like you’re already infected.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I have been accused of being a “closet atheist” but I don’t believe it.

    Now that’s a great sentence, both for being funny and being a logical puzzle that I can’t figure out. Wish I knew the emoticon for a wink.

  • Steven Carr

    OLZL
    Maybe you’ll find the answer with that “flat-earther” Occam. Don’t try higher math, though, infected by Descartes, Pascal, and any number of other “flat-earthers”. Lucky you, no one is certain if the guy who invented Algebra was one, though the Al-Maqala was first brought to Europe in the 11th or 12th century and, almost certainly, would have be copied by those flat-earthers in the monastic scriptoria. Better not risk it, Carr. And, “hell”. Carr? Looks like you’re already infected.

    CARR
    What the hell is this guy raving about? Who mentioned Occam?

  • Tommy Huntsman

    What existed before time began? What will exist when time as we know it ends. What can be everywhere at the same time? What can touch everyone in the same way? God is…. drum roll please… TRUTH! When man began to speak, Adam said to Eve ,”You are naked and you look hot!” Eve said, “You embarrassed me. Kill that animal and make me some clothes!” God spoke a perfect world into existence. He allowed us to speak. It is the words of man that has brought sin into the world. It is God’s Holy Spirit of His TRUTH that convicts us and gives us the true meaning of the words we say to others. He that has an ear let him hear. Read the Bible with the understanding that God is the all powerful and all knowing TRUTH that is touching your heart. The pain in our heart, the confusion we feel is the lie we don’t want to give up. If you cannot accept truth, you are truly the “flat-earther”. If you cannot accept truth, you truly are the “closet atheist”. And no one “invented” Algebra, it was given by the truth.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Tommy Huntsman said, Nice try, but I didn’t bring up any of those favorite dodges of fundametalist atheism. And, I hate to point it out, all of math, logic and science are inventions of human beings trying to understand their physical experience. Any application of them to the non-physical claims of religion are futile. They’re not even that good at doing entirely non-theistic metaphysics.

    I am assuming you don’t really believe that last one about no one ‘invented’ algebra. Because quite a few human beings had a hand in that one, including Descartes, the “theist”.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C
    Peter Rollins’ book “How (Not) to Speak of God”

    I think I have heard of that book before. That’s basically apophatic theology or the Via Negativa, right? Sounds worth checking out if someone is reviving it in western Christianity.

    Definitely via negativa… and he does a good job of explaining how it is the theological foundation for what has become the Emerging Church movement.

    We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.

    That’s exactly how I feel about it. Science is great, but in one sense all the truths of science are “trivial” – they don’t answer the big, existential questions of life. I don’t really care why the sky is blue or how evolution works, I want to know about meaning and purpose and goodness and beauty.

  • Mriana

    I have been accused of being a “closet atheist” but I don’t believe it.

    Yes, I’ve been accused of being an atheist too. Thing is, I don’t believe in the theistic god, which, like Spong, makes me a non-theist. Then of course, people believe Spong is an atheist also. Whatever. I don’t trip over it though. I figure I’m in good company. Currently and funny enough, I’m catching hell from a couple people on the Spong board. Go figure. :roll: :lol:

    That’s exactly how I feel about it. Science is great, but in one sense all the truths of science are “trivial” – they don’t answer the big, existential questions of life. I don’t really care why the sky is blue or how evolution works, I want to know about meaning and purpose and goodness and beauty.

    I think we all find and connect to this in different ways.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    CARR
    What the hell is this guy raving about? Who mentioned Occam?

    Oh, the last few days have just been a demonstration to show you what it’s like when someone is doing what you have been, only I don’t think what I said about anything was inaccurate, though one of them was slightly unfair. Only slightly.

    You ever hear the story of Churchill – the real one not the pantomime one that your heros like to parade around – drunkenly ploughing through the streets of London and knocking down some duchess or other.
    “Mr. Chruchill, you’re drunk and disgusting,”.
    “Madame, you’re hideous and disgusting, and tomorrow I’ll be sober.” at least that’s the version I was told.

  • Pingback: Friendly Atheist » A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 6)

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Mike C: I either just failed to make a comment on your blog, or I made the same comment 4 times. Sorry!

    Sorry, looks like it didn’t go through.

