God is not a god.

John Dickson from CPX recently posted a diagram illustrating, as he put it, why it’s dumb to say that religions are ‘atheists’ about each other, and that Atheists “just deny one god more” (as has been said repeatedly by Hitchens, Dawkins, Krauss, FitzSimons, et al., and many online warriors since).


I was involved in the ensuing conversation, and it seems the point needs more elaboration for some.

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How not to argue about the resurrection

Since it’s Easter, I’ve been having a few discussions around the resurrection of Jesus (see Luke 24 for one account). One of the discussions involved my interlocutor arguing that the resurrection would require complete suspension of the laws of physics, and thus must be discounted. His idea was that the best explanation was “mass delusions and a series of hallucinations”.

I think it’s important to distinguish in what capacity we make different statements. As individual human beings we tend to be multifaceted; within specific disciplines, we must narrow our range of possibilities. Science, for instance, explores natural phenomena within the known universe. History explores multiple strands of evidence (some scientific, some not) to investigate and understand events in the human past. Psychology tries to unravel the curious workings of the human mind. Each of these is limited in scope, but powerful within its field.
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The Maverick Philosopher on human wretchedness

Over at the Maverick Philosopher‘s blog, there’s a great new post inspired by Blaise Pascal. It’s short, so I’ve reproduced it in its entireity, go here for the original.




Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.” (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)

“What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man.”  That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don’t think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such.  The very notion of wretchedness is religious.  If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature.  If, and only if.

Man’s wretchedness is ‘structural’: man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we “must have fallen from some better state.”  That is not obvious.  But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.

How do we know that?  From thousands of years of collective experience.

Reading the story of Nature

So, in a previous post I talked about how Nature doesn’t have a voice, and that this makes it difficult to ask it questions. Today I want to talk about an alternative way of interpreting nature.

Francis Bacon talked about reading “both books” in order to gain insight about God. By this he meant that God is revealed in scripture, because the Bible is God’s Word to us, and God is also revealed in nature, because he is the Creator of the universe. It seems to me that asking questions of nature can be very similar to asking questions of Scripture, which in turn is very similar to asking questions of a novel. Let me explain:

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Science as ideology

A couple of good discussion pieces by Chris Mulherin that were published recently:

Christianity, science and rumours of divorce talks about the misunderstandings that lead to the perceived “conflict” between science and the Christian faith. In particular, he emphasises the distinction that Christianity is a worldview, whereas science is a methodology.

The second article, Science as ideology betrays its purpose, discusses the hazards which arise from conflating the methodology of science with the worldview of Naturalism.

Both articles can be downloaded from the ISCAST website.



Related posts:

Grainge Clarke on the assumptions of science

Where God meets physics



Creationism ≠ Christianity

One of the biggest contributors to the idea that science and Christianity are somehow at odds is the idea that Young-Earth Creationism is the same thing as Christianity. We really need to clarify this point.

Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) describes a belief structure that has made a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 the core article of faith. This position seems difficult to reconcile with science. (Of course, a hermeneutically sound – and thus more truly literal – interpretation of Genesis 1 is wholly reconcilable with modern science).

But this YEC doctrine is not representative of Christianity, it’s a strange late-19th-century offshoot with little theological or biblical support. The implications of this unfortunate conflation of YEC with Christianity are covered well in a recent blog at the British Centre for Science Education. The following graphics may help to illustrate the relationship between YEC and Christianity, and are inspired by that blog post:


Not the conflict


The real conflict


*note: I’m using the term “creationist” in this post to refer mostly to the YEC position. This term would not apply to someone who, for example, believes that God created the universe ex nihilo, but that Big Bang cosmology and evolution describe some of the processes of Creation.



Related posts:

“Creation Science” isn’t.

Conflict myths: Bishop Ussher

Intelligent Design: dodgy science, worse theology


Intelligent Design: dodgy science, worse theology

Electron micrograph of bacterium H. pylori, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.

Electron micrograph of H. pylori bacterium, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.


First, some clarification. We’ll start with what Intelligent Design is not:

Christian doctrine teaches that the universe, life, and human beings are created by God. That is, Creation was a deliberate act. Also, God is omniscient and omnipotent, and chose to exercise creation in a particular way. This is not the definition of Intelligent Design.

The teleological argument refers to a philosophical argument for the existence of God based on apparent design and purpose in the world around us. The universe and our place in it appear to be purposeful, and a purposeful creation suggests a purposeful Creator. Variations on this line of thinking can be traced back to before Plato, and it also features in the work of St Thomas Aquinas as one of his rational arguments for God’s existence. This is also not the definition of Intelligent Design.

So what is it?

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Grainge Clarke on the assumptions of science

There’s an excellent article by W. Grainge Clarke on the philosophy of science and how it relates to the Christian worldview.

On the topic of the underlying assumptions of the scientific method, he writes:

“These presuppositions are, by their nature unprovable, and some philosophers would consider them unacceptable. Behind the acceptance of these presuppositions lies the fact that modern science developed when the dominant worldview in Europe was Christian. If the Christian worldview is accepted they all make reasonable sense. However, on the atheistic worldview, that all is the product of matter-energy, time and chance, then none of these presuppositions are justifiable. To consider just one case: ‘The human mind is capable of rational thought’. If the human mind has been developed solely by non rational forces then there is no reason to believe that it can be rational and certainly it is not to be relied upon. Consider two computers one of which was designed and assembled by the IT staff at the local university and the other by the local kindergarten. Which is most likely to function well? Yet the kindergarten children have much more intelligence than blind chance.”

You can find the whole article here:

“Wrong fight, wrong concepts, wrong everything” by Grainge Clarke



Related posts:

Hypothetically speaking

Maths, science and abstractions

Where God meets physics


Children of God: the awkward teenage years

Just a quick update – I recently published an article on the journal Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology, entitled “Children of God: The awkward teenage years“. The abstract below will give you something of the flavour:

In this essay I explore some of the manifestations of ‘teenage rebellion’ in matters of faith and society: how disillusionment with God can manifest and impact our lives. As we grow from infancy to adulthood, an early childish optimism towards our idealised vision of life often gives way to dissatisfaction, cynicism and disillusionment in our teenage years. This is a natural by-product of a youthful idealism based on unrealistic notions, and hopefully as we continue to mature to adulthood we understand life more deeply and regain our satisfaction, enthusiasm and sense of wonder with all that this life and universe have to offer. In general, I believe that this disillusionment is rooted in our early failure of understanding. The core of the Christian faith is a personal relationship with God through the person of Jesus. A person who believes in God but does not have a relationship with him may find that this level of faith is insufficient to withstand the additional pressures, responsibilities and difficulties that adulthood requires. On a broader perspective, I also look briefly at disillusionment with science from the Enlightenment to the present day.

Get the whole article here:


On the relative efficacy of cathedral demolition strategies


I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame.

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion






Cathedrals are too high for bulldozers. In the Soviet Union under Stalin and the German Democratic Republic under Ulbricht they used explosives instead.

        – Richard Schröder, Professor of Philosophy in Berlin






Where God meets physics

This article is reproduced from the University of Cambridge – the original can be found here.
Eminent thinker and commentator Revd Dr John Polkinghorne, Fellow of the Royal Society, will be giving a public talk – titled A Destiny Beyond Death – tomorrow lunchtime at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. It is part of a series organised by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Here he gives an overview of his understanding of the relationship between what are generally considered to be two opposing schools of thought.


Science and religion are two of the most powerful influences in contemporary society. Some see them as competing alternatives but, as someone who is both a former Cambridge science professor and an Anglican priest, I want to take them with equal seriousness. I am proud that Cambridge was the first university in the UK to endow a post in theology and science: the Starbridge Lectureship is held by Dr Fraser Watts.

