Enduring myths and their aftermath

When I cited Os Guinness in a recent post, I noticed a reference to an important essay by C S Lewis whilst re-reading Guinness’s assessment of humanism. It’s well worth reading, though from the 1940s, and gives that feeling you always get with Lewis that, although a mediaevalist, he was half a century ahead of his time.

As you’ll rapidly appreciate, reading the piece, he is pronouncing a eulogy for the popular myth of evolutionism, which he distinguishes carefully from the biological theory of evolution. I found it interesting that he refers to this myth as “Wellsianity”, since I used the film of H G Wells’ Things to Come as the focus of a blog on a similar theme a couple of years ago.
Let me draw attention to a couple of things in this essay. Firstly note the demonstration he gives that popular evolutionism predates Darwin’s theory by several decades, at least. Typically Lewis establishes this via literary quotations, but it has also been shown by the historical fact that, whilst the scientific guild were quite slow to accept Darwin’s theory, the Origin of Species became a best-seller through its popularity with what we should now call “the chattering classes.”

Even Darwin himself was plagued by the “progress” mythology, for though undoubtedly he was part of the society that was longing for a theory of progress, and personally committed to naturalism, he was also after a true biological theory and only reluctantly came to accept the “evolution” terminology of Spencer, whom he actually despised. At the same time I suspect Darwin knew enough about what would sell the theory, and he put in several purple passages about the perfecting wisdom of natural selection, even though the Origin shows a clear awareness of evolution’s capacity to produce “degeneration” as well as “progress”.

Lewis’s essay is fascinating, though, in showing the bearing of cultural setting and  mythology on scientific theory. They were mutually reinforcing:

Almost before the scientists spoke, certainly before they spoke clearly, imagination was ripe for it…

The prophetic soul of “the big world” was already pregnant with the Myth: if science had not met the imaginative need, science would not have been so popular. But probably every age gets, within certain limits, the science it desires.

I’ve pointed out in the past S J Gould’s not entirely tongue-in-cheek suggestion that his own punctuated equilibrium theory might simply be the product of a science beginning to prefer catastrophism again, rather than a closer approach to truth. Gould thought more deeply than most. So did Lewis, who observes that mythical evolutionism became the explanation for everything:

To those brought up on the Myth nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that chaos should turn to order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge.

Historically that is so astute – apart from the Teilhard de Chardins of the world turning evolution into an entire eschatological theology, more mundane theology became evolutionary through higher criticism. Anthropology became evolutionary via eugenics and scientific racism, and politics via communism, imperialism and later, Fascism. Economics began to look to endless growth, wealth and leisure, medicine to the cure of all ills, technology to the conquest of the whole earth and then the Universe…

Those of us brought up even much later than this essay will remember how our lives were full of visions of the bright future that science, technology – and evolution – would bring. One of my first serious ambitions was to be the first man on Mars: the future was that imminent.

Lewis, though, reading the runes in the new literature of his time, saw an end in sight. The myth was dying. And looking at western society as a whole, has not his prediction come true? What bright future do politicians now see? After a corrupt and disastrous attempt to impose democracy across the world, it seems that everyone’s keeping as quiet as possible whilst nations fall to militant Islam, too lacking in their own vision even to wring their hands. Workers are becoming used to the reality that their wealth will decrease whilst a few become super-rich – they lack the energy even for revolution. Medicine is about antibiotic resistance and spiralling costs (with rationing!), and the future of the world doesn’t stretch much beyond the inevitable Armageddon of global warming – that’s too close to home to have the same heroic ring as the universal heat-death Lewis alludes to.

It does seem that, as a compass for western society, the Myth has lost most of its magnetism. The public is herded along in the welter of progressive ethical and moral changes, without any real sign that it believes there will be a better world as a result. Hope in progress is nowadays in short supply. To the extent that anyone understands postmodernism, it’s seen as bringing unavoidable, rather than welcome, change.

I’m amazed at how, over half a century before Plantinga or Nagel, Lewis puts his finger on the fatal flaw of evolutionary myth – which of course is also the fatal flaw of naturalistic materialism:

What makes it impossible that it should be true is not so much the lack of evidence for this or that scene in the drama or the fatal self-contradiction which runs right through it. The Myth cannot even get going without accepting a good deal from the real sciences. And the real sciences cannot be accepted for a moment unless rational inferences are valid: for every science claims to be a series of inferences from observed facts. It is only by such inferences that you can reach your nebulae and protoplasm and dinosaurs and sub-men and cave-men at all. Unless you start by believing that reality in the remotest space and the remotest time rigidly obeys the laws of logic, you can have no ground for believing in any astronomy, any biology, any paleontology, any archeology. To reach the positions held by the real scientists–which are taken over by the Myth–you must, in fact, treat reason as an absolute. But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true.

Note how Lewis makes a single exception to the proper separation of scientists from evolutionary myth in the instance of Prof D D M Watson, and concludes:

This would mean that the sole ground for believing [evolution] is not empirical but metaphysical – the dogma of an amateur metaphysician who finds “special creation” incredible.

“But I do not think it has really come to that.” He adds. And I found myself wondering whether that was one point at which Lewis had misjudged the issue. Whatever may have been true in Lewis’s time, can it really be said that the scientific establishment – and especially its biological arm – has been successful in keeping “amateur metaphysics” out of its evolutionary science? In fact, is there not some evidence that the one part of society in which the myth of progress is alive and well is in some parts of the scientific community?

Whether it’s in the quest for extraterrestrial life, in transhumanism (and even in lesser technologies like GM food), in the enthusiastic quest to put morality on a “scientific” or evolutionary footing, in the rooting out of religious superstition by any and all means, or even just the plaintive pleas of those like Peter Atkins that the people should begin to taste the bracing ozone of their insignificance in the universe, it seems that the pull of the future is felt mainly by spokesmen for science, whilst the broad masses drag their feet and begrudge the megabucks of funding for particle accelerators and Mars missions… or if they’re in the appropriate demographic, they dig their heels in for Creationism or go off to fight for a Caliphate in Syria. The past is the new future.

I understand that later in life Lewis became much less convinced that the separation of science and mythical evolutionism was as real as he painted it in this essay. Maybe he was right, in that Watson’s quote seems of a piece with much of today’s zeitgeist in the origins discussion.

Whether or not that is so, though, Lewis’s final paragraph is a word to Christians in this generation. He wrote in code, it is true, but as a Christian apologist. Then, as now, the authentic gospel was counter-cultural, bringing de-mystification, but also true rationality, as it challenges whatever comforting illusions the times bring. Maybe now the illusions are far less comforting, and more akin to the stupor of a hard drug taken too regularly. But Lewis is still on the mark when he writes:

We must not fancy that we are securing the modern world from something grim and dry, something that starves the soul. The contrary is the truth. It is our painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment. The real universe is probably in many respects less poetical, certainly less tidy and unified, than they had supposed. Man’s role in it is less heroic. The danger that really hangs over him is perhaps entirely lacking in true tragic dignity. It is only in the last resort, and after all lesser poetries have been renounced and imagination sternly subjected to intellect, that we shall be able to offer them any compensation for what we intend to take away from them.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

115 Responses to Enduring myths and their aftermath

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I just finished rereading Lewis’ essays collected under the title “Abolition of Man” which (without actually checking dates) I am going to guess that he wrote in years prior to his “Funeral” essay you link here. (Thanks for this, by the way!)

    In his Abolition talk, he follows man’s conquest of nature to its logical end (culminating ironically in nature’s final conquest of man), whereas in this essay he seems to recognize that such a thing is mythical and beginning to be recognized as such.

    I may be way off in this as I have yet to grasp (much less fully grasp) all the depths of his ideas.

    What Lewis writes in “Abolition” of the Tao (whatever we take as our axiomatic grounding or first principles for all subsequent values) and the fatality of our thinking we can step outside of that is, I think, brilliant and also at least as applicable now as it ever has been.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      Thanks for comment. As I (vaguely) remember the Abolition of Man its target is mainly logical positivism as such, with particular emphasis on the denial of man’s innate moral sense (which is what he calls “the Tao”).

      That’s implicit in this essay, but I think his outworking of it in the myth of progress is a slightly different emphasis… maybe partly because the latter is/was a popular conceit, rather than the more or less conscious philosophy held by the villains of “Abolition.” That’s less a “myth” than just a stunted intellectual position.

      The net result seems the same, in the end.

      • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

        The “deceased” which is the subject of Lewis’ funeral oration in this case was still kicking at least in my own childhood years, and to that extent still affects my generation’s outlooks from our childhood memories at least.

        I remember a sort of unbridled optimism that my dad and his generation seemed to have about everything just improving –we kids would of course be surpassing everything our parents achieved in education (which many of us did) and would be wealthier than our parents just as they became wealthier than theirs (not nearly so many of my generation are on that track anymore). But the optimism was definitely there which perhaps only feeds the disillusionment now.

        It surely isn’t a fair comparison in terms of magnitude or tragedy, but perhaps our awakening to the inherent impotence of science and technology to (by themselves) ensure perpetual progress is to us today — perhaps all that is to us what World War I was to the notion of eternal human progress via perfected political systems (and science) a century ago.

        Yet Lewis was right …. it still haunts our dreams and may even motivate our agendas still. If we would just tweak that a little … and a little more education there …

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Yes – I thought when I first read the essay that he’d announced the funeral prematurely, but then saw how he saw that old stories live on even when they’re losing their power. It’s a similar phenomenon to the period leading to a scientific paradigm shift – geocentrism remains plausible to many even when the evidence base has shifted. The old gods still owned the temples even when the people only believed in them for comfort.

          I’d thought of mentioning the disillusion of World War 1 in the post, but it would have overcomplicated matters. The “roaring twenties” were, I guess, a kind of “eat, drink and be merry” blanking of the future. Yet somehow not only faith in science but faith in some new politics (eg Communism, Naziism) for a while replaced the old certainties.

          That slow attrition was why I’ve always liked Os Guinness’s phrase “The Striptease of Humanism” (though reading his chapter reminded me he nicked the phrase from Sartre).

  2. Lou Jost says:

    Why does Lewis have such a hold on religious people? I sincerely can’t understand the appeal. Maybe it is because he so eloquently encapsulates their own prejudices. His line “Unless you start by believing that reality in the remotest space and the remotest time rigidly obeys the laws of logic, you can have no ground for believing in any astronomy, any biology, any paleontology, any archeology” is poetic nonsense, for the reasons I gave in the previous two posts. The ability of science to predict the behavior of the world is not the result of any assumptions about how reality behaves. Reality could have been otherwise. It could have had magical elements that were not describable by scientific laws. Under certain circumstances, these elements could be detected. Laws might regularly be violated by magical spells or prayers, and if these were strong enough, their effect could be detected. Their non-detection, and the success of the math in describing and predicting so much, is an empirical observation.

    Now it is true that the success of our theoretical descriptions, in physics especially, is so overwhelming that it would take quite a bit of evidence to convince us that this magic-free view is false. But it is not something we have assumed from the beginning. Indeed, as you all know, some of the inventors of the mathematics underlying science (eg Newton) did believe in magic. They did not assume their equations were universally true. According to Lewis, Newton would have had no grounds for believing that his equations captured some aspect of reality. But he applied them to some problems, and they worked. This meant the equations did capture something of the essence of reality, if only approximately. Newton still thought magic tweaks might be needed, but later scientists found out that we never actually needed the magic tweaks.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Lou, the reason so many Christians rate Lewis is that they take the time and effort to understand what he’s actually saying. If you don’t get the argument coming from him, you’re evidently overdue to read the same thing from an atheist like Thomas Nagel. Lewis is talking about the inability of materialism to account for reason (and therefore to justify relying on it rather than equally human faculties like imagination, moral sense, religious instinct etc) not about the rationality of the universe.

      But also, if you’re going to bandy about words like “magic”, then you really need also to do some homework on the rise of magic from its eclipse under Christianity in the middle ages, through its rediscovery in the Renaissance hermetic literature, and its integral role in the history of early modern science. It’s part of the now mainstream view of historians of science, together, of course, with the dependence of modern science on Christian creation doctrine, which has thoroughly overturned the “science-religion” war view of the nineteenth century. This might be helpful as an introduction.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Jon, I commented above only on the Lewis quotations you gave. We weren’t talking about how rationality arises (though this has a clear answer under evolutionary theory, contra Nagel). The claim under discussion was that science presupposes that the universe is rational, and that this is a merely metaphysical prejudice. That claim is false. The second quote you gave from Lewis seems to confirm that I read him correctly: “This would mean that the sole ground for believing [evolution] is not empirical but metaphysical”. That’s a crazy statement. Evolutionary theory makes many unexpected and surprising and very detailed predictions, as do QM and relativity, and that is why we think these theories capture, at least approximately, something about reality, so that tentative belief in them is justified.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Regarding the broader claim that rationality is not justifiable from outside a rational framework, why don’t the successes of its surprising predictions count as justification for its utility?

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          No Lou, sorry. You were discussing the claim that the universe is rational. I was discussing Lewis’s claim that in order to believe that the universe is rational, you have to believe in the power of human reason to assess it truly, which is not warranted by the Myth in question – that “reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true.”

          Maybe you should read Lewis’s essay – I kind of assume that anyone commenting on points I draw from his arguments will read the arguments.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Re your last post, Alvin Plantinga makes a detailed argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies. Another one for the reading list, to add to Nagel and Lewis. And Henry.

            Briefly, reason evolved, if it evolved in a Darwinian fashion, as a mere survival tool, not as a means to discern truth. Plantinga gives examples of how that might work – I’ve not time or space. Not all that works is true, and the fact that events correlate with thoughts and expectations about events is no guarantee that the explanations for them are true objectively.

            For example, human reason determines laws of logic (which I happen to believe true), by which all scientific findings are assessed. But the truth of those laws themselves is validated by … oh yes, human reason itself. Accuser, Judge and Jury.

            In fact science, because empirical, has to deal with the evolutionary limitations of human perceptions as well as human reason. And if, as sometimes happens, perception disagrees with reason, it has to prioritise reason (evolved, magically reliable) from perception (evolved, mysteriously unreliable).

            And that’s the same human reason that, back in early modern times, led a genius like Leonardo da Vinci to consider that the making of a working model of a dragon was supporting evidence for their existence… and of course, more positively and a few centuries earlier, Thomas Aquinas to delineate five rational proofs for God (independent of perception).

            Christians (eg most of the founders of science) take it on faith that the rational Creator has made nature orderly and rational, and also made his rational representative, mankind, able to perceive and reason about it correctly. Materialists have to believe that blind and mindless processes have delivered the same result.

            • Lou Jost says:

              “…Reason evolved, if it evolved in a Darwinian fashion, as a mere survival tool, not as a means to discern truth.”

              That’s right. We have no guarantee that the products of our reason are true. And science never tries to make such a guarantee.

              It doesn’t matter at all whether our theories are the product of rational thought or a random accident of typographical errors.

              We judge the degree to which theories correspond to reality by an interesting process that looks not just at confirmations but at other qualities. The combination of compactness (“elegance”) and reach (or power) is nearly impossible to obtain unless a theory does capture something true about reality. And that is all scientists can expect; we don’t guarantee that it IS true.

