The Untouchables: when consensus doesn’t matter to the evolutionary creationist

I want to wrap a bow on the conversation I had with Jim Stump last week. First, let me say that I am greatly appreciative of Jim’s willingness to engage in a lengthy dialogue, and that he went to great effort to unpack his views and answer various questions. In this sense, it was clarifying and informative.

In that vein, let me say that I was relieved to see just how much Jim (and BioLogos) affirms, particularly in the New Testament (see below). For example, for every time that I have asked if BioLogos accepts or believes miracles like Jesus’s resurrection, or the healings he performed, the answer is an unequivocal yes. However, this does raise some other interesting things that need to be addressed.

Given the theistic evolutionist’s (TEists)—though they prefer evolutionary creationist (ECist)—reliance on secondary natural causes in the creation of the world, I had asked Jim if he believed God ever violated natural laws to work “miraculously.” He responded:

“I wholeheartedly affirm (and sign) the BioLogos belief statement, ‘we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture.’…so I affirm it. But it is not the way I would write it if I were writing for philosophers. So here are two qualifications and nuances I’d want to add:

  1. I think it is better to understand ‘natural laws’ as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Natural laws are our best descriptions of the regularities we have discovered nature. In that sense, I don’t think God set up, say, the inverse square law of gravitation before all time (like he was fiddling with some celestial dial), and that it somehow constrains what he will do from now on. It would seem strange to me that God would set up a prescriptive situation, and then proceed to violate that by performing miracles. I think it is better to understand natural laws as describing how God normally acts in preserving and sustaining the natural order; and it is totally fine for God to act in different ways than he normally does.”

This is theologically deep water. As I wrote in my book, the theistic evolutionist seems to conflate the creation with the Creator. The actions of the creation are the actions of the Creator. So, if a chance-based process is at work (as in Darwinian evolution), science will not see intentionality in the actions or outcomes. Nonetheless, God is doing it. Just to flesh this out a bit more, Jim also said,

“I find the glory of God more fully on display when we understand the secondary causes… I look at nature and see that God did lots of stuff: he created mountains and seas and animals and plants.”

Elsewhere Jim has written: “At BioLogos, we believe that God created the Hawaiian Islands too, and yet there is a process involved that science can describe comprehensively.”

In fact, at least to date, the folks at BioLogos more or less see “comprehensive” naturalistic explanations for everything from the Big Bang to the 12th chapter of Genesis (the establishment of Abraham). But, these explanations do not require agency. They show no signs of intelligent design. In fact, biological evolution is constructed to be dysteleological, meaning it is blind, pitiless, unguided, etc. As Jim did earlier in this conversation, the ECist will often rhetorically ask the Christian skeptical of Darwinian evolution, “Are you saying God did it?” Of course, the flip-side is that the ECist is effectively saying God didn’t do it! Or, more precisely, there’s no evidence that an intelligence has acted on the system.

The conversation got a little muddy when Jim tried to walk the tightrope on what we mean by “violating natural law,”

“So in that sense, it is not a violation of the ‘law of nature’ for God to act to resurrect Jesus from the dead (which I believe he did). It certainly goes against how we’ve observed the natural order to work, but our observations are drastically limited by space and time. I believe God will act differently in the future than he has in the past, by resurrecting all dead bodies. The scientists of the future (if there are such in the Kingdom of God in its fullness!) will develop different laws for how things normally operate, because dead bodies resurrecting will be an observed regularity.”

While ECists routinely appeal to “consensus” in the scientific community on the past, they seem more than willing to buck the consensus elsewhere.

But let’s revisit a couple of items on the table. If the BioLogian assumes that God is literally doing all actions at all times (remember, natural laws are descriptive, not prescriptive or causal), why doesn’t the BioLogian say, “When ice falls from a roof top and kills a little old lady, God did it”? “When a tire blows out on the highway, and a bus full of kids perish in an accident, God did that.” God did everything. Notice the subtle difference here. It’s not that God allows, permits, or simply sustains the workings of creation. God is the workings of creation.

(There is some flexibility among theistic evolutionists on this point. Polkinghorne has written, “An evolutionary universe is theologically understood as creation allowed to make itself,” and guys like Ayala have said, “I prefer to see this as natural selection, rather than [as] a consequence of design by an intelligent designer, the Creator. . . I don’t want the God of benevolence and the omnipotent God to be given the credit for having made that creation.”)

The second thing I want to further investigate is what appears to be a dichotomous grouping of things that science is free to explain, and things that science can never explain. When asked if God violated natural law to perform other miracles in the Bible, Jim answered,

“Yes, that is exactly what I think actually happened in water miraculously turning to wine: you would see water, and then ‘poof’ there would be wine. In that case there would be no scientific explanation of the process. You start with a positive affirmation from Scripture, and you have a robust theological underpinning for an event like that (or even more so, for the resurrection), which seems to remove it from the ordinary sequence of events for which science tries to give explanations.”

In contradistinction to the move of affirming a miracle based on its necessity in the Bible, Jim feels,

“God of the gaps explanations (at least the way I understand them) start from the opposite direction: you’re working in an arena for which the expectation is that these are the ordinary workings of nature, and you can’t figure out how it could have worked that way, so you invoke a miraculous intervention.”

So, as long as you begin with a positive affirmation from Scripture, science cannot, in principle, explain the miracle. If however, we don’t find it necessary to believe a miracle actually violated natural law, we are free to let science attempt to explain it.

I understand that folks at BioLogos have different views, but this move (I just mentioned above) stood out to me when reading a blog at BioLogos by Kathryn Applegate. She wrote,

“Many Christians accept evolution of plants and animals but draw the line at humans. Why don’t I? Because I have encountered compelling evidence from multiple scientific disciplines that supports common ancestry of humans with other animals. While it might be convenient in church circles to dismiss or downplay this evidence, to do so would violate my integrity.”

But then, literally two sentences later, she wrote,

“If accepting evolution meant I had to reject core doctrines of the Christian faith, or deny the authority of Scripture, I wouldn’t do it.”

So, it seems like there’s a weird cognitive dissonance at play here. It would be intellectually dishonest to deny scientific description just to hold onto a biblical claim of a miracle. But, if a core doctrine in the Bible is out of step with scientific description, then you can reject the scientific description.

To look at a gap or failing in scientific explanation (as they put it), and suppose that an intelligent agent (even God) is more likely than a natural cause, is a god-of-the-gaps move. But, to assume that science can’t explain a miracle in principle (like water to wine, or the resurrection) is not. Cool huh?

I would say, the honest view is to begin with the idea that none of the miracles have to be actual supernatural events, because, at least in principle, Christianity could be wrong (and could be disproved, given appropriate scientific explanation). BioLogians seem to have made a category of “up for scientific explanation” items and “not up for scientific explanation” items, which feels biased to me.

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My Little Pony, the Elements of Harmony, and confusion at BioLogos

With today’s blog, I want to really make the case that we need to approach BioLogos cautiously with respect to the theology they’re advancing. Frankly, I think it’s toxic stuff. In light of some discussion over the historical Adam & Eve, I started digging into their online content. Sadly, two things seem very evident:

First, nobody over at BioLogos wants to make a firm claim about much of anything with respect to their beliefs. As we’ll see, they instead offer lines like, “Each Christian’s view of [insert topic] is informed by a variety of biblical and scientific data as well as by theological tradition and personal intuition.” So, as I’ve posted before, don’t expect to actually get answers to your questions once you’ve taken the red pill and abandoned what you thought you knew about the Bible.

Second, it seems clear to me that, after distancing themselves from the original founders (Collins, Giberson, Falk, etc.), the folks at BioLogos are now sliding leftward day-by-day in their theological “squishiness.” I’ve also already warned what that can look like.

What has really saddens me is the way in which N.T. Wright has entered this conversation. I was taken aback when he said, “If creation is through Christ, evolution is what you’d expect.” It’s hard to square that with Darwin’s view of evolution (“From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals”). Christ, a Lord of death and misery, random action and poor design. Really?

Anyway, he seems to be heading for full-on mystic mode these days, which is disappointing, given his absolutely exceptional work on the historical Jesus (and the New Testament in general). It’s here we begin our story, with a summary of his 2015 book, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues, offered at BioLogos.

Admittedly, I have not read his book. In fact, I just ordered it, and will offer subsequent comments if necessary. So, I’m really just looking at how BioLogos interprets it.

Now, with respect to Adam & Eve, BioLogos does have consensus on the following items: They confirm common ancestry (that we evolved from a primate ancestor), and that it is unlikely that there was a single couple from whom all humanity descended. The real question for them is whether or not there’s any “real” Adam in history, or if it’s all symbolic. Of Wright, they offer,

“Many seem to think that the authority of Scripture hangs in the balance here and treat it as though it were a collection of ‘true but miscellaneous information’ or ‘an early version of the Encyclopædia Britannica.’ But Wright says that’s not the kind of authority that Scripture is. ‘The risen Jesus doesn’t say, ‘All authority in heaven and earth is given to… the books you chaps are going to go and write.’ He says, ‘All authority has been given to me.’”

Conclusion:

“[The Bible] is not a collection of timeless truths to which all people everywhere and every time must intellectually assent in order to be saved. It is the dynamic means through which God transforms people into Christ-followers no matter what their context.”

