A New Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar

January 8, 4042 (the future)

A so-called new atheist and a fundamentalist walk into a bar discussing a passage from the fundamentalist’s new Bible on “Richard Dawkins, the one and only true Messiah, who lived about 2000 years ago (at the dawn of the 20th century)”.

Richard Dawkins, the Enlightened One sent by God, had been severely persecuted during his lifetime by “the unenlightened peoples of the world”, but eventually his Spirit lived on. The story of his life had been written down by some of his later followers. None of them, however, had known Dawkins personally. They were all dependent on what eye witnesses had told them. No accounts by Dawkins himself or his immediate followers, the first Dawkinsians, were known.

Richard Dawkins Cult

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “It says here that he navigated many dangerous waters in his lifetime. So he was a skipper. This Book comes from God, so I know this claim to be true!”

New Atheist: “Archaeological research reveals that the very first manuscripts of your so-called Holy Book originated in the middle of the desert, among a group of so-called second generation followers of Richard Dawkins. Today researchers generally assume that the movement around Dawkins and the supposed Dawkins himself barely saw any waters at all. So that claim about “navigating many dangerous waters” and Dawkins being a skipper is just bollocks! Moreover, many elements of the stories around Dawkins are present in stories about famous figures of the time as well, like that Moses guy. Some of those celebrities are even completely fictional characters, like Bart Simpson. The story about Richard Dawkins seems assembled from other stories. So if Richard Dawkins ever existed at all remains to be seen!”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “God’s Holy Book contains the true knowledge and science, He can’t be lying. It would be against God’s very own nature to deceive us! You’re an arrogant sinner not to accept the divine truth!”

New Atheist: “Go on then, you idiotic arrogant Dawkinstard, trust those ridiculous revelations! I’ll go with real scientific evidence, though!”

Richard Dawkins The Atheist Evangelist.jpg

In comes a Dawkinsian Biblical scholar.

Dawkinsian Biblical Scholar: “Hey you guys, 2000 years ago that expression in that context meant that Dawkins encountered many complicated situations during his lifetime. So it is a metaphorical way to express something about a historical experience. Your whole discussion about whether or not Dawkins was a skipper is off-topic. That’s what the science of historical critical research tells us. The writers used the idiom of their time and the stories people already knew.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re not a true believer, you sinful corrupted traitor! You’re heir to the Catholidical Church of Dawkins, which is the Church of the Devil!”

New Atheist: “You’re a rationalizing apologist, stupid enough to waste your time on fairy tale nonsense. No one read the Bible that way at the time!”

In comes an atheist Biblical scholar.

Atheist Biblical scholar: “I must say my colleague, the Dawkinsian Biblical scholar, is right. He presents the scholarly consensus.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re a sinner too, you arrogant know-it-all!”

New Atheist: “Well you’re kind of an arrogant prick to claim the truth, you corrupted pseudo-scientist! Of course you defend the scholarly consensus, your career depends on it!”

Ban AtheismAfter which the fundamentalist Dawkinsian and the new atheistBan Religion continued their mimetic battle. It gave meaning to their lives as it provided them with a sense of superiority over their “stupid, stubborn and evil enemies”. However, as mimetic doubles they eventually became each other’s idiots, hurling similar insults back and forth. It seems every human being becomes that idiot from time to time. They accused each other of being the source of many evils in the world, and therefore saw themselves justified to promote politics that would eliminate the other’s world view.

The Dawkinsian and atheist Biblical scholar, on the other hand, went for a beer together. Or so the story goes…

Mimetic Doubles Fundamentalism and New Atheism



No Self-Respect at Harvard University (Maarten Boudry)

Some atheists nowadays are a bit confused as to what contemporary theology is all about, also in Belgium. Hence it is no surprise that Maarten Boudry, a quite public philosopher of science and a devoted opponent of all things religious, could tweet the following statement:

Well, what do you know, according to Maarten Boudry, Harvard is no self-respecting university and neither is Yale, because they both have faculties of theology! How could they?

In a piece for Belgian newspaper De Standaard Boudry tried to explain why he thinks that contemporary theology is not a scientific activity. One of his final sentences reveals a great deal about his ideas on theology and literary criticism:

The equivalent of a theologian in literary criticism is someone who asks himself where exactly 221B Baker Street is located, or someone who examines a map in search of Middle-Earth.

Okay, let’s see if this statement is true for theologians who received their education at universities like Harvard and Yale by briefly interpreting a story from the Bible. Why not take the well-known story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis (Chapter 4)? If you read the work of Harvard theologians, then you will notice that none of them ever claims this story is anything else but a myth. However, being a myth, it nevertheless expresses the universal experience that “human beings can be so jealous that they are capable of killing the human being they are jealous of”.

Anyway, both those theologians and (supposedly also) Maarten Boudry know that great literature can reveal universal truths through stories that never really happened. Even fiction about fiction can be true in that sense. Read for instance how the character of the Chinese butler Lee interprets the story of Cain and Abel in John Steinbeck’s magnificent novel East of Eden (click here).

It should be noted that metaphors and allegories may also refer to real historical events and experiences. The story of Jesus who is tempted by the devil in the desert, for instance, says that Jesus was historically experienced as someone who didn’t give in to the lust for power, among other things.

It’s common for writers to use images. There’s nothing “sophisticated” about this type of interpretation. Of course, we might have to study a bit to understand the idiom and images of an ancient culture. But hey, that’s what science and rationality are for. Who knows, in two thousand years’ time, people might have to explain that the Dutch expression “Hij heeft vele watertjes doorzwommen” (“He swam through many waters”, meaning “He’s been through a lot in his life”) can be true even if the person in question doesn’t know how to swim.

