Another Puzzled Atheist Wonders Why Religion Persists


Orientation quiz. True or false: periodically, some societies have gone insane. The answer is True, true with bells on. Many examples will suggest themselves. Thing about these cultural sanitariums is that most of the folks living inside them didn’t know they were inmates.

Second question. We in one of these places now? Belay your answer. Here’s question number three. Should voting decide truth? Those who answer this wrongly usually answer question number two wrong, too.

Anyway, one John G Messerly, proud but puzzled atheist, writes that only about fourteen percent of English-speaking academic philosophers have a firm grasp of truth, the remaining eighty-six percent having lost their way. Messerly think this disparity should “cause believers discomfort.” It does. How could so many smart people make such fundamental mistakes? See question two.

Even though the majority of academics align against religion, Messerly says that “religious beliefs [still] have a universal appeal”. How can this be, he wonders, when smart people say “arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like” are “unconvincing”? Why aren’t people listening to their intellectual betters?

Genes, he says. “Genes and environment explain human beliefs and behaviors—people do things because they are genomes in environments.” So says proud atheist, high IQ, Messerly. Messerly the intellectual.

Thus that Messerly is an atheist is because of his genes and environment, yes? He had no choice. His genes interacting with his environment made him reject God. Poor thing. What a disability! Can we then say “The near universal appeal of” religious antagonism among academics “suggests a biological component” to atheistic beliefs and practices, and that “science increasingly confirms this view”? Messerly must say yes.

I say bunk. But then Messerly would have to argue that I have no choice but to say this. It’s cold where I am (my environment), which mixed with my genes makes me say hurtful things like this. I’d really like not to do this kind of thing, but my genes are such horrible taskmasters.

Today there are two basic explanations offered [why religious beliefs persist in the face of ardent intellectuals]. One says that religion evolved by natural selection—religion is an adaptation that provides an evolutionary advantage. For example religion may have evolved to enhance social cohesion and cooperation—it may have helped groups survive. The other explanation claims that religious beliefs and practices arose as byproducts of other adaptive traits. For example, intelligence is an adaptation that aids survival. Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences and postulates the existence of other minds. Thus the idea of hidden Gods explaining natural events was born.

A false dichotomy. Messerly the intellectual forgets that religion could have arisen because it was correct or close to correct, because the ideas behind religion were true or approached truth.

It is self-evident from the fact that religions are predominant in certain geographical areas but not others, that birthplace strongly influences religious belief. This suggests that people’s religious beliefs are, in large part, accidents of birth.

It is just as self-evident that atheism is predominant in certain geographical areas but not others. This suggests that people’s atheistic beliefs are, in large part, accidents of birth.

There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more. While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top.

There is also a strong correlation between atheistic belief and mass murder, such as in the Soviet Union, Red China, and other scientifically engineered near paradises. Anyway, casting aspersions through statistics is the act of a politician, not an intellectual.

More than three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus than in biological evolution, although few theologians take the former seriously, while no serious biologist rejects the latter!

Joke: What do you call a theologian who doesn’t believe in the virgin birth? Professor!

Messerly goes on and on in a similar vein, making as many as two logical errors per sentence. He never once attempts to understand that there are perfectly good, rational, logical, definitive reasons to believe. I’m betting he’s unfamiliar with these arguments. We really should take his article apart, piece by piece, but I haven’t the time. The kicker is this:

Why is all this important? Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and its love, its war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will.

Atheists are always saying things like this. They always forget that after childhood come the rebellious teenage years. The years of atheism. With maturity and age come wisdom. Let’s hope our adolescence doesn’t last long.


  1. John B()

    … intelligence is an adaptation that aids survival. Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences …

    Do you suppose Messerly is an AGW skeptic?

    More than three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus than in biological evolution, although few theologians take the former seriously, while no serious biologist rejects the latter!

    It’s incredible how faithful the unfaithful are!

  2. Briggs

    John B,

    “Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences…” Yet by some miracle of miracles, Messerly was able to leap out of this predicament in a single bound!

  3. John B()

    It was wrong of me to quote him out of context:

    … intelligence is an adaptation that aids survival. Yet it also forms causal narratives for natural occurrences (and postulates the existence of other minds).

    Is he saying “there are no other minds but his” (sounds Biblical)?
    Is Messerly a true Nihilist? (There is nothing without his say so?)
    Is Messerly the first cause?
    Oh my! He is God!

  4. Evolution and virgin birth–both are taken on sparse evidence and accepted by faith. No one can ever, ever prove evolution any more than they can prove the virgin birth. It’s always a matter of faith in the interpretation of bits and pieces of evidence from a while that can never be seen. Evolution is faith as much as any religion. (This is not saying evolution is true or false—just that the evidence for evolution is just as scarce in many cases as evidence of the virgin birth. Yet one is “science” and one is not.)

    Nietzsche was an atheist. A real, upbeat guy who definitely made the world a better place. Kind of like the “happiness engineer” who’s blog I was reading dreading the global warming apocalypse. If dreading an apocalypse is the happy life, count me out.