Of course, the question then becomes, how do NT Wright or the folks at BioLogos know that’s true? That is, from where do they derive the idea that the Bible is the “means through which God transforms people into Christ-followers”? From the Bible? Yes. But, what if, in my context, I disagree with their view? What do we do then? This is the sort of self-sacrificing argument all relativism makes. The relativist will say, “what’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me.” But, is that true? What if I don’t think their statement is true? This is where I start getting really uncomfortable with what BioLogos is selling.

But, this is just the sort of squishy theology they actually mean to advance. They continue,

“This emphasis on the dynamic nature of Scripture might trouble some. Wright’s goal doesn’t seem to be to uncover the one correct interpretation of the text that must be imposed on everyone. He says, ‘No, the Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do its own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text’ (p. 29) and ‘Each generation must do its own fresh historically grounded reading, because each generation needs to grow up, not simply to look up the right answers and remain in an infantile condition’ (p. 30).”

So, what if one of my students feels that the Bible is just one giant mythical document, intended to teach us the same kinds of wisdom we see in other holy books? Jesus didn’t really exist, but he makes for a nice story about redemption and the need to “die” to sin and be “raised” a better person. And again, from where does Wright get the authority to say that’s what the Bible is?

The stroke is obvious. It permits a continual re-working of what the Bible really means, as secular academic advances necessitate. It permits lots of wiggle room to reconfigure theology around modern thought. For example, they continue,

“In this vein, Paul routinely reinterpreted Old Testament texts, infusing them with new meaning which the original audience of these texts would not have understood. His rereading of the Adam story into his own context of first century Judaism is a prime example. In so doing, did Paul establish that as the normative context for all future Christians? Or did he model for us what we should do too—reread the Adam story in our context, which means to do so in light of what God has allowed us to discover about genetics, prehistoric human beings, and our relatedness to (and distinction from) the rest of created life?”

Well, that depends on the fact that Paul was actually talking about Israel when he “re-read” Adam’s story. Is there really evidence for such a move? That is, did Paul really believe that Adam never existed, but use “Adam” to symbolize Israel? Let’s look:

Romans 5:12-19

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come…. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” [1]

Are we really to think that Paul didn’t mean Adam? How exactly would Israel have brought death to all men? “From Israel [Adam] to Moses” seems not to fit either. At any rate, the suggestion here is, whether or not the generations of people before Paul thought Adam was real, the BioLogos folks are suggesting that Paul knew very well that Adam was not, and used Adam’s name to advance some story regarding the fall and redemption of Israel. Of course, the problem is that, while there can be many views, only one of them can be right. At the end of the day, either Adam did or did not exist. If Adam did exist, then the past peoples were right, and the modern thinkers are wrong. If he did not, then the people of the past were confused, but the modern academics have it figured out. But, both of these options can’t be true at the same time.

This would also be true for the genealogies offered in both the Old and New Testaments. If we believe Jesus actually existed, do we believe Joseph was really his father? Did Hezekiah exist? What about Jesse? Where do we leave the “real” people and move into metaphor and symbolism?

So what does the Adam = Israel move open the door for?

“Not much hinges on the historicity of Adam on this account…God’s purpose of making all of creation a place of delight and joy and order was to take place through them. But they failed and ‘abdicate[d] their image-bearing vocation and follow[ed] the siren call of the elements of chaos still within creation’ (38). Instead of reflecting the glory of God back to creation, through their sin of worshiping created things they ended up reflecting death to the rest of the world. It was Jesus who became the obedient human—what neither Israel nor Paul’s Adam could do—even to death on a cross. ‘He does for Israel what Israel couldn’t do for itself, and thereby does for humans what Israel was supposed to do for them, and thereby launches God’s project of new creation, the new world over which he already reigns as king’ (39).”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the, ‘abdicate[d] their image-bearing vocation and follow[ed] the siren call of the elements of chaos still within creation,’ line. It sounded so much like a My Little Pony episode my daughter owns, regarding the “elements of harmony”:

Nightmare Moon: You still don’t have the sixth Element! The spark didn’t work!

Twilight Sparkle: But it did! A different kind of spark. I felt it the very moment I realized how happy I was to hear you, to see you, how much I cared about you. The spark ignited inside me when I realized that you all… are my friends! You see, Nightmare Moon, when those Elements are ignited by the… the spark, that resides in the heart of us all, it creates the sixth element: the element of… magic!

That is to say, this sounds wonderful, but such phrases are devoid of any real content. What does it mean to “follow the siren’s call of the elements of chaos still within creation”?

So, then, what do we do with this revelation? What “truth” do we move to in understanding our Christian faith?

“In this narrative there is still the question of why the created order was in need of rescuing in the first place. Wright acknowledges that it was in such a state before human beings arrived on the scene, but he doesn’t offer simplistic answers for why this is so. This is a difficult question for us today, and we’ll not find the answers of previous generations satisfactory if they don’t take into account what we have learned about the created order.”

In other words, stay tuned, because the gang at BioLogos hasn’t figured out exactly what to believe. But, whatever they come up with will no doubt conform to consensus science!

To show everyone just how far down the rabbit hole this goes, consider where this particular review ends up:

“Why didn’t God just zap us into existence fully formed? We might as well ask why God didn’t just create a perfect and final heaven and populate it with us from the start. I’m not sure we can say much more to such questions than that God seems to delight in partnering with his creation in order to bring about his intentions. And those intentions seem to be for transformation—not some far off neverland of a heaven that has no connection to this world. If that were the intention, God would have just done that directly. But as Wright keeps reminding us, God is in the business of re-creating this world into the new heavens and new earth, and of transforming us through Christ from what we were into what he would have us be.”

So then, is this really that far from Neil Spurway’s view that,

“If the approach I have outlined is on anywhere near the right lines, Darwinian thinking keeps us earth-bound. We are animals…and are wholly the products of terrestrial evolution…We are ‘of the earth, earthy.’ What glorious things that says about the earth!”

Gone is the meaning of the resurrection. All this talk of Jesus “going to prepare a place,” and Paul saying, “The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality,” or,  “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds,” is just hyperbole. It’s nonsense about some “neverland.” It seems, increasingly, that naturalism is absolute for BioLogos. We truly are just stardust. So, the question you must ask is, does it look to you like God is “re-creating this world into the new heavens and new earth”?

More tomorrow.

[1] A similar statement is made in 1 Cor. 15:20-22, 45 “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive… The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.”

Answering the theistic evolution go-to playbook

In continuation of my post from yesterday, Jim Stump has offered me a chance to tackle a few more predictable moves in the theistic evolution playbook.

To catch people up to speed, in a facebook conversation, Stump made the statements,

“Common ancestry [here he means Universal Common Ancestry] is a multiply confirmed theory that explains the observable data in detail. So asking what kind of evidence would contradict that is about like asking what kind of evidence would it take for you to accept geocentrism.”

And,

“The fossil record continues to be uncovered, and continues to show more and more what you expect to see if common descent is true. At all of the major transitions, there are intermediates found in just the right places.”

I responded on that thread, and then decided to convert those responses into a blog. The major thrust was that multiple origins of life is a viable and growing option for many biologists, and that the fossil and genetic data are not as clear and unequivocal as he had suggested. I made no apologetics arguments, and didn’t even mention god. I just offered scientific evidences that his positions were debatable.

In private discussion with a friend (on who’s page this conversation took place), I then made a prediction:

“Personally, I just don’t think that the doubt about UCA is religiously motivated. Too many secular biologists are skeptics (and for too good of reasons). Just because UCA is false, it doesn’t follow that anyone is saying ‘god did it.’ That’s Jim Stump’s fear. They SOOOOOO fear the god of the gaps fallacy.”

It took less than a day for my prediction of Stump’s response to be validated. Rather than grapple with the examples I offered, Stump’s response was,

“I’m curious what your alternative explanation is for the Cambrian Explosion (and even more, the rest of the fossil evidence)….What I’m wondering is what you would see if a video camera had been rolling. Did God create one species out of nothing (so there was nothing there, and then “poof” we see a certain number of these organisms); and then a million years later all of those have died out, and God creates another species out of nothing that looks very similar with just a few tweeks; and so on and so on through millions of years, so there is a sequence of slightly modified species that look like a progression, but are actually not related?”

In other words, when I pointed out there is a growing number of serious biologists who are skeptical about Universal Common Ancestry (UCA), and that the fossil record isn’t as easily interpreted as he suggested, he didn’t respond with a counter to my evidences. He changed the subject to what really haunts him: the god-of-the-gaps fallacy (but see here). Of course, I hadn’t mentioned god at all. I simply tried to demonstrate that the science didn’t necessarily support his claim.

Notice how this argument works. If there is a gap in understanding, we are asked to assume that it will be filled with a naturalistic explanation. That is, we will find no evidence of God directly acting in a divine way (i.e. miraculously violating natural law). Now, it is true that saying “God did it,” doesn’t tell us how it happened. But, that’s an entirely different concern than whether or not science can detect such action. Every day, Jim Stump assumes he has the capacity for objective observation and free-willed decisions, even though science cannot explain how it is possible. None the less, the patterns produced by intelligent agents can be detected by science. So people like Stump are conflating the questions “did it happen?” with “how did it happen?” Science can work on either.

