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On the origin of religion June 30, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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In this post I want to explore a possible explanation for the origin of religion. Numerous authors have speculated along these lines and in this post I am essentially paraphrasing concepts discussed by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Susan Blackmore, Carl Sagan and Stephen Pinker among others into my view of the most likely origin of religion and religious organisations. I offer this as a discussion piece rather than a claim of fact. My intent is to demonstrate how it is feasible that the present day religious experience could have occurred entirely naturally.

One of the key features of almost every animal species is how it interacts socially. Is it a herd animal, a lone animal, a hive animal, etc? The societies of our closest relatives appear to be in the form of cooperative extended family groups with a recognised leader. Over time the traits of respecting authority became critical to maintaining social cohesion. Those animals that were too much like loners never got mates and didn’t pass on their characteristics to future generations, while those that showed no respect either became leaders or were killed by other leaders. Naturally over time an equilibrium of sorts was reached between authority seekers and followers, both contributing an important part to social cohesion. In non-human animals these traits were instinctive rather than imitated.

As humans began evolving more sophisticated brains the nature of their learning developed as well. Humans are one of the few animals that learns through imitation rather than instinct, and this is is most likely a co-evolved trait along with communication skills. Thus right from the start it seems likely that most humans were predisposed to listen to those that taught them as their primary source of knowledge and life skills.

At much the same time a key trait of humans was their curiosity and interest in things around them. Let us consider an elderly leader in a tribal camp some day and one of his people asks him “why does the sun move across the sky and disappear?”. The elder stops and thinks about what he knows. He knows that light comes from fires such as those in his camp. He also thinks, well if there is a fire then someone must have lit it? He then takes his logic one step further and thinks the person who lit such a huge fire must be pretty impressive, what else could this person do? I suppose if he was to blow it could make wind? And if he was to cry perhaps that would be rain? The explanation to the uneducated tribal prehistoric human feels pretty strong. Then consider his natural inclination to follow a superior leader – what could be more superior than a guy who can light up the whole land?! – and he says well we had better treat him as a leader and with respect. It is decided that because of the elders status only he should communicate with this being and make offerings, so as to not offend him – after all that is the custom between tribes.

Over time this tribe develops a protocol for dealing with this being, and as it becomes entrenched in tribal life over many generations. Soon the young are simply told that this great being exists with no thought, it is simply a part of life. Over time the “science” of this great being is extended and changed by various people who consider it. Other tribes get similar thoughts and as communities start to talk, some beliefs merge, some are destroyed by others, some develop independently and life goes on. The meme of the “big being in the sky” has become well and truly established in the everyday way of life. It is even possible that individuals predisposed to skepticism are actually selected against over the long term. As literature and writing and creativity became a bigger part of the human way of life, it became easier to visualise and imagine what this great being might be like. And as the ability to understand the world grew, the ability to explain this being also grew. By now this belief was so entrenched in the way of life that people never really gave it a second thought.

As civilisation grows, the belief in the greater being became more and more codified and organised. Dedicated academics seek to figure out how this being works, and of course skeptics start to appear. Perhaps around the time of the great Greek philosophers we start to see this happening with the likes of Epicurus and Democritus. Of course at this stage in civilisation there were numerous different “beings” believed by different people all over the place. I suspect the religious tendency occurred while humans were still relatively localised and as they spread and evolved, it seems highly likely that the religion meme continued to develop in numerous different ways in different places. Polytheism in some places, monotheism in others, etc. As societies spread out more and more religions grew out of the original seeds, but this could only go on for so long. At some point with technology the world started shrinking again and various religions came into conflict. Those religions that were best set up to deal with other religions of course survived, and with a few strokes of luck (the Roman empire adopting Christianity for example) dominant religions emerged. The explanations, support and nature of religion grew more and more sophisticated driven in tandem by growing intellectual capacity and competition with other religions. Over time religions such as Christianity became very powerful at getting and retaining believers. It was never a function of malice on the part of individuals, memetic selection simply (and naturally) ensured this was the case.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Now as I said before, I don’t intend this as THE story of what happened but rather a feasible explanation of how it could have happened. A key feature of this story is that the relationship of religion to the real world is largely incidental and it is logical that as science developed, the meme was forced to find a home that was outside the world of science. We even see this happening today – young earth creationists are becoming further marginalised for example.

Anyway I am keen to hear of any major flaws in my story (it was written largely in one go off the top of my head) and to discuss the possibility that this is how it happened. In a future post I want to discuss why I think most religious people believe what they believe now – i.e. the life of the average religious person – but I want that to build on some concepts I have discussed here.



1. A. J. Chesswas - July 1, 2007

“young earth creationists are becoming further marginalised for example”…

I thought the opposite was happening in the USA??

Interesting narrative. My first reaction, as I have previously inferred, that religious worship is as much a response of gratitude as it is of awe.

Another thing I noticed, and this is common among theorists of religion, is that you assume a stupidity among the primitive that seems to me unreasonable. A primitive man could well know that fires can happen naturally, for example.

In short, though, your explanation is, of course, feasible. But whether or not its explanatory power is superior to the Christian hypothesis is another matter. Obviously I would say that the Christian hypothesis is superior.

I have just commented on Frank’s blog re the Christian hypothesis, so perhaps we can talk about the Christian hypothesis over there, and the Luxmoore hypothesis here.

I haven’t properly engaged with “On the Origin of Religion” yet – those were just off the cuff comments. I will give it some more thought later.

2. A. J. Chesswas - July 1, 2007

p.s. if you’restill interested in universalism, I think wikipedia is pretty much on the money:


3. Ian - July 2, 2007

I think there is a growing media presence with young earth creationists but no scientists take them seriously. How can they? The creation argument on the whole, while I fundamentally disagree with it, has some credibility. Young earth creationism simply doesn’t.

A primitive man may well have known that fires occur naturally, but he also knows that in order to get a consistent fire it probably means someone has to tend it. Natural fires usually go out. I don’t presume stupidity, I assume they didn’t understand the world as we do now. The sun to them was most likely a fire in the sky – what else would it be?

For me, if it is possible to explain the world as it is in a non contradictory manner without invoking a supernatural unobservable being then that argument is more viable. I don’t know if my example is accurate, it most likely is not, but in principle I think it provides an explanation for why we have religion and why people would believe in a god, without necessitating the existence of that god.

4. Ken - July 2, 2007

I wonder sometimes if we should ask the question first: “What the hell is religion?” After all we have atheist religions (e.g. Buddhism). But when it comes to discussing religious diversity we exclude non-theists, unless they call themselves a religion? This frustrates me.
Anyway, some ideas to throw into the discussion – Darwin pointed out that belief in a god was by no means universal amongst primitive peoples, although superstition was.
I think we should recognise that as human society evolved 2 ways of looking at the world developed – a superstitious or supernatural way (understandably) and a (rudimentary) scientific way. However superstitious humanity’s ideas may have been, in many situations ideas had to be tested against reality (agriculture, navigation, etc.,) and these ideas (or pictures of the world) inevitably became more rational, more scientific (even though they may have still kept some supernatural components).
The superstitious, supernatural, ideas became formulated in what we today call religion which was used as a vehicle for promoting, teaching, etc., social values, morals, laws, customs, etc. Inevitably religion was used to justify kings and leaders (often deified), conflicts, wars, ethnic cleansing, etc. (things that often arose naturally). It still is today.
Not all religions had gods, but this concept proved very useful as it enabled a higher level of justification (“In the name of God”). Concepts of god developed to provide higher levels of justification in conflicts, “my god greater than your god”, and also increased motivation for battle (concepts of afterlife etc.)
To me, this explains why religion is so ubiquitous, and why the god concept is less so. It helps to explain why the god concept arose.
Anyway, good to see this discussion opening up and I look forward to further inputs.

5. Ian - July 2, 2007

Well said Ken, I agree entirely. My main purpose of the post was to demonstrate how religion/belief in god/etc could have become such a potent force in society without a shred of accuracy or basis historically.

I do think that a lot of superstition has the underlying implication of some kind of supernatural “forces” at work – so perhaps they are not so different from the notion god after all?

I think the difference between superstition and religion is one of organisation so perhaps one could argue that religion is organised superstition?

6. Keith - July 3, 2007

I’m gonna take a crack at being the “gods advocate”

but before that, I think you took too big a jump in your description. I think Animisim had a big part to play before “god” like personfications came about.

I’m also not too sure about your “imitation” argument. many animals need to be “taught” by their mothers how to do stuff.

But I do think the social nature of humans and the psychology of how we act in social groups is really interesting.