The possibility of fruitful interaction between science and religion arises from the fact that both are concerned with the search for truthful understanding, to be attained through motivated beliefs. Of course, this is a philosophically contested claim, but my scientific experience encourages me to adopt the stance of ‘critical realism’ in relation for the insights of both science and religion. The term ‘realism’ signifies the belief that we can gain actual insight into the nature of reality, while the description ‘critical’ signals that this knowledge is never complete or absolutely certain, though sufficiently well supported by evidence to make commitment to it a rational act.

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Doing a little mythbusting…

Hard to believe that in such an intellectually advanced age there are still some who cling tenaciously to the notion that “Jesus was not a real historical figure”, but apparently the light of education has still not penetrated all the deep corners.

Should be unfortunate enough to find yourself accosted by denialists, you may find this essay series by James Hannam useful. Hannam writes in his introduction:


“The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind…

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references,  2) the alleged similarities to paganism, and 3) the silence of St. Paul.”


Hannam deals with each of these contentions in a highly readable and well-researched series of essays. Read the rest of Is Jesus Christ a Myth? here:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4


Hannam holds degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University, and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. (You can also read more from him at Quodlibeta).



Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

A theoretical faith


There’s probably no Dawkins…

…now stop worrying and enjoy Oct 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.

So read the signs on buses in the Oxford area at the moment, lamenting the sudden failure of courage from New Atheism’s leading apologist.

It seems that while Richard Dawkins is happy to have the occasional televised cup of tea with an English archbishop who is too polite to respond to his bombast, he is not quite so bold when it comes to debating religion with any serious Christian apologists. After lengthy prevarication, Dawkins has retreated securely into his shell and refused to debate William Lane Craig at the Sheldonian.

As the proposed debate was in his hometown, I don’t think travel costs were the issue. It’s really hard to see this as anything other than cowardice on Dawkins’ part.

Read more on the story here in The Guardian.


Non-moral nature

I’m visiting some colleagues in Hobart at the moment, so I have a new route that I walk to work each day. It’s a tranquil and tree-lined avenue with some lovely gardens, especially now when all the spring flowers are in bloom.

Running alongside the path is a stream, and this morning, in that stream, were some ducks. Mostly they were doing normal duckish things – paddling about, quacking and nibbling the odd bit of water vegetation. But it’s spring, so they were also pretty frisky. In particular, there were two drakes which both seemed very keen on a female duck, which in turn was doing her best to paddle away from them. But the drakes were not to be discouraged. They held her head under the water and had their way with her despite all her struggling and flapping.

Just another day on the river. A light breeze, the delicate scent of flowers in the air and avian gang-rape in the water.

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The power of narrative

I’ve been reading Richard Swinburne’s Revelation, and it is a remarkable book. The first couple of chapters deal in great depth with analysing what the “meaning” of a sentence actually is, how (and if) it can be falsifiable, and how to discern exactly when such devices as metaphor, analogy and so on are being employed. (And yes, this really does need multiple chapters. Fortunately, Swinburne is an eminently readable philosopher and communicates so well that even this dry subject matter becomes fascinating in his hands).

Reading the book has gotten me thinking a lot about different literary genres: not just the reality of their existence, but rather the reasons that an author might choose to employ them.

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Elephants and blind men

The well-known story of the six blind men trying to describe an elephant is often portrayed as an allegory of religious diversity: the descriptions of the elephant are different for each person, based on the particular aspect with which he came into contact:

The first touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree, another touches its side and says that an elephant is like a rough wall. Another feels its tail and says that an elephant is like a piece of rope. Each comes into contact with a different part of the elephant and is convinced that their own explanation is correct and that the others are wrong. None of them realises that they are all experiencing just one part of the same elephant and that none of their explanations are complete.

The suggestion is that diverse religions are likewise each only seeing part of the fuller and more complete truth. The problem with this explanation is that it takes the perspective of a sighted person who can actually see the whole elephant: without this perspective the story makes no sense. To make the claim that “all religions are just seeing a different part of the same truth” is to claim knowledge of that truth, and to claim to stand in a similar relation to the truth as the sighted observer in the elephant story.

Over at bethinking.org, Chris Knight offers an alternative version of the story which provides significantly more illumination on the question of religious diversity. Read it here:

The Blind Men and the Elephant at the Zoo


There’s no “I” in atheism

I recently posted Creed, a poem by Steve Turner which outlines the relativist worldview. Although satirical, the poem does present many commonly-held beliefs amongst atheists. But it also does something which goes beyond the typical atheist approach: it actually sets out those beliefs clearly.

Yes, I’m aware that atheism isn’t a uniform worldview. But neither is Christianity. The central core of Christianity is uniform – that’s how we recognise it. But there are plenty of differences in opinion and a great deal of (often heated) discussion about everything beyond what is covered in the ecumenical creeds. There are many denominations in Christianity, but within each denomination there is a clear articulation of their beliefs. In short, you know exactly what you’re dealing with if you want to debate what Catholics or Baptists believe.


Speaking of clear articulations, let’s have a couple of definitions so that we all know what we’re talking about:

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010):

Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God.

Encyclopedia of Philosophy (MacMillan, 2005):

On our definition, an ‘atheist’ is a person who rejects belief in God.


Within atheism there are also many different views on issues of secondary importance. The primary issue is denial of God (and usually the supernatural), but beyond that it’s an open field. And that’s great: discussions about why we hold different beliefs can be an excellent way of learning about alternative points of view, and also help us to understand our own beliefs better.

But we have to actually hold a coherent set of beliefs before we can have a useful discussion.



I recently had a lengthy exchange with an atheist about the origins of morality. In over 2500 words of discussion, my correspondent never offered a concrete statement of personal beliefs. All sorts of theories were suggested, mention was made of “fascinating new research about morality” in various quarters, books titles and authors were offered as solemn incantations.

But as to the beliefs held personally by the individual? Not a peep. My own personal beliefs were articulated and examined at length, but repeated requests for a clear statement of my correspondent’s beliefs were met only with deflection and evasion.

I mention this particular exchange as but one example of a much larger trend. I observe in conversations with atheists an almost pathological aversion to the personal pronoun.

“Look, all these people have been writing big books on the subject!”

Yes, and…? What do you personally believe?

“Research supports this particular belief!”

Great. Do you personally believe that?

“Recent advances in [genetics]/[cosmology]/[evolutionary biology] indicate that…”

Do you personally use those advances as the basis of your worldview, or are your beliefs based on something else? And if so, what?


Socrates famously declared that “An unexamined life is not worth living”. But an unexaminable life is no life at all. If personal beliefs cannot be articulated, they cannot be understood the individual, let alone by others.

The Nicene Creed is a towering pillar of the Christian faith. It is a clear and succinct articulation of the core beliefs of Christianity, a concise expression of primary doctrine. To affirm the creed is to draw a clear line in the sand and say, “these are my beliefs.” That is the starting point for a useful discussion.

The Creed does not start off with: “Christians in general maintain that…”, or “It has long been the opinion of great theologians…”, or “The official Church position is that…”

It starts much more simply:

“I believe …”



Related posts:

Lumpy atheism

Having the wrong conversation

The relativist creed


Religion, sex and truth claims

Truth claims are everywhere.

Sometimes the connections are complicated: our systems of justice are predicated on the assumption of free will, because without the choice to act or not in a particular situation, there can be no question of responsibility for actions. This in turn makes the truth claim that rigid materialism is false (because otherwise our actions are merely the results of random unguided processes – indeed, we are just collections of random unguided processes).

