New Scientist: “The God Issue”6 min read

Yesterday Mrs Phil bought me a copy of the latest New Scientist magazine,  “The God Issue”, because it looked interesting. I’ve had a chance to read through it now – or at least the relevant articles – and I thought I’d post up a quick review.

Know Your Enemy

The introduction, ‘Know your enemy’, starts off promisingly:

Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don’t need to be indoctrinated to believe in him.

This is interesting information. But we’ll come onto that a bit later on.

This is not an apologia for god. Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life … [But] religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity.

Ah. Religious claims still ‘wither under rational scrutiny’? That’s a bold claim to make given that many scientists are, in fact, Christian – see, for example, Wikipedia’s list of Christian thinkers in science. Alienating some of your readership is not a smart move in any magazine, and in this particular case it seems like unnecessary sniping. Also, one logical conclusion of children naturally predisposed to believe in ‘god’ is that there is a possibility that ‘god’ might exist – a possibility which seems to escape every writer throughout the magazine.

Still, it is good to see that atheists are coming round to the idea that religion is not a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity: hopefully this will signal the beginning of the end for the Dawkins school of atheism, which seems to hold that every religious person is hopelessly deluded.

Born Believers

This article was about how babies and children perceive the world, particular with respect to agents and objects  – an agent being something that can operate on its surroundings. I found this article most interesting out of all of them – the idea that children are predisposed to believe theistically, without having to be taught or ‘indoctrinated’.

I particularly enjoyed the conclusion:

Children are born believers not of Christianity, Islam or any other theology but of what I call “natural religion”. They have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief.

In our philosophy class last week, we were looking at Calvin’s Institutes – particularly the chapters where he talks about God implanting knowledge of himself in us (obviously referring to passages like Romans 1:18-23). Calvin’s reasoning was that we can get to a partial knowledge of God from our own nature and the world, yet we still need revelation (i.e. God’s Word, the scriptures) to truly know God.

The Santa Delusion

A small editorial on the same page was talking about whether believing in God or gods is childish – comparable to believing in Santa or the Tooth Fairy. The general thrust was that, although children may hold a number of beliefs which are not reasonable, they also hold a large number of beliefs which are:

But adults generally do believe in gods. That such beliefs begin in childhood and typically endures into adulthood places it in the same class as believing in the permanence of solid objects, the continuity of time, the predictability of natural laws, the fact that causes precede effects, that people have minds, that their mothers love them and numerous others. If believing in gods is being childish in the same respect as holding these sorts of beliefs, then belief in gods is in good company.

In other words, ‘childish’ beliefs are not necessarily bad beliefs. Obviously it doesn’t entail anything about the veracity of a belief system or not, but I think it puts to bed the standard antitheistic argument that believing in god is akin to believing in Santa (etc)!

The idea that launched a thousand civilisations

This is an article which explores the idea of how religions originated, and argues that civilisation may not have arisen without the idea of religion. The general thrust seems to be that people behave ‘better’ if they believe that there is a higher power watching down on them, rewarding them if they behave ‘well’ but punishing them if they behave ‘badly’: “Religion thus forged anonymous strangers into moral communities tied together with sacred bonds under a common supernatural jurisdiction”, and “people place nice when they think a god is watching them, and those around them.”

However, now that we’ve ‘grown up’ in a species, we’re in a position to throw off our religious roots:

these institutions [courts, police etc] have precipitated religion’s decline by usurping it’s community-building functions. These societies with atheist majorities – some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world – have climbed religion’s ladder and then kicked it away.

I’ve already dealt with this question to an extent on my secularism post, so I won’t rehearse the same arguments again. I will just point that that there are examples of other societies in relatively recent history who have kicked away religion’s ladder and not been cooperative and peaceful.

Natural religion, unnatural science

This article was about the staying power of religion – how it taps into something quite fundamental about human nature. I thought some good points were made, although I wasn’t sure about the ‘Galileo argument’: “Theologians eventually accommodated our displacement from the centre of things by Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin. It took some time because of the size of the challenge, but it happened.” I’d say that was actually not supported by the historical evidence, but let’s not go down that road now.

One comment I did very much like: “Those who would criticise either religion or science need to be sure what it is they are attacking.” Amen to that.