But notice the more concerning issue in this line of arguing. If Stump is incredulous about the possibility of God acting divinely, suspending natural law, then what exactly does he think God did do?[1] The conclusion is that, in order to be intellectually honest, he must assume that God has never acted to produce miracles that violate natural law. Wherever Stump inserts a claim of miraculous divine action, he is committing this god-of-the-gaps fallacy himself!

I’m going to return to this last observation in a subsequent blog, but I want to finish by discussing another go-to in the theistic evolutionist playbook: the appeal to consensus. Sadly, this is a common and well-known logical fallacy, so it’s shameful that people pull it. Consensus science is used by many to beat up and belittle anyone with a “fringe” view on a topic. Stump is no exception. His second response to my comments was,

“As I said, I know you can produce some scientists who object to evolution. But just saying that gives the impression that scientists are roughly divided on the subject, when the reality is that 98% accept evolution (and 99% of those with PhD’s in biology or medicine). So I’m guessing my 95% estimate of paleontologists is pretty safe.”

First, I’m not convinced of this number. I hadn’t made a case against evolution in its broadest sense. Only that his views on evolution were flawed. But, tucked in here, is an equivocation on the word evolution. For most polls of this sort, you only have two options: naturalism = ‘evolution,’ and supernaturalism = anti-evolution. Anyone committed to naturalism must choose some form of evolution. But, what evolution is, whether the pattern or the process, is very fluid today. For example, at a meeting of the Royal Society back in 2016, Gerd B. Müller offered no less than six different definitions for “evolution.” Even the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) believes in a form of evolution: some small number of animals got off Noah’s ark, and then diversified into what we see today. That’s evolution.

Leaving that aside, notice the appeal here. Since 98% of PhDs in biology accept “evolution,” any examples I bring to the table can be rejected out of hand. This is why Stump said that doubting such things was tantamount to believing in geocentrism. Only about a third of scientists in biology and medicine believe in God. So, if Stump’s argument was valid, it would actually harm his views. He shouldn’t be a Christian, since it’s a minority view.

But let’s knock this down once and for all.

Francis Crick shared in a Nobel Prize for making one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the biological sciences (the DNA double helix). Yet, in 1973, he and Leslie Orgel argued,

“As an alternative to these nineteenth-century mechanisms, we have considered Directed Panspermia, the theory that organisms were deliberately transmitted to the earth by intelligent beings on another planet.”

This was certainly not the consensus view. So, if Crick were alive today, what would Stump say to him? Would he call him out on some “god did it” argument? Would he pummel him with consensus science?

In Darwin’s day, everybody repeatedly described the cell as simple, referring to it as a “globule of plasm.” Today, a common textbook, Molecular Biology of the Cell, is nearly 1500 pages, and barely scratches the surface of the cell’s complexity. The consensus view was wrong.

The consensus view once supported Newtonian physics. Until relativity came along.

The consensus view once supported a steady-state (eternal) universe, until Big Bang cosmology came along.

The consensus view held that Grand Canyon was 70-80 million years old, until a few years ago, when we determined it’s just 5-6 million years old.

The consensus view held that 97% of our genome should be “junk.” Until ENCODE (and several papers since 2012) supported functionality for the majority of the genome.

The consensus view once held gradualism. Now punctuated equilibrium and catastrophism now rule the day.

The consensus view once held that Darwinian evolution (natural selection + heritable variation) was the only game in town. Since the 60s, neutral evolution has rivaled, even supplanted, Darwinian evolution.

We once thought fossilization was an extremely slow process. We now know it can happen in minutes.

The consensus was that chimps and humans were 98% genetically similar. But that is now eroding.

I could just keep going. But, you see the point. We’re not interested in whether or not a view is “consensus.” We’re only interested in whether or not it’s scientifically respectable. Is it science? Thus far, the answer is a resounding YES! For as long as there are respectable biologists offering models consistent with what I’m arguing, I am perfectly justified to hold those views, consensus or not. This is not about counting noses.

 

[1] Remember, for the theistic evolutionist, the best evidence that God is involved in everything is that He cannot be detected in anything.

Does Jim Stump think PNAS supports geocentrism?

“He puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.”

Jim Stump, senior editor over at BioLogos, made some interesting claims on facebook this week. Trying to convince yet another ID proponent to fully commit to organic evolution,[1] he asserted that

“Common ancestry is a multiply confirmed theory that explains the observable data in detail. So asking what kind of evidence would contradict that is about like asking what kind of evidence would it take for you to accept geocentrism.”

While this makes for good rhetoric, you’ll struggle to find modern astronomers who publish on geocentrism. However, you will find a large and growing number of biologists who question universal common ancestry (UCA).

The idea that there may have been multiple origins of life was even offered by Darwin, when he wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one…” And it hasn’t gone away. In 1983, in PNAS, Raup and Valentine published Multiple Origins of Life, and argued for just that. So apparently, these two biologists published something tantamount to geocentrism…in one of the biggest journals in the world. This should be the first indicator that Stump’s statement might be hyperbole.

But, Stump went on to double down on his allegiance to UCA, cavalierly offering,

“The fossil record continues to be uncovered, and continues to show more and more what you expect to see if common descent is true. At all of the major transitions, there are intermediates found in just the right places.”

This would be a surprise to most in the industry. For example, the man considered to be the 20th century’s Darwin (Ernst Mayr), in his 2002 book What Evolution Is, said of the Cambrian fauna, “Almost all of these phyla appeared seemingly full-fledged…No fossil intermediates between them have been found and no living intermediates are in existence.” Time has not relieved evolutionary theory of this burden, but has further substantiated it.

Haldane once said that, if you wanted to convince him that evolution (however we’re defining that) was wrong, show him a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian. We haven’t done that, but since his time, we have discovered several vertebrate forms from both the agnatha and the gnathastomes (primitive sharks) in the early Cambrian (alongside the first sea cucumbers, crustaceans and flatworms, to name a few). This likely wouldn’t persuade the loyalist. But the fact remains that we find 30 phyla and 50 classes of animals emerging on the scene in a narrow span of geologic time (Erwin and Valentine have pegged it at a 5-8 million year window). Hardly what you’d expect if common descent was true, and definitely not the plenitude of transitional fossils we’d anticipate.

It’s true that the prevailing theory has been UCA. It’s only been in the past 30-40 years that data have suggested otherwise, and change is slow. But, slow or not, change is coming.

Let’s return to the Cambrian discussion for a moment. The situation is so bad that, just this year, a large research team (33 researchers from 23 different labs around the world) published a paper in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. In it, they attempted to explain the Cambrian by cosmic panspermia:

“Life may have been seeded here on Earth … bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth…”

By “ova” they’re actually talking about cephalopods. That’s interesting, because the phylum Mollusca (which contains the Cephalopoda) has long been problematic. In fact, clear back in Darwin’s day, Huxley suggested HAM (the Hypothetical Ancestral Mollusk), because no common ancestor to the mollusks was forthcoming. And it hasn’t come as of 2018. In fact, a recent study by Lindberg and Chiselin found that,

“Our best approximation of the phylogeny of HAM (based on known ancestor-descendant relationships and stratigraphy) requires 53 more steps than the most parsimonious tree found by cladistic analysis. The evolution of HAM exhibits all the typical process-es and developmental heterochronies thought to encompass organic morphological evolution, and both phenetic analysis and cladistic analyses have problems relating paedomorphic taxa. HAM has not aided evolutionary biologists or paleontologists in solving problems, but it has often had the opposite effect, by requiring that theories be treated within its framework… Unfortunately, these imaginary animals do not come clearly labeled with warnings about the harm that they might do if mistaken for real organisms.”

Again, contra Stump’s original claim, this is exactly what you wouldn’t expect if UCA was true.

Many scientists today doubt UCA.

Ford Doolittle (from the National Center for Biotechnology Information) has. Rokas and Carroll have as well. Craig Venter has probably sequenced more genomes than any man alive. At an origins of life panel discussion he recently said,

“I’m not so sanguine as some of my colleagues here, that there’s only one life form on this planet . . . The tree of life is an artifact of some early scientific studies that aren’t really holding up. . . . there may be a bush of life.”

The discussion got more lively when Paul Davies chirped up,

Davies: “Well, I’ve got the same genetic code, ‘We’ll have a common ancestor.’”

Venter: “You don’t have the same genetic code. In fact, the Mycoplasmas [a group of bacteria Venter and his team have used to engineer synthetic chromosomes] use a different genetic code that would not work in your cells. So there are a lot of variations on the theme…”

You see, the national database for genetic information (at NCBI) currently identifies more than 20 different DNA codes used by various organisms. Not what you’d expect on UCA.

Even as an atheist, I thought this might be the case. If life can evolve once, then we should expect it could evolve multiple times. If that’s true, why should we force the data to coalesce on one original life form? It’s just the way we rigged the game. (see also: https://www.newscientist.com/…/mg20126921.600-why…/)

And fossils are not where they always ought to be. In fact, another little report from just this year (out of the Royal Society of London), found the so-called “walking dead” (accumulations of fossils in mixed groupings due to movement of rock and sediment post-mortem), sufficient to distort our understanding of extinctions events of the past! We still don’t know the relationships between the tetrapods for crying out loud!