              Regarding your last point, rational thinking about at least the basic aspects of the world would seem to often have big advantages, in terms of survival value, over less rational reasoning. I don’t think the evolution of good thinking skills is mysterious. As to why the universe is rational, I think the materialist explanation is much better than the Christian one. Under the materialist view, whatever exists must be logically consistent, and this implies that at some level it should obey a mathematical description, with real laws that are logical consequences of the properties of the things that exist. Under your view of creation, you have to explain why the universe doesn’t show evidence of “mind” or “personality” above the laws that govern the material world.

              Of course you as a Christian would deny what I am trying to explain, as you believe that “mind” or “personality” can make things happen that violate these laws.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Jon, I normally have to rely on, and respond to, your posts rather than the original articles, for lack of time. I apologize for that. In Lewis’ case, I had long ago lost respect for him as a good thinker, after his dopey “liar, lunatic or Lord” argument. He won’t be high on my “to-read” list.

            • Lou Jost says:

              I see in Wikipedia that even NT Wright thinks Lewis’ arguments don’t hold water.

              • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

                Yet isn’t NT Wright (forgive me if I’ve confused him with someone else) the guy you attacked on BioLogos for the even dopier argument that the Resurrection must be a genuine historical event, because the followers of Jesus would never have written or spread such a tale unless it really happened?

                If Wright, by your standards, can’t think straight, why should you think his arguments against Lewis would be based on straight thinking?

              • Lou Jost says:

                Hi Eddie, yes, NT Wrighyt has a lot in common with Lewis; he seems to be more of a propagandist than a critical thinker. That’s why I said “EVEN NT Wright….” I don’t trust his judgement, but I remember that most of the religious commenters on BioLogos do. That’s why I mentioned him–for you.

            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

              One doesn’t have to accept every single argument put forward by a thinker in order to recognize the value of a thinker.

              I never liked, the liar, lunatic or Lord argument either, and indeed, as that was one of the first exposures I had to the thought of Lewis (when I was a teenager, and rabid Darwinist, as you are now), I classified him with really dumb American fundamentalists in my mind, and refused to read him. Later on, for various reasons, I ended up reading some of his better apologetic essays, and some of his literary works, and I came to see that there was a whole side of Lewis — the supremely cultivated European man of letters, with great insight into literature, a gift for making difficult philosophical and theological ideas clear, and a keen perception of the ruling ideas of our civilization — that I had previously known nothing about.

              I haven’t read the particular essay that Jon is discussing, and so won’t comment on it. But Lewis at his best remains quite a perceptive thinker. There was a list of the 100 most important books of the 20th century put out years ago by some American organization. The list included seminal works such as Brave New World and 1984 and so on. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man was on that list. Even if one entirely rejects his religious conclusions, his philosophical and cultural analysis is at times very impressive.

    • Lou

      I’d like to follow up my comments in the previous thread and your response as above that “magic” could be confirmed by science as a part of nature.

      It’s good to observe the distinction between “material” and “physical” phenomena. Gravitational and magnetic fields are strictly speaking not “material” but they are physical. They are invisible and intangible and have a mysterious quality, but—and this is the key point—they are measurable, or if you prefer quantifiable, and therefore testable scientifically.

      Generally speaking, science recognizes as real that which is measurable. If some kind of magic were quantifiable, capable of being described and verified through mathematics, science would encompass it as a physical phenomenon. It would no longer qualify as “magic,” any more than magnetism does. All that would remain would be to link it to other physical phenomena. One of the aspects of the scientific enterprise is to unite all measurable phenomena into one seamless mathematical structure. A step in that direction was the unifying of the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces at high energy levels, as I understand it. Unifying GR and QM is a major goal for the future.

      Science is therefore blind to that which cannot be quantified.

      The superstitious or “magic-oriented” mindset acts upon impressions without resort to quantification. To the extent that someone begins to demand measurable results they are no longer in the thrall of magic-oriented thinking; they are in the thrall of a different, mathematics-oriented intuition. The two ways of thinking are incommensurable. You cannot disprove one by means of the other. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

      Now, I don’t believe that all that is real is quantifiable and testable. Objective moral values are a counter-example. Nevertheless, quantification does disclose a great deal about one side of reality, the physical side.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        Another aspect of this “mathematical v magical” thought polarisation is the phenomenon of non-logical thought patterns being one of the main drivers of new knowledge, including scientific knowledge.

        Mathematics and rational arguments should actually be seen as confirmatory tools, rather than the usual source of insight.

        We covered that here in the writings of Michael Polanyi a little while ago. His CV shows he was no slouch as either a scientist or a thinker.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Darek, instead of saying “Generally speaking, science recognizes as real that which is measurable”, I think it is more correct to say that science simply demands good public evidence for what is real. I deliberately didn’t use words like “supernatural”, to avoid the semantic issue about whether science could ever recognize something as supernatural.

        Let me explain what I mean by “magic”, since Jon criticised my use of the term, and then I think you’ll see that science could indeed recognize this if it were real. By “magic” I meant that mind can trump natural laws. For example, a ritual or words or symbols could have direct causal influence on the physical universe because of their meaning rather than through physical causal chains that are blind to what the rituals, words, etc signify. Saying the word “abracadabra” instead of “Hot cross buns” should not make a bunny materialize in a hat, especially if the hat were far from the speaker and isolated from the sound waves he produced. If it did, that would count as magic. The Bible is full of magical events, and the Israelites clearly thought this was a magical world. The Red Sea parts on cue, Lot’s wife turns to salt, etc. (Incidentally, the Bible grants magical powers not just to Yahweh and his followers but also to other gods and their followers–eg the Egyptian priest was able to invoke his gods to turn his staff into a snake in front of Moses….)

        Now, if this kind of magic were common enough, and especially if it were repeatable, scientists would accept its existence. If it were common and regular, it might even be incorporated into laws of magic. But these would be very different from any current laws, in that they are sensitive to the meaning of the cause rather than its physical structure. We would be living in a magical world. There is nothing intrinsic to science that prevents it from discovering and accepting this, if it were true.

        • Lou

          Evidence that is not measurable is not “good evidence” in the scientific sense. Repeatability entails measurability, which in turn entails susceptibility to mathematical analysis.

          The events you cite from the Scriptures are portrayed as exceptional, not as representative of everyday reality. Ancient priests were presumably skilled at creating illusions to give themselves credibility, so its difficult to make a case for ancient gods such as Chemosh or Baal as active agents in the Bible.

          However, you bring up a relevant point concerning the meanings of symbols as opposed to their physical properties. The meanings are abstracta. In the workings of a computer, it is the physical properties of symbols that do the causal work. What about our mental processes? These are dependent upon chemical processes in the brain. So how can the meanings of symbols, abstracted from their physical properties, play a causal role in our thought processes?

          C. S. Lewis made the case for other-than-natural effects–miracles of a type, if you will–because our thought processes are responsive to pure abstracta and not just physical properties.

  3. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Lou, you do raise the challenging [but I still think unsubstantiatable] point that science can rise by pulling its own bootstraps as an independent entity. If I understand you correctly it could be summarized thus: “But we don’t need to depend on any extra-scientific philosophy, religious sanction, or any intellectual hocus pocus to substantiate the process of science. It speaks for itself when airplanes fly, computers work, etc.”

    I think this still runs afoul of being a trivial tautology that could be summarized this way: Science has unrivaled success because it unswervingly holds to the conviction that we can depend on reality to continue doing what science has discovered … reality does.

    That our minds can apparently discover and appreciate that … and do so according to mathematical patterns that we can also apprehend is also amazing. But the trustworthiness of the human mind [in its collective sense] is not something that science can rule on. That is what Lewis points out that I’m not sure you fully appreciate. You insist … but look at all this science that leads to all these things that work so well! To which comes the fatal reply “… so says the mind that was shaped by evolution merely to survive with reproductive advantage.” There is no guarantee that a culture believing many false things (say, for example, being convinced that other tribes are always out to kill them, when their fear is actually inflated to paranoia) will not derive enhanced survival skills from their false belief as an advantage over another tribe that may have truer beliefs.

    As Lewis would say, you have some branches (science) rebelling against their own supporting trunk (the human mind) by reducing it to a mere artifact shaped by random processes from nature alone. It does no good to desperately point at any alleged universalities, repeatabilities, workabilities, etc. since the evaluation, judgment, and interpretation for all these things resides in … your own spuriously-conditioned mind. Such is the problem for the materialist.

    • Lou Jost says:

      I don’t see that, Merv. First, I don’t think there’s a tautology, because our theories predict things beyond the observations that initially inspired it.

      Second, sure, our minds aren’t guaranteed to produce truth. But that’s why we don’t stop there, we do public experiments. We (usually) aren’t fooling ourselves about the agreement between theory and reality, and indeed that is what science is all about, trying to keep us from fooling ourselves.

      It seems to me science and religion split dramatically here when it comes to reliance on what our minds tell us; religious people generally accept personal experiences of the divine at face value (forgetting that evolution might not have perfected our perceptual abilities) while scientists (who realize the fallibility of perception and introspection) look to outside arbiters. So it seems to me the kind of objection Lewis brings against science is actually much more powerful as an objection against the religious person’s reliance on personal revelation.

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Lou, you’re the second atheist friend I have that has explicitly written Lewis off (in his case also because of an argument that he thought very weak.) Could it be that atheists are afraid to delve to deeply into all the depths of his prolific writings? I mean … good grief … I don’t agree with everything he writes either; I’m an Anabaptist, after all! And I think Lewis’ moral argument as an evidence for the existence for God has been refuted (by a Catholic, I believe). But despite his failure to publish perfection, he still has much insight that remains pertinent and (I think) true.

    But regarding a lack of time to read everything, I sympathize. Picking and choosing is another reality thrust upon us.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Merv, yes, there are so many intriguing things I really want to read, and so little time. I have read bits and pieces by Lewis, and I never saw anything that was even intriguing. That’s in contrast to some other writers I disagree with, who at least make arguments that are thought-provoking. I just don’t see that in Lewis, who seems to be more of a propagandist than a careful thinker.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        Of course, among “propagandists rather than careful thinkers,” please make sure you include Larry Moran, Jerry Coyne, P. Z. Myers, Richard Dawkins, Jeffrey Shallit, Nick Matzke, Eugenie Scott, Robert Pennock, Barbara Forrest, the vast majority of posters at The Panda’s Thumb, etc. None of these people can think their way out of a wet paper bag, in any matter outside their very narrow scientific specialties — and in even those specialties, a number of them are mediocrities at best.

        Lewis, on the other hand, was a world-class scholar in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and held the chair at Cambridge in that field; prior to that he was an accomplished student of Classical language and literature, and one of the movers and shakers behind the Oxford Socratic Club, a recreational philosophical organization at Oxford where some of the top minds sparred; and of course as an Inkling he was a contributor to an original literary movement in Britain. He certainly had a much richer, broader, more reflective, and more cultivated mind than any of the people I’ve named above — indeed, than all of them put together.

        Of course, that might not be evident if all that you have read is snippets of his apologetic works. When you look at his whole academic and literary output (of which his apologetics work was only a part), he is a very impressive figure in English letters.

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Lou wrote: “religious people generally accept personal experiences of the divine at face value (forgetting that evolution might not have perfected our perceptual abilities) while scientists (who realize the fallibility of perception and introspection) look to outside arbiters.”

    Not outside of science they don’t. Religious people (who are generally less in denial about their own metaphysical presuppositions) have the advantage over you in that they can choose to take scientific *and* other experiential evidence into account from wider domains and cultures. While you see this as a faulty tainting of good evidence (scientific) with unreliable evidence (everything else), that metaphysical faith commitment of yours is a product of … your own conditioned mind (in the materialist’s view) fed by all sorts of things from that latter category that you want to pretend you’ve left behind.

    • Lou Jost says:

      I just ask for good evidence. I don’t restrict the domain from which it comes.

      We know people delude themselves all the time about all kinds of things. Lewis was at least right about that. Our brains evolved under selective pressure not to give us truth but to increase our likelihood of survival. So it should be obvious that we have to check and double-check our experiences in order to get closer to the truth. How can you argue that we should take personal experiences of the divine at face value, given what we know about how easily we fool ourselves?

      • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

        “I just ask for good evidence. I don’t restrict the domain from which it comes.”

        “How can you argue that we should take personal experiences of the divine at face value, given what we know about how easily we fool ourselves?”

        Read both of these sentences above, one after the other. It would be difficult to lay out your own contradiction any more clearly, but the key is in your qualifier for the word “evidence” with the word “good”.

        Obviously any testimony over personal experience *which can’t be verified in a repeatable or at least universally observable sense* (i.e. ‘scientific’) is (at best) put on probation awaiting verification from your only real acceptable category of evidence. But more typically it is rejected outright, given that you don’t have time to investigate or read everything that you have already ruled out as nonsense –a genuinely limiting factor that we all share.

        • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

          Let me hasten to add, that I *don’t* accept all accounts of experiences of the Divine “at face value”; nor do most Christian thinkers that I have read or know.

          I refrained from challenging this assertion of yours because you did qualify it with the word “generally” in a previous post: “…religious people generally accept personal experiences of the divine at face value…”, and that qualifier is vague enough to allow that the statement *may* be more or less true.

          But religious and theological claims have their own accepted methods for checking or filtering claims which (for thinkers) will include scientific as well as other legitimate theological resources. So I suggest that Christian thinkers/writers/historical movers & shakers aren’t generally as credulous as you make them out to be.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Merv, that process seems circular to me. I imagine the procedure is to compare the revelation for consistency with whatever religious beliefs you already hold, but you don’t have an external check on the validity of those beliefs.

            I don’t see much skepticism on display among people who claim to have received personal signs or revelations. Many such claims seem jaw-droppingly naive. An example is Francis Collins’ three frozen waterfalls.

        • Lou Jost says:

          “Read both of these sentences above, one after the other. It would be difficult to lay out your own contradiction any more clearly, but the key is in your qualifier for the word “evidence” with the word “good””

          Merv, there’s no contradiction. I don’t discount personal revelation, I just require that it hold up to ordinary standards of evidence. It doesn’t get a free pass. For example, if revelation ever contained improbably new information that could be verified, this would count in its favor.

          We have to demand some kind of evidential standard, or else we’re faced with multiple conflicting claims about revelation, ranging from claims about space alien saviors to a wide gamut of crazy cults and established religions.

          Yes, I tend to ignore revelations, especially when they are based on a backstory which doesn’t make sense or is contradicted by other evidence.

          • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

            ” I just require that it hold up to ordinary standards of evidence. It doesn’t get a free pass.”

            “ordinary” = “scientific”
            Regarding the free pass, I guess your faith in the scientific processes as the best way to all valid knowledge is the only thing that does get a free pass, then, since it can’t referee its own competition, and nobody else qualifies on your estimate as a more reliable authority to fill the job. I know … science bootstraps itself up to authority on its own merits because within its own context it’s the most reliable thing we’ve got. I.e. it is good at what it does. So all other academic disciplines are just supposed to kneel in petitionary supplication at the altar…

            I guess we’ll leave this where we usually do … disagreeing, but thanks for the civility.

            • Lou Jost says:

              Thanks also for your sincere responses.