By the way, the claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed is, from a scientific point of view (in the eyes of both atheist and non-atheist experts), as ridiculous as the claim that creationism is more plausible than the theory of evolution. For more on this, click here.

Now that the error about Harvard theologians and the like is corrected, we can perhaps deal with some other issues as well in order to get a clearer picture of what contemporary theology is all about. Let’s take another tweet from Maarten Boudry as a new starting point to again correct some errors:

We shouldn’t unnecessarily complicate matters. If you take a look at what scholars do research on in pneumatology, their research questions take the same shape as other research questions in the humanities. An example:

What are the views of Augustine of Hippo concerning the Holy Spirit?

This type of question can be dealt with by any researcher, regardless of the fact that the researcher is an atheist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or anyone else. The main things needed are access to the work of Augustine, critical and scientifically sustained research on the Bible, ancient philosophy and the Church Fathers, and a thorough knowledge of Latin and other classical languages.

Of course, as is the case with all subjects of the humanities, in order to conduct an objectifiable research, also the interpretive starting points must be taken into account. No interpretation of Augustine’s work is neutral, but once researchers have agreed on their interpretive framework, they will be able to conduct a research that comes to similar conclusions as the research done by other scholars who use the same framework.

Pneumatology is but one part of a Christian theology. More generally speaking, contemporary theology is concerned with the scientific study of concepts of God and their implications. Again, an example:

Where was God at Auschwitz?

The answer to this question of course depends on the concept of God one uses. If God is thought of as an almighty being in the sense that God has the power to control everything, and at the same time as a being that is all good, it becomes clear that such a God, in the face of the Holocaust, cannot exist. If, on the other hand, God is, among other things, thought of as a love that manifests itself regardless and independent of the possible risks (and thus ‘almighty’ in a totally different sense than ‘in total control’), then God is present during the Holocaust in the loving attempts of people to save their suppressed neighbor’s life.

Anyway, to conclude, here are some more examples of questions in contemporary Christian theology which prevent other errors concerning this field of study. Again, these questions can be dealt with in an objectifiable way by believers and non-believers alike:

What does the Catholic Church mean when she says that God is revealed through Christ?

Is Catholic priest and famous physicist Georges Lemaître (founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis) in agreement with the age-old teachings of his Church on the Bible as one way of ‘divine revelation’ when he claims the following: “Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes. […] The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions [scientific, historical, moral] they were as wise or ignorant as their generation.”

Why doesn’t the Catholic Church accept the fundamentalist reading of the Bible (click here for more)? What God concept and concept of revelation lie behind the rejection of fundamentalism?

What are the core differences between a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and medieval interpretations of the Bible? What concepts of God lie behind these differences?

What arguments are there to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, as he is depicted in the Gospels, was a masochist who believed in God as a sadist? What arguments are there to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, as he is depicted in the Gospels, was anything but a masochist, and what does this mean for the idea that “God is revealed through Christ”?

Do Catholics have to agree with everything the pope says regarding moral issues? Is it acceptable for the Church that, for instance, 63 % of white American Catholics is in favor of the availability of same-sex marriage (this percentage from the same poll on the legalization of same-sex marriage shows that American Roman Catholics are more supportive of marriage equality than are the average American by a full ten percentage points – click here for more).

What kind of different texts are there in the Bible and how can we read them to do them justice?

What concept of God and of revelation is used by the Evangelical minister Pat Robertson and what are the implications regarding ethics, world-view and the view on what it means to be human?

What concept of God and of revelation is used by the Catholic Jesuit priest Karl Rahner and what are the implications regarding ethics, world-view and the view on what it means to be human?

[By the way, knowledge through revelation is a day-to-day experience which is not necessarily crazy or irrational: somehow you would expect that you know a person who reveals himself to you, every day, honestly and faithfully, better than a person you only know from scientific descriptions but have never met. Or would it be true that the “real” and “complete” identity of a person (his “soul”, to use an age-old word) can be reduced to what science may say about him?]

What are the main differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism?

Anyway, to put it succinctly: Stars exist, Concepts of God exist. 🙂

There is no need to change the definition of theology. The discipline and faculty of theology and its researchers have the right to define themselves within the required criteria of the academic world, even at Harvard University. 😉


P.S. Maarten Boudry tweeted two times in reply to this post. In his second reply he called me a “sweaty theologian”. I’m not sure where that came from 🙂 , but anyway, I expected some ad hominem comment sooner or later from him.

Boudry’s first reply reminded me of a story about a certain Theo Longshot. Theo was quite a character, a philosopher with strange, challenging ideas. Many people knew his name, they knew he existed, but very few had actually met or seen him. Photographs of the mysterious man were non-existent.

Martin Swissair was a young, ambitious reporter who decided to write an article on Theo. Since he lacked the time to talk to Theo directly, Martin decided to interview people who claimed to know Theo. In other words, his research was based on hearsay. Martin started off his article with a description of Theo’s appearance. Theo was white, supposedly had half long, light brown straight hair, wore glasses over blue eyes, was about 6-foot-tall and was dressed in costumes. He often wore a hat. The informants told Martin that Theo was 50 years old.

