Response to Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnaur.

Hemant posted an excerpt from the authors of  True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism.  That’s quite the title.  Anyway, Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnaur had promised to respond to criticisms/critiques from readers of the Friendly Atheist.

I’d like to respond to their responses.

Another great question came from Dave Wildermuthwho 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.

Away we go with this one:

We would say that God makes himself known through both Scripture and nature.

I believe the whole point of the question is how you justify it when the scripture contradicts nature.  God can’t make himself known through both when one contradicts the other.  So when the book of Genesis paints a picture of the universe where the earth was made before the stars, you must choose either scripture or nature.  Science, of course, sides with nature.  Do you?  And, if you do, why do you hold to those scriptures?

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.

Yes, the earth is old and regional floods happen all the time (these are not the global flood that killed almost everything as described in the bible).  But those aren’t the only claims in the bible.  If you’re asserting that nothing in the bible (not just those two things) is incompatible with science, I must disagree.  People rising from the dead is offensive to both medicine and biology.  Someone walking on water could not conflict with physics more.  Someone being turned into a pillar of salt is absurd by the light of chemistry.  I could go on, but you get the gist.  These things are called “miracles” expressly because they violate the laws of the universe (otherwise they could be the happy product of natural causes, which sounds pretty pedestrian, not god-like at all).

If science is your arbiter for what is true about the world, the scriptures must go.  What I suspect the questioner was wondering is why you hold onto them?

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.

Science works on the assumption that the universe operates under a set of rules.  If not for this assumption, experiment and repeat experiment would be meaningless.  If your miracles (impossible if the universe is consistent by definition) require a suspension of the laws that govern the universe, then they’re not science.

Next question!

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.


Beliefs concerning God don’t require a scientific justification.

If they make scientific claims they sure do.  If you’re saying somebody walked on water and science shows that the surface tension of water isn’t tense enough to support an adult male, then you’d better have a good explanation (“magic” doesn’t cut it).

Science is not our only means of acquiring reliable knowledge.

What means to acquiring reliable knowledge could confirm a person rose from the dead and walked on water?  While science isn’t the only way to acquire reliable knowledge (even if it’s the best way) there are oodles of ways to acquire unreliable knowledge.  Faith is a good example (which you must admit if you think the abundance of other faith-driven religions around the world are false).  So just saying that science isn’t the only way to acquire reliable knowledge does nothing to confirm that you didn’t use an unreliable way to reach your conclusions about Jesus.

The Bible is not a work of science, and no one thinks it is.

Have you met Ken Ham and the believers who dump millions of dollars into his coffers?  Ever visited the Discovery Institute?

And theism neither assumes nor predicts that there are beneficial actions only theists can make, other than proper worship of God.

How I’d love to have the discussion about whether the “proper worship of god” (whatever that is) is beneficial.  But another time.

The rest of the bit is lengthy, so I won’t quote all of it here, but it deals with the notion that because Christians have had their share of elite scientists throughout the ages that Christianity is therefore not in opposition to science.  It is no secret that some scientists throughout the ages have been Christian…it’s equally clear that none of them were Christian for scientific reasons.  We could tell when scientists had scientific reasons for believing the earth was not the center of the solar system, for why they felt the tides move in and out (turns out we can explain that), etc. because they submitted those reasons to peer review and they survived.  Their reasons for believing in god have either not received the same confidence or they have failed to live up to scientific scrutiny (otherwise you’d read about god’s existence in textbooks).

So pointing out scientists who were Christian does you no good, since nobody is contesting that such people exist.  Lots of scientists also believe the Detroit Lions are the best football team ever, but that doesn’t make it a scientific proposition.  Peer review does that.

At one point Gilson and Weitnaur say:

I could answer that in many ways, but none better than the onesupplied (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.

Architecture and engineering pre-date the sixteenth century.  Surely you don’t think cathedrals were built without those disciplines.  It wasn’t prayer or god that erected them, it was human beings working and thinking which requires nothing of god.  They also weren’t given any help from the bible.  While the bible contains instructions on how to purchase and keep slaves as well as commands to kill people for working on Saturday, in between those edicts there is nothing of how to construct a building.  I guess god had his priorities and only so much space in his holy book.  Human beings had to figure that out ourselves using secular reasoning.  Even if Christians deployed that secular reasoning and/or helped to refine it, that doesn’t change the fact that the reasoning and techniques themselves were entirely secular.

