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Darwin and atheism

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William Crawley | 10:31 UK time, Wednesday, 12 August 2009

charles-darwin-320x240.jpgLate in his life, Charles Darwin received a letter from an atheist author who wished to dedicate his new book to the great scientist. Darwin declined with this letter: "Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follows from the advance of science."

I don't think it follows from this letter, as some have suggested, that Darwin personally resisted full-bodied atheism or naturalism. Darwin's attitude to religion changed over time, and considerable debate continues over his full and final position on the existence of God or the value of religion. The unexpurgated version of his posthumous Autobiography makes it clear to many of us that Darwin had fully embraced what he termed "disbelief" by the end of his days. Claims that he had a death-bed conversion have been overwhelmingly crushed by careful historians like James Moore.

But was Darwin an opponent of religious belief? He certainly disgreed with his very religious wife, Emma, about religion, but he did so with enormous respect for her intelligence and her personal beliefs. He didn't ridicule her religious belief, even though he disagreed with them. To this extent, Darwin was less concerned with battling religion than he was with simply making space for his own views in a world where supernaturalism was presumed. The cultural climate had changed, of course, since the late 19th century, but note Darwin's advice to an atheist campaigner of his own day: the best way to advance freedom of thought (by which he may mean 'naturalism') is not by direct arguments but by doing science well.

If Darwin were alive today, would that still be his advice to the strident atheistic Darwinians of our own day? The science writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-authors of the soon-to-be-published "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future", believe today's New Atheists could learn a trick or two from the Victorian gentleman they so often celebrate. I suspect their comments are a publicity tease; and the New Atheists have already taken the bit between their teeth.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm usually a bit careful about quotes, since they can so easily be used to attribute positions to an author that do not do justice to the full complexity of what they thought. For example, I can give another quote (my emphasis added) from Darwin that expresses a preference for speaking out, which goes directly against the idea that the best way to advance freedom of thought is not by direct arguments but by doing science well:

    "Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for thus only can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed."

  • Comment number 2.

    Will, this assumes that we "new atheists" ARE strident. Darwin was a consummate scientist who made one of the most important scientific advances in history; he was not the founder of a movement. Furthermore, since Darwin's time, we have filled in a heck of a lot of the blanks in many fields; there is no particular reason to assume the existence of a god - even a deistic one.

    But if you look carefully (and I doubt very much that Mooney & Kirshenbaum have done that, from the comments & quotes that I have read), most of the "stridency" of the "new atheists" is directed at RELIGION, and the privileges that it gets in society, as well as the really quite disgusting views that religious hacks promote about people who have no need for gods.

    One of the central errors made by M&K is that the increased profile of atheism either has no effect, or drives moderate religionists into the arms of the crazy fundies. This is not true. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, Myers et al have dramatically increased the quality of reasoning, and have left theologians gibbering incoherently in the tatters of their inane field. The number of people declaring no faith has sky-rocketed. The number of *christians* moving away from the fundamentalist aspect to a more intellectual appreciation of christianity and all its failings has also sky-rocketed. People *do* understand science better, and, whether bliss-ninnies like M&K like it or not, Dawkins is a spectacularly successful communicator of real proper science and real proper critical thinking.

    I have been "out" as an atheist for a number of years now, and a *lot* of my friends and family have sidled up to me quietly over that time - entirely unsolicited - and "confessed" to me that they no longer believe in a god. They are not Dawkins, nor am I, but previously they thought they were somewhat odd - alone. They would even fill in the census sheet saying that they *were* believers, simply because they didn't really have the confidence to say that they weren't. In many of those cases, it was reading books by the "new atheists" that made them realise.

    So, I have to say I reject the notion a/ that "New Atheists" are strident in general; b/ that ALL atheists are as confident and "out there" as the 4 horsemen and one triceratopsman [google PZ MYERS CREATION MUSEUM for the laughs]; c/ that we should ask the standard-bearers (or anyone else) to be respectful of superstition; and d/ that we should shut up.

    There are a lot of people who are delighted that they finally have a voice, and there may well come a time (as Sam Harris has said) when the word "atheist" will be as redundant as "spherical earthist" or "anti-slaveryist" (or whatever). The fact that that annoys the belly-rubbers who are comfy in their theological irrelevancies is neither here nor there. We are moving to a better place, and that always annoys those who have grown fat and languid on the old order. I rather think that Darwin would have come along with us, and I very much hope that his lovely wife Emma would have been able to accompany him (she was Quaker, or Unitarian, I think - some of our regulars would probably consider her an atheist).

    Lennox, McGrath, Mooney, Kirshenbaum, Elsdon-Baker, etc - this means you! :-)

  • Comment number 3.

    as someone who has grown from the brain washing as a child to believe in God and that was in a non catholic primary to comprehensive in secondary here in scotland to then being agnostic then finally in middle age to being an aetheist has been an enlightening journey I thank islam for helping me with my epiphany it highlighted and made stark the absurdity of belief in god , moreover the diplomacy of the religious aristocracy in accomodating the barbarity of there beliefs , its not the God we believe in but, at least its a God as oppossed to not believing in any God at all ,it allows a non critical look at the the subjugation of women the stoning of women , dont misunderstand me we in the west believe in the eye for an eye idea , though where it squares with thou shalt not kill I am not sure , the irony of scotland is here in the land of the unenlightened we continue to have street brawls dressed up in the democratic ideal of free speech though really an opportunity to parade hate of the others who believe in god but, not the God we believe in omit as applicable , strangely i know of no aethiest who hates believers in God the way that believers of God hate other believers of God , the fact that agents of the God industry accomodate each other ie there is actually no debate about the one true God no let your yeah be yeah discussion no debate about psychological cruelty eg the child who dies without being baptized spending there time in limbo I think its akin to purgatory but, most comforting for the parents , frankly all religions are a form of organised psychological cruelty , however all is not lost and the sham called religion and things being done in the name of God are numbered the lie is being rapidly exposed .

