It’s All True

February 5, 2009

Jerry Coyne has published wonderful demolition of religious faith in The New Republic:

“Seeing and Believing”

Sam Harris has contributed a satirical response to the discussion about it on


It is a pity that people like Jerry Coyne and Daniel Dennett can’t see how easily religion and science can be reconciled. Having once viewed the world as they do, I understand how their fundamentalist rationality has blinded them to deeper truths. I’ve wanted to say to both of these men—“Some things are above reason. Way above!” Happily, George Dyson has done this for me in a brilliant essay on this page. He demolishes the intellectual pretensions of militant atheists like Coyne and Dennett in the most elegant way imaginable: by merely divulging the title of a 17th century work by the great Robert Boyle.  When I was a militant neo-rationalist, I had a sinking feeling that my colleagues and I had not fully reckoned with Boyle on the argument from Design and were, as a result, risking public humiliation. Now it has come to pass…

If I have one quibble with Dyson, it is that he has been far too modest in drawing out the implications of his argument. He is, of course, right to declare that “science and religion are here to stay.” But magic is here to stay too, George; Africa is full of it. Is there a conflict between scientific rationality and a belief in magic spells? Specifically, is there a conflict between believing that epilepsy is a result of abnormal neural activity and believing that it is a sign of demonic possession? Dogmatists like Coyne and Dennett clearly think so. They don’t realize, as Dyson must, that the more one understands neurology, the more one will understand—and honor—demonology. Have Coyne and Dennett read the work of sophisticated magicians like Aleister Crowley or Eliphas Levi? Don’t count on it. Ask yourself, how could matter conflict with spirit in any way? Answer: it cannot.  Forgive me, but I find it embarrassing to have to explain these things to people who are supposed be well educated.

Emanuel Derman admonishes neo-secular militants like Coyne and Dennett to “stop wasting… time trying to beat up on the idea of God in the name of science.” This is so comprehensive a demolition of their work that I suspect Coyne and Dennett will be forever changed. Derman reminds us, with extraordinary patience, that scientists have no authority outside the narrow focus of the scientific worldview. Can a biologist harbor any educated doubts about the Virgin birth of Jesus? No—because human parthenogenesis has nothing whatsoever to do with biology. Can a physicist form an educated opinion about the likelihood of the Ascension? How could he? Bodily translocation into the sky does not require any interaction with the forces of nature. Can either a biologist or a physicist realistically doubt the coming Resurrection of the Dead? Many have tried—all have failed. (Please understand that any mention of “entropy” in this context is mere posturing.) As Derman recognizes, it is the sheerest arrogance that has led atheist scientists to overreach in this way.

This Edge exchange has been a feast for the mind! Consider Lisa Randall’s moving account of having traveled by airplane in the company of a “charming young actor” who just knew in his heart that our species descended, not from apelike precursors, but from the biblical Adam. I urge readers to linger over these points, as Randall’s prose is condensed nearly to the Planck scale. Just picture what it must have been like to be at thirty thousand feet in the company of a man who studied molecular biology at the college level. Next, consider that this prodigy is both a working actor and an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. Finally, realize that the stranger at your side believes evolution to be nothing more than a sinister piece of secular propaganda. I can dimly imagine how Coyne and Dennett felt upon reading Randall’s tale this far.

But Randall drills deeper:

Empirically-based logic-derived science and faith are entirely different methods for trying to approach truth. You can derive a contradiction only if your rules are logic. If you believe in revelatory truth you’ve abandoned the rules. There is no contradiction to be had.

I am confident that Randall’s airplane adventure will mark a turning point in our intellectual discourse. Not only has she resolved all the contradictions between science and religion (and magic, voodoo, UFO cults, astrology, Tarot, palmistry, etc.), she has reconciled apparently conflicting religions with one another. Hindus worship a multiplicity of gods; Muslims acknowledge the existence of only one, and believe that polytheism is a killing offense. Do Hinduism and Islam conflict? Only “if your rules are logic.” Just as paths ascending a mountain slope can seem discrepant at the mountain’s base, and yet once we stand upon the summit, we find that all routes have led to the same destination—so it will be with every exercise of the human intellect! The Summit of Truth awaits, my friends. Simply pick your path….

And yet, there is more to be said against the likes of Coyne and Dennett and Dawkins (he is the worst!). Patrick Bateson tells us that it is “staggeringly insensitive” to undermine the religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree completely. For instance: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school. When I was a neo-fundamentalist rational neo-atheist I used to criticize such behavior as an especially shameful sign of religious stupidity. I now realize—belatedly and to my great chagrin—that I knew nothing of the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public expression of his faith? Bateson is right. Clearly a belief in the inerrancy of the holy Qur’an is indispensable for these beleaguered people.

How can a militant secularist atheist neo-dogmatist like Coyne not see the plain truth? There simply IS no conflict between religion and science. And even if there were one, it would be an utter waste of time to say anything about it. Lawrence Krauss has established this second point beyond any possibility of doubt. Go back and read his essay. It’ll just take you five seconds. I’ve read it upwards of seventy times, and each perusal brings fresh insight.

