Fransisco Ayala: Templeton Prize winner, nonsense purveyor

There's a popular refrain among more liberal-minded Christians who are not stupid enough to reject the foundation of all modern biology, but are still confused enough to believe in all the convoluted bogosity of their religion: that science and religion answer different questions. This is embodied by the liberal theology of the Templeton Foundation, an organization dedicated to muddying the line between demonstrably valid claims of truth and ones that people just pull out of their ass. This is Fransisco Ayala, who recently won the Templeton Prize, answering the question of whether science and religion contradict one another:



The key bullshit phrase that Ayala uses is the term "properly understood". Last night I watched a BBC documentary about creationism in Tennessee, and the general difficulty teachers are having in teaching evolution if only because religious wingnuts have made it into a controversial issue. Ayala would like to live in this fantasy world where religion never makes claims about the natural world, but for tens of millions of Americans who believe in a literal Biblical creation, it does. Ayala would insist that this is not "properly understood religion". But who the hell decides what properly understood religion is? Upon what independent, objective basis is one interpretation of a holy book held as being more valid than any other interpretation?

While evolution has gained acceptance among more liberal Christians, there are other areas in which Christians remain incredulous to the advances of science. Francis Collins, in his book The Language of God, insists that there is some magical thing called the "Moral Law" which is evidence that God exists. A similar point has been touched on by Tim Keller in his book The Reason For God and by many other Christian theologians. The refrain is the same: that we cannot understand morality without God. And when books like Marc Hauser's Moral Minds: How Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, or Frans De Waal's Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved use evolution, cognitive psychology and sociology to explain our morality, these liberal Christians don't want to bend.

Nor do they want to bend as cosmology shows that God may not be required for even the fundamental existence of the universe. They insist on the necessity of a creator, a designer; but as I've mentioned in many a past blog, physicists have good reason to believe that the universe itself may not require a creator at all – that the universe itself may simply BE. Clearly even liberal-minded believers would have difficulty accepting the notion that God is irrelevant to the very existence of the universe, but that's a very real possibility in science.

But the problem is bigger than biology, social psychology or biology. Do Christians believe in a deistic God that created the universe and then folded his arms and has done nothing but watch? Of course not. Christians believe in a God who answers prayers and intervenes in the natural world. Any claim that something has an effect or influence on reality is a claim that can be investigated with the tools of science, and this is how we can know with a great degree of certainty that prayer does not work


Ayala insists that religion is about things like "purpose, values" and  "the meaning of life". I would concede that science cannot give us purpose, value, or meaning to our lives. But just because science can't doesn't mean that religion automatically can. If religion is going to make truth claims – even fuzzy ones about the "meaning of life" – then we have to inquire what the methodology of religion is. By what independent, objective criteria do we discern true theological claims from false ones? Any idiot can say he knows what the meaning of life is. Why should we take someone making such claims seriously? The truth is that religion contributes nothing to our understanding about purpose, values, or the meaning of life. These are all concepts we must define for ourselves.


One of my great peeves about Christianity is that it is constantly being interpreted and re-interpreted as the tides of secular modernism drag it kicking and screaming into the future. Up until the last couple hundred years, it's a safe bet that most people did view the Genesis story as a treatise on actual events. It's not exactly been easy getting believers to accept evolution and astronomy, and even then one or both of those of those fields is still rejected by millions of incredulous believers.  What are even these liberal minded Christians to make of a scientific understanding of morality and cosmology that, like evolution, leaves no need for an intervening God? Francis Collins, for example, insists that God magically started life on Earth before stepping aside to let evolution run its course; but what will he make of the advances in abiogenesis that again make the concept of a supernatural wand-waver obsolete?

That's the nature of religion. When science and secular modernism move onward, religion is forced to modify itself. If religion were true, shouldn't it be the other way around? I'm fond of a query posed by Sam Harris: can we think of any phenomenon whose best explanation used to be scientific, but is now religious? I at least have to respect creationists for one thing: they interpret the scriptures plainly. They are demonstrably wrong of course, but at least they don't have to continually conjure up new rationalizations to conform their beliefs with reality; they're content to simply deny it. But the liberal Christians out there aren't as far removed from the creationists as they'd like to think; they've just shifted the goalposts to areas of more nascent scientific knowledge, then claimed that religion somehow provides objective answers to questions to which there are no objective answers.

Comments

  1. Hey, bro,
    Good, thought compelling post, as always. A couple comments to add:

    First, you asked "Upon what independent, objective basis is one interpretation of a holy book held as being more valid than any other interpretation?" I'll be the first to agree that there's a vast diversity of opinion about how holy books should be interpreted, as demonstrated by the various bents of seminaries and other sources. However, I think that it's reasonable to suggest that both context and history are useful, if not essential tools in understanding the intent of writings revered as scripture. Here are a couple examples, the first suggesting the necessity of textual context, the second the necessity of historical context:

    1) Matthew 18:19-20 (NIV) says “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

    This is a passage that folks love to cite to suggest that scripture promises that God will give them whatever they ask. However, if you read it in context (starting around verse 15, going through the end of the chapter), it's evident that those verses come in the midst of a discussion about judicial process and therefore refer to a specific context in which God is essentially saying he is in agreement with two or three honest witnesses who point out to a believer that he has committed an injustice. To remove it from this textual context and use it to suggest God is a sort of prayer genie entirely misses the point of the passage.