    Religion is like anything else–you can find bad and good. Religions murdered, atheists murdered. It’s easy to argue that if this life is all we have, then let’s party and have fun and not care about anything in the future versus good/bad behaviour with a promise of the afterlife. The belief that power and murder are the highest attributes of life–winning–are not exclusive to atheists or religions. King of the kingdom is all that counts. Doesn’t take a God or exclude a God to think that way.

  5. John B()

    Sheri :

    I THINK I found who you were talking about.

    She has a post about referring to herself as a “Plant-eater” rather than a Vegan or Vegetarian (She saw a Ted Talk about how hurtful words like Vegan or Vegetarian can be to a Vegan or Vegetarian when they’re around the unwashed – I’ll say no more)

    So “Happiness Engineer” is an actual vocation! (An HR position I assume? and in the place pay raises since money can’t buy happiness)

  6. Yawrate


    While evidence for Darwinian evolution can be found among many species it also true that evidence is sparse to nonexistent for other species. The case can be made, that at least for some species, Darwinian evolution is an observable and ongoing process. But isn’t the virgin birth a true article of faith? How can one ever know what really happened?

  7. Darla

    I like that intellectuals always assume that a high IQ equals an atheist. I do wonder how they explain someone with a high IQ who believes in God? My husband is in MENSA and I have a high IQ myself (just missed MENSA by one percent), to us belief in God makes perfect sense! We cannot be the only ones….so would it be our geography (both born and still live in Michigan) or our simple personal responsibility upbringing? Maybe we need some statistics?

  8. JohnB: Yes, she calls herself a “plant eater”. I really had no idea there was a vocation of “Happiness Engineer”. I was totally amazed. (Could such a vocation be evidence of societal insanity? I’m not sure…)

    Yawrate: Yes, some aspects of Darwin are observable. I suppose I tried to skirt around the distinction between short term evolutionary changes and the idea that evolution replaces God as the creator of the universe. No one can know the virgin birth occurred, no. No one can know that humans are decedents of apes, and not a separate entity. The evidence is too sparse and no one was there for that either. Perhaps part of the problem here is the author is comparing one Biblical idea to the entirety of evolution. If I pick one part of evolution, as noted above, that part may be considered taken on faith. It’s rather an unfair comparison and I should have pointed that out in my comment.

  9. Yawrate

    Messerly must be one of those philosophers that Feser speaks of that prefer not to understand the arguments of Aquinas. It’s apparent to me, from my brief study of Thomism, that the arguments advanced are serious, with well thought out premises that lead inescapably to the existence of God. Not that isn’t room for argument. That more than a few of his fellow philosophers agree with Aquinas, or the existence of God in general, shows a shocking lack of depth in his understanding. And to blithely imply that his fellow philosophers must be driven exclusively by forces other than reason is risible to say the least.

  10. Yawrate

    Wow, there are a lot of hits for “happiness engineer”.

  11. Peter Blood

    “Happiness Engineer” is something that Orwell should have included in 1984, only his world wasn’t dumbed-down enough yet.

  12. ken

    RE: “There is also a strong correlation between atheistic belief and mass murder, such as in the Soviet Union, Red China, and other scientifically engineered near paradises”

    HHhhmmm…toss in a ‘straw-man’ argument, then leave it & move on…?… Implying correlation equals causation there.

    You know better.

    Perhaps the correlation isn’ t atheism in those examples, it’s totalitarian control (or other control) — which religion, or some other doctrine held to comparable esteem, often is used to support the acts of those in control (aka “leaders”). From that perspective religion, or its absence, becomes irrelevant — whatever tool & doctrine works to meet a “leaders” end is all that matters. Recall:

    Protestant vs Irish (N. Ireland)
    The many many inter-Christian killings/purges/etc. thru the ages (Inquisition & on & on)

    Notice a pattern there?

    In recorded history, wars have been fought for various reasons, and warring sides had their gods…but in polytheistic societies there’s no record of wars being fought becuase the other side had the wrong god. That’s unique to monotheism.

    And the wrong belief in the same god–prompting in-faith warring & genocide–seems unique to the God of Abraham.

    The news reports the atrocities of “Islamist extremists” killing other Muslims with the wrong form of that faith (e.g. ISIS/ISIL)…but most of us conveniently forget, or refuse to learn, that Christianity has done the very same thing for a very very very long time, pretty much everywhere its been established.

  13. Ken: “Anyway, casting aspersions through statistics is the act of a politician, not an intellectual.” You dropped that part of the quote you are addressing, plus:
    “There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more. While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top.” in Messerly’s article. Why no statement about that author’s use of a strawman also? The author seemed very serious with his use of the strawman which would hopefully stick in people’s minds even after he said correlation is not causality.
    (I didn’t think Briggs was serious with his—could be wrong.)

  14. Briggs


    Briggs was joking, which is why he said, “Anyway, casting aspersions through statistics is the act of a politician, not an intellectual.” Ken missed this (somehow).

