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Theological Hypocrisy and Exceptionalism Part II

August 15, 2011

In a recent post I stated

Some theologians, and many apologists, argue that Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and other secular scientists have no right whatsoever to speak of God, theology, or religion because they have no formal training for commenting on these subjects.

However, some of these ‘theologians’, at the same time, hypocritically feel quite free to dictate what science is to these persons: a subject in which they have neither formal training nor familiarity!

My intent on making such a statement was to highlight the rhetorical trick that is attempted by some theologians and apologists. On the one hand they suggest that Dawkins et al. have no right to speak on theological matters, but on the other, have no problem with their formal lack of training pertaining to science but still dictating to scientists what their field can and cannot do.

The try to tip the playing field in their advantage so to speak.

There was a variety of interesting and informed comments to my above suggestion. However, I think there are two that are indicative of the problem of trying to work through the above issues, and will be good for suggesting some further thoughts.

The first comment comes from Ty (who by the way works for George. R. R. Martin and recently published his own sci-fi book-so pretty cool stuff by geek standards!)

As background for this comment, I was a minister for twenty some years, and am now an atheist.

Dawkins largely isn’t critiquing religion. He is primarily critiquing the idea that a god, any god, exists. Pointing out the basic logical fallacies in most religious belief is just one of many ways he demonstrates the vanishing unlikeliness of god. One does not need to be an expert in pottery to point out that Bertrand’s teapot is extremely unlikely to exist. Demands for expertise in theology is largely a smokescreen to avoid confronting the simple fact that no evidence can be provided to counter this central premise to his argument.

Or, as PZ Myers would note, the courtier’s reply is all over this thread. One need not be an expert in fashion to point out when someone is naked.

In a nutshell: one need not be an expert in theology to comment on the unlikeliness of god.

A response to Ty’s sentiment comes from Christian who said

Yes, if one is to assume to be an authority in theology, then they should have a combination of experience and education. As in any field, that’s why we have colleges and specific programs….so people can become, you know, experts.

I don’t presume to know more about zoology than Dawkins or particle physics than those who design and work at the Bern supercollider. Yet people like Dawkins or Harris are viewed as authorities in theology despite no formal training.

In a nutshell: one needs to be an expert to comment in the field of theology.

So we have two differing opinions. Let me offer my thoughts–which by the way, are being formed as I haltingly offer them here in a free flow of consciousness writing, and am open to dialogue and disagreement–and hopefully we will have some more ground upon which to have this discussion.

First I would like to offer two terms by which to direct the understanding of the different suggestions above: methodological naturalism & philosophical naturalism.

Methodological naturalism: modern science operates under the rules of methodological naturalism which limits it to understanding natural phenomena through physical observation and testing. All scientist, whether theists or non-theists, must operate under the rules of methodological naturalism when engaging in the scientific method.

Philosphical Naturalism: Philosophical naturalism is the step beyond methodological naturalism that makes the claim that only natural causes exist and that there are no supernatural causes.

Now here’s an important point: all philosophical naturalists are methodological naturalist, but not all those who practice methodological naturalism are philosophical naturalist. Eugenie Scott has a good chart that highlights this

Eugenie Carol Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, 66.

Therefore, for me then, when we talk of the ‘appropriateness’ of a scientists such as Dawkins or Hawking commenting on the causes of natural phenomena we are not, in a sense, speaking of ‘science’ versus ‘religion’ but the method of natural, observable, testable causes, and the movement from those observations to the suggestions of whether there are only natural causes.

As a scientist, then, I think Dawkins has every right to make any theory as to the natural causes of the universe. As Christian stated in the comments to the first post

My standing question, or more accurately challenge, to those who make such claim is to share what methodologies they are using to test for God’s existence. I’ve yet to see a single, solitary, peer reviewed analytical method, including accuracy and precision, that shows what a positive or negative result would look like. As a scientist, I would like to see this.

Without a valid scientific methodology that can test for the existence of God, one might as well be testing for chromium in drinking water using a child’s metal detector.

Obviously, methodological naturalism cannot test for what lies outside of the material realm. This is a no-brainer. But if ancient mythological speculation suggests that a god created the world in a certain way within a certain time-frame, and a modern scientist using the method which he/she has come to trust finds this ancient guess to be wrong then are they really committing that egregious of a sin, if merely following the methods of naturalism, they make the next step and suggest that there are only natural causes to the universe?

Ultimately then, what I am suggesting is that the discussion is not about a certain scientist as a ‘theologian’ but the appropriateness of those who practice methodological naturalism, finding only naturalistic explanations to the natural phenomena around them making an a posteriori conclusion that there may be no supernatural explanations to the natural data.