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks Jim, but maybe throw a few full stops in there next time, dude! :-)

    To be honest, I think the "clash" is somewhat overplayed. The big thing that most atheists push for is what Darwin seems to be stressing in the quotes in Will's post. It's called Freethought. The ability to doubt and question *everything*. The removal of a requirement to "believe". Belief is just a particular formulation of the fallacy of argument from authority. It sullies the mind. We give up our freedom to disbelieve at our peril (as either n or n-1 of the world's religions prove).

    But then the concept of doing science well is actually rather nicely upheld by Dawkins in particular. Evolution is not *that* difficult to understand, but I can't think of anyone who has done more to increase people's actual understanding of evolution than Dawkins. Gould was also brilliant, if a little too flowery, and some others who are also picking up the thread are doing a brilliant job too - Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin to name but two. (I'm currently reading "Your Inner Fish" - it's excellent). I would also commend Channel 4 for the brilliant "Inside Nature's Giants" series about dissections of a crocodile, giraffe, elephant and - gasp!! - a fin whale.

    Sometimes I wonder a bit about the ire that is directed at Dawkins. Maybe it's because underneath it all, his detractors know that he's *right*. Maybe they realise that given what we now know about science, it is entirely possible (nay, likely) that "god" doesn't exist, or at the very most, all that can be said about god is what he *isn't*. It's a school of thought that goes right back to the Ancient Greeks.

    Say, Will, have you ever had a thread about apophatic theology?

  • Comment number 5.

    And of course I'm not sure it's that important what Darwin's religious beliefs were at any particular point in his life. His work was biology, and in that he was unequaled. Atheist, theist; does knowledge that he was either help the cause of either?

  • Comment number 6.

    "...the best way to advance freedom of thought (by which he may mean 'naturalism') is not by direct arguments but by doing science well."

    freedom of thought = naturalism ??

    This is Henry Ford logic: You are free to hold any philosophy as long as it is naturalism.

    I fail to see how a philosophy which is, in its essence, deterministic, can be the basis of "freedom of thought". I smell a contradiction there.

    Free thought is only free if the thinker has the honesty and courage to go where the evidence leads. So I hope that scientists will quietly carry on investigating our wonderful universe of complexity and mystery, but they will not find any empirical evidence that proves the incontrovertible truth of naturalism, since that is not a scientific, but rather, philosophical question.

    I myself have not felt any threat to my Christian beliefs from science. In fact, the very opposite.

  • Comment number 7.

    logica_sine_vanitate: "they will not find any empirical evidence that proves the incontrovertible truth of naturalism"

    No-one will ever find any evidence in support of supernaturalism - thus it will remain pure speculation, a mere fantasy.

    Naturalism exhibits itself to us every day in the material world. But you would prefer to believe in to the fantasy world of the supernatural?

  • Comment number 8.

    #7 - Ranmore -

    "Naturalism exhibits itself to us every day in the material world."

    Please provide one piece of empirical evidence that proves that naturalism is true (note I am talking about natural-ISM: the philosophy).

    Where at the end of a microscope or telescope or in a laboratory test-tube (or anywhere else in the natural world) do we find the injunction: "you shall believe that the philosophy of naturalism is true, and all other philosophies are false"?

    (I assume that you understand what "naturalism" is and its implications).

    I look forward to your reply.

    "What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. Is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question." C.S. Lewis.

  • Comment number 9.

    4. At 2:25pm on 12 Aug 2009, Heliopolitan wrote
    Belief is just a particular formulation of the fallacy of argument from authority

    I agree, but belief is far more pervasive than one might think. Many, probably most, people have a predisposition to believe. They believe that whitening toothpaste will make their teeth gleam or that a particular brand of watch or a support of a football team will define them. This belief is based on wish fulfilment; an authority is not evident or even necessary.

    Most people also crave certainty which is a by-product of belief. I listened this morning to Jim Swire whose daughter died in the Lockerbie 747 terrorist attack. As he doubted the validity of the original conviction he was pleased to hear that the sole “perpetrator” was about to be released after decades in prison. When asked whether other relatives of those who died, particularly those in the US, agreed, he said they did not. They continued to believe in the conviction despite the doubts raised. It gave them closure. Closure, although a modern expression, again expresses the universal desire for certainty as a means of capping an emotion upheaval. Truth is the other victim here as it so often is.

    The reality of human experience is that nothing is certain or constant. There is no authority that will adjudicate our existence and so belief is futile. Most of us will be swept along from birth to death without having made any impact except on a small group of family and friends.

    Darwin was of course an exception. He has given us an explanation of how we, and indeed all life, have come to be. As an old atheist I am delighted that the “new” atheists have seized the agenda as belief in all its forms needs always to be challenged.

  • Comment number 10.

    LSV, there is little point in quoting CS Lewis to this group - he was not up to the mark.

    Free thought is only free if the thinker has the honesty and courage to go where the evidence leads.

    No - that is completely the wrong way around. Free thought is entirely free (even if it is deterministic - we have addressed your misunderstandings of determinism before) to go wherever it wants, REGARDLESS of the evidence. What we scientists then do is TEST where our thoughts go, to see whether the evidence matches the predictions of our models. This is a very useful way of discarding nonsense, and enriching your cognitive portfolio for things that are reliable.

    This "following the evidence where it leads" nonsense is the sort of thing that limits people, and prevents them thinking "outside the box", because the bottom line is that humans perceive patterns where none exist, and think the evidence leads them one way, when in fact, as you have demonstrated, it is just your wishful thinking.

    So, formulate your hypothesis, then test it with the evidence. Are we getting through yet?


  • Comment number 11.

    Heliopolitan says: "One of the central errors made by M&K is that the increased profile of atheism either has no effect..."

