Category Archives: Religion
Courtroom Sketch of Ken Miller testifying at the Dover trial, via betterrightthanhappy
The lesson of Kitzmiller: Science bridges divides, by Nathan H. Lents and S. Joshua Swamidass, Dec 28, 2020 , shows how the Kitzmiller trial itself, and, more generally, the defence of science against obscurantism, bridges the gulf between believers and nonbelievers. My own view is that the deeper gulf is one found within all three Abrahamic religions, between those who are willing to accommodate their reading of the sacred texts to scientific (and I would add historical) reality, and those who insist that these texts, literally interpreted, are the infallible word of God.
Ken Miller, Genie Scott & Barbara Forrest: 15 Years After Dover, by Faizal Ali, Dec 26, 2020, with links to interviews of three major participants; Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Barbara Forrest. As many readers will know, Ken Miller, biology professor and major textbook author, has been defending evolution against creationist attacks for 40 years, Eugenie Scott was at the time director of the (US) National Center for Science Education, which acted as consultant to the plaintiffs and was instrumental in forming the legal strategy, and Barbara Forrest, philosopher, testified that the trial that Intelligent Design should not be considered science because of its reliance on the supernatural.
As this blog piece points out, that last argument (technically: intrinsic methodological naturalism) should give us pause, and is now rejected by many philosophers and scientists, including me, in favour of a provisional methodological naturalism that would be willing to examine supernaturalist explanations on their merits, if they had any. Indeed, the piece argues that judge Jones’ blistering verdict in this case was only made possible by the incompetence of the School Board, who made their religious motivation obvious.
The Discovery Institute continues to claim that Kitzmiller was wrongly decided, and even that “recent scientific discoveries have confirmed and extended the concept of irreducible complexity.” https://www.discovery.org/2019/01/revolutionary-michael-behes-intelligent-design-documentary-is-now-free-online/ Most recently, to mark the 15th anniversary of the trial, the DI featured a debate on the issues https://www.discovery.org/v/the-kitzmiller-v-dover-trial-and-intelligent-design-fifteen-years-on/ between Michael Behe and Joshua Swamidass. While I have a poor opinion of Behe’s ideas, I admire his willingness to discuss them. I would also praise him for not abandoning his post at the trial when things got difficult, unlike several of his Discovery Institute colleagues.
I was curious to see what are the major creationist organisations had to say about the trial, even though they were not directly involved. Answers in Genesis mentions Kitzmiller as part of a recent (December 2020) long discussion of US court cases, claiming that “The Kitzmiller ruling has stifled debate in classrooms and prevented full discussion of topics related to biological origins. The result is that indoctrination has replaced education, at least in this one area.” No need to spell out my own reaction to that claim. Also in December 2020, Creation Ministries International offers us a review, by Jerry Bergman, of Ron Milliner’s Fake Evidence: A look at evolutionary evidence for over 90 years in the court cases from Scopes to Kitzmiller, Elm Hill (Elm Hill Books appears to be a self-publishing service under the umbrella of HarperCollins Christian Publishing). This review is not yet available to non-subscribers, but it seems clear from elsewhere that the book’s title is a fair summary of its thesis, that it is yet another example of the evolution-is-a-conspiracy genre, and that Jerry Bergman can be expected to approve.
Every so often you come across a piece of writing so extraordinary that you cannot help but share it. One such piece is a sermon on global warming by American pastor John MacArthur. Full of beautifully constructed rhetorical flourishes, it is forcefully delivered by an experienced and impassioned preacher to a large and appreciative audience.
For me, as a man of science, it is the most complete compilation of unsound arguments, factual errors and misleading analogies as I have seen in discussions of this subject. But it’s important because climate change is a big election issue this November in the US, where there is a growing movement of evangelical Christians who deny its existence, while Joe Biden promises a “clean air revolution”.
