Over the last two days I have probably been spending more time fielding comments at John Loftus’ blog than I should. It isn’t an entirely rewarding task. At times I feel like a representative for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra attempting to sell seasons tickets at an AC/DC concert. As you can guess, it isn’t going well as my eloquent descriptions of the higher cultural benefits of the symphony are met with beer bottles hurled from anonymous hands in a hostile crowd.
But every once in a while one of the exchanges promises to hold some greater value and that is the case with my exchange with Ed Babinski. Dr. Babinski is a very knowledgeable individual and a good writer. He also typifies the very widespread tendency to do atheological apologetics by simply telling a story about human history and expecting readers to agree “Yes, that’s all there is to it. That seems right.” It is a matter of persuasion rather than formal, rational argument. Consider his rather prolix but eloquent comment which I’ve included below in its entirety. (Ed’s writing is indulgent in the same way as a Meat Loaf song. But you can forgive both because they’re done well.) And then consider my response. In this exchange you’ll find an excellent example of atheological apologetic storytelling and my response to it.
Edward Babinski’s Comment
Hi Randall, It seems to me that religion begins with invisible premises, things not universally apparent, from the Trinity to the equally divine and human nature of Jesus, to the necessity of shedding of blood before God can forgive anyone anything, to the idea that the Bible is the one and only collection of divinely inspired words on earth, all the rest being less inspired, relatively speaking. Religion tries to make all that and much more, like the sacraments, and taking stories of miracles literally, all seem perfectly reasonable, and then religious people bask in all that they claim appears perfectly reasonable to them, all the while looking like fools to other religious sects or denominations down the street or the other religions round the block, at which point they even glory in being “fools” for whatever they happen to believe.
While the premise of science is investigation and experiment itself, and it involves asking questions perpetually, questioning what it knows, how it knows it, sharing hypotheses, repeating experiments, until a near universal consensus is reached (even among practicing scientists who are members of any and all religions, or no religions at all). They do this so they DON’T look like fools.
I’d add that if we were debating and decided to begin by first agreeing on some sort of common ground, or common perceptions that every human being universally saw going on around us, maybe we could agree that humans are born and that they die. All animals and plants die (except for single-celled animals that split in two, which might be considered immortal since they are like eternally evolving clones that only die by accident or lack of food, and therefore biological “death” really only comes with the arrival of the first multi-cellular species of animals, especially the sexually-reproducing ones). We might also agree that species also go extinct in mass extinction events. And that we live on the insecure quaking surface of a tiny ball moving swiftly through the vacuum of deadly radiation-filled “space,” with our fellow planets lifeless and our nearby moon pocked with craters, as well as the earth’s own surface that even with erosion shows evidence of huge craters formed long ago, along with evidence of past asteroid collisions throughout geologic time in the form of thin layers of iridium, and past volcanic events preserved in the form of thin layers of ash.
Maybe we can even agree that humanity doesn’t appear to have begun with the easy life of a “gardener” in a miraculous garden. But humanity struggled over tens of thousands of years, a hundred thousand or more, before we tamed fire, invented the wheel, developed writing, agriculture, raised cities. built temples, set aside some people as priests, and prayed to God to bring us rain, stop floods, stop famines, stop invading armies, stop plagues, all of which early cultures had little notion concerning their causes, which they attributed to the displeasure of gods. Yet humanity hoped to obtain some control over such harrowing and deadly phenomena, but back then “pleading with the gods” whom they imagined as “listening,” was the most widely employed method. Yet today we have obtained relatively greater control over such dangerous phenomena via engineering and science. Agreed? We even have ways to replace people’s lost limbs and cure certain types of leprosy and blindness, and feed more people than ever before via modern agricultural science, and keep more people free from illness via plumbing, sanitation, and vaccines.
Ed, you’re a great story teller. Your Achilles’ heal is in moving from story telling to formal argument. How do you move from “This is the ‘natural history’ of human origins and the human place in the universe” to “Therefore, there is no God”?
You write: “It seems to me that religion begins with invisible premises, things not universally apparent….”
A “religion” is, among other things, a set of core claims about human origins and human destiny which constitute part of the worldviews held by human beings who adhere to those religions. So a “religious worldview” goes beyond that which is “universally apparent” in its description of ultimate reality and our relationship to it. But worldviews that are typically defined as “non-religious” do the same thing. Take Carl Sagan’s famous statement that the cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be. That goes beyond what is “universally apparent” too. Now some cosmologists speak of multiple universes as a way of explaining apparent cosmic fine-tuning. And by doing so they (1) falsify Sagan’s claim even as they (2) embrace premises about things not universally apparent.
So here’s what I’d like you to do Ed. Don’t just tell a story for me. Take the next step to articulate your worldview based on your story. Go out on a limb. Explain to us how you think this natural history of human origins and the human place in the universe that you’ve described entails a set of claims like “Therefore, there is no God” and “Therefore, human beings cease to exist when they die” and “Therefore, Christianity is false” and whatever else.
Once you’ve done that we will no longer have my apple compared to your orange. Instead we will have two apples that can be compared for their respective strengths and weaknesses. And in particular we will be able to see where you follow me, and Sagan, and cosmologists who endorse multiple universes, in going beyond “things not universally apparent” in the articulation of your worldview.