However, a couple of days after Martin had published his article on Theo Longshot, a young looking man appeared on his doorstep. He was black, had long and curly black hair, brown eyes, wore no glasses, was 5 ft 3″ tall and wore jeans and a T-shirt. He was 40 years old. He introduced himself as Theo Longshot, the man Martin had wanted to write an article about. Martin’s reply was very weird, to say the least: “If you’re not white, and if you don’t have blue eyes and don’t wear glasses, if you’re not 50 years old and if you don’t walk around dressed up in costumes, you shouldn’t call yourself Theo Longshot.”

Well, that’s basically Maarten Boudry’s reply as he is confronted with the fact that contemporary theology is not what he thought it was. Instead of admitting that he was fighting a straw man, he argues that the existing faculties of theology should accept his definition and idea of theology and shouldn’t call themselves theology at all. In this case, he behaves as if he is some totalitarian ruler of the academic world. However, just like Theo Longshot from the above mentioned story has the right to be who he is, contemporary theology has the right to be what it is, regardless of whatever straw man fallacy. One would expect that philosophers are able to question and criticize their own assumptions. Apparently, that’s a wrong assumption in this case.


The Myth of “The Evil, Unenlightened Catholic Church”

We all know the story:

  • The Christian faith is, by its very nature, an enemy of science.
  • The Catholic Church has, during its history, vehemently and violently suppressed scientists who came up with new scientific ideas.
  • Scientists from the past who believed in God did so because of their upbringing, or they faked it because they feared prosecution by religious authorities.
  • For proof of all of the above, one just has to look at what happened to Galileo Galilei or Giordano Bruno.
  • Historians who criticize these views are biased Catholic apologists.

galileo-goes-to-jailToday we should know that this story is itself biased and apologetic of the view that the Catholic Church (or even religion in general) is one of the main sources of superstitious darkness and evil in the world. One of the books that dismantles the myth of the Catholic Church as sworn enemy to science, is Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (pdf). It was edited by Prof. Ronald L. Numbers and published by Harvard University Press in 2009. The word myth in the title means what it means in everyday conversation and thus refers to a claim that is false.

In his introduction, Numbers briefly mentions the ideological background of the 25 authors who each debunk a myth on the relation between science and religion. Perhaps because he is aware that some people don’t necessarily have a scientific mindset (although they might claim the opposite). A scientist normally reads what is written, critically weighing the rational and scientific arguments that are brought up. If someone asks who wrote something to judge whether a text is truthful, he or she is not really judging from scientific criteria. Anti-theists (from the so-called “new atheist” corner) often think that the religious views of an author automatically get in the way of scientific research, and then close themselves off from further reading. This close-mindedness is, of course, not a sole preserve of new atheists. Theists also might not be free enough to hear what atheists have to say, thinking that atheists are automatically anti-theists, who push an often emotionally driven campaign against religion. Seemingly to reassure the lesser scientific minds on both sides, Numbers gives his overview: nearly half of the book’s contributors (twelve out of twenty-five) are unbelievers (agnostic or atheist), five are mainstream Protestants, two are evangelical Protestants, one is a Roman Catholic, one a Jew, another a Muslim, one a Buddhist, and the beliefs of yet two others fit no conventional category. This already makes clear that not everyone who criticizes the above mentioned myth is a biased Catholic, since there is only one Roman Catholic among the 25 authors of Galileo Goes to Jail.

Among many other interesting facts, the book provides and proves some important points regarding the Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno case. Both Galileo and Bruno defended heliocentrism, a view that was at the time developed most prominently by Nicolaus Copernicus. Both men received their education within the Catholic Church. However, while Galileo remained a genuinely pious Roman Catholic (a fact that is overlooked sometimes), Bruno converted to the so-called Hermetic Tradition (Hermeticism). The reason why Bruno was an adherent of heliocentrism, was because of his religious views (and not because of a scientific insight independent of religion!). As is also the case for his contemporary scientific colleagues, Bruno did not separate matters of science (“natural philosophy” at the time) from religious matters. (Natural) philosophy and theology were, eventually, one and the same. From Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 66-67:

In Bruno’s day, indeed in his own writings, theology and philosophy were of one piece, inseparable. He stated this succinctly in the prefatory letter dedicating The Cabala of Pegasus (1585) to the fictional Bishop of Casamarciano: “I don’t know if you are a theologian, philosopher, or cabalist – but I know for sure that you are all of these… And therefore, here you have it – cabala, theology and philosophy; I mean, a cabala of theological philosophy, a philosophy of kabbalistic theology, a theology of philosophical cabala.” Clearly Bruno thought of his work as all three and incomplete if construed as any one of them alone; he wrote as a philosopher but reckoned himself a Professor of Sacred Theology.

Also, Ibid., p 98:

Seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not modern scientists. Their exploration of the natural world was not cut off from their religious views and theological assumptions. That separation came later. Reading the past from the standpoint of later developments has led to serious misunderstandings of the Scientific Revolution. For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion – or, better, natural philosophy and theology – were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world.

giordano_bruno_campo_dei_fioriGiordano Bruno was eventually burned at the stake in 1600. Although this is of course an appalling punishment, Bruno was not burned because of an anachronistic modern scientific worldview, but because of a number of so-called religious heresies (which he didn’t fake, by the way; apparently he was even prepared to die for them). His “Pythagorean” convictions (the way the heliocentric hypothesis was sometimes referred to at the time) included, for instance, the belief in the transmigration of souls. As is known, the Catholic Church had just gone through a period of a stricter attention to orthodoxy, because of the turmoil created by the Reformation and Counter-reformation. Therefore the Church, as all human endeavors tend to do in circumstances questioning the cornerstones of their sense of identity, could barely stand what it experienced as new attacks on its identity. It may remind some people of the difficulty certain anti-theists experience to accept criticism on their views about religion. Of course anti-theists don’t burn people at the stake, unless, of course, their hatred of religion comes from some “neo-Stalinist” worldview. In that case, theists should run for their lives.