    Unfortunately, the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Myers etc do have an effect - they make atheists seem unreasonable and intolerant, and irrelevant to the whole question of how to constructively accommodate both science and spirituality in modern pluralistic societies. Even worse, they attract a noisy following of bitter and antisocial people who are even more intolerant and illiberal than they are themselves (spend a few days reading the sour comments of Dawkin's disciples on his website). This is bad news for the public face of atheism, and tends to reinforce the anti-science message of religious fundamentalists (who usually insist, for example, that the theory of evolution is an atheist conspiracy).

    Fortunately, more moderate atheists are increasingly disassociating themselves from the "New" ghetto, and may yet be able to reinstate atheist thinking as a constructive contributor to a diverse and inclusive culture.

  • Comment number 12.

    Er, nope! Try again.

  • Comment number 13.



    I don't recall you posting here before, so thanks for your contribution. I read it with interest.

    With reference to Helio's comment (Post 12), here's how it works. You keep trying (and keep trying) until what you are saying is exactly the same as what the new atheists are saying, no exceptions!

    You see what people like you and I (atheist or christian, or whatever) have to remember is that the New Atheists are *right*!

    (hi helio) :-)

  • Comment number 14.

    #10 - heliopolitan -

    "LSV, there is little point in quoting CS Lewis to this group - he was not up to the mark."

    It is obvious, according to your way of thinking, which I have discerned through reading your posts, that CS Lewis could never be "up to the mark" unless his views agree with yours. So your disparaging comment doesn't really amount to much.

    Are you disagreeing with the idea that we interpret our experiences in the light of our philosophies? I can't see what's "not up to the mark" about Lewis' comment. Perhaps you would like to explain why you disagree with it? If you can't, then I will have to assume this is just a "below the belt" ad hominem attack.

    What's all this about ..."are we getting through yet?"...? You're not frustrated are you, because I have a different point of view? You can't surely expect me to accept your ideas without evidence? I can't see the evidence for naturalism. I can respect agnostics - especially those with a bit of humility - and according to what you have written a couple of times, you should also respect them, since they acknowledge doubts. Atheism is not about "doubt", but dogma and "belief". So I am not quite sure what you are asking or expecting of me. If I am to embrace doubt, then that includes doubting the dogmas and authoritarianism of atheism. (Notice how I am listening to - and taking seriously - what you are saying!)

    If you think that I don't question my own beliefs, then you are wrong. I have spent my entire "Christian life" (26 years) asking very serious questions, but I have not become convinced that it is essentially false. From reading your arguments and comments nothing you have said has convinced me otherwise. I am not being rude or disrespectful by saying that, simply honest.

    I totally affirm your right to express your point of view. If I disagree with it I also have the right to say so.

    So... am I getting through?

  • Comment number 15.

    11. At 6:31pm on 13 Aug 2009, OldAtheist wrote:
    As I too am an old atheist I have to take issue with your post. Of course Dawkins et al will not convert believers but what they do is to alter the agenda. There is a widespread belief that religion in general is good for you, that it offers a moral framework and is a bulwark against moral turpitude. Many agnostics tacitly acknowledge this point of view and it is the opinion of most political parties in the UK.

    It is of course nonsense and since 9/11 this should be apparent to all. Add to this catholic child abuse scandals and homophobia, so called honour killings, the attempts by numerous religious groups to stifle free speech, the social divisive concept of faith schools, the west African ritual killings in the UK and the danger of religion is plain to see.

    Religion and the privileges that it has gained for itself must be confronted, not appeased. Of course the nice old ladies at the church coffee mornings aren’t evil but they unwittingly support a belief system that is dangerous and corrupt.

  • Comment number 16.

    #15 - gcdavis -

    I would be interested to know how you define "evil".

    And then, having defined it, it would be interesting to know how "atheism" is the only solution to the problem of "evil".

    I hope you will respond to this, so I can understand the logic of your position.


  • Comment number 17.


    I see LSV has 'got there' ahead of me, but whatever.

    A question.

    Which is evil?



    The 'system'?


    Ageing female tea drinkers?





    Religious jewel thieves?

    Mother Teresa?

    All of the above?

    Some of the above?

    It's just that I'm interested to get passed the rhetoric.

  • Comment number 18.

    Atheism is not about "doubt", but dogma and "belief".

    Where on earth did you get that silly idea? I don't "believe" there is no god - there could very well be a god, but I don't think so. However, I *can* state with absolute assurance that all the evidence that theists have brought to bear on the question is completely inadequate. You might as well say that the colour of my boxer shorts gives you an insight into the atmospheric composition of Venus. Your evidence is not fit for purpose.

    In other words, I am an atheist because the theistic *arguments* are rubbish, and I refuse to prostitute my brain by pretending that they are anything else. Indeed, I have "faith" that if there IS a god, he/she will find a way of convincing me that *doesn't* rely on silly verbal tricks, warm fuzzies or similar.

    If you want a more appropriate definition of the term "atheist", I suggest you read "The God Delusion", but I rather think it won't do you much good.

    PeterM, "evil" in this context means valuing an ideology (a "belief") more than one's fellow human beings. If you love "Jesus" more than you love, say, that wee old lady across the road, or those youngsters in hoodies vandalising your car, or that Romanian lady trying to sell you the Big Issue, then I suggest that a good word for your religion is "evil".


  • Comment number 19.


    But whatever would give you the idea that someone could love 'Jesus' *more* than their neighbour?

    Religion that is pure and faultless is to look after widows and orphans in their distress; read that somewhere, sort of, appropriate, don't you think?

  • Comment number 20.

    Anyway, you just went right on ahead and gave me your definition of 'evil'; where'd ya get it from?

    And, sorry about this, but my question was 'which is', not 'what is'.

  • Comment number 21.

