Dec 22

Books on Science and Religion #28: Atheism for Dummies

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Dec 21, 2014

For the next two blogs, I look at the fascinating Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan, by turns an interesting and a frustrating guide to one aspect of the topic – the embrace of atheism by those fleeing fundamentalism.

atheism for dummiesBefore I get to McGowan’s book, I want to offer some criticisms of modern atheism. It seems to me that it is a combination of materialism, anti-intellectualism and science-writing treated as if it were religious doctrine.

And before I describe the positive things in McGowan’s book, I want to say some critical things about his reasoning, his anti-intellectualism, and the approach he uses. I think it hides the true reasons why people turn to McGowan’s type of fundamentalist atheism.

Atheism and Unreason

It has been said that humans were born to believe – evolution made us so.

Clearly, there is something to such a view. But there is a rub: to the extent that it is true, it applies equally well to beliefs about in materialism and to an embrace of secularism as it does to religion.

It we look at atheism and materialism as a faith, then we can also look at it from the perspective of the history of a faith. And it looks something like this: The 19th century was the heady age of the dawning of atheism and materialism, the 20th century was the age of its fruition (communism, logical positivism, Arabic socialism, and all that), and the 21st century is the age of disillusionment, the age of the loss of faith. (Simplistic? Yes, but helpful nonetheless.)

And accompanying this loss of faith? Could it be a stubborn, unreasoned grasping at creeds that once seemed so clear and solid? Is this why modern atheism is so irrational, so unfriendly to objectivity, so at odds with the scientific spirit it claims to embrace?

Consider the writings of A.C. Grayling, Stephen Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, their methodology “consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.” This isn’t a sign of strength, confidence, or certainty – it is a failure to engage or to cope.

In contrast, those who embrace both science and religion seem confident and comfortable with scientific ways of thinking and comfortable with religion, combining a ready awareness of religion’s foibles with an embrace of its strengths and an acknowledgement of its extraordinary diversity. Something happens when science and religion come together.

superhumanPerhaps a diagram conveys more than words.

Consider the traditional physicist’s vision of reality as diagrammed to the left. Newton would be comfortable seeing things this way. At the bottom of the diagram, there is the reality of matter – the stuff of stars, of interstellar space, of minerals, of rocks, and of the ocean. Next and above there is the reality of living things, something that includes the reality of organic things – which are made of matter – and the reality of various types of plants and organisms. Higher in complexity are animals. They incorporate the reality of matter, organisms below animals, as well as the realities of the animal kingdom. Above that – incorporating the human, animal, plant, and material realities – is the world of human reality. And above that? The superhuman reality (super means above). It includes the realities of the material world, the plant world, the animal world, the human world, and in addition, a reality that transcends the human world. [Note: This is only a picture, so don’t worry if the details are a bit off according to modern biology].

The materialist’s world – the atheist’s reality – is a truncated version of this larger picture embraced by those who admit to both science and religion. For the materialist, the superhuman world is out of bounds – it is inadmissible. (If you’re a materialist, this raises some interesting questions. Does money, something often without a material reality, actually exist? If so, where?)

Contrast this truncated perspective with the views of the science and religion crowd. This crowd willingly entertains the idea that there may be a reality above the human or animal kingdom – they aspire to a larger and much grander picture of reality. There is, of course, no money-back guarantee that every resulting vision is going to be better or more wonderful than any given materialist’s vision, but it is clear that the materialist’s views are necessarily much more limited in scope.

And there are implications to this. Materialists aren’t open to a bigger picture of things. One effect is that they are forced by their belief system into viewing religion in a cynical way – they must see it as a story, as an invention, as a lie, as a primitive grasping at scientific facts, or at best as a convenient fiction.

But the other side of the coin is that if materialism is indeed a belief system, then it is likely to be embraced and defended in the same way that religious belief systems are defended. What this means is that all the bad things – the lack of reasonableness, blind adherence to outmoded creeds, the whole body of accusations thrown at the religious and the religions be it justly or unjustly – also applies to those embracing materialism as a belief system. And indeed, the history of 19th and 20th centuries, especially the tragic experiences of Germany, Russia, and China, strongly suggest that materialism is such a belief system, one much more terrible in its consequences than anything the modern religious terrorist can implement. All religious-inspired tragedies pale into insignificance when confronted with the immensity of the horrors wrought in the 19th and 20th centuries by materialist faiths.

santa clausDale McGowan, as an atheist and a materialist, holds to this mold – I describe some of the ways below. But the interesting thing about McGowan’s book is not his philosophical expositions – which are uniformly flippant and unpersuasive – but rather his discussion of the need for community for those who find themselves embracing the atheist creed. But that is the topic for next week’s blog.

