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A dialogue concerning natural religion

Contents

Characters

Introduction and the argument from many creeds

The limits of science and logic

Consciousness and ethics

Free will

An expert speaks

The cosmological and design arguments

The problem of evil

Characters

Othello: A lapsed Catholic turned atheist

Figaro: A lapsed atheist turned Catholic

Columbus: Othelloís former tutor

Introduction and the argument from many creeds

Back to contents

Figaro: Good to see you again after all these years. Whatís brought you back to London?

Othello: Business. Iím here for a few weeks and I thought we should meet up for a drink, as we havenít seen each other since we were at university. You will be pleased to know that I have now come around to your way of thinking and I am now firmly in the atheist camp.

Figaro: We never really discussed that over all those pints we drank at college. Your religion seemed to be a bit of a sore point and I didnít want to offend you. Perhaps we should have talked about it. You see, the funny thing is that I have moved the opposite way and now profess the beliefs you seem to have abandoned. I have to admit to being rather disappointed that you have lost you faith. You had an unquestioning confidence that I always secretly envied. Where has it gone?

Othello: That was part of the problem. I was brought up to see the world in a certain way and believe certain things. There was no rational or empirical justification for those beliefs except that my family, who I trusted, gave them to me.

The world that a small child lives in is tiny. He cannot conceive of the vast distances and time scales that an adult sees when he thinks about the world. In a way, the childís situation was similar to that of the ancients. They lived in a much smaller universe than we do and that made it much easier for them to believe that they were in the middle of it. Likewise, in my youth, it was far easier to accept a God who had created the universe and placed man in the centre, if the universe wasnít so huge and man was, self-evidently, the most important thing in it.

As I think you know, I was brought up in a fairly conservative Roman Catholic family and educated, until university, at Catholic schools. This meant that I believed that the stories in the bible were factual for quite a long time. When I was taken to the Natural History Museum, I never doubted my parents well meaning explanation that all those huge animals had been killed in the Flood. Jesus, I was told, was alive and well and, for reasons of his own, lived in the reliquary on the altar of our parish church. He even seemed to talk to people sometimes and I never doubted he might talk to me when I was a grown up.

The actual theology rather passed me by. No one ever really tried to explain all that much. What was considered important was that I was immersed in the worldview of traditional Christianity. I never could understand why it was that the Romans killed Jesus, who everyone said was good. Nor was the concept of sin mentioned very much. I was told I had to be a good boy and if I did something wrong, I had to own up. I was then smacked but assured that as I had owned up, God didnít mind. The idea that sin is an absolutely unavoidable consequence of being human didnít really figure.

I understood early on that most people were not Catholics. Given we lived in England, this was not surprising. However, other people knew God and Jesus too, although not as well as we Catholics did. It was like we were Godís best friends, but he liked the others too. They could go to heaven but, in an undefined way, they might find it more difficult or it might take longer. The idea that there was non-Christians in the world was clearly felt to be rather disturbing and was not mentioned.

At secondary school, these certainties were undermined one by one but I never really noticed. If asked I could mouth the old pieties. I still went to mass every Sunday with my parents. The theology that underlies Catholicism was explained but seemed to be so remote from real life that I didnít really bother much with it. I learnt in science lessons about prehistory and cosmology but I never even tried to reconcile this new information.

This process continued for years and eventually I was living a double life. I knew what the world was like but never let it encroach on the certainties of my childhood. You said you remember how I used to get all defensive about religion whenever you tried to discuss it. That was because I didnít think it was right that reason should be brought to bear on my beliefs. In the end, I was rather embarrassed about them as if they were a piece of emotional baggage I would like to get rid of but couldnít quite shake off.

Figaro: So how did the change come about?