Stump continued,

“And remember that fossils are just one piece of the puzzle. Now genetics allows us to construct family trees of species in remarkable detail. That genetic evidence could have contradicted common ancestry, but it absolutely confirms it. Again, you can always say God created things separately but made them look like they were related… but how long can you keep that argument up?”[2]

ORLY? Again, that’s news to many in the field.

To quote Dávalos et al.,

“Incongruence among phylogenies estimated from different sets of characters is pervasive. Phylogenetic conflict has become a more acute problem with the advent of genome-scale data sets. These large data sets have confirmed that phylogenetic conflict is common, and frequently the norm rather than the exception.”

Antonis Rokas has been deeply involved in the study genes and phylogenies. In a 2005, he and his colleagues admitted, even “a 50-gene data matrix does not resolve relationships among most metazoan phyla.” The metazoans are all multicellular animals (save for sponges). The more genetic code we look at, the worse things get. Point-and-case, in a recent meta-analysis dealing with “bushes” in our tree of life, Rokas and Carroll (2006) decided to omit 35 percent of the single genes from the data matrix because, “those genes produced phylogenies at odds with conventional wisdom.” (see also https://academic.oup.com/bib/article/16/3/536/243419 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5026250/, as two more examples.)

While this post isn’t about the monkeys to man hypothesis, Stump did bring that up as well. It’s very important that our primate ancestors don’t get triggered by the blasphemy of suggesting we may not have descended from them after all. Founder of BioLogos (and renown scientist), Francis Collins, put his foot down back in 2006, writing,

“Darwin’s theory predicts that mutations that do not affect function (namely, those located in ‘junk DNA’) will accumulate steadily over time… That is exactly what is observed…If, as some might argue, these genomes were created by individual acts of creation, why would this particular feature appear?”

In other words, if evolution and UCA was true, our genome should be littered with the remnants of failed and derelict DNA, no longer serving any function. So called “junk DNA” was thought to make up about 97% of our genome at that time. Collins made it clear that this was a very testable prediction. If junk is plentiful, it supports evolutionary theory. If it is not, it would be a strong support of ID theory.

Six years later, a massive (and I mean massive) consortium of researchers from around the world published their work on the ENCODE project in the journal Nature.

Their major finding?

“These data enabled us to assign biochemical functions for 80% of the genome, in particular outside of the well-studied protein-coding regions.”

This shook everyone. Famed molecular biologist Dan Graur wrote,

“If the human genome is indeed devoid of junk DNA as implied by the ENCODE project, then a long, undirected evolutionary process cannot explain the human genome… If ENCODE is right, then evolution is wrong.”

He then promptly walked it back, first suggesting that we might be able to accommodate up to 10% functionality in the genome while retaining the basic evolutionary model, and then 25%.

Unfortunately for Graur, the needle has kept moving. A study from this year now suggests that 95% of the human genome is under selection (meaning it has some functional role in fitness).

Meanwhile, if Stump actually reads the scientific literature he touts, he must have been shocked earlier this year, when biologists completed a full re-work of several great ape genomes. This was important for many reasons. First, as the authors conceded, the first chimp genome project was heavily biased. There was actually human DNA contamination in roughly 40% of the labs doing the work. Additionally, the human genome was used as a scaffold for assembling the chimp genome (i.e., they were literally matching DNA segments from the chimp genome to the existing human genome sequences). In this new attempt, the controls were much better, and there was no explicit comparison of the primate genomes to any existing human genomes. As such, Richard Bugg, professor of evolutionary genomics at the University of London, decided to do the comparison, and found that, “The percentage of nucleotides in the human genome that had one-to-one exact matches in the chimpanzee genome was 84.38%” (a far cry from the presumed 98% similarity between chimps and humans). What’s really scary is that this is almost exactly the degree of similarity predicted by Jeffrey Tomkins, a young earth creationist scientist! BioLogians may have to lay down for that one. Again, clearly not what we would predict under Darwinian evolution and UCA.

So, in the holiday spirit, and lift a quote from Dr. Seuss, “He puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the theistic evolutionist thought of something he hadn’t before. What if evolution, he thought, was a little bit more.”

[1] This is an unsettling pattern with BioLogos. (see here for an example: https://shadowofoz.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/silver-linings-or-rose-colored-glasses/)

[2] Note that Stump equates the scientific hypothesis of multiple origins to some kind of god-of-the-gaps argument, and this shows his true fear, which is not scientific, but theological

More on Lamoureux: expanding or contracting gaps?

I was notified of a recent post over at Evolution News & Science Today, addressing Denis Lamoureux’s continued use of the “god-of-the-gaps” argument against ID. To re-visit the  issue in a bit more detail, consider Lamoureux’s recent critique of ID (June 2018 volume of Christian Scholars Review). He writes,

“the root of ID Theory has now been publically revealed…[It is] a strident defense of a concordist hermeneutic, which ultimately undergirds this antievolutionary God-of-the-gaps view of origins…according to a God-of-the-gaps approach to divine action, there are ‘gaps’ in the continuum of natural processes, and these ‘discontinuities’ in nature indicate places where God has miraculously intervened in the world…However, there is an indisputable pattern in the history of science. The God-of-the-gaps understanding of divine action has repeatedly failed. Instead of the gaps in nature getting wider with the advance of science, they have always been closed or filled by the ever-growing body of scientific information.”

First, notice how much Lamoureux’s view conflicts with the Bible. The Bible, from front to back, is chocked full of miraculous events in which God suspends natural law and supernaturally acts. I have never been able to get a straight answer as to when and where the TEist thinks God has intervened in a miraculous way (other than the resurrection). Second, this God-of-the-gaps complaint is really the go-to for TEists in criticizing YEC and ID. But it’s entirely false. It stipulates that we can never suggest a miraculous event as an explanation, because science could potentially explain the event naturalistically in the future. The TEist is demanding believers to conform to “methodological naturalism” (where descriptions and explanations of the world can only include natural processes). This quickly becomes functional “metaphysical naturalism” in which we must assume that natural processes are the only things that exist.[1] (This is why many TEists deny present-day miracles and the existence of demons.) Additionally, the God-of-the-gaps complaint rests on a false view of the progress of science (and the demise of the miraculous). What I would like to suggest is that the very activity of science has opened gaps, not closed them. Here are five quick examples:

  1. While it has been debated since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, the atheist community had always held the universe to be “static” and eternal. Why? Because, if the universe always existed, then there was never a time it didn’t exist (it never began to exist), and thus requires no explanation as to how it came into existence. However, three independent discoveries in the early 20th century revealed that the universe did have a beginning in the finite past (the so-called Big Bang). This may be the biggest shift of all time in science, and it was shift to a view more amenable to Christianity. Worse, scientists rejected the idea because they knew what it meant (as Greg Koukl puts it, “A Big Bang needs a Big Banger”). In his book, God and the Astronomers, Robert Jastrow (a secular astronomer) retells the reluctance expressed by scientists at this discovery. Here are a few famous quotes to that effect:

“The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me… I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang… the expanding Universe is preposterous… incredible… it leaves me cold.” – Arthur Eddington

“To deny the infinite duration of time would be to betray the very foundations of science.” – Walter Nernst

“I find it hard to accept the Big Bang theory; I would like to reject it.” – Phillip Morrison

Scientists, to little avail, have been trying to escape this every day since. In a very simple logical argument, William Lane Craig puts it like this: “Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore the universe has a cause.” That cause cannot be the universe itself (something must exist in order to cause something), and something cannot come from nothing (from nothing, nothing comes). Thus, the cause of the universe must be incredibly powerful and transcendent to the universe.

  1. Alongside this discovery have been the discoveries associated with the so-called “fine-tuning” of the universe. These discoveries have also been made by secular scientists, and are not denied by scientists today. I won’t go into a long description of the various ways in which the universe if fine-tuned, but many atheists have admitted that these features remain, to them, the strongest argument in favor of the existence of God (I actually think the life, death and resurrection of Christ is).

In the past several decades, scientists have discovered that the physical laws and initial parameters of our universe are so finely-tuned that, if even one of the hundreds of these features was changed by an infinitesimally small amount, life and the universe that we know would not exist. One of the best examples is the so-called “cosmological constant.” Let’s suppose you have one of those old radios with a dial nob for tuning in stations. You want to listen to 93.7 FM. The FM band runs from 87.1 to 107.9, on only odd numbers (87.1, 87.3, 87.5, etc.). This allows for there to be 105 possible stations. Thus, if you randomly select a station, you would have a 1-in-105 chance (or a probability of 0.0095, because 1 divided by 105 = 0.0095) of getting 93.7. Notice that your chances aren’t very good if you randomly select it. But, if an intelligent mind (you) choose it, then the chances collapse to 100%. The station will be tuned to 93.7 FM. Keep that in mind.