What Atheists Do and Don’t Believe

Atheism for Dummies is part of the renowned Dummies series. It’s author, Dale McGowan, is a former professor of music now active as an inspirational speaker for atheist and humanist organizations, a writer, and the director of a charitable organization.

McGowan paints atheists as open and questioning people who have freed themselves from blind belief. In Chapter 3, he explains why people are attracted to atheism. Promisingly, he starts out by invoking Santa Claus:

As the child grows and learns more about the world, the answers become less satisfying, and the urge to know the truth starts to overtake the will to believe. That’s when the direct question comes at last: Is Santa real?

By offering a universe that cares for everyone after all, and by canceling death, the idea of a loving God solves many of the deepest human problem. When it comes to God, the will to believe can be so overwhelming that most people never cross the threshold into the will to actually find out. Whatever doubts they have are easily shooed away by the religious equivalents « magic corn.

This, of course, sounds convincing. It is true that ideologies – and religious belief systems that have collapsed into ideologies – do serve as a way to avoid thinking. He continues:

Those who are able to cross that threshold find that they’re able to revisit the many questions they had shooed away so easily while their will to believe was strongest — questions about good and evil, meaning and purpose, life and death — and to see them in a whole new light. Many end up coming to the conclusion that the God hypothesis just doesn’t fare well in that light, and that it’s much more likely that humanity lives in a natural universe with­out gods.

But notice the ideological flourishes – “the God hypothesis”, “a natural universe without gods.” And it is striking that he doesn’t mention – and perhaps fails to understand – that many have gone or will go through the reverse process – i.e., starting from an atheistic childhood in the Soviet bloc, China, and other like-minded parts of the world, and coming to realize that religion is not what sometimes all-powerful authorities decreed it to be.

His discussion of confirmation bias, and his failure to recognize that the concept applies equally well to those under the spell of materialism, brings the point home:

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to see things the way you prefer, and it’s the single biggest obstacle to getting at the truth in any area of life. It leads people to notice and accept evidence that seems to support their beliefs while ignoring evidence that contradicts it.

That’s one of the central problems many people notice when they first begin to look closely at religion — that the claims and conclusions of the faith so often play to the preferences of the faithful in a really big way.

Confirmation bias10 commandments – of course – is a two-way street, and it can also cause both atheists and religionists to see only what they want to see. And very often what atheists see is very simplistic. I notice it again and again: a writer’s view of religion becomes frozen in time at a certain point, typically in their youth, when they see religion a certain way and reject it. From then on, they absolutely refuse to learn anything more about religion except derogatory or negative things.

McGowan’s take on the Hebrew Bible provides an excellent illustration of how simplistic beliefs can strongly color the way atheists see things. Read the Bible, he urges, and

… in the middle of Genesis, you’ll encounter the stories of two fathers and their children. Both fathers behave with astonishing cruelty toward their kids and – here’s the thing – both are immediately praised and awarded by God. Worse than that, God even ordered one of those cruel acts.

He then argues, on the basis of some extraordinarily labored interpretations, that the new Testament “commands to kill homosexuals, disobedient children, and nonbelievers, and to enslave and kill the people of neighboring countries.”  It, of course, does no such thing.

Given that the Hebrew Bible is a collection of stories written down by priests over a period of hundreds of years that tell about the evolution of God’s relationship with the Jewish people through extremely troubled and cruel times, why does McGowan insist on such an uninformed and extremist literalist reading and thus such skewered interpretations? It’s hard not to conclude that he is in thrall to confirmation bias.

Atheist for Dummies on Evolution

When McGowan comes to evolution, things don’t get any better. After a really short explanation of natural selection, he then concludes that it proves that belief in God can be abandoned. Here is his argument:

Evolution uprooted the tree of traditional religion in several ways. But perhaps the strongest blow was to the argument from design. For thousands of years, everyone from theologians to the person in the street found the complexity of life to be the strongest argument for the existence of God. Now a powerful, simple, natural explanation was available, one that presented fewer problems than an uncreated Creator.

william blakeIn The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins described the importance of evolution to atheism. Before Darwin, an atheist may have said, “God’s a poor explanation for complex biology, but I don’t have a better one.” That’s a pretty unsatisfying position to be in. But Darwin’s theory made it possible to be what Dawkins called “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” The single most compelling reason to believe in God could finally be set aside with confidence.

The logic of this argument is straight-forward:

A. People believe in God because of the argument from design.

B. Darwin found an argument that doesn’t require design

C. Therefore there is no need to believe in God.

And knocking it down is even more straight-forward:

Counterargument A. There is little or no evidence that the argument from design was meaningful for anybody outside a few educated folks in early 19th century England, so people, generally-speaking, don’t believe in God because of the argument from design.