All these matters aside, in fact, essentially the debate between Catholics (and others) who were defending the heliocentric hypothesis and Catholics (and others) who weren’t, was a debate between ancient Greek philosophers with slightly different religious convictions. For centuries, the worldview of Aristotle and Ptolemy had dominated intellectual life, as it was adopted by Christian theology. People like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler challenged this view, at the same time challenging mainstream medieval theology. From Galileo Goes to Jail, p 83:

In the sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus’s (1473–1543) view that the sun is at the center of the universe was often called the “Pythagorean hypothesis,” and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) both traced the roots of their innovations back to Plato. These men and their contemporaries all knew what some today have forgotten, that Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears.

Observations like these already debunk another myth, namely that Christianity gave birth to modern science. Although the Catholic Church played a significant role (see below) in the birth and development of modern science, it was self-evidently not the sole factor. Again, from Galileo Goes to Jail, p 83:

Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears. This was not the only debt outstanding for Christian philosophers of nature. They had also benefited directly and indirectly from Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish philosophers of nature who used Arabic to describe their investigations. It was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth century.

Nevertheless, the discussion about heliocentrism at the dawn of the modern era was also (and perhaps mainly) a discussion within the Church, among Catholics (intellectuals engaged in matters of natural philosophy)! A more extended quote from Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 101-106:

It would of course be absurd to claim that there have been no instances of Catholic laymen or clerics opposing scientific work in some form or other. Without question, such examples can be found, and quite easily. Yet it would be equally absurd to extend these examples of opposition – no matter how ignorant or illconceived – to the Catholic church or to Catholics as a whole. This act would be to commit the historical sin of overgeneralization, that is, the unwarrantable extension of the actions or thought of one member of a collective body to the entire body as a whole. (For example, there are apparently American flatearthers alive today, yet it is not correct then to say that twentyfirst-century Americans in general believe that the earth is flat.)

The Catholic church is not, and has never been (perhaps to the chagrin of some pontiffs), a monolithic or unanimous entity; it is composed of individuals and groups who often hold widely divergent viewpoints. This diversity of opinion was in full evidence even in the celebrated case of Galileo, where clerics and laymen are to be found distributed across the whole spectrum of responses from support to condemnation. The question, then, is what the preponderant attitude was, and in this case it is clear from the historical record that the Catholic church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history, that many contributors to the Scientific Revolution were themselves Catholic, and that several Catholic institutions and perspectives were key influences upon the rise of modern science.

In contrast to our starting myth, it is an easy matter to point to important figures of the Scientific Revolution who were themselves Catholics. The man often credited with the first major step of the Scientific Revolution, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), was not only Catholic but in Holy Orders as a cathedral canon (a cleric charged with administrative duties). And lest it be said that he was simultaneously persecuted for his astronomical work, it must be pointed out that much of his audience and support came from within the Catholic hierarchy, and especially the Papal Court. His book begins with a dedication to Pope Paul III that contains an account of the various church officials who supported his work and urged its completion and publication. Galileo, too, despite his celebrated and much mythologized face-off with church officials, was and remained Catholic, and there is no reason to question the sincerity of his faith.

A catalog of Catholic contributors to the Scientific Revolution would run to many pages and exhaust the reader’s patience. Thus it will suffice to mention just a very few other representatives from various scientific disciplines. In the medical sciences, there is Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), the famous anatomist of Brussels; while another Fleming, Joan Baptista Van Helmont (1579–1644), one of the most innovative and influential voices in seventeenth-century medicine and chemistry, was a devout Catholic with strong mystical leanings. In Italy, the microscopist Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694) first observed capillaries, thus proving the circulation of the blood. Niels Stensen (or Nicolaus Steno, 1638–1686), who remains known today for his foundational work on fossils and the geological formation of rock strata, converted to Catholicism during his scientific work and became first a priest, then a bishop, and is currently a beatus (a title preliminary to official sainthood). [Another famous convert to Christianity from the same period is the brilliant French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal]. The revival and adaptation of ancient atomic ideas was due in no small part to the work of the Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). The Minim friar Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), besides his own competence in mathematics, orchestrated a network of correspondence to disseminate scientific and mathematical discoveries, perhaps most notably the ideas of René Descartes (1596–1650), another Catholic.

accademia-dei-lincei-sala-letturaBesides individuals there are also institutions to be mentioned. The first scientific societies were organized in Italy and were financed and populated by Catholics. The earliest of these, the Accademia dei Lincei, was founded in Rome in 1603. Many other societies followed across Italy, including the Accademia del Cimento, founded in Florence in 1657, that brought together many experimentalists and former students of Galileo. Later, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, founded in 1666 and probably the most stable and productive of all early scientific societies, had a majority of Catholic members, such as Gian Domenico Cassini (1625–1712), famed for his observations of Jupiter and Saturn, and Wilhelm Homberg (1653–1715), a convert to Catholicism and one of the most renowned and productive chemists of his day. Four of the early members were in orders, including the abbe Jean Picard (1620–1682), a noted astronomer, and the abbe Edme Mariotte (ca. 1620–1684), an important physicist. Even the Royal Society of London, founded in very Protestant England in 1660, had a few Catholic members, such as Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665), and kept up a vigorous correspondence with Catholic natural philosophers in Italy, France, and elsewhere.

