A few weeks ago, I posted an excerpt from a new book called True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism, edited by Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer.
Their goal was to refute some of the claims made by popular atheists. While I don’t normally post excerpts from Christian books, I though this one would be interesting because the editors agreed to respond to your comments (and criticism).
And Tom Gilson has done just that. Below is his response to many of the points you all made. I inserted links where I thought they would be helpful, but his response is otherwise unedited:
I will begin with a word of appreciation to Hemant Mehta for opening this conversation, and giving me a chance to respond to comments concerning the excerpt from True Reason that was posted on his blog.
There were a number of questions and concerns raised, and while I can’t address them all, I’ve chosen those that seemed most at the heart of your concerns and the message of our book.
To start, several people asked, “What is New Atheism?” DaveUcannotaknow responded, “It’s mostly another stink-label assigned by Christians.” Actually, it appears to have been coined by Gary Wolf (not known for his theism) in Wired about eight years ago. For the purposes of the book, we took it to comprise the strain of popular atheism led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and (to a lesser extent; we didn’t address him in our book) Daniel Dennett. It’s marked not only by disbelief in God, but by a strong, crusading anti-religious fervor.
Another great question came from Dave Wildermuth, who asked, “how does one justify the claim that science and Christianity are compatible when so many Bible stories have been shown by science to be false or impossible?” We would say that God makes himself known through both Scripture and nature. (This is an age-old understanding of God’s self-revelation, by the way, and not an ad hoc addition thrown on Christianity since Lyell and Darwin.) My view of creation and the Flood are informed by both Bible and science, and at this stage of my understanding, I personally believe in an old earth and a regional flood. There is nothing there that is inconsistent with science. If you consider biblical miracles also to be “shown … to be false or impossible,” that’s the consequence of philosophical naturalism, a metaphysical position, not a finding of science.
Enrique M. wrote several questions:
a) Did any of the scientists listed as theists demonstrate or claimed to have demonstrated the existence of the biblical god with science? No? So their personal belief in regards to a god are unjustified scientifically.
b) Literally interpreting the bible, word for word, would you say that it is a work of science?
c) Could you name a beneficial action that only a theist can make?
Beliefs concerning God don’t require a scientific justification. Science is not our only means of acquiring reliable knowledge. The Bible is not a work of science, and no one thinks it is. And theism neither assumes nor predicts that there are beneficial actions only theists can make, other than proper worship of God.
Lizard, Keane, and Jim also asked specific questions that I’ll cover in other contexts below.
True Reason covered one, two-part thesis, the first being that New Atheists have proclaimed themselves the party of reason, but their practice does not live up to their proclamation. As if to prove our point, I noticed considerable name-calling in the comments, along the lines of troglodyte, lunatic, god-bot, weasel, and followers of Jeebus and of Gawd.The contribution that makes to rational discussion is questionable at best.
More substantively, there is a surprising level of historical misinformation on display among commenters here. Some of it you refuted yourselves. For example, Bill Goodwin wrote, “protecting the aging religious texts from revision regardless of new or better evidence is the primary business of apologist/theologians.” Elsewhere, he wrote, “For 1400 years Christianity had the luxury of being able to edit its scripture to harmonize its dogma. Gutenberg etched it into stone so that now, modern Christians must contend with a text that grows stubbornly more and more antiquated.”
That leaves one wondering, are we protecting our texts from revision, or are we editing them to harmonize our dogma? Of course I do not look to Bill Goodwin for the answer. We can instead consult the science of textual criticism, which reveals solid reasons for complete confidence in the textual accuracy of more than 99 percent of the New Testament. As for the doubtful parts, those passages were openly footnoted in the first Bible I ever owned more than fifty years ago. They’re still footnoted in the majority of Bibles printed today. There has been no textual revisionism whatsoever, and there’s been nothing hidden about the state of our texts.
PressEnterWhenReady refuted his own claim immediately upon stating it:
I do not believe many if any [early scientists] were actually truly believers. I do believe many, like Darwin, struggled to find reason between the religious teachings they were brought up with and the fact that the science they studies [sic] contradicted what they were taught. To throw down a blanket statement like that is to assume you the author have an inside knowledge to these pioneers [sic] minds.
To which blanket statement is he referring? Sean McDowell’s (the author quoted in the excerpt)? Or his own? His statement not only requires mind-reading, it also requires that “reading” in early scientists’ minds the opposite of what they wrote about their beliefs and their science.
I believe that my point could be made many times over, but I will end with a few more examples of what I felt were examples of irrational thought in the comments section. Several commenters asked (in one way or another), If Christianity was so important to the development of science, what took it so long to make any meaningful advancements? I could answer that in many ways, but none better than the one supplied (inadvertently, I suppose) by randomfactor: “If you leave science out of religion your cathedrals fall down go boom.” When were the great cathedrals built? Long before the Scientific Revolution. Other than Dresden in WWII (and others that may have met similar tragic fates) how many of them fell down went boom? So thank you, randomfactor, for reminding us of one very strong instance of Christians advancing in science before the sixteenth century.
One could also speak of advances in farming (plowshares and horseshoes crop rotation, horse harnesses,) in warfare (the stirrup), in astronomy, mathematics, and more. Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 940-1003) was “the mathematical Pope,” skilled in making and using astronomical apparatus, who also re-invented an improved abacus, while also being learned in classical philosophy. (My source for this is James Hannam, The Genesis of Science.)
