I Need a Better Science/Religion Venn Diagram (my post from Catholic site Strange Notions)

I was very kindly asked a few months ago to publish a piece for the new Catholic discussion site Strange Notions. I was allowed to respond to any piece I liked, so I picked Jimmy Akin’s piece about Creation and scientific explanations for the Big Bang. It is reprinted in full here, and I would love your comments, but it’s also worth checking out the original piece with the same title so that you can see all 419 comments at Strange Notions. There were some very interesting arguments over there :).


Jimmy Akin’s piece warning Catholics not to put too much stock in any given scientific explanation of the Big Bang is very interesting. For most atheists, the first and perhaps only question about religious claims is, “How do you know?” It is a request for evidence only satisfiable within the epistemological framework of modern rationality, which in a case like this means scientific, empirical findings.

Empirical Religion?

Religious people have a number of philosophical responses to such a request. They may claim that they share standards of evidence with their atheist interlocutor, and that the science is simply on the religious side. This is frequently the purview of creationists, who are often very well informed about the intricacies of radioactive dating and the weaknesses of paleontology. That’s a dangerous business, though, since a rationalist epistemological framework demands that one is only as sure of a result as the evidence allows, and that one be willing to change one’s mind if the evidence doesn’t turn out as expected. As far as I have been led to believe, such a way of thinking is not particularly compatible with sincere religious faith.

In addition, this approach comes off to atheists as intellectually dishonest. There is something crass about claiming that there is a religious realm of knowledge entirely distinct from empiricism which truth can be found and yet that all empirical evidence lines up distinctly and without exception in your favor as well. It’s similar to political partisans whose interpretation of the Constitution just happens to line up extraordinarily well with their beliefs about ideal public policy. Mike Adams, in his recent piece on Mormonism, criticizes Mormonism both for its inconsistency with the Holy Bible and for its inconsistency with archeological fact (implying, of course, that his religious beliefs were perfectly consistent with both, and that both are legitimate avenues to truth). To claim both standards of truth at once is mildly suspicious.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

But only mildly, because in fact this difficulty is trivially simple to dispose of. Many, many people have thought of the solution before. If you have two standards of truth that you’d like to keep intact, never let them answer the same questions. From here we get Stephen Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria and who knows how many religious folks’ conception of the same idea, and, all within the same intellectual tradition, Jimmy Akin.

If Akin successfully makes his point, and no one thinks that the Bible makes scientific claims, then there’s never any conflict, no double-truth. Science answers the what and religion answers the why, as a common saying goes.

But it can’t be that simple. It can’t be, because Christianity does answer certain empirical questions. For instance: Did Jesus really live? Did he really die and resurrect 3 days later? My understanding is, if the answer to these questions is no, then Christianity is a false religion.

A Hierarchy of Sureness

So what are we to make of Akin’s argument? When Leah Libresco converted from atheism to Catholicism, every atheist I knew seemed to be asking what evidence she had seen that had convinced her. What did she know that we didn’t?

But that was the wrong approach. The reason, as far as I remember, that Leah Libresco converted is that she was more sure of objective moral facts than she was of the empirical evidence against God. That’s the key. She was more sure of her morality than of her epistemology. So she backslid and changed her epistemology. This is rare, but within her system, it makes perfect sense.

Akin is not merely more sure of God and Catholicism than of science. He is infinitely more sure. As he says,

Losing scientific support from the Big Bang would not disprove the existence of God. It wouldn’t even disprove the Kalaam cosmological argument. It would just mean that the premise in question would have to be supported some other way.

If it were to turn out that the Big Bang was not the beginning of the physical universe then this argument in apologetics would have to be revised.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of, though. Apologetics, like the physical sciences, is subject to revision based on the evidence available at the time.”

There is simply no evidence that will change his mind about God.

Given this hierarchy of sureness, this theology, this epistemology, Akin’s piece is exactly right. In fact, what I find most interesting about it is that it resonates in part with the Less Wrong style of looking at the world. Everything adds up to normality, say the rationalists, and everything that is true is already the case, so we must let the evidence push us towards truth and keep ourselves unattached to beliefs we may not want. And so the theists say, everything adds up to God, and God is true, and God is the case. Any scientific truth will lead to God and no scientific finding can overturn God. Thus, theists may be light as a leaf regarding scientific truth, and let the evidence take them where it may. To imbue a model, whether the Big Bang Theory or Creationism, with religious truth, is to chain God’s truth status to that of a changeable fact. This is theologically unacceptable and argumentatively ill-advised.

Perhaps we are now saved from the horns of contradiction. To be that much more sure of religion than of empirical truth makes religion a trump card; any time there’s an overlap between religious epistemology and empirical epistemology, religion wins the trick. Apparent contradictions can be dissolved by a total faith in God and God’s truth.

