The Big Questions: Does evidence undermine religion?

As mentioned previously, I attended the filming of The Big Questions on Sunday, January 11th. The topic for this episode was, ‘Does evidence undermine religion?’ I’ve done a pre-amble explaining the different degrees of evidence, now I’m going to illustrate how this differentiation impacts theistic claims. I’m going to pick on the theists, for the most part.

I’m going to follow the order of the programme, which you can view, here, and I’ll supply the time-stamps for each bit. Where I quote the panelists I will edit out irrelevancies … and I’ll resist the urge to point out faulty English, because at least one of the panelists has English as a second language.

Nicky Campbell says, “…you [Robert Feather] believe that you’ve actually discovered the mountain where the commandments were meant to have been handed down.”

Robert Feather replies, “Probably, yes. The exact mountain, in fact.”

So, we start off with equivocation. He started with the reasonable, “Probably, yes”, but immediately switched to the overblown “The exact mountain, in fact.” So we’re off to a bad start. The main thrust of Feather’s argument seems to be that because he found a mountain that conforms to some Biblical descriptions, that Moses was real, and by extension, the Bible is true. My response to that: I highly recommend a book called ‘The Historian’, which goes into great detail, both historical and more current, about Istanbul and Budapest, and therefore Dracula is real.

We then have a lesson in what a ‘degal’ is. What’s interesting here is that Feather claims that this number was mistranslated as 1000, when it is a much lower number. He plumps for around 50-60. According to Strong’s Concordance a ‘degal’ is a banner or a standard. Given that the Exodus is effectively an origin story, and given the numerous other instances of hyperbole when translating these stories (I recommend looking up how big Solomon’s temple actually was), would it not be easiest to suggest that each banner was a family with a man at it’s head? That makes any Exodus to be 605 families (of between two and six people, say) and that might explain a lack of archaeological evidence for any Exodus whatsoever. Alternatively, could this be a story about 605 families who were followers of Akhenaten (the first Egyptian to be a monotheist), who fled Egypt when Akhenaten died, to the relative safety of the outskirts of the Empire (i.e. Canaan)? I only mention this, because Feather has advocated for the Akhenaten thesis in the past (see his book The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran: The Essene Record of the Treasure of Akhenaten). Or, either of these could be the case, but involving 605 individual men who went on to start their own families… which is more plausible still. Or, and this seems even more likely, it’s just a story.

Is it now that I point to the recent study that found that children who are presented with Biblical stories as historical facts are less able to distinguish truth from fiction when presented with non-Biblical fairy stories?

Professor Stavrakopoulou (hereafter, Francesca) corrects a number of Feather’s overstatements (e.g. “the exact mountain”), and in response Feather goes on the offensive. Interestingly, he claims that Francesca has been “overtaken by a flood of archaeological and textual information.” He then proceeds to ask whether she is aware of Beno Rothenberg. This is an interesting question, and one that I would turn back on Feather. Beno Rothenberg died in 2012. Furthermore, aside from a couple of papers on metallurgy, the bulk of Rothenberg’s work is from last century. Is Feather suggesting that information that is more than a decade old can be characterized as current? Feather also makes a big deal about the Merneptah Stele. Is this part of his “flood of archaeological and textual information” by which Francesca has been overtaken? The Merneptah Stele was uncovered in 1896, and the translation, which questionably includes the key word, Israel, was from the following year (Petrie & Spiegelberg, 1897).

At this point the conversation shifted to a Jewish interpretation, courtesy of Rabbi Miriam Berger. There’s really not much to say, here. The Rabbi accepts that the story is likely metaphorical (though I would go further and say that Yahweh is, too), and that she would get shivers if some element of the story that was true could be rooted in a real world location, but that it’s not necessary for the identity that her faith provides. Great. Perfectly sensible.