The ones I’m interested in today are a little more straightforward, but still quite subtle. For example:

“Religion should evolve with society.”

Buried in this statement is the claim that religious beliefs do not contain ultimate truth, and that religions are really just support clubs. If the core teaching of a religion should evolve, then it contains no absolute truth, for such truth would transcend social fashions.

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Sex and science: Discuss

Sex and science: we need to talk about both. And not just on this blog – we need to talk about them in church and at home, too.

Both sex and science are hugely powerful and important. Both have the potential to be wonderful, or to be terribly destructive. Responsibility and maturity are needed before we can safely handle either.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach our kids about sex, or science for that matter. Interest and curiosity (in both areas) are aroused from a young age, so let’s rather start the discussions early. Parents and pastors need to be willing to engage openly with both subjects.

But we need to be honest about both. Eventually, kids are going to grow up and engage with the wider world, and the wider world is drenched in both science and sex.


Choose your perversion


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Faith is a part of life

In my last post, I wrote about what “faith” means in a Christian context. It’s a complex and multi-faceted term, but it is important to appreciate that faith is not just an aspect of Christianity. It is a part of life.

Theologian Tyron Inbody wrote the following:

“…faith is a dimension of the human existence as such. There can be no human life without the presence of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt but nihilism – the loss of order, meaning and purpose in life… The scientist cannot operate apart from faith – faith in the dependability of nature, the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe, the unity of nature and the harmony of its laws. Social life is impossible apart from faith. We cannot exist without elemental trust in each other. If you doubt this, consider what one terrorist attack can do to undermine our confidence in the social order. And we act as if this social order is to some degree moral. We assume and affirm that there are things we ought to do and things we ought not to do. Although we may not agree on which things are which, we act with moral demands that are binding. These beliefs point to the fact that we cannot exist as humans apart from faith. They are justified not because they are demonstrable but because we cannot live without them. They constitute a primordial faith.” (The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology)


More specifically, science depends on faith.

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A theoretical faith

The title of this post contains a pair of words that can be difficult to nail down. Let’s take them one at a time:



In common parlance the word “theory” is used to denote something purely conceptual, usually in contrast to something which has been implemented in the real world. This causes difficulty when referring to scientific theories, because in science, the word carries somewhat different implications. Scientific explanations for observed phenomena start as hypotheses, which are basically conjecture. After more testing and data collection, if the hypothesis appears to be useful in explaining the data and predicting results, confidence in the explanation increases. Once there is a strong weight of supporting evidence, we start to refer to the explanation as a “theory”.

The American National Academy of Sciences describes the distinction in usage thus:

“In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by [data] gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena…”

So it is understandable that scientists become frustrated with the dismissal of a scientific theory with phrases like, “oh, it’s just a theory”. This sort of language shows a grave misunderstanding of the subject.



Likewise, in common parlance, “faith” is often understood to mean “a belief without evidence”. But in the Christian context, faith carries very different connotations. Theologian Tyron Inbody (in The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology) notes three uses of “faith” within Christianity:

  • Assent: we believe that God has revealed Himself to us and can be known personally. This aspect of faith is largely intellectual: we are presented with God’s assertions about Himself (in the Bible, for instance), we decide that they are trustworthy and assert that they are true.
  • Trust: we believe that God will honour His promises, and that He is reliable.
  • Loyalty: we strive to ‘live out our faith’. In this context: “To have faith is… to obey Jesus; it is to be loyal in life and death to the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ.”

Although these three aspects of Christian faith are distinguishable, they are also inseparable. Christian faith is inextricably entwined with understanding: we have knowledge and understanding of God from personal experience, Scripture and the community of believers, and this forms the basis of our trust in God. Inbody writes:

“Faith in the New Testament means belief, specifically belief in God’s Word in Scripture. To have faith is to assent or to give credence; it is to believe. Faith refers to our acceptance of the message of the gospel… Faith means ‘belief in and acceptance of His revelation as true… an act of intellect assenting to revealed truth.”

The Christian faith is not divorced from reason: it is inseparable from reason. But as Thomas Aquinas explained, it is not just an intellectual exercise: it is also an act of will. I decide that certain things are true, and I choose to act on that belief.


A theoretical faith

Now, why have I put these two difficult words together?

Well, my personal exploration and acceptance of the Christian faith was similar in many ways to the development of a scientific theory. From the tentative hypothesis that Christianity is true, I sought more data with which to test this conjecture. The central elements of Christianity are the claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I found the evidence of his death and resurrection convincing enough to explore further.

A scientific theory is a framework which helps to explain observed phenomena. What about Jesus’ life and teachings? Do they make sense of the world I experience?  The framework of Christianity explains the world that I see around me more coherently than any other.

Of course, we should seek to challenge any theory to test its robustness, so I do this with my faith. The “problem of evil” is often considered the biggest counter to Christianity: Given that we observe evil in the world, how can we believe in the existence of a God who is both loving and all-powerful? I explore this question, and I come to a remarkable conclusion: Firstly, I find in Christianity a compelling and convincing framework to explain the coexistence of evil in this world and the Christian understanding of God. Secondly, if I try to remove God from the picture, I don’t even know what the word “evil” means. It turns out that the “challenge” becomes still further support for my beliefs. And so my faith grows. The more that I test it, the more compelling it becomes.

Christianity also claims that we can experience God personally. Here we must move to the “belief in”. I move from a position of intellectual assent and step out: I seek to meet with God through prayer and personal experience. He meets me. The God I encounter personally resonates completely with the God of my intellectual assent. My faith grows.

From my experience, my belief in God, comes my loyalty to God. I have found that if I seek to live my life in accordance with His will and listening to Him, my life is a much better place. He has shown Himself to be faithful and good.


I do not think that my personal experiences are unusual: in fact, I would say that the process I have described is analogous to the faith of most any Christian. The details will be a bit different, of course. St Paul had a rather more dramatic starting point for his faith, but he still based it on beliefs about God: specifically, beliefs that Jesus was God and that he was resurrected from the dead. Paul’s belief in and loyalty to God were a response to this.

Christian faith intrinsically contains a rational and evidentiary basis. N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, writes:

“I cannot… imagine a Christianity in which the would-be Christian has no sense, and never has had any sense, of the presence and love of God, or the reality of prayer, of their everyday, this-worldly life being somehow addressed, interpenetrated, confronted, embraced by a personal being understood as the God we know through Jesus.”

For a final description of faith in a Christian context, I close – as is often the case – with C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:

“Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”



Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding

Chesterton on Miracles


“Creation Science” isn’t.

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I strongly oppose the inappropriate use of science to further an atheist agenda (see here and here, for example). But this is not the only place that I perceive science being press-ganged to support a pre-conceived and unscientific notion: the so-called “Creation Science” movement uses snatches of whacky ideas dressed up in pseudo-scientific garb to promote a Young-Earth Creationism framework of biblical interpretation. This is totally opposed to honest scientific inquiry and also seems to me to betray a startling lack of confidence in their own doctrine.


First, some background.

Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) can be broadly described as the view that God created the heavens and Earth in six literal days of 24 hours each, and this all happened about 6000 years ago. The YEC position is ultimately based on a ultra-literalist adherence to the creation account in the opening chapter of Genesis (the same ultra-literalism is generally not extended to the rest of the Bible, but more about that another time).