What would that mean?

If this model is accurate, then I am tempted to say that we should throw our hands up and decide that Wittgenstein was right all along. The world consists perhaps less of people who have different predictions about what the world looks like, and more of people who have different orientations to the world, who take different axiomatic truths as obvious, who orient themselves to the world in different but individually unjustifiable ways. This takes us back, in some ways, to the general tradition that gave us non-overlapping magisteria. People just evaluate truth differently and there’s no objective way to decide which is best, at least from among the most reasonable options. There’s simply no discussion about the fundamental points to be had. The apparent contradiction disappears because the standards of truth are different.

But this just doesn’t hold up. Many religious people I know wouldn’t want the “out” that the first option provides; they are willing to make empirical claims and believe in them wholeheartedly. And Akin, as I argued above, does believe that the Bible requires making the empirical claim that Jesus lived as is recounted in the Gospels, died and was literally, empirically, resurrected. The intersection is inevitable. But no scientific fact will change his mind about the bible or God; his Bayesian priors for both are 1. This gives us the same contradiction and potential for intellectual dishonesty as above. If you agree on science as an epistemology, and you hold empirical facts to be true, you no longer get to retreat to Non-Overlapping Magisteria or anything similar.


The other option religious people and atheists and agnostics have is to agree on standards of truth so that they can engage within the same framework. After all, questions like who the Problem of Evil is more of a problem for, while fascinating, don’t answer the fundamental question; they are no one’s (or almost no one’s) True Rejection to either atheism or Catholicism.

But it is blatantly obvious that Catholics and atheists don’t have the same standards for truth, and to pretend to for the sake of dialogue would be a farce.

So we have a problem.

Atheist argumentation may have its flaws, but it is generally consistent on its epistemology: reason and empiricism. Perhaps the Catholic response is well documented in the literature, and I am simply insufficiently familiar with it. But as I currently see it, the onus is on Catholics to give a more thorough account of exactly how the epistemologies of faith, reason and empiricism interlock, what predictions they make, and which beliefs they feel are fundamental, versus which they would be willing, in the final analysis, to relinquish to the cleansing fire of truth.

I think Akin provides a useful and thought provoking model of how to deal with science and religion. But it is not enough.


It turns out that I may have overstated Mr. Akin’s position. He was saying that the Kalam Cosmological Argument isn’t weakened if the Big Bang Theory turns out to be false, as the universe would likely simply have an earlier (or perhaps later) starting position. That may well be true, and I encourage anyone interested to read through Luke Muelhauser’s excellent and painstaking work on the subject.  But this challenge, of sorts, was not just for Jimmy Akin and the Big Bang, it was and is for all believers in a system that both includes the supernatural and makes empirical claims.

Keep an eye out here and on Strange Notions for my upcoming StrangeNotions piece on whether atheism is a religion!


[Blogathon] Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community

We know that much of our morality comes from visceral emotions rather than pure, crystalline reasons. We know that Kant’s categorical imperative not to murder comes long after the evolution of human disgust at the thought of killing someone in the in-group. We know that a great deal of anti-gay sentiment comes from the notion that men having sex with men is icky. And since we know these things, we also know that sometimes,even if reasonable-seeming arguments exist for some position, they are predicated primarily on some deep emotional basis. If we were to recognize this in ourselves, it would be very important for us to reconsider our position, and be sure that we weren’t just sticking to it because it was so uncomfortable not to.

There are two potential examples of this in the online atheist community. Now, I don’t want to imply that there are no good arguments on the issues I’m about to present, or that everyone’s just being irrational. Only that on these issues, I think there is more emotional motivation than we as skeptics should be comfortable with, in large part because good evidence on the issue is difficult to find or thoroughly absent, leaving us with only our gut reactions.

Issue 1: The Badness of Infighting

We online atheists have been talking about infighting pretty much as long as we’ve been infighting. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it harmful? A lot of people really don’t like it, think it’s divisive, bad for the movement and all around ill-advised. Now, they could certainly be right. Beth Ann Erikson has made very compelling arguments that infighting makes the community look very bad from the outside, which discourages people from joining us and fails to give new atheists a safe place to land. I often think that while arguing against sexism and racism is very important, one of the most powerful things we can do is just to keep writing, keep blogging, about sexism and racism more generally, but also about just everyday skeptic and atheist topics.

All that said, my distinct impression is that the reason people don’t like atheist infighting is because it’s uncomfortable. If you don’t have a dog in the fight, it can feel exactly like holiday dinners where dad is mad at sister, and aunt’s not talking to uncle, and grandma is lecturing brother for not saying grace and standing up for his atheist principles, and you’re there, tense, anxious, staring at your turkey getting cold and wishing everyone would just calm down.