Counterargument B. Contrary to what many people think, Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism – random variation and natural selection – is indeed a design argument. Ask any modern internet entrepreneur – or even an economist – and they will tell you that if you want to design a phenomenally successful system like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or a capitalist economy, create one that use large numbers (of people, things, stocks in your mutual fund) and then introduce selection processes. It’s an extremely effective way to design certain types of systems.

Variation and selection using large populations is not only an extraordinarily successful way to design things, its essential to our modern economies. So, evolution is indeed an argument from design, just not a Newtonian argument for design.

Counterargument C. So if neither A nor B is true, C doesn’t follow. And unfortunately, we can’t say that two negatives  add up to a positive. You can believe if you want, but there is no logic, philosophy, or science that supports your belief.

And of course, the idea that a natural explanation – evolutionary or otherwise – of how life and humanity came into being somehow undermines belief in God is simply not true – nor is it all that informed or even rational. Indeed, the ready availability of rational natural explanation of things – the Book of Nature as opposed to the Book of God – has long been a bulwark of religious belief.

But, as I said, McGowan’s arguments for atheism are unconvincing. His real strength is in addressing the needs of people who have left the social network provided by religious communities and have found that they are missing something very important.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we talk about some of the positive features of Atheism for Dummies.


This is the 28th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


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Dec 19

My Friend Mycroft, Part Three: Mycroft on Religion


Mycroft Holmes

Having discussed the role of science in the life of humanity, my atheist forum friend Mycroft turned to the subject of religion. The points of view were thus: Mycroft=science is a savior; Me=science is a tool for the exploration of reality

Mycroft wrote: “The major organized belief systems are incoherent. Half of mosaic, christian, and muslim theology over the last millennia is devoted to the task of belatedly producing some kind of consistency—often by declaring something impossible a “mystery”, or adding afterthoughts.”

Now, I had never disagreed with Mycroft about the incoherence of some organized belief systems. The irrationality of some of the beliefs I held when I was younger are what led me to look for truth and value both in the scriptures that were supposed to form the basis of my beliefs and beyond.

But here’s the thing: The belief systems current in many religious communities today are no less irrational than our political belief systems, our personal belief systems, our pseudo-scientific belief systems. They are no less irrational than any other area in which human beings make things up to explain, rationalize and make themselves comfortable with cognitive dissonance in a world that seems to change too fast to keep up with.

There is a difference, however, between what the scriptures that we claim to believe say and what we interpret them to say filtered through societal factors and personal desires. Over the valid objections of atheists and others (including religious people), we also extend the pronouncements of scripture into areas they were not intended to address.

The Book of Genesis was viewed by the people to whom it was given as a symbolic history of the Jewish people, not as a literal, material history of humankind. This is why the story of Lilith and the idea that “sons of God” married the “daughters of men” didn’t raise a red flag for Jewish scholars. Only later was the metaphorical account wrested out of that context by non-Jews and taken as a literal creation account and thereby held to be in opposition to scientific theories of evolution.

These days, Genesis is more often taken by believers to be an “age appropriate” metaphor for the creation of life than it is a literal description of that process. The fact that two separate thumbnail sketches of creation appear in the same book with two different timelines that the authors never thought to reconcile is more than suggestive of this. Nor is Genesis the only creation story in existence that is meaningful to huge chunks of humanity, and it makes no sense to insist that it is or that—taken as a metaphorical model—it usurps the role of science. It is not science. It is human beings trying to describe for posterity something they barely have the language to describe.

“But Mohammad,” Mycroft countered, “gave three different versions of the origin of man (he was made from clay, from water, from “semen of despised water”).”

With all due respect to Mycroft’s obvious intelligence, this statement is, to me, an example of the human tendency toward binary thinking. To illustrate, there is a point in the Gospels at which Jesus is trying to describe to His disciples what the Kingdom of God is like. He says it’s like a tree growing from a tiny seed and then that its like a woman kneading leaven into flour.

Many questionsThere are at least two ways to approach this statement.

  1. One can say “Well, which is it? It can’t be both.”
  2. One can choose a description, and take it materialistically, supposing that Christ meant God would physically plant a tree somewhere on earth that would hold all the planet’s birds or turn into a woman and literally knead the leaven of the kingdom into the earth.
  3. One can recognize that a material example is being used to describe something non-material, and can ask “what do these two similes have in common?” What they have in common is that that both the growing of the tree and the kneading of dough are organic processes that take time.

So, what does Muhammad’s use of these elements (one of which is biologically apt) have as a common thread? They are all physical elements that have long been associated with the human body—clay and water; solid substance and fluids—and which every human body is composed of.