Finally, Kenneth Miller, arrives to deliver the perspective of a genuine believer and to defend his work from the callow misreading of Coyne:

I made no argument that this happy confluence of natural events and physical constants proves the existence of God in any way—only that it could be understood or interpreted as consistent with the Divine by a person of faith.

That’s just the right note to strike with a neo-militant rationalist like Coyne. These people are simply obsessed with finding the best explanation for the patterns we witness in natural world. But faith teaches us that the best, alas, is often the enemy of the good. For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation. Wrong question Coyne! You see, the wise have learned to ask, along with Miller, whether it is merely possible, given these facts, that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will could have created the world. Surely it is! And the heart rejoices…

Of course, one mustn’t carry this sublime inquiry too far. Some have asked whether it is possible that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will works only on Tuesdays or whether He might be especially fond of soft cheese. There is no denying that such revelations, too, are possible—and may be forthcoming. But they do not conduce to joy, chastity, homophobia, or any other terrestrial virtue—and that is the point. Men like Coyne and Dennett miss these theological nuances. Indeed, one fears that these are the very nuances they were born to miss.

Miller, on the other hand, recognizes that every scientist is free to see the world as he or she wants to: If Francis Collins wants to believe that the historical Jesus was actually raised from the dead and still exists in an ethereal form which renders him both clairvoyant and mildly disapproving of masturbation, these beliefs do not even slightly detract from his stature as a scientist. A man like Dawkins, who was exposed long ago for his rigid adherence to biological naturalism, may choose not to believe these things. The choice is his. But given his resolute denial of the risen Christ—and, indeed, of the very existence of a loving and provident Creator—Dawkins has no standing to criticize the approach of Collins, because he simply has no internal sense of how labile the scientific imagination can become once tempered by the Christian faith.

Miller is especially good at separating scientific rationality from every other form of human cognition. It is crucial that the reader understand that science is a trade: it does not matter what a scientist believes as long as he does his scientific work properly. This has been a stumbling block for many would-be intellectuals who imagine that science might have something to do with a comprehensive understanding of the universe, or that an awareness of the quantity and quality of evidence may know no boundaries. Perhaps an analogy will help: Let us say a cardiac surgeon believes that automobile accidents are caused, not by human inattention, brake failure, and the like, but by the Evil Eye. Would this reduce his stature as a physician? Of course not—because heart surgery has nothing to do with the indiscretions of car and driver. As Miller states, “the real issue is whether a scientist’s view on the question of God is incompatible with their scientific work. Clearly, it is not.” Yes, this is as clear the rising sun. I would only add that a belief in the Evil Eye is perfectly compatible with modern medicine—with the possible exception of ophthalmology. Some have called this the “balkanization of epistemology.” I think words like “epistemology” are overrated. And so do most Americans.

Finally, Miller arrives at the deepest question of all:

One can indeed embrace science in every respect, and still ask a deeper question, one in which Coyne seems to have no interest. Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes itself accessible to our powers of logic and intellect?

I have often wondered why walking works. Why is the world organized in such a way that we can walk upon it? And why should there be limits to our ability to move about in this way, like those imposed upon us at the highest altitudes? Indeed, I thought the subject fit for my doctoral dissertation, but was cruelly dissuaded by an unimaginative advisor. And yet, I think Miller’s question is deeper still.  Clearly, men like Coyne and Dennett have averted their eyes from the answer—an answer that is plainly obvious to over ninety percent of their least educated neighbors. The universe is rationally intelligible because the God of Abraham has made it so. This God, who once showed an affinity for human sacrifice, and whose only direct communication with humanity (in the Holy Bible, through the agency of the Holy Spirit) betrays not the slightest trace of scientific understanding, nevertheless instilled in us the cognitive ability to subsequently understand this magnificent and terrifying cosmos in scientific terms. As to why science has been the greatest agent for the mitigation of religious belief the world has ever seen, and has been viewed as a threat by religious people in almost every context, this is a final mystery that defies human analysis. I have often thought that if God had wanted us to understand the difference between having good reasons for what one believes, and having bad ones, He would have made this difference intelligible to everyone.

The universe is whole and without contradiction. What may appear like a contradiction at one level of physics or biology is always resolved at higher vibrational energies—or perhaps, as Miller points out, by “miracles.” Needless to say, miracles, are precisely the sorts of occurrences that defy rational understanding and which would cause anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of the world to doubt their occurrence. Which is to say that if Jesus had been born of a virgin, had raised the dead, had been so raised Himself after a brief interlude, had then ascended bodily into the heavens, and has subsequently nurtured from on high these two millennia an abiding distrust for Jews and homosexuals—these are precisely the sorts of low probability events that people like Coyne, Dennett and Dawkins would doubt ever occurred. Therefore, the doubts of fundamentalist atheist rationalist neo-humanistic secular militants actually render the miracles of Jesus’ ministry more plausible than they would otherwise be. Jerry, Dan, Richard—please give this some thought.

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