Next up is Doctor Radica Antic. Now I am going to admit that I found this man intensely annoying, and this will likely come out in what I say. Indeed, I’ll get my complaint off my chest now. This man is a doctor? Of what? Errant nonsense and condescension?

“To make archaeology the measure of all truth is so wrong. And it simply, it does not stand…”

He says a lot more, but I want to get to grips with the above, because this underscores my complaint about definitions of evidence. First, Antic sets up a strawman by claiming that anyone has suggested that archaeology is the font of all knowledge. Indeed, that is more commonly a claim from theism. Richard Carrier, a well-known historian, places history (his own field), as a means to knowledge, behind reason, science, and experience, not least because establishing historical fact requires reason, science and experience. So Antic is right, archaeology is not the measure of all truth, but as he was the one making this claim, he’s begged his own question.

“…To impose atheistic interpretation on the Biblical text it would be like imposing Biblical or theistic understanding on some atheistic work.”

Antic, using “atheistic” to mean ‘scientific and/or materialist’, fails to note that the Bible IS making claims about the nature of reality. Claims that we know to be false. Whether you read the creation as seven actual days (despite the sun not being present until the fourth), or seven epochs, the story itself is still unequivocally wrong. The Noachian flood, as a genetic bottleneck, just makes it more wrong. Indeed, without the claims in Genesis there is no need for the New Testament. If there is no Adam and Eve, and no Fall, then there is no need for Atonement in the person of Jesus Christ, end of story (quite literally).

“First of all, I believe there is God. And IF there is God…”

It amuses me how often theists say ‘IF’, only to assume the conclusion in everything they go on to say. No, let’s stop at ‘If there is God’ and point out that you don’t know if there is, you can’t prove that there is, and your entire worldview (as shown above) is predicated on that IF. I hasten to remind Antic of Matthew 7:26 (And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand). “IF” is linguistic sand, whereas science’s ‘This is what we know, so far’ is, whilst maybe not rock, certainly the driving of piles down into the rock through the ‘IF’ sand.

“The atheistic community, they have no answer, how the universe-cosmos came into existence. Not at all, they are telling us that something comes from nothing. This is an offence to the common sense…”

By “atheistic community” Antic means the ‘scientific community’, so we have a conflation/red herring here, again, which now becomes the basis of a genetic fallacy. He prefers that which comes to us from common sense over careful observation. Common sense has an incredibly poor record for delivering truth (as Adam Rutherford says in response). Indeed most religious texts are written as common sense for that region, and then stray into global or universal concerns. But lets deal with this argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) on this specific topic…

First, God also comes from nothing, or has always existed, which is the same thing. So there is fundamentally no difference between the two. Of course, on a deeper reading, many scientists have a different definition of nothing (e.g. Lawrence Krauss). Second, an appeal to common sense doesn’t work, because most religions (including Christianity) agree with science that we only know of one universe for certain, the one we’re in. In order for something to be common sense we need to have been in a position to witness something repeatedly, and deduced the correct response accordingly, so common sense simply can’t provide us with an answer (Arif Ahmed makes much the same point, but with reference to statistical probability). Those who clapped to Antic’s comments, here, are applauding willful ignorance, and should be ashamed of themselves.

“…200 constants in the Universe… and if only one, if only one of these constants is changed, nothing would exist… then how did life started. Dawkins is telling us pure, sheer chance. …if there is God, then he speaks, and he speaks also in the Bible, then your questions about Noah’s Ark… because there are miracles all around us.”

As is the case with many theists, Antic makes discussion of biological evolution equivalent to cosmic evolution (an equivocation), presumably because the Bible considers these events in the same chapter and/or because they both use the word evolution. They are, of course, not alike, and have around seven billion years separating them (rather than seven days/epochs in which to occur).

