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  ( 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: 58% daily prayer – US Pew Forum

US continues to confound Western outsiders – Australians, Kiwis, Brits, and Europeans. In response to a recent Federal Court ruling of  National Day of Prayer as unconstitutional the Pew Forum quoted a 2007/2008 religious survey, showing that 58% of the US over 18 population pray on a daily basis. Equally interesting is the spread across different faiths and denominations with the lowest faith being Jewish at 26%. The ‘unaffiliated’ are still 22%. I suppose the question for that group is ‘what is meant by the activity of prayer?’ and implicitly to whom or what. Alex McCullie Pew Forum

Comment: What Is Religion?

For Australians like most in developed Western countries the traditional symbols come to mind: special places like churches; crucifixes, alters, and other special objects; groups praying and singing; biblical texts and hymn books; special rituals; and priests and ministers preaching. These represent the practices and beliefs we associate with religions or, at least, the ones we see or participate. On further reflection or after overseas travel we realise the narrowness of these conceptions. I am reminded on Mencken’s warning about seeking a simple answer to a complex issue as quoted on this page.

Theologians, sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, biologists, and psychologists have studied religions to identify the illusive essence. Each have, not surprisingly, approached from the perspectives of their disciplines – the theological, social, philosophical, biological, and psychological. 

Here are a few definitions to broaden the thinking:

“Belief in spiritual beings” Edward Tylor, 1871
A propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which is believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life.” James Frazer of The Golden Bough fame late nineteenth century.

a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them.” Émile Durkheim, 1912

religion is a system of beliefs and behaviours that formulates and answers questions that are important, recurrent, and must be answered.” Susan A. Johnston, The George Washington University, 2009, adapted from Arjun Appadurai. This definition appears in an recommended audio course on the anthropology of religion from the Modern Scholar series at


 From the last definition a religion consists of beliefs and behaviours to varying degrees. We easily forget that Christianity is a very ‘bookish’ religion with an emphasis on correct belief, even from the early days of Christian history. Other religions often emphasise rituals ahead of doctrine. Religion is also a system embedded in culture often with a strong interdependence. For example Christian churches reflected and influenced their surrounding hierarchical political structures during development.
Religions not only answer the fundamental questions of life – our purpose, origin, and destination -, but also formulate the questions to be answered, a surprising, though not unreasonable, aspect of this definition.

Finally how does science compare with this definition of religion? Interesting!

Alex McCullie

Link: Non-Belief – Third-Largest Religion

Without tackling the “atheism as a religion” argument here are some interesting statistics on religion from

  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion
  2. Islam: 1.5 billion
  3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
  4. Hinduism: 900 million
  5. Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
  6. Buddhism: 376 million
  7. primal-indigenous: 300 million
  8. African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
  9. Sikhism: 23 million
  10. Juche: 19 million
  11. Spiritism: 15 million
  12. Judaism: 14 million
  13. Baha’i: 7 million
  14. Jainism: 4.2 million
  15. Shinto: 4 million
  16. Cao Dai: 4 million
  17. Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
  18. Tenrikyo: 2 million
  19. Neo-Paganism: 1 million
  20. Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
  21. Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
  22. Scientology: 500 thousand

 P.S. The scientology figure of adherents is greatly debated. See SolitaryTrees for one such debate.

Alex McCullie

News: Hiring physics teachers is not selecting priests

The following quotation comes from the Age editorial of 3 Feb 2010 on gay rights and the Papacy:

As The Age has argued before, freedom of religion does mean that the right of religious organisations to decide matters internal to them should not be infringed. The state must not tell churches who should be ordained, for example. But the hiring of a physics teacher for a church school is hardly a comparable decision, and when churches claim that it is they succeed only in demonstrating that their commitment to social justice is a selective one. The Pope, and Australia’s bishops too, should heed the example of those Catholic schools that have quietly hired gay and lesbian teachers anyway – and still kept their ”ethos” intact…(my emphasis)

Alex McCullie

Comment: which religion should you be?

religion detector

Thank you, Karl

Alex McCullie

Link: Better off without religion?

Here is a link to Susan Blackmore’s essay in the Guardian. She also refers to an interesting research paper by Gregory Paul,  freelance researcher, on the dependence on religious belief and dysfunctional psychosociological conditions.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Religious Reactions to Criticism

The Progressive Christian Network (PCN) in Victoria in Australia posted a series of responses by members in May, 2007 to comments by Richard Dawkins about his book, God Delusion, and to local newspaper columnist, Catherine Deveny. Here are my reflections on the PCN member’s articles. Most are familiar with Richard Dawkins and his knack of irritating people of faith, including liberals and progressives. After holding privileged positions in society, religions seem to react poorly to his type of overt criticism.

Atheists, like Dawkins, see that the sciences provide the most reliable and coherent explanations for our world and, in particular, for our species evolution. In this view we are physical beings in a physical world driven by physical causes, nothing magical. “Physical” means any combination of mass and energy as investigated by the sciences. So, most importantly, our sense of consciousness, self, free-will, and morality has strictly physical causes. In fact, scientists and most philosophers today accept that mental states arise from brain activities and not some “magical source”. Even though not fully understood, researchers continue seek physical explanations without declaring them to be permanently mysterious. Very few promote separate physical and non-physical dualistic-type explanations.