  15. As I thought. Perhaps Ken is just having an off moment. He’s usually more on top of things.

  16. swordfishtrombone


    It’s apparent to me that Aquinas’s arguments are without foundation. Example: Unmoved Mover – in my view, this fails because:

    1. Causality is a post-hoc statistical construction rather than a fundamental feature of reality.

    2. There is nothing in principle to rule out an infinite regress.

    3. There is nothing in principle to prevent the universe being self-contained.

    The are probably more reasons. More generally, I find it highly unlikely that arguments based on simple reasoning expressed in everyday language could uncover the fundamental nature of reality.

  17. Jim Fedako

    Re: “How can this be, he wonders, when smart people say “arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like” are “unconvincing”? Why aren’t people listening to their intellectual betters?”

    Could it be that purposeful unbelieving the assured existence of God requires a lot of mental effort – more energy than most have or are willing to devote to that hopeless task? Or, could it be nothing less than a question begging tautology: “Smart people,” as defined by him, are only those who do not believe?

  18. Matt

    Messerly sounds remarkably like some of the 19th century trancendentalists I studied a few years ago. It’s a rathole that is very easy for very intelligent people to fall down.

  19. Gary

    Religion seems more like an excuse for warfare than a cause. At the core it’s about the calories (energy units, material plunder, productive land, or any other form of wealth) because wealth enhances the chances of group survival. Religious characteristics label an enemy and make him easier to demonize. Troops are more likely to fight those whom they despise and any reason for promoting hatred will work for their leaders. Religious sentiment, because it’s emotionally-linked, is a very handy tool for manipulators. Are two people with different fundamental views likely to come to blows if neither is coercive or goaded into by others? No, they’re more likely just to shrug and wonder why the other guy believes such strange ideas. Why fight for no tangible reason? History shows that subjecting them to propaganda and the anonymity of crowds will produce a much different outcome, however.

  20. Luke

    “Protestant vs Irish (N. Ireland)”

    Ken, as an Irish man I can say with confidence that when you typed those words you did so without any understanding of the subject matter. If you are going to refer to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland (which actually wasn’t a pitched battle between Protestants and the Irish) you should actually read some history first. Start with the history of the plantations and then draw the dots from there. Religion has functioned as a tribal marker and that tribal marker has it’s roots in imperialism. There is an old joke that illustrates the point I’m attempting to make.

    Woman : OK, we are nearly done here. You just forgot to fill out your religion on the form. So are you a Catholic or a Protestant?
    Man: I’m an atheist.
    Woman (after a pause): OK… So are you an atheist Catholic or an atheist Protestant?

    As for the rest, you do realise that not all religions are the same. Yes? I ask because I’m puzzled as to why you would mention Islamic violence as if it an indictment against Christians. Muslims can answer for themselves, just like atheist Marxists. Still, I’ll grant that the history of Christianity has had its fair share of violence. And it’s shameful. Though I would suggest that the violent action explicitly stands against Christ’s teachings and, much like the troubles in the North, religious justification for they type of violence you mention was always intertwined with political and historical motives.

    As for Jonestown – you do realise that Jim Jones was an agnostic/ atheist, right?

    Jones: Well, I’m really heart and mind with you. I’m uh, you know, an agnostic. We have a— some emphasis on the terms of paranormal, because uh, it brings results, uh, there is something to therapeutic healing, all medical science has proven, but we don’t link that with any kind of causative factor of a loving God. Off the record, I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist. Uh, we— we think Jesus Christ was a swinger. He taught some pretty damn good things at feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, uh, maybe a little paternalistic, but it’s still uh— all the emphasis of the judgment of character— the only time he ever mentioned judgment at all was in Matthew 25, and it had to do totally with what you were doing for other people, so we— we emphasize the teachings of Christ, but um, we’re a— we are as um— we’re the most unusual church I’ve ever run into, in— in this sense, uh, and we state in the church— I would’ve loved to have been in the foundation.

    Source –

    When Jones says, “Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist” I wonder was he talking about the entire commune or those in authority? What do you think, Ken.

  21. A few general observations…

    Sheri, I think you are setting up a false dichotomy when you dismiss evolutionary theory as unprovable. Nothing can be proven, even gravity, if you demand 100% certainty, which is of course impossible. Evolutionary theory is just overwhelming likely. The Catholic religion has had no problem adopting and accepting evolutionary theory as ‘God’s method’. So you need to get over this, because you’re otherwise trying to arbitrate on how *God does things.*

    A more general point that I’m sure has been repeated ad nauseum elsewhere and probably here also. The existence of God is a metaphysical claim. The non existence of God is also a metaphysical claim. If you assert you are 100% certain of any metaphysical claim you have left the world of rational thought. Or at least, you’ve failed to understand the limits of rational thought. Such a failure doesn’t make people who make such mistakes as smart as they think they are.