The minister of the COVID-denying, law-defying Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California – which has encouraged worshippers to congregate as normal despite state COVID-19 restrictions – MacArthur is an impressive figure whose Study Bible has sold almost 2 million copies.
He regards the infallibility of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as essential to his faith, and his sermon about global warming can only be understood in that context. MacArthur’s rejection of the science is shared by other major US ministries and organisations such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International and the Discovery Institute.
Consensus science is the first refuge of scoundrels … invoked only in situations where there is a political, social, financial agenda but no scientific support.
The reverend has the most serious reasons possible for rejecting the scientific consensus concerning the age of the Earth, the origins of humankind, the history and prehistory of the ancient near East and the peopling of continents: it is totally incompatible with the Genesis account of creation, Adam and Eve, the flood and the dispersion of peoples from the Tower of Babel.
Error, denial and misunderstanding
As for global warming itself, the reverend channels standard climate change denial, but all his arguments are unsound and have been convincingly refuted to the satisfaction of an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists (see in-depth discussion at Skeptical Science). He understates the amount of global warming, incorrectly describes the full record as dating back only 30 years, and cites the Little Ice Age as evidence that the changes currently taking place are natural. There’s more:
Here’s the key, friends, this is the real deal. Legitimate science recognises a close correlation between sunspots and climate change … The sun is the source of temperature changes because of its infrared variations. … There is absolutely no evidence that CO₂ contributes to warming. On the contrary the opposite is true. Warming produces CO₂ … It’s the other way round.
Here we have a collection of half-truths and misunderstandings, typical of denialists claiming to represent “legitimate science”. As the graph below shows, the 11-year sunspot cycle is a minor deviation, and the temperature increase since 1980 has occurred despite the fact that over that period the amount of solar energy falling on Earth has gone down slightly. Incidentally, this solar energy input is concentrated mainly in the visible, not the infrared, region of the spectrum, and it is the roughly balancing heat outflow from the Earth that is in the infrared.
MacArthur offers a false dichotomy between saying that CO₂ warms the oceans, and warmer oceans release more CO₂. Unfortunately, both these statements are true. There is a positive feedback loop: human-released CO₂ is the primary driver, but its effect is amplified by the fact that yet more CO₂ is then released from non-human sources. Regarding CO₂ itself, MacArthur seems to be even more confused:
By the way, plants produce CO₂. What man produces is marginal … Industry doesn’t affect CO₂ in the environment or atmosphere.
Plants do produce CO₂ but they absorb more than they emit. However, when it comes to humans, their activity may cause only a small imbalance each year between CO₂ emission and natural uptake, but this imbalance is cumulative. CO₂ levels are now 50% above pre-industrial, and subtle atomic differences clearly show that fossil fuel is the source. But according to MacArthur, “There is no scientific reason to believe that ice caps are melting”.
Despite the Arctic Monitoring and Assement Programme’s video on this subject, the reverend does not think that the evidence for ice-cap melting is scientific, and that other factors are at play:
This is all political [and] financial agendas, class warfare, class envy … By the way, US$100 billion has been spent to make a case for global warming … driven by the socialist mentality … even some of the feminist mentality that resents male success.
All is now clear. Talk of global warming is part of a politically motivated conspiracy. But US$100 billion? That’s 600 years’ worth of all federal climate research spending. Clearly, those pesky socialists and feminists are formidable fundraisers. However, none of this matters because environmentalism is fundamentally misplaced. As MacArthur puts it, citing Revelation and the integrity of scripture:
God intended us to use this planet, to fill this planet for the benefit of man. Never was it intended to be a permanent planet. It is a disposable planet. Christians ought to know that.
And that is a statement that would leave anybody who cares about this world speechless.
This piece first appeared in The Conversation, where it has had over 300,000 reads. I thank my editor there, Jane Wright, for many helpful suggestions.
