Report on Icelandic religious belief “literally” misleading


The Washington Post reports under the headline, “In this country, literally no young Christians believe that God created the Earth.” The country is Iceland.

So is it “literally” true? God by any standard conceptual defintion just is the creator of the entire physical universe, which includes the Earth. So whether a Christian, or any theist for that matter, believes this through young earth creationism, old earth creationism, theistic evolution/evolutionary creationism, intelligent design, natural theology, or by logical inferences after reading the back of a cereal box, she believes indeed that God created the Earth. For any theist, the Earth did not get the way it is today without at least two means. First, God’s immediate, creative act that brought the physical world into being out of literally nothing, and second, God’s sovereign supervision over ordinary physical means, attributed by virtually everyone to what are called the laws of nature.

This piece of reporting shows how major media can drastically downplay what Christians actually think while in pursuit of the sexy narrative that traditional religious belief is in dramatic decline.

Exemplifying the misleading pull of this narrative, one graphic charts the “Rise of atheism in Iceland,” but the two mutually exclusive responses plotted are “Religious Believers” and “Non-religious,” where the latter includes atheists and non-religious people. Like a cheap off-brand hot dog vendor, some editor has allowed this chart to puff up “atheism” with filler that includes agnostics and non-religious people. This probably counts many spiritual theists who for whatever reason don’t self-identify with a religious tradition.

So all told, don’t believe a headline when it says “literally” no young Icelanders believe in creation.

Photo credit: travfotos via / CC BY-NC

The Oatmeal’s cat in a dark room

853-black-cat-1The Oatmeal, a fairly popular web comic, put out this recent analogy about philosophy, religion, and science. Here are some things to note.
1. The anaology doesn’t explain anything. As with many expressions of humor or wit, The Oatmeal’s message is implicit. In the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers of science and language undertook the projects of logical positivism and verificationism to try to make sense of non-empirical statements. If we take The Oatmeal’s comic under this rubric, at best we might interpret it as emotive. The Oatmeal seems to be saying, “Yeah, science, that thing. I love it! It gives me that feeling like when you find something you’ve been looking for. And those other things, boo on them.” That’s a quaint sentiment.
2. Science is a branch of philosophy. What we today call science is both a certain practical way of knowing and a body of knowledge. During the later stages of the Enlightenment, what was called “natural philosophy” became known as natural science, and then later, just science. However, philsophy, metaphysics, and theology have at various times claimed and often do exhibit what we’d call “scientific” rigor. Science is not owned by physicalists, materialists, or fanboys of scientism.
3. The flashlight doesn’t shine on itself. Empiricists commit themselves to sense data to understand the world. Of course, they can’t just use sense data. They rely on many presuppositions that aren’t empirically justified. For example, mathematical truths, the constancy of the laws of nature, the truth that the world exists for more than five minutes at a time, etc. The very tools that let you know what function a flashlight has, have confidence that it is good at what it does, and tell you what to do with the cat once you’ve found it, are sciences like philosophy, metaphysics, and theology.
4. Being in dark rooms with cats isn’t like our everyday, ordinary experience. Nonetheless, philosophers often use the analogy of a room to achieve greater understanding the world. Consider Serle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. More recently, cold case homicide detective and Christian Apologist J. Warner Wallace has used such an analogy in his book, God’s Crime Scene. He lays out a case as to how there is a divine intervener outside the room of our universe.

Photo credit: Nebojsa Mladjenovic via / CC BY-NC-ND

Religion makes children less altruistic, less moral?

Enokson / / CC BY-NC

A recent study reports that religion makes children more selfish. Another headline says that nonreligious children are more generous, and another casts the study results in terms of altruism. If true, this devastates the case for raising children with religion, right? After all, scientists said it, so that settles it.

Not so fast. Let me recap the basics of the study first. It included a “dictator game” to see how many stickers a child subject would reallocate when told of another child who was unfortunate enough to have no stickers. According to the study, kids from secular homes gave more stickers on average than kids from Christian and Muslim homes.