The precision of the cosmological constant is one in 10120. That is, your probability would be a number with 119 zeroes in front of it! For scale, consider that the known universe has only 1080 particles in it, and that, if we assume the standard mainstream age of the universe (14 billion years old), there have only been about 1040 seconds. That is, you’re much much more likely to randomly select a particular particle out of the entire universe than to randomly select the cosmological constant. And, like the FM tuner, if you move it just one digit, the universe would either collapse or expand such that no matter would exist. This constant was predicted by Einstein in 1916, but he dismissed it (because of what it meant), and instead inserted what he called a “fudge factor” to avoid its existence. He later confessed this to be the “greatest blunder” of his career. This is just one of the many finely-tuned features of the universe, our galaxy, our solar system, and our planet.[2]

There are only three possible types of explanations for these finely-tuned features: necessity, chance, or design. Presently, science has no hope of demonstrated necessity (that these features had to be the way they are). They really aren’t trying (as far as I’m aware) to make a case for the necessity of finely-tuned features. Current secular work has largely pursued chance-based models (namely, the so-called “multiverse” theory), but even the scientists themselves have mocked this attempt.[3]

So powerful are these facts that, one of the greatest philosophical atheists of the 20th century, Antony Flew, was persuaded away from atheism, and wrote a book titled, There IS a God. He cited the fine-tuning arguments as the deciding factor.

Cambridge University astronomer Fred Hoyle put it this way,

“A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

Again, even the most strident atheists have been surprisingly honest about the implications of the fine-tuning of the universe. The infamous atheist Richard Dawkins has said, “You could possibly persuade me that there was some kind of creative force in the universe. There was some kind physical mathematical genius who created everything.” Dawkins is not alone. Quite a few physicists (including Neil deGrasse Tyson) have proposed a “simulation theory” in which the entire universe is just a software simulation created by some hyper-intelligent alien.

Returning to the supposed God-of-the-gaps problem, it would seem that the universe and its properties, thanks to scientific discovery, has become a strong “gap” in support of the miraculous power of an Almighty God! Ironically, most TEists agree, and readily use these arguments in their Christian apologetics. My question has always been, why do they stop there?

  1. The efficacy of mathematics is another related feature of reality that science uses on a daily basis. Here’s a strange thought experiment: Have you ever doubted whether or not your pizza pie takes up a precise amount of space on your table? Probably not. However, your pizza raises the issue of infinity (which remains hotly contested in philosophy and science). The area of a circle (like your pizza) = πr2. But, π is (we think) an infinitely nonrepeating number (3.1415926535897932…). In 2017, a computer calculated π to a record 22 trillion digits! Again, π is considered an irrational infinite nonrepeating number. Which means, in order for your real pizza to have an actual precise area (which it does), then the full value of π must exist! But, actual infinites are highly debatable (in a finite universe). Many think infinities don’t really exist, because they create logical inconsistencies (for example, try jumping out of an infinitely deep hole…you can’t even get started). It’s not a far reach to then consider the possibility of a mind (God) who can actually realize (bring into existence) infinity (in the form or your pizza!).

But it gets better. The truly surprising thing is that mathematics works. In 1960, Nobel Laureate and physicist Eugene Wigner wrote an article titled, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” In it, he wrote, “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics to the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” Why does he say this? Two reasons. The first is that mathematics are just abstract representations of thoughts. The number seven doesn’t exist. It has no mass, volume or spatial location. It’s not made of a substance. Philosophers call these sorts of things “abstract objects.”[4] Consider another quick mindbender: If you have two oranges, and I give you two more, how many do you have? Well, two oranges, plus two more oranges, equals four oranges. But, what if you have two oranges, and I take four away from you? This of course is materially impossible (this cannot be physically done). Yet, my seven year old daughter does this all the time in class. The very existence of such abstract objects points to something that violates metaphysical naturalism. Yet, no secular scientist denies it. Consider the admission of atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg,

“[We] adopt abstract objects—the objects of mathematics—as existing even though they are abstract, even though they are not concrete, even though they are not physical items in the world. Why? Because they [are] indispensable to the predictive power of science.”

True, you can never actually have negative two oranges. Yet, we can use mathematics like this to describe and predict things that do exist. So why do these abstract concepts of the mind lay hold of material reality in such a reliable way?

Physicist (and agnostic) Paul Davies has given this problem serious thought. In an oral talk he presented at the Salk Institute back in 2006,[5] he said,

“All scientists agree that doing science means figuring out what is going on in the world, what the universe is up to, what it’s about. If it isn’t about anything . . . you’d have no rational basis for believing that as you dug to deeper and deeper levels, what you’d uncover would be additional coherence and meaningful facts about the world… Experience shows that as we go deeper and deeper into our inquiries into nature, we continue to find rational and meaningful order, rather than just a haphazard jumble of unrelated phenomena.”

So, we might ask ourselves a simple question: Given that there is no necessary expectation for such transcendent coherence and comprehensibility, is this feature more or less likely given a transcendent creator? The late Stephen Hawking once asked, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Is this not a real, true and expanding “gap”?

  1. Moving into biology, the origin of life remains a massive “gap” in scientific understanding. For centuries, we have dealt with the “hard problem” of consciousness (which could easily be another example of the kind of “gap” that Lamoureux denies). Today, the origin of life has become just such a “hard problem.”[6] In Darwin’s time, it was thought that the origin of life would be a fairly simple task for science; a gap that would close easily. In the 19th century, the cell (which is the smallest unit of life) was considered nothing more than a “globule of plasm.”[7] In the 150 years since, things have changed dramatically. Today, the common textbook on cell biology (simply titled, Molecular Biology of the Cell) is roughly 1,500 pages. You don’t need 1,500 pages to describe a globule of plasm! In 1960, zoologist James Gray wrote, “A bacterium is far more complicated than any inanimate system known to man. There is not a laboratory in the world which can compete with the biochemistry.” In 1991, Howard Klein (speaking for the National Academy of Sciences) said, “The simplest bacterium is so damn complicated from the point of view of a chemist that it is almost impossible to imagine how it happened.” To the chagrin of the secular, the problem has gotten increasingly impossible. That is, science does not have a functional model for the origin of life on earth.

As proof, consider the words of James Tour, an origins of life researcher with more than 650 publications, over 120 patents, and listed as one of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds,” speaking in 2016:

“We have no idea how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfill biology’s function. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules…transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was the construction of a complex biological system, and eventually to that first cell…Those who say, ‘Oh this is well worked out,’ they know nothing—nothing—about chemical synthesis—nothing…That’s how clueless we are. I have asked all of my colleagues—National Academy members, Nobel Prize winners—I sit with them in offices. Nobody understands this. So if your professors say it’s all worked out, if your teachers say it’s all worked out, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Just as we saw in the fine-tuning of the universe, life is also fine-tuned in ways that defy naturalistic explanation. I can’t go into great detail here, but I will briefly mention two fundamental problems. First, the “central dogma” of biology is that DNA codes (genes) get transcribed into RNA codes (another type of information-containing molecule), which are used as blueprints for constructing proteins (which are the stuff of life, from hemoglobin to muscle tissue to collagen in your skin). DNA is comprised of long narrow chains of units that work like a four-letter alphabet (A, T, C, and G) for writing protein codes (the letters in DNA tell us the structure of the protein that will be assembled). But, the processes of reading, copying and transcribing DNA codes require both RNA and proteins. For example, there are more than thirty proteins that all assemble around a DNA strand during the copying process. DNA codes for RNAs and proteins, and yet you need RNA and proteins to copy DNA. So how do you get started? This is like saying that you need A to get B, and B to get A. Several theories have been offered, but none seem to be agreeable to scientists, let alone verifiable.

The second problem is the nature of the DNA code. As I mentioned, DNA codes for proteins, which make up the physical structures of cells and whole organisms. Roughly speaking, the code is broken up into individual genes. These genes are, on average, about 1,000 units long. All words in DNA language are just three letters long (for example, TTC, AGA, CGA, etc.). These triplets correspond to particular units that go into making a protein, kind of like the word “cat” corresponds to an actual animal you could go and get, as does “dog,” “bat,” etc. The order of these words matter. The order of triplets of letters tell us the order of subunits that make up a protein. Durston and Chiu (2012) estimated that the chances of randomly assembling a code that actually produced a functional protein are about 1 in 10100. This is the likelihood for randomly getting one functional protein (coded for by a DNA gene). Those are odds approaching the improbability of the cosmological constant.[8] The difference is, these calculations can (and have) been experimentally demonstrated in scientific research. Scientific findings have revealed this gap. On top of this, the simplest life form (a single-celled organism) we know of contains 473 genes! You would have to win that lottery 473 times (simultaneously) to achieve first life. Thus, it’s no surprise that the secular have struggled to fill this ever-widening gap.[9]

The situation got so bad that, clear back in 1973, Noble Laureate Francis Crick (along with Leslie Orgel) published an article arguing for “directed panspermia.” They wrote, “As an alternative to the nineteenth-century mechanisms, we have considered Directed Panspermia, the theory that organisms were deliberately transmitted to earth by intelligent being on another planet.” Crick was a vociferous atheist. To quote another atheist, Richard Dawkins again concedes,

“It could be that, at some earlier time somewhere in the universe a civilization evolved… probably by some kind of Darwinian means to a very, very high level of technology and designed a form of life that they seeded onto… perhaps this planet.”

Notice here that the secular scientists are willing to entertain the possibility of intelligent design of life on earth, while TEists are not! I hope you all can see that this God-of-the-gaps argument falls apart upon inspection. In fact, science seems to be running up against intelligent design at every turn.

