Skepticism versus the intelligent design of irrefutible complexity

Thesis: Theological apologetics becomes more complicated in the presence of skepticism.  In other words, arguments which theists make in defending their religious beliefs become more and more convoluted sophisticated (and again) the better our questions about those beliefs get.  But, of course, I have written about this topic before.  Nonetheless, I have a few more things to say.

Thousands of years ago, some metaphysical ‘genius’ could proclaim that the universe was all fire, water, or made of god stuff and we, a very young intellectual species, would not have had the tools or understanding to question such claims without it turning into a ‘he said, she said‘ affair (assuming a ‘she’ would have been permitted to say anything).  That is, there was once a time when truly there was no significant epistemic distinction between religious and skeptical claims.

Because there was no established skepticism.


But with many of the ancient urban societies where philosophical ideas were born–China, India, Greece, etc–came questions of how we know things.  Eventually, intellectuals would begin to question the bases of religious thought, and would become subsequently revered and sometimes chastised by contemporary religious and governmental institutions.  Here in the West, Socrates is the most well-known example of this.  With this infancy of philosophy, but more specifically epistemology or the study of knowledge and how we know things, traditional knowledge became subject to suspicion.  For an example, here is Socrates (well, Plato at least) when asked by Phaedrus if he believes in the myth of Boreas seizing Orithyia from the river bank upon which the members of the dialogue sit.  Socrates replies:

I can’t as yet ‘know myself’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters.

This early form of questioning would lead to more direct skepticism, of course.  And with it, theistic philosophers would be forced to do more than merely assert their positions.  (Well, ideally it would lead to this, but the fact is that much of apologetics, even from the revered William Lane Craig, is full of bald assertions).  And as history marched along, theology became a serious philosophical topic.  What’s the phrase? That philosophy is the handmaiden of theology.   Well, for centuries that was true, as to be a philosopher in Europe was to be a member of the church.  No other intellectual institution was very influential for many centuries; no competition was allowed to survive, where the church had the power to stop them.  Consider the Cathars, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei for starters.  The Inquisition was not a period of increased curiosity, after all.

Duns Scotus

So, with the basic epistemic questions posed, the tools of logic and inquiry developed.  The tools of skepticism were sharpened both by the luminaries of orthodoxy who defended the faith of their particular institution as well as those who quietly (or not so quietly) harnessed doubts.  There is no doubt that Thomas Aquinas, an orthodox philosopher if ever there was one, was a genius.  But let’s not forget such thinkers as Peter Abelard, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus who, who were not in any meaning of the word ‘atheists’ but were openly skeptical of many orthodox theological ideas.

With the advent of the empirical methods which would lead to what we know today as the scientific method, the world of theological apologetics would receive a vital blow, even if it would not be felt by most people even now.  The fact is that many people do not understand the implications of this methodology on theology, which is the basis for this argument between accommodationists and people such as Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and of course humble ol’ me, is a testament to how little most people think about complicated matters such as philosophy.  But it has always been that way, I suppose.  But for those of us who consider such matters, the opposition to theology and theism in general is not mere distaste (although it is that too), but one of realized philosophical implication.  Theological apologetics simply does not have the rational justification to stand up to the power of the scientific method.

This is not a debate over mere conclusions, but one about methodology and therefore justification.  One method is simply superior to the other.  When religion is subjected to empirical testing, almost none of is survives.  Not even the happy and progressive liberal theology survives, even if it tends to be more accepting and friendly.  it’s sort of how you prefer people who are nicer, even if they have radically different lifestyles or beliefs than you.

Recently, one of the buzz terms in the blogosphere in which I swim is “sophisticated theology.”  The basic idea is that we atheists and skeptics are not sufficiently educated in the complexity, subtlety, or profundity of modern theological thought.  Of course, every time we run into some deep thoughts a la theologian, all we get is either postmodern word salad or bold assertions without philosophical or empirical justifications.  Here is an example of the sort of thing I am talking about which I discovered a few weeks back via WEIT (also via the link above)

The bottom line here is that skepticism has put theology up against the metaphorical wall, and theology is flailing around in an attempt to save itself.  Now, the metaphor is not really apt, because skeptics are not figuratively (or literally) threatening theologians or apologists with harm, but we are merely tapping them on the shoulder and asking hard questions.  Sometime, when they agree to sit down with us and debate or discuss the issue, we ask those hard questions in bold ways.  And, of course, when we skeptics talk to each other those hard questions often are paired with humor, frustration, and flabbergastion (that isn’t a word, is it? meh…).   And this, to them, looks aggressive.  And in many cases it is aggressive, because we are frankly fed up with pseudo-intellectual crap and the fact that they have so many credulous people to believe them.  It does not bode well for humanity.

Like  someone who will say anything to not be harmed when they feel threatened, assertions will lash out like fists and feet, adrenaline takes over, and survival supersedes truth.  It just may take centuries for the disease’s symptoms to be noticeable to everyone, but they are already felt by many.  We skeptics, like doctors of the body of humankind, can already see the theological cancer spreading over the body of humanity and have made our diagnosis; it is malignant.  If we as a culture and a species are to become healthy this cancer needs to be treated, and possibly removed.  If it isn’t, we may survive, but we will continue to be  infirm and weak.