    The reason why I find the approach of people like Messerly so stupid, is that it claims to solve some sort of ‘problem’ in grossly simplistic terms. Religion is bad, etc. Not necessarily. I’m not observing many Buddhists or Christians blowing things and people up (although it does happen from time to time), but I do observe them doing or trying to do a lot of good. By focusing on the ‘religion bad’ mantra, you miss all the non religious modes of thought that are bad and frequently worse. Such as Stalinism, Maoism, or any flavour of Fascism or Communism, apocalyptic pseudo-sciences, new age movements, scientism, and so on. It’s a very long list. The world is a complicated and messy place. It’s a lot more complicated and messy than Messerly’s understanding of it, apparently.

  22. Will: I did not dismiss evolution as unprovable. I dismissed parts of evolution as unprovable. There’s a difference. I say parts of evolution are not provable because they were in the past, there are no witnesses and we will never, ever have a complete picture. This does not say the theory is bad, though for some unknown reason, scientists have a hard time admitting that they don’t know things for sure. You can never prove the Big Bang. Nor continental drift. It’s a theory that works, but it’s not verifiable. I do not see that as a bad thing. Not at all. Nor does it mean I’m rejecting the theory as the best we currently have. I am accepting the limitations of human understanding.

    I don’t claim that religious faith is rational. Nor do I claim love, family, or a multitude of other things in life are rational. A guy just drowned here trying to rescue his dog from the frozen river. That was not rational. It was, however, his choice. People search for missing children when rationally there is no hope. Yet they do it. We are not purely rational creatures nor would I want us to be.

    I agree completely with your last statement and said so “The belief that power and murder are the highest attributes of life–winning–are not exclusive to atheists or religions. King of the kingdom is all that counts. Doesn’t take a God or exclude a God to think that way.”

  23. Scotian

    I sympathize Briggs, the article you discuss is a strange assortment of assertions and speculations, sort of a shotgun approach and nary a syllogism in sight. I wonder who the intended audience is? It definitely comes across as posturing to like minded individuals. Even the average sermon, or homily, shows more respect to the intellectual diversity of the parishioners despite being boring at times. And then there is this :

    “It is arrogant of those with no scientific credentials and no experience in the field or laboratory, to reject the hard-earned knowledge of the science. Still they do it. (I knew a professional philosopher who doubted both evolution and climate science but believed he could prove that the Christian God must take a Trinitarian form! Surely something emotional had short-circuited his rational faculties.)”.

    So climate science is in there after all. Maybe he also thought quasicrystals were real as well. Oh the horror.

  24. Sheri,

    I’m confused by what you mean by your use of the word ‘verify’. My sense is you mean ‘seen with my own eyes’ in perhaps some parochial sense. If so, then I assume you are also skeptical of the existence of the renaissance? Yes there are writings, paintings… architecture. But there is no direct evidence that these things came from this period as you can’t verify the claim directly? What is the epistemological status of the claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun? Did it change before and after the invention of space travel? Before space travel, we only had indirect evidence, indirect observations… unverified claims? After people went into space they could measure the movements with their own eyes… (Did they even bother to do so? ) Does this mean that the theory of Copernicus was less certain before this occurred? This sounds rather implausible to me.

    Also I am not of the view that rationalism is the only thing, or the only thing of importance, in this world. But it is a very important thing.

  25. Will: I think of evolution and the Big Bang theory the same as I do a circumstantial case in a court of law. I can put the pieces to a crime together, even convince a jury, but since only the criminal was there, and he’s not talking, I cannot know for sure. How many circumstantial cases are overturned by DNA evidence?

    My belief on history is “When the last person dies who witnessed an event, then history becomes open to revision.” (Possibly before that if we can discredit the remaining witnesses.) Columbus is now a bad person who disrupted the peaceful lives of native Americans, rather than an explorer who discovered America. The renaissance–I don’t know. I recently started reading that the Dark Ages weren’t really all that dark. Who to believe?

    How many times have dinosaur bones been put together in a certain way, only to discover a full skeleton later that showed we were completely wrong in our original assembly? We are taking pieces to a puzzle and putting them together, with no idea whatsoever what the puzzle looks like in one piece, how many pieces there and many pieces may very similar in size, shape and color. How do we know we have things right? (Imagine a puzzle which can be assembled in four different ways and look complete. Which way is “right”? With no indication of what the puzzle looked like before it was cut, we cannot possibly know. )

    To me, science is supposed to be about observations and evidence, so “seeing it with my own eyes” doesn’t sound strange at all. Perhaps it’s a bit more foreign when considering history, but there’s been so many revisions of history (or multiple versions?) it might be reasonable. The reality that these things are not absolutely certain doesn’t bother me—it’s just how it is. It is curious to me that others are so bothered by the lack of certainty.

  26. Yawrate: “Darwinian evolution”?
    Evolution-the descent of species– is a fact, accepted by the Catholic Church (see statements of St. JP II)
    However, I wonder whether you, as do many others, confuse one model for evolution, the Darwinian survival of the fittest, with evolution itself. Perhaps you might explain your position.