The twelfth century witnessed a genuine renaissance associated with the Platonist Christian William of Conches and the Cathedral of Chartres. It was also around this time, and into the next century, that Christianity began to throw off an Aristotelian framework that had heretofore interfered with empiricism and the budding concept that nature runs according to natural law. This was a crucial development in the advance of science.
The science of optics advanced during this period, leading to the invention of eyeglasses. Richard of Wallingford developed an advanced science of clock-making. Students pored over the mathematics of prime numbers, perfect numbers, and number theory. In the 14th century Richard Swineshead developed the mean speed theorem, and Buridan developed “impetus” theory, an early conception of inertia.
So why did Christians fail to advance science during the Middle Ages? They didn’t.
The question seems out of kilter anyway. It’s likely that science increases exponentially as new discoveries, instruments, and methods pave the way for accelerated discoveries building upon them. See for yourself how that might look by using Excel to plot an exponential curve at, say, a growth rate of 2 percent per period. It doesn’t look like much at first: if you begin at 100, the first period advances only to 102. After a thousand periods, though, the arithmetic growth approaches 8 billion — while still maintaining a constant 2 percent growth rate.
I’m not saying science has grown at any particular constant percentage rate per year. I use those numbers only to illustrate that science could well have been growing at the something like the same percentage rate per year in the Middle Ages as it is now, and that the results of would be consistent with what we observe.
The second part of the book’s main thesis was that Christianity is consistent with true reason, which of course includes science. The Sean McDowell excerpt came from that portion of the book, and it presents the idea that Christianity was necessary for science’s real launching. Despite much protest here, the historical evidence does support this view.
Yes, as someone pointed out, the Chinese invented gunpowder. Yes, Archimedes was a scientist. Yes, the Muslims made important advances in mathematics. Other cultures besides Christians made vital, necessary contributions to the growth of science. We acknowledge that. None of them, however, made the actual leap into real science.
Science stalled out in Greco-Roman culture, and not because of Christians inhibiting it: the math doesn’t add up, considering that Christianity wasn’t established until five centuries or so after Archimedes. Muslims’ contribution to science pales next to that of Christian Europe. On the earlier thread, Keane commented, “Just look at how much gunpowder affected history, especially during the 16th century. Christians did not discover gunpowder.” True: and the Chinese did not affect history with it. They employed it primarily for fireworks, as a curiosity, not as a means to progress in knowledge or even in warfare.
Sean’s statement is right:
Christianity provided the philosophical foundation as well as the spiritual and practical motivation for doing science. The Christian worldview — with its insistence on the orderliness of the universe, its emphasis on human reason, and it’s teaching that God is glorified as we seek to understand his creation — laid the foundation for the modern scientific revolution.
This was not because scientists had to be Christians to have permission (or funding) to do science, or because it was the only cultural option available to them. Several commenters here made claims like that. Sheridan wrote, “The ‘scientists’ who were named in the book all lived in a culture in which belief in a God was quite normal. They were part of a cultural group-think.” This is implausible on the face of it. First, the scare quotes around “scientists” have no basis. Second, consider how group-think must affect scientific discovery. Given that there really was creative science going on in the Middle Ages, it’s unlikely that these pioneers were living in fear. It’s especially unlikely that the Pope was living in fear of ecclesial authority. Recall my earlier mention of the “Mathematical Pope.”
What then about Galileo, whose name came up frequently in the comments on our excerpt?. Another Christian once told me, “You have to admit the church did make some mistakes, like Galileo.” I answered, “The Galileo affair was actually more about politics than theology or science. But suppose you don’t agree with me on that. Fine. You’ve said Galileo was one example. Name another one.”
There isn’t another example.
Giordano Bruno was wrongly and tragically executed, but it wasn’t for science. It was for theological error. Copernicus was a churchman working under the patronage of church leaders. He delayed publishing his De Revolutionibus not because of concerns over the Church’s response, but because of concerns over the response that might come from the scientific community. The plain fact is that with one exception, which arguably was much more about politics than science, science was sustained by the Church, not oppressed by it.
Many commenters expressed concern about the present-day conflict between science and Christianity, manifested in the denial of evolution and resistance to embryonic stem-cell research. Clearly, however, our resistance to embryonic stem-cell research is not a question of science, but of ethics. Our disagreements do not relate to its scientific worth, but to the moral status of the embryos being used in the research. Ethical objections are not scientific objections: one could oppose the inhuman research done by Dr. Josef Mengele in Nazi Germany without being considered anti-science. As it turns out, embryonic stem-cell research has proved to be less effective than adult stem-cell research anyway — to which no one I know of has any objection.
As for biblical creationism, I for one think there may be substance to those complaints. That does nothing to overturn our basic thesis here, however, for the claim that Christianity was foundational to science is not identical to the claim that Christianity always produces perfect attitudes toward science. Young earth creationism is not essential to Christian belief, and it is in fact relatively new on the scene, as of the last one or two hundred years. So there is a minority branch of Christianity that is arguably opposed to a limited area of science. That’s hardly equivalent to Christianity being anti-science.
If space allowed I could respond to other issues you’ve raised, including non-empirical epistemologies, the Christopher Hitchens quote, and more; but this is long enough for now. If you want to know more about what we’re thinking, you know where to find it. Thanks for reading.