Review of Chapter 11 of The End Of Christianity

In chapter 11 of The End of Christianity, David Eller argues: (1) that, while religion and science can co-exist, they are not compatible; and (2) science has no need for religion and can only proceed when it is liberated from the specific claims and general mindset of religion.

Eller believes that the essence of science lies mainly on the premises of detectability and doubt. First, science can only consider that which we can detect (directly or indirectly). Second, science must be ready to doubt anything whatsoever. If new evidence comes to light we have to be willing to overturn previous scientific theories. Science includes other attributes, including: neutrality, regularity, equality among scientists (i.e., no scientist has access to knowledge that other scientists could not, in principle, access or reproduce), causation, and the tentativeness of results.

Eller defines religion as the belief in spiritual beings. By “spiritual” he means without a material body. By “being” he means an entity with a mind, will, and intention. He also notes other corollary beliefs. First, there must be an authoritative source to provide knowledge about these spiritual beings. Second, there is the belief that some individuals have access to knowledge that others don’t. Third, that spiritual beings can intervene in the world (miracles). Fourth, one should participate in the religious practices and not remain neutral. Fifth, questioning and skepticism are discouraged.

Eller thinks that it is self-evident that religion is anti-science. But this is due largely to his skewed vision of religion. First, one can come to the conclusion that a source (e.g., the Bible, a prophet, etc.) is authoritative through the use of reason. In fact, many atheists will do something similar in the case of science. They will claim that it is reasonable to accept science as an authoritative source of knowledge. Second, questioning and skepticism can occur within the confines of religion. Granted, if one answers certain questions in certain ways he may no longer be a member of the religion he started in. But the same could be said about a scientist. He might start with one scientific theory, ask some questions, and be led to a different position. He was free to ask questions but how he answered those questions would determine whether he could be grouped with one set of scientists or another. Once you realize that both religion and science are outgrowths of a more general philosophy you see that they can be compatible.

But the author’s main beef is with accepting the existence of non-human/super-human agency. He believes it makes science impossible and paralyzes all human knowledge. First, he claims that the supernatural agents are always arranged in a way so that they cannot be detected. This is misleading at best. The supernaturalist usually holds that we cannot control supernatural agents in the same way we can control, say, a billiard ball. This means that we cannot subject supernatural agents to rigorous experimentation, but it does not mean that we cannot detect the supernatural agents at all. Note this paragraph about the Rosenheim poltergeist:

Another workplace incident, reported by German parapsychologist Hans Bender, is also worth mentioning at this point. It occurred in 1967 in a lawyers’ office in the Bavarian town of Rosenheim. Investigators watched and filmed as decorative plates jumped off the walls, paintings began to swing and drawers opened by themselves. There was rogue electrical activity, too: lights and fuses kept blowing, and the telephones all rang at once, with no-one on the line. As many as forty people were said to have witnessed the events, including power technicians, police officers, doctors, journalists and the firm’s clients. In this case, the disturbances were associated with a nineteen-year-old secretary named Annemarie Schneider. When she walked through the hall, the lamps behind her began to swing and light fixtures exploded, the fragments flying towards her. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Munich, called in to help, used monitoring equipment to systematically eliminate every physical cause, including variations in the supply of current, electrostatic charges, static magnetism, loose contacts and faulty equipment. Critically, they also ruled out manual intervention and concluded that the electrical deflections could only be due to some unknown energy that depended in some way on Schneider. (Randi’s Prize, Kindle location 665)

This poltergeist activity was certainly detectible. Eller’s claim is simply false.

Second, he claims that supernatural agency makes nature irregular and unpredictable. There is no connection between cause and effect. I see no reason why this is any more of a problem than natural agency in humans and animals. If a human can catch an apple falling from a tree then we cannot predict that the apple will actually hit the ground when it falls. But this is an absurd objection. Humans, animals, and supernatural agents are all part of the cause-and-effect chain. Some things are only “irregular” or “unpredictable” because you are not taking the agents (natural or supernatural) into account.

Eller’s final point is as follows (p. 277):

[W]hile modern religionists mostly try to deny it, the supernatural premise of spiritual agency actually does destroy the notion of cause. Science strives to explain facts and events in terms of cause, which means antecedent conditions: if X is true or occurs, then Y will be true or occur. But agents, including human agents, do not act just in terms of causes. They act in terms of motives; that is, their goals or purposes or ends, which are idiosyncratic and future-oriented. The motives of agents are fundamentally “teleological”: our “reason” for doing something is to achieve some objective that lies in the future. And since the future has not happened yet, any knowledge of it is prima facie impossible.

