Thursday, January 28, 2016

Boxed In By an Ideology

Steve Hays has posted an article that describes "skywriting" as an example of a class of miracles he calls "coincidence miracles", which are events that are supposedly consistent with natural laws, but that nevertheless are so improbable that they could only be the result of divine intervention.  If the stars in the sky aligned in such a way as to form clearly defined letters and words that spell out a message, that would be skywriting.  This has been posited by some atheists as an example of a miracle that would cause them to believe that God exists, or at least that supernatural events occur, if they ever witnessed such a thing.  But Steve says that those atheists are being dishonest about what would convince them - that they are in fact stuck on their atheistic ideology, and no evidence would convince them.  Steve believes that atheists use this example simply because it could be explained away as a natural event.  I contend that Steve is the one who is boxed in by ideology, and lacks the intellectual honesty to admit it.

I don't say these things lightly, but Steve has provided ample evidence of this in his post and the comments that follow.  I'll explain.

First, Steve says that skywriting is a "coincidence miracle", because however unlikely it might be, it would be brought about by natural processes which may have been set in motion (by a supernatural power) billions of years ago.  I don't deny that such a thing could conceivably happen as a result of natural processes, but I asked him to consider that there is nothing in our sky now that resembles skywriting, and it would take significant changes before before any such alignment of stars becomes apparent.  This could happen eventually, but not in our lifetimes, because natural processes don't produce such significant changes in the short timeframe of a human lifetime.  Therefore, if any such drastic change in the alignment of the stars was to occur in our lifetime and be seen by one of these atheists as evidence of supernatural action, it would require active intervention of a supernatural power to make it happen.(*)  Steve doesn't get this.  He still insists that we could look up one night and see the stars aligned to make this skywriting, purely as a result of natural processes that have been in motion for billions of years.  There's a reason he stubbornly clings to this scientifically ignorant notion.  It is because he needs this phenomenon to be a natural event in order for his narrative of the dishonest atheist to play out, as we shall see.

The second point is that Steve insists that skywriting is the "chosen example" of atheists, apparently carefully selected because it gives them a way to deny that such an event would be a real miracle.  This is the dishonesty of atheists, as Steve sees it.  It's as if they got together in some secret meeting, debated about different kinds of miracles, and chose this as their example of a miracle they demand to see, because as a "coincidence miracle" it would be the result of natural processes, so it would give them just the excuse they need to deny that any "real" miracle actually happened.  Steve's narrative is that atheists are just dishonest, and they have chosen skywriting as an example of a convincing miracle specifically because it would give them plausible deniability if and when it ever did happen.  Anyone up for a conspiracy theory?

Steve needs to drop his idiotic conspiracy theory, open his eyes, and take a look at reality for the first time in his blinkered little life.

First of all, to say that skywriting is the "chosen example" of atheists is simply ignorant.  Atheists have offered up a wealth of different examples of miracles they might find convincing in response to the question "What would it take to convince you (that there is something supernatural, or that there is something apart from the purely material)?"  I offered a few in the comments to his post.  There are many more.  To suggest that atheists deliberately limit their examples to things that could be explained away as natural events is sheer dishonesty on Steve's part.

The ridiculous notion that atheists have somehow limited their choices to things that could be dismissed as natural, simply isn't true.  As Steve pointed out, Jerry Coyne is one of the purveyors of the trope.  But he described the phenomenon as "moving stars into words".  Clearly, he's not talking about a natural process, or a "coincidence miracle".  He's talking about something dramatic that overrides the natural process, and he did say that he would find it convincing, although there are others who wouldn't. 

But there are many more examples that have been suggested that atheists would find convincing.  Coyne also offered a few other ideas:
There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.
Here are some thoughts offered by Greta Christina.  It's easy to find many other examples.  And they don't all fit Steve's narrative.