This ultra-literalist approach is not without difficulties. The Hebrew word used for “day” in Genesis 1 is yom, as in yom ehad (day one). In the King James Version, this was translated into English as “the first day”, but the definite article is not strictly accurate: in Hebrew, such a specific statement would be expressed by hayyom harison rather than yom ehad (the “ha-” indicating the definite article). The Hebrew syntax in Genesis 1 is unique within the Old Testament, so it’s not clear that the KJV translation should be read with this level of literalistic adherence.

The rhythmic repetitions of the creation poem are wonderful in underlining the structure and deliberate intent of God’s creation, and guide the reader in understanding the text. Here, as in other parts of the Bible, I believe that the readability of the passage is greatly improved by phrasing events from the perspective of human experience. Read Ecclesiastes 1:5, and then consider whether “the rotation of the Earth makes the sun appear to rise and set” would be more accessible and powerful than “The sun rises and the sun sets”.

Anyway, enough of the hermeneutical difficulties: suffice it to say that the YEC position is that the Bible should be read with complete literalism, as it is the highest authority and impervious to dispute from science or philosophy.

That’s fine. I don’t entirely endorse the YEC position, but I can respect it. What bothers me is when science gets perverted to support a YEC agenda.

See, the fundamental basis of honest scientific inquiry is that you follow the evidence where it leads. As soon as you decide beforehand where you will end up, you have strayed from the light. For the prominent YEC oraganisation Answers in Genesis, radiometric dating must be flawed because it says that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, so AiG suggest that radiactive decay must have been massively accelerated in the first week of creation. Likewise, the universe emerged out of a “white hole”, which is why we can see stars millions of light years away (even though the universe is under 10 000 years old).

But none of these theories result from following the evidence.

Physics tells us that the Sun is a second-generation star. (Basically, there’s no way to account for any element heavier than iron without going through a supernova, so the heavy elements in our solar system had to come from an earlier star which blew). It also tells us that this process takes billions of years. But these theories don’t exist in isolation: the fundamental models of particle physics and chemistry are all intertwined, and are independently relied upon for a host of other scientific theories. All our theories about atoms, elements, fundamental particles and their interactions is bound up with our understanding of the strong and weak atomic forces and electromagnetic attraction, and these are the same forces that dictate element formation in supernovae. You can’t just pick and choose with this stuff.

If you want to deny science entirely and adhere to a blind literalism, that’s fine. I think it’s imprudent and intellectually limiting, but that’s your choice. But be consistent. Don’t start off denying the validity of science and then try and use science to support your worldview.

Richard Dawkins and Ken Ham have something in common: they both start their scientific inquiry at the wrong end. Both take a faith-based stance and then cherry-pick whatever science they think will support their pre-determined conclusion. And they both end up doing a disservice to science, as well as to their respective creeds.



Related posts:

Hypothetically speaking

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

Conflict myths: Bishop Ussher


Hypothetically speaking

It’s a common atheist article of faith  – at least amongst members of the more vocal denominations – that science is the only reliable path to knowledge. There are a few problems with this belief, mostly to do with the fundamental limitations of the framework in which scientific inquiry operates, which usually leads to flawed claims about what science can demonstrate.

The problem becomes even bigger when we move away from the proper domain of science but still try and sound all “sciencey” – generally to try and give a weak argument a veneer of authority. Thus we see such unfortunate mixed metaphors as “mind virus”, “meme” and “cultural evolution”, all of which take concepts from their proper scientific domain of biology and arbitrarily apply them to psychology and sociology, in which fields they are hopelessly inappropriate.

What exactly is the memetic equivalent for DNA? Has it been identified?

How exactly is a “mind virus” distinct from “a popular idea that I personally don’t like”?


“Memes” and other non-scientific ravings

This unfortunate tendency is displayed by professional scientists as well as dilettantes. Let’s look, for example, at an early instance of Richard Dawkins stepping off the edge of the scientific map but clinging desperately to the jargon. The passage below is from The Selfish Gene, in which Dawkins first introduced his odious “meme”:

The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe.  Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity? … I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet… Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

…And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.

…Consider the idea of God.  We do not know how it arose in the meme pool.  Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation’.

Here’s the recipe that Dawkins seems to be following to create his theory:

1. Take a tiny pinch of physics.

2. Misappropriate a dab of biology.

3. Mix in a whole lot of crazy guesswork and random analogies.

4. Top it off with a broad covering of atheism.

Let me unpack that in a bit more detail:

His opening statement about physics is misleading. He refers to the universal applicability of the laws of physics, but this is in itself an assumption. The laws of physics that we know about operate only within limits: we hope that there are even more fundamental (as yet unknown) laws that are universal, but it’s still a work in progress. The Dark Matter questions illustrate these problems.

From a wobbly starting assumption about physics, Dawkins leaps straight to a wholly unfounded assumption about biology – that it must operate the same way that physics (maybe) operates. From there he moves confidently to claiming to have identified a universal principle of biology (the existence of mutating replicators), and identifying (how, exactly?) a new example of the type (memes).

Then he dives headfirst into the jargon soup: meme-pools, memetic propogation, etc, freely borrowing from biological terminology with no explanation of how such analogues are justifiable.

This would be misleading enough if he were merely employing a bad metaphor, but he freely claims that “this isn’t just a way of talking” – his meme is an identifiable feature of the universe!

Wow, those are some big claims.

What’s his evidence for memes, by the way? Oh, that’s right: there isn’t any.

Well, as Dawkins famously said:

“…next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”

How, in all this, is his use of “meme” more useful to the conversation than just saying “idea”? What it his justification for the new term?

Simple: it sounds more sciencey.


“God hypothesis” is not a scientific term

There is another misleading expression much beloved of Dawkins and his ilk, and that is “the God hypothesis”. Like “meme”, this terminology is pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as rationality.

The word “hypothesis” has a specific meaning in science: it’s a tentative explanation for something which can be further tested. But the expression “God hypothesis” is ridiculous, particularly when the discussion concerns Christianity (in which context it is most often employed). God supercedes the natural world, and is impervious to experimentation.

More importantly, the impression conveyed by the phrase “God hypothesis” is that “well, we don’t know how this thing works, so let’s invoke some supernatural creator of the universe and claim that he did it”. But this is also ridiculous and misleading.

Let’s take the origin of the universe as an example, since that’s where the phrase is most often used.

Scientific consensus is that time and space were created about 15 billion years ago, and also that observation is impossible of events “before” t=0. Thus scientific consensus also declares that scientific inquiry is limited to the period after the Big Bang, and cannot investigate a causal agent.

So the short version is, science can’t help us with the question of whether God created the universe.

At this point, big and fancy words like “parsimony” tend to get thrown into the conversation. The argument is that “God” is a complex idea, and introducing “God” just to explain the Big Bang is philosophical overkill. (Philosophical, note, not scientific – remember that we are off the scientific map).

However, the Christian view does not suggest God as an arbitrary causal agent: knowledge of God exists independently of Origin questions, and views of God creating everything (including time) from outside of creation predate the Big Bang model by nearly three millenia. Augustine, writing 1500 years before the genesis of the Big Bang theory, described God outside of Time and God as a Prime Cause – this in an age when an eternal universe was the norm for non-Christian thought. Similarly, when Thomas Aquinas developed his argument of a “necessary God”  in Summa Theologica, this line of reasoning was independent of the Prime Cause issue.

The point is, God already exists in the Christian worldview. We already have knowledge of God from personal and historical revelation, from rational inquiry into the Universe, and so on. If anything, it actually simplifies the picture for God to also be the prime cause – He is not invoked to fill a gap, He is already in the worldview.



Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Seeing the gardener

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…


The innocence of children…

The doctrine of Original Sin is very challenging to our sensibilities. The idea that every human is “born sinful” seems so judgmental and negative that we shy away from it. Sure, we can agree that “Everyone makes mistakes”, or perhaps that “We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of”. But this is not the same as Original Sin, for Christianity maintains that every human being is inherently sinful and separated from God.

Probably the most frequent point of departure from the doctrine of Original Sin is the supposed “innocence of children” – particularly babies. Surely someone who has spent their life crying, sleeping and occasionally soiling the odd nappy (ok, more than occasionally) cannot be considered sinful? What can they possibly have done to merit such a charge?

There are a few responses to this, including a line of thinking involving inherited sin from Adam and Eve. Adherence to this doctrine usually requires an acceptance of a literal Adam and Eve – not just as real people but also as parents of every subsequent generation of humans. Whether this is  reasonable and/or theologically sound is not the issue I’m addressing now: I’m more interested in whether such an interpretation is even required for us to accept that every human is inherently sinful.


Augustine of Hippo wrote his Confessions when he was in his 40s, and in it he reflected on the entirety of his life thus far – including his very earliest years. Of course, like any of us, he didn’t remember his time spent as a mewling babe, but he did use keen observation of other infants to draw some general assumptions about his own behaviour. He considers the actions of a baby through the understanding of an adult, and in doing so, he raises some profound challenges to the innocence of children.

Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older… and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed?

Augustine notes that it is not the actions of the child that are in themself sinful. But God is not concerned purely with our actions, but also with our intents, and the desires of our heart.

The desires of an infant’s heart are selfish and often self-destructive, and is this entirely absolved by its lack of power to act? Watching a baby flailing his arms petulantly – but ineffectually – against his mother, Augustine wryly notes:

…the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind.

Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that infants are particularly selfish or are in any way “worse” than adults. But they are human, too. Satirist and social critic P. J. O’Rourke, reflecting on his own experiences as a father, wrote thus:

“When Saint Augustine was formulating his doctrine of Original Sin, all he had to do was look at people as they are originally. Originally, they’re children. Saint Augustine may have had a previous job – unmentioned in his Confessions – as a preschool day-dare provider. But it’s wrong to use infantile as a pejorative. It’s the other way around. What children display is adultishness. Children are, for example, perfectly adultish in their self-absorption. Tiny tots look so wise, staring at their stuffed animals. You wonder what they’re thinking. Then they learn to talk. What they’re thinking is, My Beanie Baby!”

Don’t get me wrong – of course we should treat children differently and make allowances for behaviour that we would find unbearable in an adult. Augustine makes exactly this point, in fact:

In what ways, in that time, did I sin? Was it that I cried for the breast? If I should now so cry – not indeed for the breast, but for food suitable to my condition – I should be most justly laughed at and rebuked. What I did then deserved rebuke but, since I could not understand those who rebuked me, neither custom nor common sense permitted me to be rebuked. As we grow we root out and cast away from us such childish habits.

…Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.

But children aren’t actually little angels – they’re human.



Related posts:

Asked and answered

Children of God?

Forgive us our sins


Note: A modified version of this post was published at Christian Diversity, as part of a broader discussion on Original Sin.


Anne Rice and hypocrisy in the Church

The media has been all aflutter over the past weeks about the announcement by novelist Anne Rice that she’s “quitting Christianity, but not Christ”. As Rice posted on her blog:

“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than … [C]hristianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

In short, it seems that Rice is frustrated to breaking point with hypocrisy in the Church.

Here’s the thing, though:

Jesus also hates the hypocrisy of Christians.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry he had a great deal to say to the scribes and the Pharisees, the “church leaders” of the day. Here’s Jesus as reported in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Mt 23:1-3, NIV)

Jesus’ strongest condemnation was reserved for those who teach the truth but fail to live it out.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Mt 23:27-28, NIV)

Let there be no mistake: Jesus has no time for hypocrisy within the Church.

At the same time, Jesus instructs us to live a life delineated by firm principles. There are concrete instructions about correct behaviour as well as about correct motives and attitudes. And yet, the Bible teaches us that we are all flawed and will fail to meet theses standards. Jesus is compassionate towards those who struggle to live according to God’s will for their lives. But the vital step is accepting that we ourselves are flawed.

I suspect that anyone who has been involved with Christianity has had experience of hypocrisy. But I suspect that anyone who has been involved in any human affairs has had experience of hypocrisy. If we set ourselves any sort of moral standards at all, we will fail to meet them. Perhaps George Thorogood had the answer to hypocrisy: start off by claiming to be “Bad to the Bone”, and you’ll never fall short of your standards.

But these are not the standards that Jesus asks us to aim for.

I’ve been involved in the Church for a couple of decades, including several denominations and several countries. I’ve seen people failing to live up to their own teaching. More to the point, I’ve seen people failing to live up to Jesus’ teaching. (Shocking revelation: I am one of those people!)

But I’ve also seen a great number of people trying to live up to Jesus teaching. Sometimes they do a pretty good job, sometimes they do a terrible job. They’re never perfect, but they keep trying. They also keep admitting that they have failed and ask God’s help to keep trying.

This attitude of humility is perhaps the key to avoiding hypocrisy. Jesus didn’t rebuke the scribes and the Pharisees for failing to live up to God’s law: he rebuked them for pretending to do so.

Perhaps the most succinct expression of humility and acknowledgment of our own fallen nature came from the inimitable G. K. Chesterton. When invited by The Times newspaper, along with several other prominent authors, to write an essay on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?”, Chesterton replied with a letter:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

This is the essence of humility. It is an open admission of our failings, with no excuses or self-justifications. (Incidentally, Chesterton did later write a full-length essay on the subject, which I highly recommend).

As the apostle John writes:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:8-10, NIV)

I understand Anne Rice’s frustration with hypocrisy in the Church, but I choose to respond differently. I remain within the Church, and if I feel that it has strayed, I will attempt to correct and support it from within.

More importantly, I recognise that I can also be hypocritical and corrupt, and I rely on my brothers and sisters in Christ to correct and support me in my walk.



Related posts:

Serious, not fanatical

Living a good and/or Christian life

Modelled behaviour


The timidity of New Atheists

I’m disappointed by New Atheist writers.

Not specifically with their conclusions, although I think their investigative methods to reach said conclusions are remarkable sloppy. No, I’m more disappointed with their timidity. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al. are very happy to make grand and sweeping claims, but they seem to lack the intellectual courage to follow their arguments through. In the midst of their tireless self-promotion as evangelists of the bright atheist future, there is a marked unwillingess to be honest about the details of where exactly their ideals would lead humanity.

Morality is an interesting case in point here. Dawkins is happy to propose secular humanism as an alternative moral compass, despite its unfortunate tendency to promote eugenics and infanticide. This philosophy maintains that ethics and morality can be derived from human rationality (“ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”, as the humanist articles of faith put it), despite the dearth of evidence for such rationality in human affairs.

The biggest problem with the humanist approach is that it requires staunch adherence to beliefs which are insupportable in the absence of God. “All people are created equal” is a wonderful basis for a just society, but without the Creator it makes no sense. People are not equal. They have unequal distribution of intellect, of athletic ability, of attractiveness. Unless there is independent justification for such a concept, an intellectually honest atheist should scrap it.

So let’s see where this level of honesty might lead. Friedrich Nietzsche – perhaps best known for his statement “God is dead” – believed that human behaviour was ultimately based on individual people’s “will to power”. Nietzsche claimed that the “death of God” would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective and any coherent sense of objective truth. Power is the whole of the law. His philosophy is startlingly echoed in Mao Tse-Tung’s description of his own ethics:

“I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others. . . . [People like me want to] satisfy our hearts to the full and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me. . . . I have my desire and act on it. I am responsible to no one.”