Mike Pence is a highly intelligent and extremely able trial lawyer, and a committed creationist. As I write, he is one heartbeat (or should we now say one breath?) away from being President of the United States, and in the event that Donald Trump manages to retain power in November, will be his heir apparent. Here is what I wrote about his stated views on creationism and evolution not long after he was sworn in as Vice-President. I hope that four weeks from today all of this will be of historical interest only, and am reposting this in order to help make that happen.
Above: Donald Trump risen from his hospital bed to reveal himself to his followers (Getty Images via Business Insider)
The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed, much more closely argued, and much more dangerous. Read the rest of this entry
Letter in Dundee Courier; Watching out for religious hatred
Atheists see some merit in Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf’s Hate Crime Bill, as it will enable the prosecution of all Scotland’s religions and their Holy Books for spreading hatred.
It is utterly unacceptable that in progressive, social democratic Scotland that squalid, Bronze Age village disputes, as described in the Holy Books, about control of women, goats or water should give Scotland’s “Holy Willies” authority to spout out vitriol against atheists, agnostics, apostates, sceptics, non-believers, women, trans people and homosexuals.
We fully intend to monitor all Holy Books, sermons in places of worship and the social media accounts of the various religions and report any hatred to Police Scotland for criminal investigation.
Ian Stewart, Convener, Atheist Scotland, Park Avenue, Dundee.
Christian News takes Mr Stewart very seriously:
If passed, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill would criminalise words deemed “likely” to “stir up hatred” against particular groups. It would not require any proof of intent.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, warned against “the dangerous new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences”, saying that “they will give politically-motivated complainants like Mr Stewart a powerful weapon against their ideological opponents.”
He commented: “The threshold of the proposed offences is so low that Mr Stewart might well be able to persuade a police officer that certain unfashionable Bible verses or sermons are ‘hate crimes’. Does the Scottish Government really want to expose church ministers to the risk of prosecution at the instigation of anti-religious zealots?
Mr Calvert also pointed out that “Thankfully, Mr Stewart does not represent all atheists.”
The organisation “Atheist Scotland” does not seem to exist. But “Ian Stewart” sounds like someone I would like to get to know. The pending Hate Crime bill would certainly give him plenty of scope to carry out his threat, since it creates an offence of abusive speech likely to stir up hatred, whether there is any intent to stir up hatred and whether any hatred is stirred up or not, against members of various groups. Using the definitions in the Bill, these groups would include believers in different religions from the speaker, believers in no religion, homosexuals, transsexuals, and cross-dressers, all of whom you will find vilified in the Bible, while the Westminster Confession of Faith condemns all non-Christians to eternal conscious torment and serve them right.
The reality of course is that all the UK’s major secularists and humanist organisations, as well as a coalition ranging from the Free Church of Scotland to the Roman Catholics, have called (see e.g. Free to Disagree) for this bill in anything like its present form to be scrapped. There is no precedent for such diversity of opinion uniting around a cause, and for this, if nothing else, the Justice Minister is to be congratulated.
The draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is open for comment for just over one more week. It is a frightening attack on freedom of speech, and introduces a new offence of abusive speech, of which one can be guilty even without criminal intent, with penalties of up to seven years imprisonment. Fortunately, we still have time to persuade MSPs, of whom some even within the Government party have doubts. Links to the bill, other comments, and relevant email addresses are given below.
A person commits an offence if the person … communicates threatening or abusive material to another person, and … as a result, it is likely that hatred will be stirred up against such a group.
In brief, the bill is so broad, and its language so vague and inclusive, that it would be impossible to express oneself on a whole range of important issues without running the risk of offending.
The bill states that
A person commits an offence if the person … communicates threatening or abusive material to another person, and … as a result, it is likely that hatred will be stirred up against such a group.[Emphasis added]
The characteristics are age, disability, religion or, in the case of a social or cultural group, perceived religious affiliation, sexual orientation, transgender identity, variations in sex characteristics.