              I am open to other, non-scientific ways to find valid knowledge. However, I don’t see that religion has given us anything that can be called knowledge. Even among people who do think religion gives valid knowledge, there is not even any approximate consensus on what that knowledge might be. Religions continue to splinter freely over time, with each branch generally thinking that it alone has the right answer to some religious question, and there is no generally agreed-upon criterion for deciding who is right (if there were such a criterion, we should see more consensus).

  6. Avatar photo GD says:

    I do not want to become involved in a discussion with Lou on this thread, but instead would offer a comment on using the term “magic”, in opposition to the term “scientific”. If such discussions occurred say in Athens during ~500 BC, everyone would have understood and be familiar with “magic” (whatever their beliefs), while few would distinguish terms such as “scientific” from “philosophical”.

    We may also reflect on natives given mirrors and other trinkets by white settlers, to take advantage of the easy belief by natives of the magical.

    A (secret) observer would report the facts of the events and artefacts, but the culture and background of the white would be to deceive, while for the natives, their culture and experiences would provide a context for meaning and understanding. The facts are neither scientific nor magical.

    My objection is to the misuse of terms such as magic in discussions of the scientific, because nowadays the meaning is automatically given, which is that one term is the opposite of the other. An additional objection to the use of such terms is more difficult to understand, but such discussions may often be understood as making science a thing, which determines meaning and understanding to human beings. This is best described as the flying spaghetti monster (FSM) running around filling minds with meaning stemming from itself (this ironically would be the epitome of the magical).

    The enchanted and emotionally attractive in human experience is most often understood through aesthetics and the arts. Ethics provides both the good (in as much as we may understand this) and also may display the beauty and value in the good. The religious attribute, within such discussions, is one dealing with faith and reason – in this way, we may be thankful the red sea does not part at irregular intervals (by magic or due to the FSM, and be filled with awe when we read of a singular event when it did part for Israel.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Guys, an essay on the theme of the scientific epistemology that you’ve been discussing here.

    The scientific equivalent of “The Striptease of Humanism.”

    PS: follow his links (or mine) to:
    and to:

    Forget the issue of global warming as such, but concentrate on postmodern science, against which I think Lou and most of us would be co-belligerents. Beisner’s thesis is that the reason for postmodern science is that real science cannot stand forever without the underpinnings of its roots in creation doctrine, as we’ve been discussing. If one disagrees with that, the job spec is to find a more valid interpretation, since it looks as if the ideology of science is seriously under threat in the coming generation.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      I can agree from personal experience(s) with these sentiments regarding postmodern science – although in the corporate world few of them are bothered by, or even understand such labels. On climate change, I predicted the politicisation and resulting polarisation at a university seminar I gave about 10 years ago – I had a discussion recently with a friend who is sincere and active on the need to act on climate and Greenhouse gases, but when I pointed out the difficulties that politicisation of the science and the inadequacy in models, he was taken aback. This illustrates the powerful impact science can make on intelligent citizens when it is manipulated by politicians (which includes scientist who have left science and are now politician’s servants).

      More sobering and surprising has been my experiences (many years ago) where corporate entities became so intent on self promotion, that the corporations bottom line was trashed, but the (pseudo) scientists and engineers were able to negate the profit motive, something sacred to corporations – their catch cry was, “this is how we do science”, and we have “found our sugar daddies!”

      Although I could negate their impact on the area and science I controlled, other areas were no as fortunate, and hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted on creating technologies that were MORE polluting then the present ones. This example illustrates the power such people may exercise by offering science to their political masters.

      I shudder to think what such people can do to the faith-science enterprise.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Another consideration, GD. “Post-normal science” is carried out by the same kind of bright university people as is real science, with the same “evolved” faculty of reason, the same natural phenomena and even many of the same methodologies.

        The only difference is the underlying philosophy and ethic, which shows that, as we have been suggesting, you can’t assume that reason alone will get you to consistent answers.

        That’s why, I suppose, the Gnus are inclined to rubbish the intelligence of their opponents: they believe their reason is just too undeveloped to embrace materialist truth, so they are all hill-billy creationists, IDiots, senile (Flew), shoddy (Nagel) etc. Whereas they ought to be bright, like them. But that ploy gets harder when science itself starts taking on a new flavour – after awhile you end up the only ones who managed to evolve reason.

        The difference in the science-faith enterprise is that reason is not absolutized in Christianity, and neither is any other human attribute. Revelation remains as an authority above them all, though as you suggest there have always been those in thrall to the spirit of the age. Postmodernism infected theology before it got many inroads into science, sad to say – but as Richard Baxter wisely said 3 1/2 centuries ago, “Scripture does not change.”

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          On the matter of reason and intelligence of such bright atheists Jon, I cannot get past (I think it was Rosenberg) the ‘bare faced’ statement that natural selection has created an illusion of reason and intellect (and accompanying attributes such as free will) – how can anyone function intellectually with such a belief? I guess NS will provide, provided an atheist believes!!?

          Revelation however as a doctrine is a two edged sword – and that is because it all rests on the doctrine of Grace; however we are shown that reason, virtue, truth, etc., are all intricately and organically intertwined with the Faith. This why I take the view that God can handle all of these matters – and if we have faith, our own personhood and the society we are part of will inevitably benefit from the teachings of the faith as a practical proposition. Ironically, I include atheists of good will within this view.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Those are disgustingly-written links by people who are more agenda-driven than the people they criticize, but as you suggest, I’ll let that go. I don’t think the creation doctrine has anything to do with the problems in science today. I think the issues are (1) primarily the great expense of much modern science and the concomitant dependence on centralized funding, which is almost always either overtly political (government funding) or self-serving (eg climate-change denialist foundations like the Heartland Institute, funded by oil billionaires), and (2) the fact that science has become a career for many practitioners, so that the goal shifts from pursuing truth to making a living.

      I don’t know what the solution is, except to expose malpractice. I think the internet is a great innovation in this regard, especially post-publication open peer review, recently instituted by some of the biggest funding agencies in the sciences.

      • Lou Jost says:

        I do think that scientists who are sure they have found a strong effect in some area that impacts the public well-being should become public figures and should voice their concerns widely. They have a responsibility to to do. Rachel Carson, a pioneer American environmentalist who wrote the influential book Silent Spring (about the environmental impact of pesticides), comes to mind as someone who did the right thing and had enormous political impact.

        • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

          I’m going to chime in with Lou on this … Neither side of the climate change problem can claim to be free of heavy corporate motivation. So for deniers to insist that only the promoters are tainted with profit motivation seems silly. For every corporation that stands to gain from climate change promotion are others who stand to gain by promoting business-as-usual. But that leads to the real point Jon is addressing…

          I have a problem with all this. It presumes that science has *ever* been free of values. And in fact (with Lou) I’m not convinced it always should be. Think of Patterson (highlighted in one of the Cosmos series) fighting the big oil companies over the issue of lead poisoning … and fortunately for all of us, Patterson finally prevailed over his Goliath.

          There has always been a dance between collecting/organizing information disinterestedly and then acting on it. If you take away the latter part of that balance then you have lost perhaps the primary reason for being interested in the former (why know things in the first place if acting on that knowledge is verboten?)

          There is such a thing as overwhelming consensus. And it may be appropriate for a scientist to defend that consensus (thus invoking the indignant wrath of her opponents who accuse her then of activism) by using the data and reasoning at hand. In the articles they made much of scientists studying “climate change” (inherent presumption that ‘change’ is a given) rather than studying *if* climate change is occurring. With all due respect to you, GD, or others who may have their own valid reasons for nurturing a healthy skepticism. But over more the wider issue of whether scientists should ever presume some things, surely we all agree this is often appropriate? If somebody in my physics class takes affront of our presumption that the earth moves, I may well take that as a great opportunity to rehearse how science has historically worked on just such an issue, but I won’t halt my course for a few weeks to seriously re-open and investigate that issue as if our answers to it were prematurely concluded and need to be called back into question (not that such an exercise couldn’t be of immense value in a physics class … but it would come too much at the expense of other subsequent material we would never reach.)

          I object to the post-modern denial of objective truth just as much as everybody else here. But I think we are naive to think that science ever existed in some value-free sense. Geniuses from Boyle to Einstein may have had pure knowledge as a premium (perhaps even highest) motivator for their work, but not far behind would be an excitement for how such things might prove useful.

          I do agree the danger to science today is real (and even probably fatal) when science purports to be some sort of independent system from all faith values.

          So to the extent that this core concern was expressed in these articles, I do think they are right to point it out –too bad that they chose an issue (climate-change) over which they are in every bit as much in the corporate muck as their opponents to try to illustrate the problem.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Thanks for that Merv.

            Climate change is a little bit less controversial here – in fact, it’s strange that if there’s a news item on it in, say, the Independent online, there are usually 500 comments from Americans of various persuasions slugging it out. More significantly it’s really not a shibboleth for Christians at all, unlike the US, where it seems to be part of the conservative-republican-creationst/liberal-democrat-evolutionist package. Most believers here believe it’s real and as important as other global issues. So forgive me for drawing attention to it.

            Your points about the inevitability, and Lou’s about the desirability, of ethical/political commitment are well made. But as you say, it speaks against the very possibility of absolute objectivity in science, and sows the seeds for its corruption as in this “post-normal science” (which I hadn’t heard of before today, but which makes sense of a number of things).

            There was a time when the prevailing zeitgeist was that science must make hard choices for humanity – like racial eugenics. It was, of course, linked to the myth of progress and the politics of fascism.

            Lysenko subordinated science to the “greater” truth of Marxism.

            Mary Schweitzer’s boss, apparently, wasn’t too happy for her to publish her work on soft tissue fossilisation in T Rex – encouraging the Creationists is sometimes seen as a greater evil than releasing anomalous data.

            I was going to round it off with the Church’s attitude to Galileo, but that’s actually a more complex example, as Ted Davis covered at length on BL.

          • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

            Merv and Jon:

            I agree that climate change proponents and opponents (I don’t use the word “deniers” because it is pejorative and rhetorical) may both be accused of vested interests. Opponents can be accused (usually the accusation is false, but leave that aside) of being in the pocket of corporations who want to pump out greenhouse gases; and proponents can be accused (not always fairly, I would guess) of offering exaggerated and irresponsibly alarmist conclusions, on the grounds that alarmist conclusions are far more likely to earn them fame and get them big research grants from governments than modest, qualified conclusions (e.g., there may be a human contribution to the warming, but we aren’t sure how much, and even if we could be sure how much, we aren’t certain what the best policy response would be).

            The argument should always be about the evidence, not about people’s alleged motivations.

            Aside to Jon: there is increasing doubt both about the basic facts of global warming and about the degree to which the warming is anthropogenic. I recently read an article on polar bears in which it was pointed out that, despite touching pictures showing polar bears stranded on ice floes, no rigorous count of polar bears in the Arctic had recently been done, so that the conclusion that they are all dying off due to global warming was anecdotal and scientifically irresponsible. And last year the Arctic sea ice, during one season, reached a near-peak for something like the past 30 years, which at least at first blush contradicts the hypothesis. The increase of ice in parts of Antarctica is well-known, as is the embarrassing retraction the AGM people had to make about the melting of all the Himalaya glaciers. And of course, where I live, and in a quite extensive region of Northeastern North America surrounding, the winters have been noticeably colder, and the summers noticeably cooler, than the original global scare model’s predictions, for something like 5 of the last 7 years.

            All such observations, of course, are simply brushed aside by the theorists, who seem to care nothing about evidence and only about the defending their models. In the meantime, it is becoming more common for scientists originally onside to question the global warming models — much more common than for biologists to question evolution, for example.

            That the world is a degree or two warmer than it was 100 years ago, I do not question. But three things are certainly debatable: (a) whether the patterns and observations of the past 10-15 years (including an inexplicable flatline that was supposed to turn upwards again in 2011, but didn’t) are consistent with the catastrophic predictions of global warming writings; (b) even if the warming pattern resumes and follows the models exactly, how much of the warming is due to human production of greenhouse gases, as opposed to natural causes typical of long-term weather cycles (we know the Ice Ages weren’t caused by human production of greenhouse gases); (c) whether Western countries are under the moral obligation (insisted upon by pampered, well-off leftists like Al Gore in the USA and David Suzuki in Canada, shielded from the consequences of unemployment no matter how many North American factories close) to ruin their own economies by adopting stricter emission standards when greater polluters such as China and India are not.

            I actually regard the “consensus” about AGW as something very much like the “consensus” in favor of neo-Darwinism. In both cases, we have seen bullying and ridicule and accusations regarding motives substituted for actual argument; in both cases, data has knowingly been falsified or suppressed or massaged so that the public will not know what it originally indicated (cf. the Haeckel drawings in the Darwinian case, and the famous leaked emails in the AGW case).

            I have no dog in the fight regarding AGW in itself, but in terms of the politics of the movement, the leaders of AGW have shamelessly used culture-war tactics to bully and browbeat everyone into submission. I distrust any scientist who behaves in that way. An honest scientist would state his results without alarmism, with all due qualifications and uncertainties, and with full disclosure concerning all massagings of data done to bring the model into line with reality. And an honest scientist would not be plotting in emails with other scientists how to disqualify scientific journals which do not toe the party line.

            The public is starting to realize that scientists are mortals, with feet of clay, prone to dishonesty and vanity and greed and careerism as much as anyone else. This is a complete changeover from my youth. When I grew up, scientists were treated almost like gods. The name “Einstein” conjured up immediate reverence. Men in white coats were always saving the world from monsters and aliens in the movies, and in real life were curing diseases, inventing laser beams and spaceships, etc. The myth of the scientist as the person who cares only about truth and has no dogmas was widely believed. I wanted to be a scientist, growing up. But after reading P. Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eugenie Scott, Rob Pennock, and the global warming conspirators whose emails were leaked, I find my estimation of the integrity of scientists has gone way, way down. (Of course, knowing a good number of scientists personally has helped, too; when confronted by the person rather than the myth, one is less impressed.)

            I retain my belief that science, properly conducted, is a great blessing to the human race and a noble calling; but I find the new style of self-promotion of scientists — bullying, blogging, courting audiences of vulgar groupies on the internet, trying to prevent scientists with unorthodox views from ever getting tenure, competing viciously for grants and prestige, etc. — to be extremely disappointing. And when I think of the AGW lobby, all of this comes to mind, because of the tactics it has employed.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


              The fact that there is a controversy about the science of global warming is evidence in itself that once science compromises its philosophical and ethical basis and becomes something else, its authority vanishes.

              Broadly, the Christian foundations meant “There is truth out there, because a true God is behind it.” Postmodernism, in effect, says “There is no truth out there – we have to nake it ourselves.”

              To the extent that tells us we were always looking at “God’s truth” through human spectacles, that’s maybe of some value. But when the spectacles become all one believes there is to see, it’s tragic.

            • Avatar photo GD says:

              The debate on climate change and the politicisation illustrates one important point that imo is often ignored in these exchanges/discussions. This point is the character of the scientists, and the public response (esp in the media) to look for the spectacular and not what is sound.

              Good science is done by good people – those who display the character formalised by ethical principles. The Gospel has shown us in many ways, that God is interested in good people – thus He does not seem to bother Himself with rhetoric, but with the actions of people.

              Once the public tries (with great difficulty) to equate good science with good people, and bad science with bad people, controversies on GHG will cease.