    The Catholic Church has come to terms with evolution. Having found a way to reconcile its dogma with it, evolution is now part of Catholic theology. Most non Christian religions don't seem to have a problem with it either. Only some Christians cannot accept the only coherent explanation that is consistent with the facts as we know them. Those young earthers, intelligent creationists or whatever they call themselves can't seem to cope with the notion that they are descended from baboons. Every time I listen to them howl, I think; hmmmm, that's one more piece of evidence in Darwin's favor. Look at that Wilder-Smith video. Then again, what self respecting chimpanzee would put on a performace like he did? Even a monkey has more dignity.

  • Comment number 22.

    Helio -

    It's the middle of the night and thanks to a dodgy anti-malarial drug I took some years ago I'm having a recurring bout of insomnia, so I thought I would ruminate on the latest discussion on the subject of "evil".

    You wrote: 'PeterM, "evil" in this context means valuing an ideology (a "belief") more than one's fellow human beings. If you love "Jesus" more than you love, say, that wee old lady across the road, or those youngsters in hoodies vandalising your car, or that Romanian lady trying to sell you the Big Issue, then I suggest that a good word for your religion is "evil".'

    You might be surprised to know that I agree with you. What you are describing is called religious idolatry. I concur that many "Christians" do this very thing, and are so full of "love for Jesus" that they couldn't give two hoots about anyone else (unless of course other people are considered targets for evangelism). This "love for Jesus" is, of course, code for "love for self".

    Let me pretend to be an atheist for a moment, and try to find a way to agree with the sort of sentiment gcdavis expressed. This contributor seemed to give the impression that all "religion" (by which I presume he/she means all "belief in God / the supernatural / spirituality" etc) either encourages evil or fails to combat it or overcome it. There seems to be the idea that only atheism is the truly moral position. Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that this view is correct. How can I possibly sympathise with it? This idea is perhaps based on the belief that a "supreme being" gets in the way of true morality (i.e. "love") and such a being divides people's attention away from showing concern for other human beings. So therefore when people are caught up in worshipping and serving this being, they are neglecting their fellow mortals.

    Forgive me if I have misread you, Helio, but this seems to be what you might be saying when you wrote about "loving" Jesus more than other people. This, for you, is a description of "evil".

    Don't imagine that I don't sympathise with this point of view. In fact, I would agree that much so-called "worship", "religion" and "spirituality" is selfish, self-indulgent and, at times, extremely manipulative (as I have experienced to my cost). That "dodgy dossier" called the Bible happens also to agree with this sentiment (see Amos 5:21-24: "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savour your sacred assemblies ... take away from me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.")

    If it really is true that the only way to believe in God is to engage in the kind of worship ("love for God / Jesus") which is self-centred, self-obsessed and self-indulgent, and which discards justice, mercy and love towards other people, then count me as an atheist. Because I do not believe in that kind of God. However, as a result of my own personal experience as a Christian I don't at all accept that there is a choice between loving God and loving other people. I can only speak for myself, but my experience has been that care for others has been dependent on receiving the love and grace of God, which has nothing to do with "religion". It has everything to do with reality. In fact, as far as "religious practices and institutionalism" is concerned, I am actually quite a secular Christian.

    Furthermore, I have no doubt that there are some professing atheists who are actually more "godly" (dare I use the word) than a great many professing Christians. This is a view that the unmentionable CS Lewis also expressed.

    I know that nothing I have written will convince you of my ideological position, but at least I have made some faltering attempt at bridge-building.

    Now let's have another go at getting some sleep....

  • Comment number 23.

    You might be surprised to know that I agree with you. What you are describing is called religious idolatry. I concur that many "Christians" do this very thing, and are so full of "love for Jesus" that they couldn't give two hoots about anyone else (unless of course other people are considered targets for evangelism). This "love for Jesus" is, of course, code for "love for self".

    Actually, please consider it a compliment that I am not surprised at all :-) That is pretty much my position, with a couple of minor modifications, and I think we have all recognised when people raise up their gods/Jesus as *idols*. PeterM expresses much the same sort of thing, and I *accept* that in several places the bible says the same - the Good Samaritan, after all, is the perfect example of Jesus being *anti-religious*, and I would suggest *humanist* (he drops the ball a bit later on with the "Peter, lovest thou me", but given that the bible makes all sorts of mistakes, we'll let him away with that for now).

    The reason I am an atheist is that I do not find that these Good Things flow from or are dependent on either belief or reverence for a god. We can and do work these out for ourselves, right here. The unreliability of that collection of documents we call the bible is another thing of course, but part of our respect for others *has* to be a healthy disrespect for authority, and an ability to question, to rip apart, and to see what is behind the curtain.

    But developing what you're saying a bit further, what (from god's point of view) is the difference between a person who affirms a "belief" and one who affirms "unbelief"? As someone who *values* doubt, it is not possible for me to affirm belief, but I have no problem with the vast majority of your last post. Many Christians regard "doubts" as *failings*, but to me, doubt is systematic, necessary, virtuous, unavoidable, imperative. Why is this a problem?

    However, high-five for that last post :-)


  • Comment number 24.

    16. At 7:55pm on 13 Aug 2009, logica_sine_vanitate wrote:

    I would be interested to know how you define "evil".

    As evil doesn’t exist I wouldn’t bother to define it.

    Many religions teach that good and evil are opposing forces that exist as absolutes outside human influence. This is nonsense. Morality is derived from human experience and reinforced by family and culture. Thou shalt not is just too easy an option. Each of us is responsible for our own actions but as our personal circumstances are unique our culpability varies. For example a man who kills a terrorist in order to save his child must be judged differently from a man who kills a policeman during an armed robbery. So the act of killing is mitigated by the circumstances so killing cannot be considered evil.

  • Comment number 25.

    As a caveat to my previous post, LSV challenged me to define evil because I had used the term in post 15. So why did I use a term that I later claim is meaningless? I was sloppy, I should have said bad.