Catholic religious orders provided a variety of opportunities for natural-philosophical work. One of Galileo’s closest early students and supporters, and his successor to the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa, was the Benedictine monk Benedetto Castelli (1578–1643). But on a broader scale, during the Scientific Revolution, Catholic monks, friars, and priests in missions constituted a virtual worldwide web of correspondents and data collectors. Information on local geography, flora, fauna, mineralogy, and other subjects as well as a wealth of astronomical, meteorological, and seismological observations flooded back into Europe from far-flung Catholic missions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The data and specimens they sent back were channeled into natural-philosophical treatises and studies by Catholics and Protestants alike. This massive collection of new scientific information was carried out by Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and, perhaps most of all, Jesuits.

No account of Catholic involvement with science could be complete without mention of the Jesuits (officially called the Society of Jesus). Formally established in 1540, the society placed such special emphasis on education that by 1625 they had founded nearly 450 colleges in Europe and elsewhere. Many Jesuit priests were deeply involved in scientific issues, and many made important contributions. The reformed calendar, enacted under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and still in use today, was worked out by the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christoph Clavius (1538–1612). Optics and astronomy were topics of special interest for Jesuits. Christoph Scheiner (1573–1650) studied sunspots, Orazio Grassi (1583–1654) comets, and Giambattista Riccioli (1598–1671) provided a star catalog, a detailed lunar map that provided the names still used today for many of its features, and experimentally confirmed Galileo’s laws of falling bodies by measuring their exact rates of acceleration during descent. Jesuit investigators of optics and light include Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–1663), who, among other things (such as collaborating with Riccioli on the lunar map), discovered the phenomenon of the diffraction of light and named it. Magnetism as well was studied by several Jesuits, and it was Niccolo Cabeo (1586–1650) who devised the technique of visualizing the magnetic field lines by sprinkling iron filings on a sheet of paper laid on top of a magnet. By 1700, Jesuits held a majority of the chairs of mathematics in European universities.

Undergirding such scientific activities in the early-modern period was the firm conviction that the study of nature is itself an inherently religious activity. The secrets of nature are the secrets of God. By coming to know the natural world we should, if we observe and understand rightly, come to a better understanding of their Creator. This attitude was by no means unique to Catholics, but many of the priests and other religious involved in teaching and studying natural philosophy underscored this connection. For example, the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) envisioned the study of magnetism not only as teaching about an invisible physical force of nature but also as providing a powerful emblem of the divine love of God that holds all creation together and draws the faithful inexorably to Him. Indeed, if Jesuit work remains today inadequately represented in accounts of scientific discovery, it is in part because science proceeded down a path of literalism and dissection rather than following the Jesuits’ path of comprehensive and emblematic holism.

Finally, historians of science now recognize that the impressive developments of the period called the Scientific Revolution depended in large part on positive contributions and foundations dating from the High Middle Ages, that is to say, before the origins of Protestantism. This fact too must be brought to bear on the role of Catholics and their church in the Scientific Revolution. Medieval observations and theories of optics, kinematics, astronomy, matter, and other fields provided essential information and starting points for developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The medieval establishment of universities, the development of a culture of disputation, and the logical rigor of Scholastic theology all helped to provide a climate and culture necessary for the Scientific Revolution.

Neither interest and activity in science nor criticism and suppression of its tenets align with the confessional boundary between Catholics and Protestants. Modern science is not a product of Protestantism and certainly not of atheism or agnosticism. Catholics and Protestants alike made essential and fundamental contributions to the developments of the period we have called the Scientific Revolution.

Indeed, as the above quoted text mentions, within the Catholic Church the order of the Jesuits holds a special place regarding the origins and further development of modern science. As the astronomer George Coyne points out, himself a Jesuit priest, Galileo’s observations caused tensions within the Jesuit order at the time, and eventually Jesuits at the Roman College confirmed the earth-shaking ideas of their fellow Catholic. It is truly worth reading Coyne’s paper on the relationship between Galileo and his Jesuit colleagues, The Jesuits and Galileo: Fidelity to Tradition and the Adventure of Discovery (pdf).

Some people, especially so-called anti-theistic new atheists, claim that all those great Catholic or other Christian scientists and mathematicians from the past believed in God simply because they were raised that way, or because they feared prosecution. Maybe some anti-theists have special powers, able to read the minds of people who died a long time back. In any case, what those scientists wrote about their own faith suggests otherwise. Some got in conflict with religious authorities, claiming that those authorities betrayed the Christian faith. Alright, maybe they all participated in a conspiracy to raise the impression that they had a strong spiritual mind, thinking profoundly, honestly and individually about the Christian tradition. However, so long as we don’t have any proof of such a conspiracy, and as long as we don’t have any proof of anti-theistic paranormal powers, we should perhaps abandon the paternalistic claim that those great, innovative minds were not able to think about their faith in a mature way. Once again, from Galileo Goes to Jail, p 81:

sir-isaac-newtonRené Descartes (1596–1650) boasted of his physics that “my new philosophy is in much better agreement with all the truths of faith than that of Aristotle.” Isaac Newton (1642–1727) believed that his system restored the original divine wisdom God had provided to Moses and had no doubt that his Christianity bolstered his physics – and that his physics bolstered his Christianity.