In another part of the study, the child subject watches someone being mean to someone else, and then is asked to evaluate the degree of punishment the transgressor should receive. Muslim kids assigned more severe punishment than the Christian kids did, and Christian kids assigned a more severe punishment than the secular kids did. From these findings, it is alternately reported that kids from religious homes are less generous, altruistic, and moral than their secular cohort.

While altruism, generosity, and selfishness all touch on what it means to be moral, these attitudes don’t exhaust what morality is. And by morality I mean ethics. Neither the researchers nor the journalists provide a meta-ethical context for understanding these observed behavioral differences. What difference would that make?

Scientists Can’t Wrangle Virtue

There are many ethical theories by which we might understand an action as moral. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gave us a big one, the concept of virtue. A virtue is not an unmitigated good. A deficit or an excess of what would otherwise be a virtuous attitude results in vice. Take patience for example. Snapping angrily at your child on her first request for ice cream is a vicious deficit of patience. But letting your child run the credit card up–to its limit–with ice cream purchases is a vicious excess of patience.

In addition to having the right amount of an attitude at the right time, a virtuous person must know he is doing the right thing at the right time. And he must intend it. Let’s say that Uncle Scrooge walks past the orphanage, and while quickening his pace to avoid a volunteer collecting donations, he trips on a cobblestone. Some change he was gripping tightly happens to fly into the collection bucket. The volunteer profusely thanks Scrooge for his generosity, while Scrooge screws his face in dismay. First, Scrooge may not have known it was right to donate his change then. Second, from what we know of him, and his reaction, we conclude he didn’t intend to donate. If you know the episode “Jaynestown” from the TV show Firefly, you have another example of this. No knowledge, no intention, no virtue.

As the study itself acknowledges, the child subjects are still developing. For all we know, they don’t know that they are behaving virtuously as opposed to just doing what feels good. We know nothing of their parents’ theology, ideology, or worldview besides the labels the researchers choose to categorize them by. Without interviewing the subject, a scientist can’t accurately describe the subject’s motive. He can impose his explanation upon what he observes, but this fails to take the subject’s life of the mind seriously. Whatever else the researchers are trying to do, it isn’t research about morality.

What if Altruists are Suckers?

Granted the idea of virtue and vice, can there be such a thing as too much generosity? If we take the consequence of evolutionary behavior as the standard for morality, it’s certainly possible. Spurred by the evolutionary game theory in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, philosopher J. L. Mackie proposed that altruistic behavior could be counterproductive for the survival of a species.[1] He relates this in an evolutionary survival game where a species of birds has developed the behavior of grooming each other in order to remove pesky bugs they can’t reach on the back of their own heads. An individual bird of the species can exhibit one of three types of behavior: sucker, cheat, or grudger. A sucker always grooms another bird no matter what. A cheat loves to be groomed, but never grooms another bird in return. A grudger grooms another bird, but will stop grooming another bird that takes advantage of her generosity. If the population is mostly grudgers, then cheats won’t thrive. But if there are enough “altruistic” suckers, grudgers could proliferate, even to the point where their “selfish” behavior drives the species extinct.

Mackie suggests that altruism may not be the most moral attitude after all. He identifies himself as a grudger: tit for tat, eye for an eye. It appeals to the innate sense of justice. After all, under normal circumstances, who would let a murderer go free? The secular children in the altruism study more arguably would do so, perhaps thinking they are being kind by overlooking another’s trespass. In this case, Mackie and thoughtful people might side with the Muslim children in their assessment of the appropriate punishment and who is more “moral.” Now the study doesn’t give us a clear sense of what degree of punishment is appropriate or virtuous. It hints that assigning “harsher” punishment is less moral, but why that would be the case is unclear.

So in sum, the altruism study and articles reporting on it miss two important things. First, because there is no ethical framework in view, we have no evaluative context for the children’s actions, and no actual understanding of their motivations. Instead, it is assumed that generous behavior is what makes for morality, and that desiring a wrongdoer be punished is a moral failing. But these assumptions are far from granted for critically thinking people. Second, the study fails to acknowledge an evolutionary scenario where altruism can be counterproductive. Instead of research and journalism that takes these two realities seriously, we have fodder for fit for the social media one-upmanship that fuels the spurious science-versus-religion narrative.