The mistake I feel you are making is that humans make rational decisions based on the information they have. So your making arguments about what humans would of concluded in a given situation. I don’t think is true. I think there is a bunch of hard wiring in the brain that is instinctual that drives a lot of our perception of the world. ie, our psychology / nature of our brain is pretty much the determining factor about how social groups develop and what beliefs they hold.

The other huge influencing factor is language. We tend to describe and conceptulize things with the language we have. The language to make logical deduction is pretty sophisticated so I think it would of driven the sophistication of religion after the belief in supernatural entities was developed. Quite possibly trying to describe supernatural stuff drove language…

anyways…..god advocate…

and by that I’ll advocate a god that fits in with what we understand about science as opposed to creationist type cra….err…thinking.

so, lets say all you say is true more or less. But what if its by gods design. We will naturally develop an understanding of god/s. It seems inherent in all cultures and peoples.

It is gods intent that we develop and uncover his truth. That all religions will converge and one universal understanding will be developed. That the human text written about god is human. It reflects some of the nature of god, but suffers the flaws of humans expressing stuff. Including all the misunderstanding about gods and gods nature

7. Ken - July 3, 2007

You are advocating a god, but don’t say why, what the evidence is etc. As expressed you are just setting up a circular argument – assume god to prove god.

I don’t agree that god “seems inherent in all cultures and peoples.” The concept isn’t (e.g. Buddhism) and even where cultures develop ideas of supernatural spirits any classification could not fit the currently discussed concept of god to all of these.

8. Ian - July 3, 2007

Thanks Keith, I think Ken has covered the second half of your comment perfectly so I’ll leave it at that. As for the first half, here are some thoughts.

I did neglect to mention animism which was an oversight, although I’m not sure it changes the example significantly. The awareness of ones self is certainly another important issue. It is a curious question whether the soul meme led to the god meme or vice versa – maybe they even co-evolved?

Until about a week ago I would have agreed with you about animals teaching (I’d never really thought about it to be honest), but having just read Susan Blackmores The Meme Machine she points out something very interesting.

Animals teach their young by putting them in situations and letting them go for it. The lioness brings a half dead animal to the cub who then kills it. The cub doesn’t imitate the mother killing, the mother gives it something to kill and it does. Birds don’t copy their mother’s flying action, the mother simply pushes them out of the nest lol. I think the ability to imitate (which is much more difficult than you might think) is a fundamental difference between humans and most animals.

I am sure humans do make rational decisions about what they see in the world. They also make irrational decisions 🙂 That aside, I was using the example I gave as a highly simplified almost metaphorical example of the kind of thing that would have happened.

I agree that a lot is hardwired, in fact my suggestion to some extent relies on it. The two key things are curiosity and respect for authority. These hard wirings in conjunction with observations and hypotheses about the world most likely led to religion in my view. One could even argue that given this set up, false religions are inevitable regardless of the validity of any of them.

I don’t however think that the notion of a god existing is in any way hardwired. Otherwise from whence cometh atheists? (apologies to Epicurus!)

Language is critical I agree, because its the primary method that we get cross-generational meme transfer. However I think the lack of sophistication of language may have been a contributing factor in the development of religions rather than the other way around… a language that cannot adequately express something would be a prime place for the invention of a term to “explain” it. Of course a term can’t explain anything, but it often has the illusion of doing so as I think is the case with the term “god”.

I also don’t think the concept of a god is that sophisticated in terms of memetic transfer. So long as you accept there is something for which an authority (the shaman/priest/whatever) understands then you don’t need to know much more. It doesn’t actually matter what the shaman says so long as the followers believe him. Of course in a more rational and critical discourse trying to specify exactly what god actually is is very difficult as we are seeing 🙂


9. A. J. Chesswas - July 8, 2007

For wont of time I won’t get too involved with this post. I have left another comment at our discussion at Frank’s blog.

One thing I will say is that it iseems to me your theory on the origin of religion relies on assuming no God for it to make any sense, just as a Christian theory assumes God. You don’t actually prove he doesn’t exist, just explain how he might have otherwise been invented. I could give you a wonderful theory of how King Arthur was made up, but it doesn’t mean I can prove he wasn’t real.

“From whence cometh Atheists?” Christian theory: The Fall. Sad, tough, cringe material, but most probably true…

When we think of God’s judgment of humanity we tend to defer to how awful the concept of the Christian God is, rather than how awful our sin is…

10. A. J. Chesswas - July 8, 2007

hmph I just made universalism look so so sweet with that statement!!

11. Ian - July 8, 2007

I think you missed the point of my story 🙂 I was trying to demonstrate that in principle it was perfectly possible for religion to attain the position it has in society today without god existing. In other words it is a refutation of the argument that god must exist because so many people believe in it.

Thinking about it, my story could explain why people believe in the “wrong” god (assuming there is one) equally as well – it does not in any way assume the non-existence of any god. You could take the assumption Christianity (well some form of it…) is 100% true and not invalidate the story at all.

12. A. J. Chesswas - July 9, 2007

But it assumes God’s existence is not self-evident – that we would need to be indoctrinated by someone else to believe in his existence. Observations of nature and asosicated conclusions can be made by anyone, and are made by everyone, often.

13. Ian - July 9, 2007

Two points. Firstly I still think you are missing the general point I made which is that religion is possible without god (ala Scientology). There are numerous other ways one could rephrase my example without losing its meaning. For the shaman actually sees a god and comes up with a story for who that god was and from there it grows into organised religion. It isn’t important to my story.

Secondly, if god is self evident from observation, why are the vast majority of people religious based on the religion of their family/community rather than a vast array of different religions in each community? Even those that do change religion do so after exposure to it rather than independently.

14. A. J. Chesswas - July 9, 2007

Different peoples and cultures have different languages and ways of making sense of God. Still, behind all that, God’s attributes of fatherhood, sovereignty, judgment and mercy are very consistent. I can only speak for Christianity, Judaism and Islam, because I have limited experience of Buddhists and Hindus etc. However our new vicar is from India and other religions is a strong point of his, yet he professes Christ to be the authoritative image of the invisible God.

I do think that people are very able to have independent thoughts about God without the absolute external influence of religion. As I have said before, the first people to imagine religion would have had to, and it would have had to have been saleable to a politically viable group of people. So I’m sorry but I can’t accept your last statement.

I’m still not sure one could invent God without him actually existing. For a start we would need to be able to use language independent of God’s enablign us to use it, or God’s axiomatic and ontological importance for the existence of language.

Every part of human communication assumes the understandability of the world around us. For a person to make this assumption without considering the wonder of the human mind, and its ability to interpret the world, and without considering if there were another mind making this possible, seems a difficult and unnecessary assumption to make.

15. Ken - July 9, 2007

“… understandability of the world around us. For a person to make this assumption …. without considering if there were another mind making this possible, seems a difficult and unnecessary assumption to make”.
Humanity in its attempt to exist, come to grips with the world and make a better life surely does this all the time – assumes the world is understandable and gets on with understanding and changing it. There is never, these days, any implicit consideration of another mind (god?) “making this possible”. Where there is an attempt to do this we find the search for knowledge stops – in other words a god as an explanation prevents true knowledge.

16. A. J. Chesswas - July 9, 2007

“There is never, these days, any implicit consideration of another mind (god?) “making this possible”. Where there is an attempt to do this we find the search for knowledge stops…”

I beg to differ…

Ian has already talked about the curiosity and imagination present in man. Again, I find it hard to believe that consideration of God not not an aimplicit part of any inquiring person’s intelligent journey into the various fields of knowledge. Apparently many early scientists were inspired by their conception of God to more thoroughly engage with his created world.

You have to seriously discredit so much of history and of intellectual inquiry to make these points, and do so without any decent theory of religion. Those of us to whom God’s existence is plain as day are left wondering if the words of Paul in Romans 1:19ff are indeed true.

17. Ken - July 9, 2007

You might not agree with my statement but I think that whenever we “explain” a phenomena we don’t understand by attributing it to a god we stop our investigation. Darwin would have never come up with evolution if he accepted that species were created by a god as a sufficient explanation (as many at that time did). Similarly, Newton stopped in his attempts to explain planetary movement (when he encountered problems he thought were insoluble) by giving a role to god, whereas he could have continued investigation and come up with an answer (as others did).
I have never come across a credible current scientific theory which gives a role to a god – for the above reasons. Now that’s not to say the scientists involved do, or don’t, have personal religious beliefs. it’s only to say that these play no role in our attempts to understand reality.
“I find it hard to believe that consideration of God not not an aimplicit part of any inquiring person’s intelligent journey into the various fields of knowledge”.
But the fact is that many intelligent people do just this, whether you like it or not. Thats certainly been my experience. Agreed, some scientists, for instance, may have a personal religion, but I have never been aware of any that I personally know taking this belief into their research. (I suspect that if they did their credibility as scientists would have dropped).
Agreed, we need a “decent theory of religion”. I think we can only get this by using the normal naturalist scientific approach, and I think this is happening. I’ve just started reading Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” – I think he at least attempts a scientific approach to this question and am keen to see what conclusions he comes to. I don’t think theologists are capable of producing a good explanation – to me they start with a conclusion.