  • monkeymind

    I just tried again and it worked. Must remember correct sequence: first sleep, then coffee.

  • Darryl

    Science is great, but in one sense all the truths of science are “trivial” – they don’t answer the big, existential questions of life. I don’t really care why the sky is blue or how evolution works, I want to know about meaning and purpose and goodness and beauty.

    I don’t think the big questions can be answered by religion. Religion gives answers, but they are all about us, not about any transcendent meaning or purpose, or absolute goodness and beauty. The only answers we are likely to get to the big questions are our own–just as it has always been. Our problem is not the answers, but the questions, and what they assume. The truths of science are more true than those of religion (since they’re based upon something more solid and objective than imagination), and therefore they are not trivial.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Darryl, there are many important things which science can’t teach us. How can it support due process, equal justice under the law, the right to healthcare, “rights” of any kind? These aren’t questions science can deal with except by pretending that some field like congnitive science can and, as Steven Pinker’s career is showing us, they are most likely to deny that things like those are valid. I believe that this is because they foolishly think their science can deal with questions of that kind and when they fail, well, they’ve got to come to some conclusion or lose face. Those very valuable rights were discovered from the study of history and philosophy, not science. I can’t believe that you would want to do without them if science can’t find them , because they can’t. The typical response to bringing this up is to pretend that these are matters of “neural science” or some such nonsense. That is folk-science, it’s not real science.

    The facts of history are facts. A lot of them are known to be real, unlike many of the theories of the behavioral sciences. Those theories and entire schools of the behavioral sciences rise, have their high point and then disappear. One after another has and a lot of their ideas go with them into oblivion, some prove more practical and are adapted to successor schools but a lot of them don’t. History is a better guide for politics and society than Pinker’s currently fashionable “science”.

    Religion shouldn’t try to do science and real scientists who are religious don’t mix the two. The few cases of those who do are outlyers who should be thrown out of the general discussion of that matter. Science can evaluate things like the creationists claims and dispose of them, at least as science, but it can’t touch the non-physical assertions of religion.

  • Darryl

    [W]e need to recognize the limits of our own reason and admit that while we have many possibilities with varying degrees of probability, very often we are faced with two or more possibilities which we have no conclusive way to decide between….In my opinion theism and atheism are two such possibilities since ultimately we are talking about the existence or non-existence of entities beyond the bounds of the observable universe.

    Mike, you have yet to answer me on the point that I have made more than once, so I will make it again. By putting your god “beyond the bounds of the observable universe” you are able to argue that the theism/atheism controversy can never be resolved. But, this is not correct. You are, in my opinion, using theism and a Deus absconditus when it helps your argument about the existence of god, and referring to the God of the Bible and Jesus when it helps your arguments about the love of God and the particulars of your faith. These two gods are not the same. The God of the Bible, and especially Jesus, is observable. If it is not, then your faith is empty; it has no miraculous god that acts in the affairs of people. If you deny this is the case, then you must explain why there are no tangible, observable, and verifiable miracles today as there were in days of old. Because you should expect miracles every day, the fact that your God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–is never seen or heard or its operations detected is the most powerful argument against its existence.

    And then there are the apatheists… those of us who don’t believe it’s possible to have a fruitful discussion about the existence or non-existence of God, and so would rather discuss the mechanisms, reasons for and effects of belief. You can’t deny that belief exists.

    John has the right idea about what ought to be the topic of discussion between atheists and religionists.

  • Darryl

    olvlzl, no ism, no ist, why are you stating the obvious? You are answering charges that no one is making? Again, you need to pay closer attention to what I actually say rather than what you imagine I say.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Darryl, it’s been my experience that saying things like that on places like PZ Myers’ blog will cause a firestorm of accusations of everything from creationism to theism to God knows what. And I do mean that quite literally because I’ve done it. I don’t believe that these ideas are actually current in most of the atheist blogs I’ve been to. Perhaps that would explain my reaction, though I might just need to read less into things.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Darryl, I’m pretty sure that I already addressed those question a long time ago over at Dan Harlow’s blog. I really don’t have a desire to rehash that whole debate one more time.

  • Miko

    Darryl, there are many important things which science can’t teach us. How can it support due process, equal justice under the law, the right to healthcare, “rights” of any kind?