Othello: The end came very shortly after leaving university. I had a new girlfriend who found me out quite quickly. She poured scorn, not so much on Catholicism, but I on my refusal to examine what I had been told. So, I did try to reconcile real life with the bundle of beliefs I had carried around for so long. I couldnít do it and more to the point, no one even seemed willing to help me try. My parents wouldnít discuss the matter, my priest told me to follow my own heart and look to my conscience and all my friends seemed to have dumped the whole lot long ago.

Figaro: I imagine this often happens. When you need the information and the answers, they just arenít there. There seems to be so much counting against religion these days. What really struck home?

Othello: Perhaps the most powerful point counting against religion in general is what might be called the Argument from Many Creeds. Richard Dawkins put this very well in some television lectures he gave in the early nineteen-nineties1. He produced a map of the world showing the distribution of the various religions of the world. India was Hindu, Islam stretched in a broad stripe from Morocco to Indonesia and Christianity covered Europe, the Americas and Russia. Dawkins explained that the main determining factor of oneís religion was the religion of oneís parents. Science, however, was a universal faith followed by everyone who had a sufficient grasp of the facts.

But the argument is stronger still. You and I can agree that some people believe in total codswollop Ė not even in an established religion. Astrology is plain daft but there was a US president who wouldnít go outside without first consulting it. The tragic events at Waco were caused by a group of people who sincerely believed in a man whom we would instantly brand a lunatic. Scientology holds thousands of Americans in its grip, many of whom really should know better. After all, Scientologyís founder, L Ron Hubbard, is on record as saying that if you really want to make money, found a religion2.

In many cases, we cannot brand these people as nutters and yet we cannot take their beliefs seriously. It is very hard to work out why we are not expected to believe Scientologists but should believe the assertions of a man writing about his mystical visions nearly two thousand years ago. And how can we take a God seriously if He allows people to be utterly misguided about the truth because they were born to the wrong parents?

I felt a little anger at having been duped but then got on with my life. The rest of the family remains as devout as ever so I donít push the point. I suppose I must own up to feeling a bit superior to them, as I am no long in thrall to an ancient superstition. Instead, I no longer believe in God and so I must be an atheist.

Figaro: It sounds like, when the crunch came and your doubts took over, there was not a single line of defence for your religion. The sceptics had it all their own way. Even if you had tried to read some books then the argument might have seemed just as one-sided. I suppose it is far easier to find works by Professor Dawkins or Carl Sagan in a bookshop than it is any of the leading Christian apologists like John Polkinghorne, Josh McDowell or even CS Lewis. Also, modern secular society is a powerful witness for atheism. The only mention of God in the media seems to be on Sunday mornings when any self-respecting individual is sleeping off a hangover.

In fact, the arguments against atheism and also for all manners of religions have been put eloquently throughout history. It is just that today the debate is declared over and atheism seems to have won by default. I think we can lay part of the blame for that on science or at least the way it is portrayed as being the answer to all our problems. It isnít and people are just beginning to wake up to the fact that they may no longer be in control of it. In my opinion, this realisation is a generation too late. The present debate on genetics and cloning is provoking questions that the invention of the nuclear bomb did not. Perhaps it was the end of the Cold War that has finally led to a re examination of where science is going.

But I digress. The Argument from Many Creeds is a powerful, if rather unfocused, idea. It is empirical rather than logical and depends on a number of conceptions about what you think God ought to be. You must also admit that as an atheist, you are proposing your own metaphysic and that has to be measured against the same standards you use for the others.

The trouble is that no matter how much I show that the Argument is not self-consistent or even strictly reasonable, you will be left with a feeling that it holds water. Therein lies its power and I do not for a moment deny it. But indulge me for a few minutes while I try to expose the inconsistencies.

Suppose that the letters A to Z represent all the worldís different religions, metaphysical systems, beliefs or whatever. Iíll follow your vocabulary and call them creeds. A is atheism, thinking of itself as up at the front, M is Anglican Christianity somewhere in the middle, and Z is for Zoroastrian, which you donít see that much nowadays. I donít actually mean that the order of the different creeds should mean anything, so atheism could just as well be L or T.