  • Comment number 26.

    Aha! Define "bad", O sloppy one!

    Nah, we can get too caught up in this. "Good", "Evil", "Nice", "Sexy", "Funny" etc are labels that we humans apply to things to convey our approach to them. You're quite right - these do not exist as "attributes", but rather as rough indicators of the response of the human system, be that general or specific. A too-rigid adherence to attributes underlies all sorts of pants philosophy.

  • Comment number 27.


    if the scientific illiteracy you speak of above is really ID, then the new athiests really have a fight on their hands in the form of Plantinga, havent they?

    He strongly criticised the assumptions and verdict of the Dover VS Kitzmiller case after all.


  • Comment number 28.


    Isn't Plantinga an evolutionist?

  • Comment number 29.

    Plantinga is a loon, with an extremely basic grasp of modern evolutionary biology. By his own argument he undermines the very religious beliefs he wish to uphold; that evolved cognitive functions are inherently un-natural and thus their products are questionable.

    Dover Vs Kitzmiller was never about atheism. It was about an attempt to shoe-horn the pseudo-science of ID into classrooms. Such poorly researched, ill concieved drivel that even their strongest proponents admitted under oath, that Astrology could be regarded as a science using their definition.

    ID is dead.

    Get over it.

  • Comment number 30.

    gcdavis contends: "Of course Dawkins et al will not convert believers but what they do is to alter the agenda."

    Unfortunately they "alter the agenda" in regrettable ways, by effectively siding with the religious fundamentalists, by portraying evolution as being all about science vs religion, with only one "winner" allowed.

    In the United States, a country in which over half the population still rejects the theory of evolution, the authorites are attempting to build bridges between science education and the wary public by reassuring them that accepting evolution does not need to mean forsaking religion. The New Atheists (in this case Myers and Coyne, with the support of Dawkins etc) set themselves strongly against any such moves, preferring to side with the fundamentalists in portraying evolution as an essential "culture war" between religious believers and atheists. This is really all about pandering to their particular market (the New Atheist hero-worshippers who never tire of reading/hearing/viewing the same message, over and over again - like the tv evangelists, the NA gurus know that preaching to the converted is big $$), not about taking any responsibility for actually improving public perception of evolution and science (or indeed seeking to improve society in general by dispensing with needless conflict and intolerance).

  • Comment number 31.

    OldAtheist, that is old hat. The landscape of the debate has shifted considerably in the US, and it *had* to shift. If you are saying that the influence of, what, maybe 6 intellectuals is irreparably damaging the cosy relationship some punters have been building up with a system that enslaves the masses to superstition, and makes people who *disbelieve* feel like misfits, then I say so much the better.

    In fact, most *intelligent* religious commentators have welcomed the New Atheism - it has at least cleared up a lot of sloppy thinking. It is suddenly OK to be an atheist, and it is OK for Christians to lambast creationist liars (e.g. Ron Elsdon's magnificent attack on the creationists [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    So, yes, the New Atheists have changed the debate; many of us welcome that. You don't - tough.

  • Comment number 32.

    What the..?!?!

    Has someone confused me for PeterMorrow?

  • Comment number 33.

    I have a little song for you Helio, you probably know the tune!

    'Gone, gone, gone, gone, yes my posts are gone...'

  • Comment number 34.

    Well, I'll try something similar. The "new atheists" have given atheism a platform and got people talking. They have democratised atheism; it is no longer the preserve of pusillanimous poseurs in gentlemen's clubs, or cod philosophers whose only experience of science is once reading some Karl Popper as an undergraduate humanities student.

    IF people are going to make claims about gods and other varieties of space pixie, it is time they put up the evidence. Or else admit they are merely supposing.

  • Comment number 35.

    Aha - it seems I was a Very Naughty Boy in linking directly to a pdf (see #31 above). The paper in question was by Rev Dr Ron Elsdon, a very nice man for whom I have a great deal of respect. If you Google "Ron Elsdon rescuing genesis", you'll find the PDF at the top of the page.

    I don't agree with everything Ron says in this article, but he makes a number of very valid points. Indeed, SunSeq did a short piece on this talk, IIRC (and quite good it was too). I can't remember if there was a direct blog post related to it..?

  • Comment number 36.

    "The world does not explain itself... It is absurd for the Evolutionist to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything."
    (G Chesterton)

  • Comment number 37.

    "A witty saying proves nothing."

  • Comment number 38.

    rjb, it's not even that witty; just tripe.

  • Comment number 39.

    Strange sense of humour? A witty saying? As for Helio's comment,well, he would say that.

  • Comment number 40.

    I try to speak the truth, FP, not dogma or the drunken mumblings of long-dead "prophets".

  • Comment number 41.

    Pilate asked Jesus, 'What is truth?' and then didn't wait for an answer. But then, it had already been given. Jesus said, "Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” John 18:37f. New Living Translation.
    Truth-alethea is strongly linked to what is real, what is genuine. Pilate wanted reality and then rejected him. Jesus claimed to be the truth - to be reality (John 14.6). I don't doubt that you try to speak the truth but have you met Truth - reality? He's that PICC you keep referring too and he wants to deliver you from the hell of Wonderland. Sorry, does Aunty allow me to preach on this blog? :-)

  • Comment number 42.

    FP, whether Aunty allows you to or not is beside the point. You cannot expect an argument to be taken seriously if all you have to offer is some quotation from the bible. It is not an authoritative document; it is just as fallible as any other human product.

  • Comment number 43.

    '...it is just as fallible as any other human product'. Does that include your thinking and the conclusions of philosophical science? I assume you realise that you are fallible Helio and the glass ceiling is not so far above our thinking. You can't rise above it you know. As my authoritative document says, 'Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much...' 1 Corinthians 8:2, New Living Translation.

  • Comment number 44.