That being said, Antic unwittingly provides exactly the same definition for miracle that I do: a lack of understanding of the underlying mechanics makes something seem ‘amazing and inexplicable’. Once you have even a slightly better understanding of what’s going on, then you lose the ‘inexplicable’ and are left with just ‘amazing’. Indeed, it is only through believing the creationist account, and the flood, that you can believe in miracles. Once you lose belief in these fairy stories everything becomes more explicable, and thus less miraculous.

This, by the way, is the main claim that I am making with my own research, that religion is self-perpetuating, in that it encourages belief in easy-to-believe stories, but that belief makes the world a scarier and more surprising place, and fear (or at least anxiety) is a fundamental driver of religious belief.

This is the bit that makes me think that Antic is a condescending fool: In response to Adam’s perfectly sensible and (importantly) circumspect comments, he said, “Of course you don’t know [how the universe began] [more cheering from the peanut gallery].” You don’t know either, Antic. You believe some ill-founded guesswork from 3000 years ago, which was immediately superseded, at about the same time, by the nascent science of the Greeks, which you choose to ignore. I suspect that Antic is, intentionally or otherwise, unaware of the sheer volume of work that has been done in science. Whilst science can’t discount the possibility of a god, it certainly will not the God of the Bible.

And now we get onto Hamza Tzortzis, another self-impressed apologist, but this time for Islam (I want to point out that I very much enjoyed listening to Maajid Nawaz on the previous episode, before anyone jumps up and accuses me of Islamophobia). Tzortzis turns to, I presume Adam Rutherford and, in a manner that you would adopt if speaking to a toddler (i.e. not humble), claims that we need to have, “epistemic humility.” I’m going to go ahead and guess that he recently discovered The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and read the bit about ‘Wisdom’.

“The point is, is that scientists are limited to the observations they have at hand, there can be a future observation that denies previous conclusions. It’s in flux. This is the beauty of science.”

This is actually an excellent point, at least on the surface (and before he goes on to ruin it with what else he has to say). The implication, in a deeper reading, is that the entirety of science can be overturned by a new observation. This is incorrect. Science, like the human mind, is a recursive process, as such it is hugely common to be garden-pathed by a particular line of enquiry or theorising. (An example being the geocentric model, and the heliocentric (Copernican) revolution.) However, once findings get to a certain point there is nothing that can overturn them, for example, Einstein’s theories of relativity refined Newton’s, they didn’t overturn them. Certainly there is no finding that will make any creationist account true (if anyone wants to challenge me on that I’ll happily explain why, but it’s beyond the scope of this writing). Likewise, no findings will suddenly find that the Qur’an’s discussion of embryology is true. Indeed, the Qur’an relied upon a subset of what was known from the work of Galen and others, and science has moved beyond that. Scientific knowledge has only improved, and most new findings refine existing theories rather than overturning them. Most of those that were overturned outright (like geocentrism and female sperm) were based in religious views… which is bad news for what Tzortzis is trying to achieve with his (faux) epistemic humility.

“Are you going to use science as a yardstick for absolute truth? No! No sincere scientist would say that because we’re bound to change. We’re limited human beings, one day we look at the horizon, we think it’s flat. Next minute learn about maths, and know it’s round. So the point is, let’s have epistemic humility.”

No scientist would lay claim to absolute truth, because that’s a religious claim. “Epistemic humility” is built into science, not least because science doesn’t lay claim to a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. Note, also, how Tzortzis makes my point by talking about the flat horizon, the discovery of maths, and the knowledge that the earth is round. Does he honestly think THAT observation is going to be overturned?

“The issue is this, why are we imprisoned, from an epistemic perspective? Why is it only science? What about philosophy, reason, maths, logic, other forms to truth? Because what we’ve done we’re presuming a scientism here, and scientism is limited.”

Right. Hamza is sitting opposite two philosophers, Peter Cave and Arif Ahmed, both of whom adopt knowledge from science to inform their philosophizing. There are philosophers of various sciences who have a very active role in the science of which they are philosophers, and their input into that science is significant. Of course reason, maths, and logic actually form the very basis of science, so Tzortzis is begging the question for these to be used instead of science. Various theisms have attempted to employ these things to strengthen their arguments – that seldom works out well:

“Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
― Martin Luther

“Credo quia absurdum” (paraphrase)

“I believe because it is absurd.”
– Tertullian.

