Thursday, October 15, 2015

Letter to a Lutheran on Epistle to Diognetus

Below is a letter I sent to Pastor Charles St-Onge, written as a follow-up to our previous correspondence.

Dear Charles,

I have "published" our correspondence on my blog at Thanks for granting your permission.

Since our exchange, I have responded to another Issues Etc. interview, again with a science theme. The interview was with Greg Koukl, a Christian apologist with his own radio program, about a video by Bill Nye "the Science Guy" about abortion. My critique of Koukl, and of the pro-life philosophy he relies on, is the latest post at I doubt that Koukl will respond directly. But I truly would be interested to hear responses from thoughtful pro-life advocates. Some of the ideas I express in the letter are ones I've been working on for a long time. Others are new as far as I know, based on recent research, and I don't know quite what to make of them. I have little doubt that you will think me guilty of scientism.

I read the Epistle to Diognetus. Having been brought up a Jew, I was a little shocked at the anti-Semitic tone of some of it, although I knew that this was part of historical Christianity. I found it a little ironic that blood sacrifice could seem so silly to this Christian, whose religion is more centered on blood sacrifice than Judaism ever was. True enough (according to Jews and Christians alike), God is in need of nothing. So how could He be in need of a ransom in order to grant clemency? Let alone the ransom of His own Son? So how could we be in need of it? But reason, when it comes to Christianity's central drama, never seems to have been its strong suit.

Other parts of the epistle I recognized from my Jewish upbringing. The idea that pagan worshipers were worshiping stones is so ... ignorant and prejudiced! It is perhaps understandable that Jews could be so ignorant, but how could a Greek be? Anyone who has read Homer knows that Athena was never thought to be that statue in the Parthenon, anymore than Mary is one of her statues in Catholic churches, or Jesus on the Cross, for that matter, is ever thought by his worshipers to be a piece of wood. From a Jewish point of view, on the other hand, nothing could be more quintessentially pagan or idolatrous than to worship a man as a god, and nothing more blasphemous than to worship him as God Himself. And, to tell you the truth, it has always struck me as quite humorous that Christians, who traditionally, as in this epistle, despised Jewish rabbis as fools who fastidiously observe ridiculous dietary and other rules, should mistake such a person for the Creator of the Universe.

It is interesting to me that this early Christian apologist should have held the Hebrew scriptures in such low esteem. For him, the commandments to make animal sacrifices weren't just superseded, but silly to begin with, as silly as idolatry. But perhaps he didn't know Hebrew scriptures at all.  I was just listening to a contemporary Christian apologist quoting Leviticus as authority for condemning gays. But if Christians obeyed Leviticus, pork would be an abomination to them. Yet they quote it selectively if it comports with their prejudices.

As for Christians being the soul of the world... I have heard similar Jewish sentiments about Jews -- in a gentile (Christian) world. And as for dying for your faith, if that is "proof of God's presence", then we should all join ISIS.

When I was growing up, and fell in love with science, I thought religion would fade away soon. I find it very hard to give up that dream. (John Lennon's song -- "Imagine there's no religion" -- yes, if only.) But, if I am to be empirical, I have to admit there is no evidence that that could ever happen, and I see more and more evidence that reason is a feeble flame, and irrationality is more and more ascendant. We will not stop global warming. Science will continue to be denied, the spirit of denialism fed by religious dogmatism. Religious wars will rage. Voters will choose demagogues' baseless promises over reasoned, pragmatic arguments. I used to be an optimist, but now I am in despair.

A Christian worldview is no doubt better suited to deal with such darkness. But in my view, it is part of the darkness.

Best regards,

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Response to Greg Koukl's Issues Etc. Critique of Bill Nye's Video on Abortion

Below is a letter I sent to the conservative Lutheran radio show and podcast Issues Etc. on October 7, 2015:

Dear Issues Etc., Pastor Wilken and Prof. Koukl,

I am the self-appointed atheist gadfly of Issues Etc. I try to keep you honest and to offer reasoned criticism. This is a response to the October 1, 2015 critique by Greg Koukl of Bill Nye’s short video on abortion. It may eventually find a place on my blog, Any responses would be most welcome. They will not appear on my blog without your express permission.

I like to try to think carefully, and writing helps. But it seems to be easiest for me to write my thoughts down if I’m responding to someone in the form of a letter. So this is as much for me as for you. This letter has turned out to be extremely long, but I found it interesting to write. I hope it may hold some interest for you too. You are welcome to pass it along, and I would welcome responses from anyone. However please do not publish any of it without my permission.

I agree that Bill Nye lacks philosophical sophistication and did not argue well. This is in part because he did not manage to articulate his arguments clearly.  Greg Koukl makes some good points, but he often does not respond to the best argument Nye may have intended, let alone the best argument that could be made on his behalf, and Koukl makes some howlers of his own, sometimes committing the very same kind of error he accuses Nye of.

Greg Koukl and Bill Nye share a common fault. Both illegitimately invoke the authority of science to support conclusions which in fact rely on their own philosophical points of view.

Eggs and Human Beings
When Nye says “many many many many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans,” he is presupposing that fertilized eggs are not humans. Koukl proceeds to dispute this – and even the existence of fertilized eggs – quoting an embryology text, invoking the full authority of science, and concluding that “Bill Nye the Science Guy has gotten his embryology flat out wrong from the very first line of his critique!” This is just as illegitimate as Nye’s conclusion that when people disagree with him about the humanity of the zygote, “It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding.” (It may be that in part, as I will argue, but not completely.)

The nouns ‘human’ and ‘human being’ are not scientific, technical terms. They belong to common parlance, and because of that they have all kinds of implications and connotations. Even their primary meanings are disputed by the two sides, because these different meanings belong to different worldviews.

When we say “All men are created equal,” do we mean by “men” women also? Should we? Do we mean men of all races? Should we? Do we mean zygotes and embryos and fetuses too? Should we? These are not scientific questions. They are not questions of empirical fact, although empirical facts may be brought to bear in answering them. The honorific ‘human being’ is like ‘men’ in this respect. (And so are ‘baby’ and ‘child’, by the way, when applied to the unborn.)

So when Nye implies that fertilized eggs are not yet “humans”, clearly he is using ‘human’ to refer to  something more restrictive than “any organism of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development.” Koukl uses ‘human’ and ‘human being’ to mean something different. (Perhaps: “any whole organism of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development,” but also “a person”, “a life” and “a being with full human rights.”) Science cannot answer or dictate what we should mean by these non-scientific terms. It is not an empirical question.

Eggs and Metaphysics
But Koukl takes a different view. He begins by making the ridiculous assertion that there is no such thing as a fertilized egg, and claims that this is a scientific fact, one that Nye gets wrong. This, I will argue, is not a fact at all, but merely a conclusion dictated by Koukl’s pre-scientific metaphysics.

(The metaphysics I refer to is Aristotelian. Its tenets are assumed by most pro-life apologists working today. They are usually just treated as simple logic, never spelled out in detail, and sometimes actively concealed, perhaps because of their Catholic Thomist credentials. (I’m thinking here of Voldemort... I’m sorry, I mean Robert P. George, or Robbie, as Koukl calls him.)

When I buy eggs at the grocery store, I have the choice of buying “fertile eggs”. These are chicken eggs that have been fertilized. You can find videos on YouTube of chickens hatched from store-bought fertile eggs. So these are eggs that can, under the right circumstances, develop into chickens. But according to Koukl’s logic, and contrary to common sense, they are not eggs, they are chickens – unless Koukl believes that human embryogenesis proceeds fundamentally differently from that of other animals. But such a belief certainly could not be claimed to be a scientific fact.

Koukl says “eggs do get fertilized, but when they’re fertilized, they’re no longer eggs that are fertilized, they’re human beings! And that is basic, foundational science. It’s basic embryology.” As proof he quotes from an embryology text:

“The development of a human [Koukl almost stumbles here. He pauses – he wants to say “being” – but then reads on] begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoa from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”

(Just as an aside: ‘oocyte’ is pronounced “oh-oh-sight” or “oh-uh-sight”, not oo-sight; “-zoa” is pronounced zoh-uh, not zoh.)

Koukl continues,

“So the zygote isn’t a fertilized egg. The egg is gone; the sperm is gone. The zygote remains. It is a new human being, according to basic embryology. And I need to emphasize to your listeners, Todd: This is not scientifically controversial.”

But if the claim that “the zygote is a new human being” is not scientifically controversial, it is because it is not a scientific statement at all. The text quoted did not use the term “human being” which, as I’ve noted, is extremely fraught, and not part of scientific terminology. What the text did say was that the union of sperm and egg gives rise to “a new organism, the zygote.” But could this new organism not accurately be called a fertilized egg, as it is in the case of chickens? And might it not be just as misleading to call this organism a human being as it is to call a fertile egg a chicken?

(Both chicken and human fertilized eggs are surrounded by a shell – in humans called the zona pellucida. In both, development initially takes place inside the shell, and if this continues, both eventually “hatch”. As a matter of fact, reference to fertilized eggs in embryology texts, including human embryology texts, is common.)

But how, Koukl might ask, could this still be the egg but also be “a new organism”. If this is a new organism, doesn’t that mean, as he says, that “the egg is gone”?

Aristotle vs. Democritus
We are dealing here with the basic ways we have to think about change. The Greeks found change so perplexing that Zeno held that it was impossible, and Parmenides that it was an illusion. Aristotle invented his own solution, and later in the interview Koukl portrays science as based on Aristotle. It’s true that Aristotle founded biology as well as the study of logic, but he got some important things deeply wrong. He held that matter was formless – pure potential – and that form was imposed upon it, at the level of things we can see. The soul (‘psyche’) was such a form: that which at once defined an organism’s nature (its species) and made it alive. Life for Aristotle was a top-down affair, imposed by the soul on formless matter, rather than something that emerges from the incredibly complex, hierarchically organized, tiny invisible structures of matter that we know today. A union of form and matter he called a substance. A man was a substance. But substantial change-- change from one kind of thing into another -- remained a problem for Aristotle. One substantial form (the form that defined the nature of a substance, and constituted its essence) is supposed to be replaced by another, but with the same matter. But since form is essential to the identity of a thing, and no form is shared before and after substantial change, and matter itself without form is formless, there is no one thing left to undergo the change. Moreover, there is no way of conceiving substantial change as a continuous causal process. Substantial change can appeal to Christians because it resembles in some respects creation by God ex nihilo. But modern science would be impossible under Aristotle’s scheme. So it is not surprising that early modern natural philosophers – the first scientists – ridiculed and rejected Aristotle’s notions of substantial form and substantial change. They play no part in modern science. To interpret scientific findings as statements about substantial form or substantial change is to misunderstand them.

When Koukl, speaking of the true fact underlying Nye’s account, said that his real point was that “many hundreds of eggs are fertilized that do not survive” he was unconsciously caught in the kind of difficulty the understanding of change as substantial change leads to. For according to Koukl, NO eggs survive fertilization. So we have difficulty even referring to any entity that spans the fertilization event under Aristotle’s scheme. I have even known pro-lifers to claim that the egg dies at fertilization. This seems wrong. Life is continuing; it is thriving; it is not ending. It is natural to think and to say that eggs survive fertilization: they survive as something changed, something new. But this is not compatible with the substance view, which recognizes only one substantial form at a time, and no possibility of continuity across a change of substance. (Actually it is a doctrine of Aquinas’s – the unity of substantial form – which insists that a material body can have only one substantial form. Some of his contemporaries objected that this would mean that saintly relics had never actually been parts of the saints’ bodies, since substantial change meant at death the body ceased to exist. Just as Koukl says “The egg is gone.”)

Here is Patrick Lee, in a rare acknowledgement of the source of the view Koukl is expressing:

“The actual coming to be of a new organism cannot be a gradual process. As Aristotle noted long ago, there are no degrees of being a substance or concrete thing: one either is or is not a horse, one either is or is not an amoeba. Even if the changes which lead to the coming to be of a new organism may be gradual, the transition to actually being one must be instantaneous, and therefore involve a discontinuity.... Fertilization is a discontinuity in a series of events in which it does not seem possible to place the necessary discontinuity anywhere else.” (Abortion and Unborn Human Life, p. 71).

From the start there was an alternative to Aristotle: Democritus. Aristotle opposed Democritus’s atomic theory. For Democritus, change was about the re-arrangement of unchanging atoms. There was no problem of substantial change, because all change was ultimately change of place. Changes could be gradual, atom by atom, and how we define a thing – man or horse or chair – was no part of what made it up. Modern science was born with the revival of atomic theory, spurred by the rediscovery of Lucretius’ great work, On the Nature of Things. Even so, biology was a hold-out. Early mechanical explanations for biological phenomena were unconvincing. Heredity and development were deeply mysterious and seemed to defy mechanical and chemical explanations. Vitalism, which took an Aristotelian view of life as something immaterial imposed on matter, even had a revival as late as the turn of the last century. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century, first with advances in experimental embryology and then with understanding of DNA, the genetic code and the triumph of molecular biology, that life finally solidly joined the neo-Democritean scientific view of the material world. I suspect that at the core of most pro-life beliefs is a failure to understand and to appreciate the significance of these scientific developments, though it’s possible that, in some cases, they are understood and appreciated but rejected for religious reasons.

But let’s descend from these heady abstractions. A very common and important process in biology is metamorphosis: the caterpillar weaves a chrysalis around itself and emerges a butterfly. Its structure has utterly changed. It is a qualitatively different kind of organism, so much so that it could easily be mistaken for a member of a very different species. Yet it is also, in some sense, the same animal. Likewise the caterpillar began as a fertilized egg, but during development was transformed utterly. It metamorphosed. So try this:

“The development of a butterfly begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoa from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”

I’ve changed only one word from the embryology text, from ‘human’ to ‘butterfly’. So now let’s modify Koukl’s purported deduction from that text accordingly:

“So the zygote isn’t a fertilized egg. The egg is gone, the sperm is gone. The zygote remains. It is a new butterfly, according to basic embryology. This is not scientifically controversial.”

But of course the fertilized butterfly egg is not a new butterfly. It is not even a new caterpillar. It is simply a new member of its species, of a form proper to its stage in the life cycle – namely a fertilized egg or zygote – just as the egg cell and the sperm cell that united to form it, and the caterpillar and the butterfly which may develop from it, are members. All these are different forms that organisms of that species take. (Yes, sperm cells and egg cells are not parts of other organisms. They are whole, genetically unique organisms of their species, of a form proper to their role and stage in its life cycle.)

A standard pro-life argument claims that stage of development is irrelevant to moral status. This is made to seem obvious with examples like comparing a toddler to a teenager or an adult. Surely, then, stage of development does not affect one’s right to life, it is argued. But, while there are important changes that occur in the transition from childhood to adulthood, these are not the kinds of drastic reorganizations which can be compared to the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. They are not metamorphoses. But the change from a fertilized egg to a blastocyst is such a metamorphosis. So is the transformation of a blastocyst to an embryo, and from an early embryo to a fetus. Embryos are far more like embryos of other species at similar stages than they are like adults of their own species, just as a caterpillar is more like caterpillars of other species than it is like a butterfly of its own. A non-expert would be hard pressed to identify an early human embryo from among those of other mammals. So is it really so obvious that moral status is unchanging? Why shouldn’t it reflect such drastic metamorphoses? Why should we insist on calling an organism before it undergoes metamorphosis by the name of a much later and much different stage of its life cycle, and why should we regard these as moral equals?

Human Life
One possible answer is that moral status is the same because what counts for moral status in not any “accidental” characteristic, like physical structure, but “human life”, that which gives the organism its human identity and stays constant throughout its existence. Surely it’s no accident that it’s called the “pro-life” movement. But I believe that Bill Nye would have been on solid ground had he described this answer as reflecting deep scientific misunderstanding. It assimilates modern biology to the old Aristotelian scheme. That is why people assume that the abortion question is identical with the question “When does life begin?” They think of life as the soul, the soul as the essence of the person, and of life as beginning in an instant, created out of nothing. And then they call on science to be an authority on this imaginary entity!

This is not the picture that modern biology gives. Science has discovered that life arises out of matter, and reaches deeply into it. Life is a physical process which never (since the beginning) ever simply begins. It always continues; it is always passed on. The life processes in that egg cell never stop. Metabolism continues. Complicated life processes merge the two genomes into one, and install it into the new nucleus of the surviving egg cell. That is why there is no scientific research on “when life begins” – because it doesn’t! ‘Life’, for modern biology, is a mass noun, like water, not a count noun, like a glass of water. Life is a process found in all living things. To refer to a person or an organism as ‘a life’ is not a scientific way of talking. Science does not count lives. It does not ask, in a multicellular organism, whether each cell is a life, or whether there is only one life, belonging to the organism as a whole. It does not ask whether there were two lives or only one in a human zygote before it split into twins. These are not scientifically answerable, empirical questions – there are no experiments that could be done to answer them – because there is nothing in biology corresponding to this meaning of “a life”. (“A life” can refer to a life story, a biography, or its subject, a connected series of events centering on one individual, but that is a completely different connotation.) Moreover, there is nothing unique, morally or otherwise, about the processes that take place in human cells as opposed to other cells. They are mostly the same in an amoeba and a man. But those processes just are life. In this respect, according to modern biology, there is no such thing as “human life”. There is just life, found in everything that is alive. So how could “human life” confer value or rights?

Another possibility for why metamorphoses might be thought irrelevant to moral status is potential – what the organism, if unimpeded, and appropriately supported, will become. If an organism has the potential to become a person like you and me then, some claim, it already has the right to such a future.

This may have been what Bill Nye was alluding to when he made the point that

“Many many many more eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized ... a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall.”

We might paraphrase: a zygote does not, in and of itself, have the potential to become a human. (Let’s just stipulate that by ‘a human’ Nye means a person like you and me, and that he believes that a human organism does not achieve this status until some later stage of development.) A necessary further condition to achieve this potential is that the embryo must attach to the uterine wall. If that condition is not realized, there is no potential for further development present. So if attribution of full human rights depends on the presence of that potential, then before implantation the attribution should fail. That, I presume, would be the argument.

Koukl counters by equating Nye’s claim about attachment to the uterine wall to a claim about location, and then dismisses it, since change of location is not known to change moral status. The point about location is a standard pro-life argument used to dismiss location inside or outside the womb as morally irrelevant. But Nye is not saying the embryo needs to be next to the uterine wall (or, as Koukl says, “domiciled” inside the womb). He is saying it needs to attach to it. This is not simply a matter of location. Attachment to the uterine wall is a complicated process of chemical signaling by which drastic and important changes are triggered in both the embryo’s and the woman’s bodies, a process called implantation. There is no dispute that implantation is a necessary condition of further development. The question is, how does this affect the argument from potential?

I suspect that the concept of the zygote’s potential is normally fused in pro-lifers’ minds with their notion of ‘life’ as beginning at conception and as the true subject of moral status. But let it be granted, for the sake of argument, that the zygote’s only moral status is a consequence of its potential to develop into some other kind of being, which intrinsically deserves moral status. Then does the zygote have moral status prior to implantation? I can imagine arguments on both sides.

Imagine, for instance, that you’re baking bread. You have added all the ingredients, you have kneaded it, but you have not put it in the oven. Is it a potential loaf of bread? It would seem to have that potential, since the further condition of baking may yet be met, and all else is in readiness. But let’s say you have added all the ingredients except the yeast. Is it a potential loaf of bread now? Perhaps not yet. Well, how are we to regard the chemical signals that the uterus sends to the embryo that help trigger implantation? (I know very little about this subject, but here’s one reference: “Uterine Selection of Human Embryos at Implantation”, Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 3894 (2014).) Are these chemicals like the yeast, without which the dough will never become bread? Or are they like the heat of the oven, which the dough awaits in readiness? I’ve not studied the argument from potential, but I don’t find either side conclusive, and personally, I find the argument from potential itself unappealing. I think moral status should be based on what is present now, not on what may or may not come to be in some possible future. And according to that criterion, the zygote and embryo have no more claim to our moral concern than the zygotes and embryos of other animals that resemble them far more than we do.

I suspect that I don’t find ‘potential’ arguments convincing because they rely on another Aristotelian metaphysical tenet I don’t share: final causes. A typical pro-life description that tries to work final causes into a scientific-sounding account goes “the human embryo is a whole complete organism, a living individual human being, whose cells work together in a coordinated effort of self-development toward maturity.” (Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion, p. 105.) It makes development sound purposive, end-oriented, and the product of a “self”. This is a different kind of potential than mere possibility, one that might be more convincing were it true. A materialist point of view, which is all science provides (and gets along with very well), sees atoms and molecules following the laws of physics, which do not tend to any end. But because we are the products of a long process of natural selection, those laws combine in our bodies in such a way as to preserve and develop them... unless they don’t, and we develop cancer, or a genetic variation results in early death. Explanations of these events do not require end-oriented causes, just end-neutral descriptions of physical events, though it is often convenient and perspicuous to speak teleologically, as if our bodies were trying to heal, or a disease were trying to get the better of us.

The woman’s role
Another way to look at what Nye was trying to get at is to consider the woman’s body together with the embryo as necessarily working together to produce a baby. Without the participation of both, there is no potential for further development. Implantation is a necessary step in that collaboration.

The article I just cited, “Uterine Selection of Human Embryos at Implantation” throws an interesting light on this whole question. It reports that embryos give off chemical signals which the uterus responds to. If the signals reveal that the embryo is faulty in some way, the uterus rejects it, and it fails to successfully implant, but if the embryo is judged “competent”, the opposite is the case, and not only does the uterus ready itself, but it emits signals which trigger blastocyst hatching (it is hypothesized on the basis of some experimental evidence). The article concludes, “distinct positive and negative mechanisms contribute to active selection of human embryos at implantation.” Rejection is a common occurrence. The article reports that 70% of human embryos may have chromosomal abnormalities, and estimates that 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Obviously, this does not include embryos that never began to implant. Failure of uterine cells to fulfill the embryo selection function is “strongly associated with recurrent pregnancy loss”, supporting the hypothesis that “active embryo selection at implantation is essential for reproductive success.”

So what is the picture we are left with? Let me try to paint a picture before attempting an argument. Imagine a forest. Animals are killing each other. There are no humans in the forest. Do the animals have rights that are being violated? The very idea of rights seems out of place here. As Nye might say, “Who are you gonna sue?” He also said that passing laws based on a Bible-based belief that “when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby” is “inconsistent with nature.” Koukl was justifiably upset and incredulous at this gross mischaracterization. No one believes that. But I think Nye had in mind, instead, his central theme, the contrast between the actual survival rate of fertilized eggs and the belief he attributes to pro-lifers that whenever a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell, inevitably, or at least regularly (barring interference), a baby results, ignoring the long road in between. (In the context of the Bible he couldn’t say that because sperm and egg cells were unknown in Biblical times, so he substituted intercourse (I conjecture). That was silly and confused.) But let’s concentrate on “inconsistent with nature.” (I have to admit that I had a hard time understanding Nye’s central argument, and what science he thought pro-lifers misunderstand, so this is a bit of a stretch. But bear with me.) Nye also said that, without microscopes and scientists, you wouldn’t know the process of fertilization; you wouldn’t have that image of sperm bumping up against an egg in your mind’s eye. I don’t think he was saying, “So you should listen to scientists. They know best.” I think he was saying:  this is a realm of nature, like that forest without humans, which was completely unknown to us before science. There’s a lot of death going on in that realm, which takes place naturally, and which you haven’t properly taken into account. To try to insert rights into this realm, and to protect by law an entity which is naturally subject and often succumbs to mortal dangers, is “inconsistent with nature.”

This may seem far-fetched and unconvincing. But let me finish my thought. Pro-lifers often say that “the unborn are members of the human community.” But before a woman even knows she’s pregnant, and possibly after that too, this research tells us that the woman’s body is acting as a gatekeeper to the human community. Embryos that would result in unhealthy infants or dangerous pregnancies are culled. The woman’s body in effect makes a decision whether it is worthwhile to continue with this pregnancy.

 We love babies. We want to protect them. Nature, evolution, or God (if you like), has equipped us with this emotion, which motivates us to protect and nurture them, and thus to continue the race and pass on our genes. But nature did not give us knowledge of what goes on inside the womb before birth. We didn’t have to take the important responsibility to select which embryos should live and which should die. If such knowledge and responsibility had been given to us in the scheme of things, we would not have been given a love of embryos, because the urge to protect them unconditionally would have been counterproductive. As it is, the mother’s body performs the function on its own, without her knowledge. But now, due to science, technology and modern medicine, she has the knowledge and the ability to take on that responsibility herself. Pro-lifers, however, want to apply the ethic of baby-love not just to the infant, but at every stage, denying the woman the right to consciously participate in the gatekeeper decision, and calling the conscious decision to terminate a pregnancy “homicide”, which is a term appropriate to community, not nature.

I’ve never thought along these lines before. I’m not sure how promising it is, but it seems to me to be a perspective that deserves some thought.

The argument seems to go this way: a woman has a natural right of veto over her pregnancy. This is normally exercised without conscious will or knowledge, but given that this is a normal, natural occurrence, with a biological function, it is hard to see how participating in it deliberately could make it wrong. The imposition of an ethic based on baby-love does not recognize that there is a period of development which precedes the time when unconditional love is appropriate. It is a time for prudential judgement concerning the wisdom of continuing a pregnancy, whether this judgement is carried out physiologically or consciously.

I can see that such an argument would have little weight for someone who believes in full human rights for the unborn at every stage of development. But perhaps, for such a person, there is something to come to terms with here.

There are a number of other side issues brought up by Nye and answered by Koukl, which I will get to. But a remaining central issue is the fallacy at the heart of Koukl’s pro-life rhetoric: equivocation.

Koukl makes the valid point, in the course of attacking Nye, that “Science ... can tell you about embryology, but it cannot tell you about rights. It cannot tell you about what you ought to do with the information you have. That is a different field.” He also says, “Science is incapable of inveighing, in any discussion, regarding rights, because it doesn’t deal with those things. It deals with descriptive things, not prescriptive things.”

Somewhat more problematic, but along the same lines, he says: “So Bill Nye is off on the wrong foot to begin with, by assuming that the so-called fertilized egg, the zygote, is not a human being, when in fact embryology teaches that it is a full human being. Now what rights accrue to that human being is a separate question, but that is not a scientific question.”

As I’ve said before, since “human being” has many meanings and implications which go well beyond science, it is not a scientific term. To say that “embryology teaches” that the zygote is “a full human being” is dangerously ambiguous. Why not just say that embryology teaches that the zygote is “an organism of the species homo sapiens”? If you admit that the question of what rights accrue to this organism is a separate question from whether it is “a full human being”, why persist in using such loaded language? I think the answer is obvious. It’s because Koukl wants the loaded language. He wants to cash in on the ambiguity. Everyone agrees that human beings have value and rights. We’re human beings. We believe in equality (for people). So if the “science teaches” that the zygote is “a full human being” that must mean it has the same value and rights as any other human. Except of course science doesn’t teach anything of the kind.

How else explain the great energy Koukl expends in insisting that embryology attests to the truth that fertilization gives rise to a new human being? Koukl is outraged that Nye would claim that Bible-believing Christians believe that every act of intercourse leads to a baby. It’s ridiculous. No one believes that. But does Koukl really believe that Nye doesn’t know and agree that the union of human sperm and egg gives rise to a new organism of the human species? Does he really believe that when Nye says it takes more than fertilization to become a human, he is denying this well-known fact? It’s hard for me to believe that Koukl believes that. Koukl is invested in erasing, or at least ignoring, the distinction between the empirical description “human being” (organism belonging to the human species) and the value-laden claim “human being” (fully valuable, fully rights-bearing member of the human community). He takes offense that Nye denies the zygote is a human being in the value-laden sense, so he attacks him for getting “his embryology flat-out wrong”, and throws in the bogus fertilized-egg issue for good measure.

Koukl admits, “what rights accrue to that human being is a separate question... that is not a scientific question”. And it is clear how he answers that question: “Abortion takes the life of an innocent human being without proper justification, and therefore abortion itself is wrong. It’s de facto homicide,” he says. But in this interview he makes no argument for why it is wrong, and equally wrong, to kill a one-celled never-conscious organism of the human species and a many-trillion-celled large-brained conscious organism with a developed personality and a socially rich life history. Why should we apply the term “human being”, modeled as it is on the latter, familiar prototype, to the unfamiliar, utterly different, microscopic organism (albeit of the same species) which Koukl insists on calling (taking advantage of ambiguity) by the same name? And why, once it is called a human being, should we agree that “therefore” killing it is wrong? Because killing a person of the familiar type is wrong, and this organism is of the same species? And called by the same name? And if it’s lucky and lives long enough it would, after multiple metamorphoses, become one? I would need more than that.

I’m sure there are such arguments, and that Koukl knows them. It’s just that he makes such forceful passionate statements about killing innocent human beings and lost lives and comparisons with 9/11 on the basis of only the words “life” and “human being” and the supposed embryology, without a hint of any argument, which causes me to blame him for trading on the fallacy of equivocation.

Koukl says “The real question comes down to, ‘What is the unborn?’, and then attacks Nye for the “embryologically inaccurate claim that the unborn – at the earliest stages at least, since he doesn’t address the later stages – is not a human being.” So I assume Koukl’s answer to “the real question” is that the unborn is a human being, and that he bases this on embryology. If that is where he stops, I hope I’ve made it clear that that is utterly inadequate. It is not an argument at all or, if it is, it is based on an equivocation.

Bill Nye said “Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective. Just being objective here.” This is clearly a statement about sex education policy. Koukl responds as if Nye had denied that abstinence itself is effective in preventing pregnancy! He attests to its effectiveness in his own case. This is just silly. Then he admits that Nye may be talking about “policy”. But then he proceeds again (purposefully?) to misunderstand, taking “policy” to mean a policy of being abstinent instead of a policy of teaching abstinence-only in the classroom, and considers how practical such a policy is. This is just as silly. Finally he gets to the issue Nye brought up, the question of whether teaching abstinence instead of sex education has been ineffective. Koukl answers: “The people who have employed this half-heartedly, they maybe haven’t gotten the results they wanted, so they abandoned it. But it’s not the case that the policy doesn’t work. It does work, OK?” That’s it. That’s his response.

Nye had said “I really encourage you to look at the facts” and take a “fact-based” approach. Unfortunately, Greg Koukl did not take this plea to heart. It is very simple to Google the answer. States with abstinence-only education have higher teenage birthrates. Although teenage birthrates have come down across the country in the last two decades, they came down slower in states with abstinence-only education. The more dedicated a state was to abstinence-only education, the higher the teenage pregnancy rate. “In 2008, the Washington Post reported on a University of Washington study which found that teenagers who received comprehensive sex education were 60% less likely to get pregnant than someone who received abstinence-only education. A 2007 federal report found that abstinence-only programs have had "no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence."” This information and quotes are from I got this from just a quick online stab at the question. I’m not familiar with, but I had heard about or read about these or similar results in the past. It certainly seems more fact-based than Koukl’s feeble jokes and anecdotes.

Koukl took a light-hearted approach to this question, but it would not be surprising to me (I don’t have the data) if abstinence-only education were not only correlated with teen pregnancy and teen birthrates but with teen abortion rates, so if you are serious about reducing the number of abortions, you should try being objective and looking at the facts, as Nye suggested, instead of believing what makes a comforting story for you on the strength of wishful thinking, ideology and anecdote.

Telling Women What to Do
Nye: “So I just really encourage you to not tell women what to do and not pursue these laws that are really in nobody’s best interest.”

Once again Koukl refutes something Nye did not intend. He says Nye is telling people what to do when he tells them not to tell people what to do, and so self-destructs. But with just a little effort and insight Koukl would have realized that Nye is not concerned with pro-lifers telling people verbally what to do. He is concerned about the long, energetic, concerted effort to use the state to tell women what they must and must not do by force of law. That’s what Nye meant. By exhorting people in this way he was not refuting himself, because he was not attempting to force anybody to do anything. Koukl accuses Nye of being disingenuous. But it is hard not to think that it is Koukl who is being disingenuous once again, by missing a very obvious point in order to score one.

I hope that, despite its length, this letter has held your interest and offered you something to chew on.
Best regards,
Gerald Lame

A Correspondence between an Atheist and a Lutheran Pastor on Atheism, Science and Religiously-Motivated Civil Disobedience

On September 16, 2015, Issues Etc. (a conservative Lutheran radio show and podcast) broadcast an interview conducted between two Lutheran pastors, Todd Wilken and Charles St-Onge, about a recent New Yorker article by the physicist Lawrence Krauss titled “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists”. I wrote a letter critiquing their critique and sent it to Issues Etc. and Pastor St-Onge. St-Onge was kind enough to answer me, although, undoubtedly because of his other duties, his letters were brief, while I was, as usual, quite long-winded. Below is our email exchange. It refers to a transcript of the original podcast, which I made before composing my critique. I will gladly supply this on request. Comments are welcome.
Dear Pastors Wilken and St-Onge,

As Issues Etc.’s self-appointed science-loving atheist gadfly (and yes, I’m probably a somewhat militant atheist), I had to respond to your 9/16 interview titled “A Recent Article in the Atlantic ‘All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists’”.

My view is that you both completely misunderstood the article. You attacked Lawrence Krauss, its author, for things he didn’t say, and ignored the interesting points he did make. Perhaps St-Onge was responding to other writings of Krauss’s, or perhaps he was simply using the article’s title as an occasion to repeat his favorite attacks on so-called ‘scientism’. That’s unfortunate because, while not especially deep, Krauss’s article did have some interesting things to say, and they resembled St-Onge’s characterization of them not at all.

Consistent with this off-target response, but still remarkable, is the fact that you repeatedly described Lawrence Krauss’s “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists” as a column appearing in The Atlantic – and even so titled it on your web site – but in fact it was published in The New Yorker!

To be fair, part of the confusion about Krauss’s actual message is due to the article’s title, which I feel certain was not written by him, and which, while catchy, seriously mischaracterized the article’s content. (A more accurate title might have read “Atheist Scientists Should Boldly Challenge Sacred Cows”.) But compounding this initial trap was the fact that it is very difficult to arrive at a fair and accurate understanding of people with whom we deeply disagree. It is very easy, in such cases, to react to caricatures we store mentally of our adversaries’ positions, instead of making the extra effort required to comprehend what is actually being said.

To avoid, as far as possible, my making the same error with respect to you, I took the trouble of transcribing the podcast of your conversation. You will find a copy attached.

As I wrote down your words, I was impressed with the intelligence you both displayed. You speak in complete sentences. You make good arguments. But nevertheless, although you both purport to be responding to this particular article, I believe you completely missed its point. No doubt you were responding to other arguments made in other contexts, perhaps even by the same author. But I am going to be talking about this particular New Yorker article – trying to explain what I believe it is saying – as well as discussing some of your arguments.

Here’s a particularly egregious mischaracterization of Krauss made by St-Onge:

We know that there’s a law of gravity. I know that if I take a coffee mug and I drop it there’s laws that govern the falling of that coffee mug under normal circumstances. But it doesn’t tell me whether the coffee mug ought to fall that way. [Chuckle.] Should gravity exist? Science doesn’t say. It doesn’t know. It just knows that it exists. So for example in the article, where the author is trying to argue that science says we should be allowed to have abortions on demand [emphasis added], all science can really do is say, here’s what’s happening in a woman’s womb. But it can’t tell us whether that ought to be happening, whether it ought to be protected, whether it shouldn’t be protected, whether it’s life, whether it’s not life. Science can’t even accurately define what life is. So it really can’t go off into the realm of oughts unless, like our author, you try to create a realm of presuppositions and smuggle it in into science, and say, ah hah! My presuppositions are part of science, and that’s really disingenuous.

First of all, Krauss didn’t argue that “we should be allowed to have abortions on demand,” let alone that science says anything of the kind. In fact, Krauss expressed NO opinion on the morality of abortion. But he did have something to say about fetal tissue research. Here is what he actually wrote:

Consider the example of Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers are calling for a government shutdown unless federal funds for Planned Parenthood are stripped from spending bills for the fiscal year starting October 1st. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers hoping to cure diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer. (Storing and safeguarding that tissue requires resources, and Planned Parenthood charges researchers for the costs.) It’s clear that many of the people protesting Planned Parenthood are opposed to abortion on religious grounds and are, to varying degrees, anti-science. Should this cause scientists to clam up at the risk of further offending or alienating them? Or should we speak out loudly to point out that, independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away, even though it could help improve and save lives?

To repeat, here is his argument: despite religious opposition, scientists should speak out in defense of fetal tissue research because, “independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away, even though it could help improve and save lives.”

This is a perfectly normal moral argument, made on moral, not scientific grounds. (It is good to help improve and save lives. If not put to this beneficial use, the tissue would be thrown away. Therefore Planned Parenthood’s practice of fetal tissue donation should be defended.)

This is true of all the moral arguments Krauss makes in the article. None of them purport to be based on science. Nowhere does he claim that scientific findings or theories or presuppositions dictate a moral value or decision.

But Krauss is taking a moral stand, and that stand expresses what he takes to be a scientific ethic. But St-Onge completely misunderstands the nature of this claim. His elaborate (and fictional) description of scientism is completely off the mark. Krauss is not illegitimately fashioning science, as a body of fact-based knowledge, into a moral authority, sneakily deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Instead he is expressing what he believes to be the ethic of a group of people joined in a common endeavor, namely science.

 As a parallel example, think of a military group like the Marines. “Semper Fidelis” – always faithful. “Never leave a Marine behind.” These maxims express the group’s ethic.

Likewise Krauss writes: “In science ... no ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking.” He characterizes this as “a commitment to open questioning.” That commitment is central to “the ethics that guide science.” He adds: “Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world.” But this poses a dilemma for those who do not wish to offend adherents of religions whose doctrines are contradicted by science. (By this I assume he is referring to conflicts like evolution vs. creationism, where there are disagreements over facts and the most reasonable interpretation of those facts.) This thorny dilemma is the real subject matter of the article, and Krauss is advocating one solution: to dare to offend, for the sake of values he articulates, which he believes turn out to be central not only to the scientific endeavor but to a democratic society.
You pastors, with your belief that all moral values come from God, are understandably focused on where Krauss purports to get the authority for his values. You assume, mistakenly, that because he is expressing an ethic for scientists, that its basis is supposed to be science. Krauss doesn’t address this question explicitly, but I believe an alternative which is consistent with his view is that these are historically contingent values. Just as the Marines are a group with a history which developed its own ethic through that history, an ethic that virtually defines its identity, Krauss concludes his article this way:

We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.” Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.

That is, the ethics of science and democracy, which he argues are closely related, have evolved historically, and are bequeathed to us as valued traditions. They make moral sense because science and democracy, which we value, could not exist and thrive without them.

“If that is what causes someone to be called a militant atheist,” Krauss concludes – that is, standing up for the right to openly question any idea, no matter how sacrosanct – “then no scientist should be ashamed of the label.”

Ironically, I believe that, in your own way, you two share the value Krauss is championing here. You certainly believe in the freedom to openly question. As Christians you are constantly challenging non-Christian beliefs, especially those that have achieved, in your view, undeserved authority.
Krauss posed some interesting questions which should challenge you but which you ignored. For instance, regarding the Kim Davis case:

Imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women. For Rand Paul [who defended Davis], what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s? The biggest difference, I suspect, is that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views but disagrees with those of the hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist.

I wonder how a Lutheran pastor who has been very exercised over Kim Davis’s religious freedom would respond. Would you defend the Muslim’s right to deny marriage licenses on religious grounds? Krauss opposes such religious exemptions – really a privilege claimed by the religious – not on some scientistic basis, but in the names of equality and liberty.

Here’s another interesting point Krauss made. St-Onge claimed, with support from a quote by physicist Paul Davies, that the orderliness of the universe implies a divinity. Pr. Wilken concurred, saying that orderliness “is a signpost screaming the presence of a person who put it into and keeps it in order.” St-Onge had said that the orderliness of the universe is a presupposition of science.

I think this is wrong. You can’t just refer to “the orderliness of the universe” as if that were a given. In many ways we live in a chaotic, unpredictable world. People are not predictable. Rulers and warlords are not predictable. Weather is not predictable. Nor are health and disease, wealth and destitution. The gods and God are not predictable. One day you may be their favorite, the next they may turn against you. There is only one particular way that the world is so orderly that its laws of behavior are never broken. That order, the mathematical, physical order, was not a given, not a presupposition. It was a remarkable, amazing, non-obvious discovery.

Precise rigid mathematical physical order is about as far as you can get from the kinds of patterns one expects to be produced by persons. God created the world but then changed his mind and sent the flood. He was going to destroy Sodom but, when challenged by Abraham, said he would relent for the sake of 10. When St-Onge drops his coffee mug it falls, invariably, due to the law of gravity. But when he drops his baby does the supposedly divine source of that law take note? Or is it a supremely impersonal law, as far from love and mercy as can be imagined, which dictates with precision a body’s descent while utterly blind to its value? I agree with St-Onge that the orderliness of the world is truly remarkable. Also remarkable, and not to be ignored, is the kind of order it is. “Why shouldn’t the sun not come up tomorrow?” he asks. And I ask, why shouldn’t the inviolable laws of the universe pay attention to their moral consequences? We don’t know why the laws of physics are what they are, but we do know that they are not a morally sensitive order. Attributing them to a feeling God seems unmotivated to say the least. It fails to explain their rigid and strikingly impersonal nature.

In a similar vein, Krauss claims,

... science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.”

That is, persons, divine and otherwise, are fickle and unpredictable. In a pre-scientific world, one wouldn’t have expected precisely reproducible results. It would depend on the gods, or the will of God. It might even have been sacrilegious to presuppose such complete human control over the world as a reproducible experiment implies.

Krauss continues,

It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.

That is, science is “an atheistic enterprise” in the special sense that His existence or non-existence is irrelevant to scientific practice and theory. Christians may feel that the mathematical orderliness that science has discovered requires the cause of a personal agent in order to be satisfactorily explained. St-Onge objects to calling such religious explanations unscientific. But as a matter of fact they are. If saying “God did it” added any real information, if it made a prediction that another theory didn’t, it would be a legitimate scientific hypothesis, and “God” would be mentioned in scientific meetings (at least until the hypothesis could be rejected). But that’s not the case. Attributing orderliness to a divine source doesn’t add to our knowledge of nature. Of course it might be emotionally satisfying, but that’s a different matter.

A few more points:

·         St-Onge suggests that atheists are arguing unfairly against religion in general by throwing them all into the same bag with ISIS, but Christianity, at least these days, is not killing people for their religious beliefs like Muslim extremists are, so it is unfair to paint them all with the same brush. True enough. But by the same token, Pr. Wilken’s point that “the results of atheistic ethical systems have been historically some of the most tragic events, bloody events, in all of human history,” while true, is attempting to group today’s human rights-affirming atheists, including the largely secular peaceful western European democracies of today, with the monstrous totalitarian governments of the mid-twentieth century. That also is unfair. (It also ignores the bloody religious wars and persecutions which tallied up fewer victims than 20th century horrors only because populations were smaller and arms less lethal. And it neglects Christian complicity in slavery, fascism and Nazism.)

·         St-Onge doesn’t understand why a militant atheist wouldn’t condemn homosexuality on evolutionary grounds as a reproductive dead-end. There are at least a couple flaws in this argument. First, it assumes that a militant atheist must make the logical mistake of deriving an ought (what sexual practices should be allowed) from an is (what is evolutionarily advantageous to the species.) I agree with St-Onge that this is a logical error, and I too have never seen a successful derivation of values from facts, although facts (like what makes people happy in the long run) can certainly be relevant to values and moral decisions. Second, since homosexuality seems to be a constant in the world’s societies, it is at least possible that homosexual genes, to the extent they exist, are preserved by conferring a survival advantage sufficient to counteract the homosexual individual’s reproductive disadvantage. This could happen in two ways: 1) by conferring an advantage on relatives of homosexuals who share their genes, or 2) by conferring an advantage on the groups of which homosexuals are members (group selection).

It’s also a bit ironic that opponents of same-sex marriage tend to make an argument similar to the one you attribute to militant atheists: that because homosexuals can’t reproduce (an is), they should be prohibited from living as they choose (ought). Disapproval of “the unnatural” assumes what is (as a general rule) is what should be in every case.

·         I think there’s a misunderstanding regarding what Krauss means by “sacred ideas”. Pr. Wilken asks whether Krauss means to imply that these ideas are baseless. I think Krauss means by “sacred ideas” ideas that cannot be questioned. This is why he says, “In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking.” And this is why he says, “Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion.” Krauss, as I read him, is not claiming that because, according to the “scientific worldview”, nothing is in fact sacred, that religion is undermined. No. It’s because the scientific method fosters the audacity to question everything (in this sense, no idea is sacred) that religion’s claims are exposed to skeptical examination and test, and inevitably for many that results in a weakening or abandonment of tenets previously accepted on faith.

On the web page the great physicist Richard Feynman’s thoughts on science, religion, faith and doubt are explored: “Building on his assertion that the universal responsibility of the scientist is to remain immersed in “ignorance and doubt and uncertainty,” he points out that the centrality of uncertainty in science is incompatible with the unconditional faith required by religion.”

In St-Onge’s book 5 Things You Can Do to Appreciate Science and Love the Bible, it says “Let science be tentative and scripture be truth,” “The Christian worldview accepts Scriptures as the Word of God,” and counsels, “be certain of your own worldview.” This seems to put scripture beyond question. Once you have accepted it as the Word of God you never turn back to put it into question, or compare alternative hypotheses for why it says what it says, other than it is the absolutely true word of God. So it is sacred in the sense Krauss had in mind. If any hypothesis in science were treated in this way, that would be, as Krauss says, anathema to science. This is not a matter of the truth of the Bible’s truth claims. It is a matter of the certainty, the beyond-question status, which is given to it which makes it “sacred”. The deepest disagreement, it seems to me, between science and religion is one over the ethics of belief. Christianity’s epistemological ethic is corrupt. It regards certainty in what has no legitimate claim to certainty as a virtue. In contrast, the ethic of science regards certainty as a vice and doubt a virtue.

There’s much I haven’t probed in Krauss’s article. The relationship he claims between civic and scientific issues is not entirely clear to me. The meaning of ‘sacred’ does shift in different contexts. But I hope I’ve clarified his main points.

I hope you’ve found this interesting. I did.

Best regards,

Gerald Lame
San Diego, CA

Dear Mr. Lame,

Yes, we believe that morality ultimately comes from a divine source.  However, one doesn't need to know this to be moral.  Atheists can be moral people.  This is a fundamental Christian belief.

However atheism has no strong theory to explain the seeming existence of an absolute morality.  There are weak ones, to be sure - I studied evolutionary explanations for a recent graduate degree.  But their explanatory power is much weaker than the Christian theory.  Ergo, as a scientist, I accept the Christian theory for the origin and functioning of what we call "conscience" rather than the atheist explanation whose explanatory power is weaker.

Mr. Krauss' article was entitled "why scientists should be militant atheists."  One example of a theory where atheism makes the weaker scientific case is sufficient to defeat this premise.  At best, then, Mr. Krauss is left with a more sensible premise for debate: "why scientists can, or could, be militant atheists."  We can argue the merits of the "can"; but the "should" does not stand.

Charles St-Onge
Dear Pastor St-Onge,

Thank you for replying to my letter. What you say confirms my suspicion that you were responding to the article's title rather than to its content. You describe the title as Krauss's "premise" but , as Pastor Wilken noted in the podcast, we don't know if the author chose his own title for the column, and that the title was "a bit tongue-in-cheek."

As a matter of fact, "all scientists should be atheists" was not a premise Krauss defended in the article. He could be seen to claim that, insofar as they are doing science, all scientists ARE atheists, in the special sense that science does not refer to God -- neither to his existence nor non-existence. But his main point was more this one: "any scientists who are atheists should be militant ones," that is, they should speak out for what they see as the truth, regardless of possible offense to religious sensibilities.

But very well, that was your starting point, and you simply assumed that Krauss defended it by embracing your straw man, scientism, which you proceeded to argue against.

By the way, no one I know of treats history and testimony in the manner you depict scientism as embracing. In one of his writings (I can't recall which) the physicist Richard Feynman discusses history as a kind of empirical science. Real historians base their theories on evidence. They look at documents, artifacts, and compare testimonies. And in effect they make predictions about evidence yet to be discovered. So, when there is sufficient evidence, historians' accounts can be refuted. No single story or book of stories (even if the book tells tales of multiple witnesses to an event) confers absolute certainty, but this is not because testimony in general is rejected as a source of evidence, as you suggest. Testimony must be weighed, its source considered, possible alternative explanations for why it says what it says, counter-evidence, etc.

Personally, I think the best explanation for the Jesus stories in the New Testament is a process, which took place over decades, of urban myth-making. Look into urban myths. They often contain a framing device -- like "My cousin knew this person, who saw this with his own eyes..." -- which heightens plausibility. As it gets retold, the plausibility-producing features are strengthened and carried along with the story. If they didn't work, it wouldn't have been passed on, so the stories are shaped, with retelling, like a key to a lock, to fit the tellers' & listeners' willingness and desire to believe, and to fulfill their sense of wonder. The Jesus stories were told and retold in oral tradition for decades before being written down. Believers made them believable and wonder-provoking, without any fact-checking. And the stories, for good measure, included attacks on skepticism about the stories themselves, and not only praise for belief in them without evidence, but a promise of magical rewards for belief and retelling, and dire consequences for unbelief (devices often used in chain letters) -- all of which reinforced the virulence of the myth.

But to return to your letter, it seems to me that you are simply making another God-of-the-gaps argument. You find evolutionary explanations unable to adequately explain "the seeming existence of an absolute morality", so God did it. You speak of "Christian theory" as having "explanatory power", but "God did it" is not an explanation. Or to put it another way, an "explanation" that can explain anything and everything (it has infinite power), explains nothing. If, however it turns out, your explanation "predicts" it, that is not a theory that can be compared to a scientific theory. Scientific theories, in order to be explanatory, must be "constrained". God, the way Christians use Him to explain things, is not constrained.

He could be, but then He would fail. That is the way I think of Him. The problem of evil, in my judgement, has no convincing solution. Given that the all powerful single creator of the world and human beings also created pain, suffering, ignorance, stupidity, disease and death (I accept none of your feeble excuses), and at least witnesses these being inflicted willy-nilly on the innocent and the guilty, I find this so-called person a completely inadequate source of any kind of morality, because He abides by none Himself.  But that is because I constrain the God theory to be logically consistent. If you answer that feeble human reason doesn't apply to God, then I say you don't have a theory of a kind that can be compared to a scientific one.

Thanks again for responding.

Gerald Lame
Dear Gerald,

Krauss is entitled to publish his opinion and defend it, that (as you put it) scientists should "speak out for what they see as the truth, regardless of possible offense to religious sensibilities."  But then, so is everyone.  One of the ways theories are tested is to see if holes can be poked in them.  Are there weaknesses in the argument?  Are leaps of logic made that aren't adequately defended?

Several times in the article Kraus used examples of "religion" leading people to make decisions to which he is opposed.  Kim Davis, Hobby Lobby, Planned Parenthood are all included.  Krauss believes that certain moral decisions in these cases were "religiously motivated."  In his words, "religious sensibilities [are elevated] to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more."  What is the alternative?  To approach moral questions as a scientist does, "hold[ing that] no idea is sacred."  That was the point Todd and I were exploring in our broadcast.

One question.  If no idea is sacred, why is following the law something Kim Davis and Hobby Lobby ought to do?


PS: The idea of the Jesus-story being a developed legend or urban myth worked for a while in historical research.  I even accepted it in part until I examined the most recent research and actual evidence.  It's amazing how evidence changes people's beliefs :-)  Keep reading, my friend!

Charles St-Onge
Dear Charles,

Thanks again for your reply. My experience in the past has been that my letters disappear into a black hole of silence. It is heartening to receive a response for a change.

I actually thought that Krauss's attempt to draw a simple parallel between the roles of "sacred ideas" in science and civic life was unconvincing. Or at least, the argument was never quite clear to me. Part of the problem was with the meaning of "sacred".

The primary meaning in the article of "sacred" in the scientific context seemed to be "above question". In science no idea should be above question, was the thesis. Every hypothesis, insofar as human ingenuity and imagination allows, should be subject to searching examination and test. But that doesn't quite work for Kim Davis's problem. It wasn't a matter of whether her beliefs were above question. In fact, they weren't in question at all, since they were a matter for her personal conscience. The issue was whether her beliefs put her above the law, or whether the law applied to her regardless of her beliefs.

I have deep respect for the role of conscience in lives of individuals and of the country. After all, stands of conscience in the form of civil disobedience have transformed the country for the better. So when Krauss wrote "no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal,” I thought, that can’t be right. Of course civil disobedience is illegal by definition, and those who participate in it accept punishment, even seek it to make a point, so “legal justification” is not at issue in civil disobedience. The point is that, though illegal, civil disobedience is morally justified. But there are legal accommodations made for the exercise of religion. For instance, there was that case of Native Americans and peyote...

That’s what I thought, that the Supreme Court had ruled that, although peyote use was illegal, an exception should be made for its religious use. I looked it up in Wikipedia and found that I had remembered it wrong. The Court ruled the other way, and Scalia wrote the majority opinion:

"It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause] say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended....To make an individual's obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law's coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State's interest is 'compelling' - permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, 'to become a law unto himself,' contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.' To adopt a true 'compelling interest' requirement for laws that affect religious practice would lead towards anarchy.

... The “compelling government interest” requirement seems benign, because it is familiar from other fields. But using it as the standard that must be met before the government may accord different treatment on the basis of race ... or before the government may regulate the content of speech ... is not remotely comparable to using it for the purpose asserted here. What it produces in those other fields – equality of treatment, and an unrestricted flow of contending speech – are constitutional norms; what it would produce here – a private right to ignore generally applicable laws – is a constitutional anomaly.

… The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind – ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.”

These are serious considerations, although one might argue, as for instance Justice Blackmun did, that the Court got the balance wrong in this case.

Krauss is basically concurring with Scalia when he says “no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal,” although the use of “sacred” really doesn’t quite work here. It’s not a matter of whether Davis’s idea of marriage is truly sacred in the eyes of God or not. It’s a matter of whether her beliefs about what is sacred and what is profane should exempt her from obeying (or in this case, carrying out) the law of the land. So Krauss might better have written, “No belief about what is sacred should legally justify actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

On the other hand, Krauss might also have been pointing to the possible motivation of some who hold that such ideas should sometimes trump the law, namely when they believe those ideas really are sacred, and represent God’s law, which is higher than man’s. That’s what Kim Davis believes. But that way really does lead to the anarchy Scalia was warning against, in which every person, by virtue of his beliefs, becomes a law unto himself. So here’s another version: “No idea should be held to be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.” Note that this is not saying “No idea should be held to be so sacred that it justifies illegal actions” – some ideas may well justify breaking some laws in some circumstances – but “No idea should be held to be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.” That is, man’s law should not be held to be obligated to submit/bow down to (what anyone believes to be) God’s law. Men (and women) may consider themselves to be so obligated, but the law is not, and in a democracy (as opposed to a theocracy) should not be.

My memory was not completely faulty though, because the Supreme Court’s ruling in the peyote case led Congress to pass RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, intended in effect to overturn the Court’s ruling. Rejecting Scalia’s warnings, it asserted the “compelling government interest” requirement in religious freedom cases, as well as mandating that the least restrictive means be used to achieve that interest. And when the Court ruled RFRA unconstitutional when applied to the states (but not to federal law), individual states passed their own RFRA statutes. And that leaves us in the “murky” situation that Krauss complained about.

Krauss wrote, “Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.” That is, Krauss believes that religious liberty is sufficiently respected by religiously neutral laws. In contrast (quoting Wikipedia), “In the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Congress states in its findings that a religiously neutral law can burden a religion just as much as one that was intended to interfere with religion; therefore the Act states that the ‘Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.’”

So these are the kinds of quandaries we are in. They really have very little to do with atheism or science or the ultimate basis of morality. They are questions of political theory. How is a secular democracy to accommodate diverse religious convictions? I may be mistaken, but I don’t think you will find the answer in the Bible. These are questions of how we think it best to govern ourselves.

You say, “One of the ways theories are tested is to see if holes can be poked in them.  Are there weaknesses in the argument?” Krauss posed a question that reveals, I think, a weakness in the position taken by those who defend Kim Davis’s right to refuse to issue marriage licenses which her religion tells her are invalid. (This is, in fact, a misunderstanding on Davis’s part. The marriage licenses recognize a legal status according to law, not a spiritual status according to her or anyone else’s religion.) Krauss asked if one would defend a Muslim’s right to make an analogous decision if she held Davis’s office, denying marriage licenses to the unveiled. Krauss suggested that those who would support Davis but not the Muslim would do so because they favored one religion over the other. That would violate equality under the law. I think it’s a good argument because it shows, one imagines, that the position is not consistently held. So this hysteria supporting Davis is not really about religious liberty as a principle, but about asserting a particular brand of Christianity over the law of the land. If that were to be countenanced, it would violate the establishment clause.

You ask “One question.  If no idea is sacred, why is following the law something Kim Davis and Hobby Lobby ought to do?”

Why individuals should follow the law is a difficult question. Perhaps they shouldn’t in all cases. Perhaps if it really violates Kim Davis’s conscience, she shouldn’t. But I think the real issue here is what should be done with citizens who refuse to obey the law? Should they be punished equally, regardless of their reasons, or should the religious be exempted from obeying laws they say conflict with their religion? I think Scalia made a good argument that a blanket exemption of that kind would lead to anarchy. And nobody wants anarchy. So nobody should want such a blanket religious exemption from obeying the law. Some balance between the rule of law and respect for individual conscience is what’s needed. That is what we should be looking for. And people who, instead of the secular constitutional democracy we have, want to establish a theocracy instead, and to raise a huge cross over the capitol dome, are being disingenuous to advance their cause under the banner of religious liberty, since it is only fundamentalist Christian liberty they truly value.

Dear Gerald,

I wish I had time to write more, but the press of duties makes it hard.  But I usually try and get out at least one response to any letter we received.

You raise some good points again below.  I wish I had time to discuss them further.  But let's end on two points of agreement.  I happen to agree that ideas should be open to debate and discussion.  I also don't think the origin of the idea is as important as whether it is true or has strong explanatory power.  Through careful study I've become convinced, based on historical evidence and analysis, that what Jesus claimed about himself and the world as recorded in the Gospels is accurate.  It corresponds with my conscience, and with what I observe in the world.

Second, in my case because of point 1, I believe that laws are meant to be obeyed - or disobeyed and the consequences accepted and suffered.  Christianity grew up under a political system that had a very different approach to sexuality from ours; where infanticide was openly practiced; where slavery was condoned and capital punishment was brutal.  Christians backed away from jobs they couldn't do with a clear conscience; they kept the law as best they could, and accepted the consequences when they couldn't - and their crime was pretty much always related to the freedom of personal worship.

I commend for your further reading "The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus", a 2nd century Christian letter.  The American (and in many cases Canadian) church has strayed far, far from these humble origins.  But the hope of every good pastor is that somehow we might recapture these days again:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Charles St-Onge
Dear Charles,

Thank you for your clear and gracious answer. I had never heard of the epistle you mention. I enjoyed the passage you quoted, and will read the rest. It is from a time before Christians became the majority and gained power. I think too often these days their self-image is of the oppressed, but what they suffer most painfully is the waning of their majoritarian power to oppress.

I just downloaded your thesis on the human conscience. Perhaps some day, when I've read it and you have more time, we could discuss it.

I've never felt I had a good handle on the basis of morality, but the closest I've gotten -- the best thing I've read on the subject-- is Adam Smith's little-read first book (before The Wealth of Nations), The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I highly recommend it. I believe Smith's approach is ultimately compatible both with theism and evolution. He says somewhere something to the effect that God endowed us with the moral sentiments that we might thrive, just as he endowed us with the urge to reproduce and made it pleasurable!

I have a favor to ask. In the past I've posted letters I've written on serious subjects to my much-neglected (by me) and infrequently visited blog, Most recently they have been letters to Issues Etc. I would like to post my letters to you on the website, and with your permission, I would like to include your replies. But of course, this is up to you.

Gerald Lame
Dear Gerald,

Sounds like Smith was channeling Aquinas.  Thanks for the title - I'll add it to my reading list.

Yes, you may post my responses.  Let me know if I've written anything that you think might need clarification - I don't think I did, but you never know.  Blessings on your week.  Keep reading!

Charles St-Onge