  27. all: one point neglected in this discussion (although I’ve just skimmed the comments) is that science itself is a matter of faith, faith in a rational universe governed by order (either intrinsic or set by the Deity). Whence “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” (Eugene Wigner) in explaining the laws of nature? Why not laws of magic, as in a L. Sprague deCamp universe?

  28. Sheri,

    I think the point I was making is that what is likely true and what is less likely true, is a continuum. Not all knowledge can be experimental in form. History is not experimental, for example. Yet we can say with high confidence that certain things in the past happened, like WW2. The more specific you are, the less certain you can be, of course. But there is a world of difference disputing that the renaissance happened versus how it might have unfolded in all its specific details. In the same way there is a world of difference disputing evolutionary theory versus how a particular dinosaur might be reconstructed. Otherwise you risk indulging in a continuum fallacy or another fallacy of similar flavour.

    I agree with you on your last point completely, that people hate uncertainty. If certainty is not possible, people tend to invent certainty, then later try to justify it. The Precautionary Principle is usually a good example of that.

  29. Bob,

    “science itself is a matter of faith, faith in a rational universe governed by order…”

    No it isn’t. This a very very silly thing to claim. The reason why I accept that the universe is governed by ordered laws is because if it was not, science would be impossible. Experiments could not be verified. One day information technology would do one thing predictably, then something unpredictable the next day.

    That things are not this way is not a matter of faith. It’s a matter of observation.

  30. Will: My differentiation is between circumstantial and observational science. Evolution, with the exception of seeing changes in short, observable periods, is circumstantial. Circumstantial evidence is never as strong as observational.
    Why is it necessary that evolution be true or an accepted theory? Would everything change if it turned out that the earth was not as old as we thought, that species did not evolve into new species and that we needed a whole new theory? Evolution was in part advanced to get rid of the need for God. If it’s wrong, does that mean God might be the only explanation? Why is it important that evolution be true?

    Yes, people do want certainty–as I find every time I say evolution cannot be proven because it’s equivalent to a circumstantial case, not empirical. It doesn’t bother me in the least that evolution, the Big Bang, much of history may or may not be true. They’re the theories we have at present and we use them. If the theories change, they change. I cannot see why certainty in these theories or histories is vital to anything other than to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty.

  31. Sheri the problem with your line of reasoning is that you’re using words like ‘observation’ and ‘circumstantial’ in vague undefined ways. Is an atom real? It’s never been directly observed. What we do observe, we must interpret in complex ways. By your definition, it seems, the evidence for atoms are circumstantial. Yet we’ve built nuclear reactors, atom bombs, computers, etc. These things seem highly certain to me even though they don’t meet your criteria for certainty. So a reasonable surmise is that your criteria is of no importance in deciding such matters. You’re trying to work backwards from your conclusions. Could the atomic theory be wrong? Would everything change if it was? Is it necessary that the theory of the atom be the true and accepted theory? No. However, such a scenario is so incredibly unlikely that it’s hardly worth contemplating. That of course, doesn’t mean the atomic theory won’t be refined and change over time. It will be. And so will evolutionary theory.

    And BTW, evolutionary theory wasn’t created to dispense with the need for God. It was created to explain where species come from. Also be careful how you describe the need for certainty, because that is a double edged sword. Your need for certainty might also be a driver of your faith.

  32. Will, I don’t think you understand what I’m getting at… My point is the same as Wigner’s, not that mathematical science works in a limited sphere. (It surely does, and I say so as a physicist.) But why does it work? That’s where the article of faith comes in, not that we see that it explains much (but not all) of what goes on, but why?

  33. By the way, Will, if one thinks science explains everything, then that is an article of faith, and unverifiable.

  34. Richard Hill

    Religion: “Simple people say it is a comfort. Clever people say it is stupid. Wise people say it is useful.”
    Refer Nicholas Wade “The Faith Instinct”. He says that a common thread among religions is coordinated singing and bodily movement.
    Many people like to be “part of something bigger than themselves.”
    eg a religious service, an army group, Amway
    Since atheism doesnt include these features it is not useful.

  35. Bob,

    Science doesn’t have to explain everything. It just needs to explain what’s amenable to the scientific method.

    The scientific method is not particularly hard to understand here. What is the why? In a cause-effect relationship, the why is the ’cause’ and the ‘what’ is the effect. No articles of faith required. It’s merely observational.

    If you’re asking the question: Why this ‘effect’ from this ’cause’ and not some other ‘effect’ – well I won’t object to you asking that question. It may or may not have a scientific answer. But again there is nothing faith based here at all.

    But perhaps what you’re trying to express is that once we move from science to grandiose metaphysical theories, i.e., philosophy, then if you accept those philosophies crouched in scientific jargon, then yes, you’ve moved into a faith based realm. If you think the Big Bang Theory is absolutely true, or we live in a Multiverse, or any number of speculations of that type, and you believe these things to be absolutely true, rather than just interesting ideas that might be heading in the direction of the truth, then in that extreme case, you might want to describe that as faith. Many (most?) physicists and mathematics seem grossly ignorant of philosophy, so I’d agree with you on that point, because a lot of these fellows don’t even understand that they’ve crossed the line from scientific knowledge into metaphysical speculation.