PS: With respect to the “dictator game” the experimenters conduct with sticker allocation, check out this blog post citing a study where the validity of dictator games are undermined by “experimenter demand effects.”

[1] Mackie, J. L.. 1978. “The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Principles of Evolution”. Philosophy 53 (206). Cambridge University Press: 455–64.

Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe

mRio / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This recent blog post by a science writer at NPR insists that “We Don’t Need To Be Created To Be Relevant.” Here is how author Marcelo Gleiser frames relevance:

“For many people, the thought of being the result of mere accident is a nonstarter. They think that to be relevant we must have been created in some fashion. After all, the word accident usually denotes something bad. Chance is a better (but not perfect) word: We are the product of chance.”

Who or what are we supposed to be relevant to? Gleiser simply does not say. What he does do is subsequently expound on the mystery of biological life, reasoning that if intelligence is not necessary for life to dominate the Earth, then we are special.

Along the way, he punches the God of the gaps strawman, characterizing it as “a dangerous way to believe, given that science does advance and gaps do get squeezed away.” Its inclusion strikes me as odd; intelligence is a property of minds, things that science can’t induct into its material account of the world.

Consider the thoughts your mind produces: first-person, unified, subjective experiences which you can identify as being about things. A scientist cannot access these real phenomena directly; only you enjoy the privileged position that allows you to directly know and report what your mind thinks about. Science is principally incapable of describing the content of thoughts. Methaphysics, philosophy, and human language are needed. This is not God of the gaps, but simply what is beyond science’s purview.

Likewise, relevance, if it refers at all to the classical questions of ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, is illicit to science. The fact-value split initiated by eighteenth century thinker David Hume–and continued by the twentieth century developments of verificationism, noncognitive emotivism, and eliminative materialism–establishes that in a closed, material cosmos, there is no real value to anything, not even life itself. There is no “formal relation” between facts as they are, and values pointing to how the facts ought to be. You can’t get an ought from an is. No intrinsic worth, or ultimate significance. The rareness or infinitesimally unlikelihood of intelligent life is a quantitative measure that will not translate to the quality of being special or relevant.

In this world, roses are not red, and the sweetness of a salty summer sea breeze is an illusion of consciousness. Carl Sagan’s beloved pale blue dot holds no worth. Why pretend that it does? Bertrand Russell provides logically consistent advice for us when divinity does not partake in our cosmos: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But perhaps, this drab, desolate conception of reality is mistaken. Think about it.

Sagan’s pale blue dot: tribal confession or transcendent truth?

In a new year’s post, Adam Frank of 13.7 invites us to contemplate our place in the cosmos.  The professional stargazer asks, “What, really, is the point of it all?” He directs us foremost not to religion, or to philosophy, but to Carl Sagan.  Cue a four minute animation set to Sagan’s famous reflection on “the pale blue dot.”  Frank insists that “it will fill you with a sense of pure wonder.”  This invitation is too good to pass up.

This Voyager 1 photo of Earth as a pale blue dot, suspended in a sunbeam, captured the world’s imagination in the 1990s.   |   Wikimedia

But after watching it, I fail to feel wonder at the late Dr. Sagan’s deprecation of the human race.  Sagan insists of humanity, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”  In virtue of what principle does the pale blue dot challenge human importance and privilege?

Further, by what authority does Dr. Sagan diminish his fellow man as deluded?  John writes in his first epistle, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Is Sagan’s brand of collective anthropic humility more palatable to some because it issues from a 20th century modernist tribe rather than a first century religious one?  A defender of Sagan’s myth would have to ironically claim some sort of epistemic privilege as well as self-importance.