    FP, you can't help yourself, can you? Your document is not fit for this purpose. It has no authority. As for thinking, yes, it is fallible. Which is why we invented SCIENCE. A far wiser man than any who wrote in your little mongrel compendium once remarked: "Nature cannot be fooled".

  • Comment number 45.

    Didn't he also say... "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."
    '... invented science.' What a strange way to put it? Who are the 'we' which you include yourself among?
    So human thinking is fallible and yet fallible human thinking "invented" science which you present as just about infallible. Umm, strange logic...

  • Comment number 46.

    The Chesterton quote was from "The Eternal Man", the first chapter. Chesterton did not seem to have any problem with the theory of evolution. (In fact, Darwin seems to appeal to him on an imaginative level).

    It was a publishing fad, a sort of "evolution-ism" that Chesterton complained about. (He was writing before the neo-darwninian synthesis, and versions of Lamark's theories were still widely popularised). And Chesterton was simply pointing out that you don't explain the existence of the universe, an ordered universe or (objective)human value by saying the magic word - "evolution".


  • Comment number 47.

    On Plantinga

    He does seem to have made his peace with evolution. It is "evolution + naturalism" that he is criticising. A particluar view of the mind is linked to naturalism - that the mind is, at most, the effect of physical events, and has no causal power. So a belief, as such, can't cause anything. The underlying neuro-physiology can. This seems to follow from Naturalism.
    Generally people who haven't read his argument in "Warrant" and the substantial replies to critics tend to dismiss Plantinga. They also miss the view of mind that is being criticised.


  • Comment number 48.

    recently read the book, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer. Quite an interesting read, and it provides a very good argument that rape in humans is an evolved feature. It makes me wonder why there is so much opposition to this idea (even in academic circles).

    The two authors disagree on whether rape is more likely to be an adaptation or a by-product of some other adaptation(s), and the evidence they present is quite inconclusive in this matter. But it the evidence is quite strong that it is an evolved behavior.

    Here's a basic outline of the argument:
    1. We are an evolved species, therefore everything about us is a result of evolution.
    2. Of the four evolutionary mechanisms, only an adaptation or a by-product of an adaptation can account for behaviors that are both relatively common in a species and high in cost. Rape is high in cost, ergo it is either an adaptation or a by-product.
    3. Women have specific psychological adaptations in response to rape (specifically the psychological pain involved), indicating that rape has occurred relatively consistently for thousands of generations.
    4. Our nearest relatives, the other great apes, have been observed to rape.

    Is genetic determinism compassionate?

  • Comment number 49.

    Graham, I have a hard time taking Plantinga seriously, after his horse's rear of an ontological argument and his spectacularly hopeless review of "The God Delusion". Are you trying to suggest that he is a competent philosopher, and we should give him another hearing?

    Also, it is quite correct that the magic word "evolution" does not let you escape from explaining the universe. Neither does the magic word "god" - if anything, that just confuses the matter, and I can't be having that.

    Evoape, "genetic determinism" is a bit out of place in the context you mention, and I have no idea what your post relates to in this thread. Humans (and the other apes) are complex animals. Rape is not an "attribute", but a label for a class of behaviours of certain biological systems in certain contexts. A more constructive approach would be to look at the behaviours of those systems as they transit certain boundaries. I have not read Thornhill and Parker's book, but it has been pretty much universally panned, and the precis you give makes me think they are barking up a particularly unfruitful tree. Or just barking.

  • Comment number 50.


    I see why the Ontological Argument would put someone off philosophy. Plantinga never offered it as proof, and never felt that it would persuade an atheist. He was surprised that it worked - which it does if you accept the premise. But that's not very helpful in a debate. Plantinga is clear that he hasn't a good argument that would compel an unbeliever to accept the premise.
    *Technically* it makes belief in God rational. (But I wouldn't bet my paycheck on it, never mind my soul). It does, along the way, give logical, precise content to the idea of a Perfect Being. Historically it's important as it helped revive curiosity about Philosophy of Religion, Necessity and such. But if you don't like philosophical puzzles
    I wouldn't pay it much heed.
    Plantinga's philosophy of religion tends to be *defensive* - responding to atheistic critiques of faith. It rarely offers positive reasons to become a Christian.
    He writes for philosophers, using terms and a style that philosophers recognise, but that would seem "loony" to outsiders. That's a shame. Take his argument against naturalism. He could have used Christof Koch's (occasional) hypothesis that the brain constructs reality rather than a thougt experiment about a "widget factory." Examples from cognitive science would have appealed more than some of his other thought experiments. The logic is sound in the thought experiments, and I suppose he would say that's all that is required.

    Plantinga does have some eccentric ideas. For one, he believes that there is a demonic source for natural evils like earthquakes. He doesn't clarify what he means, or why he believes this. He also argued that true liberals would pay for the Teaching of creationism in schools. I think this was said just to annoy Robert Pennock.

    As for Chesterton and Evolution - he'd agree with what you say. But when he wrote "The Eternal Man" evolution was being proposed as an alternative to God in many books. A sort of Universal Principle that moved the Cosmos up a Chain of Being. I re-read the chapter, and I don't detect any hostility to Darwin. He liked Darwin's "modesty" if I remember correctly. Some writers were just exchnging "God" for "Evolution" and assuming that the argument was over. I don't know that this happens today, outside the New Age section in Waterstones.


  • Comment number 51.

    Hi Graham,
    Actually Plantinga's argument doesn't work and isn't philosophically valid, *regardless* of the premise - or, rather, what he does is smuggle in additional premises within the argument. But worse than that, he commits the error of assuming that an *attribute* is the same as a *behaviour*. "Omnipresence" is the case in point. "Omnipresence" is just a label. It is a word we humans might use, and we define it in a certain way. But it carries with it no obligation for any system to so behave. Therefore when Plantinga does his ridiculous dance and *defines* his pixie to be "omnipresent", that doesn't even remotely matter; it cannot MAKE the pixie system behave in such a way as to display omnipresent behaviour.

