Why “History for Atheists”?

Why “History for Atheists”?

An Apologia for (Yet) Another Blog

Does the world need yet another blog?  Perhaps not, but it seems I do.  Back in 2009 I began Armarium Magnum, focused on history book reviews; mostly of books on ancient and medieval history.  Occasionally I’ve strayed from that theme into broader articles on history generally and, in particular, on my pet hate – ideologically-driven pseudo history.  I tend to be an equal opportunity curmudgeon when it comes to people distorting history to suit a biased agenda.  I’m just as happy to kick an evangelical Christian for tying evidence into Gordian knots to keep the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke from contradicting history and each other as I am to tackle a Holocaust denier.  But in the last decade or so I’ve became increasingly aware of and bothered by a particular brand of biased pseudo history: what I call New Atheist Bad History.

This varies from lazy repetitions of popular misconceptions, like perpetuating the myth that the medieval Church taught that the earth was flat, to full blown conglomerations of elaborate fringe theory, like the cluster of fervid and contrived pseudo history that is the Jesus Myth hypothesis.  But the list of historical ideas the New Atheists and their online acolytes get wildly wrong is long.  Amongst other things, many of them believe:

  • That Christianity caused the “Dark Ages” by systematically destroying almost all ancient Greco-Roman learning, 
  • That Christians burned down the Great Library of Alexandria and that Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered because of a Christian hatred of science
  • That Constantine was a crypto-pagan who adopted Christianity as a cynical political ploy (and personally created the Bible)
  • That scientists were oppressed during the Middle Ages and science stagnated completely until “the Renaissance”
  • That “the Inquisition” was a kind of Europe-wide medieval Gestapo and that the medieval Church was an all-powerful totalitarian theocracy
  •  That Giordano Bruno was a wise and brave astronomer and cosmologist who was burned at the stake because the Church hated science
  • That the Galileo Affair was a straightforward case of religion ignoring evidence and trying to suppress scientific advancement
  • That Pope Pius XII was a friend and ally of the Nazis who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and helped Nazis escape justice


And much more besides.  On Armarium Magnum I have occasionally written book reviews that touch on some of these myths, such as my critique of Charles Freeman’s overtly polemical The Closing of the Western Mind or my praise of James Hannam’s corrections of myths about medieval science in his excellent God’s Philosophers.  A couple of times I veered from reviewing books to tackling examples of these myths in other media, such as my articles on the pseudo history in Alejandro Amenabar’s 2009 film Agora (here, here and here) or the distortions in the first episode of the Neil De Grasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and its warped depiction of Giordano Bruno, the Catholic Church and early science.  I used the amateurish Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald to highlight the weakness, bias and general incompetence of many of the Jesus Myth arguments, and then responded to the author’s reply to go into these arguments in more detail, tackling Fitzgerald’s mentor – the notorious pseudo historian Richard Carrier – in the process.  And I reposted an introduction to the problems with the Jesus Myth hypothesis that I had written on Quora.

Over the last few years I’ve found that these reviews and articles have been, by far, the most popular, linked to and reposted of all the posts on Armarium Magnum.  Encouragement from Quora members regarding similar material there and feedback from the merry band of pedants at the Reddit /r/badhistory community has made it clear that there is both an appetite and a clear need for some level-headed, carefully researched and objective fact checking and debunking of New Atheist Bad History.

So I will be maintaining Armarium Magnum (rather neglected in the last year due to the demands of a new job and the fact I’ve been reading far more modern literature than history lately) and will cross post reviews from that blog to this one if they are relevant to New Atheist Bad History (NABH).  But this blog will be a repository of analysis of New Atheist history mangling; both online and in print.  Many articles will be point by point rebuttals of examples of  NABH found in the wild, others will be short notices of minor examples and some will be detailed historical discussions and debunking of NABH-style myths.