Notice that one can offend without intending to do so, even if no hatred is actually stirred up, and even if no member of the relevant group has actually complained. Strangely enough, when it comes to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins, there must be actual intent to stir up hatred. Why there should be this distinction is beyond my understanding, while expressions like “abuse” and “hatred” are so vague that there are a whole range of important current controversies (e.g. trans rights issues, the Palestine-Israel question, immigration, religious family law) were what some would regard as legitimate expression of opinion would risk being seen by others as abusive and stirring up hatred.
(Full text of the relevant sections at end of post)
Here’s what I sent to the Justice Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org, with copies to my Constituency and all my Regional MSPs:
As your constituent, I wish to comment on the draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.
I welcome the abolition of the law against blasphemy, which I hope is in no way controversial, but an eight-word Bill would suffice for that.
I am a member of an ethnic minority group, and have been subjected to abusive speech likely to stir up hatred. Despite this, I am completely opposed to this Bill, which introduces a large number of necessarily ill-defined terms, and is likely to achieve the opposite of what is intended. I am particularly concerned at the creation of a new class of offence based on the extremely ill-defined concept of “abuse”, as well as the fact that it is possible to offend under this Bill with no intention of doing so.
If this Bill or anything at all like it becomes law, it will possible for me to offend without intending to do so by communicating material considered abusive, even if I do not consider it abusive, and even in the absence of complaints from anyone who is allegedly targeted, if it is found that it is likely (whatever that may mean) that what I communicate will stir up hatred, even if that was not my intent. I expect that many of us have offended multiple times by these criteria. Read the rest of this entry
Young Earth Creationists (YECs) argue from the rapid and dramatic events observed at the Mt St Helens 1980 eruption to the conclusion that the Earth’s geological record, as displayed for example at the Grand Canyon, could be the results of the even more dramatic events associated with a biblical worldwide flood. Geochristian, in the post I link to below, dismantles specific examples of this claim, and goes on to challenge the view that the Bible describes Noah’s Flood as a worldwide catastrophe anyway. Illustration: Step Canyon, Mt St Helens; Google Earth via Geochristian
Regarding geology, the YEC arguments derive their rhetorical power from the all-or-nothing thinking that runs through all their positions. They claim that Mt St Helens demonstrates the correctness of catastrophism over geological gradualism. If all this much can happen so quickly, why assume that the Earth’s deep geology really required deep time? If the flowing ash and mud from Mt St Helen’s shows lamination and cross bedding, does that not destroy the geologist’s argument that the lamination and cross bedding of shales and sandstones are the result of slow deposition? If in a matter of days snowmelt carved a canyon in the Mt St Helens deposits, would not the waters of a year-long flood have sufficed to carve out the Grand Canyon? If the Mt St Helens eruption rapidly uprooted and re-deposited large number of trees, could not the Earth’s fossil fuel deposits have been formed in the same manner?
Geochristian discusses each of these claims in detail (spoiler; none of them will stand up to examination). What I want to point out here is how much they all have in common. They all depend on imposing absolute either/or divisions on reality, cherry picking similarities and ignoring differences, and imposing the simplest of models on complex reality. The dispute between catastrophism and gradualism, although repeatedly revived by creationists (see e.g. here https://www.allaboutcreation.org/catastrophism-versus-uniformitarianism-faq.htm ) was pronounced dead by TH Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”,in his Presidential Address to the Geological Society in 1869 https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/SM3/GeoAd69.html. It’s simply a matter of perspective. Catastrophic events do happen from time to time, but not very often, giving the impression of gradualism over long periods of time. Cross bedding can occur catastrophically, in well-understood special circumstances, but geologists have never had any difficulty in distinguishing between what is found in sudden volcanic outpourings and the completely different wind-blown cross bedding observed in desert sandstones, including ironically the Coconino Sandstone within the Grand Canyon itself. Canyons such as Mt St Helens Step Canyon can indeed form very rapidly in uncompacted sediments, but the Step Canyon is straight, and carved on a steep slope through soft debris, while Grand Canyon has bends and is carved through extremely hard rock by a river flowing over a plateau with, overall, a gentle gradient. And the tree debris from Mt St Helens bears no resemblance, either in texture or in amount, to the world’s coal fields.