    2) Matthew 19:13-15 says: "Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there."

    When we read these verses with contemporary American eyes, we tend to read it as "ok, cool, Jesus likes kids". In the culture of the time, though, children were possessions, not people, so Jesus's blessing of them was, in fact a radical social statement that served to recognize kids as fully human. In this case, failing to understand the historical context causes one to miss the full meaning of the passage.

    My point is that while there may not be absolute agreement, there are clear differences between those who pull passages without regards to context and those who come up with better interpretations that take context into account.

    Second, a couple thoughts about your comment "but what will he [Collins] make of the advances in abiogenesis that again make the concept of a supernatural wand-waver obsolete?" I read the Wired piece (and the more recent announcements on the BBC about the first synthetic living cell - see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science_and_environment/10134341.stm I don't think that the fact that our understanding of science has progressed to the point where we can artificially create life in a lab contributes much to the knowledge of our origins (i.e. we already basically knew about what happened in the "soup", we just weren't able to recreate it). As such, this research certainly doesn't "again make the concept of a supernatural wand-waver obsolete". In fact, I can't help but be amused by the irony that you'd suggest as much in light of the fact that the life we're beginning to see created in the lab most definitely has a creator (albeit human).

    Again, thanks for the thought compelling post. I do genuinely enjoy our discussions; I just wish I had time to participate more fully.

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  2. On the subject of abiogenesis:

    On page 200 of "The Language of God", Collins contends that God intervened to create life on Earth; then, once the process of evolution had started, "no supernatural intervention was required". It's easy to see that this is a completely arbitrarily chosen point, chosen only because science has demonstrated evolution by natural selection to be a wholly natural process requiring no supernatural intervention – a fact that Collins, as a geneticist, must accept. So instead he turns his attention to a more nascent field of science and says, "Yeah, *that* was the place where God intervened!"

    But what happens to Collins' assertion if or when we have a comprehensive theory of abiogenesis? The experiment referenced in the Wired article is very significant for a number of reasons. In order to understand how life initially arose, we have to understand how chemical reactions in Earth's primordial oceans could have created the building blocks for life. The most evidence points to RNA arising first, and this was an important step to understand how it is done.

    Collins will be left to shift the goal post again, and to who knows where. The formation of the galaxy? The Big Bang? The beginning of the universe? What if the universe had no beginning? It's clear that instead of deriving knowledge from evidence, he's simply "having faith" – assuming a priori – then searching for ways to rationalize his theology to make it consistent with observed evidence.

    Whew!

    On to Biblical interpretation.

    While "context" may be useful to some extent with some scriptures, who decides what the correct context is? Who decides, from that context, what precisely should be inferred about the nature of God?

    NonStampCollector did a fantastic video on Biblical contradictions. These are often not minor contradictions, but egregious ones that state contradictory things about the very nature of God and how humanity is supposed to serve him. By what criteria are believers to navigate all these contradictions to form a theology that is anything besides arbitrary?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB3g6mXLEKk

    Here's the thing. If the Bible were true, should it not be plainly true? There is no cause for greater schisms in the church over history than disagreement over how people are saved. Given that salvation is the core of the Christian doctrine, one would think that if the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe who loves everyone had chosen the Bible as his One True Holy Book, he might have made himself less ambiguous about such a pivotal issue.

    The kind of divides we see among Christians and its 30,000+ denominations is precisely what we'd expect to see if it was man-made and heavily influenced by sociocultural biases. It's not what we'd expect to see from the one true book of the one true God.

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  3. I'd be inclined to agree with you about Collins and the error in arbitrarily choosing a point where God seems to have take his hands off. In fact, from my theological viewpoint, the notion that God spoke creation into existence seems to contradict that - that is, with a word, he said everything that needed to be said to set the ball rolling, and that ball is still rolling. Actually, it calls to mind 1992, "Wayne's World", and the translation that goes on forever.

    http://movieclips.com/watch/waynes-world-1992/wayne-speaks-cantonese/

    Anyway, pinning that to any particular point in time seems ridiculous, and I suppose I'm more of the bent of Hawking or Kenneth Miller in that I tend to look in awe at the order and complexity of the natural world and believe it had its origin in a wisdom higher than ours while still recognizing that we can absolutely perceive many of the mechanisms by which that complexity came to be.

    As to context, in many cases, it's self evident. When textual, I think it's important to simply consider the surrounding verses; when historical, it's simply important to consider who is being addressed as well as when and where. Many (if not most) believers never take the time to do this, so their understanding of scripture is limited only to the fragmented, literal interpretation of the translation. That leads lots of people to make claims that the scripture would never support. I think there are some fairly clear and reasonable standards here for "properly understood".

