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March 31, 2008


Michael Brazier

"if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think religion can?"

Because answering ultimate questions is what religion is for. This "objection" is parallel to two others: "If biology can't explain why people act as they do, what makes psychologists think they can?"; and "If physics can't explain why a piece of music is beautiful, what makes musicians think they can?" It's the narrow-minded specialist's dismissal of anything he doesn't understand; and it's easily recognized as such, to anyone whose experience has been broader than his.

Oliver Kamm

Come off it. Religion is not a branch of intellectual inquiry like chemistry, history, geology or German literature. It's a set of dogmata that are unfalsifiable and explain nothing. If you believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, then no one's stopping you and not many will criticise you - but in no reputable sense can you be said to have arrived at knowledge or understanding thereby.


Apart from anything else, music and psychology can be tested: musicians can - and indeed do, with variable success - attempt to use their theories to produce beautiful music; psychologists similarly attempt to explain and predict human behaviour in broad terms. I can't even begin to frame a way in which a 'why' question could be equivalently tested.

Your claim that religion's purpose is to answer these ultimate questions is similarly dubious, and there are plenty of religionists who would, I believe, disagree with you on this.


Religion's claim to answer "why" is predicated on, or leads to, other claims that can be tested. Hence Dawkins's critique of religion, which is a useful complement to the humanities department one.

Kellie Strøm

The only thing religion can do is give a different name to the unknowable. It can't make the unknowable known any more than science can, and when it tries it becomes ridiculous.


Whilst I'm not religious, I think it's fair to point out that some Christians claim attempt to approach the claims of the Bible using historical methods (at least in part) to argue that the best explanation of the available evidence is that Jesus rose from the dead. They argue that they are providing a rational basis for their beliefs, not solely faith.

The Bishop of Durham, NT Wright, is one such example:

But, as far as I am concerned, the historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations than the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him.


When did being a neoconservative not make you a conservative? There is a hairs breadth of difference between McCain's foreign policy plans and the current President's.


Readers of this blog should be aware that Prof. Bacevich's son, Andrew Jr., who was a junior officer in either armor or infantry, was killed in action in Iraq in late 2007.


Readers of this blog should be aware that Prof. Bacevich's son, Andrew Jr., who was a junior officer in either armor or infantry, was killed in action in Iraq in late 2007.

James Hannam

Oliver Kamm's uncharacteristically shallow point on why/how questions is critiqued here:

David Duff

I think that 'muscular athiests' like our host and the execrable Richard Dawkins miss an important point. There are those who believe in a specific God who has in some way made his views clear, well, clear-ish, to us on earth and indeed the result is dogma. They provide an easy target for the slings and arrows of the unbelievers and I'm not here to defend them.

However, there are others, not many but at least one, er, me, who could entertain the *theory* of some sort of supernatural (by which I mean super to what we call natural *today* but which might prove to be perfectly natural when we know more tomorrow) entity whose powers of creation *may* have created the universe. This sort of refusal to slam shut a door to theoretical possibility entails absolutely no dogma at all. It is simply a *theory* to explain the so far unexplained in the face of the fact that science appears to be stalling as it becomes entangled in the paradoxes and ambiguities of the universe at the extremes.

Anyway, Dawkins is a rude prat and I wouldn't take his word if he told me the time!


Dawkins goes much further than atheism - he claims that religion is a socially harmful 'meme'. Yet the widespread an enduring nature of religious belief suggests that, in accordance with evolutionary theory, it is a beneficial adaption that has helped humans to survive and flourish. Polybius cited religion as the reason for Roman society being less corrupt than his native Greece.

Fabian from Israel

"Polybius cited religion as the reason for Roman society being less corrupt than his native Greece."

Ehem...and it was?


Well, you know, we can't question authorities on religious matters. Unless they are scientists.

Kellie Strøm

David Duff, the position you outline sounds like deism. As Oliver has in the past linked approvingly to the works of Thomas Paine, who in The Age of Reason used deism to criticise organised religion, it may be that he's not absolutely opposed to it. I find myself switching between deism and atheism depending on the weather.

David Hughes

I'm surprised by the assertion above that Richard Dawkins is 'a rude prat'. In all the examples I've seen on TV he is never less than unfailingly polite in manner and restrained in language, whether being interviwed or acting as the interviewer. This is so even when he's talking to people who quite clearly make him want to tear his hair out.