Or take Galileo, Ibid., p 96:

Another theme common to early-modern discussions about the possibility of human knowledge of the creation was that expressed by the metaphor of God’s two books: the book of God’s word (the Bible) and the book of God’s work (the created world). Natural philosophers regarded both books as legitimate sources of knowledge. Early in the seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) appealed to this metaphor in the context of a discussion of the relative importance of studying the Bible and observing natural phenomena: “the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God’s commands.”

As for the further relationship between what became modern science and the Christian Bible, it should be clear how it eventually developed. Georges Lemaître‘s ideas may serve as an example. This Belgian Catholic priest and famous physicist (founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis among others) clearly distinguishes the questions of modern science from the questions the New Testament authors deal with. In fact, according to Lemaître, questions of modern science have nothing to do with theology, and vice versa. The Christian scientist thus cannot let his faith be of any importance for his scientific work. Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position regarding the relationship between theology and modern science:

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinShould a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

The question about the meaning of “salvation” in the light of the New Testament indeed is different from, for instance, the question how and why objects fall down. That’s how plain and simple an insight can be in order to stop battling windmills like some heroic but mad and narcissistic Don Quixote.

For more on Lemaître, click the following (pdf): The Faith and Reason of Father Georges Lemaître & Priestly Contributions to Modern Science.

The already mentioned astronomer and Jesuit George Coyne also points to the false conflict between modern science and the Bible, for instance in the “mockumentary” Religulous (click here for more):

The Christian Scriptures were written between about 2,000 years before Christ to about 200 years after Christ. That’s it. Modern science came to be with Galileo up through Newton, up through Einstein. What we know as modern science, okay, is in that period. How in the world could there be any science in Scripture? There cannot be. Just the two historical periods are separated by so much. The Scriptures are not teaching science. It’s very hard for me to accept, not just a literal interpretation of scripture, but a fundamentalist approach to religious belief. It’s kind of a plague. It presents itself as science and it’s not.

Not insignificant note: the Roman Catholic Church accepts all kinds of interpretive approaches to the Bible, but it decisively rejects one approach, namely a fundamentalist reading of the Bible (click here for more).

Maybe Coyne says it more beautifully in this TED-talk (click to watch):

Hopefully, together with both Lemaître and Coyne, and with countless other researchers from different ideological backgrounds, it’s a bit more clear now that the story this post started with is indeed a biased myth, even plain propaganda. In the words of Prof. Ronald L. Numbers, from the introduction to Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 1-6:

The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict. No one bears more responsibility for promoting this notion than two nineteenth-century American polemicists: Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) and John William Draper (1811–1882).


history-of-the-conflict-between-religion-and-scienceHistorians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history. Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower. The secular public, if it thinks about such issues at all, knows that organized religion has always opposed scientific progress (witness the attacks on Galileo, Darwin, and Scopes). The religious public knows that science has taken the leading role in corroding faith (through naturalism and antibiblicism). As a first step toward correcting these misperceptions we must dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths. No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth-century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions.

Unlike the master mythmakers White and Draper, the contributors to this volume have no obvious scientific or theological axes to grind.

Perhaps the reason why some atheists stubbornly still swallow and believe the propaganda that began with people like White and Draper, is that they need an outside “enemy” to build their identity. If religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, can be depicted as a bulwark of stupidity and evil, some atheists can more easily see themselves as belonging to the intelligent and moral part of humanity. Of course, as we know from the Gospels and other spiritual resources: to see the stupidity and immorality of someone else does not automatically make oneself intelligent and moral. Apparently, creating an “us vs them” to get a sense of superiority is a universally human temptation. The French-American anthropologist and literary critic, René Girard (1923-2015), had a profound insight in this matter and its implications.

The way certain atheists build part of their identity by their emotionally driven aversion to religion, also explains why they consider religion as one of the main sources of violence in the world. A claim that can be highly debated, especially from an atheist point of view! Before being religious or secular (communist or nationalistic or whatever), violence is always human violence. Religious ideas originated in humans, they did not come from divine revelation (at least from an atheist perspective). Thus – this can be reasonably expected, as is also clear from a human history of violence – human characteristics that gave birth to certain religious ideas legitimating violence will continue to generate ideas to legitimate violence, whether of a religious or secular nature. The disappearance of one religious or secular ideology legitimating violence does not take away the universally human characteristics that gave birth to the violence in the first place.

These considerations on the origin of violence might lead to a better assessment of the basic sources of any type of violence. For instance while interpreting recent 10 year average data of annually killed Americans. According to these data, 9 Americans are killed annually by Islamic jihadist terrorists (including jihadists who are US citizens), while 11,737 (almost twelve thousand!) Americans are killed annually by other Americans. Is it really far-fetched to think that those 9 jihadist terrorists would have found other outlets for their psychologically developed frustrations, anger and aggressive tendencies anyway? In the case a violent Islamist ideology was not available? The focus on so-called religious violence (9 killed) gets in the way of attacking the real problem, namely human violence (11,737 + 9).


For instance, the man who killed 84 people in Nice, France, by driving a lorry through a crowd (click here for more), 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues. It should be stressed that this “Nice killer” not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but that he also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, this terrorist showed no interest in religion until only a few weeks before his violent act. In short, violent Islamist ideology seemed to be one of the coincidental guises he could use to perform his act. If it were not available, it is very likely that he would have used something else.

Of course it is easy to prove that something is bad or evil. If I would list all the rapes and other acts of sexual violence that happen daily around the world, I could maybe make the claim that “sex is evil”. But that would, luckily, not be the whole story.