Now we have Vince Vitale, jumping in after a direct question to Antic, by Ahmed.

“In terms of the explosive force of the Big Bang, if you just conceptualise it… it’s the slightest bit stronger, it literally disperses into thin air. …The slightest bit weaker and it all collapses back in on itself.”

I find it amusing that this guy encourages us to conceptualise it, and then fails to conceptualise it himself. For starters, the contents of the Big Bang will NOT “disperse into thin air”, because there is no “thin air” for it to disperse into (and ‘void’ has the benefit of being only one word, not two). This illustrates the anthropocentric nature of theism. A devout theist seems only able to conceptualize things from a human perspective (and hence an anthropomorphic God, in shape of body and/or shape of thought). It is outside the grasp of their imagination to remove the human element from the imagination and to act purely as a passive observer. What’s even more absurd is that Vitale thinks he’s delivered a knock–out argument as to why the universe must be finely tuned, but instead he’s delivered a knock-out argument as to why neither of the universes that he’s described is the one we live in. There may well have been prior iterations of this universe (or other regions of spacetime), whether due to a Big Bounce, or Smolin Selection Theory that fit his description… but if there were, neither we, nor anything like us, would live in it.

Then Antic rejoins the conversation:

“If ever, if ever there are enough evidences [to prove evolution true]… I would lose my faith in God, yes. If there is enough evidences, but there are no evidences.”

Antic is incorrect, for two reason:

  1. there are mountains of evidence, he has just systematically avoided being presented with it, or paying attention when presented with it, or, and this seems most likely, doesn’t understand it.
  2. the evidence merely supports the theory of evolution, evolution itself is a fact, for which the theory is our best explanation.

So Antic is ignoring the fact, the theory, AND the evidence for that theory. I think it safe to call that ignorance. And in this forum he is, arguing that his ignorance is better than someone else’s hard-won knowledge. Of course, because that knowledge doesn’t come from personal experience (of evolution itself), or from hearing a story about someone else’s personal experience, it does not count as evidence. Recall the three definitions of ‘evident’ I gave previously, and notice how Antic is relying solely on the weakest one.

Antic then goes on to show how truly, gob-smackingly hypocritical he is in his response to Adam Rutherford:

“More humbleness would help you… what we know is very, very little.”


Is this the face of a humble man?

The lack of humility in this demand for humility is astonishing. His lack of self-awareness about his lack of humility is saddening (and this is a common problem with fervent and fundamentalist theists). There can be nothing more humble than asking the universe for the answer, and actually listening to the reply, and Antic would do well to remember this. Instead, all of his knowledge, or rather, beliefs, have been gained from listening to other people, and believing them. This might make him a half-decent friend, but a lousy scientist or philosopher.

Here, Vince Vitale scores an excellent own goal, and doesn’t realize it.

“His [audience member’s] point is that… if evolution is the sole guiding principle of human development, that is aimed at survival, not at truth. And if that’s the case, it sounds a bit like we get on the scale and think it should tell us the time. Why should we believe that our thoughts, our beliefs…”

And the audience member clarifies:

“I think my point was missed out. Um, look, you can believe in evolution, and believe in a creator, there’s not contradiction between the two. That wasn’t my point. My point was purely from an atheistic paradigm, right, there is no God, there is no intelligence behind this universe… assuming Darwinian evolution is true (even though science is based on induction – it can be wrong)… assuming it’s true, how can you trust your mind, when your mind is a product of a blind evolutionary process, which doesn’t have an end goal. If the end goal is pure rationality, then we should have the same rationality as…”

I suppose we should be grateful that Vince characterizes evolution somewhat accurately. Although that scale/clock metaphor is just bizarre. What he, and the audience member in question, fails to observe, is that we are getting better at detecting actual truth because truth is ultimately better for our survival (as Ahmed says). The human species has established itself as flexible survivalists with a pragmatic understanding of our surroundings. We assume, for example, that the thing we half see from the corner of our eye is dangerous, and we turn to confirm or disconfirm that. As such, our basest urges and reflexes are indeed pragmatic and survival-oriented. But our meta-cognitive functions evolved to enable us to break deadlocks of two pragmatically equivalent drives.