Now let us consider what it is that differentiates A from B to Z. What is the special thing that atheism has and the others lack? It isnít that it does not involve believing in God. Some Buddhists have no use or belief in any sort of God. Nor do our Scientologist friends or many new age mystics (although some do). But the majority does believe in some sort of Supreme Being even if they couldnít agree very much about it. So on a democratic vote I suppose the atheist would lose.

Atheism might say that it takes the universe Ďas isí rather than making particular claims that it cannot prove. But this is not true - the atheist says there is no God and that is as definite a claim as is ever made by Christianity, Judaism or any of the rest. What is more, that there is no God is no more provable than that there is one. One friend said he was an atheist because "There are countless different beliefs and claims in the world and I donít believe any of them." This is an attempt to hit the ball of evidence into the theistís court but as an argument, it just wonít wash.

In fact, the Argument of Many Creeds is a good reason to be Agnostic. Many people who call themselves atheists decide they are really agnostic once the positive nature of the central assertion of atheism is made clear to them. Perhaps you fall into this category.

Atheists will often say that they have reason or science on their side. Another atheist friend is fond of calling me completely irrational just before he loses his temper. Dawkins uses this point well in the lectures you mentioned earlier. He says that he has faith in science (commendably he uses the word Ďfaithí) but his faith is rational because science makes testable predictions he can rely on. He gives a graphic demonstration of this by releasing a pendulum from his forehead. The weight swings dramatically across the room and rushes back at him. But Dawkins doesnít flinch as the pendulum, obedient to Newton, stops millimetres from his face.

Dawkins is right to place faith in science but this has nothing whatsoever to do with the existence or otherwise of God. In fact the determined atheist will go through all the other creeds he comes across and seek to discredit them one by one. An agnostic must also do this because the question is just too important to be ignored. People who genuinely donít care one way or another are betting on atheism even if they donít quite believe it. This is a very bad wager.

Othello: There is no evidence at all for the existence of God. I do not think that I am an agnostic because I honestly believe that there is no God. Anything like a Supreme Being would have to be, well, just more obvious.

Science makes testable assertions. Scientists encourage others to go out and try to do the experiment they have just done. Indeed, repeatability is everything. If a phenomenon cannot be recreated in the lab over and over again then it didnít happen. It was a cock up. Witness the fuss over cold fusion a few years back. There was a whole load of excitement but, when no one else could do the same thing, it was dismissed as a mistake.

Religion does not allow for objective observation. In the old days when people tried to argue with it, they got burnt at the stake. So far, no one has been imprisoned for not believing that atoms are composed of neutrons and protons. It is not reasonable to believe something that is afraid of scrutiny and wonít tolerate dissent.

Faced with the choice between a rigorous and logical explanation from science and a strange and indemonstrable claim from religion, any rational man will plump for the former. As your friend said, belief in God is irrational because it is not backed up by any evidence.

Figaro: I want you do a thought experiment. Are you still going out with the girl you mentioned earlier?

Othello: Weíre happily married.

Figaro: Congratulations. We really have been out of touch. Are you in love with her?

Othello: Yes.

Figaro: And is she in love with you?

Othello: Well, yes.

Figaro: Pleased to hear it. Now tell me how you would set about proving that scientifically.

Othello: I could ask her. I mean she did marry me.

Figaro: But how would you know she wasnít lying? The experiment would hardly be under laboratory conditions would it? In a scientific experiment, you need to be able to control all the variables. What if she was having an affair but depended on you for her standard of living. Or else, she might be worried about the children if you have any. In an extreme case, she may simply be afraid of you.

Othello: OK. Iíd use a lie detector.

Figaro: I see. Well, if my girlfriend insisted on calling in the FBIís finest technicians to determine if I was telling the truth when I said I loved her I would want a new girlfriend. Besides, lie detectors are fallible and not even accepted as evidence in court here in the UK. Anyway, letís assume that you can come up with a scientifically rigorous method of testing your wifeís love. The next question is have you ever attempted to carry out such a test.