    Of course it can’t: science deals with what is true, not with what is desirable. But none of these things come from religion either. Rather, they’re asserted as a bastion against anarchy. Things like law or rights exist for no reason other than the fact that the majority have decided that they would prefer that they do exist and are willing to do what it takes to preserve them.

  • Darryl

    Darryl, I’m pretty sure that I already addressed those question a long time ago over at Dan Harlow’s blog. I really don’t have a desire to rehash that whole debate one more time.

    I guess this is another case where we’ll have to disagree. You did a lot of commenting on Dan’s blog, but you didn’t answer this set of questions. Once it became clear that you weren’t going to address this, I just gave up and quite blogging on the matter. The last comment you made to me was this:

    Sorry Darryl, I didn’t realize that you were asking for “traces” of modern day miracles. I thought you were talking about Biblical miracles. I agree that if miracles happened today they could theoretically be examined by science. I’m not aware of any group that has attempted to do such a thing (i.e. document supposed miracles and study what is happening from an empirical standpoint). Are you? It’d be a fascinating study.

    Question #1: Why do you toggle from the theistic god to the Biblical God?

    Questions #2-4: Don’t you think miracles happen today? If not, why not? If so, why are there no miracles today as in the past?

    Question #5: Is it conceivable that no group attempts such a study of miracles as you mentioned because there are no set of daily-occurring phenomena with the characteristics of God-of-the-Bible miracles that cannot be explained naturalistically?

  • http://troublewitheverything.blogspot.com John

    To paraphrase Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “Miracles? We ain’t got no miracles. We don’t need no miracles. We don’t have to show you any stinking miracles!”

    There are marvels, to be sure, but no authenticated miracles. Miracles are events that happen contrary to all known natural laws, and I don’t know of any miracles, ever.

    I should point out, also, that the sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke said something to the effect that any sufficiently advanced technology would seem like magic (a miracle) to a less advanced people. The more you know, the less you will believe in miracles. And I think that’s just marvellous!

  • Darryl

    John,

    Touché.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Question #1: Why do you toggle from the theistic god to the Biblical God?

    There’s no difference. According to your definitions perhaps there is, but not in the way I conceive of them.

    Questions #2-4: Don’t you think miracles happen today? If not, why not? If so, why are there no miracles today as in the past?

    Yes, I do think some do still happen today, though I think they are probably about as rare as they were in Bible times. (You are aware that hundreds of years typically separate most of the dramatic miracle stories in the Bible?)

    Question #5: Is it conceivable that no group attempts such a study of miracles as you mentioned because there are no set of daily-occurring phenomena with the characteristics of God-of-the-Bible miracles that cannot be explained naturalistically?

    You tell me how to predict when and where exactly miracles are about to happen and you and I will go study them. Perhaps the reason there are no studies of miracles is because miracles by definition are singular and unrepeatable events and naturalisti explanations require regularity.

  • Miko

    Perhaps the reason there are no studies of miracles is because miracles by definition are singular and unrepeatable events and naturalisti explanations require regularity.

    Quantum theory on the probability of particles tunneling through solid matter suggests that occassionally I should be able to walk up to a wall and pass right through. However, the probability is so low that such a thing has most likely never occured before on that scale. Nonetheless, physicists have no problem studying it.

  • Darryl

    Concerning miracles, you said:

    Yes, I do think some do still happen today, though I think they are probably about as rare as they were in Bible times. (You are aware that hundreds of years typically separate most of the dramatic miracle stories in the Bible?)

    Do a close reading of the N.T. and tell me what the Christians expected about the frequency of miracles.

    You tell me how to predict when and where exactly miracles are about to happen and you and I will go study them. Perhaps the reason there are no studies of miracles is because miracles by definition are singular and unrepeatable events and naturalisti explanations require regularity.

    I have already refuted this argument over at Dan’s blog. Ask a paleontologist if he/she scientifically studies dinosaurs–creatures that only occurred once, and I doubt will come again. Ask a criminologist how he/she solves a crime when it cannot be repeated? Finally, who says that miracles are by definition “singular and unrepeatable events?” Can we not imagine a category of miracles that recur?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    I have already refuted this argument over at Dan’s blog. Ask a paleontologist if he/she scientifically studies dinosaurs–creatures that only occurred once, and I doubt will come again. Ask a criminologist how he/she solves a crime when it cannot be repeated?