In short, if you still believe the story of the Catholic Church as the age-old sworn enemy of science, your historical views belong, metaphorically speaking, to the Middle Ages.

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Confirmation Bias in Atheism

A most interesting article appeared in a special edition of EOS, a science magazine in Dutch. It was about the quest for the historical Jesus. For those familiar with the material it was not a very revealing article. Nonetheless, it provided a kind of summary, albeit sometimes in a tendentious manner (click here for a better article on the subject from skepp). Take, for instance, this statement at the end of the article: “The scepticism of Christian researchers turns out to be quite a bit more flexible than the scepticism of atheist researchers.” This is a poor statement because it is made without any arguments. The article itself even provides some counterarguments. Let’s have a closer look.

A Marginal Jew Volume 1 (John Meier)First of all, the information contained in the article primarily comes from Christian researchers, and some of them are briefly mentioned. John P. Meier is quoted with this claim: “Jesus was a marginal Jew leading a marginal movement in a marginal province of a vast Roman empire.” Whoever is familiar with research on the historical Jesus knows that John Meier, a Catholic priest, has written the contemporary standard for historical Jesus studies. Meier’s four part magnum opus, entitled A Marginal Jew – Rethinking the Historical Jesus, is an instant classic. The first volume appeared November first, 1991. The fourth and final volume appeared 18 years later, May 26th 2009, completing the series with a total of 3102 pages.

Jona Lendering, a well-known Dutch historian who also writes columns as a “mild atheist”, claims that “the most important book any historian of antiquity should read is, actually, John P. Meier’s brilliant series A Marginal Jew – Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Better still, the quest for the historical Jesus is the most innovative and methodically most advanced specialism in ancient history. A Marginal Jew simply is the best book in the best developed research on ancient history.” (click here for pdf of “De joodse Jezus”).

Martin Luther King quote on science and religionIt is strange that Marc Meuleman, author of the article on the historical Jesus in EOS magazine, makes a statement about the supposed confirmation bias of Christian researchers while he simultaneously refers to websites like The Jesus Puzzle and a podcast like The Bible Geek. These atheist sources deny that Jesus ever existed. Some people all too easily accept and believe conspiracy theories. Meuleman correctly mentions that this claim is not the scientific consensus. Christian and atheist historians alike, concerned with research on the historical Jesus, agree on the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth and certain facts about his life.

In short, Marc Meuleman gives evidence for all too flexible and exaggerated scepticism by atheist researchers regarding the historical Jesus in his article, while he does not give any evidence to support his claim on the so-called lack of scepticism by Christian researchers. On the contrary, by mentioning John Meier he gives an example of a Christian researcher who meticulously distinguishes what can be said “as a historian” and what can be said “as a believer or non-believer (interpreting from different ideological backgrounds)” on the figure of Jesus.

quote Martin Luther King on scienceAtheists with a strong emotional aversion towards the Christian faith, apparently suffer from a confirmation bias regarding ancient history similar to the confirmation bias of certain Christian fundamentalists regarding the theory of evolution. Seen from their respective scientific specialisms, the claim that Jesus never existed is as stupid as the claim that evolution never happened. Richard Dawkins used to make the former claim (click here), followed later on by a statement that “it doesn’t really matter whether or not Jesus existed.” Well, maybe it doesn’t matter to someone who is not interested in scientific research, although Dawkins claims to foster “science and rationality”. And now we’re at it, how “rational” is Dawkins if he continuously minimizes “positive” examples of faith and religion in order to confirm his conviction that faith and religion are, in most cases, a “bad, delusional thing”? Confirmation bias, anyone? For instance, Dawkins claims that Martin Luther King’s leadership of the civil rights movement did not arise from King’s Christian beliefs. Maybe he should read King’s work first before making such statements. That’s what a scientist should do…

confirmation biasPerhaps Marc Meuleman’s statement on Christian researchers in his article can be understood by taking into account the influence of the anti-theistic “new atheism” of people like Richard Dawkins on the minds of the average atheist. Many atheists hold a confirmation bias on the supposedly ever present confirmation bias of “believers”. That’s why Marc Meuleman fails to see that he somewhat contradicts himself in his article. Atheists often ask for the author of an article to judge whether or not they will read the article, or whether or not they can trust its “objectivity”. Actually, a scientific mindset should focus on “what is being said” and judge by rational and scientific criteria, and not judge on the basis of a preliminary argument from authority. Everyone who reads John Meier’s work on the historical Jesus can judge this work by rational and scientific criteria and will most likely agree with Jona Lendering’s appraisal of it.

Anyway, whether we’re believers or atheists, we’re all human 🙂 and we often judge something by looking at others first – “Who said what?” Yep, we’re mimetic creatures, imitating the ones we’ve (again mimetically) learned to trust, even if this clouds our judgment…

Atheism and Ethics


 The question is whether an atheist world would be a better world.

Religionless Christianity (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)Slavoj Zizek, atheist philosopher, refers to René Girard’s analysis of Christianity in God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse and concludes that Christianity, revealing the innocence of erstwhile sacrificial victims, “[undermines] the efficiency of the entire sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating: sacrifices (even of the magnitude of a holocaust) become hypocritical, inoperative, fake…” As this sacrificial mechanism is the cornerstone of religious behavior, Christianity thus indeed is “the religion of the end of religion” (atheist historian Marcel Gauchet). Zizek, still in the aforementioned essay, also briefly explains how Christianity potentially brings to an end the ever- present sacrificial temptation: “Following René Girard, Dupuy demonstrates how Christianity stages the same sacrificial process [of archaic religion], but with a crucially different cognitive spin: the story is not told by the collective which stages the sacrifice, but by the victim, from the standpoint of the victim whose full innocence is thereby asserted. (The first step towards this reversal can be discerned already in the book of Job, where the story is told from the standpoint of the innocent victim of divine wrath.)” This assessment of Christianity could also help to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for a “religionless Christianity” (or maybe we should speak of a Christianity transforming religion rather than destroying it – click here for more).