Othello: Of course not. But I still have plenty of evidence. Just because I canít dissect her in a lab doesnít mean that I shouldnít believe her. You are not being fair to expect science to deal with things like love and friendship.

Figaro: Youíre right. I am trying to show you the very real limitations of the scientific method. You couldnít even scientifically prove what you had for breakfast last Tuesday. One of the disturbing trends in modern life is the attempts that are being made to reduce human nature to a set of rules.

Psychologists, psychiatrists and even social workers all like to claim scientific rigor in their work. But as their frequent failings show, such rigor is not possible. I have always felt these people are setting themselves up for a fall. As long as they present a picture of themselves to the public as technicians, the public will, and not without reason, expect their works to be as reliable as a Volkswagen. So, when things go wrong, when there is a murder by a schizophrenic or misdiagnosed case of child abuse, it is not seen as an unavoidable mistake. Instead, the public looks around for someone to blame. They should admit to the fundamental limitations inherent in these fields and stop pretending that, if only the job is done properly, everything will work out fine.

Othello: I am not at all sure you are right about that but I have to be getting back now. We should continue again soon after I have marshalled a few facts.

The limits of science and logic

Back to contents

Figaro: Hi, how are you doing. Weíve managed to meet up much more quickly than last time.

Othello: Very true. I was keen to get back to you with a defence of science. You seemed to be trying to take it apart so you obviously see it as a threat.

Letís first consider what science has achieved. Five hundred years ago everyone who had an opinion followed Ptolemy and thought that the earth was at the centre of the universe. Although some ancient Greeks had come up with interesting metaphysical systems, notably Democritus with his atoms, they never based their thoughts on experimental evidence. It sounds brutal, but if there was anything that they got right it was probably because they fluked it. They had so many ideas that some of them had to have at least a grain of truth in them.

Ptolemyís important astronomical work is called the Almagest and in it, he details his geocentric system. Basically, he places the earth in the middle and everything else, planets and all the rest, goes around it. He knows the sun is much further away than the moon but not how far the planets are. He places the stars at a much further remove altogether and considers that they can be treated as simple points because they are so far away. Actually an earlier Greek had suggested a heliocentric system3 but he was little noticed until Copernicus picked him up.

Science stagnated for over a thousand years until Roger Bacon, an English monk of the thirteenth century, started to think about experimental method. Later still, the Polish parson Copernicus suggested that the earth might go around the sun. But Copernicus too might have fluked it. His idea wasnít based on observation and he insisted that the planets must orbit in circles. The only reason he said this was that a circle was a perfect shape and so the universe should be based on it.

To be fair, observations were not yet accurate enough to determine whether the Ptolemaic or heliocentric system was the right one. With the telescope, observations improved and by the time Keplar produced his treatise giving a nearly modern account of the solar system it could be shown to be right.

The Catholic Church was not very pleased about this. The Inquisition famously found Galileo, who had dealt a blow to the idea that everything went around the earth by showing Jupiter had moons going around it, guilty of heresy. He was forced to retract his work and was imprisoned for the rest of his life. Luckily, the Reformation meant that Rome could no longer control what was thought in many areas of Europe and the Enlightenment beckoned.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, discoveries were made at an alarming rate. Newton produced his magnificent account of gravitation and mechanics, Harvey showed that blood was circulating in the body and Hooke worked on his springs. In the nineteenth century the pace accelerated further. Faraday, Maxwell and others examined electricity and magnetism. Then Charles Darwin dropped his bombshell in three books: the Voyage of the Beagle, the Origin of Species and the Ascent of Man.

The church could do nothing but retreat further into its cocoon. It tried to ban the works of these thinkers; it declared them untrue but could present no evidence to the contrary. When Darwin destroyed the credibility of the creation story in Genesis, it was no longer possible to present the Bible as unerring although for a long time, culminating with the infamous Monkey Trial in Dayton Tennesee,4, that didnít stop people trying.