I understand this feeling, I do. But I think it’s misguided. We’re not at a holiday table, after all. Most of us don’t know each other in real life. That doesn’t mean real feelings aren’t at stake, but it does mean that it might be easier to distance yourself from the people doing harm. Most importantly, we’re not physically trapped. No one is keeping us on the internet. We are free to leave, to engage in self-care, to rant and vent to our friends, or simply to do something else for a while which will alleviate the discomfort.

That means all that’s left to argue about is whether there are empirically demonstrable harms or benefits that come from “infighting”, and that’s a dreadfully hard question to answer. But whatever our position, we should try to make sure it’s based on fact and not preference or discomfort.

Issue 2: Accomodationism vs Confrontationalism

This is an old debate in the atheist movement, so perhaps I’m behind the times, but I remember when it was The Thing To Talk About, back in 2010 or so. The question was: how nice should atheists be to religious believers? Should we mock their beliefs? Argue against them stridently? Be charitable? Not argue at all? Try instead to build bridges? Now, this ended up being even more complicated than I’ve laid out here, because people were actually asking totally different questions from each other. Some people claimed that it was simply the moral choice to argue fiercely against religion, no matter what the consequences. Some people distinguished between criticizing people and criticizing belief. Some people argued that either mocking and stridency or gentleness and charity were empirically more likely to convince religious believers. We had consequentialism, deontology and personal preference all jumbled up and split roughly into two opposing camps. It was a mess. And even on the empirical stuff, we don’t really know what convinces people to change their minds in the long term, especially on big issues like religion.

This makes this issue ripe for being primarily motivated by emotion rather than reason. In this case, I think the motivating emotion is distaste. People who like criticizing religion harshly find it completely distasteful, yes, icky, when they read people saying that it doesn’t matter if theistic claims aren’t true, it only matters what theists do, or saying that we should overlook our differences in order to engage in interfaith work. And I think that people who don’t like confrontation, who personally prefer to avoid it, who are uncomfortable at the metaphorical holiday dinner tables, find it extremely distasteful to watch the PZ Myerses of the world lambast and tear apart religious commenters or bloggers, pulling no punches. It’s gross to them. It’s just too much.

And I respect people’s personal preferences. Certainly people should choose for themselves what type of argument to engage in (though if we find that one approach is strikingly more effective than another, perhaps we might have some oblgation to subsume our discomfort for the good of atheist activism (if convincing religious people they’re wrong is to you a worthwhile goal)). But distaste is not a good argument. If we’re criticizing the argument styles of others (and I do it all the time), we should make sure it’s coming from a place of reason and evidence, just like everything else.


By no means do I think everyone engaging in these discussions is irrational, or has no good arguments. But I think anyone arguing on these issues should be examining their arguments with extra scrutiny, so as not to fall into the trap of constructing arguments ad hoc to fit their preconceived emotional stance.

What do you all think? Am I completely wrong? Are these not the motivating emotions at all? I’d love to hear in comments!

Green Donate

Why I Support the Open Letter to the Secular Community

I am really thrilled that a group of secular organizations came together and wrote an open letter to the secular community about online communication. They’ve called for a change of tone and substance in online argumentation, in the hopes that arguments will become less personal and more productive. Like everyone else, I have no idea whether it will make any difference, but I’m really glad to see more and more people and organizations publicly supporting a certain type of discourse. I happen to believe that productive and useful discussion is a good idea on a practical level, helping us win arguments and learn more, and I also think there’s an ethical dimension to how intellectually honest we are about other people’s arguments and to how we’re treating other people. But more than that, this is a community issue. Everyone knows the internet is kind of a cesspool, but these organizations aren’t speaking out publicly to talk about the internet at large. They’re talking about to atheists, agnostics, the “nones”, we nonreligious folk who make up this community. It’s a motley crew, to be sure, and the community in online form is a very loose collection of secular, atheist and skeptic networks, blogs and forums. But it’s still there, and insofar as it’s a metaphorical space that we inhabit and use to interact with each other, meet people, plan events, engage in activism and talk about issues, it’s worth protecting. Right now, one of the threats to the ability of the community to act like a community is the way that online discussion is happening. Is this an existential threat? No. Is it the only threat? No. But it’s one we can and should do something about. So thank you to Jesse Galef and Dan Fincke, for talking about this stuff starting years ago, and thank you to these organizations, who are trying to get us all back on track.

