Seidensticker Folly #79: Christians Misquoting Atheists

Seidensticker Folly #79: Christians Misquoting Atheists February 9, 2022

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18“I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?” He added in June 2017 in a combox“If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.”

For over three years, we have had (shall we say) rather difficult relations, with mutual bannings (while I have replied to his posts 78 times: all as of yet unanswered), but when Bob moved to his new location online at the OnlySky super-site, he (surprisingly to me) decided to allow me to comment. As a conciliatory gesture in return, I removed his ban on my blog.  He even stated on 1-21-22 in the same combox thread, replying to me: “There are a few new posts here. (Or, if you haven’t been to my blog for a while, lots of new posts here.) Have at ’em. Let me know what you think.”

Delighted to oblige his wishes . . . Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, follow this link: “Seidensticker Folly #” or see all of them linked under his own section on my Atheism page.

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I am responding to Bob’s post entitled, “Christians weaponizing scholars’ quotes: 9 examples” (2-7-22).

Some Christian apologists like to find a scientist or celebrity atheist who supports some bit of Christianity. They reveal this turncoat in the atheist ranks, tell us that this person is one of our own, and insist we follow their lead. . . . 

Of course, atheists do a variation of this all the time. Your buddy Jonathan Pearce does it constantly. He will cite liberal / skeptical / radical “Bible scholars” who hardly believe in Christianity at all (ones who deny that Jesus was God, yet who still want to claim the “Christian” label) and make out as if they represent mainstream Christian scholarship or historic, orthodox Christianity.

Both sides do this. But there is an honest way and a dishonest way to go about it. We can cite people in partial agreement, which is actually an effective argument: sort of like the “hostile witness” in legal thought.

What follows is nine more examples of quotes taken out of context, of misquoting, of Christians celebrating atheists they think they can manipulate, and of quotes that don’t mean what Christians think they mean. Let’s see if they provide any stronger support for Christianity.

1. Arno Penzias, physicist and astronomer

Penzias said,

My argument is that the best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole. (New York Times, March 12, 1978, page 1)

Penzias is exactly right, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong or dishonest at all in citing him saying this. I’ve been making this same argument for forty years. Current cosmology tells us that the universe had a beginning-point. Atheists don’t know anymore than anyone else about what “preceded” that. All we know (and can agree upon) is that there was a beginning and an origin, and that the universe is not eternal, as used to be the consensus position in science (“steady state”).

Given the beginning, Penzias is correct: science hasn’t explained what caused the Big Bang; nor has it (or can it) rule out that God may have done that.

The Bible taught that God created the universe out of nothing (“creatio ex nihilo”). This is perfectly consistent with the Big Bang. To put it another way, we are just as rationally or epistemologically justified in saying “God created” as atheists are in saying “something brought this about; we have no idea what did . . .”, or playing games of talking about multiverses and what not.

That’s surprising, because I don’t remember anything like that in the Bible. Does the Bible tell you that the universe is open rather than closed (that is, that it will keep expanding)? That this expansion is accelerating? That the universe is 13.8 billion years old? That it started from a tiny point? Presumably black holes, gravitational waves, dark energy and dark matter, and more are in there as well. An eager world awaits the relevant Bible verses.

But of course we don’t get that. Penzias is simply declaring “Oh, yeah—I knew that” without evidence.

Does the Bible resolve cosmologists’ unanswered questions, too? I’m thinking of questions like what created the universe (or was it uncaused?), if there’s a multiverse, if the zero-energy universe hypothesis is correct, if string theory is correct, how to unify Relativity and quantum physics, and more.

The Bible doesn’t claim to be a technical science textbook; so all the examples mocking the Bible for lacking such elements (“Does the Bible tell you that . . . the universe is 13.8 billion years old? That it started from a tiny point? Presumably black holes, gravitational waves, dark energy and dark matter, and more are in there as well”) are a completely irrelevant non sequiturs.

But the Bible does, however, say something very close to the universe starting from a tiny point. It asserts that it began from nothing. And that was undeniably closer to the truth than the steady state, which was held by virtually all scientists before the 1950s, including Einstein.

But it’s highly amusing that the first example Bob gives of an “atheist” being quoted out of context by Christians, is a conservative Jew and theist, Arno Penzias. He believes something very much like the traditional teleological argument (argument from design):

I think the word ‘god’ is meaningful in that I would like to believe in a purposeful world. Purpose implies an ‘owner’ of that purpose and I think that god is the owner of the purpose of the world. By looking at the creation one can infer purpose. Nature, blind nature, is driven by chance, by the laws of probability which revolve around what one would call the second law of thermodynamics. For example, if you were to put a pinch of salt in one part of a boiling kettle of soup, sooner or later that salt would end up dispersed throughout. In other words, it would reach the most disordered possible state. Nature, through random chance, seeks disorder. Life, on the other hand, somehow works against that; it organizes, makes things orderly. If we go out and we see a forest of trees and all of a sudden the trees are plated in a row of equal spaces, we would see purpose. Order implies purpose. Once we look at the purpose, we can, then, go one step further, and say something about the engine of that purpose and the owner of that purpose. If there are a bunch of fruit trees, one can say that whoever created these fruit trees wanted some apples. In other words, by looking at the order in the world, we can infer purpose and from purpose we begin to get some knowledge of the creator, the planner of all this. This is, then, how I look at god. I look at god through the works of god’s hands and from those works imply intentions. From these intentions, I receive an impression of the almighty.” (1994: response to question about the meaning of the world ‘god’, to him, as a concept or mathematical formula)

That sure ain’t atheist talk, is it? See much more proof of his theistic beliefs elsewhere. I should think that in an article chiding Christians for wrongly citing atheists, Bob would make sure his very first example was an example of same. But it isn’t. How ironic that is, because he wrongly cites a believing Jewish theist, in seeking to make the point that Christians habitually do the same with atheists.

Bob cited Penzias as an “atheist” when in fact he is a believing Jew: a theist, who appears to accept the validity of the teleological argument for God’s existence. Certainly Bob can find some real atheists who are being cited in a dishonest way.

Bob’s second example given, of an “atheist” being unethically or foolishly misquoted by Christians, David Gelernter, is also not an atheist at all. He was raised as a Reform Jew and is now (and was at the time of the words cited from him), an Orthodox Jew.

At least Flew actually was an atheist, who rejected it. But so far, two of three examples of supposed “atheists” were not. And this, in an article complaining about how Christians wrongly cite atheists.

Thanks for the amusement, Bob. It’s precious.

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Photo credit: [minutehack.com / The Good Governance Academy]

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Summary: Atheist anti-theist Bob Seidensticker complains about Christians misquoting atheists. Yet (amusingly) two of his three examples of “misused” atheists are actually Jewish theists.

 


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