The God Hypothesis

This article really annoyed me.  The basic idea was that if God exists, his existence should be scientifically testable. I could basically quote the whole article to disagree with, but here are a few choice snippets:

If God is the source of morality, then we should find evidence for a supernatural origin in human behaviour. We do not … History shows us that the moral and ethical guides that most of us live by did not originate with the monotheistic religions, as proponents of those religions would have us believe.

Again, I don’t want to get taken up with the moral question, but I’d very much like to see the evidence that proves morality did not originate with ‘monotheistic religions’.

If God answers prayers, we should see miraculous effects of prayer. With millions of prayers having been said every day for thousands of years, we should expect some to have been answered by now in a verifiable way. They have not.

Have they not? There are plenty of examples of people who would disagree with that statement. The point is, God is a person – not a ‘vending machine’ for answering prayer. It’s like testing for the existence of a celebrity by testing whether they would reply to a letter or not. Sometimes they may have reasons for not responding. It’s a poor analogy, but the point is science’s goal is to test the natural world, with its laws and predictable behaviour – not to test whether a person exists.

If God is the creator of the universe, then we should find evidence for that in astronomy and physics. We do not. The origin of our universe required no miracles.

Actually, scientists have never been able to explain why there is something rather than nothing. Multiverses are just pure speculation, and pretty much by definition impossible to test scientifically (something impossible to test scientifically being posited as a solution to the problem? By SCIENTISTS? Surely not!)

When faith rules over facts, magical thinking becomes deeply ingrained and warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence … Blind faith is no reason to run a world.

If this was attacking a specific person it would be ad hominem. “Warps all areas of life”?! Come on, provide some evidence please. Oh wait, this is just a rant, no evidence required. I’m honestly surprised that the New Scientist would publish such an article. It seems to have been written by an atheist with a ginormous chip on his shoulder. (But then, what would you expect for someone who’s just written a book on how religion and faith are incompatible?)

It seems he could do with reading through ‘Atheist Delusions’ by David Bentley Hart – a book I’m currently reading which I will review after completing it.

Anyway, that pretty much concludes my summary of the issue, save for a few mildly patronising comments by Alain de Botton about how atheists can benefit from religion. It’s interesting what the science actually says, it’s also interesting seeing how our presuppositions will make us interpret that information.

5 thoughts on “New Scientist: “The God Issue”6 min read

  1. Interesting. But which societies is the author referring to as “societies with atheist majorities – some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world”? The Wikipedia article Demographics of atheism gives no evidence of any countries having “atheist majorities”, although some have majorities who do not identify with any specific religion. I presume here that atheism is not consistent with “Belief in a spirit or life force”.

    As for verifiable answers to prayer, see my post God Heals Today through Prayer – Scientific Paper.

    1. Thanks Peter, good point. It seems that the author of that particular piece was playing a bit fast and loose with statistics!

      Thanks for linking through to your answers to prayer article as well. The author of that piece did actually say that there was no evidence for healing, not just answers to prayer, so it’s worth pointing that out!

  2. I would be liking to make an observation please. That the many atheist populated countries are Great Britain and France. The U.S.A has atheists, but not as many as these two.

    I want to say that Fabrice Muamba had a heart attack on the football pitch, and everywhere, I see football fans, players and managers saying “pray for Muamba”, “God willing he will get better”.

    This is everywhere. My friend, please tell me how people who scream, shout, swear and fight because of passion of football, in this athiest majority countires, suddenly say to pray and God willing? Wayne Rooney is praying, he said on twitter. Who is he praying to?

    This is my opinion please. That believing in God and praying to God in the hard times, is still alive in the many atheist populated countries, it is easy to say religion is lost or kicked down the ladder – becuase people scream, shout, swear and fight when drunk or when there is nice woman, but the same people have believing in God and prayer to God in the Churches.

  3. Remi, those may be the countries the author had in mind, but the Wikipedia figures are that 78% in the UK and 61% in France believe in God, a spirit or a life force. That was in 2005, and the figures may have fallen a little since then, but probably not below 50%. And when it comes to a situation like Muamba’s, even the atheist dominated BBC has to accept that prayer might help.

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