I also happen to love a lot of the specifics they’ve put into their letter. I’m more and more coming to the opinion that moderation of blog comments is crucial. It simply creates a better space for everyone, and doesn’t allow support for trolls or harassers to accrue. Communicating privately with people to clear up misunderstandings before lambasting them online is brilliant, and it’s an idea I’ve loved since I heard Hemant Mehta talking about it at Chicago’s skepticamp. Why wouldn’t we want to clear up misconceptions before they adversely affect our opinions or writing? And of course, listening and being charitable are important practices that are very close to my heart. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Of course, there’s been plenty of criticism of the open letter, and that’s great. Nothing is perfect, and discussion helps us learn more and more. However, I think most of the criticism is off the mark, and I’d like to explain why, in a few posts.

But before I go into specifics, what I’d like to tell everyone who doesn’t like the letter is: The Open Letter is probably not talking about what you think it’s talking about.

That is, it probably (probably) isn’t calling for the end of the online comments you want to see around. Up and down the Friendly Atheist comment sections were people grievously concerned that they weren’t going to be allowed to criticize certain bloggers or ideas anymore. Leaving aside that this open letter and these secular organizations have no ability to forcibly stop anyone from saying anything on the internet, criticism isn’t the problem here. Content generally isn’t the problem. It’s not an issue that people want to say how much they hate Freethought Blogs or various prominent people or whomever. It’s that to do it, some people make false accusations, state claims based on rumors, call people feminazis, femistasis and worse, harass by email, comment and blog, and send illegal and despicable rape, death and other violent threats. If you’re not doing those things, you’re probably not the problem, and no one is trying to curtail your free speech.

(On that note, and I can’t believe I have to say this, blog moderation is only censorship under the broadest possible definition, and it’s a totally reasonable form of it, social disapproval doesn’t infringe on free speech and calling for a higher level of discourse isn’t fascistic. Everyone on board? If not, let’s talk in comments.)

Similarly, to those who felt the open letter didn’t support feminism strongly enough, you may be right, and I’ll address those specific concerns in my next post. But one concern I saw over and over again was that the kind of behavior the open letter wanted to see stopped was the kind of behavior that victims of harassment and marginalized people take on their own behalf, and so the open letter served to perpetuate both harassment and marginalization by criticizing those who speak against it. Again, I really don’t think that’s what these organizations are talking about. They’re not talking about people who get angry because people are awful to them. They’re not talking about people and ideas being called out for being insensitive or offensive or cruel. They don’t want people to stop standing up for themselves or stop pointing out problems or stop making legitimate criticisms. They want people to stop being considered enemies because of who they associate with, and people who are asking sincere questions (even if thoughtless) to not be treated as if they were malicious, and claims not to be trusted without verification. Generally speaking, if you’re not doing that, it’s not a problem. That, anyway, is my interpretation of the letter.

By the way, it’s a good place here to say that I DO NOT think these problems are on the same level. Insults and harassment and rape threats are orders of magnitude worse than being someone being misinterpreted and thought offensive when they meant no harm. What they have in common, though, is that they do harm to discussion and to the community.

That harm is what the writers of the open letter would like to see ended. And everything else they speak out against is what everyone should be against. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what “side” you’re on. There is a basic level of discourse which must be present for anything productive to take place. Of course skeptics should “trust but verify.” Of course as atheists, many of whom were once religious, we should all remember that not everyone knows what we do. I’ve argued before that of course all of us should be charitable, if not to our interlocutors, then to their arguments, and if not for their sake, then for all the observers. Of course we as internet users should care about the kind of space we create. And of course as intellectually honest people we should take care to only write things that are true and not spread misinformation.

For instance, yesterday, in the Friendly Atheist comment section about this very issue, the following exchange took place,


Person A, do you really think this is groupthink? I think the idea is to come together and really work on improving the community. Isn’t that the same kind of thing you write about?

Not Person A:

“i don’t need “improvement” thank you very much.

people tell me all the time that there is something wrong with me, and that i need “fixing.” you know who?

anti-gay religious groups and racists, to name just a few. do you really want to join those ranks? you’ve already made several statements on this thread that i disagree with, am i better positioned than you such that i should decide what is best for you, in the name of “the community?” it seems to me like that is what you, and this letter, proposes to do.”

This is the kind of thing the letter is talking about. I got compared to anti-gay religious groups and racists in a way that was ludicrously out of step with what I said. This is bad discourse. This is the kind of thing that should end. Not feminism, not standing for yourself, and obviously not free speech.

Whatever we believe, I think the ideas in the open letter are ones everyone should agree with. They’re basic due diligence. They’re the foundation of our ability to talk to each other. And I want to make sure we can keep talking to each other.

That’s why I support the Open Letter.