    Okay, so how do you propose we apply the methods of paleontology or criminology to the study of miracles? (I’m serious. It’s a worthwhile avenue to pursue IMO.)

    Finally, who says that miracles are by definition “singular and unrepeatable events?” Can we not imagine a category of miracles that recur?

    Sure you can imagine it. But what does that have to do with the way miracles are described in the Bible? I see no pattern of regularly recurring miracles described there. Even Jesus’ miracles of healing or multiplying food seemed to happen in a slightly different way each time. (Same with Moses’ miracles in the desert come to think of it. Didn’t he get in trouble with God because he expected the water to come the same way twice?)

  • Darryl

    Okay, so how do you propose we apply the methods of paleontology or criminology to the study of miracles? (I’m serious. It’s a worthwhile avenue to pursue IMO.)

    That was not the point. The point was that there are plenty of scientists that study things that only occur once and do not repeat.

    But what does that have to do with the way miracles are described in the Bible? I see no pattern of regularly recurring miracles described there. Even Jesus’ miracles of healing or multiplying food seemed to happen in a slightly different way each time. (Same with Moses’ miracles in the desert come to think of it. Didn’t he get in trouble with God because he expected the water to come the same way twice?)

    Healing the sick was a part of the ministry of Jesus, right? Millions of Christians believe that God heals people every day, don’t they? Shouldn’t those miracles be examined?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    MikoMay 22, 2007 at 1:37 pm.
    I’m glad we agree that there isn’t a “thing” there as such. Now if you could just get Dawkins and Dennett to cut out the nonsense about the genetic basis of other, similar “things” that have no definition, no known existence as a discreet things. My favorite of those is the silly line about the inheritance of religious faith through genes. That one is so totally loopy (considering the number and variety of “things” called “religion”) and the fact that if it was true it would give the fundamentalists their final “proof” that there was a God who so wanted to be known to mankind that he encoded “faith” in our very molecules. Dennett’s idea is so amazingly naive that I almost choked when I heard him gassing on about its being the final nail in the coffin of religion.

    You might be interested in what Gould wrote on this subject here.

    http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/WWWfeatdisplay.cgi?1997062647F

    Old but good.

    I do think that all of the above doesn’t negate that “the separation of church and state” and all of those ideas I listed earlier exist and are very important.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Darryl, you don’t want me to go on about the scientific “study” of miracles. But I will if you ask me to.

  • Miko

    Now if you could just get Dawkins and Dennett to cut out the nonsense about the genetic basis of other, similar “things” that have no definition, no known existence as a discreet things. My favorite of those is the silly line about the inheritance of religious faith through genes.

    I don’t recall Dawkins ever saying anything like this and doubt he would. Haven’t read Dennett, if that’s your source for it. But yes, religion changes much too fast for evolution to keep up; the whole evolutionary advantage of a large brain in the first place was to allow rapid adaptment to change. However, religion is definitely carried through memetic inheritance, so you end up with basically the same result through a different cause.

    On the other hand, it is entirely possible for a basic conceptual idea to spread genetically. Dawkins, for example, would argue that morality is partially genetic and has evolutionary survival value. Since animals besides humans (i.e., those typically not said to share our sense of consciousness) also display moral behavior, there may be something to this theory, although I’d personally attribute it more to the increased need of group solidarity for protection from raiders at the start of the Agricultural Reformation.

    You might be interested in what Gould wrote on this subject here.

    http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/WWWfeatdisplay.cgi?1997062647F

    The link is dead.

    I do think that all of the above doesn’t negate that “the separation of church and state” and all of those ideas I listed earlier exist and are very important.

    Full agreement there (unless you’re talking about metaphysical rather than epistemic existence, in which case I have no idea what you’re talking about). They can’t be justified scientifically or logically (unless someone can come up with an axiomization of good and bad…), but I’m sure that all of us could offer rhetorically convincing arguments as to why they’re better than the alternatives.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I don’t recall Dawkins ever saying anything like this and doubt he would.

    Oh, I did. On Terry Gross. He speculated that it had something to do with the reproductive benefit of children minding their parents and so surviving to reproduce.