Now, apart from some very odd individuals who seem to take up a lot of space on the internet, no one is seriously arguing that God created the world in seven days in about 4000BC. Todayís creationists are amusing and I suppose you could admire their determination. The rest of Christianity has left the battlefield completely.

The twentieth century saw science moving into areas even some scientists found difficult to comprehend. Quantum mechanics with its inherent randomness upset Einstein who insisted that God does not play dice. But through the work of Max Planck, Ernst Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg this strange new idea took root. Its truth is demonstrated every time you turn on a computer. The workings of microchips are bound up inexorably with the strange world of inside the atom.

If anyone is interested, the contest between science and religion is still going on in a low-key sort of way. There are many sites on the web where fundamentalist religious types go into combat against bemused sceptics. Sometimes the level of debate raises itself to quite a high level but in the end, the sceptics cannot bring the theists to accept reason.

One rather touching habit of theists is to postulate what is called a ĎGod of the Gapsí. This deity is inserted into any area of science that is presently incomplete. As science advances the gap is filled but luckily the God of the Gaps is infinitely flexible. He is quickly reshaped and used to fill another hole. Of course, little do they realise that science will soon be able to expand into that hole too.

Science has won all its arguments with religion because it is logical, reasonable and backed up by fact. It may not have explained everything yet, but that is no reason to think that it wonít manage to one day. Then there will be no more need for religion.

Figaro: I really must stop you there. The God of the Gaps was coined by Professor C.A. Coulson as an attack on unorthodox Christianity. It is seen as a trap that unwary theists fall into but mainstream theologians avoid like the plague. I expect that the debaters on the internet make the mistake but please donít assume that it is a valid argument against theism.

As for your point about science being logical, I am not sure you understand what logic is. In its pure form it leads to conclusions far too extreme for most peopleís liking and is certainly inconsistent with science. Letís have a look at logic before we move on.

Consider the following statements:

"All men are mortal; Othello is a man; therefore Othello is mortal."

If the first two statements are correct, the final statement follows surely, absolutely and inescapably. This is an example of Aristotelian deduction. There are other kinds of statements that have the same degree of certitude. Now consider this:

"All men born before 1880 have died; Othello is a man; therefore Othello will die."

This is an example of induction. Because something has always happened in the past, it is assumed that it will continue to happen in the future. You can see how science makes similar claims about the repeatability of experiments. In fact, as David Hume5 found in the eighteenth century, cause and effect can never be deduced from wholly logical principles. This doesnít make science unreasonable but it does prevent it from being totally logical.

Othello: Youíre clutching at straws. Iím not interested in these strange philosophical arguments that claim to show that my sofa doesnít exist. You just have to use a bit of something called common sense.

Figaro: Agreed. But common sense is hardly an incisive intellectual weapon. It is also easily confused with that terrible enemy of clear thinking - conventional wisdom.

But I want to go back to your rather bold claim that one day science will explain everything and do away with religion. There are several names for that point of view.  It's sometimes called Ďnothing butteryí because you claim there is nothing but the material world. In academic circles, it is sometimes called materialism and Iíll use that word if I may. I appreciate that labels should be avoided but I feel that this one is useful. In short, materialism claims everything can be described by physics, and so everything has to be physical. This has a number of consequences not always grasped which I think makes it as much an extremist point of view as denying your settee.

Materialism is not the same as atheism although nearly all materialists are atheists and vice versa. It is possible for the universe to contain non-physical elements without there being a God to account for them.

May I assume that materialism and atheism together adequately describe your views?

Othello: Much as I hate to be put in a box, I suppose I must say that they do.