In other words, Christianity is – in a profound sense – one of the main sources of secularization. Secular societies are challenged to build a world without “sacred sacrifices”. As Zizek notes, “the sacred sacrifice to the gods is the same as an act of murder – what makes it sacred is that it limits/contains violence, including murder, in everyday life.” Precisely because a secular society, heir to the dismantlement of “the archaic sacred” by Christianity, no longer possesses the traditional religious means to contain violence, it has to find other ways to deal with violence, or else destroy itself. Zizek quotes Jean-Pierre Dupuy in this regard: “Concerning Christianity, it is not a morality but an epistemology: it says the truth about the sacred, and thereby deprives it of its creative power, for better or for worse.” And Zizek continues: “Therein resides the world-historical rupture introduced by Christianity: now we know [the truth about the sacred], and can no longer pretend that we don’t. And, as we have already seen, the impact of this knowledge is not only liberating, but deeply ambiguous: it also deprives society of the stabilizing role of scapegoating and thus opens up the space for violence not contained by any mythic limit.”

(Quotes from Zizek in Slavoj Zizek & Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse [Essay] Christianity Against the Sacred, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012, p. 63-64).

With these thoughts in mind, we can frame the question about the atheist world in another way. Can our world survive its own potential for violence without religion, without the traditional sacrificial mechanisms that try to limit violence?


four horsemen of new atheismAs it happens, we seem to regenerate the religious impulse. To this day we keep looking for scapegoats to be cast out of society in order to purify ourselves from the evils in our midst. It’s part of the way we build ‘the City of Man’. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, two well-known spokesmen of the so-called ‘New Atheism’, clearly consider religion as one of the main sources of evil in the world. Hence, in their views, we would be better off without religion. But, precisely because of their tendency to blame theistic religion for “much of the evil in the world” and their attempts to expel or even sacrifice it, they create a new sacrificial religion, albeit an atheist one. How long before believers – without whom their theistic religion would not exist – no longer have the right to voice their views in the public sphere if the new atheists had their way?

The demonization of theistic religion by the new atheists is their way of suggesting the moral superiority of atheism. Their reasoning, however, is flawed and incomplete. Take, for instance, this challenge by Christopher Hitchens:

“Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith?”

Some people, thinking of the atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, try to make this a more balanced rhetorical statement by adding a question: Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of atheism?

The new atheists already have their response to those who think that the crimes of Stalin et al. had anything to do with atheism. Richard Dawkins:

“What I do think is that there is some logical connection between believing in God and doing some, sometimes, evil things, but there’s no logical connection between them [Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot] being atheists and doing evil things. It’s just incidentally true that, say, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin happened to be atheists, but that wasn’t what drove them. What drove them was a political ideology. It had nothing to do with atheism.”

Another atheist puts it this way:

“While Stalin and Mao were atheists, they did not perpetrate their atrocities because of their atheism. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god. One cannot commit a crime in the name of ‘there is no god’. On the other hand, one can commit a crime in the name of ‘god’.”

This statement also implies that nothing good can be done in the name of atheism. Atheists can do good things like believers can do good things. The difference is that believers can do good things “in the name of god”. Atheists can do bad things like believers can do bad things. The difference is that believers can do bad things “in the name of god”. But, just like crimes cannot be done in the name of “there is no god”, good deeds cannot be done in the name of “there is no god”. Atheism is not immoral, neither is it moral. Atheism is amoral – it literally has no moral implications.

Therefore, it is not guaranteed that an atheist world would be a better world. It all depends on the ethics that will be developed in such a world. Moreover, theists and atheists alike can only believe that one ethical decision or even system is better than another. They can never prove this. Science observes and describes facts, it doesn’t morally judge them – we cannot move from what is to what ought. We’ve already seen the ethics of Stalin’s political ideology, to name but one example, and it’s highly questionable whether that was a good thing…  And if we would put some of the new atheist ideas into practice, we would regenerate a sacrificial system of potentially apocalyptic proportions. Sam Harris, for instance:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

sam harris condones murder (cartoon by blamethe1st)

Seen from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory, these ideas of new atheists mirror the ideas of some of their fundamentalist counterparts (for more on this, click here to read and watch Religulous Atheism). The tiny proportion of theistic fundamentalists that take part in acts of violence justify their violence in a similar way. They think it is ethical to kill certain people in order to cleanse the world of evil. New atheists and theistic fundamentalists become mimetic (i.e. imitative) doubles – imitating each other’s ways of scapegoating. However, as a wise man once said, “Satan cannot cast out Satan”. We cannot destroy (the possibility of) violence by using violence. We cannot destroy fear if our politics of security justify themselves by constantly referring to the things we should be afraid of. We cannot destroy evil by using evil.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on blindness to evil

In the end we’ll have to imagine a new peace, but not the (theist and atheist religious) peace of “this world”, which is based on sacrifice. It might be the peace this man speaks of:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Peace I leave with you