  36. Sander van der Wal

    @Will Nitsche

    The existence of both gravity and evolution are very easy to proof. For gravity, go to a bridge and step of it. Notice that you fall down and hit the ground. Hard.

    Evolution will take a bit longer. Get yourself a bunch of critters of some kind and start breeding them. You want to proof that different species come from one species, so you will want to make different groups and breed them for different traits. Apparently it takes about a 100.000 years to turn a mouse into an elephant, so the project has lots of potential for long term job security.

  37. No Sander, you’ve done nothing of the sort. All you’ve demonstrated is that when you drop things they fall. Ever wonder why Newton pondered the apple dropping from the tree? Why did he need to discover the theory of gravity if simply dropping things demonstrated it? A bit more to it then, eh?

    Or to put this another way, the fact that objects or people fall to the ground is both consistent with Einstein, Newton, and Aristotle’s physics. Aristotelian physics has no concept of ‘gravity’ and the concept of gravity in Newtonian mechanics is that of a force ‘acting on’ matter; and in Einstein’s physics, it’s all geometry.

    Let’s not even discuss evolutionary theory if we can’t get past the gravity question.

  38. Will: No, an atom is not real in most senses, except aybe physics. It has no color, no shape. You can’t draw one, you can’t picture one. It’s what we call a piece of space that we mathematically calculate the properties of and observe the effects of in a collider or nuclear reactor. There is no color, no substance as we generally define it, in an atom. The name is a way to describe what we cannot see.

    No, I am not working backward from my conclusions. Again, for the third time, it does NOT matter what the atom really is, looks, like, doesn’t look like. We can describe and predict what is going to happen with the “thing” we call an atom. Remember the discussion of not all models are accurate but some are adequate? We don’t have to know what an atom really “is” to use it in predictions. I can construct a perfectly logical, predictable world by redefining all concepts we now see in this one and as long it works, no one will care. Note that currently people have little trouble with double think.

    You say I’m working backward, but then you say the theory of the atom might be wrong and so might evolution. You seem to very much be agreeing with me. Saying the theory can’t be proven, again, is not saying it isn’t useful.

    It’s not a problem if certainty is a driver of my religious faith (I assume you meant religious in your comment). I never claimed religion met the scientific criteria of certainty. In fact, I have stated it does not. Science is based on certainty. You objected when Bob implied otherwise and called it faith.

    I cannot find my link on evolution and God. However, it is related to Darwin and the problem of evil. There are many different versions, and since he’s dead, we can never know, can we?

  39. Sander van der Wal

    @Will Nitschke

    Newton was bothered by the apple falling and the Moon not falling. So, given that gravity exists (because apples fall), why do some objects fall and others do not.

  40. Scotian

    Sorry to butt in Sheri, but I cannot let this stand.

    ” No, an atom is not real in most senses, except aybe physics. It has no color, no shape. You can’t draw one, you can’t picture one. It’s what we call a piece of space that we mathematically calculate the properties of and observe the effects of in a collider or nuclear reactor. There is no color, no substance as we generally define it, in an atom. The name is a way to describe what we cannot see.”

    I disagree with all of this. Atoms definitely have colour and in fact the structure of atoms was determined by observing their various colours. This was the first important clue that lead to quantum mechanics. They also have a definite shape. It is the differences in shape that produces the various kinds of chemical bonds in molecules. Atoms and molecules can now be seem. See

    You can find many images like this on the web.

  41. Scotian: It’s okay to butt in. I checked your pages. I’m unclear on how colors work, but it seems that some physicists say color exists in atoms. I thought color was due to light reflection, which would mean atoms are subject to light. Not sure how that works.
    Perhaps the most serious question here is what does this do to Heisenberg’s principle? If we can “see’ atoms, does that affect where they are? Does the observation (the imaging) change the atom? What are we really imaging?
    The second link looks like the images I make with my 3D fractal program. Not sure what it’s a “image” of. Quantum corral? ( describes choosing colors and so forth for visual impact)

    I suppose the problem here is what we call “imaging”. I see people taking images of auras at holistic fares all the time. Yet I am still skeptical of the idea of an aura. How can you know the image and the item match? Yes, I’m getting metaphysical here because as far as I can see, that’s where we are. It’s faith that the image actually represents what you are looking at. This is more true as we go digital and down to the electron level.

    We are reaching the point where this discussion is about definitions of terms and it’s pretty evident that my definitions are not matching others. Perhaps I am less willing to give over to science a certainty that I do not see. Can we solve this here? Probably not. However, I do thank you for the discussion and the interesting links. I will continue to ponder this on my own, rather than tie up more of the discussion.

  42. Scotian

    Sheri, the colours of hydrogen for one example,

    and, of course, atoms are subject to light as they must be. Emission, adsorption, and scattering (reflection) are all part of this.

    The Heisenberg uncertainty principle makes the images fuzzy and the images correspond to what we expect from quantum mechanics.