Metaphors are also used in scientific literature for the same reason that they are used in religious revelation: we lack the capacity to directly understand the thing we are describing. Scientists talk about stars being born in “cocoons of interstellar gases”, of “black holes”, of “super strings”, of “fields”. Science uses the word “noble” to describe certain gases that do not combine with others. These words are used differently than in a non-scientific setting, but imagine what might happen if someone reading scientific literature took those metaphors literally and believed that stars are like butterflies and are born in cocoons afloat in space, that the phenomenon we call a black hole is really black and really a hole, that there are strings floating in fields (like the Elysian fields or Uncle Fred’s corn field, perhaps) in the void of space, and that some gases are literally more noble than others and therefore the other gases venerate them.

Luis and Walter Alvarez

Luis and Walter Alvarez

In a scientific setting, after the initial shock of a new paradigm being set, it is deemed rational to adjust one’s worldview to incorporate new information. Think of the uproar over Luis and Walter Alvarez’s theories about the KT boundary and dino die-off before it became the new paradigm. I would think that my friend Mycroft and others who share his worldview would be gratified to see religious thought being similarly refined and adjusted by the new discoveries we make about our world and ourselves. Alas, such is not the case. What is considered rational behavior in one context is seen in the other as irrational dithering.

In the Bahá’í scriptures, Bahá’u’lláh (the Prophet-Founder) and Abdu’l-Bahá (His son and appointed interpreter) have written copiously about reason and the importance of the acquisition of knowledge both spiritual and scientific. Religion is revealed in these writings as an organic thing, meant from its very inception to evolve even as mankind and everything else evolves. I doubted that principle once upon a time, and that doubt caused me to study the scriptures I had grown up with in a far more comprehensive and rational way than I had before. I read the biblical texts—especially the words of Christ—with an eye to extracting information. I realized, as I never had before, that Christ (and indeed, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad and other claimants to divine revelation) had also tried to frame the teachings of Their faiths as part of an evolving process.

“Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous. ..Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today.  Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions… In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide the spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity p. 83

When it came to my discourses with Mycroft, I was bemused to discover that he—the atheist—was the one who insisted that all scripture must be taken literally and that evolution was a non-starter.

Irony can be pretty darned ironic.

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Dec 17

Hateful propaganda sparks concern for Baha’is of Rafsanjan

1031_03NEW YORK, 16 December 2014, (BWNS) — Against the backdrop of increasing economic pressures, a recent anti-Baha’i demonstration and a hateful speech delivered by a cleric have raised concerns for the safety of the Baha’is of Rafsanjan, a city in Iran.

Hojatoleslam Abbas Ramezani-Pour, the Friday prayer Imam of Rafsanjan, declared in a speech at the end of November that, according to religious fatwas, Baha’is are “unclean” and that it is “forbidden” to conduct business and trade with them.

“The rightful wishes of the people, which are that they [the Baha’is] should not be in this city, must be realized,” Mr. Ramezani-Pour stated.

“This Imam has, in fact, called for the Baha’is to be expelled from Rafsanjan,” said Ms. Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations. “Such negative remarks by a known cleric in the city are extremely worrisome and show a deep level of discrimination.”

“The closure of businesses in that city and the economic harassment of Baha’is are already causing immense hardship for Baha’is there,” said Ms. Dugal

Several days before the speech of Mr. Ramezani-Pour, an anti-Baha’i demonstration was held in front of the governor’s office in Rafsanjan.

Reports from pro-Iranian government media allege that these demonstrations were spontaneous and initiated by the local population. However, photos show instead a clearly planned event, using pre-printed placards obviously prepared in advance. Some placards read “The Baha’is are inherently unclean”, and others “no room for faithless sneaks in Muslim bazaars”.

“Hateful remarks and the dissemination of falsehoods against the Baha’is in Iran are not new”, said Ms. Dugal. “But these incidents are ominous because of past occasions where statements by religious leaders and efforts to incite hatred against a certain group led to serious consequences.”

For example, on 24 August 2013, Mr. Ataollah Rezvani, a well-known Baha’i in the city of Bandar Abbas was shot and killed in his car.  It is of note that a few years before his murder, the Friday prayer Imam had incited the local population against the Baha’is, referring to them as “un-Islamic.”  He further called on the people of the city to “rise up” against the Baha’i community.

Of course, Baha’is are not the only group to be identified from the pulpit.  More recently, the Friday prayer Imam of Isfahan gave a provocative speech in which he stated that warnings were no longer enough in the fight to ensure the proper use of the Hijab – or the head scarf – by all women; force and violence were now necessary.  Shortly after his address, several women had acid thrown at their faces for not wearing what the authorities regard as appropriate attire whilst out in public in the city.

“The statements of clerics in Iran have an influence on the thoughts of those who follow them”, said Ms. Dugal. “Where is the government? Can the complicity of the government be seriously denied?”