And Yes, I Am an Atheist Myself

Let’s get this out of the way now – I am an atheist.  I have been an atheist for my entire adult life, I am a former state president of the Australian Skeptics and a card-carrying, paid up, subscribing member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia.  I have an online history as an atheist in posts on Usenet groups of yore such as sci.sekptic and alt.atheism that dates all the way back to 1992 and have been an active member of many atheist fora including the old Richard Dawkins forums and of Rational Skepticism.  I can state categorically that I have no belief in any God or gods, which is – as we keep having to explain to believers – all that being an atheist entails.

I feel the need to make this clear because many people of the New Atheist variety get highly confused by an atheist who criticises NABH.  While they are as keen as I am to note that being an atheist does not involve subscribing to any particular world view on matters other than the existence of God or gods, requires no other philosophical positions at all and does not entail any particular political, ideological or social ideologies or ideas, many of them find it hard to grasp that I can reject and debunk their NABH fantasies and still be “a real atheist”.  So, for some (all too many, I’m afraid), there is a creeping or substantial suspicion that I must not really be an atheist at all.  The No True Scotsman fallacy reigns supreme here, unfortunately.

When looking at Google search strings that have led people to Armarium Magnum I’m always amused to find ones that read “Tim O’Neill + fake atheist” or “Tim O’Neill + really a Christian”.  Esteemed “agnostic” (technically atheist actually, but anyway …) New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman has encountered the same phenomenon. In recent years in particular he reports being questioned on his unbelief and having many atheists express amazement that, despite being an unbeliever, he accepts that a historical Jesus existed.  And reading New Atheist books and blogs and observing online most atheist communities shows that there is a pervasive idea that being a “real atheist” requires far more than a lack of belief in God or gods.  To many, it requires a commitment to a grab bag of other positions, many of which are wildly pseudo historical and which have been adopted and accepted usually without the slightest rational and objective analysis of the evidence.

So I often get questioned as to why I take the time to debunk NABH and my status as a “real atheist” is questioned regularly as well.  I bother with these topics for two very simple reasons. Firstly, I love history, including the history of religions, especially Christianity.  I’m a humanist in the true sense of the word and, as the motto from Terence goes “Humani nil a me alienum puto” ( I am human and nothing that is human is alien to me).  Secondly, as a rationalist, I like to take rationalism seriously.  So I go where the evidence takes me on history as with everything else.  However much an idea may appeal to me emotionally, if the historical evidence doesn’t support it, I can’t accept it.  Many New Atheists don’t seem capable of putting their emotions aside and looking at the evidence.

Why is New Atheist History so Flawed?

By “New Atheism” I’m referring to the current strand of actively anti-religious activist atheism embodied by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris and propagated by activists like P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne and Richard Carrier. There are outliers on the fringe of this movement  – Neil Degrasse Tyson – who are perhaps not New Atheists per se, but who are sometimes referred to them on matters historical.  So why do these people’s followers seem to get their history so badly wrong so regularly?

The first problem seems to be, in most cases (Carrier being the virtually lone exception) no training in historical analysis past high school level.  Most of these people (and a majority of their followers and fans) come from a STEM background, which means few have done any historical study since their teens.  They seem to work from a layman’s popular conception of history which, as anyone who has actually studied history knows, is substantially crap.  Thus they accept popular factoids about the medieval belief in a flat earth or the dumbed down popular conception of the Galileo Affair without question.

The second problem is bias.  Despite loud claims to be rational, objective and focused on evidence, when it comes to history the New Atheists seem happy to accept any interpretation that puts religion in the worst possible light without question.  And their followers don’t simply do this but also resist and reject any correction to their pseudo historical fairy tales as “revisionism” or “apologism”.  Confirmation bias is a powerful force and hard for even objective historians to resist.  The New Atheist acolytes seem to have no inclination to do even try.