To try and reverse the discussion; to try and make these scientists who are philosophical naturalist as somehow making a priori conclusions and then somehow twisting the data to suit those concerns, is, I would think, very dishonest in this discussion. This is the state of things as far as I can tell for many of these persons: they engage in methodological naturalism, observe only natural causes and effects, and therefore, assume there are no other causes other than natural ones.

Not sure how ‘theological’ these conclusions are, or how adroit one would have to be in pneumatology or soteriology to make them.


I suppose the flip side would be that if one had an a priori conviction, or a hypothesis, that God created the universe. Then, even if the cause was untestable as Christian asserts above, there should be some observable, testable material, i.e. effect, that would support such an assumption. I am uncertain where the field of creation science lies at this present moment in testing and supporting such a scientific claim.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian permalink
    August 15, 2011 7:11 pm

    Doesn’t the methodology in some sense predetermine the conclusions one reaches? If one rules out supernatural causes in one’s methodology, then is it really surprising that one comes to the conclusion that the supernatural does not exist? In other words, no methodology is completely objective and unbiased, even scientific ones.

    • August 17, 2011 11:15 am

      Brian, your comment is adventures in missing the point. Did you even read the article?

  2. 4xi0m permalink
    August 17, 2011 9:05 pm

    I wouldn’t call casting major doubt on an origin story a posteriori via science a sin at all, let alone an egregious one. It’s just a matter of the evidence against it piling up as legions of scientists examine the questions they’ve asked about the universe. Dawkins did contribute to it in a scientific capacity, but he alone is not responsible for it.

    I would argue that Dawkins, in his public intellectual role, deals in philosophy more than in science. I would also argue that he does assume a priori that philosophical naturalism is true, and while he does not twist the data to suit this assumption, he does press the data into saying more than it actually says. Not just scientific data, either. He uses the (many) examples of the pain, misery, injustice, obstruction of progress, and intellectual backwardness caused or influenced by religion to suggest that religion is ‘the root of all evil.’ This is quite obviously untrue. Religion is just one manifestation of an underlying problem–a more prominent manifestation, I grant you, because it’s more visible and has been around a longer time than some of the others. This brings us to my problem with Dawkins: he has an agenda. Methodological naturalism is by necessity objective and disinterested, and motivated only by the desire for understanding. Dawkins’ brand of philosophical naturalism is motivated by a seething hatred of religion. This hatred may be justifiable for all I know, but it still has no place in a scientific investigation. And if Dawkins wants to claim scientific objectivity, he should apply himself, perform some real scholarship in philosophy and theology, get his emotions under control, and stop making statements that reveal his bias. He and his following take the same tone as the fundamentalists they enjoy mocking so much–absolute certainty about something that’s unverifiable–evangelical atheists, if you will.

    • August 17, 2011 9:55 pm

      Dawkins is perhaps a bad person to bring into this sort of discussion because he is such a polarizing figure, but more than anything I think the points I want some Christians to understand is that first, there is a difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, and that the movement from the first to the second is built on methodological conclusions.

      Sure the philosophical side may be “evangelical atheist” if you will, but when a certain scientist–let’s say definitely NOT Dawkins in this instance–engages in the scientific process, and all of his/her tests compel them to natural theories for the origins of the universe, but a religious person with nothing more than ancient cosmological speculation tells them that they are wrong and their science is built on only assumptions with no methodology… yeah, I can understand their move to a more ‘hostile’ philosophical naturalism (as I have experienced the same thing within my field of biblical studies vs. some of the tendentious theological claims that persons make concerning authorship, historicity of the biblical text, etc.).

      • August 29, 2011 10:47 am

        My standard answer to the question of whether naturalism should be an a priori assumption is this:

        So far, naturalism has been the correct answer to every question we’ve ever definitively answered. So far, supernaturalism has never been the correct answer.

        While this may change in the future, I am not holding my breath. Naturalism is winning by an almost infinite margin.

      • 4xi0m permalink
        August 30, 2011 11:28 am

        What you say is true, Ty. However, the only questions that can be definitively answered have to be answered by the scientific method, which in turn assumes naturalism a priori. This is part of what keeps me from crossing over from my agnosticism into philosophical naturalism. It seems arrogant to assume that what we can see is all there is, in the same way that it’s arrogant to assume that what’s written in a book is all there is.

        As for hostility in these sorts of arguments, Scott, I consider it understandable but not ideal. Ideally, reason would carry the day, and emotion would not be a factor in serious arguments at all. But given that Dawkins has an emotional stake in his intellectual position, I’m surprised he doesn’t make more jokes. Humor is so much more effective than hostility. As Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” ^_^

  3. August 20, 2011 10:40 am

    Some Christians may not comment on the validity of science, but they will sure comment on the validity of other religions…. all while complaining when scientists comment on the validity of *any* religion. How is that not hypocritical?


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