Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 3

The late Victor Stenger (1935-2014) wrote chapter 3: The Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Christianity. I thought the chapter jumped from topic to topic in a rather haphazard way. Short assertions with few details or argument are common. I’ll try to focus on the main alleged incompatibilities between science and Christianity and the faulty foundations that may underlie this belief.

Faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence. No one disputes that religion is based on faith.

That may be one definition of faith but it is not the only one. The Christian apologist certainly disputes the claim that Christianity is based on this kind of faith. The apologist attempts to use evidence and reason to argue for the truth of Christianity. The fact that Stenger makes the blatantly false assertion that no one disputes that religion is based on faith calls into question his intellectual honesty and/or his competence.

We must distinguish faith from trust.

Christian faith in God is trust in God.

Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies. . . .

Neither religion nor Christianity is an epistemology.

Every human alive is aware of a world that seems to exist outside the body, the world of sensory experience we call the natural. . . . [A]ll major religions teach that humans possess an additional “inner” sense that allows us to access a realm lying beyond the natural world — a divine, transcendent reality we call the supernatural.

I’m not sure all major religions teach that man possesses an inner sense that allows us to access the supernatural. Regardless, defining the terms “natural” and “supernatural” is quite difficult. The “natural” is supposed to contain entities that atheists believe exist while the “supernatural” is supposed to contain entities that atheists don’t believe exist. But Stenger’s definitions don’t seem to divide entities into the proper categories. I can’t sense another person’s mind but the atheist considers the mind to be natural. The plagues on Egypt could be sensed but atheists would consider them supernatural events.

Moreover, Stenger’s definitions seem incoherent. Suppose we do have an inner sense that can sense the supernatural. Given the definition of natural as the world of sensory experience, this supernatural realm would also be natural for it can be sensed. God could be both natural and supernatural on these definitions.

The working hypothesis of science is that careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world.

Stenger equates science with scientism. We aren’t told how careful observation could ever allow us to conclude that careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world.

Natural theology accepts empirical science but views it as a means to learn about God’s creation. And so, religion in general goes much further than science in giving credence to additional sources of knowledge such as scriptures, revelation, and spiritual experiences that are not based on verifiable empirical evidence. This credence is never tested.

Nearly everyone, not just the religious, goes much further than science. We give credence to human testimony and reason, for example. If you want to know who won the football game yesterday you may ask someone else. That other person, not your own careful observation, is a source of knowledge. You might solve a math problem using reason. Scriptures, revelations, and spiritual experiences are all to be tested. They may or may not be tested scientifically, but they are to be tested using methods common to other areas of life.

The fact that science is limited doesn’t mean that religion or any alternative system of thought can or does provide insight into what lies beyond those limits.

Stenger seems to think the practical success of science is reason enough to believe it is a reliable source of knowledge. However, the same argument can be made using reason and testimony in place of science. The limits of science have nothing to do with reaching the conclusion that scientism is false.

We can solve the problems brought about by the misuse of science only by better use of science and more rational behavior on the part of scientists, politicians, corporations, and citizens in all walks of life. And religion . . . is not doing much to support the goal of a better, safer world.

At least Stenger is honest enough to admit that science can bring about problems. However, he makes implicit appeals to ethical standards. There are problems but we can work to make a better world. It is not at all clear how the author’s scientism is compatible with ethical realism. Ethics is not a branch of science and so is not a reliable source of knowledge about the world. Thus, it seems that the goal of an objectively better, safer world is impossible, for no world is objectively better than another. The religious, who are largely ethical realists, can at least speak coherently about a better, safer world.

Today science and religion find themselves in serious conflict. Even moderate Christians do not fully accept Darwinian evolution. Although they claim to see no conflict between their faith and evolution, they insist that God still controlled the development of life so humans would evolve. This is not at all what Darwin’s theory of evolution says. It’s intelligent design. There’s no role for God in evolution.