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.

Christianity paints a picture of the sun being halted mid-day so Joshua and the Israelites can finish slaughtering the Amalekites.  This is not consistent with science.

And Christianity was necessary for science’s launching?  How?  We didn’t need people saying “Hey, can someone really walk on water?” before we started doing experiments – we just need curiosity about the universe, which doesn’t require Christianity.  In fact, once you know “god did it”, that can suppress the need to continue looking for answers, since you’ve already got one.

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.

So science has to do with who uses the ideas to change the world rather than who came up with the ideas?  By that logic Truman was a greater nuclear scientist than Einstein.

The following bit is downright offensive:

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.

Christians weren’t the ones who came up with the idea that the universe is ordered, unless you’re saying Christianity pre-dated the wheel and the notion that sticking your hand in a fire fucking hurts.

And we don’t need to be told that pursuing our curiosity pleases god in order to look for answers – we just need to be curious, and curiosity pre-dated the wheel and the notion that sticking your hand in a fire fucking hurts.  In fact, the notion that we should accept things on faith, even if they are in conflict with science (earth coming before stars, stars all being made on the same day even when they’re still being made through means that require no appeal to god to explain, guy walking on water, guy rising from the dead, woman being turned into pillar of salt, and on, and on) could not be more offensive to science.  You know the story of the doubting Thomas which extols the virtue of believing without seeing?  Yeah, that’s how you become gullible, not scientific.

Sheridanwrote“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.”

The Church has a history of burning scholars for speculating about things that contradicted the Church’s dogma.  That’s about as anti-scientific as you can get.

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.”

Are you suggesting that the Church was a-ok with scientists making conclusions that disagreed with dogma and just, for whatever reason, decided to confine Galileo to house arrest for life for his views on heliocentricity?  No, Galileo’s conviction was based on the Church’s laws of the day.  Primarily, he was found guilty of violating the Council of Trent.  The Inquisition that tried him concluded heliocentrism (read: the scientific truth as confirmed by the evidence) was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”  The Inquisition also cited that the earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and… in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.”  Note how they weren’t drawing conclusions based on the evidence, but on how the evidence presented by Galileo related to scripture.

The commission also threatened Galileo with torture if he didn’t “tell the truth” (and they informed him what the truth was.  Hint: it wasn’t heliocentrism).  Galileo, in an act of tremendous bravery, did not recant.   You can find the points on which Galileo was convicted easily:

  • Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse and detest” those opinions.[64]
  • He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition.[65] On the following day this was commuted to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life.
  • His offending Dialogue was banned; and in an action not announced at the trial, publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he might write in the future.[66]

The reality is that Galileo was buddy-buddy with Pope Urban VIII, who intervened on Galileo’s behalf with the house arrest punishment.  Ordinarily Galileo would have been burned for his heresy.  If you think the notion of “heresy” has any place in science, you don’t understand science.

Galileo was not an odd instance of the church being anti-scientific, he was an exception to the severity with which the Church regularly held dogma over science.  Science, to the Church, was whatever natural evidence agreed with the Church’s positions.  Anything else was heresy.

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.

Did the scientific community have a habit of burning scholars at the stake for advancing conclusions it didn’t like?  Not to my knowledge.  The Church on the other hand…

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.

Bruno’s “theological error” was saying the universe was boundless rather than contained.  This conflicted with the Church’s dogma at the time and he was killed for it.  The very existence of the Inquisition makes no sense if the Church gave no care about heresy.

Here’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson telling the story of Giordano Bruno, and the world in which he lived:

Pay particular note to how there was no freedom of thought at the time, courtesy of the Church.  Pay attention to the descriptions of the cruel and unusual punishment heretics could expect (before they were burned alive).  This all paints a picture of a time when scientists paid lip service to the Church for fear of consequences applied by the Church, not because they had the freedom to pursue the evidence wherever it leads.  Sadly, it seems Galileo and Bruno were the exceptions of those brave enough to value courage and truth over life – a choice that was put to them by the very institution Gilson and Weitnaur assure us was responsible for sparking science.

So much for “True Reason” with this book.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.