And as for the notion that there exists some supernatural grand panjandrum that created the universe and everything, Dawkins doesn't deny that it's a theoretical possibility. He simply points out, correctly in my view, that it's a 'possibility' that is completely untestable, unfalsifiable and supported by no evidence whatsoever. In short, it explains nothing and contibutes nothing to our understanding of the universe.

David Duff

"it's a 'possibility' that is completely untestable, unfalsifiable and supported by no evidence whatsoever. In short, it explains nothing and contibutes nothing to our understanding of the universe."

Indeed so, Mr Hughes, just like the atomic theory of matter which dates back to ancient Greece and has only recently fallen victim to modern instruments of measure, but that didn't stop people enjoying some interesting theoretical discussions on the subject during the intervening two and half millennia. It's bad enough these days that so-called scientists insist on interfering in the minutae of my life, am I also not to be permitted to speculate on anything other than what some 'techie' deems proper from the depths of his 'Stinks' lab?

I hardly dare mention, for fear of a thunderous sermon from 'Archbishop' Dawkins, that another 'theory', that of Darwin and his successors, also makes no predictions and is thus unfalsifiable and all attempts to test it have failed in that no new species have ever been produced. So, better keep mum, eh!

David Duff

Kellie (forgive the use of your Christian name but I can't reproduce your Scandinavian(?) surname properly), I think the difference between my way of thinking and deism is that the latter entails 'belief'. I do *not* believe in some supernatural entity, but neither do I dismiss the possibility. Like you, my views vary from time to time and my belief in a thoroughly malignant God is re-inforced every time it rains on my barbeque!

David Hughes

Mr Duff: no-one, scientist or otherwise, is putting barriers in the way of you speculating about anything that interests you. As for scientists insisting on 'interfering in the minutiae of my life', I really have no idea what you're referring to. I'm a professional scientist myself and I can assure you I have no desire to interfere in anyone's life.

Since my field of expertise is Biology I could put you right on your hopeless misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution but I suspect that Oliver's comments box is not the right forum for that discussion. I'd advise you to read some authoritative up-to-date books on the subject - by which I don't mean creationist tracts. I recommend 'Climbing Mount Improbable' and 'The Blind Watchmaker' by Richard Dawkins as good starting points!

David Duff

Yes, I read "The Blind Watchmaker" and some of his other works and I confess that part of my animus against 'Archbishop' Dawkins emanates from my shame at the memory of swallowing his nonsense whole! I was young, need I say more? Anyway, if you actually met a man in the street who shuffled along proclaiming the 'fact' that he was totally controlled by tiny globules of ammino acids and such like, you would instantly cross the road. Also, you would begin to doubt his faculty for clear thinking when you heard him proclaim his utter subjugation to these nasty little globules, which he assures us are all totally and unremittingly selfish, but then tells us that we must all teach ourselves to be nice and kind! How can we? And why would we? And where does even the idea of kindness and goodness come from if we are totally controlled by unkind baddies? (Suddenly the idea of a supernatural entity doesn't seem that wild-eyed!)

I'm delighted to learn, Mr Hughes, that you are a scientist, so, as a member of the club, so to speak, perhaps you could have word in the ears of those irritating 'white coats' who constantly tell me what I should or should not eat or drink and in what quantity; how I should heat my home; what sort of car I should drive, indeed, even whether or not I should be permitted any sort of car at all; why I, and others, should pay zillions over the odds building daft contraptions like wind turbines and the Severn barrier; who insist that such and such a road may not be built for fear of upsetting the lesser-spotted natter-jack toad, or whatever; why, when I have bats in my belfry - no, don't bother, too, too obvious - I can't just poison the horrid, noisy, dirty, little 'critters'; why I may not smoke a fag; why this, that or the other everyday practice will (or will not, it depends which officious 'white coat' is lecturing us) give us cancer/heart attacks/varicose veins (delete as necessary); and so on 'ad infinitum' and 'nauseum'!

David Hughes

Mr Duff: As I suggested in my previous post, this isn't the place for such lengthy discussions, so why don't you just go and poison some critters and I'll get on with bleaching my white coat. Regards.

David Duff

Thank you, Mr Hughes, that is one injunction from a scientist with which I am happy to comply.

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