So Dawkins like many others sees declarations of “extra” realities as not only unnecessary but simply wishful, deluded, and misguided attempts to claim something special for humans. And proclaiming this really irritates the religious. Some critics go further to claim that all religions are outright harmful and dangerous. Many non-believers find this claim extreme, even though they often want to reduce or eliminate the special societal and financial privileges that religions and their religious schools receive.

To take one PCN response, Rob Sutherland, in God Is the more, abuses Dawkins and Deveny for attacking a monarchical form of God, the sky-god, as the only form of Christian God instead of recognising Sutherland’s nicer ineffable essence, the “more” (a la William James). He then continues with confusing arguments about atheism as some sort of rejection of non-physical consciousness; new-age mumbo-jumbo about quantum theology, thankfully quoted; and atheistic fundamentalists, Dawkins and company, as close-minded, non-seekers of the truth. Perhaps Dawkins best sums up Sutherland’s type of open-minded searching. “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.

I agree with progressive Christians that atheists and other non-believers need to be aware of the variations in Christian belief. There are vast differences between the traditional sky-god and the progressive loving essence, the “more”. However progressive Christians also need to recognise that they are a very small part of the world-wide Christian marketplace. From recent Pew Forum surveys in the US, it appears the 70 million religious people over 14 years take their sacred texts as the inerrant word of God. Another 70 million take them as the word of God written through people. So, I would expect millions to believe in the actual physical resurrection of Jesus, a very anti-scientific and unsustainable attitude. These are the true targets of religious critics. The more benign progressive Christians do not register on their radar.

Sutherland construes a unique definition of atheism. Usually atheists do not believe in a god or explicitly reject the existence of a god. Atheists, like most Christians, have a monarchical sky-god in mind. Many atheists then go on to reject any and all supernatural postulates. Naturalism extends this into a worldview of a physical reality, and only then do naturalists need to address questions like consciousness and free-will.

Finally, quantum mechanics is the physics of subatomic particles and its language is mathematics. It appears a bizarre world where a particle can occupy two places at the same time and two particles can affect each other with no apparent connection. Also it is a world of probabilistic determinism unlike the apparent casual determinism of our physical world. But it is pure speculation to draw any sort of metaphysical conclusions about our own reality. This research provides no evidence for spirits, gods, consciousness, the soul or free-will. In particular it is not the “backdoor for God”.

Many religions continue to be sensitive to criticism of all types. Many traditional religions expect blatant contradictions, wishful thinking, unsupported claims of authority, and dangerous moralisations to be accepted without question. Unfortunately they often are! Classifying their most vocal critics as fundamentalists or militants seeks to marginalise them with the bombing-wielding religious fanatics whom we all deplore. It is an effective, though, dishonest ploy.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Seeing Through a Religious Lens

“What is a religion?”

“What is being religious?”

… are very contentious questions especially among philosophers of religion.

I have floated the idea that it is something to do with seeing intentionality and purpose in our world where a naturalist would see none. A naturalist sees a pattern whereas a “religionist” sees a purpose. I saw god(s), heaven, hell, spirits as outcomes from that difference. Instead of claims of great revelatory insight, I got a rejection and indifference from friends and class and lecture attendees!

Here, in Australia, the vast major of people operate their everyday lives as naturalists even if they hold strong religious feelings. That’s how we work and live together.

So, what is seeing the world through a “religious lens”?

  1. There is something more than the physical world as specified by the sciences. Call it the “more” (from William James).
  2. Unlike the transitory nature of the physical world, the “more” is seen as permanent and unchanging, providing the “bedrock” of the world and our place in that world. The “more” provides structure, continuity and purpose to all reality and meaning to people’s lives as part of that reality. The “more” is taken as pre-eminent, overarching the physical world. It is revered as something fundamentally more important.
  3. Commonly the “more” is seen as having a consciousness that willed our physical world into existence and maintains its ongoing existence
  4. Religious beliefs, doctrines and practices are seen as human attempts to mediate with the “more” and therefore they are considered foundational to a person’s ultimate well-being. Most religions provide teachings and moral exemplars on leading lives in harmony with the “more”.
  5. Many attempt to “sharpen” their religious lens by objectifying and personalising the “more” with well-defined god or gods; sacred objects and locations; sacred texts; and sacred ceremonies.

Alex McCullie

News: Darwin Still Evil-Incarnate in US

Despite the apologists explaining away (or attempting to explain away) any “wars” between science and religion, US film distributors have rejected latest Darwin film as too controversial. The producer, Jeremy Thomas, is quoted as saying:

“The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it’s because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they’ve seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.
“It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There’s still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It’s quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.
“Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn’t saying ‘kill all religion’, he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people.”

Read full article here.
Alex McCullie