18. A. J. Chesswas - July 9, 2007

You might not agree with my statement but I think that whenever we “explain” a phenomena we don’t understand by attributing it to a god we stop our investigation.

You make the mistake here of attributing one particular theist’s mindset to all theists. I’d like you see you give a reference for this attribution – just to be fair to theists. You are right to say that such a mindset is flawed, but you are wrong to relate this mindset to any of my arguments.

I’m sure Ian, or even yourself, has already discussed the difference in categories between knowledge of why things came into being mechanically, and knowledge of why they came into being metaphysically. Understanding that God brings things into being for his purpose should never preclude a person from learning how and why he brings this thing into being mechanically.

Darwin would have never come up with evolution if he accepted that species were created by a god as a sufficient explanation. Similarly, Newton stopped in his attempts to explain planetary movement (when he encountered problems he thought were insoluble) by giving a role to god, whereas he could have continued investigation and come up with an answer (as others did).

Again, category mistake, as discussed above. I can’t speak for theists of the 19th century, and neither can you, so if you’re going to discuss such things references and sources would be helpful. In saying that, such discussion would be fruitless – just because some theists at some time in history committed a category mistake, this in no way binds other theists to do the same. St. Augustine lived a millennia and a half before these guys and he knew the difference between those categories (see earlier post on interpreting the Bible).

I have never come across a credible current scientific theory which gives a role to a god – for the above reasons. Now that’s not to say the scientists involved do, or don’t, have personal religious beliefs. it’s only to say that these play no role in our attempts to understand reality.

I would prefer you not to use the word reality as a synonym for “the material world”. In doing so you render what you say senseless. The idea of a scientist believing in God, yet believing he has no role in reality, is absurd.

“I find it hard to believe that consideration of God not not an aimplicit part of any inquiring person’s intelligent journey into the various fields of knowledge”.

But the fact is that many intelligent people do just this, whether you like it or not. That’s certainly been my experience.

Your participation in this discussion is a strong indication that considering God’s existence is a part of your intellectual journey.

Agreed, we need a “decent theory of religion”. I think we can only get this by using the normal naturalist scientific approach, and I think this is happening. I’ve just started reading Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” – I think he at least attempts a scientific approach to this question and am keen to see what conclusions he comes to. I don’t think theologists are capable of producing a good explanation – to me they start with a conclusion.

What do you mean by a theologist? Do you mean a theist? A person who believes in God? Are you saying belief in God disqualifies a person from analysing religion? Is science not merely the testing of a hypothesis? Is the God hypothesis not merely one among many which must also be tested as a theory of religion?

19. Ken - July 9, 2007

No, I was actually quoting you. But I should have asked you to give an example, rather than just repeating my assertion.
I am confused though because you originally said: “Every part of human communication assumes the understandability of the world around us. For a person to make this assumption without considering the wonder of the human mind, and its ability to interpret the world, and without considering if there were another mind making this possible, seems a difficult and unnecessary assumption to make.”
I don’t think the latter actually happens (for most researchers anyway) but would certainly want to look into any example where this is claimed to occur.
No, I am not “saying belief in God disqualifies a person from analysing religion”, only that any meaningful analysis requires a naturalist scientific approach – just as in the study of any other natural phenomena. Religious belief doesn’t (necessarily?) inhibit this approach. And yes: “the God hypothesis is merely one among many which must also be tested as a theory of religion?” But lets face it the traditional god hypothesis is probably not able to be properly tested in a scientific manner and we shouldn’t wait for that. Religion is too important to wait – its is so entwined with human evolution and plays such a role today in societies throughout the world. And, yes there are huge problems (as well as good) as a result. So it is only natural that we should attempt to come to grips with it. Personal religious beliefs shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way any more than they do in the study of other natural phenomena.
My point about theology – I don’t think it takes a naturalist scientific approach and thats what makes my cynical. If the scientific method is incapable of producing an understanding then I certainly don’t think theology can

20. A. J. Chesswas - July 10, 2007

“I am confused though because you originally said: “Every part of human communication assumes the understandability of the world around us. For a person to make this assumption without considering the wonder of the human mind, and its ability to interpret the world, and without considering if there were another mind making this possible, seems a difficult and unnecessary assumption to make.”

I don’t think the latter actually happens (for most researchers anyway) but would certainly want to look into any example where this is claimed to occur.”

What I have described above, which you have italicized, is in essence theology. What you are saying here is that you don’t think theology happens for most researchers. I would like to see some proof of this.

I consider myself an inquirer into the nature of things, and theology happens for me every day. More often than not it is the inquisitive ones that I know who are the theologians, and the ignorant who are not. What I’m saying is your anecdotal statement above is inconsistent with my personal experience of life, so I’m not going to buy it. If there has been an objective survey or study on the topic which supports you then by all means refer me to it.

“No, I am not “saying belief in God disqualifies a person from analysing religion”, only that any meaningful analysis requires a naturalist scientific approach – just as in the study of any other natural phenomena.”

OK, what do you mean by “natural” here, and by “naturalist scientific approach”. I understand naturalism to be an ideology based on a materialist assumption that the only knowledge worth having is knowledge of the material and natural world. God, on the other hand, is typically understood as supernatural, and beyond the realms of material and nature. Thus I don’t think the terms natural or naturalist are helpful here.

“Scientific”, on the other hand, is, I believe, relevant. I would love to get hold of Alistair McGrath’s “Scientific Theology”. The title itself sends a strong and timely enough message – that theology is itself subject to the rules of scientific inquiry, another idea Ian has previously proferred.

The problem with the naturalist is that he blasphemes science. For science is an epistemological tool, not an ontological tool. It discovers and contants and laws through observation, but in no way is science inherently tied to the study of the material realm, as if that were the only observable realm. If the supernatural realm is observable and subject to constants and laws, as Christians claim it to be, then it should also be testable via a scientific approach.

But herein lies the crux of a matter. As far as I understand it, the scientific model, or hypothetico-deductive method, must assume a hypothesis before it can be employed. A scientist firstly makes an anecdotal and general observation, and then applies the scientific method to prove it to be true. Science must begin with an ontological assumption – a naturalist begins with the assumption that matter is all that exists. A theist begins with the assumption that God exists. Both are assumptions. If theism should not be allowed to get in the way of the science and theory of religion, then neither should naturalism. Religion is too important to wait – it is s entwined with human nature and destiny and plays such a role today in societies throughout the world.

“My point about theology – I don’t think it takes a naturalist scientific approach and thats what makes my cynical. If the scientific method is incapable of producing an understanding then I certainly don’t think theology can…”

As I have shown, to apply a naturalist scientific method to a supernatural phenomenon is nothing short of absurdity. To treat theology as something that should be isolated from the scientific method is similarly absurd.

Jesus once gave a great teaching;

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Before you talk about theists who let their religious beliefs get in the way of scientific inquiry, I would suggest you first deal with the log of naturalism in your own eye. You might be seeing a speck of sawdust in mine, but I am as aware of it as you, and I accept it is a hypothesis as much as yours. How about you apply the same scientific scrutiny to naturalism itself that you pretend to apply to theism.