    I’ll point out that this habit of both the Evolutionary Psychologists (inherited from the Sociobiologists) and the worst of the cognitive scientists is entirely speculative, smells of reification and conflation, is based in absolutely no fossil or other physical evidence. It creates social settings, family structures and even total enviornments out of thin air. And is exactly the same kind of explanatory fable that Genesis and the rest of the “historical” books of the bible consist of. Gould in the link refers to “just-so tales”. Why is it all right for Dawkins and Dennett to do it but wrong for other people to do it?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Here’s the passage, it’s in one of Gould’s New York Review articles about Dennett.

    The task of evolutionary psychology then turns into a speculative search for reasons why a behavior that may harm us now must once have originated for adaptive purposes. To take an illustration proposed seriously by Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, a sweet tooth leads to unhealthy obesity today but must have arisen as an adaptation. Wright therefore states:

    The classic example of an adaptation that has outlived its logic is the sweet tooth. Our fondness for sweetness was designed for an environment in which fruit existed but candy didn’t.

    This ranks as pure guesswork in the cocktail party mode; Wright presents no neurological evidence of a brain module for sweetness, and no paleontological data about ancestral feeding. This “just-so story” therefore cannot stand as a “classic example of an adaptation” in any sense deserving the name of science.
    STEPHEN JAY GOULD New York Review of Books, June 26, 1997

    I don’t know why the link isn’t working. I’m not so good with links.

  • Karen

    There have been scientific studies of the “miracles” of prayer and faith “healing.”

    None of them have shown any evidence that such miracles actually take place.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Oh, Karen, you had to bring those stupid “prayer studies” up. Here let’s see if this link works.

    http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/2007/02/arguing-about-total-waste-of-time-while.html

  • Miko

    Oh, I did. On Terry Gross. He speculated that it had something to do with the reproductive benefit of children minding their parents and so surviving to reproduce.

    I’ll point out that this habit of both the Evolutionary Psychologists (inherited from the Sociobiologists) and the worst of the cognitive scientists is entirely speculative, smells of reification and conflation, is based in absolutely no fossil or other physical evidence.

    I can’t even imagine how that could be based on fossil evidence, unless there’s some physical distinction between children who listen to parents and those who don’t. ;-)

    That said, there is a survival benefit from believing your parents when they say the stove is hot without actually having to touch it. That’s not a reason to think its genetic, although that is a viable hypothesis given the current data. Short of extremely unethical genetic tampering, I can’t imagine how the hypothesis could be made falsifiable either way.

    Gould:

    This ranks as pure guesswork in the cocktail party mode; Wright presents no neurological evidence of a brain module for sweetness, and no paleontological data about ancestral feeding. This “just-so story” therefore cannot stand as a “classic example of an adaptation” in any sense deserving the name of science.

    This again has the same problem of being apparently unfalsifiable. However, it may still be a worthwhile speculation: it all depends what you’re trying to prove. If Wright was trying to argue that it actually happened, he failed miserably (presumably). However, if he was arguing that such a thing was consistent with the available evidence, he (probably) succeeded. Since arguments like these are typically given to counter “Intelligent Design”‘s claims of “irreducible complexity,” showing that an explanation exists is usually more important that showing that it’s the correct explanation in these specific instances.

  • Miko

    Oh, Karen, you had to bring those stupid “prayer studies” up. Here let’s see if this link works.

    http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/2007/02/arguing-about-total-waste-of-time-while.html

    I’ll agree that they’re stupid studies, but as far as I know every one of them was funded and run by people who were expecting the studies to produce positive results. Sure, words like “prayer” aren’t defined in a scientific sense and it may be difficult to account for variations in individual practice, but if the proponents of prayer are correct, millions of people are successful in requesting favors from their various deities every day.

    Now, if I had my way, another study like that would never be done again, seeing as the evidence that they’re not going to work is pretty conclusive by now. Of course, after the Templeton study’s failure, they concluded that the fact that it didn’t work meant that more research needed to be done in the area. Perhaps they realize that if they keep repeating the same flawed model over and over again, they’ll eventually get a positive (but non-reproducable) result by sheer chance, at which point they can decide never to do a follow-up study.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Miko, the problem isn’t the speculation itself, though that’s not without problems, it’s when you combine the speculation with a physical “cause” that the worst problems start. These guys litereally make words flesh.

