Thoughts on part 1. ‘Science and Religion’ in ‘Christianity in the Light of Science’

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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’.

‘Wrong Think’ Witchhunts

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Philosophy / Theology

Richard Swinburne has managed to rile up the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP). How do you rile up philosophers? One way is to defend the traditional, Christian view of sexuality. Philosophers deal in all manner of offense causing ideas – to start apologizing lest someone’s been offended? Disappointing.

Ed Feser’s written a stinging criticism of SCP President Michael Rea’s (virtue signaling?) Facebook apology, and it’s well worth the read. Michael Rea owes Richard Swinburne an apology

Here’s a sample:

Fourth, Rea says that because he is “committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community,” he is “consequently… committed to the values of diversity and inclusion.” Well, fine. So what’s the problem, exactly? “Diversity and inclusion” in the context of “the intellectual life of [a] philosophical community” surely entails that a “diversity” of opinions and arguments be “included” in the discussion. Now, Swinburne’s view is unpopular these days. It is often not “included” in philosophical discussions of sexual morality, discussions which tend not to be “diverse” but instead are dominated by liberal views. Hence having Swinburne present the views he did is precisely a way of advancing the cause of “diversity and inclusion.” Yet Rea treats it as if it were the opposite. Why?

David Eller: The Mind is a Terrible Thing

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Atheism / Philosophy / Theology

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.

In the penultimate section of his chapter in Christianity in the Light of Science, David Eller presents ‘Christianity as Cognitive Bias’. In making this claim he writes the following:

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 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 religious faith.1

What might a Christian think of this quote from Tertullian, and the idea that ‘theologians from Augustine to Martin Luther taught that believers should distrust and avoid knowledge and reasoning…’? Let’s turn to (Christian) philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s essay, ‘The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship’, where on the quote in question he writes:

Tertullian wasn’t a fool, after all; he doesn’t mean literally that there is nothing else at all that we have to believe. I need to have beliefs about what my name is, where I live, how to get to my office, and whether pizza is more nourishing than mud; and those things are not, so far as I know, revealed in the Scripture. What Tertullian meant is something different and very much worth thinking about. In pursuing the rhetorical or interpretative disciplines, our aim is to understand ourselves and our world and the relationship between us and it; but doesn’t Christianity already give us what we need to know along those lines? What is the world fundamentally like, and what is our place in it? Christianity gives us the answer: the world is fundamentally God’s creation. The same God who created the world also created us human beings in his image. We human beings, however, have fallen into sin, thus bringing ruin upon ourselves and our world; we require rescue and salvation. God has graciously offered a means for restoring us to health and wholeness; this is accomplished through death and resurrection of the man Jesus Christ, who is also the second person of the Trinity. Through him we can have justification and eternal life.

And now Tertullian’s point: there are some who keep trying to do research into the questions whether the fundamental lineaments and contours of Christianity are indeed true. Often they wind up convinced that these basic Christian claims cannot be true, as they stand; so they offer various substitutes of their own invention. Among the prime examples in our own day, oddly enough, are theologians, ‘liberal’ theologians who have given up the gospel and its claims and who propose various pale and ghostly substitutes. A century ago absolutely idealism was a popular substitute; now it is considerably harder to figure out what these theologians propose, but certain brands of Heideggerian existentialism seem to be popular. For the serious Christian, however, this is wholly anomalous; as a Christian she already knows the answer to those questions; she doesn’t need further research on them, and she doesn’t need any of those sickly and lifeless substitute.

So here Tertullian is correct, and what he says is important. But can be properly conclude that we Christians don’t need those theoretical and interpretive disciplines – philosophy, psychology, literary studies, history, economics, sociology, the natural science? Here the Reformed tradition is nearly unanimous: certainly not. So I shall not waste valuable time arguing the point; that would be like carrying coals to Newcastle, or perhaps banket to Friesland.2

It’s fairly obvious who has the better understanding of Tertullian. It also causes me to wonder what biases inform Eller’s view of Christianity and Christians, and whether those biases have gotten in the way of his understanding of Tertullian, resulting in the misrepresentation/misinterpretation we read above. The same goes for his assertion regarding Augustine, Luther, et al. Certainly it hasn’t been my experience that I should distrust and avoid knowledge and reasoning. The same is true for Plantinga, and countless other Christians. For that matter, if Eller is correct that ‘”Christianity” is a dizzyingly diverse congeries of sects’, then why write against Christianity as if it’s monolithic? And why write against arguably the worst forms of Christian faith? This ruins what would otherwise be an interesting chapter on cognitive bias.