Next, Geochristian attacks the YEC interpretation of Genesis. In particular, the word “eretz”, describing the territory immersed in the flood, can mean either the Earth, or a more limited region. Here his motivation is to preserve faith in the text, while rebutting the interpretation that requires the flood to be worldwide. My own approach would be rather different. In the biblical narrative, God sets out to destroy mankind, apart from the virtuous relic represented by Noah and his family. This could hardly have been accomplished by a merely local flood, though one could well argue that the author(s) of Genesis did not make a clear mental distinction between local and worldwide. However, the entire problem disappears if you regard the Genesis narrative (or, rather, fused narratives) in context within a much more ancient Mesopotamian literature, and I argue https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/noahs-flood-and-how-to-talk-to-creationists-about-it/ that this is actually more respectful of the text than supernaturalist literalism. However, in my experience discussions between those who do, and those who do not accept a supernatural origin for Scripture are rarely productive.
So why I am I, an unbeliever, re-blogging Geochristian’s material at all? Because as I see it, the crucial gulf is not between religious believers and unbelievers, but between those who are willing to accept reality in all its complexity, and those who prefer to impose their own dogma. And this does not affect only such matters as evolution and the age of the Earth, but such intensely practical matters as conservation, global warming, the regulation of market-based economies, and, right now, our reaction to one particular virus that happens to have mutated and evolved.
h/t Michael Roberts https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2020/05/19/what-does-mt-st-helens-teach-us-about-noahs-flood-almost-nothing/
All I got from Mt St Helens (MSH) in the days following its May 18, 1980 eruption was a few pretty sunsets. I was an undergraduate student in my first year at the University of Utah, and most of the ash cloud passed far north of Salt Lake City. MSH became more significant for me a few years later as a geology graduate student at Washington State University, where my research project involved analysis and correlation of Cascade Range tephra (volcanic ash) layers buried at various levels in the Quaternary Palouse Loess of eastern Washington. Some of these tephra layers correlated to ancient eruptions of MSH, dated around 13,000 and 36,000 years ago.
Credit: USGS, Robert Krimmel, public domain
Due in part to easy accessibility, the 1980 eruptions of MSH have been studied more closely than just about any other explosive volcanic eruption in history. Geologists have learned…
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Why did Noah get drunk? What was Ham’s actual offence? Why was it Ham’s son Canaan who got cursed for it? Are all three of them perhaps composite characters? Japhet turns up in Greek mythology, as well as in Genesis; who is copying whom, and why? These and other questions are discussed in Paul Davidson’s gripping account, The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery, re-blogged below.
This is not my usual area, but it happens to be directly relevant to two of my own recent blogs, https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/noahs-flood-and-how-to-talk-to-creationists-about-it/ , which he cites, and https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2019/04/01/creationism-noahs-flood-and-race/
Two technical comments: Friedman (The Bible with Sources Revealed) regards all the genealogies as intercalations, neither part of Yahwist nor of the Priestly source narrative.
And I have verified the tortured Hebrew grammar of Genesis 10:21 and 10:25, discussed in Paul’s post. This of course does not validate any particular explanation, but it is very clear that there is something that needs to be explained.
Time to let Paul speak for himself:
One of many puzzling passages that anyone reading the Bible from the beginning is soon confronted with is a story in which the flood hero Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked—and which concludes with Noah placing a curse on his grandson Canaan. Since this passage was brought up by a commenter recently, I thought I’d look into it more closely.