The real problem is that no matter what atheists say would convince them, theists like Steve refuse to take them at their word.  The narrative they would like everyone to believe is that atheists are always lying and that they are in fact adamantly resistant to evidence.  But if Steve thinks this is dishonesty on the part of atheists, on what basis does he make this assessment?  Does he have any evidence for it?  I don't think so.  The facts in evidence tell a completely different story.  These atheists are only asking to see evidence to justify belief in God or in miracles.  There's nothing dishonest about that.  If atheists are convinced that miracles never happen, that's because of the evidence (or lack of it) they've seen.  It's theists who insist that miracles happen, but when you ask them for objective evidence, all they can tell you is that these miracles are "well-attested".  The truth is that those claims don't stand up to objective scrutiny or objective historical analysis.  So the reality is that atheists want objective evidence as justification to believe, and theists refuse to examine evidence objectively.  Because what they want is to believe, despite the evidence.

Victor Reppert says:
What gets unproductive, however, is arguing with people who are so boxed in by an ideology that they can't, even in their imaginations, consider an opposing view. It's a little like talking to hard-core fundamentalists. It took too long to see that with the other two. Cal is getting close. I'm tired of dealing with people who can't think outside the playbook.
He's talking about atheists, of course, but his description actually fits theists like Steve (and himself) perfectly.  Because no matter what the objective evidence indicates, they will always believe in miracles.  They have to.  They are boxed into an ideology.

(*) Someone suggested that there could be a lot of supernova events whose light reaches the earth all at once, and forms skywriting.  I agree that this would indeed be an example of a coincidence miracle.  But the point is that what atheists have asked to see is something that couldn't be explained away as a natural event.


  1. I would be happy to be convinced of divine intervention if I won the lottery without buying a ticket. Wouldn't that be something. :o)

    Steve Hayes has nothing, nothing to contribute to reasoned discourse going forward. His thinking is that of the archetypal superstitious supernaturalist, a miscreant purveyor of spectral poltergeists.

  2. Replies
    1. This comment might have been better placed in the previous post (and I think it would be good for you to read Coyne's book to help you understand that the Catholic position on the compatibility of science and religion is bullshit).

      When the church comes around to recognizing that the human mind is better explained by science than by religious claims of ghostly souls, I'll have more reason to pay attention to them.

  3. It's called compartmentalisation. It's a way the brain mitigates cognitive dissonance. Christians, particularly the scientists among them, find it incalculably difficult to reconcile what has occurred and continues to do so:

    "The Enlightenment begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rise of the new science progressively undermines not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, but, with it, the entire set of presuppositions that had served to constrain and guide philosophical inquiry. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles." [Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy]

    The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy quote says it all, really. Science does not need theology. But theology sure as hell needs science.

    1. Isn't it astounding that church that continues to reject science when it comes to matters that conflict with its dogma, just as it has always done, also wants to claim credit for the emergence of science. The reality is that the church has promoted science in only the most limited ways, and its members who did more to advance science often risked the wrath of the church. As you point out, religious people who are scientists these days can only do so by setting religious dogma aside while they work in science, and setting science aside while thinking about their religious beliefs.

    2. The following is the blurb from Plank's book referral:
      Physicist Michael Dennin explains that science doesn’t deny the existence of God and that faith and science can actually enhance one another when approached the right away. He explains that science and faith do not have to live in conflict and inspires you to accept that you can be a person of faith and of science.

      So, what does it mean... "when approached the 'right' way"? Methinks NOMA in full bloom. Compartmentalisation writ large.

    3. The "right way" to approach the dark arts of science it to always remember that there is no conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of the church. If one encounters information that seems to contradict church teachings, he must be prepared to interpret that information in the manner prescribed by the church. Of course, it is always preferable to avoid any field of investigation that is likely to present such difficulties.

  4. You guys are too funny! You really ought to be a comedy duo on stage.

    1. Well, we have a mountain of ludicrous theological material to work with. How can this made-up stuff not be funny? Risible, is probably the best descriptor that characterises the content of theism.

      I mean, how funny the central belief of Christian superstition? : "“So, you believe that a cosmic zombie (who was his own father), born from a 'virgin', can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in all humans because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree and thereby pissing off an invisible wizard who lives in the sky (who couldn't find the only 2 humans on Earth)?"

      What's not funny about this core tenet?

  5. Meanwhile, over at Victor's, we see the theists proving beyond any doubt that they won't even consider any evidence that would change their conception of God.

    These people call atheists close-minded because they want to see evidence in order to believe in miracles, rather than just swallowing a bunch of anecdotes.

    What a laugh.