  1. David Eller, ‘A Mind is a Terrible Thing’ in Christianity in the Light of Science, ed. John Loftus (New York: Prometheus Books, 2016), 66. Tertullian’s quote is taken from De praescriptione haereticorum; see S.L. Greenslade, Early Latin Theology, Library of Christian Classics V (1956), 19 – 64 for an English translation
  2. Alvin Plantinga, ‘The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship’ in Seeking Understanding: The Stob lectures 1986 – 1998 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 141 – 142. 

A Technical Note

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A few weeks ago I started looking into Squarespace as an alternative to WordPress, as with Nascent Thinker I wanted a solution where I could focus on the content, and not have to worry too much about the theme, hosting, and so forth. Squarespace was the obvious choice:

  • Pretty themes, with decent dev tools (SFTP, Git, Less, and so on). This is something should look into
  • It’s a hosted service, so I don’t need to worry about hosting or managing a server
  • As it’s hosted they do backups
  • They offer support
  • The back-end interface looks polished

There isn’t much you could fault Squarespace with, and so I signed up for a month. However, there were a two things that have ultimately led me back to (self-hosted) WordPress:

  • No site-wide SSL, or the option to add a SSL certificate (yet)
  • Limited environment access
  • The back-end interface, while polished, would often play havoc with the fans in my Macbook Pro; also, I could see content management becoming needlessly difficult once you have more than a couple dozen posts
  • Limited widget support compared to WordPress’ 30,000+ available plugins
  • No usable mobile app

So, back to WordPress. This time I’m on a $5 Digital Ocean droplet, setup with Serverpilot. If you’re comfortable managing your own hosting / server, then this kind of setup is the way to go. Digital Ocean is now charging for snapshots, so instead I’ve opted for VaultPress, and because Jetpack now has a Markdown module, I no longer have to write in HTML – WYSIWYG is not an option.

For anyone interested, I’m using the Cocoa Theme by Elma Studio.

A Few Brief Thoughts on Guy P. Harrison’s essay, ‘How to Think Like a Scientist’

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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.

I’ve just finished reading Guy P. Harrison’s essay, ‘How to think like a Scientist: Why Every Christian can and Should Embrace Good Thinking’ (Christianity in the Light of Science, 28 – 46), and one word comes to mind: patronising. I’m not very familiar with American Christianity, but the descriptions of Christians as being unthinking or opposed to thinking would be little more than fiction in my experience.

Harrison is of course correct, however, that everyone should embrace good thinking practices. No one in their right mind would disagree, but does practicing good thinking mean thinking like a scientist? That’s more debateable; why not, for example, think like a philosopher?

In any case, what I actually wanted to mention is a bit of word play that I noticed. Here are a few quotes for context:

‘Thinking threatens Christianity”; “Most forms of Christianity threaten or discourage…” (27)

“But we all are 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… “(30)

“Many Christians accuse science of being unreliable…” (42)

On the one hand we have Christianity, and on the other ‘most forms of Christianity’, or ‘many versions of Christianity’, or ‘many Christians’. Is this an attempt to insulate the argument from replies that might point out that there are plenty of educated, intelligent, good thinking Christians who, regardless, find Christianity compelling and the alternatives less so? My own experience of Christianity has been the exact opposite of what Harrison is describing, so what does Harrison do in that case? I would hope that we could agree on the value of good thinking and leave it at that, but I’m not so sure. He goes further:

“A Christian who has embraced these seven pillars of 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)

In any other book I would take this as a genuine acknowledgment that a good thinking Christian could remain a Christian, i.e. Christianity makes more sense to that person than the alternatives do. But, not only is Christianity in the Light of Science a book about defeating Christianity, one of this chapter’s central ideas involves teaching Christians the tenets of good thinking, and in doing so religion will take care of itself (so don’t get caught up on minor claims). Yes, certainly not my experience.

Now that I think about it more, Harrison’s chapter is a bit schizophrenic. It’s a guide to other atheists on a method of defeating Christian claims (teach Christians to think), but it’s also a guide for Christians on what it means to think (like a scientist). Puzzling.

Ed Feser on a Presentist Objection to the Kalām Cosmological Argument

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Christianity / Philosophy / Theology

While I’m on the topic of the kalām (see my last post, it might be worth mentioning Ed Feser’s recent posts on presentism and the kalām, which you can find here:

A difficulty for Craig’s Kalām Cosmological Argument?
Yeah, but is it actually actually infinite?

From the first:

The reason this is a problem is that Craig is a presentist. That is to say, he thinks that it is present things and events alone that exist. Past objects and events don’t exist anymore, and future objects and events don’t yet exist. (This contrasts with theories of time like the “growing block” theory, which holds that past and present things and events exist, with the present being the growing edge of a block universe; and with the eternalist view that all things and events, whether past, present, or future, all equally exist.)