21. Ken - July 10, 2007

OK, I think we have a problem of semantics here – different understanding of meanings for words like “matter”, “natural”, “supernatural”, etc. A guaranteed way of coming to a misunderstanding.
However, on the bright side I like (and in essence agree with) your comment: If the supernatural realm is observable and subject to constants and laws, as Christians claim it to be, then it should also be testable via a scientific approach..
What I would say is that reality is objective, observable, interacts (and hence has an inbuilt order) and is in essence testable and capable of being understood. The scientific method is the most powerful way we have of doing this (which isn’t to say we will even gain a complete knowledge). To me, reality is the natural world and includes any “supernatural” events (if they have really occurred)as your statement implies. I don’t agree with the idea of “subject to constant and laws” – these are man-made, derived from empirical observation, but, as knowledge is relative, always open to change. In other words, when we find an event which is not subject to (violates) these laws, we modify the laws! That’s how we make progress. (Declaring the events as miracles or “supernatural” prevents us from developing the knowledge. That’s like saying nuclear reactions are miracles because they violate the laws of conservation of energy as first understood).
You ask for some proof of my belief that most researcher don’t consider an external, god, mind in their work. I just say look at any refereed paper in a scientific journal. I have never seen this concept used in any such scientific presentation. (Maybe because my experience is mainly in the natural sciences?). If it has been used, I would be very interested in reading the paper as an honest pursuit of knowledge. If you know of any such paper please pass on the information.
Yes I know that in books and memoirs scientists will reveal and appeal to their philosophical religious beliefs (theist and non-theist)but this is different to the accepted scientific process of developing and recording knowledge. I’m not interested in people’s beliefs, as such, only in how they use them in the scientific process.
Darwin’s statement in The Origin of Species (not a refereed publication – I agree) probably illustrates what is implicit in the modern pursuit of knowledge and its reporting:
Do creationists “really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth’s history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissue?”
In other words he was going to rely on empirical evidence rather than a mystical, “supernatural” explanation which didn’t actually explain.
As for the scientific study of religion – of course scientists with Christian beliefs are just as capable of this research as those with non-theist beliefs. Its just that the normal rigour of the scientific method of investigation and reporting must be used – particularly in this area where individuals can have strong emotional commitments to their beliefs (non-theist as well as theist)- empirical confirmed evidence, statistical analysis and peer review are essential.
Hope I’ve cleared that up.

By the way,the collaboration between Buddhist and non-Buddhist scientists in the study of Tibetan Buddhist psychology is a positive example of how this can be done and what can be achieved. I think Eastern religions have a lot of value (which has basically been ignored in the west) to humanity which could be deduced by objective study.

22. A. J. Chesswas - July 11, 2007

I think I can see where we might be talking past each other here.

The point you seem to be pushing is that postulating God is problematic because it means natural processes can be considered miracles without being properly investigated.

Let me make myself quite clear, I am not interested in using the existence of God to such an end. My faith in God does not rely on such miracles. Where I don’t have the time or priority to give attention to studying a process of phenomenon that has benefited me, then I don’t hesitate to express my gratitude to God, and express awe and wonder for his ways. Yet even when I fully understand the mechanics of a natural process, I still give thanks to God for designing that process and by it benefiting me.

Scientists and God

I would suggest you are right to postulate the reason you claim not know of any scientific theology is because your experience is in the natural sciences, not theology. A scientist will not report their experiences of God in their work in a journal devoted to understanding things mechanically rather than theologically. This doesn’t mean those scientists don’t experience their work theologically, it just means that the brave ones who aren’t scared of the naturalist establishment find receptive places to write about such experiences.

I have heard and read a number of scientists who experience God in their work, such as Massey geography lecturer Professor John Flenley, and NIWA officer and head of A Rocha New Zealand Dr. Richard Storey, are two I know and have heard. Then there are the more controversial international creationists such as New Zealander Jonathan Sarfati, American neurobiologist Brad Harrub and communication theorist Chuck Missler to name a few. You are well aware how strong the creationist movement is in the USA. This is evidence enough that a great number of scientists committed to science as an epistemological tool find God in their work.

Yes I know that in books and memoirs scientists will reveal and appeal to their philosophical religious beliefs (theist and non-theist)but this is different to the accepted scientific process of developing and recording knowledge. I’m not interested in people’s beliefs, as such, only in how they use them in the scientific process.

You are essentially telling me you are interested in the natural sciences, but not the supernatural sciences. If that is the case I don’t see how you could ever participate in a discussion “on the origin of religion”. To neglect theology in the study of religion is the equivalent of neglecting neurology in the study of human behaviour.

23. Ken - July 13, 2007

So, things are a lot clearer and I guess we come to the crux of the problem. There is a starting point – an assumption of a god, rather than just a belief in a god. And an attempt to impose this assumption onto reality. This conflicts with the modern scientific approach where very little is assumed (maybe just objective existence of reality with its internal order). This scientific approach is used by people whatever their beliefs.
Hence the appeal to creationism. The creationist movement is one area where there is an attempt to impose this god assumption onto science. In the process, of course, the essence of science is abandoned. Empirical evidence is rejected, distorted or denied (or just plain lied about).
Creationist “science” has little to do with science (and an extremely minor footprint in the scientific world) – its target is more education and politics. Their tactic has been to attempt the incorporation of ancient religious mythology into education curricula as having equal validity to scientific theory. This tactic has often been revealed as dishonest. Creationism in this form has been rejected not only by most scientists but also by most Christians.

Such ideas don’t get published in the scientific journals because they don’t stand up to scrutiny in the referee process. (It is paranoia to talk about bravery). There are examples of scientists who publish their work and then claim that their results support creationism or undermine evolution. (This is similar to the claim that findings on the ability of DNA to store and transmit information is proof of a god, of intelligent design – there is a difference between the findings and the belief). That is their belief and they are welcome to it. But if the belief had credible empirical evidence and logic it would have formed a part of their published work, and the scientist involved would have been keen to include it. Other scientists would have welcomed the chance to see such evidence – it is not in their interest to suppress it.
Creationist “science” has no credibility. But of course scientists have all sorts of beliefs, including Christian and possibly creationist. This shouldn’t interfere with their work if they are honest because they should deal with objective reality, not preconceived beliefs.

In my own career I worked alongside (very often on the same projects) other research scientists who were Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Atheists (those are only the ones I was aware of). At no time was that a scientific problem. We may have had our own beliefs about the origins of the order present in objective reality but our work involved collecting empirical data, using reason and logic to produce and develop scientific theories. It would have been completely inappropriate to incorporate specific religious belief (theist or non-theist) into those theories (unless of course the evidence obliged us to do so).
There was in our experience no such thing as a “naturalist establishment” (unless you mean the truth)inhibiting publication or the search for truth. There was however, the problem of commercial interests who attempted (and sometimes succeeded in this) to suppress and distort information, and to prevent publication of scientific results.
You wish to deny me a role “in a discussion “on the origin” of religion”, apparently wishing to restrict this to only those who start with the “god assumption”. Restricting the study to theologists – yeah right!- we should also restrict study of the history of the USSR to Stalinists!
Well, science doesn’t work that way, and we do need a scientific discussion and study of religion, its origin, its nature and its role in society. The methodology, rigour and peer review procedures of the scientific approach give us some hope that such a study will produce meaningful results.
I think that current concerns about religious fundamentalism, religious terrorism and the attempts to inhibit an enlightened approach to social issues are motivating a renewed interest in the study of religion. We are all victims of these reactionary attitudes, we all (theists and non-theists alike) have the right to participate in the struggle to overcome them.

24. Greg Bourke - July 13, 2007

On Susan Blackmore (mentioned in the list of atheist authors):

I heard her interviewed on National Radio last year and apart from studying biology during her undergrad time she dived into all types of new-age kookiness, in particular Wicca. I recall she related at length her out-of-body experiences.

I don’t know how this affects her credibility as an atheist or a ‘rationalist’. I’d love to know if Dawkins or Hitchens read their horoscopes! 😉

Also, can I note that the whole creationism/evolution dichotomy is polemical tosh. I recently reread Moby Dick, published about 1850, and was struck by Herman Melville’s natural observation of animals and the desire to connect them. Note Darwin’s Origin was published later in 1859, so we can infer that well-educated people were already aware in 1850 of the connectedness of life. In addition, Melville seems to suffer no stress in a mind populated by biblical metaphor and knowledge of fossils and a demonstrably ancient ‘million-years’ old earth.

Maybe my point is that unlike a mid-19th century Melville we are so infatuated by certainty that we seem to puritanically proscribe all contradictions (contra real lab science)… we want minds and imaginations to resemble our sleek featureless iPods! 😉

25. A. J. Chesswas - July 13, 2007

You’re right, things are getting clearer, but I would argue we still haven’t got to the crux of the problem. Your post reveals far too many assumptions and generalizations about creationism, and misinterpretations of what I have said. I’m still not fully sure what the crux of the matter is, but maybe we’ll get there when we find what’s left once we get rid of the strawman. I’m not saying you are erecting the strawman on purpose, but the fact is he’s there.


“The creationist movement is one area where there is an attempt to impose this god assumption onto science. In the process, of course, the essence of science is abandoned. Empirical evidence is rejected, distorted or denied (or just plain lied about).”

This may be a fair description of some creationists. I listed a number of names in my last post – John Flenley, Richard Storey, Jonathan Sarfati, Brad Harrub and Chuck Missler. I would be surprised if your statement above applied to John Flenley, Professor of Geography at Massey University and leading Easter Island researcher. I would be equally surprised if it applied to my friend Dr. Richard Storey, a man employed by NIWA. Sarfati, Harrub and Missler make a lot of sense to me, and are popular among many intellectual Christians I know. Perhaps you would like to show me some evidence of their work being unscientific.