  1. Meanwhile, YEC and ID have not just been right in their thinking (in denying the power of chance processes and the Darwinian paradigm),[10] but they have actually been on the right side of scientific advances (again, destroying Lamoureux’s false narrative). There are several examples I could discuss, but one of the most obvious is the “junk DNA” revolution. Upon completion of a first draft of the human genome, scientists concluded that most of our genome (something like 97% of it) was represented as a vast wasteland of junk DNA, and didn’t code for anything useful. This was expected, given Darwinian evolution, since this wasteland would be made up of ancient genes that have been rendered useless through chance mutations over time.[11] On the other hand, ID theorists had maintained that the genome would be meaningful and functional. This was a prediction based on the creative power of an intelligence, and ran completely counter to the expectations based on blind evolution.

Thus, many evolutionists were shocked in 2012 when an international consortium of mainstream researchers associated with the ENCODE project reported their findings in the journal Nature. There, they argued that up to 80% of the genome was functional! That same year, a review by Wen et al. was simply titled, “Pseudogenes are not pseudo any more” (indicating that many of these supposedly defunct genes were actually functional). Since then, we have learned more about genomes. We already knew that DNA could be read forward and backward, but we also discovered that it can be read in alternative “reading frames.” For comparison, imagine trying to write a novel that is roughly 7.5 million words long, and have it make sense if you read it left to right or right left, and also if you simply selected every third letter, or if you chose to begin forming new words from letters by starting to read in the middle of an existing word. That’s what DNA does. We’ve also discovered that the genome functions like a giant operating system, with multi-level regulatory structures, feedbacks and real-time responses. Quoting molecular biologist Matti Leisola,

“The twenty-first century understanding is a genome-centric framework. The earlier framework was reductionist; the new framework, one of complex systems. The old model viewed biological operations as mechanical; the new model sees them as cybernetic. In the old model, the main focus of heredity theory was ‘genes as unites of inheritance and function.’ Now it’s ‘genomes as interactive information systems’…On the old view, a common metaphor for genome organization was a string of beads. Within the new framework, it’s a computer operating system.”

I find it fascinating that the community of mainstream, secular scientists have started talking about molecular life in engineering terms. They are even creating new technologies by reverse-engineering the systems they’re discovering in the cell![12] Perhaps this is why Bill Gates has compared DNA to computer code, saying, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” A 2013 paper again drew connections between DNA and intelligent design,

“Genomic DNA is already used on Earth to store non-biological information. Though smaller in capacity, but stronger in noise immunity is the genetic code…Therefore it represents an exceptionally reliable storage for an intelligent signature…As the actual scenario for the origin of terrestrial life is far from being settled, the proposal that it might have been seeded intentionally cannot be ruled out. A statistically strong intelligent-like ‘signal’ in the genetic code is then a testable consequence of such scenario.”

The main point is, Lamoureux is simply wrong in suggesting that science has squeezed out all evidence of intelligent (or divine) action. Quite to the contrary, pre-supposing intelligence behind nature would have aided science on several occasions, and science has certainly offered many “gaps” that look to real. If creationists and IDers are right about this, then there is simply no reason to abandon belief in a God who has been (and is) active in His creation in miraculous and supernatural ways.[13]

References:

[1] In a now-famous quote, Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin wrote, “We are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” And, the TEists are playing right along.

[2] For a nice book covering these things, pick up The Privileged Planet, which is also available as a DVD.

[3] On this theory, our universe is just one “bubble” that emerges from an almost-infinite series of other universes (thus the “multiverse”). As one example of the strong criticism it’s drawn, writing in the journal Nature, Paul Steinhardt title a paper, “Big Bang blunder bursts the multiverse bubble,” saying, that the theory is “fundamentally untestable, and hence scientifically meaningless.” Note also, that the scientist hasn’t helped his situation by explaining the universe using a multiverse. In trying to explain one universe, he/she now has to invoke an almost-infinite number of other universes!

[4] Your thoughts are also like this. They have no physical properties, yet they exist.

[5] Curiously, the conference at which he spoke was the Beyond Belief meeting, which was a collection of atheists seeking to supplant all religion! There were some there who actually defended faith, even though they don’t believe.

[6] See Walker and Davies. 2016. “The ‘Hard Problem’ of Life”.

[7] This phrase, “globule of plasm,” was used by all of the major evolutionists of the day, including two of Darwin’s greatest allies (“Darwin’s bulldog,” T.H. Huxley, and the “German Darwin,” Ernst Haekel).

[8] In 2004, molecular biologist Doug Axe (an ID proponent) published a similar finding in the Journal of Molecular Biology, and it cost him his job!

[9] In a 2011 issue of Scientific American, John Horgan published an article titled, “Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began.”

[10] Whether the TEists like it or not, Darwinian evolution has been on the decline since the 1970s (even among secular scientists). In a recent review in the Journal of Genetics and Molecular Biology, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Jablonka and Lamb tell us,

There are winds of change in evolutionary biology, and they are blowing from many directions: from developmental biology (particularly the molecular aspects), from microbial biology (especially studies of mutational mechanisms and horizontal gene transfer), from ecology (in particular ideas about niche construction and studies of extensive symbiosis), from behavior (where the transmission of information through social learning is a major focus), and from cultural studies (where the relation between cultural evolution and genetic evolution is under scrutiny). Many biologists feel that the foundations of the evolutionary paradigm that was constructed during the 1930s and 1940s (Mayr, 1982) and has dominated Western views of evolution for the last 60 years are crumbling, and that the construction of a new evolutionary paradigm is underway.”

I have dedicated a chapter of my book, Shadow of Oz: theistic evolution and the absent God, to this issue, and there are other good books for those who are interested (I just read Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to ID, and it is excellent and approachable to the layperson).

[11] In 2005, Evolutionist Douglas Futuyma said, “Only Darwinian evolution can explain why the genome if full of ‘fossil’ genes.” This was echoes by many other biologists, including Francis Collins (perhaps the most famous TEist to date).

[12] Some folks from Harvard have successfully stored digital information in DNA code (i.e., a form of reverse-engineering). A lot of stuff (700 terabytes per gram).

[13] I didn’t even broach the broad subjects of Christ’s resurrection, miracles (of antiquity and of modern times), or human mind, soul and consciousness.

Review of Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design

I just spent a week on the beach (North Topsail, NC) with my wife’s side of the family. Twenty-one people, one large house on the beach, and it was really terrific. My pleasure reading for the week was a new book by Matti Leisola and Jonathan Witt titled, Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design. I had a hard time putting it down, and I felt that should offer a short review.

Broad strokes:

There’s nothing really that new here. Leisola is a well-credentialed scientist (more than 100 publications, more than 30 patents, and he has held several notable positions). He has also been a skeptic of the Darwinian mechanism since the early 1980s. As a biochemist working on enzyme function for most of his career, his skepticism should at least warrant attention. Leisola and Witt detail several major features of the landscape in modern biology: 1) Behind closed doors, many biologists question the efficacy and plausibility of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis 2) very few risk questioning it in public 3) the basic tactic of Darwin supporters in the industry is to dismiss skeptics, and, whenever possible, to blacklist them, mock them, and hopefully destroy their careers.

At this point, the Darwin defender will usually say something like the following,

“Yes, we do dismiss, blacklist and mock skeptics of Darwin, because these people aren’t real scientists and, as such, pose a threat to the entire enterprise. They pilfer religiously-motivated creation fables into the laboratory and classroom. Moreover, they’re simply wrong about their scientific claims.”

As I’ve already mentioned, nothing new to see here. However, I found Heretic refreshing because it wasn’t some novel contribution. Rather, it was a digestible (229 pages), evidence-driven account of Leisola’s forty year experience in the industry. If one dismisses Leisola’s views, they do so without having read them (which is all-too common). If you read the book, it’s hard to avoid the case he builds. Essentially, the book functions something like a cross between Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and Darwin’s Doubt. As such, it is wildly successful.

Some specifics:

First off, I found myself dog-earing every page, so I’ll have to just pick and choose some representative examples in this review. Leisola starts by describing his own early years as a Darwin-defender, and how a lecture from Francis Schaeffer shook him. Namely, Leisola recognized his own emotion-driven rejection of Schaeffer’s words. As he puts it, “If I was the confident and rational one, why was I so touchy?” It was at this moment that Leisola recognized more than a conflict in inquiry and research, but rather a conflict of worldview.

Leisola started looking into the actual evidence for some of the central tenets of Darwinian Evolution (DE). He began with the origin of life. I won’t detail it all here, but suffice it to say that fanciful tales have been conjured from the beginning on this one. In the 18th and 19th centuries, life was considered rather simple. Cells, once discovered, were consistently referred to as “globules of plasm.” As such, their spontaneous emergence seemed easy. Many argue that Louis Pasteur killed religion when he showed that life did not spontaneously arise. Leisola reminds us it was quite the opposite. Pasteur showed that life doesn’t just pop into existence so easily. In fact, the new rule of thumb became that life simply did not spontaneously emerge. That should have sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Leisola then proceeds to discuss a century-and-a-half’s worth of failed attempts and honestly-stated frustrations in origins of life research. The examples are copious, as are his breakdowns of each proposed model. Worse for the Darwinists are the admissions that none of these models are working, made by Darwinists. We now talk of cells as complex molecular cities, comprised of layers of integrated networks that are so byzantine that they make our most advanced technologies look like cave drawings. That is, during those failed attempts, the true complexity of the cell was revealed to us. The problem keeps getting harder. A final note here; the attempts at “ratcheting” up to life (a single cell) hasn’t worked either. To anyone in the industry (and I’ve read a lot in this field), this is admitted…again, behind closed doors (and in the literature itself).