The theistic evolutionist is making a metaphysical and theological statement. When the scientist asserts that there is no role for God in evolution he stops acting as a scientist and starts to make a metaphysical claim of his own. Stenger, like many atheists, seems completely unaware that he is doing this.

[M]any fundamental Christian claims do not lie beyond the scope of science: they conflict with it. The virgin birth, miracles, prophecies, revelations, and the resurrection are just a few of these.

We are apparently just supposed to know how God performing a miracle is incompatible with God allowing nature to run its course. And earlier in the chapter the author admitted that if someone could predict an impending earthquake based on an “inner sense” this would be evidence for an extrasensory source of knowledge. Yet now we are told that prophecies conflict with science.

It was only with the revolts against established ecclesiastic authorities in the Renaissance and Reformation that new avenues of thought were finally opened up allowing science to flourish.

Stenger unwisely comments on history. As James Hannam notes in God’s Philsophers, scientific progress was being made before the Renaissance and Reformation.

Theists and quantum spiritualists claim that modern physics has replaced reductionism, which has marked physics and indeed all science from the time of Democritus, with a new holism in which a system cannot be understood by simply considering the interactions of its parts but must include additional principles of the whole. In fact the opposite is true. By the late seventies physics had returned to an even deeper reductionism than before with the standard model of particles and forces. The whole is still equal to the sum of its parts, and those parts are elementary particles — just as the Greek atomists said in the fourth century BCE. This is another place where scientific and religious thinking profoundly disagree.

Reductionism and its alternatives are philosophical positions. Science can inform this debate but it doesn’t decide it. Nor should anti-reductionism be equated with religion. It would be more accurate to say that people of differing religious commitments disagree over reductionism and its alternatives.

Until recent times it has been widely assumed that the human being possesses an immaterial “spirit” or “soul” that is responsible for thoughts, emotions, and conscious will. However, the evidence has become overwhelming that these all result from purely physical processes within the brain. While we still do not have a complete theory of what we call “mind,” we have no empirical reason to assume that it will require any immaterial elements.

There is a tension between saying we have overwhelming evidence that the mind results from purely physical processes within the brain and admitting that we don’t have a complete theory of mind. Those interested in why some people believe in an immaterial mind should look into the philosophy of mind. That’s a tangent I won’t be going down here.

Another important issue where fundamental disagreement between science and religion exists concerns the source and nature of morality. . . . [S]cientists are investigating morality . . . and coming up with discoveries that few believers will like. While a primitive morality can be found in animals and early humans that evolved biologically, our modern ideas of morality more likely evolved socially as humans found ways to overcome some of their animal instincts by force of intellect. Not only did these developments allow people to live together in some semblance of order, they also allowed us to use the ability to act cooperatively to obtain resources from the environment, to protect ourselves from predators, and so on. The incompatibility between science and religion becomes especially striking on the question of the origin of morality and ethical behavior.

This is as much detail as Stenger gives on science and morality. As with many parts of the chapter, it is too short to be convincing. Theists don’t doubt that we can reason about morality. In fact, since we believe reason can be a source of knowledge, we are actually consistent when we reason about morality. Stenger is inconsistent for he claims “careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world.” We are not told how careful observations give rise to morality.

A theocracy? In America? Most of my scientific colleagues in the comfort of their cluttered campus offices would scoff at the notion. But they need to be good scientists and look at the data.

I’ll leave it to the reader to make up his own mind on whether Stenger is following the data. I would bet good money that the U.S. will not become a theocracy in my lifetime. Strangely enough, the argument in this section might be the most detailed of the chapter.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 3

  1. “That may be one definition of faith but it is not the only one. The Christian apologist certainly disputes the claim that Christianity is based on this kind of faith. The apologist attempts to use evidence and reason to argue for the truth of Christianity. The fact that Stenger makes the blatantly false assertion that no one disputes that religion is based on faith calls into question his intellectual honesty and/or his competence.”