This leads them into some very weird positions for people who claim to be rationalists.  Ideas that historians rejected long ago, such as the “Conflict Thesis” regarding the historical relationship between science and religion, are accepted without question by many New Atheists.  Hoary theories and pseudo historical ideas dating back to Gibbon and Voltaire are embraced as truths.  Old time Protestant anti-Catholic canards about the Papacy and the Bible, ironically, live and thrive.  And crackpot fringe theories about Jesus are embraced while the scholarly consensus is derided.  These “rationalists” behave very much like the Creationists and fundamentalists they scorn.

The Plan for this Blog

As mentioned above, I will be cross-posting the occasional Armarium Magnum review here, if it is relevant to NABH.  I will also re-post some of my answers from Quora and will probably put up notices of relevant posts from some of my favourite history blogs (eg Thony Christie’s excellent Renaissance Mathematicus).  But on the whole posts here will be debunkings and critiques of examples of NABH, both from the leading New Atheists and from their followers around the web.  Enjoy.

28 thoughts on “Why “History for Atheists”?

  1. I was given this link by my younger brother, a strong Christian, history and science tragic. I admire him greatly. He has often commented on Tim's work and we exchange views with great respect for each other's opinions.
    This blog is a godsend (intended irony!) as I have long admired the writing and science of Dawkins, Hutchins and others, but been similarly alarmed at the anti-theist rhetoric that verges on the manic. Unfortunately, as an atheist, I have found myself described within the prevailing New Atheist paradigm, so to have a blog that is truly rational and able to divest itself of prejudiced 'scientism' provides some comfort to a vexed mind. Let science, reason and respect reign!
    I look forward to more, Tim!




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  2. "Larry Moran and Jerry Coyne seems pretty confused…"

    Wow. There's so much bungle-footed, wrong-headed bad history in those two posts that they deserve an article of their own. Thanks for the heads up.




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  3. Hi Tim

    An open and Heston conversation, now that is something to look forward to! As a former atheist (yes they do exist) I've had to revise allot of the crap I use to defend as gospel. So it is certainly going to be very interesting to see how this blog tackles the issues.

    Thank you

    Andre




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  4. As a card carrying theist I thank you. But this is akin to local Channel 8 meteorologist Fred Johnson saying he is not completely sold on global warming. It won't move the needle toward any real open and honest conversation. Don't get me wrong these thing typically have to start slow, using reason, persuading one person at a time so maybe this is the start of something big. More than likely this site and it's premise will be loudly shouted down and the blogger mocked. Actually I hope that is what happens, because it is more important that any open minded, freedom and debate loving atheist understand how it feels to be a theist, intelligent design advocate, young earth creationist, AGW doubter, proponent of traditional gender, and any number of increasingly ostracized and silenced groups. The intolerance of the New Atheists and Scientific Elites is McCarthyism. There is no interest in understanding the other view only is squashing any dissent.




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  5. Could you lend comment regarding a quote supposedly made by David Cross? I'll try to attach it herein:

    content://media/external/file/19112

    Also, could you compare and contrast the above quote to what historian Paul Maier states within his video series, "How we got the Bible"?




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  6. That file or link doesn't seem to be working. Perhaps you could actually quote the quote in question. And you're going to have to be much more specific about what Maier's position might be for me to contrast it with some unspecified quote. In fact, your requests are going to have to make a bit more sense for me to bother with them.




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  7. Dear Tim,

    One thing that I find a bit confusing at the end of your above post and in your previous writings is your treatment of the conflict thesis. You appear to imply that its meaning is something on the lines of organised Christianity always being hostile to and suppressing science. Perhaps I am mistaken about how it is to be understood, and surely it will be possible to find people who believe pretty much anything, but to me that reads a bit like a straw man. To my understanding the discussions around conflict / incompatibility of religion and science in the atheoblogosphere are about the claims made by either (e.g. humans were created by a god versus humans are the product of evolution) and how those claims are arrived at and justified (e.g. look it up in the holy book or trust your priest versus study nature). And I find it very hard not to conclude that under that definition of the conflict thesis there is an unsolvable conflict unless religion is emptied of any content…




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  8. "You appear to imply that its meaning is something on the lines of organised Christianity always being hostile to and suppressing science."

