Trust in God and in the Human Mind

Trust in God and in the Human Mind July 20, 2014

I recently came across this meme image with a quote from Ken Miller.

I also saw that Jerry Coyne (blogging about an interview Miller gave) is once again struggling to grasp the basic idea that not all people have the same ideas about God and theology. Of course, I am not sure that he wants to understand, and I suspect that his blogging on the subject is just an expression of frustration about the fact that he cannot simply dismiss one viewpoint and then sit back having “dealt with religion” once and for all.


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  • I read Jerry Coyne’s post earlier in the day. You are mischaracterizing him. He is not “struggling to grasp the basic idea that not all people have the same ideas about God and theology.” On the contrary, he points out differences that he sees from his perspective. I know that you disagree with his perspective, but there was more thought and engagement in his post than in this one.

    • Paragraphs like this one really bother me.

      It is telling, though, that Miller’s own Sophisticated Theology™ is completely at odds with other Sophisticated Theologians™ who constantly tell me that everybody who truly understands God sees Him as a Ground of Being, whose presence is essential for sustaining all things. Miller appears to reject this. He explains that, though he’s a theist, he doesn’t see God as having to do any sustaining: he says a real God would have created a universe like ours that works without his intervention, and “sustains itself.” But the universe sustains itself, as Miller says it does by simply following natural (though God-decreed) law, then God cannot be a Ground of Being without whom the universe couldn’t exist.

      It seems to me to express surprise that different “sophisticated theologians” might disagree, although I doubt that Miller would classify himself as a theologian. He is a biologist.

      The cartoon at the end also seems to me to bear no resemblance to anything I have seen called “theistic evolution.”

      What struck you as insightful in the post?

      • arcseconds

        ‘Sophisticated Theology™ ‘ also strikes me as not sounding a lot like a gracious and open-minded attempt to understand someone else’s position, but rather more in the line of a sarcastic adolescent jibe.

        Not that I’m necessarily above sarcastic adolescent jibes myself, you understand, but I do know the difference between them and good-willed engagement.

        • Sean Garrigan

          Sadly, sarcastic adolescent jibes are what we often get from atheistic scientists who are engaged in activism. Did you read Donald Prothero’s “review” of Darwin’s Doubt on Amazon? It was more rant than review, and a petulant rant at that. I would guess that somewhere around 1/4 of the total words contained in the “review” were superfluous anti-creationist claptrap.

          FYI, the paperback edition of Darwin’s Doubt contains a new chapter where Meyer responds to his critics.

        • Straw Man

          If you follow the “GNU Atheist” or “Atheist+” blogs, you’ll see repeated references to “Sophisticated Theology™” that confirm your impression. Basically they’re frustrated with repeatedly being told that their critiques miss the mark because they fail to take into account “real” theology.

          In a broad way, at least, I’d agree with James’s take that they’re frustrated that simply disproving that Christ appears in burnt toast and refrigerator mold doesn’t suffice to dismiss all religion. Particularly given that they believe all religion is equally risible, so “Sophisticated Theology™” strikes them as nothing but permutations of “Jesus on Toast” intended to mask the otherwise obvious stupidity of it all.

          • arcseconds

            Well, that’s even worse, then. If it was Coyne’s own jibe then at least that’s still a kind of genuine engagement: your opponent is important enough for you to create an original insult for them. Repeating your community’s stock put-down for an out-group is not engaging with the out-group, it’s just dismissing them as being unworthy of serious attention from the get-go.

            I also really wonder about what continually practicing intellectual warfare of this kind does to a person. I don’t think it can be good for you, making constantly battling people you think of as being idiots with a risible ideology. If they’re not worthy of serious attention, then maybe consider not paying them serious attention.

            Obviously some perspectives have the potential to cause (or are actually causing) really significant harm, so I’m not saying there couldn’t be a reason for giving a significant portion of one’s life over to being a warrior, but just because it’s justifiable doesn’t mean it isn’t warping you.

      • David Evans

        Let me explain my frustration with theology, which I think is similar to Coyne’s.

        When arguing with theists I have often been told “Don’t attack the worst arguments for God, read someone like Plantinga”. So I read Plantinga and thought his attack on evolution to be ludicrous and his use of the “properly basic” and sensus divinitatis concepts to be question-begging.

        So I said this, and was told “Pay no attention to Plantinga, read William Lane Craig”. So I read Craig on the Kalam argument and found that he doesn’t understand the science he appeals to, and when scientists tell him this he just ignores them


        But you get the point. Arguing with theists seems like a continual chase after the real theologians, the ones who have solid arguments and even a factual basis for their assertions. But they seem hard to find.

        • I do get the point, although can I presume it is clear that, if you are getting recommendations to read either Plantinga or Craig, then you are not talking to someone on the liberal end of the Christian spectrum?

          • David Evans

            I think that’s true.