              But wait; I just reminded myself that once good people are differentiated from bad people, almost all of our difficulties on this planet would be addressed and eventually solved, What am I thinking when I say such things? And what has this to do with Faith?

              (I guess I jest!)

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

                Faith is not a source of knowledge, GD. If you want an objective measure of which scientists are ethically good, and which are bad, then science must provide the answer… no, hold on…

      • Lou Jost says:

        One other quick comment on the essays—I think it is an exaggeration to say that science depended on a Christian worldview. Much scientific thinking really started (as far as we can tell–earlier cultures may have made more advances than we know) with the polytheistic (and sometimes atheist) ancient Greeks. And frankly, I don’t think it was because of their brand of polytheism that it started there. It was because of inquisitive minds which their culture somehow nurtured.

        If Christianity was so important to science, why did it take 1500 years to have this effect? In those one and a half millennia, “Scripture does not change”, but the secular cultural milieu did changed. Ted Davis on BioLogos makes the case for the importance of Christianity for science, especially the doctrine of voluntarism, but his same argument implies that pre-voluntarism Christianity held science back. I don’t see that Christianity was as influential as secular changes in society at that time. Sure, many great scientists of the time were Christians (like most people of the time) and felt that they were uncovering aspects of the divine. But that possibility was always there in the 1500 years prior to their time. It can’t be the most important explanation for the scientific advances of the time.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          Of course science didn’t begin 500 years ago – that’s another version of the modern conceit that we know best. Hannam shows how science and mathematics were both established in mediaeval Europe, largely through the universities. He also gives indications as to the factors why it didn’t happen earlier – the barbarian defeat of Rome and the Islamic overrunning of the East being significant factors.

          I recounted how the intellectual tradition and a new empirical, creation-based method of enquiry was maintained in the monasteries well back into the first millennium.

          Jaki was amongst the first to show why other cultures, including the Greeks, never really got science going despite their philosophical and mathematical achievements (Archimedes being almost alone in this).

          The reason Ted Davis emphasises the central role of Christianity is because that’s what mainstream history of science has been saying for several decades. It isn’t even controversial, which is why the sources I quote here are trying to explain the why rather than the what. You need to be aware that Henry’s book is the standard text for the Open University History of Science degree here. And Hannam’s book was shortlisted for a Royal Society science book prize in 2010.

          • Lou Jost says:

            “The reason Ted Davis emphasises the central role of Christianity is because that’s what mainstream history of science has been saying for several decades. It isn’t even controversial”

            Jon, nearly everything you write on this blog about evolution is contrary to the mainstream views of my own field. My positions on evolution aren’t even controversial in evolutionary biology. I am sure you will agree that this should not prevent either of us from criticizing some aspects of mainstream views.

            I am not an expert on the history of science, and I don’t regard my position on this as settled. I could be wrong.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Wow, I’ve just read the foreward to Jaki’s book. What ethnocentric snobbery! The first two paragraphs are full of Judeo-Christian prejudice. This is what makes me suspicious of much of the literature on this subject. I know the foreward is not Jaki’s writing, and I’ll look a little deeper, but it’s off to a bad start.

            • Hanan says:

              Even a snob can be right.

            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

              Jaki often writes with great haughtiness and arrogance. This is partly personal with him — he could be a condescending, pompous man in real life, very proud of his accomplishments and very dismissive of intellectual opposition. He also has a very strong Catholic prejudice in the way he writes history of science. He writes with unnecessary contempt for both Protestant and non-Christian traditions. I don’t recommend most of his work, except for Science and Creation, which, if one can endure the cultural condescension, has the virtue of offering a clear historical thesis which an undergrad can grasp.

              There is better scholarship, and scholarship written without the condescension and the Catholic partisanship, by Protestant, Jewish, and secular scholars, on the relationship of Christian theology to the rise of modern natural science. Maggie Osler, a secularist who used to be at the University of Calgary (and may still be), comes to mind. A Catholic who is better than Jaki for detached analysis is Francis Oakley. Hooykaas, Michael Foster and others also make the case without the “attitude” that comes across in Jaki. Ted Davis himself is another very balanced, moderate Protestant scholar in the area.

              As Hanan says below, even a snob can be right. So one shouldn’t throw out a conclusion merely because some of those who advocate it are unpleasant. It’s better to find the writings of a non-snob who holds the same position, in order to be able to analyze the position unaffected by the personal irritants.

              It has been pointed out by Ted Davis that in many academic areas, most of the best writing is still not available on the internet. This is definitely the case in the area we are talking about.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Hannam’s book looks much better.

            As an aside, I have to point out that the Judeo-Christian universe is NOT particularly rational or lawlike. It’s is a magical world, full of demons, inexplicable and even whimsical divine interventions, etc. Everything in the universe, every process and every being, even the motion of the sun and stars, is subject to the vagaries of mood of this god.

            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

              What do you mean by “the Judeo-Christian universe”? In someone like Dante, the universe is highly structured and orderly. This is also the case for many other Christian thinkers, including Aquinas, Kepler, etc. C. S. Lewis’s historical study, The Discarded Image, is useful in showing the tendency of Christian thinkers to imagine an orderly and rational cosmos.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Eddie, I’m just looking at the Bible, trying to keep later societal developments separate. The Bible is full of the things I mentioned. They have been emphasized or de-emphasized at different times in different societies.

        • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

          Good questions, Lou. I think one Christian rebuttal to that is that no culture grows up and develops in an instant (such as within one person’s lifetime). Christianity didn’t spring, fully developed, into existence with Christ. It started (though one could even point to thousands of years of development leading even to Christ) and then proceeded with fits, starts, and lapses (collapses of empires and resulting chaos tends to set any organized progress back a bit … especially were it not for the church doing what it could to preserve knowledge through it all) … proceeded in some good directions and many bad ones through human corruption and quests for power.

          And then, even despite wars and plagues that were still rocking Europe the explosion of modern scientific thought began.

          I think it significant that the Greeks never really pursued their (often brilliant) philosophies with the same rigor of empirical study that the later western Europeans did. And Chinese also, had many brilliant inventions far in advance of when the west ever saw them (gun powder, compasses, rockets …) but somehow never pursued them with the same rigor of curiosity that lead to further discovery or questions about the cosmos. The Chinese still thought the world was flat long after the Greeks and later Europeans knew it to be round.

          Granted, there are many reasons we could highlight to speculate why western Europe at that time was such a productive stew pot. Jared Diamond compares all the squabbling and competing monarchies –all afraid that their neighbors might capitalize on new knowledge before they themselves can — he compares that with the political monolith that was China (no fears from bordering rivals) and make a case for why Europe progressed to rapidly in technology … and its subsequent byproduct, knowledge.

          But still, it does make one think, doesn’t it? At the very least Christendom certainly didn’t prevent knowledge, and the stronger case is made, in fact, for the contrary.

  8. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I should correct myself (with more than a nod to Hannan’s “God’s Philosophers”) when I said that “And then, even despite wars and plagues that were still rocking Europe the explosion of modern scientific thought began.”

    That should be amended to “… the explosion of modern scientific thought continued.”
    At most we might note that it accelerated, but also included some serious backsliding and deliberate forgetting of significant developments (including critiques of Aristotle) that had gone before. The significant contributions of the Islamic and Hindi world probably can’t be overstated, which doesn’t really help your thesis much, Lou.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Merv, thanks for the support above about the propriety of the activist scientist. Another good example is the group of physicists who went out of their way to make sure that the public knew the dangers of atomic war.

      “The significant contributions of the Islamic and Hindi world probably can’t be overstated, which doesn’t really help your thesis much, Lou.”
      Maybe I’ve misunderstood you, but it seems to that on the contrary, they prove my point. There is nothing about christendom per se that was essential for science to develop. Sometimes science flourished under Islam, sometimes it flourished in the Hindi world, and sometimes it flourished under Christendom. Sometimes it also suffered under each of those belief systems. The actual belief system doesn’t seem to be the driver.

      To the claim that the Greeks were little concerned with empirical discoveries, I recommend your observation that it was the Greeks who figured out the world was round. And they incidentally also figured out other important empirical relations, like Archimedes’ famous relations regarding displacement and mass as Jon mentioned.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        Many cultures made a start in scientific progress. However, no previous culture approached the Western Christian culture in that respect. The Greeks certainly progressed in mathematics and in some areas of physics. Their discoveries were essential to the later scientific revolution. Yet the Greek contribution was not sufficient. They had some concern with empirical discovery, but the concern was not consistent; they were predominantly focused on the mathematical and rational aspects of nature. It seems that the Biblical idea of voluntarism (God’s will contains an element impervious to human reason, which means that science cannot proceed purely deductively, but must investigate nature through experiment) was central in the rise of an empirical approach to the science of nature. This insight is now widely granted by historians of science, including non-religious historians such as Maggie Osler.

        The historical argument is not “modern science is true, therefore Christianity must be true.” Rather, the argument is, “No one can say Christianity was unfavorable to science, because it provided the core, non-Greek understanding of nature which science required: the idea that nature is such that no amount of reasoning from first principles, no matter how acute, is enough to understand nature, without being combined with empirical investigation.” It’s possible that in another universe, something other than Christianity could have provided this basic insight, but in the world we know, Christianity was the religious background that delivered the goods.

        The most likely alternate religious source was Islam. The Muslims revered Greek knowledge, and also had the necessary component of a voluntaristic notion of God. Perhaps, had the Greek-lovers rather than the occasionalists won out in Islamic theology, Islam would have played the historical role that Christian Europe was later to play. But Islamic theology came to overplay the inscrutable will of God and underplay Greek ideas of the rationality of nature, and in the end, science withered in the Muslim world.

        We see the careful balance between Greek mathematical, a priori reasoning and empirical reasoning in early modern astronomy and physics, as Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton juggle empirical data and mathematical models in order to work out the structure and laws of the solar system. The Muslims erred too far on one side, and the Greeks too far on the other, to have produced this balanced synthesis. The God of will and the God of reason had to correct and complement one another.

        That’s the epistemological case. The case regarding motivation, however, tips even more strongly in favor of Christianity. The desire to know God through understanding his creation is well-attested in early modern scientific writing; further, as historian Lynn White has shown, the motivation of charity (the relief of the human estate through the knowledge of and control of nature) long predates Francis Bacon, and can be found in medieval writings.

        None of this proves that Adam fell, that Christ redeemed us, etc. What it shows is that Christian metaphysical and moral assumptions played a major role in the birth of modern science. Not the only role — causation in history is multifaceted, and religion is not the only factor — but a major role.

        I would never argue: “Christianity gave us modern science, and modern science is great, so Christianity must be true.” But I do reject the “Christianity opposed science” narrative, which is 99% untrue for most of Western history, and even today, in the USA, is only true in a limited sense, i.e., certain narrow Protestants oppose a very small subset of the total of all scientific teachings (i.e., some teachings relating to origins).

  9. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I was probably hasty to include lump the [Hindu] science in with the Islamic contributions … the latter made so many contributions to our maths, while the Hindus led in using place value, though not much in their science.

    The Hindi religion includes concepts of cyclical infinities along with a multitude of whimsical gods whereas Islam is monotheistic. I was just thinking of your thesis as being that religions generally are inimical to progress … and probably many are. But not so much the monotheist ones –especially Christianity, given when/where modern science seems to have flourished.

    You wrote: “Everything in the universe, every process and every being, even the motion of the sun and stars, is subject to the vagaries of mood of this god.” [presuming you meant ‘Christian God’, there].

    … which seems to be an extreme reflection of faithfulness and biblically-observed regularity much to the excitement of all the early great Christian scientists who were busy trying to think God’s thoughts after Him.

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      The Greeks certainly did have so many bursts of brilliance –so much of it philosophical and mathematical. As a trigonometry teacher I really admire the genius of Eratosthenes for so closely approximating the actual circumference of the globe by measuring two simultaneous shadow angles down separated deep wells. (How might it have changed history if Columbus nearly a couple thousand years later had heeded the earlier Greek wisdom and been possibly deterred from his voyage!)

      But these flashes of brilliance failed to catch … failed to have enough followup to provoke new ideas for discovering new law-like relationships or to shake up world views of the time. But in the middle ages, enough “tinder” was set and waiting, that this time it kindled.

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        It is interesting to consider the history and science (if any) for the Byzantium empire – they had all of the Greek (Hellenistic) knowledge and also Christianity. Yet I do not think they advanced in what we term science to the extent the West did. The reasons for this are very complicated and I do not think they can be reduced to what Christianity did or did not, and certainly atheism had a virtual zero impact on such advancements.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          Part of the story, at least, is that Islam co-opted both the literature and the staff. I was interested in a recent (sad) news item about the eviction of Christians from one town in Iraq, by Isis, to hear it stated that Christians from there had been amongst the scholars contributing to Islamic science in the early centuries. It seems in the 7th century Christian Iraq had a near-monopoly in medicine, philosophy and Greek literature, and produced giants like Hunayn ibn Ishaq, an Assyrian Nestorian.

          After Constantine it’s easy for us Westerners to forget that the cultural centre of the Empire was Constantinople and all points east. Rome was a backwater, and that showed when the East became preoccupied by, and then conquered by, Islam.

          One could say that Islam was a late beneficiary of Byzantine knowledge as early-modern atheism was of Catholic and Reformation learning.

          • Avatar photo GD says:


            History is full of interesting and illuminating information that would help us understand ourselves and individuals and communities – and civilisations are to me an endless and inexhaustible source for wisdom.

            On the topic, I am impressed by the efforts and fruits of Medieval Scholasticism, and I am inclined to the view that this (if we can identify one major cause) has a lot to do with the Western advances in science – but not the only cause.

            To my way of thinking, an enormously impressive achievement was the establishment of (initially monastic) centres of learning, which eventually became the great Universities of Europe (and the world). This was clearly, and unambiguously, the crowning achievement of Christianity in Europe – but try and tell that to silly aggressive atheists! This also imo diminishes the importance of Hellenic philosophy, and speaks to the intellectually gifted Europeans. Islam scholars just did not make it in this domain (but obviously, very impressive achievements in other areas). But Europe stand head and shoulders over Byzantium and Islam in the sciences.

  10. Avatar photo GD says:

    “…. the Judeo-Christian universe is NOT particularly rational or lawlike. It’s is a magical world, full of demons, inexplicable and even whimsical divine interventions, etc…”

    Wow – it is inconceivable that anyone who values reason and veracity could make such breathtaking generalisations.

    A short history lesson would quickly show that much of European Christianity (and a good part of Russian and associated regions) was imposed by decree of a king or emperor. This inevitably meant that the pagan practices of the population remained; some eventually disappeared while others remained (usually those that were not considered harmful). These matters would require a rather long and often complicated treatment of European history – my comments are directed to the breathtaking and irrational generalisation made on this site. It is also worth knowing that almost all poetry and literature made use of such magical entities, and most of this is derived from Hellenic literature (with a good deal from Germanic/Norsemen).

    The established (orthodoxy) Christians institutions have taught against the demonic, the magical and superstitious, and this has been the major reason for the gradual removal of superstition. This has also been a major factor in the appeal to reason and veracity, especially on knowledge of nature.

    It is odd that even the fact regarding the institutionalisation of Christianity and the rise of science in this setting is denied by militant atheists. This surely is delusional – and the fact that Greek philosophy and logic was expounded by the same Christian institutions, once it became available, is a straightforward fact.