Writing in The Irrational Atheist, Vox Day comments on this worldview:

“This philosophy is rational, but it is literally psychopathic in the sense described by Dr. Robert Hare, developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, a clinical scale used to diagnose psychopathy. He describes psychopaths as predators who use intimidation and violence to satisfy their own selfish needs. ‘Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.’

“While it is not possible to diagnose the mental health of a dead man, the tens of millions of Chinese murdered by the Mao regime tend to indicate that the close correspondence between the words of the twenty-four-year-old philosophy student and Dr. Hare’s description of psychopathy is not entirely coincidental.”

I don’t for a minute claim that this worldview is shared by all atheists, but I question what basis there is for an atheist to hold any different view. Why should the happiness of others be any kind of moral imperative?

Dawkins seems particularly content to close his eyes and ignore implications of his own arguments. Hence we see such foolishness as this:

“I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan.” (The God Delusion)

The well-documented destruction of 41 000 of Russia’s 48 000 churches by Soviet atheists between 1917 and 1969 would seem to be a glaring rebuttal to this belief. And we needn’t limit ourselves to a single example – the atheist regime in North Korea has destroyed 440 of country’s 500 Buddhist temples, and atheists in China have destroyed some 7000 temples and monasteries in Tibet.

The question, though, is why Dawkins would object to such destruction. If religion is abusive and freeing the religious masses from their delusions is his avowed aim, why not bulldoze all the places of worship? Unweave that rainbow, burn those books and start fresh! Show some guts and take your beliefs all the way!

Sam Harris, despite his overwhelming tendency towards illogical idiocy, comes closer to displaying the courage of his convictions. In The End of Faith he states that:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

He seems to be willing to accept that his vision of a global atheist utopia will require a lot of genocide to attain – although he’s not quite honest enough to phrase it that baldly. In his Afterword, he attempts to dispute the connection between atheism and the widespread atrocities which seem to be so characteristic of atheist governments:

“This is one of the most common criticisms I encounter… While some of the most despicable political movements in human history have been explicitly irreligious, they were not especially rational.”

Again – why should it matter? I’d love to hear Harris (or any other public advocate of atheism) say, “The tendency of atheist regimes to slaughter their own citizens is irrelevant – the truth is more important than the lives of other people.”

Because if you don’t believe that, why do you keep trying to bring about the New Enlightenment?



Related posts:

Secular (in)Humanism

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism


Chesterton on Miracles

Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, this time on the subject of miracles:

But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up.  Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma.  The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them.  The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder … If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.  If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things … you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism — the abstract impossibility of miracle.  You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.  It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred.  All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle.  If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles … Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.

The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.



Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Plus ça change…


Plus ça change…

I’ve just finished reading Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton. What’s most fascinating to me is that it was written over 100 years ago and yet the issues that he’s discussing – materialism, evolution, determinism, conflicts fought in the name of religion, morality in the absence of divine guidance, etc. – are all exactly the same things that are shaping the debate today. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here are a few selected excerpts:


Chesterton on relativism:

“Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one.  Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view.  We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.  Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.”


…on the faith of rationality:

“Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.  If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself.  I have no right to think at all.'”


…on the philosophical aspects of evolution:

“Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself.  If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism.  If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into.  It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything.  This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.”


…on knee-jerk scepticism:

“The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it… It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end.  It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.  You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian.  But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow.  Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one.  Free thought has exhausted its own freedom… We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks.  We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”


…on the history of the Church:

“…in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple:  it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire.  The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast.  It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again:  repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top… If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new.  She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch… How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.”



Related posts:

Chesterton on Nature

Chesterton on Miracles


Having the wrong conversation

Over at Always Have a Reason, J.W. recently wrote a post on the atheists’ rhetorical quip:

“Everyone’s an atheist with regards to most faiths – we just take it one step further”.

We see this sort of thing in blog comments:

“When you understand why you don’t believe in Thor and Osiris, you’ll also understand why I don’t believe in your God.”

It paints a picture of atheism as a pure voice of reason towards which all the silly faith-heads are aspiring, and hopefully will one day attain. The implication is that there is a close accord between the beliefs of atheism and Christianity, and that Christians are in fact “almost atheists”.

In fact, the whole discussion is way off-target. The distinction between a Christian and an atheist is not numerical, and my rejection of Osiris and Thor as worthy of worship cannot be usefully described as “atheism” towards them.

It would seem equally banal to say that “Christians believe in infinitely many more gods than atheists”, but in fact this argument is nearer to the truth. The fundamental point is this:


Christians acknowledge the existence of the supernatural realm;

atheists deny it.


This is a very different statement, and it fundamentally affects the way that we approach the conversation. It is useless to invoke the existence of other religions as an argument for atheism. Discrepancies between Christianity and Hinduism do not reinforce the atheist faith, and to even discuss them with an atheist is probably futile. The atheist worldview precludes the possibility that either Hinduism or Christianity can have anything useful to say about the supernatural, because the supernatural does not exist in that worldview. How then, can we discuss spiritual experience in different faiths?

The only function of invoking other faiths in support of atheism is a diversionary tactic. Its intent is to put a Christian in the position of having to defend the validity of supernatural experience while trying not to defend the validity of other faiths, and this position is complicated by the fact that neither person is an expert on all other faiths. It moves the conversation away from the real point of contention and into an area where (usually) neither participant is actually able to talk from personal experience or expertise.

The pivotal step in an inter-faith dialogue between a Christian and an atheist is the existence of God, and the associated reality of the supernatural realm. To discuss intricacies within the supernatural order without acknowledgment of said order is meaningless. It would be like attempting to explore the material world while believing that the material world was just an illusion.

Let’s stop getting distracted by the wrong conversation and start having the right one.



Related posts:

Lumpy atheism

Faith: reflecting on evidence


Conflict Myths: Wilberforce and Huxley

This essay is part of a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as “conflicts” between science and Christianity.


This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.


“We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.” (Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, The Quarterly Review, July 1860)

Second only to the Galileo affair in the “conflict” mythos is the encounter between Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley on June 30, 1860. Frequently referred to as “the Wilberforce/Huxley debate”, this story seems to have all the elements of the postulated “conflict”:

  • The main characters:

Wilberforce was at the time Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Huxley is best known for his aggressive defence of science (as reflected in his nickname “Darwin’s bulldog”) and his agnosticism (he in fact coined the term to describe his beliefs).

  • The topic:

Darwinian evolution (and its perceived conflict with the Bible) is probably the most prominent battleground in the supposed “war” between science and religion. This incident took place the year after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

  • The drama of the legend itself:

Here’s a typical account of the events (taken from Ruth Moore’s Charles Darwin, 1957):

“For half an hour the Bishop spoke, savagely ridiculing Darwin and Huxley, and then he turned to Huxley, who sat with him on the platform. In tones icy with sarcasm he put his famous question: was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from an ape?

The cheers rolled up and the ladies fluttered their white handkerchiefs. Henslow pounded for order. The Bishop had scored.

At the Bishop’s question, Huxley had clapped the knee of the surprised scientist beside him and whispered, “The Lord hath delivered him unto mine hands.” The “wildcat” in Huxley was thoroughly aroused by what he considered the Bishop’s insolence and ignorance, and he tore into the arguments that Wilberforce had used… Working up to his climax, he shouted that he would feel no shame in having an ape as an ancestor, but that he would be ashamed of a brilliant man who plunged into scientific questions of which he knew nothing. In effect Huxley said that he would prefer an ape to the Bishop as an ancestor, and the crowd had no doubt of his meaning.