In October of this year, 50 Baha’i shops were closed in the city of Kerman, 23 in Rafsanjan and six in Jiroft – all in the same province. In recent months, an increase in the number of closures of Baha’i businesses and shops shows a coordinated plan for inflicting further pressures on the Baha’is of Iran.

● A business closure in July resulted in 20 locals in Ghaemshahr being left jobless.

● In September 2014, a Baha’i in Yazd whose business license had been refused despite her repeated representations to the Public Places Supervision Office (PPSO), was told by a director of the PPSO in Yazd Province that he had received a circular from the higher authorities instructing his office not to issue a business permit to any Baha’i applicant and that this would be undertaken gradually, presumably in an effort to prevent adverse publicity in the international media.  It should further be noted that, at one point in her efforts to retain the business, she was advised by the local trade union to have it registered under the name of a Muslim.  When she did so, the individual concerned was threatened by PPSO officials, who pressured him, albeit unsuccessfully, to sign an undertaking pledging that neither the Baha’i nor any of her Baha’i colleagues would ever show their faces inside the store.

● In August 2014 it was reported that three veterans, who had been prisoners of war and who were receiving the pension to which they were entitled had been summoned to the Veterans’ Affairs Foundation and told that if they did not write their religion as Muslim, their pensions would be stopped.  They refused to recant their faith and are now receiving no pension.

● In October 2014, it was reported that business licenses of four Baha’is in the city of Yazd were not renewed.

● In November 2014, in Isfahan, the residences of a number of Baha’is who were working from home were entered by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and the work areas ‘sealed’ to indicate no further work could be done.

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Dec 14

Books on Science and Religion #27: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Science and Religion

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Dec 14, 2014

I’ve just read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ 2012 book on science and religion called The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. I strongly recommend it. It resonates very strongly with what I have learned about the relationship between science and religion, says things eloquently that many have of us been struggling to voice for years, and brings to bear a powerful, fascinating, and enlightening rabbinical perspective that draws on a three thousand year tradition that precedes and underlies Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.

Sir-jonathan-sacksDr. Sacks, the leading Rabbi in the United Kingdom until his retirement in 2013, is a philosopher by training. He did his studies at Cambridge and at Oxford where his PhD was under the moral philosopher – and atheist – Bernard Williams. Also, he is the author of some 22 books, recipient of many awards for those books, and was knighted by the British government. A gifted story teller, he brings an easy erudition to his topics and is a sought-after public speaker. He brings the Hebrew Bible alive – somehow capturing a feeling that the last 3,000 years was just yesterday.

The Great Partnership, in some ways, is a direct engagement with New Atheism and its attacks on religion. Here is an example of how he answers those attacks:

If the new atheists are right, you would have to be sad, mad or bad to believe in God and practise a religious faith. We know that is not so … To believe in God, faith and the importance of religious practice does not involve an abdication of the intellect, a silencing of critical faculties, or believing in six impossible things before breakfast. It does not involve reading Genesis literally. It does not involve rejecting the findings of science.

Debates about science and religion, he notes, have always been with us, but the current debates have

… been waged with more than usual anger and vituperation, and the terms of the conflict have changed. In the past the danger – and it was a real danger – was a godless society. That led to four terrifying experiments in history, the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.

The-Great_PartnershipToday the danger is of a radical religiosity combined with an apocalyptic political agenda, able through terror and asymmetric warfare to destabilise whole nations and regions …

The result is dangerous assault on religion when believers and non-believers should be united:

This is one fight believers and non-believers should be fighting together. Instead the new atheism has launched an unusually aggressive assault on religion, which is not good for religion, for science, for intellectual integrity or for the future of the West.

Schooled in the atheism of old, he challenges the methods and prescriptions of the new:

Atheism deserves better than the new atheists, whose methodology consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.

Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that candidly … But the cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.

But the book is much more than a response to New athiesm. It is a tour-de-force overview of the relationship between science and religion in light of the entire tradition of western reason and Abrahamic monotheism. I excerpt below.


Consider two creation stories, one drawing on science, the other on religion.


The scientific creation story tells us that the universe was created 13.7 billion years, that our planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, that life appeared not long after, that it grew in complexity through evolutionary processes, and that it brought homo sapiens into being. The religion creation story tells us that God created the universe because of His love for us so that we could know Him and love him. He sent guidance to women and men everywhere through his Prophets and through those who were wise, teaching humanity so that it would mature, and allowing even mistakes and great evils so that we could learn and advance towards the kingdom of God.

Consider them each, Sacks instructs us:

Two rival views, each coherent and consistent, each simplified to be sure, but marking out the great choice, the two framing visions of the human situation. One asserts that life is meaningless. The other claims that life is meaningful. The facts are the same on both scenarios. So is the science that explains the facts. But the world is experienced differently by those who tell the first narrative and those who tell the second.

