This is a continuation of my thoughts on Christianity in the Light of Science, the latest (atheist?) anthology from John Loftus. My other posts in this ‘series’ can be found here.
Part 1. ‘Science and Religion’ consists of three essays:
- ‘How to think like a Scientist: why Every Christian Can and Should Embrace Good Thinking’ (Guy P. Harrison)
- ‘A Mind is a Terrible Thing: How Evolved Cognitive Biases Lead to Religion (and Other Mental Errors)’ (David Eller)
- ‘What Sciences Tells Us About Religion: Or, Challenging Humanity to “Let it God”‘ (Sharon Nichols)
William Lane Craig doesn’t feature at all; instead, what is argued against is a particularly low-brow form of Christianity that, we’re told, hates thinking, and reason, and all those lovely things.
Harrison’s chapter requires a form of Christianity that is anti-thought, writing:
- ‘Thinking threatens Christianity; it’s as simple as that.’ (27)
- ‘But we are all diminished and cheated when so many versions of Christianity encourage or demand people to think with less force and clarity than they are capable.’ (29)
- ‘Christianity’s overarching opposition to Good Thinking is the crucial challenge…’ (30)
- ‘If one is a human being, one needs it (good thinking). Christians who insist on thinking themselves too bright or too credentialed to ever be a sucker…’ (34)
- ‘A Christian who has embraced … Good Thinking is a Christian who is likely to be on her way to the exit soon–but only because she decides it makes sense’ (39)
Harrison tries to give the impression that a Christian could practice ‘Good Thinking’ and remain a Christian, but it’s a meager facade that doesn’t hold up given the purpose of the book. With William Lane Craig featuring so heavily in the foreword, why not raise the bar, and target a more substantial form of Christianity?
In David Eller’s chapter we are told about brain evolution, and cognitive biases. The chapter itself is interesting, though it’s more than clear that Eller hasn’t escaped his own (cognitive) biases. In a section titled ‘Christianity as Cognitive Bias’ he has this to say (66):
If anchoring as a heuristic device is a shortcut to decision-making by relying excessively on one idea or bit of information, then WWJD does the trick. The worst of Christian teachers, like the early church father Tertullian, were explicit that Christians should anchor their thought to religion and admit no other sources: “After Jesus Christ,” Tertullian wrote, “we have no need of speculation, after the the Gospel no need of research. When we come to believe, we have no desire to believe anything else; for we begin by believing that there is nothing else which we have to believe”. As if religious ideas were not dangerous enough on their own, theologians from Augustine to Martin Luther taught that believers should distrust and avoid knowledge and reasoning, which they warned–quite rightly!–would undermine the faith.
This is not at all what Tertullian is saying, as I showed here. It’s quite a strange thing to emphasize good thinking and an awareness of bias, and then blatantly misinterpret Tertullian to fit your agenda.
As far as brain evolution is concerned, I find it very difficult to dismiss religion without committing some kind of genetic fallacy. What does brain evolution have to do with the existence of God? I suspect nothing, one way or the other. It’s disappointing that for all the talk about William Lane Craig – which I would take as an indication that other high caliber Christian thinkers will be mentioned – Eller never once addressed Plantinga’s ‘Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism’, or the traditional ‘Argument from Reason’. Ed Feser has a good explanation of both, here.
Sharon Nichols chapter follows the same vein of thought, but is a bit all over the place. First, destructive opposition to climate change; second; destruction opposition to (science) text books; third, evolution, religion, and cognitive science; fifth, the definition of culture and religion; sixth, critical thinking, and the ‘scientific method of inquiry’ (90). Her conclusion seems to be that religion is evil, but the argument to get there is hamfisted.
What would a reader learn from Part 1. ‘Science and Religion’? Harrison engages in a ‘scientistic’ (as in, scientism) definition of ‘Good Thinking’, but the principles are decent if you can divorce them from their errant philosophical underpinnings. Eller probably has the best chapter out of the three, and learning about cognitive bias, and the evolutionary development of the brain, aren’t bad things to know; it is unfortunate, however, that his anti-Christian bit stumbles along the very same lines he’s using to criticize religion. Nichols gives what is basically an overview of what’s been happening in the Southern United States in recent years, and you’ll find no objections from me that the South isn’t a bit odd (or worse) generally. But, there wasn’t a great deal of substance to her chapter. Does this section satisfy the requirements of a ‘critical’ examination? No, far from it. There is no interaction with opposing viewpoints; the target is a poor formulation of Christianity (one that, I understand, is quite possibly particular to the United States, but that is nevertheless far from the best ‘Christianity’ on offer); and, no actual examination takes place: we’re presented with some information, told that this is how it is, and if we only thought properly we’d agree. In spite of this, I’m hopeful for part 2, ‘Science and Creationism’.