    The quantum corral is a circle of atoms and the electronic density that results. Yes, there is false colour in that picture. Finally, if colour does not come from atoms and atomic bonds where else could it come from?

  43. Steve E

    @ Sander van der Wal

    But do we know that the moon isn’t “falling”? Could the moon not be “falling” on a scale and in a context that we can’t perceive? In Newton’s world the moon isn’t “falling”. What about Einstein’s?

  44. Scotian

    Steve E.,

    The Moon is falling around the Earth i.e. it is in orbit. This was Newton’s insight; that the apple and the Moon are both falling but in different orbits and both are subject to his universal law of gravitational attraction. Einstein’s theory does not change things at this level. Also from the point of view of the Sun, both the Earth and the Moon are falling around it and the Earth perturbs the Moon slightly.

  45. Sheri,

    Your response didn’t address the problem I raised, which was over the matter of certainty. You felt certain that some scientific claims were less certain than others. Your basis for deciding which were certain and which were not, boiled down to some ill defined concept you termed ‘verification’. I pointed out that your criteria didn’t work because you would have to lump atomic theory and evolutionary theory both in the uncertain basket, due to the inability to observe these processes ‘directly’.

    (I still don’t know what you mean by ‘verification’ or the ability to directly observe things. Nothing, btw, is directly observed. Everything in this world is theory built on top of theory. Your brain has a theory on what is in the world. It constructs concepts that you comprehend. Even your eye has ‘algorithms’ of a sort, making lines and other shapes out of patterns of light. When you view something through a telescope this is not a direct observation either. The original light is bent, altered, and concentrated in certain ways before it makes contact with your eye. We have a theory that tells us that this alteration produces something faithful to the original. We are so familiar with these tools these days, we forget centuries ago that many argued over such matters, when they didn’t like what they saw when they peered through a telescope. Although telescopes in Galileo’s time weren’t as good or accurate as they are today.)

    The atomic theory, or we might just call it the theory of light, is likely the most heavily tested and verified theory in all of science. Yet it doesn’t pass your criteria. Your position, as to what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not real’ sounds to me like some flavour of instrumentalism. Careful there, you’re only one step away from Idealism with a world view like that. 🙂

  46. @Sander

    What I pointed out was that observations are not equivalent to the theories that explain those observations. However, some theories have become so entrenched in our minds we forget they are ‘just’ theories. That’s why you assumed that an observation of a falling object was sufficient to prove the theory of gravity.

  47. Will: As I stated before, I really have no way to explain this to the satisfaction of some commenters. I simply cannot right now. I’ll ponder it more later.

    As for one step away from idealism, it’s probably closer to half a step. What do you expect from someone who majored in chemistry and psychology and minored in philosophy? I’m all over the map and very comfortable with that. 🙂

  48. Will (and others)–let me re-enter the fray. Concerning faith: I believe in the miracles at Lourdes, not because I’ve seen them, but because there is testimony (Alexis Carroll, a Nobelist in Medicine, for one) from people whom I credit. Unlike the situation for belief in a scientific theory or hypothesis, these miracles are not replicable. However, for most of the population, their belief in science is from testimony, rather than from direct observation. Have any of the commentators done the experiment that proves Newton’s inverse square law and determines the value of G (it’s a difficult one)? Anyone made observations on the advance in the perhelion of Mercury and solved the General Relativity equations to verify predictions of this advance? Anyone done the math to predict the precise energy value for the scattering that corresponds to a Higgs boson? Any one done a comparison of the DNA of homo sapiens and chimpanzees to verify the 95% similarity? We believe on testimony, rather than on direct evidence. And, I say believing based on testimony is faith. That belief for most people is further confirmed by their gadgets–computers, MRI scans, etc–that could, in another universe be governed by rules of magic.

    Perhaps this is the problem with the fuss about AGW–there are too many who believe, just based on testimony, rather than on evidence.

  49. Scotian: You are making my point that history isn’t even certain. You have an uncanny knack at coming up with anti-religion articles (the Lourdes one, in the past it was Mother Teresa). Likewise, I can come up with one showing what happened at Lourdes is exactly what Bob believes. As Bob notes, humans choose to believe things based on testimony, because we just don’t have the time or skills to examine everything. There’s nothing wrong with this, unless we get pulled into a scam. Which is why we try and research things as thoroughly as possible from all directions before deciding. In the end, however, it’s still just trust in one account over another. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is.

  50. Scotian: I missed adding this above—One does not have to agree with all the teachings of a particular religion to be member of that religion, except in the case of certain cults.
    (Your article was not so much anti-religion as an example of the church not agreeing with some members. However, as long as we are not talking an actual cult, that really is not required.)