But in the mean time, the arguments of assertive theologians will continue to maintain influence on millions of people.  Their claims will continue to be complicated, intelligent, and profound-sounding.  This, of course, will not lend their ideas actual justification, but that will not matter because it will still compel many.  And the more complicated, in-depth, and meticulous these rationalizations are, the harder skeptics have to exercise their sharpened tools to demonstrate the lack of reasonable foundation of such beliefs.  It is a game where those who care about influence over truth have the advantage over those that genuinely care about what is demonstrable.

And then the sharper skeptics make their criticisms, the deeper theologians dig themselves into the rabbit-hole of complex and erudite obfuscation.

Thus the viscous cycle, the intellectual ‘arms race’ (Richard Dawkins would be proud, perhaps), continues.

But the complexity and obfuscation don’t make theological arguments better, they only make them harder to follow.  It allows them to live in their worlds where they pat each other on the back for being clever, but never actually demonstrate anything.  They just become more convoluted, intricate, and find themselves tied in knots that nobody else wants to try and untie because it is a waste of time and we can see that.  Then they can make the easy rhetorical point that we don’t understand sophisticated theology.

It’s all just silly, like games children play where they make up the rules along the way and then declare victory.

Intelligence is needed to compose such sophisticated theology, but it is intelligence applied to rationalizing a conclusion and not in utilizing or improving the best methodology we have at our disposal.  For theologians to do that would be suicidal, and they must know that to some degree.

When pressed against the wall, survival supersedes truth.

Truthiness of religion

New atheists.  That is what we are called by some.  I find the label somewhat misguided, but I understand why it is applied.

Many people are not used to hearing about atheism, challenges to faith, etc. It is new to them.  They may know atheists, and likely do not know that those people are atheists, but they may know that they don’t attend a church or participate in any faith.  Many people, atheists included (but don’t call them that!) prefer a reverential approach to their believing neighbors.  They don’t bring it up because they don’t really care or they find it distasteful.

And so when they see us, the “new atheists,”TM they view our criticism and challenges as overly aggressive in our tone and approach.  They view these aggressive tactics as hurting our cause in society by pushing people away rather than trying to be their friends.  I don’t see evidence for this harm.  I see theists becoming defensive because they are not used to the criticism.  I see their coddled status being taken away, and they don’t like it.

Too bad.

Why shouldn’t we be critical? Religion does cause harm.  Faith, belief without or in spite of evidence to the contrary, is largely responsible for the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific fervor that exists in various cultures, particularly our own American culture.

But those faitheists and accomodationists will continue to claim that religion is good in many ways and that we are being too harsh in denouncing religion wholesale.  I agree.  I think that there are aspects of religion and religious culture that are good.  Religion can be good; it helps people in need, supplies hope, and it provides a basis for teaching morality. Or at least one kind of morality or another.

Yes, religion can do these things, but I see no reason why only religion of faith can do these things.  A religion of faith? Why add that qualifier, you may ask.  Well, first of all not all religious people necessarily have faith, depending on your definition of faith.  Further, not all people that have faith necessarily have a religion.  Religion is…well, religion is complicated.  I will not try to define this term here, but I want to address it in a tangential way.

The Religious Instinct

There are sets of emotions, behaviors, and dispositions that tend towards ‘religious’ behavior.  It can include rituals, music, states of mind, etc.  But this is an expression of a more general psychological disposition that we all, or at least the vast majority of us, share.  It is expressed through music, poetry, the fine arts, and perhaps even philosophy.  It is an expression of those experiences internal to each of us that feels like it is coming from somewhere…else.

It is sublime, beautiful, and it has its own subtle rules and constraints that we can apprehend in rarer states of mind.  When one is enthralled in an ecstatic moment, there is a kind of flowing of emotion, meaning, and beauty that seems to transcend us.  It doesn’t actually transcend us, but it gives the sensation of transcendence.

As a writer, I know this well.  There are time when, in writing, I find myself almost transported and feel as if the words are coming through me, as if I were but a conduit for some ideas.  I understand the concept of inspiration.  I know why people think that God works through them because I feel that experience myself.

So, why am I an atheist then?

What I look like while inspired

Well, because when I’m in that state of mind, I’m being creative.  I’m using natural tools of my brain to create, understand, and communicate.  I am not being methodical, careful, nor remotely scientific.  That is, I am not concerned with what is true in these moments, even if at some of these moments I may get the delusional idea that there is more truth there than in cold, rational, analysis.

Beauty is truth, and truth beauty?

There is a sense where the moments of beauty and poetry that overcome me seem to reveal a kind of truth.  It feels as if the universe has opened up to me and given me a slice of something that my rational mind was unable to find.  And sometimes, upon further reflection, I find that it may have found a bit of truth before unseen.  But that is the important part of that; upon further reflection.