We often hear of the fight/flight/freeze response. There are incredibly few cases where, when in danger, freezing is appropriate. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the two options are just fight or flight. Freezing occurs when the two options are deadlocked. Thanks to our evolved capacity for breaking this deadlock we now know (or at least we would, had we read the appropriate survival handbook) when it is appropriate to freeze, run, shin up a tree, make lots of noise and flap our hands around, and when it is appropriate to attack. Notice that I just listed five reactions to what would previously have been the three of fight, flight or freeze, and that’s before we get to brandish a flaming brand, flinging a spear at it, or shooting it between the eyes. That is what our intelligence is for, and that is, very roughly, how it works.

…and it’s at this point, about half way through the episode, that I admit defeat, both on the basis of available time, and sheer mental exhaustion. The devout theists in this episode held the floor for longer than any of the pragmatic theists or atheists did (I apologise to Rabbi Miriam Berger and Professor Joan Taylor for making the distinction in that way, but it really was the only one I could think of). Whilst the theists held the floor they said a great deal, whilst also saying very little. And the atheists (in the main) spent more time correcting them than making their own points. As illustrated above, the theists consistently presented opinion as fact, denied any opposing facts that were presented to them by people who were in the right field of study to be able to contradict them, and then demanded humility, whilst displaying none.

What this episode illustrates is that people who are fundamentalist or fervent in a given religion are blind to their own shortcomings and deaf to contrary evidence. Those that are a little more open-minded, are only so in a sophist fashion; they continue to argue the theistic point, but with a veneer of plausible-sounding philosophy and quasi-scientific language, and usually in a rehearsed fashion. Only the theists that treat their religion as metaphorical, or as an organizing framework for more esoteric thought, sound sensible. This seems to be because they also use science to organize their lives, a fact which allows them the luxury of considering their esoteric thoughts in the first instance.

My research suggests that the monotheistic God is a construct derived from human social thought, as a reaction to the overwhelming number of people in our social world. This overwhelms the minds of some, and makes it impossible to view the world in anything but human terms. The switching off of the social module is no longer possible in this overwhelmed state. This process is reinforced by stories and mythologies from religion, not because of the stories themselves, but because in believing those stories, much more about the world comes as a surprise. Surprise leads to fear, or at least anxiety, and both reduce cognitive abilities. Anxiety is the equivalent of running on three out of four cylinders, semi-permanently, and fear is the equivalent of running on one or two cylinders, over short periods of time (this fact giving birth to the absurd trope that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’).

Watching this episode, it was easy to see whose ability to use social thinking to monitor their own behaviour was impaired. It was also easy to see who, when made anxious about the veridicality of their beliefs, lost the ability to string a sentence together without self-contradiction or fallacious reasoning. Others had the defence mechanism of only listening for keywords, and reacting to what they though they heard, often with a rehearsed spiel. None of these behaviours was evident from the atheists or pragmatic theists who responded to the question asked, or position stated, with a considered reply…

This is our modern world, in microcosm.

Truth vs. Reality

Truth is a label, its opposite label is falsehood. Truth and falsehood are the products of language and the intent with which it is deployed. A falsehood is one thing, in the minds of many of those who search for ‘truth’, but a falsehood is achieved in a number of ways. A falsehood can either be a mistaken depiction of reality, or an intentional mischaracterisation of reality, and even these can be drilled down to yet more basic levels, at times indistinguishable from each other (more on that later).