          • Ben Murray

            So who would *you* recommend?

          • Keith Ward would be a contemporary author I would recommend.

      • Herro

        >It seems to me to express surprise that different “sophisticated theologians” might disagree, although I doubt that Miller would classify himself as a theologian. He is a biologist.

        His point is that some “sophisticated theologians” dismiss guys like Coyne when Coyne criticises the “common” understanding of god and say that every theologian worth listening to believe in a “ground of being” or something like that. He’s pointing out that here we have a supposed “sophisticated theologian” who believes in something more thatn a g.o.b.

        So Coyne isn’t “struggling to grasp the basic idea that not all people have the same ideas about God”. He’s saying that people who claim that all people in the class “sophisticated theologians” have the same view of god.

        And I agree with beau_quilter, you were not being fair to the crazy cat guy 😉

      • Sorry for being slow to respond – I think it’s clear that Coyne is aware of the differences between theologians, and underneath the snark, there is a man who (unlike many atheists) does at least read the work of the theists he criticizes. His point in the post is, I think, legitimate. Where does Miller’s accomodation of theology and science fit on the spectrum of liberal theologians? I think one of Coyne’s frustrations is that, whereas scientific endeavor does ultimately seek consensus and verification, there is very little of this sort of practice in theology.

      • I would also add that, while Coyne is a bit snarky towards Ken Miller in this post, he has also praised Miller in other posts for his stance against creationism (especially of the ID sort) in public education. Sure, Coyne is not above sarcasm (neither is this blog), but he reads those he criticizes and often spends rather lengthy blogs engaging with their arguments.

        • I think that the frustration you attribute to Coyne may be right, but unless one adopts a conservative view of theology, then I can’t imagine why this would be surprising, much less frustrating. Doesn’t Coyne’s frustration reflect the assumption that theology is akin to science, rather than to say poetry or ethics?

          Miller, as far as I can tell from what I’ve read (and while he touches on some matters of theology occasionally, he isn’t a theologian), he is fairly conservative in his outlook. In fact, I think Coyne himself mentions that Miller accepts things like the virgin birth!

          • I think that there are many theologians who would not share your assumption that theology is more akin to poetry and ethics than to science. Coyne tends to address those who do relate their theology directly to their scientific understanding. He saves his most critical assessments for those who, like Plantinga, use theology to undermine scientific consensus.

  • Michael Wilson

    I read Coyne’s article, and if he is accurately describing Miller’s theistic evolution, I agree that it is flawed and we ought not to see any rational thought behind it, it is not the will of anything. Is it just that you disagree with his blithe dismissal of theology?

    I’m not sure that an unthinking God is not personal, though it may not make sense. It may br that the nature of existance means that any being that could experience exist and thus cast judgement on the goodness of creation (an the nature of its creator) has the capacity to judge it good. In that case, despite its objective meaningless, it is a benefit to the observer and worthy of admiration.

  • GakuseiDon

    Do theists need to believe in “theistic evolution”, any more than they need to believe in “theistic gravity”? God either made a universe that runs on natural laws or He don’t. Let’s just call it “evolution”.

  • arcseconds

    Science does have unanimity or near-unanimity of opinion on a vast number of matters, and generally the science community expects to achieve such unanimity on all outstanding matters.

    This, of course, is one thing that contributes to the sense that science is making progress: many formerly contentious issues are now no longer contentious.

    That, combined with the importance that our society (particularly amongst scientists and science enthusiasts, of course) gives science, can easily give the impression that other disciplines aren’t doing very well. They don’t converge on answers, therefore they’re not discovering scientific truth or anything analogous to it, therefore the activity is merely subjective at best and quite possibly a load of cobblers’.

    I reckon the way this quite often works out is that scientists and science enthusiasts don’t always deal so well with diversity of opinion. For all that the science community prides itself on originality and novel ideas, there’s a deeply conservative and univocal streak to it.

    Naturally, there are plenty of scientists that aren’t at all like this, who aren’t making sweeping claims about the mastery of their discipline, and just want to be left alone to study their beetles. They can even be rather humble about their own activities “Oh, I don’t know anything about art or philosophy, that all goes way beyond me. I just study beetles”.

    But there definitely are scientists and enthusiasts (and I think I see this coming from enthusiasts more than I do scientists) who look down their noses at the humanities, for example, and the lack of unanimity seems to be regarded as a failure, and there’s a suspicion it’s all just nonsense really.

    I suspect that being used to an activity where unanimity is prized and seems possible and where one is used to thinking of oneself as unproblematically right on many things doesn’t necessarily prepare one terribly well for situations where, to the extent that unanimity is expected at all, it’s a very distant goal and for now you have to deal with people with highly divergent opinions and reasoning.

    It also strikes me that science is a good avenue to go down if one is the sort of person who needs to be right about everything.