    Because that is the idea the term refers to.

    "The "conflict thesis" proposes that there is an intrinsic intellectual conflict between religion and science and that the relationship between religion and science inevitably leads to public hostility." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_thesis)

    It's also called the Draper-White Thesis because John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White both shaped this idea that the history of science is one of constant "warfare between science and theology". Here is Draper's preface on the subject:

    "The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other."

    to me that reads a bit like a straw man."

    It isn't. The Draper-White Conflict Thesis still permeates popular culture and I find expressions of it almost daily. From blithe statements like "religion held science back for a thousand years" to "Christians plunged us into a dark age by destroying science" to The Family Guy depicting Stewie and Brian time travel to a utopian alternative world "where Christianity never suppressed science", it's still accepted as untrammelled fact by many people and most historically untrained atheists.

    To my understanding the discussions around conflict / incompatibility of religion and science in the atheoblogosphere are about the claims made by either (e.g. humans were created by a god versus humans are the product of evolution) and how those claims are arrived at and justified (e.g. look it up in the holy book or trust your priest versus study nature).

    Discussions about particular disagreements between some religions and science and about the differences between scientific and religious thinking are not what I'm referring to here (though they can be related). The Conflict Thesis is the idea that religion and science almost always inevitably come into conflict and have done so throughout history. Historians reject this as a distortion of what actually happened.




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  9. Thanks, I see what you are getting at. But to me there still appears to be a difference between the claim of the church continually suppressing science and the claim of the existence of a fundamental conflict in how to approach reality, combined with the rather obvious observation that two very different narratives and ways of justifying knowledge must sooner or later chafe. Surely it is clear that, for example, the usual religious and the scientific answers to the question of humanity's role in the universe are actually in conflict, as in at most one of them can be true?

    And thus to me it can still be true at the same time that "the relationship between religion and science inevitably leads to public hostility", i.e. the moment one side decides to bring things to a point, and that the two world views can muddle along each other for a long time as long as the proponents of neither feel existentially threatened or particularly totalitarian or try to become intellectually consistent. I see no contradiction here, and consequently the empirical fact of the Catholic church not burning every scientist at the stake does not disprove the conflict, whereas the great difference in religious and scientific approaches to answering what is often the same question provides evidence towards its existence.




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  10. "But to me there still appears to be a difference between the claim of the church continually suppressing science and the claim of the existence of a fundamental conflict in how to approach reality"

    There is a difference. The point is that the term "the Conflict Thesis" refers to the former idea, not the latter.

    combined with the rather obvious observation that two very different narratives and ways of justifying knowledge must sooner or later chafe"

    That doesn't necessarily follow at all. For most religions and for most of the history of religion, science has simply been the examination of the natural world and religion pertains to the supernatural. Overt conflicts between the two have been the rare exceptions, not the norm.

    "Surely it is clear that, for example, the usual religious and the scientific answers to the question of humanity's role in the universe are actually in conflict, as in at most one of them can be true?"

    That isn't clear. To begin with science makes no claims about humanity having any "role" and can't do so. And claims that religion makes about any such role are not necessarily incompatible with science and, in the case of the vast majority of religious people there is no incompatibility at all. Thus the very large number of scientists who hold religious beliefs and aren't in constant inner turmoil over that fact. Things like Creationism are the exceptions, not the norm.

    "the two world views can muddle along each other for a long time as long as the proponents of neither feel existentially threatened or particularly totalitarian or try to become intellectually consistent."

    But this is not somehow inevitable. In fact, it's rare. They "muddle along" most of the time because there is no inconsistency between the two views most of the time. Almost all of the time, in fact. There is nothing inherently "intellectually inconsistent" between almost all religious belief and science. Again, dogmatic Biblical literalism is the exception here, not the rule.