  51. Scotian, interesting, but my point, as Sheri so nicely pointed out was not that a miracle is certified by the Church (see below), but that our belief comes from reputable testimony.
    The link you gave was to an article by Fr. Stanley Jaki, who demolished an article in Scientific American minimizing Carrell’s testimony. The Church is extremely rigorous in certifying miracles (they are a requirement for canonization), and if there is evidence of previous medical treatment, the cure is unlikely to certified. (Fr. Bernard Groeschel talks about this in one of his audio tapes–unfortunately I forget which–and his efforts in the canonization of a NY Archbishop–whose name I have also forgotten.) … I’ll quote from the article to which you linked:
    “Catholic doctors can be sure of two things: One is that the Church will always be most careful about certifying miracles. She has to certify them because every process of beatification and canonization depends, among other things, for its favorable outcome on the Church’s approval of at least one miraculous healing obtained through the intercession of the person to be beatified or canonized. That approval puts therefore the very infallibility of the Church on the line. The Church will not be overawed just because the doctor, who states that medical science cannot explain the healing, happens to be a Nobel-laureate. The Church will show extreme carefulness, because in doing so it simply cares for that supernatural vitality of hers of which miracles are the most palpable signs. One, however, needs not only a physical but also a spiritual sort of palpation, to detect those miracles.”
    So then what is the point of your comment?

  52. Scotian

    Kurland, you ask what was the point of my comment. It is this. You claim that we must often rely on the observations of others in evaluating the truth of things that we can not directly examine ourself. This is certainly true but as I pointed out your example backfires since neither Carrel nor the Church came to the conclusion that you have. Quoting from the article:

    “Therein lay the rub for Carrel. If anyone did, he knew that what happened to Marie Bailly far exceeded all that medicine could dream of. Yet he could not bring himself to believe that anything more than merely natural forces had been at work in Marie Bailly’s sudden recovery.”

    Sheri, I am glad that you finally realized that the article I referenced is not anti-religious. You say “Likewise, I can come up with one showing what happened at Lourdes is exactly what Bob believes.” I would like to read this article. Come to think of it, the author of the article that I referenced does seem to believe that the miracle was legit but honestly points out that neither Carrel nor the Church did so. By the way the Mother Teresa comment wasn’t anti-religious, it was anti-Teresa. You don’t think that this is the same thing do you?

    Back to Kurland. Given the enormous increase in saint canonization of the last few popes, is it possible that the Church has greatly reduced the evidence required for miracle confirmation?

  53. Scotian: The charitable part of me believes you may be simply trying to inject other viewpoints and perhaps tempering religious zeal with a bit of reality. The cynic does think the anti-Teresa may have been anti-religious. I suppose I shall have to do with you as some have said to me (concerning my political criticisms) and pay more attention to how often you provide a different viewpoint to things other than religion. For now, go with the charitable interpretation.

  54. Bob,

    You’ve already begun to explore flaws in your own argument by the last sentence of your comment. If you’d continued we could have dispensed with my need to add this comment. 😉

    Truth has nothing to do with testimony. I’m not considering uneducated or silly people, only thoughtful educated people. Exploring why silly people believe what they believe is not a particularly interesting philosophical topic.

    To claim X is true because I have a Phd is a well recognised logical fallacy. Science, and later, engineering, is not built on logically fallacious claims, otherwise as you yourself pointed out, there would be no technological progress. No, I haven’t cross checked Newton’s calculations, but I’ve seen men land on the moon. So I don’t see the point of doing the cross check. Nor have I personally cross checked the standard model of physics, but I see nuclear weapons, atomic reactors, GPS, and computers all around me. The exercise, to a rational person, would be futile.

    The point I’m getting at is that testimony is worthless. It’s evidence that is convincing. Put together a strong argument, and people may give you the benefit of the doubt. Demonstrate proofs, and people will believe you. Linus Pauling is a noble price winning Phd scientist and has been attributed with doing the foundational work in the field of molecular biology. I give credence to his work in this area because today we have DNA testing and all the other technologies and discoveries that came out of his work. I don’t believe his later claims (when he became a crank) that mega doses of vitamin C “cure” the common cold. That’s because no research exists to back up this claim and I’ve tried it myself, and it doesn’t work for me. Same guy, same reputation. I believe some of his testimony, and some of it I dismiss.

    Yes the problem with AGW is that too many believe in authority, not evidence. But if we limit the discussion to intelligent and educated people, the reason why most of these people don’t believe in catastrophic global warming is because the evidence is weak.

  55. Charlie Baud

    I would like to thank Sheri for giving a practical demonstration of why women should generally refrain from giving their opinions on theological matters. Miracles (such as the Virgin Birth) are matters of history, whereas the theory of evolution is a question of empirical science. Both rely on different standards of evidence, and it’s a categorical error to imagine that they can be compared. It’s like saying “Some people believe in the Gettysburg Address and some believe in the water cycle.”
    One requires credible testimony, and the other requires empirical evidence. As it happens, we do have credible testimony regarding the Virgin Birth in the form of the Gospels, so flatly saying that we “cannot know” if the Virgin Birth happened is just absurd. But if one does require proof, the fact that blood samples from Eucharistic miracles have been shown to have no signs of being the result of having combined genetic information from a mother and father (while still having mitochondrial DNA) are a pretty strong clue. See Ron Tesoriero’s work on the subject.

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