    I watched the video, and there's a ton there to unpack. Some of the questions actually have relatively simple answers. For example, the second one he asks "Does God tempt people?", the first five translations I looked at all said God "tested" Abraham, which is quite a different thing than "tempted". Others might take a great bit more review, and frankly I just don't have the time (I wish you only blogged once a month or something.)

    And, as regards salvation, I saw your earlier references to the writings of the pastor who left Christianity in part (if not primarily) over the differing views on salvation among the denominations. I'd simply say that he (and you) entirely missed the essence of the faith - a recognition of our fundamental inability to save ourselves (from death, hell, etc.), the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and our need to rely upon God's mercy. To use the old clique, it's about relationship, not religion. Sure, faith groups will add various requirements to that list as necessary evidences of commitment to the faith, and they'll splinter over plenty of other issues, too, but I think the core is both simple and clear.

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  4. Few things to address here.

    - I'd recommend you look into rebuttals of the cosmological argument and argument from design. I've addressed them regularly in both this blog and my previous one The Apostasy. I've gone in way deep detail about them both, but this one may serve as a simple way to start:

    http://aunicornist.blogspot.com/2010/02/why-doesnt-gods-existence-require.html

    - I think nothing speaks to the fact that scripture is not self-evident greater than the nature of Christian practices. Not only are there innumerable theological schisms within the church, but the practice of Christianity has changed radically over time to conform with relevant sociocultural norms. 150 years ago countless prominent Christians were using scriptures to justify the preservation of slavery. Nowadays it's being using to justify the oppression of gay rights. Now Christianity is spread by mission trips, but for much of its life it was spread by the sword. Either there is no "correct" way to interpret the Bible, or God made it so nebulous as to make it pragmatically useless.

    - I'd agree that the essence of the Christian faith (careful not to blanket all or even most faiths here) is about, as you say, "a recognition of our fundamental inability to save ourselves (from death, hell, etc.), the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and our need to rely upon God's mercy." However, you can't pretend that how this is supposed to be done isn't an important and hugely divisive issue for Christians, and a lot of them are convinced that the rest of them are not "true Christians" because they're doing the whole salvation thing wrong. Even the Bible is murky on the issue, as NonStampCollector so incisively pointed out. This all goes back to the fundamental problem of taking a book that is loaded with internal contradictions and expecting people to make any kind of homogeneous theology out of it. This is supposed to be God's one big book, and that's the best he could do?

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  5. Hey, bro,
    I'm familiar with some of the cosmological rebuttals, and to be sure I just read the one you linked to. My simple response to your argument is that the reason the origin of God doesn't require an explanation is that while there are more or less observable parameters regarding the existence of the universe (i.e. last I checked we believe it had an origin, even if we're not able to peer directly into that moment), the existence of God is not bound by those parameters. When one of us makes a statement like "The Universe just IS" or "God IS", what we're primarily referring to is that entity's ability to exist beyond our perception of spacetime (and especially time). While this isn't a problem for God, given that the monotheistic conception of God is of a being that created, and therefore exists outside spacetime, it's more a problem for the universe, given that it seems to have had an origin (obviously, the nature of that origin - i.e. a spillover from another universe, etc. etc. may introduce additional levels of complexity).

    I would actually agree with you about both of your latter two statements in many ways. In fact, I find it frustrating that many Christians only dig into the Bible at an absolute surface level, failing to grasp that much of it can only reasonable be understood as moral allegory, and that yet more of it requires historical or textual context. It's precisely because people tend to latch onto portions of scripture in the absence of these things that such divisions are created. But that all brings me back to God's mercy - if salvation is dependent on me getting it right, I'm utterly without hope, but of course that's not the message of the cross, which is that we couldn't do it ourselves, so Christ did it for us. The Bible is a tool for our growth and refinement. I don't know that any Christian would suggest that a perfect understanding of it is a precursor for salvation.

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  6. The origin of the universe is precisely the question. I'd suggest you check out lectures by Laurence Krauss and Stephen Hawking on the "universe from nothing". Hawking goes into great detail in chapter 8 of "A Brief History of Time".

    In classical physics, you had two options: either the universe was infinitely old, or it had a finite beginning. But the laws of quantum mechanics allow the universe to be finite but without a boundary or edge. It would have no beginning or end; it would simply BE. Prior to the Big Bang, the universe would have existed as a quantum field of virtual particles. In English, it basically means the universe could have, and likely did, simply exist in a different state – a state in which time would function non-linearly, like another dimension of space.

    But to get philosophical for a moment, I'd suggest that the attributes you ascribe to God are both unnecessary and arbitrary. For example, the creator of our universe could have been a finite being who destroyed himself when our universe was created. I'll comment more later but I gotta get back to work!

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  7. Alright just a tad more to add, regarding scriptural interpretation.

    I wouldn't expect perfection. I'm not really sure how you'd define that. But I'd expect a degree of clarity, consistency and accuracy that is quite frankly absent from the Bible, and this lack is reflected in the innumerable theological schisms within Christianity. There's absolutely nothing about the Bible that suggests it wasn't written purely from the minds of (relatively) ignorant human beings. There's nothing at all that implores us to believe it is divinely inspired, nothing about it that suggests it must have been or even most likely was authored by a deity.

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