    "I see no contradiction here, and consequently the empirical fact of the Catholic church not burning every scientist at the stake does not disprove the conflict, whereas the great difference in religious and scientific approaches to answering what is often the same question provides evidence towards its existence."

    No it doesn't. In the Middle Ages the attitude was that the universe was the rational product of a rational God and so could and should be examined and apprehended rationally. The potential for overt conflict between "natural philosophy" approached on that basis and religion was actually very small. The dogmatic belief in things like miracles didn't conflict with it, because they were by definition exceptional suspensions of how the universe usually worked. Even apparent contradictions between interpretations of scripture and the findings of reason were not much of a problem, since they believed any such contradictions could be reconciled and were even happy to do it by adjusting their interpretation of the Bible to conform with reason (as they did with the issue of the shape of the earth and eventually did regarding heliocentrism).

    None of this means that there can't be conflicts between religion and science. But it does mean that this is not some kind of automatic inevitability or intrinsic property of both. The traditional Conflict Thesis argued the latter and then had to play some pseudo historical games to back that up with evidence from history. Which is why historians of science have rejected it.




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  11. Okay then about the definition of the thesis, but I guess we will have to agree to disagree about the rest.

    Supernatural: I have tried for a long time to understand what that term means and failed. There does not seem to be a coherent definition beyond "whatever a philosopher or theologian has unilaterally decided to declare off limits to science". As far as I can tell, there is stuff that can be observed, and science is a-go, stuff that cannot be observed, and science must conclude it doesn't exist, and abstract concepts, where philosophy is a-go. At that stage nothing seems to be left to put into the box labelled supernatural. (If it is supposed to be stuff that can be observed but violates our current understanding, well, science has traditionally dealt with that by updating our understanding, not by handing it over to priests.)

    Role: I was referring here to the question whether our existence is central to the purpose of the entire universe. It would be hard to interpret astronomy, astrophysics and evolutionary biology as anything but giving a resounding no as an answer.

    Inevitability: You are right, inevitable is too strong a word as long as long as emptying religion of all concrete belief-content is considered a viable option. And of course religious books, revelation by prophets or listening to the voice of god in one's head could in principle provide correct beliefs, although given that this methodology does not provide a justification for accepting the beliefs it would be more or less by accident.

    Middle Ages: Well, but isn't the problem that it turned out that the universe is not the product of a god, and that the contradictions between scripture and reason were resolved by recognising scripture for the invention of ignorant humans?

    But again, if the thesis is that churches are somehow intrinsically compelled to fight with scientific institutions or vice versa, then I simply misunderstood it so far.




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  12. "As far as I can tell, there is stuff that can be observed, and science is a-go, stuff that cannot be observed, and science must conclude it doesn't exist, and abstract concepts, where philosophy is a-go. At that stage nothing seems to be left to put into the box labelled supernatural. "

    Except that there are people (not me, but others) who think there is other stuff that is supernatural. The fact that you and I disagree with them on that is beside the point.

    "It would be hard to interpret astronomy, astrophysics and evolutionary biology as anything but giving a resounding no as an answer."

    Someone could point to evidence from those scientific disciplines to make that philosophical argument, but the sciences themselves are neutral on the matter.

    "You are right, inevitable is too strong a word as long as long as emptying religion of all concrete belief-content is considered a viable option. "

    I don't get what that sentence or the rest of its paragraph means.

    "Well, but isn't the problem that it turned out that the universe is not the product of a god, and that the contradictions between scripture and reason were resolved by recognising scripture for the invention of ignorant humans?
    "

    I can't see how that is a "problem" here. The fact is that medieval religion did not conflict with medieval "science" (or rather proto-scientific natural philosophy) in the way the Conflict Thesis narrative claimed it did.

    "if the thesis is that churches are somehow intrinsically compelled to fight with scientific institutions or vice versa, then I simply misunderstood it so far."

    Yes.