One of the stories looks for meaning, Sacks tells us, “and that is no small thing, for we are meaning-seeking animals.” And while seeking for meaning includes embracing science, it goes further:

Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning. Meaning is not accidental to the human condition because we are the meaning-seeking animal.

To believe on the basis of science that the universe has no meaning is to confuse two disciplines of thought: explanation and interpreta­tion. The search for meaning, though it begins with science, must go beyond it. Science does not yield meanings, nor does it prove the absence of meanings.

athensAlthough it’s not important in the overall context, I don’t fully agree with his definition of science. I think that it is more than a search for facts and explanations. Rather it is the systematic use of reason for whatever one chooses (consider, for example, the culture of learning and the ongoing cycle of reflection and action in Baha’i communities around the world – that is the application of the scientific method in community growth and development).

Athens and Jerusalem

Athens vs. Jerusalem. Left-brain vs. Right-brain. Reason vs. intuition. Individualism vs. group-orientation.

We invoke these dichotomies to talk about very real differences between people, groups of people, cultures, nations and civilizations. Sacks talks about the origins of modern western civilization as the marriage of Greek rationalism and Jewish monotheism:

JerusalemGreece and Israel in antiquity offer us the sharpest possible contrast between a strongly left-brain and a strongly right-brain culture. They were both widely literate societies, with a high regard for study and discipleship. They both valued the academy and the sage. 

But their cognitive styles were different … They valued different things. The Greeks worshipped human reason, the Jews, divine revelation. The Greeks gave the West its philosophy and science. The Jews, obliquely, gave it its prophets and religious faith.

These two great cultures – both having escaped from the spell of myth – united in Christianity:

The unique synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem that became Christianity led to the discipline of theology and thus to the intel­lectual edifice of Western civilisation between the fourth and seventeenth centuries. It was a wondrous achievement, a cathe­dral of the mind. It brought together the Judaic love of God and the Hellenistic love of nature and human reason.

It was … a wondrous creation – but it was as much Greek as Judaic. … It combined left-brain rationality with right-brain spirituality in a single, glorious, overarching structure. We may never see its like again.

The scientific age emerged from this great synthesis. But it has lost its way. It has lost the love of God, its pursuit of meaning,  and its religion. To be morally literate in this modern age, you have to understand the consequences:

Knowing what happened in Russia under Stalin, in China under Mao and in Germany under Hitler is essential to moral literacy in the twenty-first century. These were programmes carried out under the influence of ideas produced by Western intellectuals in the nineteenth century to fill the vacuum left by a widespread loss of faith in God and religion.

Holocaust-JewsThe Holocaust

There is no better illustration of the situation we find ourselves than the Holocaust.

The Holocaust did not take place long ago and far away. It happened in the heart of rationalist, post-Enlightenment, liberal Europe: the Europe of Kant and Hegel, Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Brahms.

The problem is not only the insidious anti-semitism of the great continental philos­ophers:

Voltaire called the Jews ‘an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition’. Fichte wrote that the only way of making Jews civi­lised was to amputate their Jewish heads. Immanuel Kant spoke privately of Jews as ‘the vampires of society’ and argued for the ‘euthanasia’ of Judaism. Hegel took Judaism as his model of a ‘slave morality’. Nietzsche accused Jews of giving the world an ethic of kind­ness and compassion which he saw as the ‘falsification’ of natural morality, namely the will to power. Schopenhauer … spoke of Jews as ‘no better than cattle’ and ‘scum of the Earth’.

It is inherent in the intrinsic lopsidedness of science:

First, there is something intrinsically dehumanising in the left-brain mentality. The scientific mind lives in detachment, analysis, the breaking down of wholes to their component parts. The focus is not on the particular – this man, that woman, this child – but on the universal. Science per se has no space for empathy or fellow feeling.

None of this is to say that scientists are not compassion­ate and loving human beings: surely they are. But when science is worshipped and religion dethroned, then a certain decision has been made to set aside human feelings for the sake of something higher, nobler, larger. From there it is a short distance to hell.

image_of_godClearly. science by itself is inadequate:

For the sake of human dignity, science must be accompanied by another voice. Not in opposition to science, but as the humanising voice of what once we called the soul. There is no greater defence of human dignity than the phrase from the first chapter of the Bible that dared to call the human being ‘the image of God’.


It is hard to do justice to the fullness and completeness of this book. I’ve only the space to reference a few of Rabbi Sacks’ topics. I can only hope that I’ve shared enough to make you want to go to a library and borrow a copy – or better yet, buy it for your own library. It is that good.

I give the last word to Sacks:

Religion and science, the heritages respectively of Jerusalem and Athens, products of the twin hemispheres of the human brain, must now join together to protect the world that has been entrusted to our safekeeping, honouring our covenant with nature and nature’s God – the God who is the music beneath the noise; the Being at the heart of being, whose still small voice we can still hear if we learn to create a silence in the soul; the God who, whether or not we have faith in him, never loses faith in us.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we talk about Atheism for Dummies.


