Entries from October 2010 ↓

Comment: Rabbi Jonathan Sachs Does Bad Science


In The Times, Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sachs, accuses Stephen Hawkins of doing bad theology while doing good science, when Hawkins purportedly said, “God did not create the universe.” This remark continues the scientist tradition of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), who said to Napoleon that he had no need for God as an explanatory hypothesis.

Sachs rightfully says that science and religion can potentially offer different, non-competing understandings of the human situation, although in practice this separation seems limited to a few liberal Western theologians. Science describes and explains our world in physical terms, whereas religion uses faith and tradition to claim greater purposes. Or, as Sachs puts it, religion seeks to answer the ‘why’ question, where ‘why’ means an underlying purpose and design. Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) , like Plato before him, greatly influenced later Western theologies, particularly Christianity. Aristotle spoke of four different causes: (1) material cause (physical object itself); (2) formal cause (emerging shape of the object); (3) efficient cause (physical cause of today’s sciences); (4) final cause (inherent purpose or design of today’s religion). With any event, science seeks the efficient causes – what prior events caused the event. The efficient causes of science are limited to our self-contained physical reality. On the other hand religions work with final causes – what were the underlying purposes or design that explain the event? For Jews and Christians, the answer to final causes usually means understanding the will of God, sought outside the mundane world of science.

However I would argue that religious people regularly proffer faith-based causes for physical events, contradicting well-founded scientific explanations.  God caused this or that. Or that disaster came from God’s wrath and so on. Even in Western countries, the reasonableness of Sachs’ separation seems hypothetical only, with conservative religious leaders happy to interpret God’s physical intervention in the world. Unfortunately for most religions in Western societies, science has effectively replaced them as the trusted source of knowledge. Or, as sociologist, Steven Fuller, often comments, the public now blindly trusts science as was done with religions in the past, and, ironically, with less knowledge or involvement wit the public. This change of public loyalties is reflected in the continuing decline of church attendances, where any professed spiritualities are clearly divorced from religious observances and church attendances.

Now, let us go back to Jonathan Sachs’ argument with Hawkins. Sachs now enters the scientific discussion by suggesting that his theological commitment to God is a better scientific solution (though hardly presented as a falsifiable hypothesis) than multi-verses. He evokes Occam’s razor, the principle of parsimony commonly associated with medieval English philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Ockham (1285-1349), to suggest that God is the simpler of the two equally competing explanations. By simpler we usually mean needing less assumptions. This principle is much admired in intellectual thought and, ironically, is often used by atheists to exclude God when discussing the evolution of life. Evolution without God is simpler than with God for the same explanatory power. So, Sachs is claiming that his commitment to an ineffable, all powerful creator-sustainer God is simpler than proposing the possible existence of multiple universes to explain how our universe happens to have six, apparently improbable, constants that are needed for development of life  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimensionless_physical_constant). In reality, this is the latest battle ground for the design (teleological) argument for God, now marginalised to the speculative realms of cosmology. Every day design arguments, like Paley’s watch, have been lost to science and therefore discarded.

Whether or not God is simpler than multi-verses is irrelevant to what Sachs is doing. On one hand he decries Hawkins for doing bad theology and then Sachs argues for his commitment to God by doing bad science. Using ‘God’ is like offering magic as an explanation for any scientific problem. It stops the conversation as God is outside the tool set of science, unmeasurable. Furthermore it is hard to believe that Sachs or any other theologian would simply walk away from his or her belief in God, if there was no scientific support. And he or she should, if God is put forward as a scientific alternative to multiple universes.

Jonathan Sachs should keep to his own advice and keep God in the realm of religious belief and faith and not try to re-engineer his characterisation of God as in any way scientific, measurable by the tool set of science. Do good theology and not bad science.

Alex McCullie

Comment: New Atheists and Myths as Liberal Theologian Tricks

New Atheism = Fundamentalism

In that same that religious fundamentalists refuse to see anything good or truthful in any religion but their own, there is a form of atheist fundamentalism that refuses to see anything good or truthful in any religion.’1

Both liberal and conservative theologians love to characterise the most outspoken critics of religion – speakers and writers like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens – as militant or fundamentalist, in a similar vein to their religious equivalents. This is a cute but ultimately a disingenuous ploy.