    The bottom line is that Plantinga is a verbal thinker. He does well to stay away from science - a realm in which he (and many other philosophers so called) just can't get it. I've previously mentioned Swinburne and Brian Leftow as people who similarly Can't Get It, and I really think that theists need to cast these twits aside and find some people who can actually THINK instead of waffle their way into ever more contorted fallacies


  • Comment number 52.

    [And how surprised should Alvin Plantinga be to find a NEW way of being WRONG?!?]


  • Comment number 53.


    If the premises include Necessary Existence, then the argument is valid. That's just true by definition.
    And it's perfectly acceptable to seek a clear definition of God, so we know what we are arguing about.
    And Plantinga NEVER attempts to define God (or omnipresence or anything else) into existence. That's just a misreading of the argument. (It may come closer to critiquing Descarte's or some reading of Anslem's Ontological Arguments).
    For a modal ontological argument to be persuasive you need some reason for thinking that a necessary being is possible, and then some reason for thinking that God is a necessary being.
    If you concede it's possible that there is a Necessary Being and that God is a Necessary Being, then you have to accept it's true that God exists.
    If you don't think it's possible, and have good rational reasons for your belief, then fine. Plantinga's clear that the argument doesn't have any force for such a person.

    I've asked you this sveral times before, and never really got a clear answer. What exactly do you mean by the difference between attributes and behavior?


  • Comment number 54.

    Graham, you could equally frame it "God Exists therefore God Exists" and claim the equivalent philosophical validity. It's pants, and you know it. Plantinga's argument is pointless.

    As for attributes and behaviour, think of it like this. There is a black cat. Is the cat black? Well, yeah, if we mean that when its fur is struck by light of a certain set of wavelengths, the light bouncing back, when it meets our eyes, is sufficiently attenuated across the visual spectrum as to lead to our neurological system attaching the label "black" to the cat when we look at it. But it is simply mince to suggest that there is an attribute "blackness" (or "catness" for that matter) that attaches to the aforementioned feline. These "attributes" are labels that our sensory system attaches to Fluffy as a means of processing the data.

    Cats do not HAVE "catness" or "blackness" - these are behaviours, or, rather more accurately, labels for how that catty system interacts with our clever ape system.

    Unfortunately, some apes are not as clever as other apes give them credit for.

    This isn't new - I think Kant wiped the floor with some of his contemporaries on this very point, but it hasn't stopped (primarily evangelical) philosophers repeating the same fallacies.

  • Comment number 55.

    Graham I'm surprised that you haven't figured out the difference between 'attribute' and 'behaviour' yet. In fact I find that very odd behaviour altogether, even though 'odd' isn't one of your attributes.

    Really, it's simple.

    An 'attribute' is a Mr. Avery sticky label without the label bit, all sticky, if you see what I mean, and 'behaviour' is a Mr. Avery sticky label without the sticky bit, all label in other words.

    All of which, if you think about it, and I wouldn't if I were you, leaves Mr. Helio with a *label*, or a labelling behaviour, which won't stick, and us with plenty of attributes which stick, but which Helio won't recognise as labels.

    BTW, you also need a printer.

    I actually quite like the White Permanent ID Labels for Laser and Inkjet Printers, which can be found on Mr. Avery's webby website thingy, or, if you don't like the way you have labelled a label, which could, I suppose, be labelled bad behaviour, or unsatisfactory behaviour, you can opt for the Removable Multi-Use Label, which allows you to change your behaviour and relabel your label, or your behaviour, whenever you wish.

    Meow. And keep up Graham, please. Your behaviour is cat; sloth isn't an attribute you know!

  • Comment number 56.

    Peter, you need some sleep, dude! :-)

  • Comment number 57.


    Why, it's only a label; although to fit, "Sleep is a naturally recurring state of relatively suspended sensory and motor activity in animals, characterized by total or partial unconsciousness and the nearly complete inactivity of voluntary muscles." (wiki) we'd require a rather big label. Perhaps I should stick it over my eyes.

    Remember, mine stick!

  • Comment number 58.

    Kant think, won't think! :-)

  • Comment number 59.

    Can't think, won't think - what do you do?
    Can't think, won't think - what do you do?

    OK, Helio, like Graham I obviously need a bit of help, so, bearing in mind you didn't or couldn't describe a behaviour worthy of the label mercy, lets have another go.

    Let the labeling begin.

    Is the cat black? - What is, is?

    Is the cow lilac?

    What is a label?

    What is thought?

    Do you know what thought done?

    What is neurological?

    What is a system?

    Steak mince, mince steak, mince meat, mice or lasagna?

    Fluffy what? What is fluffy, is it a visual spectrum label thing too? Can I see fluffy? Could I speak fluffy?

    Data? Flaming heck, what's data?


    Explain black cat to a blind man.

    Pants? Shorts, longs or knickers?

    Infact, I know, ref. back to post 54, I quote,

    "Graham (what is Graham?), you (what is you?) could (what is could?) equally (what is equally?) frame (what is frame?[come the think of it what is what?] {what is '?'} ) it (what is....) "

    da diddley qa qa da diddley qa qa
    da diddley qa qa da diddley qa qa
    da diddley qa qa da diddley qa qa
    da diddley qa qa da diddley qa qa

    Alternatively we could call it a draw, and opt for victory by witty comment?

  • Comment number 60.

    A labelling joke (an old one):

    Friend (to his friend standing outside his car), "Have a look at the indicators, are they working?"

    Other friend, "Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no..."


  • Comment number 61.

    OK folks, it looks like we're going to have to call in the men in white coats for Peter... except, what is white? What is a man? How many men, how many coats? What is Peter?

    Pete - you know I'm right :-)

  • Comment number 62.