A mistaken depiction of reality is not a lie, it is a mistaken depiction of reality – for it to be a lie it must be intentionally misleading. But even mistaken depictions of reality have potential value, even as claims to ‘the truth’ may have no value whatsoever, in a given circumstance. This is utilitarianism of a sort. At issue is the admixture of elements in a given statement, and where those elements come from. The provenance, if you will. Let’s start with a certain type of provenance, one that, more often than not, leads individuals to falsehoods of the ‘mischaracterisation of reality’ variety.

An individual that uncritically takes on the opinions of another individual, usually some kind of authority figure (no comment, here, as to the basis of that authority), may well hold the given statement as true. The most obvious example is the child that takes on the opinion of the parent – all children do this, at least for a time. It is necessary. Such opinions make up the environment in which the child lives, so it has truth-value, albeit that it may not be true. The child takes that truth out into the world, and if it maintains its value, then it becomes ‘a truth’ (even though it may be different from reality).

To be clear, ‘world’ is a comparative term – ‘society’ might be more correct, even though the world is made up of both society, and societies, cultures and sub-cultures. This is somewhat the point. A hand-me-down ‘truth’ maintains value depending on how far the holder of that ‘truth’ strays from the culture in which that ‘truth’ is ‘true.’ A home-schooled child in a gated community is not going to crash-test such a ‘truth’ as rigorously as a child in a multi-cultural community with ready access to the Internet.

There are adults that maintain ‘truths’ in this manner; indeed most adults still have ‘truths’ handed down from their parents that have not had the opportunity to be crash-tested in the ‘real’ world (more on that shortly). But there are adults that, like lost children, move from authority figure to authority figure harvesting ‘truths.’ (It would be right to call these ‘truths’ opinions in most contexts, but as a ‘truth’ is ‘true’ by virtue of its ‘truth value’ let us maintain this nomenclature.) The issue with such ‘truths’ is that they are handed down without an audit-trail of constituent and contributory ‘truths’. They are encapsulated pearls of ‘wisdom,’ ‘impervious bubbles of truth’. Impervious because, with no foundation, they can float above any foundational beliefs, and they contain no support in the individual’s thinking processes that would crumble under concerted attacks thereon. They can harmlessly bounce off each other, even (and maybe especially) when these bubbles are contradictory, as their deployment is often situationally specific, and as such, these ‘truths’ seldom come into contact with each other.

It would be easy to mock such an individual for such shallowness, and seemingly catastrophic stupidity. Now, where do your reactions and intuitions come from? There is a large part of the brain that we seldom have direct access to, but from which ‘truths’ bubble up. These are everything from the positive-sounding ‘intuition’ to the negative-sounding ‘stereotype,’ though there is no major difference between these two names for approximately the same thing. These are ‘truths’ that bubble up from our sub-conscious (not ‘the’ subconscious, but our sub-conscious, everything beneath the level of consciousness), and these ‘truths’ come to us without an audit-trail of constituent and contributory ‘truths’.

Of course, some of us are more inclined than others to subject such ‘truths’ to scrutiny. We may apologise for words reactively said in anger (‘our truth’), but that doesn’t mean that we won’t say exactly the same thing the next time the right combination of buttons is pushed. Then again, we may consciously fail to tell ‘the truth’ because of the embarrassing position we’ve been put in by ‘a truth.’ They are ‘our truths’, our prejudices, one might even say, ‘our reality.’

No one can lay claim to ‘the truth.’ Everyone can lay claim to ‘a truth.’ The value of these ‘truths’ is in their utility – but only in the first instance – and it is the first instance that a great many people remain focused on. Much more importantly, the value of these ‘truths’ lies in one’s relationship with the source of such ‘truths,’ and how many degrees of separation there are between oneself and reality, whatever that may be, in truth.