    “Intelligent Design” that passes itself off as science is pseudo-science because even if their entire story were true, there would be absolutely no way for science, which deals ONLY in the knowable physical universe, could get past the materail to the “designer”. Science can’t be done about anything outside of the physical universe, it just can’t. As a personal speculation kept outside of science it is the believer’s business, as pretended science it’s everyones’ business and it’s fully deserving of getting thrown out of the science classroom. A person who believes in evolution by natural selection (and I’d throw in those “spandrels” of the Gould school as well as other mechanisms that will probably be discovered) can believe in a God and that he created the living world through evolution by natural selection, but that isn’t science. It is religion, not science, and most of it is pretty bad religion too.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I know every one of them was funded and run by people who were expecting the studies to produce positive results.

    I’d have a problem with that fact as being a disqualification. It’s the old “they wanted such and such a result and so the study is bogus”. Well, it’s not the desire of the researcher that makes a study bogus, it’s flawed design, not carrying it out the right way, fraud, honest mistakes, bad analysis, etc. Those are what make a study a bad study. I doubt there are more than a few studies out of a hundred that a general result wasn’t desired by the researcher. And it’s almost a sure thing that the researcher wanted a result to publish or report. If we had to throw out everything on that basis we’d be left with very little. I’d imagine the entire popular literature of science, philosophy, etc. would have to go.

    I’m not wildly enthusiastic about Templeton but they’ve got the right to put their results out and take their chances with the rest of the studies.

  • Miko

    I’d have a problem with that fact as being a disqualification. It’s the old “they wanted such and such a result and so the study is bogus”. Well, it’s not the desire of the researcher that makes a study bogus, it’s flawed design, not carrying it out the right way, fraud, honest mistakes, bad analysis, etc.

    I was not intending it as a disqualification: rather, I mean to say that they cannot get the results that they want despite having complete control over how the experiments were done. Thus, the failures do not come from using some esoteric or nonstandard definition of prayer but from the simple fact that they want to test something that is not going to have positive results under any circumstances.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Millions of Christians believe that God heals people every day, don’t they? Shouldn’t those miracles be examined?

    Absolutely! Go for it. But what exactly will you be looking for to confirm it was a miracle? I mean, what would you expect to find?

    And recall that I distinguished between two types of miracles: 1) those in which God simply directs natural processes to produce miraculous results (e.g. the Exodus plagues) in which case you should expect to be able to find natural causes for the event; and 2) those in which God actually alters natural processes (e.g. some of the miracles of Jesus). I assume you’d be looking for the latter type (though wouldn’t miracles of healing more likely be of the former?), but again, what exactly would you be looking for to confirm whether or not the event was miraculous?

  • Steven Carr

    MIKE
    Okay, so how do you propose we apply the methods of paleontology or criminology to the study of miracles?

    CARR
    SO if somebody was walking around with no heart, you would scoff at the idea that nedical science could confirm the lack of a heart, because that person would be the only person who had no heart, and science could not replicate such a condition?

  • Darryl

    But what exactly will you be looking for to confirm it was a miracle? I mean, what would you expect to find?

    Well, not being a scientist, I would rather not try to answer your question; perhaps someone else wants to take a stab at that. I’m just glad to hear you agree with me that miraculous claims can be studied by science.

  • Miko

    Absolutely! Go for it. But what exactly will you be looking for to confirm it was a miracle? I mean, what would you expect to find?

    Something that wouldn’t have happened anyway. Haldane’s “Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian,” to give the evolution-disproof example. Taking the example of medicine, it’s curious that ‘miraculous cures’ seem to affect mainly those being treated by doctors for the very condition they’re cured of. And when I say “mainly,” I mean something so close to “all” as to be indistinguishable from it. As Dawkins has pointed out, the cure rate for cancer patients going on pilgramages to the big shrines is actually lower than the overall rate of spontaneous remission. Of course, we don’t fully understand spontaneous remission yet; you could claim those as your miracles if you’d like…for now.

    Or, if you believe the Catholics, we should have an inexhaustable supply of Jesus’ DNA available for testing that could settle the matter right away. ;-)

  • Miko

    Although we have just discovered an immaculately conceived shark

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I’ve got to say, Miko, that of all the people I’ve discussed these ideas with on blogs, you are the most reasonsable.