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  13. Except that there are people (not me, but others) who think there is other stuff that is supernatural.

    Quite so. Point is, if they had a way of distinguishing between existence and non-existence science would be all ears. That is the only requirement, regardless of whether somebody put the sticker 'supernatural' on it. I mean, if people started calling dark matter supernatural that wouldn't make astrophysicists stop studying it either.

    Someone could point to evidence from those scientific disciplines to make that philosophical argument

    I do not understand how that argument is philosophical unless you argue that scientists may never conclude anything but only present raw data, like a "we report, you decide" style journalist.

    I don't get…

    I guess what I am saying is that the only religion that does not conflict with science is one that either accidentally has belief-content that is correct or has no belief content whatsoever. Although I am surely ignorant of many of the thousands of faiths that exist on this planet, no major religion seems to fit either description. People tend to make up religious tenets that are at variance with how the world really works, and especially so back when the revered founding figures were around, like special creation, the efficacy of prayer, possession of immaterial souls and suchlike.

    I simply misunderstood it so far. – Yes.

    Thing is just that this is more like the typical atheoblogosphere discussion of "conflict" between religion and science as I have repeatedly experienced them. The topic is whether religious claims can be tested scientifically, if there really is religion that does not make factual claims about the world that conflict with scientific data, and if there is a different, equally valid "way of knowing" behind religion or if there is only one web of knowledge constructed from science, math, philosophy etc., with religion being a tear in that web instead of a part of it.

    Similarly, Jerry Coyne, who you have criticised for unrelated reasons, not too long ago wrote the following: First note that my thesis, which is similar to that of many other New Atheists, is that science tells us verifiable facts about the cosmos, and has led to ever-increasing understanding of that cosmos, while religion, which also makes empirical claims, has no way of deciding whether its own claims are “true”, even in the provisional sense that science uses that word. So while there may be people who advance the conflict thesis as you describe it, they appear to be a tiny minority among atheists new or otherwise, and it is at least possible that some of the people you criticise for holding to the conflict view mean something entirely different.




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  14. Quite so. Point is, if they had a way of distinguishing between existence and non-existence science would be all ears. That is the only requirement, regardless of whether somebody put the sticker 'supernatural' on it. I mean, if people started calling dark matter supernatural that wouldn't make astrophysicists stop studying it either.

    Okay, I'm a Christian theist, so I have quite something invested with the notion of the supernatural. I hope I can clarify some questions you have to the extent they apply to the conflict thesis. (I can't be bothered with a detailed off-topic debate that doesn't relate to the scope of science tbh.)

    But I don't see the relevance of this point. Why should science care about the supernatural, if it agrees that the subject doesn't fall under its discipline? The only issue is then with people who do think God should be a scientific hypothesis.

    I do not understand how that argument is philosophical unless you argue that scientists may never conclude anything but only present raw data, like a "we report, you decide" style journalist.

    That doesn't follow. Though any scientific argument involving observations will be an inductive argument, when you get to the existence of God you get to such a level of abstraction that there is very little directly relevant empirical load and rather much theory involved, most from philosophical subdisciplines. Even if it is devillishly difficult to demarcate strictly between science and philosophy, it seems fair to call that subject philosophical, if only from the influence of other preconceptions.

    It would help if you could outline what your philosophical views are on the relation between scientific evidence and theory, though, because else there is very little point in pursuing this for further discussion.

    I guess what I am saying is that the only religion that does not conflict with science is one that either accidentally has belief-content that is correct or has no belief content whatsoever.

    This is stated quite strongly, but it seems a false trilemma to me. Is the belief content of a religion that endorses vegetarianism, pacifism and auxiliary languages in conflict with science or is the content accidentally scientific? It seems neither. And science doesn't have any means to plausibly debunk this or that miracle that allegedly happened to some person in times immemorial (the humanities, in contrast, can in many cases argue that a miracle probably didn't happen because of a context mismatch for example). On top of that we all have cultural beliefs that are unscientific (not informed by science), but many of these cultural beliefs never interact with science, let alone come into conflict with it.