    I think this nicely sums up the incoherency of theistic approaches. They claim that faith isn’t this (because it lacks any kind of rational potency) and yet fail to really express what it IS. This is because, in describing what it might be, they just define other words, like hope or trust etc.

    Simply put:

    http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2015/06/15/faith-as-a-redundant-term/

  2. “Christian faith in God is trust in God.”

    Precisely.

    This is not faith, then, it is trust. Stop equivocating!

  3. “Neither religion nor Christianity is an epistemology.”

    I would disagree. Science is an epistemology when understood as the scientific method. The Bible and religious holy books are revelations, supposed facts about the world. When taken in unison with personal experience (mutually exclusive between religions), and when used as a lens to interpret data (lightning as Thor’s anger) in light of lack of any other knowledge, then religions certainly are epistemological systems.

    Then when you add faith (trust???), this is a trust in the truth of something over and above epistemic warrant.

    Take consciousness or the beginning of the universe. Many apologists and believers take these things as areas, through their application of faith, God has explanatory scope and power. The problem is that applying faith in this way is NOT warranted.

    http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2015/01/26/in-defence-of-methodological-naturalism/

    Which is to say, as Carrier states:

    “The cause of lightning was once thought to be God’s wrath, but turned out to be the unintelligent outcome of mindless natural forces. We once thought an intelligent being must have arranged and maintained the amazingly ordered motions of the solar system, but now we know it’s all the inevitable outcome of mindless natural forces. Disease was once thought to be the mischief of supernatural demons, but now we know that tiny, unintelligent organisms are the cause, which reproduce and infect us according to mindless natural forces. In case after case, without exception, the trend has been to find that purely natural causes underlie any phenomena. Not once has the cause of anything turned out to really be God’s wrath or intelligent meddling, or demonic mischief, or anything supernatural at all. The collective weight of these observations is enormous: supernaturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always lost; naturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always won. A horse that runs a million races and never loses is about to run yet another race with a horse that has lost every single one of the million races it has run. Which horse should we bet on? The answer is obvious.”

    We have inductive epistemic warrant to conclude that God ISN’T a good explanation for these unknowns. This is precisely the issue with religion. It supplants proper warrant with faith or trust.

  4. Jonathan MS Pearce:

    I think this nicely sums up the incoherency of theistic approaches. They claim that faith isn’t this (because it lacks any kind of rational potency) and yet fail to really express what it IS. This is because, in describing what it might be, they just define other words, like hope or trust etc.

    I fail to see how defining faith in God as trust in God is in any way incoherent. You assert that we fail to express what faith is but I clearly just said what faith is.

    This is not faith, then, it is trust.

    The two terms can be synonymous. It is not an either/or matter.

    I would disagree. . . . The Bible and religious holy books are revelations, supposed facts about the world. When taken in unison with personal experience . . . and when used as a lens to interpret data (lightning as Thor’s anger) in light of lack of any other knowledge, then religions certainly are epistemological systems.

    At best, I think there may be a theological method (or methods). I would not equate a theological method with religion or Christianity.

    We have inductive epistemic warrant to conclude that God ISN’T a good explanation for these unknowns. This is precisely the issue with religion. It supplants proper warrant with faith or trust.

    You and Carrier err in taking the either/or approach. Lightning, for example, is both caused by God (primary cause) and natural forces (secondary cause). As someone who sees much to agree with in Thomist metaphysics and natural theology, I note that science can only work if Thomist metaphysics are true and that if Thomist metaphyics are true then God exists. Note this has nothing to do with revealed religion or faith/trust in God. I see the success of science and theism as a package deal until an atheist can provide a better metaphysical foundation to science. See here for further posts touching on this idea.

  5. In that case, you have trust, not faith. Or faith adds nothing special to belief in God. If trust is trust in your evidence, then this is merely evidential warrant. If it adds something over and above this, then it is epistemic warrant over and above that afforded by the evidence, so you get back to the original problem of faith as set out by many skeptics.

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