This is the 25th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Dec 12

My Friend Mycroft, Part Two: Science as Savior


Mycroft Holmes

Echoing anti-theist spokesman Sam Harris, my forum friend Mycroft remarked that: “… a whole branch of science is devoted to the biological and societal reasons for human conditions, the balance of selfishness and altruism, greed and reciprocal behavior, dogma and tolerance, etc.”

This is so. There is, indeed, a branch of science dedicated to finding a biological explanation for everything we are and do. Sam Harris has a PhD in this discipline. But the observation begs the question: In what way should the existence of that discipline impact my understanding that we humans exist in part in a spiritual reality or invalidate my individual attempts to understand my self and my interrelations with other human beings?

In other words, should I discount the idea that I can affect my personal reality and/or the world around me because there’s a branch of science that’s studying the issue?

In response to my assertion that science is steered by human perceptions of right and wrong, and therefore is tethered inseparably to our spiritual values, Mycroft said,”You refer to the essentially political problem of how potentially beneficent science is being applied, or rather not applied. …Well, as far as I can see from the outside, it looks like atheists are born liberals,… In Germany, where I was born, they have obligatory health insurance for everybody, since 1871/1889. That was when they still had a Kaiser, 120+ years ago… As I said—it’s more of a political problem.”

The German response to the need for healthcare may have been political, but it is a response to a spiritual and moral issue of whether the individual has some responsibilities toward the collective and vice versa. In the larger sense, the beneficent application of science (and resources) is an issue related to how we think and behave as individuals, and therefore what moral and spiritual values inform our society. Even what seems a purely political problem (such as the gridlock spawned by the USA’s broken party systems) is a symptom of a deeper issue. Read the rest of this entry »


Dec 05

My Friend Mycroft, Part One: Spiritual Exploration


Mycroft Holmes

Once upon a time, I had a forum friend who called himself Mycroft (a reference to Sherlock’s allegedly smarter older brother). He was an atheist (still is as far as I know) and we spent pleasurable hours discussing belief, certitude, faith, reason and other subjects of interest to both of us.

Well, at least I found the discourse pleasurable. I’m pretty sure Mycroft found it frustrating at times because I refused to “color inside the lines” of religion that he was accustomed to.

One day Mycroft asked me: “So, is there a specific religious way of exploring reality?”

What a fascinating question. Given the context in which it was set, Mycroft was asking how exploration and faith integrated or coexisted. Obviously, the definition of faith (or anything else) depends on what dictionary you use. The Oxford defines faith thusly:

1 complete trust or confidence in someone or something. 2 strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. 

• a system of religious belief 

  • a strongly held belief or theory 

The operative meaning of “apprehension” is to understand or grasp. There is nothing in the Oxford definition that restricts the faithful to believing something for which there is no proof, nor is the mechanism for “spiritual apprehension” defined.

I would say there are as many different ways of spiritual exploration as there are scientific ones. I’m not even sure I could state positively that scientific methods relied less on intuition than spiritual ones do. Science, after all, is the realm in which people like Einstein have “aha!” or “Eureka!” moments that catalyze their exploration of a particular aspect of reality. I think the difference between scientific and spiritual exploration lies, in part, in what sort of evidence the explorer accepts as valid.

After opining that faith through reason is not really faith at all, since faith must necessarily be blind to reason, Mycroft said: “So, if a believer concedes that he can’t hold some part of the belief system for true, he’s not a believer…”

How so, I asked. Why wouldn’t the response be (as in a scientific process) “I don’t know exactly how that works. Let’s keep exploring.”  I can accept as fact that God created the universe(s) (which Bahá’u’lláh describes metaphorically as “He said BE, and it was,”) yet say, I don’t know exactly what mechanisms went into that happening. That’s the province of science which is, according to the scriptures of my Faith, a tool for discovery that is as much a product of God’s operation as spirituality.

“Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary…” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 138 (23 May 1912, Cambridge, MA) 

And again:

“The virtues of humanity are many but science is the most noble of them all. The distinction which man enjoys above and beyond the station of the animal is due to this paramount virtue. It is a bestowal of God; it is not material, it is divine. Science is an effulgence of the Sun of Reality, the power of investigating and discovering the verities of the universe, the means by which man finds a pathway to God”.—Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 112

Higgs, Baby!Yes, Abdu’l-Bahá actually said that—science is divine. Frankly, the dichotomy between science and religion and their respective processes of exploration seems artificial to me for I can also say, “I believe that love really can destroy hatred,” admit to not understanding the mechanism by which that occurs and resolve to explore it. That is not, perhaps, the province of science, but it’s still a worthy study. 