I know there are probably stupid creationists out there. Perhaps I am one of them. I don’t know, I’m not a scientific expert. All I can go on is what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, and so far creationism seems far more sensible than evolutionary biology.

As for your allegation that creationism is different because it assumes God; does not evolutionary biology not equally assume evolution? How could Darwin ever test for evolutionary theory if he didn’t assume it in the first place?

As I have said, this is the nature of the hypothetico-deductive model, is it not?

General observation  Hypothesis  Experiemental Study.

Animals display similarities and can be grouped into families  Like families, all animals have a common ancestor  Evolutionary Biology

Everything displays a sense of design  Everything has an intelligent designer  Theology.

What is the difference?

I do not wish to deny you a role in a discussion on the origin of religion. It is not as if you are a scientist and I am a theologist. We are both scientists and theologians. Our scientific and theological endeavours might lead us to different conclusions. But your conclusion that there is no God doesn’t make you any less someone engaging in theology, than my conclusion, that random evolution is not a sufficient explanation for the origin of species, makes me any less someone employing the scientific method.

I am willing to put evolutionary theory to the test, and consider evidence for and against its validity. You should be willing to do the same of Yahweh.

26. Ian - July 16, 2007

Greg, I don’t hold peoples beliefs against them when they make a statement, I simply judge the statement as read. If you read Blackmore’s book I think you will appreciate the depth of thought that has gone into it. It is the same reason I don’t discard a scientific theory purely because a religious scientist made it. I also treat theological claims by religious people the same way.

I have never read anything of Melville’s but your point is clear and actually I tend to agree. However there is a need for us to recognise claims that are simply false and to discard them. This means evaluating all claims in an objective manner regardless of source, and it particularly applies to claims made by large chunks of society that are contentious.

Allan, I’ve been leaving you and Ken to continue this interesting discussion and I think Ken has the right idea. I’d like to evaluate your two examples however.

The theory of evolution is based on an observation that there are a lot of highly adapted animals who compete for scarce resources. Evolutionary biology is built up from a fundamental and ultimately simple mechanism with a whole bunch of testable implications that explains this directly. For example there must be a linear genealogy, there must be imperfect heredity etc etc. Evidence continues to support the predictions that evolutionary biology makes.

Theology is quite different. Theology starts with the opinion (not an observation) that there is a sense of design, and then because that sense of design implies that there could be a designer, states that there is one. Aside from the obvious flaws in that, how do we test it? Well it depends on what created it – but demonstrating the existence of this creator is critical. Since we don’t even know what this creator is or how we could show it exists, the rest of the hypothesis is really a mess.

Now that is not to say this automatically invalidates the idea, far from it, but as it stands it has a long way to go before one can consider it on a par methodologically with evolutionary biology.


27. Greg Bourke - July 18, 2007

Personally, I think the virtue of assessing people’s ideas independent of the person is noble but doesn’t often occur in everyday life. Like all virtues though it is to be commended where found.

Indeed, I guess the desired pitch of my posts was ironical. In the first instance, I am unsurprised that Blackmore was interested in Wicca etc and would be unsurprised if Dawkins secretly read his horoscope or Umberto Eco avoided stepping on cracks. I would not be surprised at this contradiction because they are human and Umberto Eco, who is a personal favorite, avoids diatribe and recognizes that a person famed as a scourge of fallacy and ignorance can also cherish illogical contradictions.

The second point concerned the ability of a 19th century novelist to prefigure evolution and to simultaneously embrace biblical timelines and fossilized antiquity. This was intended to criticize the polemic jostling that occurs at the centre of science and the description of meaning. For a generation that thinks itself to be rather clever we fail to have the breadth of humanity and imagination of a single 19th century novelist. Melville can hold two ideas in his mind at the same time whereas we seem to only cope with one! So much for parallel computing…

Succinctly, just because evolution is accurate does not mean the bible is complete folly or, put another way; it is probably untrue to say that the opinions of evolutionary scientists on religion are as well considered as their professional opinions on evolution!
Unlike Dawkins, neither Melville nor Darwin acted as if expertise in one area parlayed into other areas.

What Dawkins and Hitchens are enjoying is the ‘Cameron Diaz effect’ where celebrity confirms infallibility, expressed as profile and book sales, on all matters from religion and global warming to moisturizing.

As an aside, until fairly recently I was only aware of Chris Hitchens as the target an anti-communist letter at the end of Martin Amis’s anti-totalitarian “Koba the Dread”. Suddenly he has changed his spots and embraced the publishing zeitgeist.

28. A. J. Chesswas - July 23, 2007

Theology also starts with an observation: a) That a being I cannot see or touch has communicated with me/humanity in a way that suggests that being is omnipotent/omnipresent/omniscient – God. So I test to see if this God is real by obeying his leading, seeking him in prayer and in the searching of scripture, and looking to see how this affects my life and the peace and understanding I have about what it is to be human. At the same time I observe those who make similar claims, and constrast them with those who don’t, to see if the theory holds true and provides the best explanatory model for the phenomena of life, human nature, purpose and destiny.

Obviously, the process is more anecdotal and subjective than science, because one is dealing with knowledge that transcends matter and is not as easily tested as matter-bound realities. However this is no reason to discount such knowledge. We use knowledge like this very often in relationships, politics, social science, etc.

This is where the concept of critical realism comes in, which the others were talking about in the thread at Frank’s. Critical realism seems to me to be the application of the scientific method to subjective knowledge.

29. Ian - July 24, 2007


I agree that many famous “skeptics” may enjoy irrationalities in their spare time so to speak, but none of them would actually think them true. Incidentally (and quite irrelevant to your point) Dawkins has actively spoken out about astrology so I doubt he reads horoscopes.

“Succinctly, just because evolution is accurate does not mean the bible is complete folly or, put another way; it is probably untrue to say that the opinions of evolutionary scientists on religion are as well considered as their professional opinions on evolution!”

Agreed. However Darwin’s theory made it possible, where it hadn’t been before, to have an intellectually coherent view of the world without a religious aspect. Before then it wasn’t really possible, the gaps in our knowledge were too big. In other words it was no longer necessary to resort to religion to explain the complexity of life.

Incidentally Hitchens has been producing books since the 1970s, and is a fairly well known figure although his recent foray into religion has certainly boosted his profile big time.


Honest question: do you believe there is a subjective reality alongside an objective one?

Personally I see subjective
judgements as necessary only when objective ones are not possible. They are inferior with respect to an ability to discern reality in my opinion, and therefore where possible one tries to make subjective analyses as objective as possible.

That is not to say I discard subjective information outright (of course not), but if a subjective analysis says “A” and an objective analysis says “B”, surely you’d have to presume “B” was closer to reality than “A”? The alternative seems to be solipsism which then kills the entire point of trying to discuss anything 🙂


30. A. J. Chesswas - July 26, 2007

Hmmm I think I might have muddled things by using the term “subjective knowledge”. The terms objective and subjective are complex terms and people define them differently. What I meant by subjective here meant knowledge that cannot be proved via positivist methods, but which is held in the memory via anecdotal observations of life. This includes knowledge about language, communication, human relationships and character. So, to answer your question, yes I believe in a symbiotic reality which is just as important as material reality.

It would be worth me looking into the whole thing of symbiotic knowledge because I am sure I would be able to show that you operate within this sphere of knowledge in your own approach to language, meaning and relationships. Perhaps this will be evident in our discussion on morality.

Anyway, you’ve admitted you do not discard subjective information. And I agree that where an objective analysis contradicts a subjective analysis then the former is preferable. However when it comes to investigating God I believe subjective and objective analysis to be consistent. Actually, I don’t see how objective knowledge could possibly contradict subjective knowledge, for our objective knowledge is part of our subjective knowledge.

I imagine that when you use the term objective you implicitly are thinking positivist, however I would dispute all objective knowledge must be positivist. My hunch is that subjective analysis can actually be objective inasmuch as it relies on consistent analysis, close scrutiny, hypothetical honesty and the identification of constant principles and laws. It is just that it turns its attention to immaterial knowledge rather than material knowledge.

I don’t see how we can expect positivist science to tell us all we need to know about an immaterial God. We can understand something of his creativity and his taste, but we cannot know for sure his thoughts or feelings towards us, or his future plans for the cosmos. As I’ve said before, we can get an indication that he cares for us from the fact that he made us. But this is still subjective because it is the interpretation of a message.