Part of the reason, no doubt, for the impression of strangeness it leaves on readers is that it is (understandably) almost never preached on in church and may surprise those who remember the tale of Noah in children’s storybook terms, full of cuddly animals and pretty rainbows. When Aronofsky’s film Noah came out in 2014, Jon Stewart’s Daily Showaired a segment poking fun at religious viewers who were irked by the inclusion of a scene in which the titular character got drunk—and who were apparently oblivious to the existence…
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Full paper cited here now publicly available at
Can we trust radiocarbon dating? Young Earth creationists tell us that we can’t. After all, it makes the same range of assumptions as other radiometric dating methods, and then some. Other methods benefit from internal checks or duplications, which in the case of radiocarbon dating are generally absent. There are numerous cases where it appears to give absurdly old ages for young material, while apparent ages of a few tens of thousands of years are regularly reported for material known on other evidence to be millions of years old. So can the Young Earth creationist1 objections be rebutted, and if so how?
The principle of radiometric dating is simple.2 If we know how much of a particular radioactive substance was present when a material formed, how much is still there, and
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Never forget that the claim of today’s Young Earth creationists to be following the Bible is simply untrue. The fantastical convulsions, supposedly occurring at the time of the Flood, that they invoke to explain the facts of geology are not at all biblical, but derived from the visions of Ellen White, founder-prophetess of Seventh-day Adventism. In this post, my friend Michael Roberts, geologist and priest, gives us a sample of the extensive scholarship in which he sets the record straight.
Where did Creationism come from?
Creationism still confuses many people. So often it is seen as a throw-back to the time when people were not so enlightened or intelligent and under the sway of church dogma.
It is amazing some still hold that and fail to recognise the scientific skills of those in the Middle Ages – most notably Christians and clergy like Bacon, Grossteste among others.
We may despair, as I do of those like Ken Ham, Henry Morris and others, who try to prove the earth is only 6000-10,000 years old and we may be tempted to pour scorn as this cartoon does.
However we should assume that this crazy ideas were the views of Christians in previous centuries and so much of the work of scholars like John Hedley Brook, David Livingstone and Ron Numbers among many others have demonstrated this time and time again in the…
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The thing about teaching is we are never sure we are making a difference.
Jim Krupa takes evolution as his central theme when he teaches biology to non-majors at the University of Kentucky, where the students are most unlikely to have heard about evolution in school, but may well have been warned about its wickedness in church. With his permission, I am posting an article that he wrote in Orion Magazine describing his experiences. The first part dealt with the challenges he faces. This second part describes his response, which centres on a discussion of the nature of scientific reasoning, followed by the case study (described in greater detailin’s American Biology Teacher), and concludes with a discussion of outcomes. Notice how many misconceptions Jim demolishes on the way, including confusion about the role of theory in science, the curious but widespread belief that evolution science is without practical application, and (particularly important in his local context) the claim that accepting evolution is incompatible with religion.
Jim teaches, and touches the lives of, 1800 students a year – enough, over time, to flip a good few school districts and make a real difference to the cultural climate of the State. And we can be sure that his students will have plenty to talk about with their friends.
Defending Darwin (continued)
By James Krupa
ONCE I LAY DOWN the basics of science, I introduce the Darwinian theories of evolution. Charles Darwin was by no means the first or only to put forth evolution; others came before him including his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who wrote about descent with modification. Later, while Charles was amassing evidence in England for natural selection, one of the most eloquent scientific theories ever, Alfred Russel Wallace was also developing the same theory during his travels in Indonesia. But it was Charles Darwin alone who advanced the theory of descent with modification, with his bold idea that all species belong to the same tree of life and thus share a common ancestor. He also gave us sexual selection theory, which explains how evolution is shaped by competition for mates as well as choice of mates. Too often only natural selection and descent with modification are emphasized in introductory biology classes. I also cover Darwin’s theories of gradualism (including the nuance of punctuated equilibrium); descent from a common ancestor; multiplication of species; and sexual selection. I emphasize that five of the theories explain the patterns of evolution, while natural and sexual selection are the mechanisms that drive evolution. Read the rest of this entry