    I mean, that you have analysed religion primarily in terms of beliefs itself indicates a certain cultural belief, one that is not related to science. How do these cultural beliefs differ from the broad category of religious beliefs?

    Thing is just that this is more like the typical atheoblogosphere discussion of "conflict" between religion and science as I have repeatedly experienced them.

    Alex, this is not about what bloggers without any qualifications on the history of science (contrary to Mr O'Neill) think about the topic and how they use the term "conflict", this is about how the term has been used in the history of science and about how that sense still applies to some New Atheists. That is all.




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  15. Ignorance,

    I will keep my replies short so as not to hijack this blog, but that means that I can't elaborate very much.

    Why should science care about the supernatural

    As the original point was whether there is a science/religion conflict and if so what characterises this conflict, "why should science care" isn't really the question, quite apart from the fact that science itself isn't a being that cares. Many people clearly care about religious beliefs either being or not being supported by science.

    That doesn't follow…

    I will avoid going into demarcation issues. Point was specifically what astronomical, geological and biological research tells us about the role of humans in the universe. I stand by my claim that the observation of us being the end product of billions of years of evolution and living near only one of 100 billion stars in one of 100 billion galaxies screams a different conclusion about our role in the universe than the hypothetical alternative observation of, say, the universe being restricted to what the book of Genesis describes, i.e. a flat earth entirely populated and dominated by us and with everything else merely light fixtures on the firmament installed for our benefit.

    relation between scientific evidence and theory

    It should be possible to clarify the differences in view without going too deeply into philosophy of science. For what it is worth, I consider science to be of one piece with and merely a thoroughly formalised and collaborative version of the time-tested kind of knowledge generation that every human uses every day – except in those situations where they let their biases, fears or wishful thinking get the better of them. If you hear a weird sound from outside, go looking for the source, and ultimately make an inference to the best-founded explanation, you are doing proto-science. If you insist that the sound is too caused by evil spirits even as a visiting researcher points you to where plastic sheets make the noise by flapping in the wind you are doing proto-religion. (This anecdote is a real life example from a colleague travelling in Indonesia, by the way, but the refusal to accept a more parsimonious explanation is typical and fully equivalent to sophisticated theological apologetics.)

    belief content

    The question would be if a belief system that restricts itself to ethics, without any claims about the state of the world, is still properly defined as a religion; see the perennial discussions about Confuzianism for example.

    I mean, that you have analysed religion primarily in terms of beliefs itself indicates a certain cultural belief, one that is not related to science.

    I don't get it – isn't whether real life existing religions make claims about the nature of the world or not an empirical question? After all, a social scientist can just look at the religions and see what they claim.

    Alex, this is not about what bloggers without any qualifications on the history of science (contrary to Mr O'Neill) think about the topic and how they use the term "conflict", this is about how the term has been used in the history of science and about how that sense still applies to some New Atheists.

    As far as I can tell, what New Atheist bloggers think about conflicts between religion and science, how the original sense applies to the same New Atheists, and wether, to quote from the OP, the "Conflict Thesis" [… is] accepted without question by many New Atheists, are all merely rephrasings of the same question. I feel the vast majority of new Atheists do not accept the thesis as characterised by Tim O'Neill.




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  16. This has already drifted far afield from anything to do with my blog, so I'll let "Ignorance" respond to most of the above and say no more than that it's pretty confused stuff. But this needs comment:

    " I feel the vast majority of new Atheists do not accept the thesis as characterised by Tim O'Neill."

    I'm wary when people make statements like that based on how they "feel". I don't have to go on how I "feel", because I come across atheists peddling the old Conflict Thesis almost daily. Thanks to some Google Alerts I have set up, just about every single day some blog or forum comment pops up with the old Draper-White crap about how the Church suppressed ancient science, ushered in the "Dark Ages", banned dissection, outlawed the number zero, burned scientists at the stake, rejected any rational analysis of the universe and did everything it could to suppress scientific inquiry.