    Darryl, a miracle, by the very definition of the word, is that it is an occurance outside the natural order and that alone would make the actual miracle, if those exist, impossible to confirm or deny. The effects of claimed miracles that aren’t just a matter of opinion could be checked to see if the effects were real and on very rare occasions the process of bringing them about could be checked for fraud but that isn’t usually possible. James Randi style magic isn’t useful if you really want to know what is going on since it is entirely possible to reproduce effects that only appear to be the same thing but which obviosly aren’t. That’s what the profession of magician is all about. Randi himself has not been subjected to his own methods, sysematically and by those competent in his skills. I’d also point out that the psychologists who make up a large part of the scientists in CSICOP (they are actually in the minority of that “scientific” group) would find large parts of their accepted research base disappear overnight if things could be thrown out by the standards of “debunking”. I’m not saying that it isn’t useful to find real bunk but the CSICOPs have had an obcession to destroy any research into parapsychology, even lying about the honesty and competence of somf of its researchers, and so have thrown their hands in with methods they know aren’t really honest scientific inquiry. It was the outrage I felt when I began looking into this question that has led me to study the CSICOP MO and to see that they’re a bunch of frauds, inquiry wise. Since their one attempt at science was a total disaster “sTARBABY” (look for Dennis Rawlins’ article online) they should limit themselves to going after phony faith healers and the kinds of mediums who rob people of large amounts of money.

    “Miracles” that are claimed to have happened once in history, the claims of the virgin birth for example, and have left no physicial evidence are entirely outside of the reach of science. Without physical evidence there is nothing to study, with the claim that it was a unique event there is no possible comparison.

    I hope you realize that this isn’t a requirement to believe any claimed miracle, it means you’re free to believe it or not or to just not deal with it. I’m all in favor of freedom to think for yourself.

  • Karen

    These sources are rather dated; probably there are more recent studies out there. If they’ve reached different conclusions I assume we’d have heard about them in the popular media:

    Louis Rose, a British psychiatrist, investigated hundreds of alleged faith-healing cures. As his interest became well known, he received communications from healers and patients throughout the world. He sent each correspondent a questionnaire and sought corroborating information from physicians. In Faith Healing [Penguin Books 1971], he concluded, “I have been unsuccessful. After nearly twenty years of work I have yet to find one ‘miracle cure’; and without that (or, alternatively, massive statistics which others must provide) I cannot be convinced of the efficacy of what is commonly termed faith healing.” [1]

    During the early 1970s, Minnesota surgeon William Nolen, M.D., attended a service conducted by Katherine Kuhlman, the leading evangelical healer of that period. After noting the names of 25 people who had been “miraculously healed,” he was able to perform follow-up interviews and examinations. Among other things, he discovered that one woman who had been announced as cured of “lung cancer” actually had Hodgkin’s disease – which was unaffected by the experience. Another woman with cancer of the spine had discarded her brace and followed Ms. Kuhlman’s enthusiastic command to run across the stage. The following day her backbone collapsed, and four months later she died. Overall, not one person with organic disease had been helped. Dr. Nolen reported his findings, which included observations of several other healers, in Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Karen, I read a book by Nolen, if I’m remembering that far back correctly, it wasn’t science he was doing, it was reporting, at best.
    The other one doesn’t sound like real science either, it hardly seems controled. I’ll point out that if a real researcher in something held to be parascience claimed these as a positive result the “Skeptics” would be all over them. There is simply no way to study prayer scientifically. Explain how you would confirm that “prayer” was present at any particular trial? Define what it was? It’s not enough to have someone testify that they are “praying” because it’s possible they would be doing the different “things” at different times. I will point out that in the parapsychological tests that have been done by real researchers that these things are controlled, with postive results in some of them but they are still rejected by the very same “Skeptics” who might crow about these “research projects”.

  • Miko

    I will point out that in the parapsychological tests that have been done by real researchers that these things are controlled, with postive results in some of them

    Do you have an example?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Miko, the papers by Utts and Hyman are very enlightening, particularly Utts response to Hyman.

    http://anson.ucdavis.edu/~utts/psipapers.html

    The parts about meta-analysis are particularly interesting in light of the attempt by CSICOPs to pooh-pooh meta-analysis, especially the scientists who generally accept exactly the same methods in their own fields.