Religious fundamentalists, conservatives, and traditionalists commonly believe in the exclusive truths of their religious beliefs and see others as deluded, immoral, blasphemous, or evil. I would argue that, from a world perspective, many if not a vast majority of active religious people think like that. Just to be clear, I am ignoring the religiously indifferent, those who nominate themselves as part of a religious faith or denomination, but who rarely engage with its beliefs and practices. I am considering those who ‘live’ their religions and would expect their numbers to run into the many millions. Contrast this with the so-called ‘New Atheists’. They seem to be the same six or so writers who are targeted by the religious defenders as atheist fundamentalists. So we are talking a vastly different populations of those who claim exclusive truth in their religions and those who deny any truth (if that is truly their claims) in those same religions.

Let’s look at book sales. Dawkins or any of the other ‘New Atheists’ would be over the moon with book sales in excess of 100,000 copies. Christian evangelical writers regularly sell millions of copies to fellow Christians promoting end of the world prophesies and the like. Again, the reach of the religious critics seems minuscule compared to the polemic writings of the religious folk.

So what’s the issue? Religious people seem overly sensitive to any form of overt criticism. In some way they want nullify strong criticism by discrediting the authors like Dawkins and others, as if the general public cannot decide for themselves the value of the writings. Instead of using ‘New Atheism’ as a pejorative term, they should deal with the issues. Analyse church behaviours, acknowledge the failings like systemic Roman Catholic child abuse, and argue the overall benefits.

Myth = Non-factual Truth Trumping Evidence

Myths may or may not contain literal and factual truth, but this is not the point of them. Attempts to understand them in this way ignore the intention behind them and create controversies about issues that may well be less important than the points that the myth is intended to make.’2

The author continues by arguing, as an example, that statement ‘Jesus walked on the water’ is less a claim of facts than a declaration of the divine power of Jesus. Hill also argues that we should be aware of the actual claims being made before criticising them. Fair enough. Unfortunately for Symon Hill and other liberal religious writers like Karen Armstrong, the vast majority of practising Christians around the world do believe that these biblical stories really happened (in our physical sense). There was a physical resurrection of Jesus after his execution, the core belief of Christianity. It is not seen as purely a metaphor for rebirth and new life. This claim and other ‘miracle’ stories are contrary to our best understandings of the physical world and need to be refuted whenever such physical claims are made (and they are made regularly). Stripped of their popularity and awe, their physical claims are simply preposterous.

It is worth making the point that the more mythic or nuanced understandings may be prevalent in our secular societies. Credibility almost demands that. However we are in a minority from a world-wide perspective where the biblical stories are taken more literally. A good acronym to remember is that we are WIERDs, from Western, Industrialised, Educated, Rich, and Democratic societies. Our societies are secular and in the world-wide minority.

Finally, I do believe there are benefits to be had in religious belief, a support and sustenance of a closely-knit community that we commonly lack in everyday secular life and the opportunities to find (or make) meaning of aspirations beyond our immediate needs. Unfortunately so many religions world-wide package these potential benefits in environments that are self-righteous, moralistic, exclusive, controlling, delusional, and demeaning.


Alex McCullie

1S. Hill (2010), The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, New Internationalist Publications, London, p. 51.

2Hill p.48,49

News: Atheists Not So Ignorant According to Pew

According to the US Pew Forum (http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx):

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

So when you get the ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ from a Christian apologist, just respond with this survey. My favourite response to the need for the ten commandments for the basis of morality is to say something like: ‘interesting, I need to re-read them.

Ignorant atheist: ‘Oh, by the way. Where do I find them?’

Christian apologist: ‘The Bible!’

Ignorant atheist: ‘Yes, of course. But which part’.

Christian apologist: ‘Not sure. Old Testament, I think’

Ignorant atheist: ‘Yes, I remember. They are at Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21. Perhaps you better check them also now that you know where to find them! I’d also recommend the NRSV as a pretty good translation, although I’m fond of the Jerusalem. Bye now!’

Life has some pleasures.

Alex McCullie