    I detect an evolutionism notion in such view – to wit, if the historical tape were re-run it may have been different. Facts however should not be denied to maintain a whimsical illusion.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Your assessment is about right, though abviously a simplification. For example, to cite the usual “unbiased” Wikipedia on “European witchcraft” (certainly not renowned for bias toward religion):

      When Charlemagne imposed Christianity upon the people of Saxony in 789, he proclaimed:
      If anyone, deceived by the Devil, shall believe, as is customary among pagans, that any man or woman is a night-witch, and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed.
      Similarly, the Lombard code of 643 states:
      Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female slave as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds.
      This conforms to the teachings of the Canon Episcopi of circa 900 AD (alleged to date from 314 AD), following the thoughts of Augustine of Hippo which stated that witchcraft did not exist and that to believe in it was heretical…

      During the European Middle Ages, the centuries following Christianization of the continent, the Church focused on the persecution of heresy in order to maintain unity of doctrine. Practitioners of folk magic were left unmolested by the authorities.
      During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there are few cases of witchcraft in England, and such accusations as were made appeared to have been brought before the ecclesiastical court…

      The rise of the witch-craze was concurrent with the rise of Renaissance magic in the great humanists of the time (this was called High Magic, and the Neoplatonists and Aristotelians that practised it took pains to insist that it was wise and benevolent and nothing like Witchcraft), which helped abet the rise of the craze. Witchcraft was held to be the worst of heresies, and early skepticism slowly faded from view almost entirely.

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        I do not think that anyone seriously believes that Christianity did anything else but discourage practices of the occult and other forms of magic. The distinction between magic and the divine powers was an easy one during early Christianity, and often magic was seen more as trickery of one sort or another. However the widespread belief in the magical, and the supernatural from the many gods, was so prevalent, and so much was derived from Greco-Roman culture (and other pagans) that the distinction was made on belief in the one God, rather than the pantheon of idols.

        Even today their is often a belief in some type of divine power that people associate with a site or relic.

        From what I understand of the subject the Church has taught against all forms of superstitious beliefs and practices (esp idolatry), but made a distinction with that of divine acts from God- the latter has been distinguished by solid evidence, usually by witnesses of the event itself, and any other secondary sources.

        The magical did indeed rise as part of literature (e.g. Faust) and was associated with the Greco-Roman myths, but often the Devil was added to make it all appear relevant to the current Christian beliefs. It became a form of literature and Lewis is another example of this.

        I think this is one of the reasons aggressive atheists focus so much on this topic – they use the disdain that science has with all forms of magic and superstition, to remove any distinction for miracles and religious beliefs. It is easy to argue for a premise that you yourself define as unscientific, and then prove that it is unscientific. Human activities, cultures and histories should not so easy to dismiss, but it is incumbent on us to understand any subject matter before we charge in like a bull in a china shop. Another way to look at it is to burn all books that adopt an approach that uses the supernatural, be it from a Christian perspective, or a pagan one – and then claim this purifies science and insist that no none will dare believe in anything but what (science) atheists believe. I think someone tried this once or twice before.

    • Lou Jost says:

      I don’t deny that much of science developed in a Christian setting. I am suspicious that the particular beliefs of Christianity were the main ingredient that facilitated this development.

      My statement about the Judeo-Chrisian world being a magical one is correct. Just read the Bible. OT especially but also NT. Both regularly relate their god casting spells, demanding and being influenced by magic rituals and animal sacrifices, dealing with demons, and causing magical events. Just look at the events recorded, not which “team” is talking. GD, you deny this by word-play, defining magic and superstition and demons as automatically non-Christian– if you forget about the word “magic” and just think about the acts themselves, you’ll see that the Bible’s spells and miracles and demons are the same sort of thing as the pagans versions. Some translations of theBible even use the exact term “demons” often. How can you deny that? Here’s some links (of varying quality and relevance):

      Jon’s comments on early skepticism are interesting and nice to see. Too bad nobody told the writers of the Bible, or Jesus, that demons don’t exist. The Bible would have been a lot less crazy if they had left that stuff out.

      I like your refutation of the claim that some of the roots of science actually developed in pre-Christian cultures. You say that, well, Christianity adapted Greek contributions once they became available. Yep.

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        Reluctantly I will respond to your ill-based assertions and I note that you fail again to respond with anything of substance. Nonetheless:

        (1) A Christian setting – just what else is required when developing ideas and knowledge – oh yes, people with the intellect and beliefs that are present in that setting, and they were Christians (but not ones that would convince you I should think). But once again such subtlety is beyond your all knowing and all seeing atheist self.

        (2) demonic – it is axiomatic that the Christian faith puts the blame and origin of sin on Satan – if this is your beef, so what!

        (3) perhaps you may surprise me by providing an example of demonic rituals specified in the OT and NT. Even your jaundiced outlook should differentiate between casting out (or curing from) demons, to help and cure people, from that of belief and practices of demonic things (which you imply is part of the Gospel teaching – just how crazy are you?).

        (4) your wilful and obnoxious attempt to link the demonic and magical with Christian faith speaks to your pathetic problem with religion – I think some people made similar accusations against Christ, whose answer was that if Satan cast out (defeated) demons, than he has defeated himself. Is this the play on words that you have picked up? If you had the intellectual honesty you claim, and the intellectual capacity, a straightforward reading of such accounts would be sufficient to show you the error you wallow in – your comments show you will indulge in such error no matter how many facts are shown to you.

        (5) again you distort what I have said – I stated that two instances can be examined: one is Byzantium, where Christianity and Hellenic though co-existed for over 1000 years, and science did not advance in a significant way (as understood in the West); the second is the West where the establishment of centres of learning know as Medieval scholasticism, and which culminated in the great Universities we know now, probable was one of the most significant reasons for the progress of science and technology that is know nowadays. Both examples are of a Christian setting – the latter thus speaks to a greater intellectual vigour (amongst other things) in the West. Surely you can understand a point that is so clearly articulated.

        I suggest you learn to read and understand comments before you indulge in another of your rants.

  11. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I had no idea that such early skepticism existed, Jon, but I’m not surprised. Was witch persecution something that took off more in the Americas than over in Europe?

    GD, if you have any more elaboration (or sources to recommend) about contributions (or dearth thereof) to science from the east, I will be eager to read them. That is a big hole (among others I’m sure!) in my knowledge of history. Jon is right that we in the west probably are ignorant about and so under-appreciate the heritage of modern thought, even such as it may have been, from that immense tradition.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      The history of Byzantium and the associated regions is, from my recollection, obtained from standard text books – I would have to go back a long time to reacquaint myself with specific sources. I did classes in Modern (500-2000AD) and ancient (pre 500 AD) history many years ago; I suggest you consult one or two text books on the subject. From my recollection the points I have made are non-controversial.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Merv: the complexities seem to include:
      (a) If witchcraft was non-existent, to pretend to practice it was both fraudulent and spiritually dangerous for others: hence punishment might be compatible with non-belief in witchcraft – they punish faith healers now for fraudulent claims to cure cancer.
      (b) The best theology doesn’t always match local religious or political practice – witness just war theory and recent western history involving religious people.
      (c) Heresy and occultism started to become merged in both practice and recriminative policy, eg concerning the Cathars in Languedoc.
      (d) The Renaissance pagan magic obsession influenced both Church and state – it seems a witchcraft paranoia began to roll.
      (e) Early modern scientists, for one reason or another, joined in against witchcraft (saying it was bad rather than that it was nonexistent).
      (f) Opposition breeds interest: no doubt interest in actually doing witchcraft increased as chatter about it did.
      (g) Hence in the 17th century one was ripe for the same kind of hysterical campaigns as we see now to root out paedophiles or Islamic terrorists – the innocent get accused as often as the guilty. The stuff in Salem etc had its counterparts over here, and one of the main faults of the Puritans, for example, was their fear of occultism, which made such “witchhunts” plausible for a while.

      My main point is that we’re talking not about a residual mediaeval Christian superstition, but an early-modern one, associated with the Renaissance and with Science as well as with religion.

      Most people find it unproblematic to distinguish religion and religious supernaturalism from magic, sorcery and witchcraft. The pagans managed it, the Jews managed it, the Christians managed it and even the Enlightenment skeptics managed it. I suppose it’s a Christopher Hitchens polemic thing.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Jon, re your (a), there were witches in the bible, even in the NT.

        “Most people find it unproblematic to distinguish religion and religious supernaturalism from magic, sorcery and witchcraft.”

        Superstition and occultism is in the eye of the beholder, and lots of Christian beliefs (ritual transubstantiation, casting out demons, to name a few) have exactly the same quality as those of sects which Christians like to label as occult or superstitious. You and GD both just define those words to exclude organized religion’s versions of those things. Maybe that’s the way Christians talk. But it is a distinction without a fundamental difference, or so it seems to someone outside your belief-system.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          My point (a) makes it clear that the opposition to witchcraft was not because “witches are imaginary” but because “witches do not have the powers you fear them to have.”

          Your misuse of language was in equating the existence of the supernatural, or the belief in such, with “magic”. Magic is a practice, not a term you can apply to everything that isn’t reductive materialism. Even the Roman pagans distinguished magic from religion.

          The denial of the supernatural altogether is, indeed, simply a different belief system, more or less restricted to the rationalists of the Enlightenment and their heirs. That’s no excuse for loose use of language, though. The web-warriors who equate pixies with the Creator are worthy of disdain – and those who toss “magic” around with regard to divine acts are no less deserving of getting short shrift. You want respect, then show respect.

          • Lou Jost says:

            I think my language is more accurate than yours here. How is ritual transubstantiation any different from any other occult ritual? If it just depends on whose team is doing it, then you are making a distinction that obscures rather than illuminates the truth.

  12. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    Lou, in your reply to me above, in a sequence which was getting so skinny the program wouldn’t allow further replies, you answered my question “What do you mean by ‘the Judeo-Christian universe’?” as follows:

    “Eddie, I’m just looking at the Bible, trying to keep later societal developments separate. The Bible is full of the things I mentioned. They have been emphasized or de-emphasized at different times in different societies.”

    I now understand your meaning. I add, however, that for both Jews and most Christians, theology and cosmology do not end with the Bible, and that neither “the Jewish universe” nor “the Christian universe,” is identical with “the Biblical universe.” Hence my question.

    Of course, for some American Protestants, “Biblical” and “Christian” are synonymous terms, to the point where nothing is allowed to be called “Christian” that is not explicitly in the Bible, but I see “Christian” as something broader and richer than “Biblical.” There is much that is in, say, Dante or Augustine that is undeniably Christian, yet either not mentioned in the Bible, or alluded to in only the sketchiest way in the Bible and brought to clarity and beauty only in the later writers. So if you refer to “the Judeo-Christian universe” without explanation, it is very likely that Ken Ham will understand your meaning very differently from the way that I will (or the way that Lewis or Sayers would).

    That said, I know what you mean. I think you are using the word “magical” rather loosely (except in the case of the Egyptian sorcerers who make snakes), but I agree that the Biblical world contains accounts of supernatural action. However, those actions seem to take place within an overarching order of nature (created by God) and an overarching plan for history, so there is a rationality (in the general sense of the term) behind the world. Speaking of God’s “vagaries” and “mood” seems too slanted a way of talking, in light of this overall rational impression. It seems to me that there are very few spots in the Bible where it could be argued that God is acting whimsically or because of a “mood,” though I freely concede that he often acts “supernaturally.”

    • Lou Jost says:

      Thanks for making the effort to understand what I meant, even if you don’t fully agree with it. My reason for going back to the bible is because I am trying to separate the religious and non-religious aspects of culture here, to address the claims that Christianity per se was fundamental to the rise of science. Culture has always played a large role in deciding what parts of the bible to ignore and which to emphasize (and this is obvious even today). It really is hard to get at causal roles here, since culture is so interwoven with religion. But as Jon says, Scripture doesn’t change, while the rest of culture does advance. Given the observed history, I think it is likely that non-religious aspects of culture have always found ways to transform Christianity to its services, and I suspect this is what happened during the flowering of science.

      I readily concede that the existence of medieval monks and monasteries was important for later advances in science. But I question whether it would have made much difference what these monks believed. They seemed to have made very few analytical comments on the works they were copying. To me, the Archimedes Palimpsest is symbolic of that era….

      As for Yahweh acting whimsically, I think we had this discussion before somewhere. I am thinking of incidents like the time he sent a bear to tear up the kids that teased a bald prophet, or his tortures of Job, or the ten plagues of Egypt, or turning Lot’s wife into salt, or even the Flood (which it seems he even regretted, after he smelt the burning flesh of a sacrificial animal….).

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        Hi, Lou.

        I agree with you that history doesn’t run straight from the Bible to modern science. The view of the world given in the Bible isn’t by itself sufficient to produce modern science. First the naked teachings of the Bible are expanded upon, augmented in key ways by Greek thought, etc. to produce Western Christian civilization — the work of many centuries — and science is born out of that Western Christian civilization. But one of the key Biblical doctrines — the doctrine of creation — shapes the understanding of nature in Christian civilization, and hence shapes the course of its natural science.

        Of course I am not speaking of Biblical details such as the dome of the heavens or six days and nights, but the larger relationship between God’s will and God’s reason which is indicated in the Genesis story and elsewhere in the Bible, then given philosophical shape with Greek language; eventually, as the Greek philosophical and Biblical pictorial language come to modify each other, the metaphysics underlying the science of Kepler and and Galileo and Newton is articulated. What I’m calling the “Christian universe” is not the naked Genesis version of the universe, but the metaphysics of Genesis articulated and amplified within a historical Christian (no longer Ancient Near Eastern) context. I’m saying that the “Christian universe,” by the 17th century, is not a magical universe, but an orderly and rational one, created by God and given certain properties which lend themselves to empirical rather than solely rational/mathematical investigation.

        I don’t think any of your examples count as “whimsy” or the result of God’s “mood” (which suggests something that comes over God, that he can’t help, as a “mood” overcomes a person). The story of the bears, however horrible it seems to us today, make sense because God’s prophet is being mocked; no monarch of ancient times would allow himself or his spokespersons to be so mocked without punishing the mockers. God doesn’t directly torture Job, but allows Satan to do so, as part of a test; and God restores to Job health and property after the test is over. The suffering is limited by a rational purpose, and once the rational purpose is served (Job’s integrity is validated), the suffering ends. The Ten Plagues are sent because Pharaoh will not let God’s people go, not because God is in a bad mood. Lot’s wife disobeys orders in looking back (presumably with a tinge of regret about leaving) to a wicked city. If God is pleased by the gratitude that Noah expresses with his sacrifice (the anthropomorphism of the smell is not the central point), and determines not to destroy mankind again in recognition of this good quality of human beings, that again is a rational rather than a quirky or arbitrary response.