I mean, really, what is it that you want to know about God that you expect you could discover via positivist science. And why is it you are so sure positivism will discover the answer?

31. Ian - July 26, 2007

My view of objective versus subjective: I see all knowledge as fitting in a continuum from purely objective through to purely subjective. Both extremes in a practical sense are probably only theoretical constructs but here is how I see them. I see purely Objective knowledge is knowledge that is entirely independent of who/what perceives/knows it while purely subjective knowledge is entirely dependent on who/what perceives/knows it.

Now you argue that objective knowledge can’t contradict subjective knowledge and here is where I think the guts of the matter lies. I argue that an individuals perception is not perfect. In fact I argue that it is far from it. Our five senses are more than capable of generating impressions of the world which, when viewed objectively, are shown to be false. All the senses can be fooled in this way but I will offer an example for the most obvious, vision. Consider this picture.

If all we had was a subjective view of this picture we would have to assume that squares A and B were different colours. Only by seeking more objective knowledge can we discern our perception is wrong and that they are identical (in other words the same wavelength of light leaves both squares). And yet even knowing it is wrong doesn’t make it any easier to see! So my simple point here is that perception can be very wrong. The important follow on from this point is that no matter how sure someone is of something they think they perceived, one should never take such knowledge alone as sufficient evidence of any phenomena.

I also see no reason why one cannot have objective knowledge of immaterial things (assuming they exist) and I would contend that immaterial things would most probably be even more prone to misperception than material ones, and therefore that somehow objectivity would have even more importance rather than less.

I don’t quite understand your use of the term symbiotic so clarification would be appreciated 🙂

“I mean, really, what is it that you want to know about God that you expect you could discover via positivist science. And why is it you are so sure positivism will discover the answer?”

I see the scientific method as the best mechanism we have for generating objective knowledge. So my response to your question is simply that I don’t see how else you could take the god hypothesis seriously otherwise?


32. A. J. Chesswas - July 31, 2007

I agree with you that human perception is not perfect, and that knowledge of immaterial things can be objective. And on this basis even the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics are objective and positivistic disciplines. I have again muddled things by describing them as “subjective” in my last comment.

Let me try to make myself clearer:

1) Subjective knowledge (i.e. non-explicitly positivistic knowledge) is important, because no person has the time, intelligence or application to apply positivism to every area of their life before they are required to act.

2) The positivistic disciplines of anthropology and lingustics give rise to theology in much the same way people use biology, ecology, geology and paleogeography as a basis for evolutionary theory.

Again, sorry, I meant “semiotic”, not “symbiotic”! By “semiotic reality” I mean reality in which communication is ontologically a priori over matter. Most of us, nay all of us, act if this is true. We communicate first, and consciously understand who/what we are communicating with and the way we communicate second.

33. Ian - July 31, 2007

I agree that subjective information is needed on a day to day basis. However discussions in any field of enquiry have to go beyond that and seek objective explanations – that is why they take extra effort. What we are trying to understand in our discussions here, and elsewhere, is the objective reality not subjective perceptions of that reality. We already know the latter (you believe, I don’t) – the former it seems is still unknown.

While rather off topic, I’d like to comment that I don’t think those disciplines you mention “give rise” to evolutionary biology or theology. Rather it is a function of multidisciplinary nature of life that they work together. All of the disciplines could have developed independently of each other, and it is merely a sign of their complimentary nature that they work together.


34. dale - August 2, 2007

2053 C.E. – The sub-sub-atomic physicist felt a cold drop of sweat trickle down his neck when he looked again through his microscope… There before his electron-viewing enhanced eyes, hovering between the electron field and the nucleus was a strange cloud-looking substance… in the shape of three english words… ‘Here I AM.’

🙂 I made that up. Seriously. 🙂

No, I don’t suspect we will zoom in close enough within reality to ever see a ‘fingerprint’ of god.

Our endless wonder and passion for exploring the world around us will not lead us to someday wake up, rub our eyes, and ‘realise’ the existence of god.

I am convinced/persuaded that there is more to life than materiality, and that the world, the universe and life in general could not have come to its current state from the explosion(s) of a singularity(s). It fascinates me how much we know about the singularity(s); that it(they) existed forever ago before there was forever ago during which it could dwell, that it(they) was a non-dimensional point in a non-existing universe in which there was nowhere for it to be (or not be).

That, it seems, is what you get when you work backward from the manifest result to theoretical cause. Also, that, it seems, is what you get when the one thing that you know without question about the theoretical cause is that this ’cause’ is certainly not anything at all like the Judeo-Christian God, but wait, we are actually even more certain that this ’cause’ is certainly not even a detatched deity whom may be hiding out at the corner of the universe. Yes, these things we are sure of. After all, we’ve not seen him in any of our materialist test tubes.

Now we may contstruct any number of theories explaining how a point the size of nothing and existing in the centre of nowhere exploded and caused this fascinating thing we call the universe. Oh, and aren’t they wonderful? Sure, they may have a gap or two in them, but hey, we only need a few more years of thinking about it, and those gaps will shrink so small that we might even forget about them and be able to say they aren’t there.

(forgive the satire, I was feeling artzy)


35. dale - August 2, 2007

Oh yes, and if anyone dares joke, tease, squack, squirm, question, poke, hint or scratch their heads about our cosmic singularity-exploding meta-theory, they shall be promptly told quite sternly that their hesitations are not scientific, and are based on subjective feelings and beliefs, and that our meta-theory is based on… well… objective science.


36. jube - August 2, 2007

Brilliant. hehehe 🙂

37. Ian - August 2, 2007

Nice posts Dale! Although I confess I am still scratching my head as to what your actual opinion is, hiding amongst the delightful satire 🙂

Taking what I think is the point of those posts however, I would respond that the god hypothesis is, methodologically, not even close to other theories, regardless of its philosophical appeal. That is what I mean by … well … objective science 🙂


38. dale - August 3, 2007


I’m stoked you enjoyed the satire! 🙂

I’m curious – (and yes, the following question is VERY loaded!) What kind of ’empirical’, ‘material’, ‘objective’, ‘physical’, ‘real’, ‘testable’ methodology is being used to construct and critique the ‘singularity-exploding meta-theory’?


39. Ian - August 3, 2007

I am no expert in cosmology but simplistically as I understand it, the theory was developed from the idea the universe is expanding. Running this expansion back in time assumes some kind of singularity. After postulating this theory cosmologists then looked at it more carefully to determine what they would expect to observe if this was true (i.e. establishing falsifiability). Several things were needed, including:

1. All of the universe needed to be expanding. To date no example of “non-expansion” has been found.

2. Such an “explosion” from a singularity would imply that there must be background heat radiation as part of the expansion. This was discovered by numerous different sources and matched exactly what the model expected.

3. The idea of singularities also implied black holes (localised singularities) which have subsequently been found.

In other words the original model was a hypothesis, for which there were a bunch of implications. If the universe did not match those then the hypothesis should be rejected. To date it seems they do match it.

I’m sure there is much much more to it than this but thats a simple answer to your loaded question 🙂


40. dale - August 3, 2007

That’s funny, because I didn’t think we had ever experienced or reproduced (and therefore observed) what reality would look like without time/space… But hey, that’s just me. Maybe others have done that… 🙂

1. Have we observed the entire universe? (no) Haven’t some cosmologists suggested that the universe actually isn’t expanding, but have suggested that different parts of it are heading in different ways? (I thought so… but could be wrong)

2. So – the ’cause’ (or part of it) of the explosion was the ‘background heat radiation’… And, the ‘numerous different soucrces’ have objectively shown in our space/time universe that this was the case with the original singularity(s) back before the space/time universe?

3. So – black hole = singularity? Wow. Never heard that before. So, the black holes that we are observing now in our space/time universe are timeless, non-dimensional points? I need some clarification. There seems to be some logical contradictions here…

Sorry to be a pain…


41. Ian - August 3, 2007

1. We haven’t observed the entire universe and may never do, but every part of the observable universe seems to act exactly as if spacetime was expanding. Should new evidence come along we may end up changing that theory as with any scientific theory.

2. You misinterpreted me: a necessary consequence of the big bang was the background radiation – i.e. the model predicted that if the universe was expanding then this should exist as a consequence. It does.

3. I’m am certainly no expert, but try the wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_holes

Anyway was there a particular point you were trying to push towards or is it just random curiosity? 😛


42. dale - August 3, 2007

Thanks Ken,

I’m still amazed.