Frank Zindler and John Loftus Set the Stage

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Atheism / Christianity

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.

Having now read the foreword and introduction to Christianity in the Light of Science, I’m not sure what to think. In the first instance, Frank Zindler gives the impression that Christianity in the Light of Science is a collection of essays written for the purpose of refuting arguments offered by William Lane Craig. He refers to Craig 11 times over the course of his three page foreword, writing, ‘it is sobering to realise how many different experts have been needed to refute his multifarious and nefarious claims’1. Accordingly, Christianity in the Light of Science is a ‘full-service manual of counter-apologetics’2. In the other instance, John Loftus tells us that the purpose of Christianity in the Light of Science is to critically examine ‘Christianity and her many sects’ in light of, or by the results of science.3 In contrast with Zindler, Loftus mentions Craig only once, and unlike the foreword we’re given the impression that Christianity in general is in view, rather than William Lane Craig particularly. Either Zindler is intensely focused on Craig, or Loftus’ description is more general than the essays themselves are – we’ll find out. This confusion aside, what else do we learn from the foreword and introduction?


Zindler’s emphasis on Craig isn’t without reason. There are a further 85 references to Craig, in addition to the 11 in the foreword, over the book’s 399 pages. The overall impression of the foreword is that each of the book’s 15 chapters will refute a particular claim made by Craig, each in the process showing Craig’s God to be a ‘god of the gaps’4. Zindler pulls from chapter 5 (‘Before the Big Bang’), and uses the Kalam Cosmological Argument5 as an example of one such claim. He provides two reasons why we should think that the Kalam is a god of the gaps argument: (1) the Kalam relies on claims that are impossible to test, such as God existing before the big bang, and therefore scientifically meaningless; (2) the Kalam relies on are claims ‘that may someday prove possible to test but can’t yet be answered by science one way or the other’.6 He further argues that ‘only beyond the frontiers of Science can Craig’s deity find a place to hide’7, but this isn’t the impression I got from skimming chapter 5. Rather, the Kalam is argued to be suspect on the grounds that we do not know if the universe had a beginning, which is a refutation of the Kalam’s second premiss. It’s implied that since Craig relies heavily on modern cosmology, his formulation of the Kalam is too susceptible to advances in the relevant sciences. Zindler’s rhetoric is perhaps getting in the way here, as I see no reason to conclude on the back of this that Craig’s God is a god of the gaps, nor does this seem to be the intended aim of chapter 5.

Zindler claims that if any of the arguments in Christianity in the Light of Science is true, then ‘Craig’s war is lost… due to the ad hoc way in which all of his arguments must be cobbled together’8. There’s a brief mention of chapter 12 (‘Pious Fraud at Nazareth’) here, but no reason is given to think why this might be the case. Instead, Zindler asserts that science is mostly immune to such strategies, and that apologists like Craig commit a medieval logical fallacy known as ignotum per ignotius: to explain the unknown by means of the even more unknown. I suspect, however, that Zindler means the ignotum per aeque ignotum fallacy, which is to explain the unknown by the equally unknown. In the first case, a difficult to understand answer has been provided, but the answer is true. In the second case, an answer that is unknown to be true has been provided. Does this include the supernatural, and count as a god of the gaps argument? I don’t see why it would.

Zindler closes his foreword with an anti-Craig polemic by way of a bizarre comparison with King Canute: ‘Stop, cosmology! Halt, physics! Stay back, evolution! Cease, critical studies of the Bible! Back off, brain physiology!’9 Craig is known to embrace these areas (otherwise, why would so many specialists be needed to refute his claims?), and it cannot reasonably be said that he is working against their progress, or, for that matter, that these areas are necessarily theistic or a-theistic.

The foreword, then, most certainly leaves us with the impression that many of Craig’s arguments are about to be defeated, but I’m not sure that Zindler’s rhetoric forwards the cause. The reader will certainly have been hooked regardless.