        I would think that a better example for your position would be Jesus’s cursing of the fig tree. If we assume that most people of New Testament times did not believe that fig trees had free will and therefore that the fig tree was innocent of any disobedience in failing to have fruit, then to readers of the Gospels Jesus’ reaction might look like (I say look like, because I’m not passing final judgment here) a fit of pique. That would fit in with your language of “mood” or “vagaries.” But there are very few places in the Bible where either God or Jesus even appear to act in that impulsive way. Almost always there seems to be reason for divine action that is consistent with the overall purpose or plan. Compare the Biblical motivation for the Flood (human wickedness), which is a moral motivation, with the Babylonian story in which the gods send the Flood because human beings are making too much noise and one of the gods is having trouble sleeping in all the racket. Now there is a god who is influenced by his “mood”; there is caprice. That is not the overall presentation of God in the Bible.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Eddie, I agree with your more nuanced version of this history, though I still doubt the central role of the creation story. This nuanced version is quite different from the complete fabrication made by Jaki. One example– Jaki makes a big point about cyclic worldviews discouraging science because there is no stability, hence nothing worth studying. He contrasts this with the Christian worldview which supposedly promises stability. Yet stability is hardly a feature of Christianity, which predicts the end of the world and the beginning of a new one in the very near future (at least according to some parts of the Bible), apparently much nearer than the change in cycles of either the Mesoamerican cultures or the Hindu cultures. And the change in world order after the second coming is more dramatic than that of some of the cyclic world views. Jaki is just picking characteristics of Christianity post hoc and turning them into causal factors without any evidence or even any consistency. His book reads like a 19th century treatise on why blacks are inferior to Europeans. I find it an execrable book, and I am surprised Jon would reference it.

          As for the whimsy of Yahweh, perhaps it is hard to define whimsy for an omniscient being. But he played with those Egyptians like a cat plays with a mouse before eating it. He even hardened Pharoah’s heart so he could play out the whole bloody sequence and kill a large number of innocent kids. And come on, a bear to kill kids that insulted somebody? That’s pretty whimsical and petty. Lot’s wife –turning her into salt seems like a pretty whimsical trick. As for the flood, he killed almost everybody and then seemed to regret it. That suggests the act involved whimsy. You say he was justified since people were bad, but because of free will I suppose the people could be bad again in the future, yet he decided they would not be punished in the same way. This suggests the original punishment wasn’t necessarily optimal for the crime. But we could go on about this forever, it’s like talking about some comic book character with superpowers that haven’t quite been thought out fully to avoid logical inconsistencies…..But you’re right, Jesus and the fig tree is a better example than most of the ones I gave. I had forgotten about that.

          • Lou Jost says:

            In fact in a cyclic universe with known, long times between cycles (like those of the Hindu and Meso-American worldviews), there is actually a guarantee that this universe will stick around for many human lifetimes. The Christian worldview makes no such guarantee. So Jaki’s claim about guaranteed stability is exactly the opposite of the actual situation regarding the religions he is comparing.

            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


              I don’t think Jaki’s argument from a cyclical universe to poor natural science is very strong, so we’re in agreement there. But everything that is good in Jaki’s argument, minus the questionable parts, can be found in others, so you don’t need to read him. Unfortunately you won’t find most of the good stuff for free on the web, unless you have free access to academic journals by some arrangement you have with a university somewhere. You will either have to download academic articles from old journals for a fee, or order some books — some of which may be out of print — from Amazon or the like.

              Regarding your comment on the short life of the world for many early Christians (expecting the second coming), I think the point that is not the length of time for which the world will exist, but the stability of the world in terms of natural laws and its amenability to empirical probing. Even if the world ends 100 years from now, during the remaining time it has to live, an empirical natural science will work, because God has created a nature which can be fathomed only by empirical methods (pure a priori reasoning being inadequate to the job of determining what he willed). Jaki is right about that; but he goes off the rails when he tries to show that cyclical views of nature necessarily produce despair and make science impossible. Hindus developed quite good science, in some respects, whereas the early Christians, with their so-called linear view of time, developed none.

              The point is that Hindus cared enough about knowledge of the world to make advances, and the early Christians didn’t. But later, when the Christians decided the world was going to be around for a long time, their view of creation — as a perfect expression of God’s inscrutable will — meant that if they were going to investigate nature, they had to do so empirically.

              Jaki understands the point about God’s will and empirical methods, but he muddles things with his other concerns, i.e., bashing non-Christian religions. You don’t find that kind of aggressiveness in the presentation of Foster or Oakley or Hooykaas. Jaki just has a bee in his bonnet. But he had a bee in his bonnet about many things. That’s why I don’t find his books enjoyable; they are filled with too much edge. I prefer an expository to a crusading tone.

          • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

            I think we are defining “whimsy” differently, so not much more can be said. I see the Biblical God as having very clear reasons for doing just about everything he does — even if those reasons are not always appealing to people with modern sensibilities (as the case of the bear and the youths demonstrates). A whimsical God, in my definition, would act without reason, based on momentary desire or impulse. I see very little evidence of such a God in the Bible.

            You are making the case that God overreacts to offenses, but that is not the same as being whimsical, driven by moods, or being arbitrary. A stern judge, even a draconian judge, can still exhibit a rational consistency. A whimsical judge would exhibit no such consistency. He would find one accused guilty merely because he didn’t like the way the accused parted his hair, and find another accused innocent because the accused reminded him of his favorite uncle.

            I’m not trying here to vindicate the justice of God, but merely to clear God from the charge of being driven by caprice, whim, mood, etc.

            In any case, as I’ve already said, the God who is said to be responsible for modern science is not merely the Biblical God, but the Biblical God refined through centuries of interaction with philosophy. When Foster, Collingwood, Jaki, etc., write about this subject, they are not thinking about God’s commandments to Joshua or Jesus cursing a fig tree; they are thinking about the God of systematic theology, who ordained laws of nature of a certain kind. I won’t elaborate on this any further, since I can’t make the argument better than the scholars mentioned, whom you can read at your leisure, and evaluate for yourself.

            • Lou Jost says:

              Thanks Eddie. I see caprice and whimsy in the acts I mentioned because they are inconsistent with the picture of god painted elsewhere in the bible– a loving, forgiving, merciful god. It seems out of character for such a god to decide to kill nearly everyone in the world in one stroke, or to have kids torn apart by a bear for insulting someone. Hence the impression of whimsy or caprice or mood. And the fact that he seems to regret it later suggests the same.

              But it’s a minor issue, no need for us to belabor it more.

              • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

                As I said above, we are using different definitions of “caprice” and “whimsy.” Even in your note above I can see the difference. The mere fact that some of God’s actions are not merciful or forgiving in comparison with other of God’s actions does not make them capricious, whimsical, or based on any transient mood. There can be good reasons why a judge is stern in one case and lenient in another. A very stern judgment can be just as rational, just as deliberate, as a very lenient one. Sternness by itself is no indicator of capriciousness, whimsicality, or moodiness.

                For an action to be capricious or whimsical, as I use the terms, it has to be utterly without reason, driven by a temporary emotion or fleeting inclination. (“I feel like chocolate ice cream rather than vanilla today”; “I don’t care what the evidence against this man is; I don’t like the way he looks at me, so off with his head!”) In neither of the cases you give above does God behave whimsically or capriciously in the sense I’ve just explained.

                The Flood is the result not of any temporary irritation of God’s, but, as the Bible explicitly says, of a steady practice of evil by the entire human race, observed by God not just for a fleeting moment, but over an extended period of time; this leads to a premeditated (not sudden or impulsive) divine judgment. The contrast with the Babylonian myth (which does attribute the Flood to the mere caprice or whimsy of a god, not to any moral fault of human beings) I already referenced.

                As for the story of Elisha, while penalty might be deemed too harsh, the issue is contempt for the appointed agents of God; even modern courtrooms assign penalties for contempt of court (albeit cash penalties or time in jail rather than maulings); the principle that one does not mock authority is in itself a sound one, and it is not arbitrary or capricious to enforce that principle. (By the way, na’ar in Hebrew does not have to mean “children” and often means “servant” or “young man,” so the mockers could easily have been, and probably were, 18 years old or more, and thus fully rational adults capable of understanding what a prophet is and that a prophet should not be mocked.)

                We are differing mainly over the usage of English terms. I think your usage of these terms is too loose. If you limited your claim to the charge that God is sometimes too harsh in his penalties, I could agree or at least sympathize, but I won’t admit that God is “capricious” or “whimsical” in the cases you are citing. To me these terms have always had a more narrow and specialized meaning than the meaning you are employing. Since neither of us seems inclined to alter our usage, we will have to limit ourselves to some agreement on the substance (i.e., that the Biblical God is sometimes a harsh judge, harsher than most modern people feel comfortable with), and agree to disagree over terminology.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Fair enough. I think a methodical, non-whimsical being would show some regularity and measure in his punishments, and large departures from his own self-professed norm (god of love, forgiving, merciful, etc) would suggest he is subject to whimsy or caprice.

                You didn’t address the odd feature about the Egyptian incident. Here Yahweh actually intervened (hardening Pharoah’s heart) so he could apply his whole series of punishments. And the last of the series was killing a large number of innocent children. This seems like divine play, with us humans as the toys. Here he is as capricious and unjust as the worst pagan gods. If someone answers that the punishment must have been just, because who are we to question god, that would be a blanket excuse which would justify anything.

  13. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


    I agree with you that the passage about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is problematic; however, the problem there is a different one. The problem there is determinism, and that is the opposite of caprice, as I use the term. It looks, at least on the surface, as if God is determined to destroy Egypt, even if Pharaoh does repent and let Israel go, and thus has to harden Pharaoh’s heart, in order justify his planned destruction. The problem with the gods of Babylon, etc., is the opposite; they don’t plan things down to the last detail, and carry out a plan, but rather react to situations on sheer impulse. So again, I wouldn’t use the word capricious or whimsical of the Biblical God here, though I grant you the theological difficulty posed by the episode.

    As for the first part of your note, I would suggest that the OT God is fairly consistent in that he punishes disrespect and/or direct disobedience to his commands more harshly than simple moral evil, and he punishes consistent and deep moral evil more harshly than occasional sins. Most of your cases of extreme punishment concern direct disobedience of God’s commands, disrespect of God or his messengers, or deep and repeated moral evil.

    I’m not saying that the Biblical conception of morality and divine judgment is the same as the modern type of morality that we are used to, or even that it is better, but it is consistent, in a way.

  14. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Regarding Pharaoh’s hardened heart … it’s interesting that the Exodus account sometimes attributes it to God, and other times attributes it to Pharoah’s own stubbornness. It’s almost as if the writer has no problem thinking that both were true. Which should at least invite us to consider that a layer of interpretation of past events is being crafted here (under Divine guidance and inspiration believers would say). While we Christians may then accept that as the received interpretation that we need to have, I don’t think it forecloses on us recognizing the logical possibility that others from that time may have looked on those same events but interpreted or seen them quite differently.

    We probably should admit, should we not Eddie, that the Potter and clay image of God does seem to fit with Lou’s thesis — if God takes a ‘hankerin’ to do something, who are we the clay to question the potter about His intentions for us? That is an image that is often pressed on us. But then before you get too excited, Lou, it isn’t the only impression of God the Bible leaves us with. When the infinite tries to be accommodating to the finite, we shouldn’t be surprised that more than one storyline is necessary. People who want to see God as a cosmic grandpa (virtual vending machine) that wouldn’t hurt a fly much less show anger probably need to meditate more on passages that invoke fear and humility. People who can’t get past the cosmic tyrant images (or who enjoy them a little too much, often as self-appointed agents of said tyrant) need to meditate on passages of God’s tender love and going to the ends of the earth to bring home his prodigals.

    Trying to bring relational issues into some analytical focus as if we need to nail down God’s exact properties like a specimen under a microscope is always going to be a losing battle. In the end it won’t have been God that you found contained in your field of vision.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      These are good observations and helpful reflections. I think the Bible provides a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional portrait of reality, rather than a unitary or systematic account derived step by step from a few simple principles, such as you would find in, say, the philosophy of Spinoza. We should not expect from it the kind of consistency we find in Euclid’s Elements.

      On the specific point: not only the English translation but the Hebrew original varies the expression regarding Pharaoh. I have not done a count recently, but last I remember, the usual expression was “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” — the passive form leaving the agent of the hardening (if any) uncertain. At one point, however (and I think it is only once) the verb is active; God actually hardens Pharaoh’s heart. There is room for debate over the significance of this; at first I was inclined to the view that the use of the active was deliberate and implied a metaphysical difference; God has now set up Pharaoh for the fall of his empire, even against Pharaoh’s better nature which was inclined to let Israel go at that point. But it is possible that the verbal form did not have the significance for the Hebrew writer that it might seem to have for us; it might be merely an alternate way of saying the same thing as the more indefinite expression, with “God” being mentioned as agent not to imply manipulation, but merely out of a pious writer’s habit of attributing all things ultimately to God, even things for which human beings are morally responsible.

      Certainly, however, to modern readers, it looks as if the passage with the active verb teaches a hard determinism — God actively wills human decisions, even decisions which destroy people. It looks on the surface like the “puppetmaster God” — a God against whom so many have written. This is what I was granting to Lou.

      But, as I added, this isn’t “capriciousness” but the opposite problem –stonelike inflexibility. God drives history — animate and inanimate players alike — along his planned course. Egypt apparently is slated for destruction, even if the Egyptian leader willingly turns from his bad behavior, so God has to “un-turn” him in order to make sure history arrives at its appointed goal.

      What would be “capricious” would be, say, if Pharaoh chased Israel into the Red Sea, and still had a chance of catching the Israelites and slaughtering them on the spot, but then repented, and said “I know now that this is the real God who is helping Israel, and I will let Israel go free” — and then God closed the waters on Pharaoh and destroyed him anyway.

      I suppose one could argue that it is “capricious” for God to give Pharaoh the impression that his free will matters, and then overrule his free will; but again, I don’t think “caprice” is the right word for a decision (overruling Pharaoh’s relenting) that is a necessary part of the long-term plan (to smash Egypt in order to underline the greatness of Israel’s liberation). It might be argued that God’s action is unjust, because it does not fairly reward good intentions when Pharaoh finally shows them, but if it’s unjust, it’s not unjust due to caprice, but due to God’s unwillingness to have any of his players depart from the script.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        Whatever the deep truths behind the “hardening” story, I think it’s unhelpful to think in terms of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart “against his will”, which is a contradiction, since Pharaoh’s will is the very point in question. You can’t want what you don’t want against your will. The absurdities pile up when someone complains, “I know I led my life my own way, but I wouldn’t have wanted what I wanted unless God had wanted me to want it – it’s not fair.” (Jury look at each other and say, “Wot?”)

        One point none of you has mentioned is the concept of “judical hardening.” All punishment necessarily occurs at a point in time: there’s a point at which the murderer has been sentenced (or executed!) and no change of heart is of any use.

        So there are clear Scriptural instances in which someone who hardens their heart to do evil is punished, by God, through the dulling of their God-given conscience, so that their continued evil leads them to (as it were) hang themselves on their own rope.

        How that is seen as judicial is in the abnormal stubbornness of Pharaoh, in this example: you find yourself saying, “Why doesn’t he just let the blighters go.” A special case ofr the old saying, “Those whom the gods wish to punish, they first make mad” (which sometimes seems to me to account for certain recent foreign policy issues in the West!).

        The aspect of all events being, ultimately, under God’s sovereign will is, I’m sure, in there as well. But dual (at least) causation is part of the OT worldview: from the bottom up, Pharaoh intends evil, as Jospeh’s brothers intend him evil in Genesis. From the top down, God intends the release of captives, the founding of nations, the punishment of human arrogance, the humbling of false religion.

        Seeing it in terms of coercion of one will by another is as foolish as seeing a computer program as coercing/opposing the laws of physics to obtain a result. They are completely different orders of causation.

  15. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


    I agree with you about the dual perspective in the OT: sometimes the narrator explains things from the top down, sometimes from the bottom up. Nonetheless, the metaphysical question of how far any human being is ultimately culpable of anything remains.

    If we say that the Pharaoh is clay and God is the potter, then of course God has the “right” to make the clay into anything he wants, and to break the pot any time he wants, and there is no problem of divine justice in regard to Pharaoh. But if we say “Pharaoh deserved what he got,” then there is a problem, because it looks (I say “it looks,” because the meaning of the Hebrew expression is debatable) as if Pharaoh intended to relent in time to avoid punishment, but then had his behavior altered by an external influence, i.e., God. To say, “God is Pharaoh’s creator, and has the right to smash Pharaoh at will” is one thing; to say “Pharaoh deserved to be smashed because of what he chose” is another. “God uses people for his own ends” is detached, amoral language; “Pharaoh deserved destruction” is judgmental, moralistic language.

    When a modern person reads “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” the inevitable mental picture is of two things (1) A prior internal dialogue within Pharaoh which had led Pharaoh to decide to let Israel go; (2) A later direct insertion (“intervention”) by God of the opposite decision into Pharaoh’s soul. Thus, Pharaoh, who had chosen salvation, is externally manipulated to choose destruction. Now, we can say that an ancient reader of the Old Testament would not have read the situation in that way. But in order to say that, we have to make clear exactly how the “anthropology” (i.e., doctrine of human nature) of the Old Testament is different from that of modern thinking.

    The anthropology of the Old Testament is different from modern anthropology. There is no category of “will” as we know it in the Old Testament. Even in Greek philosophy the notion of “will” is underdeveloped. The conception of “will” (voluntas) that Western people entertain is post-Biblical, post-Platonic, and post-Aristotelian; it emerged out of Christian theological discussion, and perhaps first fully crystallizes in Augustine. We tend to perceive a human being as an irreducible unity who “has” a mind, a soul, a will, etc., who makes free choices which warrant punishment or praise, which warrant eternal salvation or damnation. This is the Western “anthropology” largely shared by philosophers and theologians alike. But in the Old Testament, man does not have that kind of simple unity.

    The Old Testament anthropology (cf. the works of Robinson and Wolff) portrays the human soul differently, as a complex product of passions and thoughts that relate to various bodily parts and functions. In some respects the Old Testament way of thinking about “man” is closer to the thought of Homer than to that of Augustine. (Your own quotation “Those whom the gods wish to punish, they first make mad,” is relevant here.)

    The sensitive reader notes that Homer is much less judgmental about what people “deserve” than, say, Aquinas or Calvin is. The difficulty is that Christian theologians tend to adopt the language of praise and blame that is appropriate to a modern anthropology, even though the Old Testament subscribes to an ancient anthropology. What makes Calvin’s treatise On the Eternal Predestination of God so unsatisfying is that he is concerned throughout to blame man and exonerate God for all the evil things that man does, even though he wants to maintain the Old Testament notion that God’s decision is the cause of all things, even of what people will and do.

    Of course, this connects with the doctrine of eternal salvation and damnation. It is very hard to justify eternal damnation unless one holds to an anthropology in which blame can be assigned. The Old Testament, knowing of no eternal damnation, did not have to worry about this. Neither did Homer. So in the Old Testament and Homer you can have a blurred combination of (1) something vaguely like individual responsibility, (2) the actions of one’s organs and one’s passions, and (3) the actions of the gods or God — all acting in concert to cause people to do bad things; and the psychological explanations are generally related with a kind of non-vindictive impartiality by the narrator. But once you say: “You (where “you” refers to a personal entity with a clear identity distinct from the rest of creation) will roast in unimaginable pain and suffering for all eternity for what you chose to do,” then “what you chose to do” must have proceeded from a genuine freedom; if not, then God is simply cruel.

    It is because Calvin senses this that he has to exonerate God and blame man in the matter of eternal damnation; he will not say that God is cruel. The narrator of the Exodus story, on the other hand, does not have this apologetic problem; for him, the entity “Pharaoh” does not refer to an eternal soul poised between heaven and hell; for him, “Pharaoh” is just another tool of God, to be used as long as he is needed, and disposed of when he is no longer needed.

    All of this, I think, is part of the deeper story behind Lou’s objection to the story about Pharaoh. Lou thinks from the perspective of modern thought (we are unitary individuals with freedom to choose, and therefore God shouldn’t be mucking about hardening our hearts) when he reads the Biblical verses. And to be fair to him, he did not make up that idea — it was given to him by Christian theologians themselves. We don’t take our notions of free will, responsibility and judgment straight from the Old Testament. They come to us as part of an intellectual tradition. All the ideas of the Old Testament are mediated to us through a long historical process of theological development.

    The universe of Augustine is already a good deal removed from that of the Old Testament. For Augustine, the Old Testament is never read as a modern Biblical scholar (whether Walton, or Wolff, or Robinson) would read it; Augustine has no interest in recovering the thought-world of the Old Testament, or in recovering the “Hebraic” mind-set. (He couldn’t even be bothered to learn Hebrew.) Augustine reads the Old Testament through the New Testament, and through the tradition of the earlier Fathers. Suarez and Molina read the Old Testament (when they read it at all) through the New Testament, the Fathers, and the Scholastics. Etc. So when we today read the story of Pharaoh and try to discern from it — as Lou is trying to discern — the “Christian” notion of free will and responsibility, many caveats apply. We have to be very conscious of the particular anthropology we are bringing to the interpretation of the verses in question.

    If we regard Old Testament anthropology as, by itself, a full and sufficient account of the Christian view of man, free will, responsibility, etc., then we will react to the passage in one way; if we see the Old Testament portrait as insufficiently Christian, and still awaiting later developments, we will react in quite another. I think Lou is caught in between, trying to take the Old Testament portrait as the Christian portrait, and then criticizing that portrait in terms of an anthropology which comes from a later stage of Christian thinking. He says the Old Testament God is inconsistent, but the inconsistency he detects in most cases is between certain Old Testament ideas and certain later Christian ideas.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Eddie, there is one other major issue with the Exodus story. Perhaps some will argue that “Pharaoh deserved destruction”, or they may argue that it was an important part of Yahew’s plan. But Pharoah wasn’t destroyed; instead the completely innocent first-born children were killed. This is what I meant above by disproportionate punishment. How can Yahweh be just (forget about “merciful”, that ship has sailed) if he regularly punishes completely innocent beings for things they did not do and had any influence over? This is a repeated pattern: King David’s child, almost the whole human race in the Flood, and of course the whole human race for Adam’s disobedience.

      Regarding the flood, you’ve often defended its justice by saying that the whole human race was evil. But surely some children somewhere on earth could have grown up and been moral. If they could not have, then aren’t you denying them free will?

      I wonder what would count as a disconfirmation of the Christian claim that Yahweh is good and just. We’ve seen over and over again in these comments that some people (not you, Eddie) will defend anything he does, no matter how unjust and horrible (recall the thread in which many commenters defended the Yahweh-ordered OT atrocities of the Israelis). I wish they would apply to their own truth-claims the skepticism they show about evolutionary claims. I think there is a double standard here.

      • Hanan says:


        I will comment on the flood as I have done before. Put yourself in the place of the writer of that story. What is he trying to convey? He is trying to convey the exact OPPOSITE of the other local flood myths where the Gods have no real beef with humanity other than disturbing Their rest. The Noah story is only dealing with moral depravity and violence. The hebrew uses the word “hamas” to describe reality; a terrible word that I can’t think of any other use in the rest of the bible. It says:

        “And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

        This was a society – an entire society – that was just bad and was breeding bad (remember it takes a village to raise a child?). The story is not interested in small children somewhere that might be good. You are missing the point of what the writer is saying if you look at it with a electron-microscope. It’s giving a moral message that man “ought” to be moral and that is all he demands of man.

        Don’t look at the story through the prism of modern-policy making. Look at the story through what the writer was trying to convey about what God judges.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          I have to agree with Hanan here. The Biblical story doesn’t invite us to speculate on how many righteous people there might have been mixed in among the evil ones. It tells us that everyone was corrupt. God’s actions have to be understood in light of the information provided by the narrative.

          It is the same with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. A modern person might say, “How likely is it that everyone in those cities was wicked?” The Bible doesn’t invite our speculations. It lets us know that there were at most ten righteous men, and hints that in fact there was only one, Lot. So only Lot and his family are spared. God’s universal judgment is to be considered in light of the information provided.

          Regarding children, to the modern mind, children are innocent. This was news to the ancients. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Church taught that a person was capable of mortal sin upon reaching the age of seven! There was much less sentimentality about the innate goodness of children. We tend to think of the sanitized, idealized children in Walt Disney movies and so on; to the ancient mind, children were just as likely, or more likely, to be like the children in Lord of the Flies! I certainly remember plenty of outright cruelty from the schoolyard; indeed, I often preferred the company of adults to that of many of the children who bullied and terrorized me and others. The idea that children are somehow pure and don’t partake of the corruption of the adults around them is a kind of Romanticism. To the ancient mind, if the whole adult community is rotten, the kids to some extent will share in that rottenness.

          We also have to bear in mind ancient ideas of corporate responsibility, of wives and children as property, etc. When one punished Pharaoh, one struck at all he considered to be his property — his crops and flocks and people, and their first-born. To the modern mind, bred on individualism — itself a product of centuries of development of Christian ideas about the infinite value of every created soul — all of this is ruthless and indiscriminate, but it’s well within the ancient understanding.

          I think the deeper level underlying Lou’s critique is whether the morality of the Old Testament is sufficiently Christian. That is a reasonable question. But it’s one thing to say that the Old Testament (or parts of it) don’t yet rise to the full ethical purity of Christian teaching, and another thing to say that the Old Testament God is capricious or inconsistent. The OT God is pretty much consistent with the idea of an absolute Eastern potentate. He’s harsh if need be when it comes to demanding his rights — to obedience and respect. He expects standards of behavior to be met. He means business when he threatens.

          To the extent that God differs from that conception, it’s on the nobler side — his conversation with Abraham over Sodom, for example, indicates that he is tolerant of a follower who argues with him — if the argument is for the right motive, i.e., for greater justice and benevolence. Can we imagine Tamurlaine or Attila the Hun accepting such backtalk from Abraham? I see the Old Testament God as indicative of a marked elevation in the notion of Deity, even if more tribal and political conceptions still form the main outline. An Israelite was better off under YHWH than an Egyptian slave under the Pharaohs, or a shudra under a Brahmanical regime. Human beings have an intrinsic dignity, are worth more than was generally held in the ancient world, and we owe that insight to the religion of the Old Testament. It is very unlikely that the human race could have moved directly from the religion of the Pharaohs or of Babylon to a Christianity in which all are equal as children of God, without the intermediate stage of a God who was autocratic yet also just and loving and a champion of the underdog (see the laws which demand kind treament of the poor, etc.).

          Lou persists in reading the OT in the lowest possible way; when one looks at it in its ancient world context, it seems fairer to read it in the highest possible way. The very high moral standards which Lou employs to judge the Old Testament and find it wanting, themselves are the product of a transformation of religious consciousness in the West which began with the Old Testament.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Listen to yourselves justifying killing the Egyptian first-borns of everyone (who certainly had nothing to do with Pharoah’s decision) in order to punish Pharoah, or justifying the slow painful death of David’s child to punish him.

            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


              According to the story, Pharaoh had nine previous chances to avoid the slaughter of the first-born. I’d say God was pretty patient. He could have hit Pharaoh with the slaughter of the first-born right off the bat.

              You’re writing as if the suffering of Israel in enslavement (which doubtless entailed the death of many “first-born” Israelites through undernourishment, work accidents, and physical punishments by slavemasters) doesn’t count at all, as if it would have been better to leave Israel enslaved to Egypt forever rather than use decisive violence to free her. Is that your position?

              If the only way to win the war was for the Allies to bombard some strategic cities (containing war-related factories etc.), knowing that there would be collateral deaths of civilians, should the allies have refrained from the bombings, lost the war, and let Hitler rule the world, in order to keep Allied hands morally clean? “Better that the Swastika should fly over Washington than that a single innocent German child should be killed by an Allied bomb” — is that your position, Lou?

              If some innocent people will die in any case, isn’t it better that they die in the cause of the liberation of a people, than in order to continue the enslavement of a people? Especially when no one needed to die at all, but for the Luciferian pride of one party?

              I wonder whose moral compass is broken here, Lou. I don’t think the “high ground” you are standing on is very high at all.

              • Lou Jost says:

                I answered that elsewhere on this thread, Eddie. The “necessity” defense makes no sense for an omnipotent being. There would always be other ways an omnipotent being could have resolved the problem, without atrocities. This applies also to the OT atrocities.

                That is the difference between WW2 and the OT. Suppose, contrary to fact, the Allies had the power to defeat the Nazis quickly and easily without burning Dresden. If they decided to firebomb civilians anyway, would that have been moral to you? I think you would be repulsed by it.

  16. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Eddie wrote: “Of course, this connects with the doctrine of eternal salvation and damnation. It is very hard to justify eternal damnation unless one holds to an anthropology in which blame can be assigned. ”

    Actually it is hard for us to justify (in our own linear minds) eternal damnation at all, regardless of how much blame the recipient has earned. It is the ultimate unbalance or disproportion to any possible crime no matter how rebellious. At least is in the way it is usually presented and thought of by modern Christians. Here is where I wonder if we might all benefit from more of these cultural/anthropological awarenesses that you speak of, Eddie, not just for the Old Testament, but then for the new as well, and how its world was significantly different from ours. Calvin didn’t get God off the hook in the slightest, and the modern mind has already (rightly or wrongly) passed judgment —even many Christians who have noted how cruel anybody would have to be to take a lifetime (<100 years) of rebellion (or no — even just one wrong decision or final creeping little doubt at the end of that 100 years of otherwise 'good' life) and pay it back with an eternity of torture –something that I (a wicked, temporal, little human being) can summon up enough moral outrage to not wish on my worst enemy. So am I morally better than God? I trust Calvin and all of us (except Lou) would answer that in the negative. Yet Calvin's "exoneration" totally fails by modern standards. So his diversion of the blame does nothing to get God off the hook.

    Part of the answer is that we're told to be perfect as God is perfect. So we presumably have the greatest [perfect] model of forgiveness that there is. Where it gets difficult for us Christians, though, is that it is from Jesus himself that we also get our developed ideas about Hell — a place that I should be so desperate to avoid that I would be willing to gouge out my eyes or castrate myself if I thought such action could prevent such a fate. Jesus does give us both the forgiving father, but also the ultimately punishing father images. So do we modern Christians mis-develop where Jesus was going with that? Culturally, I've wondered about what the Hebrews would have heard from those phrases (so mysterious to us) about 'Gahenna' where the smoke eternally rises and 'their worm does not die.' I know they had burning trash heaps outside the city gates that this may have referred to, but I still think we modern Christians may have misappropriated all this somehow.

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      I personally think that our misteps that lead to us presuming we can judge God, come out of our packing way too much linear, literalistic reaction into both old and new testament teachings.

      To some extent we modern Christians have been attacked by (and partially succumbed to) this ‘contempo-centric’ pathogen that threatens to over-run our understandings and has already completely devoured folks like Lou who can barely even fathom any more that there could be any other level of understanding.

      On balance, most of Jesus teaching shows us the long-suffering, patient, loving Father that needs only the lowly grateful spirit and contrite heart on which He then does his profound work. All the great theologies, correct doctrines, volumes of scholarly analysis … all fade into insignificance compared to that work, and its Worker.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Merv, your reluctance to judge god is the central problem here. That is how you are insulating and protecting your beliefs from your own human decency (which does not come from god).

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


          I can’t prove that Merv’s or anyone’s human decency comes from God, but there is plenty of historical evidence that religion can elevate the moral level of individuals and societies. All one has to do is compare the manners and morals of a Victorian gentleman or a Midwestern American of today with those of an Aztec, of Jenghiz Khan, of Attila the Hun, etc. A great deal of the difference comes from the long inculcation of the former types (or their parents and grandparents) with Christian religion. A great deal of what people in post-Christian Western society think of as “common human decency” is actually Christian in origin. Secular humanism at its best exhibits this decency, but, in banking terms, it is living off moral principal rather than moral interest, because the Christian base which generated the elevated ethics is systematically being eaten away. When the last shred of Christian (or more broadly, ethical monotheistic) metaphysics is completely erased, not merely from explicit belief, but from unconscious habits and reflexes, the “human decency” will go with it. Nietzsche saw this long ago, and every passing year confirms his analysis.

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            “…. religion can elevate the moral level …”

            Regarding Christianity, my recollection from scholars of history (if my memory has not failed me) is that Christianity brought a seismic shift in Western thought and practice (and indeed a worldwide view) regarding ‘what it means to be human’, and Gal 5 shows just how great this shift in our understanding and sense of self has been. I will paste this section to make sure no-one misunderstands:

            Galatians 5:16-25 (KJV) This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

            Note the ‘punishment that people such as Lou seems to fear, is that ‘such do not inherit the kingdom…’
            Gal 3 and 4 also shows us, as a summary, the way to understand the OT.

            I also note that any people who may say they are atheists, or do not profess faith, have not, in my experience, argued against the attributes discussed in the NT – in fact their major concern has been just how well we humans can achieve such attributes. It is odd that this central message of the Gospel is ignored by some, and instead they obsession with the very opposite attributes – and this is then claimed to describe God Himself. I find such an outlook staggeringly irrational.

  17. Lou Jost says:

    I thought Christians believed in objective morals, and that the Christian god was their source (and hence perfectly moral). How do you reconcile that with these sorts of justifications you are giving for acts which you would not consider to be objectively moral today?

    There can’t be a “necessity” argument that supercedes moral imperatives, at least not in the case of an omnipotent being. For god, if nothing is impossible, and if he can even control or set up the evolution of our genome, there could always have been moral alternatives to achieve a given goal rather than the obviously unjust punishments he unleashed. If the goal was a “parental” one, to teach humans how to live, he cannot have commanded the OT atrocities.

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      “I thought Christians believed in objective morals, and that the Christian god was their source (and hence perfectly moral). ”

      Well, God is the ground of any such objectivity as we have.

      “How do you reconcile that with these sorts of justifications you are giving for acts which you would not consider to be objectively moral today? ”

      I didn’t think I was giving justifications, but perhaps you were replying to someone else’s post above. God justifies. Then and now. I strive for understanding … and that perhaps only on my better days.

  18. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    My acknowledgment that I cannot judge God comes from understanding a very basic identity that you don’t yet understand, Lou. If I was in a position to judge “God”, then such an entity (subject to my judgment) would not be God, but would just be some other notion of some god which would not exist outside of my own mind (making any of my judgments of it immaterial –since I would be judging something that does not exist for anyone else anyway.)

    This is probably why you make so little inroads into understanding much of what we’re talking about (much less thinking you can actually critique it) … you keep speaking of some imaginary notion of yours (and yours alone) that there is such a thing as a “Christian [g]od”. I assure you there isn’t. There is no false Christian god. Nobody here believes in any false or non-supreme Christian god. We only believe in God, who either exists as such, or does not. If the latter, then all of our talk of judging him is pointless anyway. If the former then our talk of judging him is pointless. Hence your continued incoherence in thinking that we will ever be … judging a Christian god.

    I was only speaking of the cruelties and such above as (for me) an hypothetical critique, knowing the whole time that the only thing being judged is my deficiency of understanding of God. In the end I lean on trust that all God’s judgments are just and if they seem not so, it is my lack of understanding that is really in play. I do think I understand some things about God fairly well (like His mercy) which leads me to believe that the traditional (yet perhaps modern) understanding of how Hell works is probably one of my inherited deficiencies.

    • Lou Jost says:

      “In the end I lean on trust that all God’s judgments are just and if they seem not so, it is my lack of understanding that is really in play.”

      That means, as I said above, that you have insulated your beliefs from any possible evidence against them, any possible evidence of incoherence or internal contradiction. That might have something to with our difficulty in communicating.

      • Hanan says:


        How contradictory can it be when you have so much consistent complaints against YHWH? 🙂

        Anyways, I think you are being a little unfair when you say he has insulated his beliefs from any possible evidence against it. Unless the same kind of criticism is lodged against some atheists that insist on multiverse and stuff like that. It’s fair to say that people are not necessarily insulating their beliefs, but instead, have a legitimate reason for believing in what they believe even if some pieces don’t fit (this goes for theists and atheists alike). So maybe Merv believes in YHWH because of XYZ, but along the way something comes up (called it X2) that doesn’t quite jive. Does that mean he should abandon XYZ? But they contain a certain heavy weight to them as well. They are just as profound and important as X2. In the end – like the atheists when it comes to origins and life etc – we say, not every question (legitimate as it may be) is going to have an answer at this time. Just like the atheist doesn’t abandon his resolve to certain things (that in my opinion are wrong) no matter what problems that may arise out of it, the same goes for a theist. Again, this is not because both parties have insulated themselves. It’s because they really DO see good reason to believe in what they believe.

  19. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    …or to put this another way … a false Christian god (or a “Christian” god who fights and squabbles among many other comparable gods) is: a square circle. So to speak of God that way only advertises to everyone else that you either don’t know what a square is, or don’t know what a circle is, or both. In short, it can’t even exist inside your own head. So even false gods have a higher claim to reality than this … “Christian god” does. They at least, can exist inside someone’s head.

  20. Avatar photo GD says:

    The details of these discussions, when put in terms of judging God and deciding that from the accounts in the OT (such as Egypt and the Pharaoh), are shockingly distorted as they turn away from doctrine and scholarly works, and are presented as if Lou had performed an exhaustive study of Israel, the ancient world, their concepts and understanding, and especially on how we should, or would, discuss God or gods in ancient times.

    For a Christian, the starting point for such a discussion would be Hebrews 1, where we understand that God previously spoke (revealed Himself) through His prophets, but now He has done completely so through His Son. The emphasis throughout is that of imperfectly understanding God prior to Christ. There are many instances in the NT where this is expounded (you have been previously taught an eye for an eye, but now I teach you to turn the other cheek). People such as Lou would quickly brush past reams of such teachings by saying, “Oh well, these were not exclusive to the NT, after all the Buddha taught many things which are sublime, so we will not take notice of the NT,” or seek to subvert the point by focusing on instances that are ambiguous (and I claim are found in the Bible for a purpose that Christians would seek to understand) such as the fig tree; or when this fails, they turn and parrot other objections, such as the resurrection as unscientific.

    In other words, the intent is not to read and understand (so much for an open mind), but to subvert in any way he can. As anyone who values his intellectual honesty knows, reading with such intent will inevitably cause one to find ways to fulfil such intent.

    After Hebrews, we should study the accounts of how Moses and the prophets and came to their calling and how their understanding of God. We cannot argue that God is perfect and omnipotent, agree that human beings are not, and then from there decide that we (or the prophets) know perfectly what we mean by God. Israel and Moses were also human beings who understood things in an imperfect way. The Egyptians were even more ignorant and set in their way. Was this simply God’s doing? In that God allowed them to continue in their wickedness and error, it is ‘God’s doing’. Just how do we discuss this interplay between a given culture and language and an understanding of the divine that constantly rubs against wholesale error regarding the divine. This also includes what is understood as moral and lawful. Thus to go to war was morally justified by all nations in those days (without exception) on the basis their king declared war – the moral ends were always complete conquest and enslavement. To do otherwise was immoral, wicked, offended the king and the gods – and slaughtering your enemy was absolutely right. Today we would say such people were barbaric, cruel and certainly their hearts were hardened. Would Israel come up with a totally new moral outlook the day Moses came to them with a message? I think not. Just how would any Egyptian respond to a message from Moses? The common trick is to avoid discussions of morality and goodness (after all evolution does all this through NS), and then decide their outlook must, by definition be moral, because we find immoral acts in the world of human beings. Talk of self justification through circular reasoning!

    Obviously this discussion can go on and on – it is totally dishonest to claim my remarks are intended to justify anyone or anything. My intention is to show why those who are anti-Christian come up with such trivial and obvious simplifications when they should know that morality and ethics has occupied humanity’s thinking for thousands of years, and we are still struggling with moral dilemmas and paradoxes – this is because we seek to better understand ourselves and our actions. What Moses and the Pharaoh did speaks of an earlier age – the message in the Bible is clearly this, and especially the need for human beings to have faith in a God who seeks to show us through His prophets and His apostles how to seek the good and avoid the evil. Deciding we can judge God in this endeavour is wrong – Moses brought the ten commandments (including not taking God’s name for the sake of human vanity), for our sake, to show us how we may improve in our moral outlook, not to scare us by threats, ignorance and error.

  21. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


    Regarding your reply above, about God (unlike the Allies in WW II) not needing to do anything morally questionable because he is omnipotent:

    What would you have God do? Just miraculously whisk the Israelites to the promised land, by Star-Trek-like teleportation? Yes, he could have done that; he could have bypassed Pharaoh’s will entirely. But he wanted to give Pharaoh a chance to do the right thing. He wanted to give the arrogant and tyrannical worldly ruler (who thought he himself was a god) a chance to repudiate his arrogance and tyranny, and place himself under the true God. Pharaoh refused. Pride goeth before a fall; if you don’t want to fall, don’t be proud.

    The only obstacle to my account is the passage in which God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. That is the part that for me destroys the moral of the story. After reading that passage, I become sympathetic with Pharaoh, because it starts to look as if God wanted a mighty ruler he could destroy, to give Israel a lesson about his greatness, but when Pharaoh took away the justification for his destruction by relenting, he messed up God’s clever plan, so God had to alter Pharaoh’s will. Because the story makes me sympathetic with Pharaoh, it is greatly weakened. It is as if the author had two different messages, and couldn’t settle on which one he wanted to transmit: (1) Pharaoh was bad and got what he deserved; (2) God intended to destroy Egypt as part of his rescue of Israel, regardless of any redeeming features the ruler of Egypt might have had, because the point was not merely to rescue Israel, but to show how mighty he was. In the end, the author conflates these two purposes, and the teaching suffers. I regard this conflation as the product of a conflict of ideals between an imperial and a moral conception of God. It is as if Israel is being given two messages: (a) Look how mighty I am; I smashed Egypt, the greatest of all worldly kingdoms; so you, Israel, had better obey me; (b) Look how kind I have been to you; I brought you out of oppressive slavery into freedom; so you, Israel, ought to be grateful to me. This conflict — between following God because he has the biggest fist, and following God because he is good, would not be satisfactorily resolved within the Old Testament, but needed the rise of Christianity and the development of the Christian tradition.

    The Old Testament is the beginning of the West’s spiritual education, not the end. This is why reading the Bible, and picking it apart for isolated “flaws,” is the wrong approach. The whole sweep from ancient Israel to the cathedral of Chartres, the music of Bach, the writings of Dante and Milton and More, the abolition of slavery led by Wilberforce, the medical missionaries around the world, the granting in Christian Europe and America of a dignity and freedom to women unheard of in Islamic or Hindu civilization, etc., needs to be taken into account. You wouldn’t judge a great man like Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill by the fact that he bullied another kid in third grade, or kept several girls on the go during his young and lustful days, or once stole a chocolate bar from a store; you would judge the great man on the whole arc and accomplishment of his life. That is how Christianity should be judged. Picking out harsh passages from Joshua etc. is a superficial and shallow method of assessment, especially when one knows that such passages were rarely stressed in Christian history and that much more emphasis was placed on the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, etc.

    As for the business about children, etc. I have already answered it. Not merely the God of ancient times, but even the people of ancient times, did not have such a sentimental and tender view of children as you are espousing. And it was taken for granted that the world is a very harsh place and lots of innocent people, not just innocent children, will suffer from war, disease, conquest, mass displacement, etc. We have the idea that the world should be like a United Nations advertisement, with lots of multicultural happy smiling people with perfect white teeth posing for a picture of human unity. The ancients had no such expectation. The idea that God would destroy the first-born of Egypt (and by the way, the first-born weren’t all children; many were full-grown adults) in order to get Egypt’s ruler to knuckle under was not shocking to the ancient sensibility. What you have is a conflict between two Eastern potentates, each claiming to be divine, and each claiming sovereignty over the other. In such conflicts, one potentate destroys everything the other potentate values — including his own children and the flower of youth of his realm — until the other submits to be ruled, or his annihilated. God does exactly what any other potentate would do to Pharaoh, if he had the power. And God does it with much greater restraint; he does not take the first-born until Pharaoh has had nine previous opportunities to submit. Jenghiz Khan or Tamurlaine would have done much worse, after just the first defiance. They would have slaughtered an entire Egyptian city, and killed all the children, not just the first-born, and would have piled the heads of all the citizens, children included, in huge pyramids outside the the burnt shell of the city. And they would have kept on doing so until Pharaoh surrendered his capital.

    I do not give the Old Testament picture of God my 100% endorsement. At the same time, I think the OT picture of God was a marked spiritual advancement over every alternative available in that era in that part of the world. The Old Testament conception of God is not the fully Christian conception. But it is much loftier than its critics give it credit for. It is the highest form that the conception of God could take in the brutal ancient near eastern milieu in which power was worshipped and the individual citizen of low birth, the slave, the woman, and the child counted for very little. It should not be read as a manual of Christian behavior, and it should not be understood to portray, in every single passage, a metaphysically accurate description of God. But without it, there would have been no Christian behavior and no Christian conception of God. My hat is off to it, and I continue to learn from it even though there remain passages which I don’t find very edifying and don’t recommend to my children or to other Christians. It is certainly a much more moral book, with all its faults, than the books of the influential modern teachers — Freud, Skinner, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Camus, Peter Singer, Will Provine, etc. — all written by narcissistic egomaniacs, and all of which offer civilization nothing but nihilism and despair. I would rather have, as a neighbor and friend and fellow citizen, a man who truly believed that God delivered the Ten Commandments and followed them with all his heart and soul, even if that man also believed that God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites, than any leading modern secular humanist intellectual.

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