Just to quote one scientist from the book, consider the words of James Tour, and origins of life researcher with more than 650 publications, over 120 patents, and listed as one of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds,” speaking in 2016:

“We have no idea how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfill biology’s function. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules…transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was the construction of a complex biological system, and eventually to that first cell…Those who say, ‘Oh this is well worked out,’ they know nothing—nothing—about chemical synthesis—nothing…That’s how clueless we are. I have asked all of my colleagues—National Academy members, Nobel Prize winners—I sit with them in offices. Nobody understands this. So if your professors say it’s all worked out, if your teachers say it’s all worked out, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

As Leisola points out, this is not entirely true. Tour’s colleagues may not have any clue as to how life emerged, but they do know one thing: Intelligence was not involved. This is the commitment Leisola keeps hitting on. There is a worldview problem here. The materialist/physicalist/naturalistic worldview demands a reductionist approach to all systems (biological or otherwise). You must be able to explain the origins of things by their parts (and the parts around them). To argue that “apparent design” in nature might be authentic design is simply not allowed. Not because there isn’t good reason to infer it, but because it breaks the worldview in which science is permitted to operate. As the evolutionist Lepeltier argues,

“Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion—a full-fledged alternative to Christianity…Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.”

True to ID form, Leisola then brings up the fossil evidence for evolution, and demonstrates that the fossil record doesn’t conform to expectations based on a Darwinian account. Again, the evolutionists believed that the fossil record would eventually reveal a massive, smooth set of gradual transitions in which life slowly diversifies through time. The more fossils we’ve found, the more evident the opposite pattern. The fossil record is full of explosions of diversity, and the transitional fossils are exceptionally rare (and usually, they turn out not to be transitional fossils). Note that Leisola (and IDers in general) don’t deny modest change in forms over time. But these seem to act within very hard and narrow constraints, and time is no panacea to the problem. This too is well-documented and admitted in the literature by specialists in the field. Leisola then summarizes some of the alternative models (ones that avoid the need for gradual change over time). The very fact that so many have attempted to produce alternative models tells us that the original model (the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis) has failed. The central portion of the book details Leisola’s public statements against DE, and the fallout that followed. Even for one who has felt the heat myself, my jaw hit the floor reading some of the overt bias and clearly dastardly behavior of those who tried to silence Leisola. The book is worth reading, just to see how unprofessional the profession of science can be. The public needs to know how the industry has been operating, and it needs to be subject to much greater scrutiny in the media.

The fact is, so long as you assume the metaphysics of naturalism, you are free to criticize theory. But, if you question metaphysical naturalism, you are dismissed out of hand, and gagged. As I have pointed out on several occasions, the proof of this claim is that scientists have not out-of-hand dismissed the possibility of life being seeded on earth by aliens (a clear form of intelligent design), nor the idea that the entire universe is a “simulation” being run by some hyper-intelligent alien (again, clearly a form of intelligent design). These are acceptable hypotheses because the intelligence being inserted will itself reduce to metaphysical naturalism.

From here, Leisola and Witt move into a couple of other discussions related to the efficacy of DE as a model. Namely, they point out that the evidence Darwin offered for the power of natural selection was largely absent. Instead, the theory was built upon the supposition that natural selection could behave much like artificial selection. Darwin looked at the power of strong purifying selection that was instituted by intelligent beings (us) in the domestication of various plants and animals, and argued that natural selection could behave similarly (though over longer periods of time). Leisola and Witt point out that we have come a long way from simple selective breeding, and now know much better the limits of artificial selection at the genetic or molecular level. In both cases (selective breeding and genetic alteration) the story remains the same: there is a hard and fast limit to what even intelligence can achieve as a selective force. Worse, nature looks nothing like our artificial selection. The authors do an excellent job summarizing the most recent work in several related areas. That is, once again, the science itself demonstrates the failure of DE and the requirement of intelligence to achieve the kinds of changes DE was supposed to provide.

This has not stopped both the scientific community and the media at large from continually assuring us that evolution is a fully substantiated fact, as well-understood as gravity. Leisola and Witt again provide plenty of examples of such blanket statements, and demonstrate that this is largely just blowing smoke to a naïve audience.

The final few chapters are a mix of other examples in which the science has turned up mechanisms or findings that run counter to expectations given DE. As a quick example, they discuss the drama surrounding the first discovery of soft tissues in dinosaur fossils (back in 2005). There is no existing model that could explain how soft tissue could remain in fossils that are more than 65 million years old. As Discover Magazine put it, “all hell broke loose.” In fact, according to Mary Schweitzer (author of that groundbreaking paper) recounts, “I had one reviewer tell me that he didn’t care what the data said, he knew that what I was finding was impossible.” She asked what evidence would convince him, and he replied, “none.” Folks, I’ve seen enough of this in my own career to affirm that such interactions do happen in the industry. The very scientists who wrap themselves in words like “evidence,” “fact,” and “objectivity,” routinely reject evidence and facts that run counter to theory. Again, the book offers many such teachable moments.

The final push in this book is to dive into the real molecular underpinnings of biological change, and demonstrate that the main framework—common ancestry and the diversification of life via a mechanisms based on chance—is simply not up to the task.

 

*as always, I do not speak for the views of my employer nor any affiliates.

Reply to Thagard’s view on religion and grief.

[image from http://www.heavensdisciples.org/comforting-words/%5D

Earlier this month, Dr. Paul Thagard published an opinion piece in Psychology Today titled, “Science and Philosophy Offer More for Grief than Religion.” In it, he critiques Stephen Asma’s New York Times article, which advanced the utility of religion in personal and societal spheres, even for the secular. Asma’s case study dealt with the way religion rescued a family, after one of the sons was brutally murdered. To Asma, “Those of us in the secular world who critique such emotional responses and strategies [as religion] with the refrain, ‘but is it true?’ are missing the point.” The point is he wants the secular to understand is that Jesus saves…even if he doesn’t exist.

Thagard’s view is that religion is false comfort, and that science (and philosophy) can do better. He begins by outlining four major problems with Asma’s view:

  • “It depends on a view of how emotion works in the brain that has been rendered obsolete by advances in neuroscience.”
  • It underestimates how much science can help to understand the nature of grief and to point to ways of overcoming it.
  • It overestimates the consoling power of religion.
  • Finally, it neglects how science can collaborate with philosophy to suggest ways of dealing with grief.

Perhaps Asma’s understanding of the science of psychology and neuroscience is obsolete. I’m not in a position to affirm or dismiss the claim. Notice that Thagard’s second complaint seems to miss the target. Understanding how something works does not, in itself, provide power over its workings. More importantly, what Thagard misses here is the possibility that science might demonstrate religion to have great efficacy in helping individuals deal with loss and grief. That is, there is no reason to think that science and religion are mutually exclusive items. This is a false dichotomy.

The third claim is never actually supported in Thagard’s article (nor have I seen it elsewhere). To the contrary, I’ve not seen a study in which anything has been shown to be more effective than religion (faith) in dealing with the trials of life. I offer some scientific literature to this effect below. So, the third concern is simply an unsupported charge. It’s not that religion fails to rescue believers, but that Thagard feels the rescue is false hope. I also discuss below just how false the hope from secularism is.

The fourth complaint he advances sounds exactly like his second one, with the addition of philosophy. One might ask how science and philosophy differ on Thagard’s view. Philosophy often deals with abstract notions and objects, things beyond the material world. A thought or idea has no mass, volume or charge. Meaning, morality, even sense of autonomy and self, are simply not evidenced (or even approachable) by science. In fact, they are housed within that area of study Thagard finds anathema (metaphysics) and are the stuff of religion. Thagard wants to pilfer these into his secular elixir. He flatly writes, “philosophy that builds on science can help people to see that life can remain meaningful and morally valuable, even in the face of grief.” But, his own views disbar him from such things.

So what of the details of Thagard’s view? He wants to argue that, “science can suggest ways of dealing with grief without buying into the metaphysics of religion.” Thagard opens up, and tells us that he lost his wife to cancer when she was still quite young. This tragedy seems to have colored his ability to consider the utility of religion in dealing with grief. But what is his understanding of God?

“Religious people often react to horrible events by proclaiming ‘it’s God’s will,’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’. But what could possibly be God’s motivation for depriving a mother of her young son? The Christian God is supposed to be all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. But the constant onslaught of personal and public disaster in the world strongly suggests that any existing gods are malevolent or incompetent or both. What consolation is that?”

Notice that Thagard is offering the New Atheist version of God, and not really interacting with the views (or arguments in favor of) the God believers worship. He has resurrected an oft-used, but utterly refuted, argument against the existence of God; If God is all-powerful and all-good, evil should not exist. Evil exists, therefore God is either not all-powerful or He is not all-good. Again, this argument has been cutoff at the knees for more than a century. At some level, most Christians do agree with the view that all things are “God’s will.” But when we say this, most do not mean that He desired tragedy or suffering for an individual. Rather, we likely mean that God favors the freedom and autonomy of his created beings, and thus allows both good and evil to happen in a creation corrupted by sin.