Because how many times have ideas or thoughts from inspiration turned out to be duds? Most of the time, some if the time? Always? I suppose it depends.  But it is upon sober, rational reflection that we will find whether or not the moment of inspiration has given us gold.  The reason is that there is a difference in approach.  The moments of beauty, sublimity, and transcendence are the result of our brain doing what it does, not as it can be trained to do.

And I’m glad that this part of our minds exist because it is from these ecstasies and sublimities that we create.  Not discover, elucidate, or comprehend, but create.

The aspects of our minds that find revelation,  communicate with the spirits, or attain a slice of heaven are the same parts that write novels, create sculpture, and write poetry.  In this mode of thought there is a freedom of form, expression, and a lack of criticism.  Yes, that’s it; a lack of criticism!

Not that we can’t look at two creations and judge one or the other more or less beautiful (or at least argue about why we think one is more beautiful), but that one looked on its own not criticized in relation to the world, generally.  It is not pointed at and said that the thing does not appear to be like anything else that is real.  A sculpture of a dragon is not looked at and scolded for not representing a real animal.  A poet is not criticized for not representing a real conversation or speech.  A theologian is not criticized for not representing the universe as it really is.  That’s not the point, right?

Well, if you talk to Karen Armstrong, you may get such a response.  But the fact is that theologians, most of them anyway, do claim that they are describing reality. They are not merely creating, they claim.  They are talking about not only truth, but Truth.

But where do these truths come from? Revelation, communion with a deity, book (which ultimately go back to revelation or some claimed historical event), etc.  They come from the mind, and many of them from ancient minds not trained in the meticulous rational skills which would be necessary to analyze these experiences.

When theologians tackle these issues, whether today or the ancient theologians that dealt with these religious beliefs, they only apply rational thinking to keep the stories internally consistent while forgetting that the person who first experienced the idea was as fallible as you or I in determining truth from these internal experiences of ecstacy and transcendence.


If we want to discover what is real, we need to be meticulous.  We need to check assumptions, use empirical methods, and try to devise a way to prove our idea wrong.  And so long as we cannot prove it wrong and the evidence supports the idea, then we provisionally hold our hypothesis as true.  The longer it withstands scrutiny, the more it becomes a theory.  Not just some guess or inspiration, but an idea that stands up against attempts to knock it down.  In other words, we need to use the scientific method.

Does this sound like what poets do? How about novelists? How about theologians? ‘Well, of course not,’ they will say.  ‘These things are not subject to empirical study.’  Really? Why not? ‘Well, it takes away from the beauty; science cannot explain beauty.’

Perhaps not.  Or perhaps it can.  That is not what is at issue.  What is at issue is that our minds are capable of different kinds of thought.  Some of our mental capabilities provide for us this ‘religious instinct’ that we are all familiar with to some extent.  But this instinct is part of our creativity, and is only tangentially helpful in a pursuit of truth. Our creative powers may, occasionally, provide us with insights into a new way of thinking about a problem, but once we have the idea we must switch to using our learned critical skills on to test the idea.   We cannot just dream and create answers to real world problems, we have to criticize them.

Our creative powers which provide us with the transcendent experiences, sublime emotions, and inspiring ideas are a great tool for the creative process, but not for attaining truth.  If we want to know what is real, we need to be critical, meticulous. and scientific.

Religion claims to have truth; it claims it knows something about what is real.  By being critical of those claims and the methods by which those claims are attained, atheists (‘new’ or not) are not being disrespectful.  Anyone who claims to have the truth and who subsequently calls criticism of their methods or conclusions disrespectful is either insecure about their position or does not understand how to think critically.

In many cases, it is both.

So yes, the parts of our mind that religion uses; the creative, transcendent, and sublime aspects of us that supply us with beauty, love, and all of those wonderful things are great.  So, if that is all that religion is, then there is not much of an argument.  That is, if the vague and meaningless God of theologians like Karen Armstrong is all that religion provides–a thing that need not even exist to be important–then religion is simply a nice story with which I can have little quarrel.

But if religion also deals with what is true, at least in the same use of ‘true’ as we mean when we say something is real, then criticism is warranted.  I may find many aspects of religious practices to be beautiful, but I don’t think they are true.  And that is what is at issue.  If those artistic expressions that come from creative people–mythology, morality stories, and the like–are not intended to be literally true, then they are just stories we can enjoy on their own merit.  But this is not the case.  Christianity, Islam, etc are believed to be actually true and real, not just stories.

Anything that is proposed as the truth in society of culture is open for criticism.  To actually step forward and do so is the responsibility of a citizen who cares about the truth, reality, etc.  To postulate a story about the universe as true and then remove it from the realm of critical analysis, or to not at least try to validate it oneself while having faith in it is not strength nor reverent behavior, but weakness.

Allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by stories birthed in the ecstatic moments of artistic creativity and then to claim it to be true is not clear thinking.  We need to train ourselves to be better thinkers and to accept criticism or to get used to feeling disrespected.

Respect is not warranted when art is presented as truth.  The truth, as the Vorlons say, points to itself.  It does not need us to create it.