    So why you "feel" that these people are a minority I have no idea. I do know that when I bother to refute these pseudo historical distortions I get them queuing up to try to dispute the relevant history with me. And then when this fails, as it usually does, they then screech that I'm an "apologist" and that I'm "pretending to be an atheist". If these people are a "minority" then majority is an extremely silent one.




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  17. "That "the Inquisition" was a kind of Europe-wide medieval Gestapo and that the medieval Church was an all-powerful totalitarian theocracy"

    Thank you very much!

    Also, it is often missed it was active more centuries in Modern Era than Middle Ages. Middle Ages had the black death, yes, but not 500-1500, rather variations from country to country, 1347-49 (no country all three years, as far as I know).

    Middle Ages also did not have Inquisition from 500 to 1500, but diverse major Inquisition existed from Albigensian Crusade to Spain's new constitution of 1820.

    You might be interested in my history, lang, exegetics blog, the philological geeky one:

    Φιλολoγικά/Philologica
    http://filolohika.blogspot.fr/




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  18. "outlawed the number zero"

    Zero is so not a number!

    It is a useful midpoint in what French mathematical terminology calls "relative numbers", but that is sth else than numbers.

    "+4" reads "four more than …", "-4" reads "four less than", "0" reads "neither more nor less than …" (as far as this is concerned) but they all mean "… than such and such a number, which in its turn is either 1 or a multiple of 1 as added to itself a multiple times".

    And zero does not fit the definition of number.




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  19. Hi Tim. I've just finished listening to the podcast with Thomas Smith. Apart from finding it refreshing to hear an Australian accent, I found it a change to hear a modicum of self criticism, even though it slightly discredits those of my own world view.

    To me, it's obvious that religion is a man-made construct and its various tenets totally absurd (the main aim seemingly to control women), but we need to be fair and honest and call out fraud and myth from any niche in which it happens to reside.

    I was very disheartened to learn that some of my assumptions failed to pass scrutiny. I was also amazed, because the sole purpose of religion today appears to be to obfuscate the truth and demonise scientific endeavour. Oh what a tangled web!

    But…the truth needs to be told even if it has the potential to make me squirm. I would hate to see Creationism and blocks to the study of stem cell therapy etc, be given the veil of respectability in years to come as a result of this blog, though I approve of what's been said so far.

    Good work! A courageous stand for a fellow atheist! I would expect a backlash from my own fellow travellers, but the truth needs to be aired even if it's uncomfortable.




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  20. Thanks for linking to some of your other blog posts. I'm especially interested in the mythicists approach. I read Nailed. I am curious to read your take because I know where I think he got things right and got things wrong. I'm excited to find out if there is a little more nuanced or info I don't have to make my understanding more accurate!




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  21. Love to see a smack down of the Pagan Jesus theory, like that of Tom Harpur, that states Jesus was a myth of pagan origin (mostly centered around Horus) that Paul turned Jewish.




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  22. What do you say regarding the historicity of the Miracle of the Sun? Most naturalists deny the facts of the event that are disfavorable to their position. The only explanations I see that fit all the facts are above-natural causes or science fiction (aliens, psychic powers, etc). What say you? Impossible to discuss this with most atheists, because apperantly this miracle was to give credence to the message that there is a hell.




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  23. There is a guy who lives not far from where I am whose followers regularly report seeing the "Miracle of the Sun". His name is William Kamm, though he and his followers call him "the Little Pebble". His unorthodox teachings have seen him excommunicated from the Catholic Church and in 2005 he was imprisoned for aggravated sexual assault on a 15 year old girl.

    So either (a) his followers really saw something miraculous despite this guy being a heretic and a rapist or (b) there is a rational explanation that most likely has to do with religious hysteria and the effects of looking directly at the sun. I'm going with (b).




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