Looking at it another way, one can do rigorous, rational exploration of spiritual human reality or one can indulge in superstitious dogma. Likewise, one can do rigorous, rationally sound exploration of physical human reality or one can indulge in pseudo-scientific “beliefs”.

Next time: My friend Mycroft on Science as savior

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Dec 03

Thoughts of War and Peace—an Anniversary Observed

Bahram Nadimi

Tides of change are sweeping the earth, and we all feel helpless to withstand its powerful force. Every day there is fresh and depressing news of terrorism, famine, war, deep economic disorders and the like. Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Baha’i faith from 1921-1957 has stated:

 “A tempest, unprecedented in its violence, unpredictable in its course, catastrophic in its immediate effects, unimaginably glorious in its ultimate consequences, is at present sweeping the face of the earth. Its driving power is remorselessly gaining in range and momentum. … Humanity, gripped in the clutches of its devastating power, is smitten by the evidences of its resistless fury. It can neither perceive its origin, nor probe its significance, nor discern its outcome. Bewildered, agonized and helpless, it watches this great and mighty wind of God invading the remotest and fairest regions of the earth…[1]”

The question is: how can we mitigate the negative and channel the positive effects of these powerful forces of change?  Where do we start?  How can we overcome the paralysis of will that is preventing people and leaders of good will to come together for the sake of unity, to solve the pressing issues of the day?

Read the rest of this entry »


Nov 30

Books on Science and Religion #26: Philip Clayton on Religion and Science

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Nov 30, 2014

This week’s blog is about an excellent textbook on science and religion entitled Religion and Science: The Basics. It is good enough that I’m willing to call it a must-have.

Clayton Book Science and ReligionThe author is Philip Clayton (also see here and here), a professor of theology at the Claremont School of Theology in Southern California with some 21 books to his credit. Clayton is the editor of the 2008 Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, at 970 pages the widest-ranging and most complete recent book on science and religion. This 2011 book is an excellent summing up.

Interestingly, the book’s cover blurb starts by echoing Shoghi Effendi’s 1938 statement that science and religion are “the two most potent forces in human life”:

Religion and science are arguably the two most powerful social forces in the world today. But where religion and science were once held to be compatible, most people now perceive them to be in conflict. This unique book provides the best available introduction to the burning debates in this controversial field. … Clayton presents the arguments from both sides, asking readers to decide for themselves where they stand.

Philip ClaytonClayton – who describes himself as a panentheist – is an interesting thinker. On one hand, he embraces modern panentheism and holds to modern process theological views that see the world as “located within the divine being rather than as separate from it”. Here is how he puts it:

For panentheists, the world is in God, but God’s also more than the world. Fundamental differences in the natures of the two remain: God is necessary, the world contingent; God Is eternal, the world limited in duration; God is infinite, the world finite; God is by nature morally perfect, the world — well, that one is obvious. Read the rest of this entry »


Nov 23

Books on Science and Religion #25: William Hatcher on Science and Religion

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Nov 23, 2014

Logic and Logos: Essays on Science, Religion and Philosophy – the book I comment on below – is quite different than the books we’ve looked at previously in this series.

William_HatcherFor one thing, its author – the mathematician William S. Hatcher – was one of era’s pioneering explorers of the relationship between science and religion. Of the scientifically informed thinkers in the latter half of the 20th century who rejected the widespread 19th century perspective that science was the replacement for religion, only the physicist Ian Barbour seems to have preceded him. Hatcher’s first publication on the topic –  “Science and Religion” in World Order in 1969 – only slightly lagged Barbour’s ground-breaking Issues in Science and Religion published in 1966. (An edited version of Hatcher’s Science and Religion is the first essay in The Science of Religion, Baha’i Studies, 1980).

The book is also different in that it explores the Baha’i perspective on science and religion – one elaborated in the writings and talks of `Abdu’l-Baha 100 years ago and first enunciated by Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith. It provides an organized, eminently readable and comprehensive overview of a powerful Baha’i principle. Read the rest of this entry »


Nov 17

Books on Science and Religion #24: Edward O. Wilson and the Meaning of Human ExistenceModern Scientism

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Nov 18, 2014

In our last group of blogs, we looked at 19th century scientism, 19th scientific materialism, and 19th century Lamarckian and Darwinian social philosophies – what are now called social Darwinisms.

Very few of these scientisms, materialisms, and social Darwinisms were based on verified scientific principles  – rather they were usually extrapolations from unproven scientific or quasi-scientific hypotheses. Some of the greatest horrors of the 19th and 20th century were the consequences of these unscientific extrapolations as scientism, materialism, and social Darwinism fed into global colonialism, militarism, fascism, communism, nationalism, and the undermining of religion.

Read the rest of this entry »


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