Figaro: Good. I certainly do not argue with your point that one day physics could be able to explain all the material workings of the universe. But it can never demonstrate that there is nothing else to be explained. The best analogy is of a man fishing in a very murky pond. He uses a net to trawl through the weeds and every time he catches a fish, he uses a ruler to measure it very carefully indeed. All his results are collated in a book. When he stops catching any more fish he examines all his results and attempts to draw conclusions. After not very much thought he declares that there were no fishes in the pond less than two inches long. He bases this thesis on the observation that not one of the fishes he caught was under that length.

Now, I come along and claim that there may very well be fishes that he doesnít know about in the pond. He indignantly explains his faultless method and I point out the mesh on his net is two inches wide. Let me be clear, I am not pushing a God in the Gaps point here, I am saying that you cannot expect to explain non-physical things using physics.

Othello: But what non-physical things? Show me some evidence that they exist at all.

Figaro: Of course. But you are going to have to accept that we donít use science when we try to find them. You further need to understand that science is not the only valid tool we have when looking out at the world; another is our old friend, common sense.

What is your favourite piece of music? Letís try and be high brow and think about classical music.

Othello: No idea off hand. Perhaps Albioniís Adagio.

Figaro: A fine work. Why do you like it?

Othello: Well, itís very emotional, majestic and rather bittersweet in a way.

Figaro: I donít really mean like that, although I understand what you mean. I meant a physical explanation. Sound is the manifestation of the molecules in air vibrating. They bump into our eardrums that in turn stimulate some hairs that are attached to nerves. But that purely naturalistic explanation tells us absolutely nothing about music.

Likewise a painting, although an imperfect reflection of reality, can inspire much stronger feeling than the original ever does. Any explanation from a material point of view would have to involve chemicals in the brain and other stimulation of nerve endings. This seems woefully incomplete as an explanation. I could understand sexual attraction or recognising things as being good to eat as being explanations for beauty.  B they don't explain the power of Michelangelo's Pieta that is supremely useless and supremely beautiful.

No other animal responds in the ways we do to a landscape or a nicely formed object or music. The attempts to put everything down to sex or genetics are almost embarrassing. My background as physicist means I tend to judge pseudoscience by scientific standards and it simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Because the concept of beauty is so familiar, it is very hard to see just how strange it is in a material world. That human beings have evolved to appreciate it seems far-fetched. Surely, the animal with a purely sexual imperative is more likely to reproduce than the one starring wistfully at the setting sun.

The claim we are taught to distinguish beauty also does not wash. Who taught the teachers? We can learn about beauty but the concept itself is entirely intuitive. I know this from experience. When I was a very small child, only about four, and before my hard-pressed teachers had managed to implant very much at all in my head, my father took me to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is true that I found it very much less interesting than the Natural History Museum next door. But I knew perfection when I saw it. In the V&A, there are plaster casts of about seven or eight of Michelangelo's sculptures. Among these is his David. As an educated and reasonably cultured adult, I can see it as one of the finest examples of art in the world. I have a framed picture of it in my flat. As a four-year-old I knew nothing at all except that this great white man was the single finest sight I had ever set my young eyes upon.  I even called it "the Giant" just like the Italians do.

At this point, a Freudian would be dancing around shouting about latent homosexuality or something. He would be wrong. We can all ask ourselves that same question and the vast majority of us can be sure that we know that we donít find David a turn on. Freud fails every scientific test you care to set him largely because he was a not a scientist.

Othello: I accept Freud was a bit of an embarrassment but that doesnít mean science will never come up with a rational explanation. It has, after all, done well so far.

Figaro: It is possible. But so far, we have no leads or clues. Even the great humanist Bertrand Russell, at the end of his History of Western Philosophy, said that there are things that lie outside scienceís province6. To claim it can move into territory it presently has no presence in at all is surely a leap of faith. But you may right. And I donít think that a physical explanation for beauty will make it any less beautiful. I am not a proponent of the objection that scientific explanation is cultural vandalism.

It is getting late but when we meet up again I want to talk about consciousness.

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© James Hannam 1999.
Last revised: 29 May 2013.