My ‘point’ I’m pushing is that it seems that there is quite a difference in the ‘methodology’ required in, for example, observing how the difference between how extruded-polystyrene responds to prolonged exposure to sun-light or flourescent light one one hand, and the ’empirical’, ‘material’, ‘objective’, ‘physical’, ‘real’, ‘testable’ methodology of pondering the origins of the universe itself.


43. dale - August 3, 2007

And yes, I was showing off usage of big multi-syllabic (there i go again!) words.



44. Ian - August 3, 2007

I think the methodology is exactly the same. You observe the world, you hypothesise explanations/laws, you test them, if tests pass you tentatively accept it, continue to test, revise, and so forth.

It is probably worth pointing out we have a LOT more data about the universe than we do about extruded-polystyrene… 🙂

So it seems we know at least as much about the origin of the universe as we do about “extruded-polystyrene” – remember much of the chemical effects we might observe in melting disposable cups we can only explain at a macro level and do not understand the quantum mechanics behind it.

Cosmology (like any science) essentially boils down to objective interpretation of that data.


45. dale - August 3, 2007

Thanks Ken,

You see the problem with using these tired words ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’… what we should really say is ‘as objective as we can be’…

What good is it to say that an interpretation is objective if it is admittedly partial/subjective, due to limited observation? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t observe, interpret, critique, etc.; I’m simply saying that we don’t need to use the language of ‘objectivity’ as we do so – at least not in the way it is often used…

In fact, it occurs to me that the term ‘objective’ seems to be used to imply a kind of authority over other things that are merely ‘subjective’.

Let me lay (some of) my cards on the table:

(the following example is about ATTITUDES, not empirical data)

Naive Christians often appeal to this kind of ‘objectivity’ language when speaking about the ‘objective truth of the Bible’, etc. while not realising the rather large interpretive moves they are making/subscribing to in the process of speaking this way… (i.e. – interpretation of scriptural texts)

Some naturalists, in the same way, can appeal to the same kind of ‘objective’ language when speaking about ‘objective scientific proof’, etc., while not realising the interpretive moves they are making/subscribing to as well… (i.e. – interpretation of cosmological theory)

For me, we all have to speak humbly. I’m convinced that the universe will always be a little bit past our full explanation or understanding. By all means, let’s build stronger microscopes/telescopes and keep working hard in all of the scientific fields (including discovering more fields?) – as long as we don’t spend ALL our money on research, and forget our responsibility to try and solve basic problems like needless, radical poverty, etc.

In this sense, fields like sociology and anthropology have very urgent needs. There are so many needs in the world, and we need to employ ALL of the fields of enquiry to best meet these needs. My field of interest/vocation is theology, and I think it has a lot to offer humanity – in spite of the harm that has been done in the past (even now in places – which makes our task of working at good theology all the more urgent!). I just saw another Christian magazine that is highlighting ‘healing’, including many instances of the word ‘supernatural’ (a word that you surely know by now that I’m not fond of). I see quite a trend towards ‘super-naturalism’ in many Christian circles, and I think many of them are quite confused about such things as ‘healing’. If anything, we need to be ‘healing’ those that we can through medicine, food, genuine community, stable families – healing the ‘wounds’ of the world. I love the lyrics from ‘miracle drug’ by, of course, Paul Hewson (Bono) from U2, ‘In science and in medicine, I was a stranger, you took me in.’ Contrast that with Benny Hinn telling a woman he’d just ‘healed’ to tell her doctor that he doesn’t need to perform her upcoming surgury anymore… This infuriates me, but I don’t blame Theology itself for it, it’s just that (like science, exercise, foreign-aid, finances, etc.) it needs to be done well. If Christians think that ‘god’ is ‘up there in the sky’ and occasionally ‘comes down’ and does something ‘supernatural’, they aren’t getting that from the Scriptures.

I’m rambling here, but anyway…

My point is this: it seems that life is too complex, mysterious and interesting at ALL levels, to deny ‘objectively’ another dimension to reality other than purely ‘material’. Many intelligent, critically engaged, rational humans have come to this conclusion as well, quite apart from indoctrination or ‘being raised that way’. It is not foolish at all to take a theist position.

That is our main disagreement – is it not? And as I’ve suggested before, if any atheist responds by saying ‘Well, we don’t say we’re 100% sure of that, etc.’, then that ‘atheist’ is actually (by definition) not an ‘athiest’, but an ‘agnostic’ – which, at the beginning of this endless conversation, I suggested was the only intellectually ‘safe’ position to take.

Geeeeezzz this comment is long…

Your turn…


46. Ian - August 3, 2007

Six responses to various points you make (incidentally my name is Ian 😉

1) I have already stated quite openly that objective and subjective are two ends of a continuum. Having said that many things are clearly mostly subjective (I like cats) and others are mostly objective (the sun appears to rise every morning).

I still argue strongly that things that are (mostly) subjective are not useful in a quest for the truth about reality. In that sense I think (mostly) objective data IS better/higher order/etc than (mostly) subjective data.

2) The two examples you use are both failures to seek (mostly) objective data, instead letting (mostly) subjective data make decisions. Neither example is good science.

3) Understanding how things work is what science is all about. Anthropology is the science of understanding how human societies work. Biology helps us develop better crops by understanding how they work and therefore helping feed people. And so forth. Sure there is more to life than figuring out how stuff works, but I don’t see how this is relevant?

4) Theology is important, but again theology (as you seem to be saying yourself) needs to be as (mostly) objective as it can as well. No theologist with any credibility would say “We must ignore this passage just because I don’t like it” or something like that. It needs to be justified (mostly) objectively.

5) It is not rational or objective to outright deny the existence of anything. Given that point however, it does not add one tiny bit of credibility for any argument whatsoever. I have never once stated that I can prove god doesn’t exist for exactly that reason. Rather, the onus is on a proponent of a theory to demonstrate their theory and to show how all evidence matches it, and then to make predictions using that theory which can be tested and potentially falsified. In other words to strive for objectivity.

There is absolutely no excuse for religion (or any claim whatsoever) to avoid this requirement.

6) If agnosticism means what you say then you are just as agnostic as I am and the term loses all usefulness. As I have suggested several times, I think the term should refer to how one acts. In my view a theist acts as if god exists. An atheist acts as if one doesn’t. An agnostic acts as if he doesn’t know. Can we agree on those looser but more useful definitions?

I think our disagreement really (ultimately) lies on the issue of whether there is sufficient (objective, evidential) reason to even consider the god hypothesis.

My position on the god hypothesis is that it has simply not been demonstrated in any (mostly) objective sense to be a valid falsifiable theory.

Anyway I’m going to start dropping the (mostly) from before subjective and objective from now on but realise I include them implicitly.


47. dale - August 6, 2007

Ke… Ian, [sorry! 🙂 ]

1. I can’t and won’t argue with your suggestion about the high value of (mostly) objective observation. I can’t help, however, but suspect that your continuum from objective to subjective would be exactly/closely paralleled by another continuum from ‘material’ to ‘non-material’??? 🙂

Logic and reason, immaterial as they may be, have very strong potential for being (mostly) objective, and therefore would lend much help in any ‘quest for the truth about reality.’

2. Ian. Please. 🙂 I specifically prefaced my examples saying they were NOT about ‘data’ but rather ‘attitudes’, and you critique them on the basis of how they use data? Unfair! 🙂

3. I’m simply trying to un-bind the word ‘science’ from only referring to ‘material’ science. The Latin word for ‘knowledge’ is ‘scienta’ (or something like that!), so I suggest the use of the word ‘science’ (Esp. in conversations like this) needs to be qualified as to which area of ‘science/knowledge’ is being studied/discussed.

4. Like all other areas of enquiry, we seek to accurately interpret our ‘data’. Perhaps we’ll never achieve true, pure, undefiled ‘objectivity’, but not for lack of trying! I think we basically agree here…

5. That’s fine, but in order to deal with the ‘god hypothesis’, one must come out of their ‘materialist-only’ closet and engage with other disciplines – philosophy, logic, sociology, psychology, etc. In other words, don’t demand a ‘material’ testing/experiment for a hypothesis concerning a ‘non-material’ reality. Don’t try to fit God into a test-tube. 🙂

6. My suggestion was that (according to modern popular notions concerning ‘knowledge’ that are perhaps overly materialistic) agnosticism was the only intellectually safe position to take on the ‘god’ question. So, concerning intellectual belief (and NOT action), a-theists (or non-theists if you prefer) and theists (in countless discussions, meetings, writings) make contradictory statements regarding god.