The four minute animation–at one point summing the human condition via battling tanks with “H8” painted on their sides–concludes with these words:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Now I wholeheartedly agree that we have an imperative to be kinder and preserve our home, the Earth.  If one wants to hold a sense of wonder from passing judgment on fellow human beings and thinking that reality consists chiefly in void, empty space, and is merely the curious fractional remnant of a clash between matter and antimatter, he or she is entitled.  But moral responsibilities and good feelings do not automatically follow from such a vision; it may as well be just another unreasoned affectation, a tribal confession.

In light of entropy, mortality, and the heat death of the Universe, Bertrand Russell provides a logically consistent outlook: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Possibly, Sagan’s pale blue dot really is the vaunted God’s eye view.  But if there were anyone who could speak to humanity depravity and conceit with logical consistency, we should not be surprised when he self-importantly declares, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Faith and reason: on predication, rationality, and charity

Predication can be bruising at venues like Parliamentary Question Time. | UK Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Last month, I posted a critique of Dr. Tania Lombrozo’s interlinked think pieces at Boston Review and 13.7.  I was gratified but slightly apprehensive when she linked back with a post titled, Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect.  To boot, a photo of a South Asian firebreather accompanied the text!  Granted, editors sometimes make decisions not always in accord with the writer’s wishes.  Still, I wondered, what kind of splash did I make on the inner life of this cognitive scientist?  From what Dr. Lombrozo wrote of my critique, I think I acquitted myself well.

Before I comment further on this interaction, I must congratulate Dr. Lombrozo for undertaking a couple of posts on charitable discourse.  In her aforementioned post, I got to serve as a counterweight to biologist Jerry Coyne, one of the staunchest defenders of evolution.  A comment on his blog accused her of being an “accomodationalist,” a scientific Nevil Chamberlain, an appeaser.  Needless to say, her post generated hundreds more heated comments by the clamorous content consumers at 13.7.

But then with her subsequent blog entry, Dr. Lombrozo came back with a real shocker.  She shared an academic paper authored by Lara Buchak, a Berkeley philosopher of religion.  Buchak asked, “Can it be rational to have faith?”  I particularly enjoyed the explication, because Buchak’s theory of decision making is based on a general assumption that human persons are more or less rational.  Quite possibly, that could even apply to nomadic Iron Age sheep herders!  I can see religious epistemologists–philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, and Richard Swinburne–having fun engaging with Buchak’s work.

The assumption that humans are innately, even unconsciously and unwittingly, reasonable is a counter-intuitive antidote to the popular belief that today, we’re somehow automatically smarter than our ancestors.  It also matches the underlying premises of my college two majors, international relations and economics.  If you want to know what a rational actor or a utility-maximizing agent is, crack open the textbooks of those disciplines.  As I received them at UC Davis a decade ago, the operative principles of those fields were still firmly rooted in mid- to late Enlightenment thought.  No special taint of phenomenologies, Higher Criticisms, or other products of Teutonic intellectual degeneracy.

That being said, my interest in Continental philosophy, the brainchild of Kant, Hegel, Marx, et al. has grown over the years.  Perhaps the best place for common, “charitable ground” as Lombrozo tagged it, is to be found there.  Recently, I discovered that Dallas Willard, a widely admired evangelical teacher and popular author, cut his philosophical teeth on the work of logician Edmund Husserl.  Dr. Willard even drew upon him when contributing to a collection of essays on Derrida!  There, he critiqued Derrida’s conception of “Predication as Originary Violence.” Are you totally lost yet?

So what of that tangle between Lombrozo and myself?  In “Science Vs. Religion,” she observes that my reading of her piece as “‘a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism’ . . . suggests an antecedent assumption of hostility.”  I would agree with this!  But only in a limited sense.  I think “hostility” is best understood as a state of affairs between persons proper.  But a close reading of both my critique and her response will show careful wording that produces not interpersonal hostility, but sets up an adversarial contest between ideas.  William Lane Craig observed recently at Reasonable Faith (Are Debates too Polarizing?) that in academia, the relationship between two different theses apprehending the same object is inherently “agonistic,” or competitive.

If predication is an assignment or affirmation about an antecedent object–the possible intent behind a person’s words–then it is only the mind of the reader that can predicate hostility.  Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.  To practice charity in discussion, then, is to refrain, if possible, from assigning malevolence to the author’s intent.

