Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Blind Leading the Blind

Alister McGrath has written another vacuous piece attacking the new atheists. He seems unhealthily obsessed with them.

It's an extended exercise in equivocation on the meaning of faith. He starts by complaining how the naughty new atheists caricature faith:
One of the core New Atheist assertions, endlessly and uncritically repeated on New Atheist websites, is Richard Dawkins's dogmatic statement that faith is "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence."
For Dawkins, this means that faith counts as a "form of mental illness." This nasty intellectual perversion is limited to religious people. "Faith, being belief that isn't based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion."
Fair enough (except it's obviously not limited to religious people, and I have no idea who would say that - the quote doesn't say that); generally speaking the faithful I've met do make the leap of faith in the face of evidence to the contrary; that is certainly how I became a theist. But it's true also that other theists claim a different basis for their belief, including, apparently, McGrath. Since it's not "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence", it must be because of evidence, mustn't it?
Faith is based on reason, yet not limited to the somewhat meagre truths that reason can actually prove.
So McGrath agrees with the new atheists that faith goes beyond reason! Welcome aboard. Except in one particular; that the truths that reason 'proves' (to be charitable, let's allow that in the non-scientific sense) are 'meagre'. These 'meagre' truths, of which McGrath is so contemptuous, include:

  • Man was not fashioned from dust and woman from his spare rib
  • The Earth was not magicked into being before there was any light
  • Women are not subservient to men
  • Homosexuals are not doing anything wrong
  • All religions cannot all be right; they can all be wrong
  • There is no need to take what another person says on trust
  • Freedom of belief is a good thing, and religions usually only encourage belief in themselves
  • Freedom of expression is a good thing, and religions usually discourage questioning of belief
McGrath goes on:
It is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger picture of things, of which we are part. It is complex and rich idea [sic], which goes far beyond simply asserting or holding that certain things are true.
If it's a joyful discovery of a bigger picture of things, then why can it not be demonstrated? Here's the thing; theists 'discover' bigger pictures all the time. They either relate to reality or are a figment of their imagination. How to decide? Of course, there's only one answer to that, and McGrath won't like it.

Theists present multifarious and contradictory 'bigger pictures' to non-believers, and then moan at them for quibbling about evidence. If we are to accept McGrath's word without evidence, then we may just as well accept a Muslim's, a Jew's, a Scientologist's or Al Queda's. Theists then say, no, you must discover it yourself. No, no, and again, no. Without reason and evidence one cannot be sure one isn't fooling *oneself* any more than the many theists clearly are. To think anything else is to adopt the arrogant mantle of omniscience. Far from being scientistic, new atheists are simply being modest in their claims to knowledge; while theists presume to know more than their fellows. Such hubris.

McGrath promises more of this drivel, so it's going to be a long road to Golgotha.

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Tuesday, 15 February 2011


After many recent 'Science and Religion' accommodations, noticed by folk like Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson, often centring around the activities of the Templeton Foundation, one becomes sensitive to any hints of agenda setting from that source.

Taner Edis highlights the sort of misunderstanding that has been successfully propagated by those who are Templeton beneficiaries. He's been reading Paul Froese and Christopher Bader's America's Four Gods, and quotes them saying:
Although the arguments of the New Atheists are certainly engaging, they tend to misrepresent the current relationships among science, progressivism, and belief in God. Today, Democrats and cultural progressives are overwhelmingly likely to believe in God. Many professional scientists are also devout believers. In sum, a large swath of America is religiously devout, politically liberal, and scientifically savvy—three things we are told cannot go together.
This makes the usual mistake of equating accommodationism between science and religion with the ability for individuals to accommodate both science and religion. This latter fact has always been true, and will no doubt continue to be, for some people, but it has no bearing on their respective epistemic standings. Science is the most reliable way of knowing we have discovered, whereas religion has had almost no success as a way of knowing. In fact, it would appear that anything that religions say that is true, such as certain moral rules, pre-dates those religions. If they have 'discovered' anything that didn't pre-date them (and I cannot think of anything right now), any such discovery would be accidental, because they have no method of justifying their beliefs; the beliefs would simply be held dogmatically.

Froese and Bader's reference to many professional scientists being devout believers is a little dubious; maybe it relates to some research from another Templeton beneficiary, Elaine Ecklund. She claims that fifty percent of scientists are traditionally religious, but as Jason Rosenhaus points out, the data disagrees:
Asked about their beliefs in God, 34% chose “I don't believe in God,” while 30% chose, “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.” That's 64% who are atheist or agnostic, as compared to just 6% of the general public.
An additional 8% opted for, “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.” That makes 72% of scientists who are explicitly non-theistic in their religious views (compared to 16% of the public generally.) Pretty stark.
The worry with Templeton funding is the corrupting influence it may have on the good conduct of science. Tom Rees notes just how bad a Templeton funded divine healing research project, run by Candice Brown, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, and published last year, is:
It's a useless study, then. Now, a lot of people set out to do useless studies, but mostly they don't get funded or published. So what happened here?
Well, it won't surprise you to learn that the Templeton Foundation paid for this pitiful charade of science. They got their money's worth, though, in terms of gullible press headlines.
And the journal (the Southern Medical Journal) that published this nonsense?
They publish a lot of stuff on prayer - 137 articles in the last 5 years alone.
Not too surprising; a simple search on 'prayer' at Templeton yields 4 projects with a total funding of $4.5m. And this doesn't include the Candice Brown study that Rees mentions, since it's been funded from the Flame of Love project, another Templeton waste of money, doing 'Scientific Research on the Experience and Expression of Godly Love in the Pentecostal Tradition', to the tune of $2,326,362.

To draw from this feeble research the, admittedly tentative, conclusion that 'proximity could be the key to success' of prayer is laughable. That money is wasted on so many theo-scientific projects, that could be used to deliver genuine medical advances using real science, is a crying shame.

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