The room dissolved into an uproar. Men jumped to their feet, shouting at this direct insult to the clergy. Lady Brewster fainted. Admiral Fitzroy, the former Captain of the Beagle, waved a Bible aloft, shouting over the tumult that it, rather than the viper he had harbored in his ship, was the true and unimpeachable authority. Arguments broke out all over the room, and Hooker said that his blood boiled…

The issue had been joined. From that hour on, the quarrel over the elemental issue that the world believed was involved, science versus religion, was to rage unabated.”

What a story! The witty gibes, an ignorant clergyman talking out of his field of expertise, the iconic image of the Admiral dramatically waving his Bible, the ironic semi-ecclesiastical quip from Huxley as he rises nobly to meet this challenge to truth, the swooning ladies…

Pity it’s not true.

The image conjured above of rousing rhetoric from Huxley followed by descent into chaos and disorder is grossly misleading, as is the impression that Huxley was considered to have “won” the debate. This perception is based on thoroughly revisionist reconstructions, first by Huxley himself (over 30 years later) and then by 20th-century writers, largely due to shifting attitudes towards evolution and anachronistic re-interpretation of the actual events.

As Sheridan Gilley writes:

“The standard account is a wholly one-sided effusion from the winning side, put together long after the event, uncritically copied from book to book, and shaped by the hagiographic conventions of Victorian life and letters.” (The Huxley-Wilberforce debate: A reconsideration, 1981)

Let’s see if we can sift some of the fact from the fiction.


Settling the account

There is no verbatim transcript of the meeting, but it was reported in three issues of The Athenaeum (30 June, 7 and 14 July 1860), and there also exist numerous letters from those present which allow us to reconstruct the events with considerable confidence.

Firstly, it was not a debate – it was a series of discussions following the presentation of a paper by John Draper on some of the social implications of Darwinism. Although the presentation itself was by all accounts long and boring, the subject was a significant one, and Darwinism had been very much in the public mind that week. (Two days earlier, Huxley had vigorously debated the subject with Richard Owen after the presentation of a paper by the botanist Charles Daubeny). Darwin’s theories were on everyone’s mind, and only illness prevented the man himself from attending. The meeting was chaired by John Stevens Henslow, Darwin’s former mentor from Cambridge, and after Draper’s presentation Henslow invited various people to speak in turn.

The image of Huxley rising valiantly to defend Darwinism is not, it must be said, entirely accurate. After Draper’s presentation, Henslow invited Huxley to comment (in his capacity as a leading proponent of Darwinism), but was rebuffed with a sarcastic retort. Only then did Henslow turn to Wilberforce to put across some of the main points at issue.

We’ll deal with Wilberforce’s actual arguments a little later. Let’s first finish our construction of the events.

Huxley’s ironic quip “The Lord hath delivered him unto mine hands” first appears more than thirty years later, and is almost certainly a later insertion to the story. Huxley’s own contemporary account, in a letter to Henry Dyster on September 9, 1860, makes no mention of this remark. But he did personally insert the detail into two much later accountsof the incident: in Francis Darwin’s 1892 biography of his father Charles, and in Leonard Huxley’s 1900 biography of his own father. Huxley had also, by this stage,  adopted a vehemently anti-clerical stance which can hardly have failed to colour his later recollections.

More reliable accounts indicate that although Huxley did respond with the “monkey” retort, the remainder of his speech was unremarkable. Balfour Stewart, a prominent scientist and director of the Kew Observatory, wrote afterward that (in a letter to David Forbes on July 4 1860), “I think the Bishop had the best of it.” Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin’s friend and botanical mentor, noted in a letter to Darwin (dated July 2) that Huxley had been largely inaudible in the hall:

“Well, Sam Oxon got up and spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness … Huxley answered admirably and turned the tables, but he could not throw his voice over so large an assembly nor command the audience … he did not allude to Sam’s weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience.”

It is likely that Hooker’s main point is accurate, that Huxley was not effective in speaking to the large audience. He was not yet an accomplished speaker and wrote afterward that he had been inspired as to the value of oration by what he witnessed in that meeting.

Next, Henslow called upon Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who had been Darwin’s captain and companion on the voyage of the Beagle twenty-five years earlier. FitzRoy denounced Darwin’s book and, “lifting an immense Bible first with both hands and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man”. Although there is some resemblance to the  legend, note that this actually happened with the Admiral speaking from the podium in a well-ordered room.

The last speaker of the day was Hooker. According to his own account, it was he and not Huxley who delivered the most effective reply to Wilberforce’s arguments: “Sam was shut up – had not one word to say in reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith”. Canon Farrar, a liberal clergyman who was present, wrote later:

“The speech which really left its mark scientifically on the meeting was the short one of Hooker… I should say that to fair minds, the intellectual impression left by the discussion was that the Bishop had stated some facts about the perpetuity of the species, but that no one had really contributed any valuable point to the opposite side except Hooker.”

Notably, there was no consensus amongst those present as to which side had “carried the day”. In fact, all three major participants felt they had had the best of the debate:

Wilberforce: “On Saturday Professor Henslow … called on me by name to address the Section on Darwin’s theory. So I could not escape and had quite a long fight with Huxley. I think I thoroughly beat him.”

Huxley: “[I was] the most popular man in Oxford for a full four & twenty hours afterwards.”

Hooker: “I have been congratulated and thanked by the blackest coats and whitest stocks in Oxford.”


Wilberforce in context

Sam Wilberforce was not just the Bishop of Oxford, he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, a prominent ornithologist and Vice President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His part in the incident was not that of an ignorant cleric, but of a keen and accomplished amateur offering an important and considered critique of Darwin’s theory from a scientific perspective.

This is a vital point, because if we are to understand this incident at all we must rid ourselves of the idea that it was an exchange between religion and science. Indeed, it was for his knowledge of science (as well as his familiarity with speaking to large groups) that Henslow called on Wilberforce to comment.

Although we do not have a verbatim transcript of Wilberforce’s speech, the reports indicate that it was very similar in substance to a review of Darwin’s Origin of Species that he had penned just five weeks earlier (and published in The Quarterly Review of July 1860). Philosopher and mathematician John Lucas notes (in his essay Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter) that: “Wilberforce, contrary to the central tenet of the legend, did not prejudge the issue. The main bulk of the review is given over to an entirely scientific assessment of Darwin’s Theory.”

Let’s look at two key passages of Wilberforce’s review. In the first, we see a strong adherence to rational scientific principles and a dedication to following the evidence where it leads:

“But we are too loyal pupils of inductive philosophy to start back from any conclusion by reason of its strangeness. Newton’s patient philosophy taught him to find in the falling apple the law which governs the silent movements of the stars in their courses; and if Mr Darwin can with the same correctness of reasoning demonstrate to us our fungular descent, we shall dismiss our pride, and avow, with the characteristic humility of philosophy, our unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms … only we shall ask leave to scrutinise carefully every step of the argument which has such an ending, and demur if at any point of it we are invited to substitute unlimited hypothesis for patient observation, or the spasmodic fluttering flight of fancy for the severe conclusions to which logical accuracy of reasoning has led the way.”

His point about consistent scrutiny of evolutionary theory has, sadly, been much overlooked in the last century, but more on that later. In another passage he unequivocally states his belief that scientific theories must be judged purely on their scientific merits:

“Our readers will not have failed to notice that we have objected to the views with which we are dealing solely on scientific grounds. We have done so from our fixed conviction that it is thus that the truth or falsehood of such arguments should be tried. We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-intrusted faith.”