He appears to be saying that religionists reject cause and effect because they believe we act for a purpose. But, honestly, I’m not sure how he is trying to support such a statement in this paragraph. Leave a comment if you make sense of it. With that caveat in mind, let me make two final points. First, goal-oriented action is considered a final cause in Thomism. Eller appears to only be speaking of efficient causes. Thus it should be noted that the lack of efficient causes in an explanation is not the same as their being no causes. But a supernatural agent could be an efficient cause too. Second, it is atheists who routinely deny cause and effect when cosmological arguments for the existence of God are presented. Consider the First Way of Thomas Aquinas:

  1. Some things are in motion (undergoing change).
  2. Motion is the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.
  3. Nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality except by something in a state of actuality.
  4. Nothing can be both potential and actual in the same respect and at the same time.
  5. Whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another.
  6. If there is an infinite series of movers then there is no first mover.
  7. If there is no first mover then there would be no other movers because the subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover.
  8. Therefore, there is a first mover, God, who is not in motion.

The details of the argument may be vague if you do not understand some of the metaphysics assumed in the argument (see Edward Feser’s Aquinas for more information). But it is basically an argument from the existence of cause and effect to the conclusion that God exists. It seems the only way a scientist can avoid the existence of God is by denying cause and effect. In other words, if you’re a scientist, it is a logical deduction that God exists. The assumptions made by scientists logically entail the existence of God. Science is not only compatible with religion, it leads to it.


8 thoughts on “Review of Chapter 11 of The End Of Christianity

  1. Pingback: Index to My Partial Review of The End of Christianity | Biblical Scholarship

  2. Jayman,

    First, I should like to offer the following caveat. I find that the available evidence does not justify any inference to statements of ultimate causation – or lack of it.

    That aside, I find metaphysically thick conceptions of causation unpalatable. For me, at its core, causation is a probabilistic observable relationship among events or states of affairs which does admit of counterfactual resilience in any metaphysically significant sense.

    Thus, to cut through (1) – (8), I cut off (8)’s head at (5). ‘Whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another’ is an hypothesis which we have reason to think is not true.

    Given the above, your statement ‘It seems the only way a scientist can avoid the existence of God is by denying cause and effect’ is not correct. Rather, scientists must reject a *certain* conception of causation; a conception of causation which does not immediately commend itself to acceptance, I might add.

    Re: ‘In other words, if you’re a scientist, it is a logical deduction that God exists.’

    Nope, not true at all.

    Science begins by identifying the means by which we brains receive sensory stimuli from our environment, form hypotheses about the environment, organize, arrange, and interpret the stimuli, locate patterns in the stimuli (if there are any), formulate general rules (which are precisifed as the process proceeds) with which to make conjectures, test our conjectures against further stimuli, record and store what is useful, discard what is not, and begin again. Nothing in this story requires a thick conception of causation.

  3. Aaron, what reasons do you have to think (5) is not true? Keep in mind that “motion” refers to change and not merely moving from point A to point B.

  4. In (1) – (8), premise (5) serves as an a priori assumption / axiom. I reject the a priori assumption on two bases. The first and most important of which is that I reject *all* a priori truths. The second basis is that the relevant scientific evidence does not warrant the inference that (5) is true (indeed, one could argue that evidence warrants the inference that it is false).

    If the a priori status of (5) is untenable, then (8) does not follow, indeed no inference to ultimate causation follows. The a priori status of (5) is untenable. Therefore, (8) does not follow, indeed no inference to ultimate causation follows.

  5. I don’t think (5) is an a priori truth (it is not knowledge independent of experience). What scientific evidence casts doubt on the truth of (5)?

  6. You said that “They [atheists] will claim that it is reasonable to accept science as an authoritative source of knowledge.”

    This is because science _is_ knowledge. It is knowledge about how the universe works based on verifiable evidence and it can be used predictively. This does not mean it cannot change as new information becomes available.

    Religious “knowledge,” on the other hand, is speculation based on personal experiences and stories (just like the belief in UFOs and Bigfoot) and is unverifiable. If it were verifiable, nearly everyone in the world would agree on the same claims. Religious “knowledge” cannot predict anything about what will happen in this universe better than a fortune teller can; otherwise (again), nearly everyone would flock to the same religion.

  7. Anonymous, the point of the paragraph you quote from is that the belief that science is a reliable source of knowledge is based on non-scientific, philosophical grounds (one must avoid circularity). One can argue for the truth of religious beliefs on analogous non-scientific, philosophical grounds. Thus science and religion need not be opposed to each other and are both outgrowths of philosophical beliefs.

  8. Jayman777, yes, you’re right, it’s important to avoid circularity. But let me ask you this: When you say that one can argue for the “truth” of religious beliefs, what exactly do you mean by “truth”? If you mean that the beliefs in question can make people happy, give them comfort in the face of a harsh, unjust world, and provide a basis for community, then I totally agree with you. But if you mean that religious beliefs are based on historical events that all sane people would agree happened if only we had all been there to witness them, then I would have to say that the burden was on you to provide reliable evidence to that effect.

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