    And the answers are...

    Men in #FFFFFF coats.

    A #000000 cat.

    A #CC99FF cow.

    A bright #FFFF00 sun.

    But hush, Helio, quiet yourself, don't fret, all is well.

    Coats do not have 'coatness', or 'whiteness', just as the men in them do not have menness. These are just behaviours, or, rather more accurately, labels for how the colour coaty system interacts with... I suppose you get the idea, it's your label after all.

    But really it's OK, chill; embrace the doubt, maaaaaaannnnnnn!

    And here, if you think post 59 was disturbing, just wait til I get started.

    "Watson, the needle."

    Oh yes, lasagna, and #6633FF, which is like a cloudless day.

    And a weird thing, the preview allows me to view text coloured using html but will not recognise it when posting.

  • Comment number 63.

    Do you know, professor, I think he's actually *getting* it!

  • Comment number 64.

    Wiping tears from eyes...

    That was some of the funniest stuff I've read in quite sometime!!!

    Better be careful though, Aunty might swipe it. :-)

    Now I must chortle my way to bed... Thanks!

  • Comment number 65.

    K, please read what Peter has said *very* carefully - there is more there than japes.

  • Comment number 66.

    Yes korotiotio, read it *very* carefully, you might see it oonly once!

    You know, on the html colour thing, it would appear that the Beeb bot doesn't recognise the label, weird.

    Quick H, relabel it.

    And, I'm reminded of a song,

    There's a hole in your data, dear Helio, dear Helio,
    There's a hole in your data, dear Helio, a hole.

    Then label it, dear Peter, dear Peter
    Then label it, dear Peter, dear Peter, label it.

    With what shall I label it, dear Helio, dear Helio
    With what shall I label it, dear Helio, label it?

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaa label, dear Peter, dear Peter
    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaa label, dear Peter, dear Peter, a label.

    You mean label the data, dear Helio, dear Helio
    You mean label the data, dear Helio, the data?

    But there's a ....

    When all's said and done though, Tom drollery aside, there's a story coming back to me, an old one, one written by, yes, 'goatherds' and 'yokels' if I remember correctly, in which the central character was told to take charge, and prosper, and tame the earth, and emmmm name, or label the things in it.

    Good to see you following in his footsteps.

  • Comment number 67.

    I did mean funny in a highly complimentary way... :-)

    Making a point with humour & wit is a joy to behold!!!

    I really did think it was very, very clever...

  • Comment number 68.


    At some stage someone is going to write up this blog as a musical.

    You seem to be advancing some sort of nominalism. So "whiteness" is just a label that humans give,say, all the members of a set that have some feature in common - the tendency to produce certain sense perceptions in humans.

    Now realists say that there is some universal that these properties share. I'm fairly agnostic on the issue. There are atheists that are realists (David Armstrong) and theists who are nominalists (WL Craig and Richard Swinburne).

    Being a nominalist doesn't mean that you thnk that "white" is an inaccurate description of snow. It just means that you don't believe that there is one universal that is instantiated in snow and clouds and cotton wool. But the capacity to produce the sensations we label "white" is real. That capacity remains even when no-one is observing the snow. You can call that capacity a "behavior" if you like. The only question is - have you described the object correctly.

    Again, you can label the objects "systems" if you like. I suppose even gods and angels could be described as systems.

    I can't see how any of this re-labelling effects Theism. As long as the terms used accurately describe God, and actually refer to God, then what's the problem exactly?


  • Comment number 69.

    So, in the cat example, it *is* accurate to say that the cat is black. Obviously, there's noting to stop a scientist asking - why? What has to be true of the cat physically, and humans physically, for this sense experience to be produced?
    Not even on realism. You seem to be identifying *one* form of realism, Aristotleianism, with realism in general.
    So if there was a being that could actualise any logically possible state of affairs, then we could accurately label that being omnipotent. That doesn't mean that being could "dissect" itself and say

    "Oh this part here's me omnipotence, and there's my property of immateriality. Oh, look, there's my property of limited knowledge which prevents me from being God!"


  • Comment number 70.


    Have you abandoned us on "some creationists have been doctored"?

    It was just starting to get interesting!


    While I am here, interested in reaction to this idea ref Athiesm and proving God.

    If the God of the bible is reported to be eternal, omnipresent and invisible in normal circumstances, is it even conceivable to have a scientific experiment that would "test" him.

    It strikes me that this sort of approach was forbidden in the bible long before the scientific method was considered.

    If we could conjure up God into a lab for tests would that really be God? That would seem to be turning God more into a lab rat.

    I suggest that even the character of God is incompatible with such testing.

    It therefore appears to be a category error/contradiction in terms to suggest that there is no scientific evidence to "prove" God.

    When God does break into our reality in "supernatural" events, these are by definition so exceptional to our observations of the created order of nature that we cannot grapple with them via science, it appears.

    Is it possible that some people may deliberately sabotage their quest for truth about God by insisting on only using tools they know cannot find him?



  • Comment number 71.

    "Is it possible that some people may deliberately sabotage their quest for truth about God by insisting on only using tools they know cannot find him?"

    Well said!

    Methinks this is the heart of the matter...

  • Comment number 72.


    After running a differential diagnostic, you will be relieved to know that I have diagnosed you with "extreme nominalism".

    You may continue to call the cat "black", just you may continue to call water "water" and not H2O when asking for a glass.

    Water can be identified with H20. In the same way you identify (or "reduce") any property to:

    "behaves in manner (b1, b2, b3...) in circumstances (c1, c2, c3...)"

    It's easier (and quicker) to say "black", but this is what black means (in your opinion).

    I'm the Greg House of metaphysics. Have to go ---
    there's a buddhist in pre-op with a rash on his ontology.


  • Comment number 73.

    Goodness, I'd almost forgotten there was ever a debate on this thread.

    Just following William's advice guys!



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