    Ray Hyman is interesting. I didn’t pay any attention to this stuff until a few years back when I was looking to review some statistics. Someone said that Jessica Utts textbook was a good one, it’s pretty expensive so I wanted to find out more about her and visited her U.C. Davis faculty website and started reading the papers she had there. I was familiar with Hyman from having seen him on an old Nova program. I remembered wondering how he could endorse Randi’s “debunking” by slight of hand since so much of psychology could be “debunked” in exactly the same way. I’ve had to come to the conclusion that the “Skeptics”, at least when they are dealing with competent lab scientists apply double standards and literally make up flaws that aren’t there. I’m not endorsing parapsycology, just saying that they’ve got some positive results and should be able to continue their work.

    I really do think that Paul Kurtz and a few of his close friends have been very harmful to intellectual freedom and honesty. I think they’re to blame for a lot of the frat-boy style ridicule and hazing in “Skepticism”. I’m sorry to have to point out but he is also behind quite a bit of organized atheism, including that found on line. With much the same nastiness. I’ve always thought that you guys would do a lot better with John Mortimer as a figurehead than someone with a permanent sneer and a snarl. John Mortimer is a pleasant and fair kind of athist with a sense of fun. I wrote a piece to that effect a few months back.

  • Miko

    Miko, the papers by Utts and Hyman are very enlightening, particularly Utts response to Hyman.

    http://anson.ucdavis.edu/~utts/psipapers.html

    Based on the first paper listed:

    I think there are definitely some “psi phenomenae” that are worth studying, but I do have to question some of their methods and results.

    While they start with p-values, they quickly move over to “effect sizes” and claim that these are a more accurate measure. This is problematic because “effect sizes” on smaller samples can be misleading and give false positives. Their general methodology seems to be using p-values on large groups of people in an exploratory phase and then trying for similar “effect sizes” on those who did well on the first phase. Unfortunately, they don’t note that the results in the first stage is valid only in an exploratory sense. Also, by switching to “effect sizes,” they drastically increase the probability that the results in the follow-up stages will be due to pure chance.

    Most problematic, they admit that not all of their experiments used the same precautions to ensure accurate results and provide rather sketchy details on the exceptions (hidden away in an appendix).

    For remote viewing, they note that “free response” experiments were more successful than “forced choice” experiments. However, the results of a “free response” experiment are necessarily subjective (because it’s up for the experimenters to determine whether the response is a match or not).

    They present conclusions that don’t follow from the data such as:

    3. Mass-screening efforts found that about one percent of those who volunteered to be tested were consistently successful at remote viewing. This indicates that remote viewing is an ability that differs across individuals, much like athletic ability or musical talent.

    Since there definition of “statistically significant” was such that 5% of those experimented upon should have had significant results by pure chance, the fact that 1% were ‘consistently’ more successful where the word ‘consistently’ is not quantified is actually completely meaningless.

    Likewise, the fact that experiments in which participants were given feedback after each guess detected higher levels of psychic ability casts doubt on their whole program. (For one thing, they really shouldn’t have been doing that particular experiment in the first place unless the study was specifically designed to test that. For another, if the results were genuine, why should it matter if they’re kept appraised of their success rate?)

    Finally, they tested a lot of different phenomena (clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition) and got very similar results for each, which is odd if these were actually distinct phenomena. The similarities direct me to think that something might have been off with the experiments.

    Do such phenomena actually exist? I have no idea. But the evidence here really isn’t convincing to me and doesn’t justify their claim that “psychic functioning has been well established,” especially since many of the results cited are solely exploratory.

    I’ve always thought that you guys would do a lot better with John Mortimer as a figurehead than someone with a permanent sneer and a snarl. John Mortimer is a pleasant and fair kind of athist with a sense of fun.

    I’ve never thought we needed a figurehead. :-)

    I’m not endorsing parapsycology, just saying that they’ve got some positive results and should be able to continue their work.

    Is anyone trying to stop their work? Being skeptical of it, sure: scientists would be skeptical of a paper saying the Earth revolved around the Sun; it’s what we do, and parapsychologists should expect the same.

    That said, I’ve always considered Vegas the world’s largest ongoing experiment in predicting the outcome of events and in influencing mechanical random-number generators. I’m sure the casinos will let us know if any reliable psychics drop by.