Thagard also seems to be suggesting that it is God directly acting to take away a woman’s son. God didn’t do it, nor did He want one man to stab another. What Thagard is offering is a straw man version of God. And what is his alternative to “everything happens for a reason”? That everything happens for no reason (on atheism). What consolation is that? (It’s also worth noting that Thagard has pilfered in the moral notion that death, suffering and murder are ‘evil’ and therefor wrong. His science certainly won’t support this claim. To rescue it, his philosophy will have to go where religion already sits.)

Sadly, Thagard never acknowledges this most critical power provided by religion. He writes, “Asma rightly suggests that one of the benefits of religion is that it provides a means of social support through religious rituals such as funerals. But there are many secular alternatives, including celebrations of life and social memorials that can occur without religious trappings.” But this misses the real thrust of Asma’s case (and what any serious “scientific” mind would engage): Stephen Asma claims,

“No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime… [the mother] would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife where she was certain his body would be made whole…[this] gave her strength to continue raising her other two children.”

I don’t think there can be any doubt that this omission by Thagard was not accidental. The eternal mercy, justice and salvation represent the real lifeblood and vitality of faith, and they are things no secular alternative can supply.

Sadly, my suspicion is that Thagard remains bitter at a God he doesn’t believe in. His suggestions as to how the secular should cope with grief leave much to be desired. He first suggests that, “Coping by repressing emotions is sometimes effective.” He then adds that, “people’s lives can retain meaning through pursuit of satisfaction of their vital needs,” which he identifies as relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

“Distraught people can recognize that the loss in relatedness that bereavement brings can be compensated for by other relationships…the need for competence can still be satisfied by work and other forms of achievement, and autonomy persists as long as people retain the capacity to direct their own lives.”

All three of these are distractions that enable repression. But, the last (autonomy) is actually off limits given Thagard’s atheism; if our conscious lives are just molecules in motion, there is no autonomy, mind or free will. As Sam Harris has put it, we are nothing more than “phenomenological glockenspiels. . . The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.” As Francis Crick put it, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Thus, Thagard once again must pilfer in non-scientific metaphysics to even power his prescribed alternatives to religion!

If we actually spend some time in the science of psychology and its interface with religion, we find some things that run quite counter to Thagard’s thesis. One of the well-demonstrated facts is that religion works. Consider a recent study by David B. Newman and colleagues, which curiously reported that political conservatives have a greater sense of meaning to life than their liberal counterparts. This pattern exists across sixteen developed nations. Newman et al. also referenced several studies suggesting that conservatives report greater “life satisfaction” and other measures of well-being. The real headline in the study was that religiosity was a much better predictor of participants’ sense of meaning in life. As they explained,

“Because conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals (Feldman & Johnston, 2014), and because religiosity is a strong predictor of meaning in life (e.g., Steger & Frazier, 2005), we statistically adjusted for levels of religiosity in each study to determine the unique predictive effect of political orientation on meaning in life.”

John G. Messerly (a former professor at the University of Texas, and author of a book titled The Meaning of Life) admitted that, “The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence.”

Thagard’s view is based on a secularism that sees no overarching purpose to the existence of the universe, let alone little hominids bound to one small speck (our “pale blue dot”). It follows that the overwhelming external (objective) evidence is that life is absurd. This phrasing has actually been incredibly popular among the secular cognoscenti. This is the central position of existentialists, as illustrated in Camus’s famous comment, “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning.” For the famed physicist Steven Wienberg “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Or, we could get the same line from Richard Feynman: “The great accumulation of understanding as to how the physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior has a kind of meaninglessness about it.” Rivka Weinberg (a professor of philosophy at Scripps College) recently conceded in the New York Times that, “The absurdity of human life poses a challenge to its meaning. Absurdity and meaningfulness don’t go together.” This problem is well understood. The philosopher (and atheist) Thomas Nagel has written,

“In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality. . . . The sense that life as a whole is absurd arises when we perceive, perhaps dimly, an inflated pretension or aspiration which is inseparable from the continuation of human life and which makes its absurdity inescapable, short of escape from life itself.”

The view that, “Life is short.  Life is meaningless. Life is delicious. Grab a spoon,” will never be a satisfactory grounding for our lives. The secular program of modernist thought has had more than a century to offer its replacement for conventional religion (some would say they’ve been trying since the period of Enlightenment). We have more “knowledge” than at any other point in human history, and yet the people have never been so confused. Those living in developed nations are more comfortable than they ever have been, and yet we comprise a “Prozac nation,” where mental illness and disillusionment have never been higher. Whereas Marx once called religion the opiate of the masses, atheists now routinely advise the unbelieving seek opiates in coping with reality. I’m not making this up. Leading physicist (and atheist) Alex Rosenberg suggests that we deal with the reality of life by “Tak[ing] a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.” This would be a joke if not echoed sincerely by atheist philosopher Philip Kitcher:

“Fear [of death] can be directed not toward the state itself, but at the process of dying. . . . Support need not—probably should not—come from religion but from humane deployment of medical resources. . . . Fear of being dead is misplaced, fear of decaying and dying belongs to the anxieties of life, to be addressed with sympathy by whatever techniques of amelioration medical practice can provide.”

Responding to Marx’s claim that religion “is the opiate of the people,” Asma writes,

“If the atheists think it’s enough to dismiss the believer on the grounds that he should never buffer the pains of life, then I’ll assume the atheist has no recourse to any pain management in his own life. In which case, I envy his remarkably good fortune. For the rest of us, there is aspirin, alcohol, religion, hobbies, work, love friendship.”

His point is that the atheist is just as in need of an opiate as those who find comfort in faith. Moreover, faith seems to work better. The tried and true, “road-tested” belief in God works. That is, if we’re really interested in the pragmatic efficacy of worldviews in powering a state of well-being, belief in God works, even if you don’t think God exists.

It turns out that atheists like Thagard, while wanting to claim the rational high ground, are often driven by emotion, and the very science they worship has demonstrated this. The average atheist/agnostic believes (s)he has come to doubt the existence of God for purely objective reasons. But, numerous surveys and studies have demonstrated the source of this doubt—and subsequent rejection of God—is very often emotional. In one recent study, Bradley and colleagues asked non-believers to imagine a hypothetical god, and then describe that god’s characteristics. One of the striking dichotomies the researchers observed was that,

“Despite the fact that most people who believe in gods believe in a god that is primarily loving (Exline, Grubbs, et al. 2015), many popular books written from a nonbelief perspective argue that the dominant conception of God in Western culture is truly cruel rather than loving (e.g., Dawkins 2006; Hitchens 2007).”

That is, the efforts of the so-called New Atheists to recast religion (namely, Christianity) as the irrational worship of a moral monster have succeeded in completely distorting public perceptions of faith in God. These atheists have offered a rendering of God that in no way matches what believers understand of the God they worship. In the Bradley et al. study, “a plurality of participants” used this skewed view of God to form their own hypothetical god (as opposed to drawing from the past or personal images of God). In fact, participants that used a past (historical) rendering of God were significantly more likely to see their hypothetical god as loving, not cruel or distant. Conversely, those using these popular renderings of God to form their own were statistically more likely to see their god as cruel. Another interesting aspect of the study was that it contrasted personality profiles of the participants with the characteristics they assigned to their hypothetical god. Parsing through the results presented in the study, “agreeableness” of the participants was strongly statistically correlated with hypothetical gods that were loving, but was strongly negatively correlated with those seeing gods as cruel and/or distant. Participants with healthy “secure” attachment profiles were negatively correlated with cruel hypothetical gods, while those with “dismissive attachments” were negatively correlated with loving gods.

In the end, what can we say of Thagard’s article other than it entirely ignores the true power of faith, dismissing even the science that supports the efficacy of religion in helping individuals cope and find a greater sense of well-being. While I don’t really want to psychoanalyze the man, it seems fairly apparent that he carries with him repressed bitterness and rejection due to his own experience of loss. His worldview has been deeply tainted by a view of God that is wholly inconsistent with the God believers actually worship. The reason I have targeted him in this blog is that we must begin 1) to see when emotional and intellectually dishonest rhetoric is being sold as “scientific” thinking and 2) to make the positive case for the pragmatic utility of religion. Beyond the evidence in favor of holding religious views will soften skeptics to a point where they might actually ask if they’re true. Pray for and love Thagard, and do not see him as the enemy. It is not the man, but his ideas, that are to be rejected.

 

*as with all of my blogs, I speak for only myself, and in no way represent the views or opinions of Waynesburg University or any other affiliated entity.

*correction (7/27/18). Dr. Messerly contacted me, and made me aware of a place in which I misquoted him. I had originally attributed the statement “the faithful have a place—perhaps wrongly placed, but a place nonetheless—to ground meaning, and then sites several forms of atheism that do not.” I gleaned this from a set of notes I had developed in reading Messerly (and many others in the industry). Upon reviewing those notes, I could not track down the origin of this quotation, and Dr. Messerly assures me that he said no such thing. I apologize for wrongly attributing the statement to him, and have removed it from the post.