I suspect that awareness of the nature of intent is something Dr. Willard took away from his reading of the Biblical Jesus.  In the gospel of John, again and again Jesus masterfully avoids the snares of his questioners, whether his disciples, the Pharisees, or Pontius Pilate.  The question is answered with another question; inquiry is turned back on itself.  Is there a more radical skepticism than that?  “Who do you say that I am?”  On Christianity, the divine nature–perhaps the goodness of freedom of the will–is of such weight that the answer to Jesus’ question is only found in one’s own predication.

And so it might be for us.  To avoid violence against the other as she actually is, we judge the merit of the idea, not the motive of the person.  Is there any better way to collaborate in reconciling our disparate ideas to objective reality?

A crisis for popular science

Photo credit: tk-link / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Tania Lombrozo, cognitive scientist and regular contributor to NPR’s 13.7 science blog, recently asked a thought provoking question: “Is There Existential Meaning Beyond Religion?”   It turns out her post asks readers to click through and comment on another article of her’s in the Boston Review, which the editors captioned, “Can Science Deliver the Benefits of Religion?”  The way this discourse is set up seems to be a prime example of the serious, self-inflicted challenge that contemporary science popularizers and educators face.

Dr. Lombrozo’s piece in the Review is perfectly intelligble but structurally incoherent.  In the first half, she presents various explanations as to why 43 percent of Americans surveyed reject human evolution in favor of a “creationist” account.  Then, in the second half, she examines whether affirmations of faith in science can be as psychologically beneficial as affirmations of religious faith.  The two tasks the author undertakes aren’t necessarily related.  From a literary stand point, we have to ask, what is meaning of the piece as a unified whole?

If we to try identify the intent behind the first half of Lombrozo’s piece, we could choose to consider it as a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism.  Alternately, it is simply an account from her own experience as a scientist who explains how people arrive at explanations.  Here’s how she sums her explanations in one sentence:

It may be that assorted mental dispositions and shortcomings—a preference for teleology, hyperactive agency detection, anxiety concerning death, psychological essentialism, a preference for order and control, an unhealthy fascination with human uniqueness, and the naturalistic fallacy all wed to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—are enough to explain people’s rejection of human evolution in favor of some form of creationism.

Taking the author’s collection of explanations as evidence for the falsity of creationism would beget one giant genetic fallacy.  Offering six, seven, or a million explanations for how someone came to hold a belief does not falsify the belief itself.  Further, with a little tweaking, these same explanations could be applied to the explainer!  I am not defending the type of creationist belief Lombrozo wants to explain away.  Rather, I’m asking what those explanations have to do with the latter part of her article, which explores where existential satisfaction comes from.

In the privately published Boston Review, which caters to a specific political leaning and cultural outlook, it would make sense for Lombrozo to attribute mental shortcomings to those she disagrees with.  But Lombrozo has shared her musings on 13.7, a blog hosted by publicly sponsored NPR.  Why would she submit what amounts to a naturalistic pep rally, or a scientistic preaching to the choir, to this broader forum?

If the contributors at 13.7 are civic-minded proponents who advocate greater public understanding and acceptance of science–as at least one of them seems to be–they would do better not to assume their readers share their metaphysical prejudices.  As a thoughtful Christian and curious human being, I peruse 13.7 to see how the scientific community engages robust concepts and challenges from the humanities, philosophy, and culture.  In the many posts I’ve read now, I find the writers ardent in their defense of scientific integrity, but fairly sloppy or else standoffish as they steer around any logically plausible indicators of supernatural reality.  The dead zone where Lombrozo and her colleagues fear to tread inclines me to believe that these freethinkers operate a sort of faith-based church for mystical naturalists.

If a cohort of elite academics is going to muse on “Cosmos and Culture,” wouldn’t we all be better served by more frequent and  deeper interactions with rational, if non-naturalistic epistemologies and bodies of knowledge?  I know of a couple good places (here and here) where they could start.

%d bloggers like this: