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.
On the web page https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/05/11/richard-feynman-science-religion/ 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.
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.
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.
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!
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]...to 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.
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:
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, LameThinking.blogspot.com. 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.
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!