If the theists and a-theists are willing to qualify these statements in their writing and speaking with words to the effect of ‘but we’re not really sure’, then that’s fine, but as long as both continue to speak and write postivistically, then I continue to suggest that these opposite positive positions of belief are both reached by going beyond what we can know in a purely material/objective/empirical way.

or something like that… 🙂

Ian, do you not say/suggest that there is no god? If you never say ‘there is no god’, then how can you call yourself an atheist? Your notion of ‘looser but more useful definitions’ is nice in principle, but would probably not be too popular with some ‘militant’ atheists I’ve met! Nor would I expect to see such ‘loose’ definitions in atheist blogging/writing… Don’t let me stop you, though. By all means! Try to convince your atheist friends to adopt this ‘looser definition’ – but then scold them when they discard it in debates/discussions with theists! 🙂

Having said all that, I must say the following:

If I believed that the only type of ‘knowledge’ was materialistic in nature, then yes, I could happily meet you in the middle-ground of ‘agnosticim’. But I simply do not think that the only type of ‘knowledge’ is material in nature. There’s more.

cheers for now. I’ve got a theological paper I’m doing, plus a youth camp I’m planning, so the week will be crazy. I’ll try to respond to any of your comments, but I might have to leave it till next week…

As always, enjoying the conversation. It really is helpful, I think, to both of us.



48. Ian - August 6, 2007

Some brief responses, like you Dale my week is a little chaotic 🙂

1. You may be right that the continuum from objective to subjective closely parallels that of material to immaterial. But if that is so, it is only a reflection of our ability to observe the immaterial, nothing more. It should be a big warning light that we have to be very careful with immaterial claims only because they tend to fall into the subjective categories.

2. Attitudes are “data” just like anything else.

3. I have never claimed that science is bound to materiality. It is simply a matter of fact that we have a lot more objective information about material things so we spend more time trying to explain them. If there is any connection between them, it is an emerging result of the nature of both, not a defined result.

4. Agreed. I will add that where we can’t achieve some reasonable level of objectivity, we need to be wary of our conclusions.

5. I can accept that there may be immaterial things. That is quite different from accepting we have demonstrated there are. Nonetheless, if the god hypothesis fits in this realm, we must still strive for a good objective reason in order to accept it. Objective science can and must still play in this playground.

6. I know where you are coming from with respects to god. However to me that is putting the cart before the horse. Any hypothesis MUST have to prove its worth in the scientific arena regardless of source. God does not get a special right to be considered where other theories don’t.

My problem with your next statement is that it leads us to a very slippery slope. We cannot only apply this rule to the god hypothesis, we must be consistent about all possibilities. We have no more justification for discarding the Zeus hypothesis or the fairy hypothesis or the FSM hypothesis. There are infinite possibilities that we are forced to go “beyond what we can know in a purely material/objective/empirical way” in order to discard. And if we go down that road we will get exactly nowhere. All we can do is deal in what we actually DO know, not what we might know. If immaterial things or gods fall into that category then great, if not then I advise we be cautious with them.

However to answer your next point, I have yet to be convinced they do. And that alone is the reason I am an atheist. Not an antitheist, although I do strongly disagree with many church practices, but an atheist.

Well that was longer than I hoped… lol Anyway the main points from above seem to condense down to the idea that science attempts to explain how anything and everything we observe works. Doesn’t matter what it is – no boundaries, no limits. If we can observe it (in any way) we can try and explain it. Materiality is only relevant insofar as it represents (seemingly) everything we can observe. That last point is open to debate and may actually be at the very core of our discussion.


49. dale - August 14, 2007

I appreciate your response,

A few thoughts…

1. Yep. We (obviously) can’t observe (physically, anyway) things that are immaterial. Thanks… But I see no reason that this necessitates the immaterial things being automatically more ‘subjective’ than material things. Logic is a good example of a field in which we can compare/contrast/test/debated/experiment and more, all while not materially observing a thing – other than perhaps words/ideas being put down on paper, etc. Logical ‘objectivity’ can be just as attainable as other ‘materialist’ fields.

2. 🙂

3. This, indeed, is near the heart of the conversation! 🙂 ‘…we have a lot more objective information about material things so we spend more time trying to explain them.’ Maybe we should spend more time exploring the other side of life then? 🙂 I know that thought will frustrate you… I will NEVER say that we need to stop learning about material things. That’s silly. But many intelligent, educated and rational people are convinced (along with many un-intelligent, un-educated and irrational ones!) that there is more to life than materiality. In our attempt to understand life/reality/everything, it is wise to spend good time on the other side of things! 🙂

I also want to suggest that this task (the study of the immaterial – a.k.a. spirituality/theology/etc.) is quite urgent. In the same way that the field of physics is sharpened by criticism, so is spirituality/theology. Visual observation and experimentation are (some of?) the tools for physics – and study, dialogue, reason, logic and reflection are (some of) the tools for spirituality/theology. I don’t anticipate many atheists being too excited about the sharpening of spirituality/theology, but it is happening, and I am glad about that. At the same time, however, some resist any criticism of their spiritual/theological ideas – and they remain all the more dull becauase of it, I suggest.

4. I fully agree. Now apply that to the singularity-exploding meta-theory. What is the level of ‘reasonable objectivity’ there?

5. “Hi, my name is Ted, my field is that of ‘objective science’.”

“Nice to meet you Ted. I’m Ray, and my field is ‘subjective science’ – at least I think it is.”

All science/knowledge (Lat. – scienta/knowledge) is science/knowledge. It attempts to be as objective as it can. (I smell yet another one of your material/immaterial hierarchies here, I think.) But basically, I agree. We always seek to be as objective as possible.

Is it not asking a bit too much to expect to fully objectively conclude that a god is ‘accept’-able?

6. Where can I find this ‘scientific arena’? Don’t you mean ‘materialist’ arena? What of the arena of reason and logic? Of emotion, will, intent, relationships, beauty and creativity? Sure, we’re not exactly going to reach ‘epistemologically objective’ conclusions in any of these areas, but these areas are the stuff of life!

Life in its totality is experienced and reflected upon as a fascinating, interwoven, over-lapping and jumbled multi-plex of many areas; relationship and reason – atoms and attitudes – emotions and ethics – arguments and ants – matter and mothers – space and sexuality – plants and people. It is not either simple or complex, but both.

The Theological hypothesis (if you like) seeks to suggest, study and ‘know’ (in a relational sense, not a test-tube sense) the Source of Life in its entirety (as mentioned above).

Is Life objective or subjective? What kind of question is that? When you try to atomise, compartmentalise, reduce, simplify and/or shrink Life into one category, in an attempt to make ‘objective’ conclusions, you have willingly ignored the rest of Life.

This is why materialist-only conclusions (in my humble opinion) will never be able to provide humanity with the answers to the big questions that we all ask about this ever-frustrating, always confusing and never-relenting thing we call Life.

(i.e. – Biology without ethics will not help the problem of un-wanted pregnancies…)

Again, I’m not trying to undermine physical scientific enquiry or devalue materiality – I happen to believe that both were created (and therefore valued and loved) by God. I’m simply suggesting 1) that study in these areas alone will not provide sufficient guidance for Life, and 2) the ‘hypothesis’ for the Source of Life will not be carried very far if only considered against part of Life.

Talk of God is talk of Life. Both are really quite simple and knowable, and at the same time infinite and vast.



50. Anonymous - August 20, 2007

interesting discussion here

nice to see respect both ways


51. dale - August 29, 2007


Just checking in here… Are you still alive?



52. Charissa VanRoekel - August 29, 2007

I was an atheist in high school. but then I asked God, “If you really exist, then tell me why was it in all my years of growing up that I never had just one best friend. Is that toohard a thing for you to do, God, pls…if You exist, pls tell me…”

Well…He answered. I am happy to say that He is supernatural, a Spirit we cannot discern Him with our five senses. It takes more faith to believe in atheism than it does to believe in God.

He loves you and He is real.

53. dale - September 2, 2007

I think charissa means well, Ian.



54. Ken - September 3, 2007

On the other hand, I’m not sure that Pastor Dean does!

55. Ian - September 3, 2007

Hmmm – i get caught up in work and look what happens lol.

Dale, I’ll get to your post as soon as I can (no promises for that being soon though, I am flat out at work and my computer is broken at home). I definitely want to continue this discussion though!

Alan, if you’re reading this, same deal!

Charissa, I appreciate your fervour, but I am going to delete that ridiculously long post (of someone else’s work no less) in the interest of maintaining the coherence of this thread. As it happens the posted material can be found here. In the interests of a meaningful discussion please post how you personally think that document either relates to the original post, or the discussion that has ensued 🙂


56. dale - September 3, 2007

Cheers, Ian.

always frustrating to have a computer break on you… (not that it’s happened to be multiple times, though…)



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