The introduction begins with a word of praise and remembrance for Victor Stenger (29 January, 1935 – 25 August, 2014), whose last (known) essay, ‘Christianity and Cosmology’, comprises chapter 4. Loftus then recounts the role of science in his previous books, before launching into his attack on Christian faith.10 We’re given a list of ‘faith-based claims’ that lack any scientific evidence, and therefore don’t require refutation. Rudolf Bultmann is cited in support of the suggestion that many Christian claims have become unbelievable in a ‘scientifically literate world’, and even Christians themselves have started to disbelieve in them.11 There’s the usual bit about theologians putting on a ‘dog and pony show’12. Uta Ranke-Heinemann makes another appearance (cf. Why I Became an Atheist, 2008) as an example for Christians who aren’t consistent, and don’t go far enough in their rejection of Christian claims. Loftus anticipates that Christian apologists will declare faith victorious over science by arguing against the scientism espoused earlier, or by arguing that Loftus’ et al. conclusions are predetermined by a commitment to methodological naturalism. An outline of each of the book’s five sections follows, concluding with an appeal to not to be closed minded about Science. Loftus is sure to mention his ‘Outsider test for faith’, the NOMA principle is taken to task, and an explanation is provided for how people reject science instead of following the evidence. The introduction, then, is typical Loftus, but there are a few things worth further consideration.


In anticipating that ‘Christian apologists will futilely try to scare their progeny with the boogeyman of scientism, declaring their faith victorious because they claim its critics think science can test everything, which is a self-refuting claim’13, Loftus argues that this criticism is only valid if scientism claims with certainty that science can test everything; as long as room is left for reasonable doubt, then there is no issue. But the problem with scientism isn’t that it’s too certain, but that it makes claims that aren’t themselves scientific (or scientifically verifiable). Further, there are questions that are outside scientific inquiry, for example, questions of value, morality, and so on. A possible straw-man is lurking here as well, as I’m not aware of anyone, particularly of Craig’s calibre, who would declare faith victorious over science, or as an alternative to science.

Methodological Naturalism

Loftus challenges the Christian reader to find evidence in Christianity in the Light of Science of conclusions that were predetermined by a commitment to naturalism, but it’s worth considering whether that challenge includes, for example, Loftus’ earlier call for Christians to drop their belief in supernatural claims because the bible is prescientific. Is the issue here that the conclusions are predetermined by a commitment to naturalism, or that the process of examining the evidence and subsequent argumentation is filtered through the lens of naturalism? I suspect the claim, if made, would be the latter. Would a version of the ‘Outsider test for faith’ be applicable here?

Scientific Closemindedness

It’s claimed that believers aren’t ‘open-minded to science’14, but it’s not obvious that this is at all the case. Unless we’re talking about a very specific group, this claim is mostly irrelevant.

NOMA Principle

Loftus takes Stephen Jay Gould to task over his NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) principle, but seems only to assert that Christianity ‘is not factually based’15, and on that basis the NOMA principle can’t save it. This is significant because the NOMA principle underlines the fundamental problem with pitting science against Christianity. If we granted for the sake of argument that science could provide an exhaustive description of the physical universe, one could still posit the existence of God, and metaphysics, theology, philosophy, etc., would proceed as normal. Loftus et al. could defeat all the world’s religions, and the question of God’s existence would remain wide open. The NOMA principle stands intact.


From Zindler we learn that William Lane Craig will be a major figure throughout Christianity in the Light of Science, and from Loftus we receive a number of arguments against Christian faith, some better presented than others. It will be interesting to see what the essays that follow have to offer, and whether they can overcome the difficulties inherent in scientism, or methodological naturalism. We start with Guy P. Harrison’s ‘How to think like a scientist: why everyone Christian can and should embrace good thinking’.

  1. Ibid. 
  2. 13 – 14 
  3. Whatever begins to exist has a cause; the universe began to exist, therefore it has a cause. For more see Kalam
  4. 9 – 10 
  5. 10 
  6. 11 
  7. 14 
  8. 11 
  9. 16 
  10. 17 
  11. 20 
  12. 21 

‘Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion’

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Atheism / Christianity

Prometheus Books has kindly provided me with a copy of John W. Loftus’ new anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion (2016), so I thought what better way to restart Nascent Thinker than by reviewing Loftus’ latest effort.

My hope is to use Christianity in the Light of Science as the basis for a post series either focused on the book itself or as a reference for more general comments on the relationship between atheism and Christianity. I’m also keenly interested to learn how William Lane Craig is treated in light of Frank Zindler’s comments in his foreword:

Perceptive readers will notice that the fantôme gris [gray ghost] of Christian apologist William Lane Craig drifts darkly through many of the chapters of this book, and it lurks unseen in all the rest. It is sobering to realize how many different experts have been needed to refute his multifarious and nefarious claims. At each appearance, however, his gray ghost is bleached into non-existence by the light each author casts upon his shade. Again and again, Craig’s ‘God’ is seen to be a god of the gaps.1

That’s quite the poetic description from Zindler, but will the 15 essays that comprise Christianity in the Light of Science justify the claims being made? Let’s find out.