We see very clearly here an intent to argue a scientific hypothesis from a scientific perspective, trying as much as possible to avoid pre-judging the results. Lucas comments further that: “On the strength of the review it would be quite impossible to make out Wilberforce as the prelatical apostle of ecclesiastical authority trying to down the honest observations of simple science.”

The report in The Athenaeum clearly indicates that Wilberforce presented his criticism of Darwinism from a scientific base:

“The Bishop of Oxford stated that the Darwinian theory, when tried by the principles of inductive science, broke down. The facts brought forward, did not warrant the theory…

Mr Darwin’s conclusions were an hypothesis, raised most unphilosophically to the dignity of a causal theory. He was glad to know that the greatest names in science were opposed to this theory, which he believed to be opposed to the interests of science and humanity.”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, the other publication to report on the meeting at the time, carried a similar description of Wilberforce’s arguments. Wilberforce, according to the Journal, condemned the Darwinian theory as:

“…unphilosophical; as founded, not on philosophical principles, but upon fancy, and he denied that one instance had been produced by Mr Darwin on the alleged change from one species to another had ever taken place [sic]. He alluded to the weight of authority that had been brought to bear against it – men of eminence, like Sir B. Brodie and Professor Owen, being opposed to it, and concluded, amid much cheering, by denouncing it as degrading to man, and as a theory founded upon fancy, instead of upon facts.”


The scientific case

So now that we have established that Wilberforce was arguing from science, what exactly were his arguments? Basically, he presented three points:

  1. In the timescale of human history, no evidence of the emergence of new species could be observed. This despite very long-term exercises in artificial selective breeding such as dogs and horses.
  2. While selective pressures did indeed seem to have an effect of causing changes in morphology (body type), they do not cause changes between species.
  3. The sterility of hybrids (such as mules, which are the offspring of horses and asses) argues strongly for the fixity of species and against successful changes in species.

Considering the actual arguments presented in Origins, and the state of knowledge at the time, these were all valid and highly problematic points against Darwin’s theory. Lucas clarifies:

“As regards the first point we now know that Wilberforce is wrong; but on the other two points he was right. Dogs, horses and pigeons have been selectively bred for thousands of generations, yet different breeds not only remain mutually fertile, but are liable to revert to type. Obvious changes in the phenotype are less significant than Darwin claimed, and species are genetically much more stable than he had supposed… Unless and until Darwinians could produce an explanation of how organisms of one species could eventually evolve into those of another, which also accounted for hybrid infertility and reversion to type, it was a fair criticism to say that Darwin had not offered a causal theory but only, at best, a hypothesis.”

Darwin himself regarded Wilberforce’s arguments as reasonable and fair. Writing to Hooker in July 1860, he said: “I have just read the Quarterly. It is uncommonly clever; it picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties. It quizzes me quite splendidly.” On returning to work after his illness, Darwin immediately applied himself to the problematic areas raised by Wilberforce.

Lucas further elaborates on the scientific strengths of Wilberforce’s arguments:

“In assessing Wilberforce’s argument, two crucial distinctions have to be borne in mind: first between the Darwinism that Darwin was propounding and what is understood as Darwinism today; and secondly between simple inductive generalization and an overall schema of explanation and interpretation. Evolution is not itself an immutable creed, but has itself evolved. The Neo- Darwinism that men of science now accept took its present form only in the 1940s and is at least three stages removed from the theory Darwin propounded. Darwin had no theory of genes and gave no account of how it was that species came into being: the very title of his book was itself a misnomer. What he was really arguing for was a hypothesis that each species had gradually developed from some simpler one, and the Survival of the Fittest as a partial explanation of how this had happened. Wilberforce claimed that the hypothesis was false and that the explanation failed to account for some crucial facts. In the review he devoted six pages to the absence in the geological record of any case of one species developing into another. Darwin had felt this to be a difficulty, and had explained it away by reason of the extreme imperfection of the geological record. Subsequent discoveries were soon to … fill in the stages whereby many different species had evolved from common ancestors: but in 1860 it was fair to point out the gaps in the evidence, and to argue that Darwin had put forward only a conjectural hypothesis, not a well-established theory.”


Conflicting stories

Returning to our “conflict” thesis, it should by now be clear that the 1860 meeting between Huxley and Wilberforce was not at all a clash between science and religion. It was certainly a heated discussion, but there are massive problems with the traditional tale.

  • Not only was the meeting not a debate, Huxley by all accounts played a relatively minor role.
  • The main substance of the debate was between Wilberforce and Hooker, with Huxley’s involvement limited to an emotional (but totally unscientific) series of verbal ripostes about apes and grandfathers.
  • Everyone was at the meeting to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinism, not to debate any theological matters.
  • Most importantly, Wilberforce debated his side from science.

As Lucas writes:

“…it is clear that [Wilberforce] did not argue that Darwin’s theory must be false because its implications for the nature of man were unacceptable. As he saw it, and as most of his audience saw it, he was showing that it was, as a matter of scientific fact false, and only having established this did he go on to say in effect ‘and a good thing too’.”



Additional Notes: Theory vs Paradigm

This issue of hypothesis vs theory vs paradigm is worth expanding on a bit, since we’re already buried deep in Darwinism. Wilberforce attacked Darwinism as a theory, and correctly pointed out that it was full of holes and the evidence didn’t really support it. But as Lucas explains, it won widespread support not as a theory but as a paradigm – that is, a schema of explanation and interpretation:

“Its immense appeal lay in its power of organizing the phenomena of natural history in a coherent and intelligible way. This was what had led Hooker to adopt it, and subsequently commended it, in spite of admitted difficulties and deficiencies, to almost all working biologists.

… Darwinism became at once a creed, to be espoused or eschewed with religious vehemence and enthusiasm. It was not just a Baconian hypothesis that could be accepted or rejected by a simple enumeration of instances independently of what was thought about other matters. Darwinism affected the whole of a biologist’s thinking, his way of classifying, his way of explaining, what he thought he could take for granted, what he would regard as problems needing further attention. We may take Huxley’s point that Darwin’s theory was not merely an hypothesis but an explanation.”

This status as a paradigm has two important implications. Firstly, Darwinism is held to be immune to conventional falsification. Secondly, as a broad philosophical framework in which biology operates, its must have near-universal acceptance for it to be useful. This explains much of the religious zeal with which the Darwinian creed is promoted. Furthermore, by describing a framework within which to think, there is a high risk that a Darwinian outlook will affect an individual’s entire worldview.

Ironically, despite the fact that he explicitly attacked Darwinism as a scientific theory, it may have been its status as a paradigm which concerned Wilberforce more: he anticipated the disastrous effects which Darwinist thinking could wreak if misapplied to social situations. In his review he refers to a section of Origins dealing with ants, and writes:

“…we detect one of those hints by which Mr. Darwin indicates the application of his system from the lower animals to man himself, when he dwells so pointedly upon the fact that it is always the black ant which is enslaved by his other coloured and more fortunate brethren. ‘The slaves are black!’ We believe [it is Darwin’s opinion] that the tendency of the lighter-coloured races of mankind to prosecute the negro slave-trade was really a remains, in their more favoured condition, of the ‘extraordinary and odious instinct’ which had possessed them before they had been ‘improved by natural selection’…”

Lucas suggests these options:

“To put the argument briefly in the form of a dilemma: either Darwin’s theory was a simple hypothesis, in which case difficulties about hybrids and reversion to type were fair and at the time well-nigh conclusive arguments against it: or it was a grand interpretative schema, in which case counterintuitive consequences about the nature and dignity of man were relevant and cogent.”