The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion
St Edmund’s College, Cambridge

Science, Religion and Atheism

Short Course No. 21

Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

Friday 30th March – Sunday 1st April 2012

Is the discussion between science and religion affected by its narrator, be they
theist, atheist or agnostic? This course is not to debate the existence of God
but to explore answers to this question presented by speakers themselves
coming from these different perspectives.

Speakers and Topics include:

A Plague on Both Your Houses: Prof. Michael Ruse
Does the Evolutionary Narrative Support Theism or Atheism?
Prof. Simon Conway Morris FRS and Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker
Is the Universe Designed?
Revd Dr Rodney Holder and Dr Stephen Law
Perspectives on the Philosophy of Science and Religion
Prof. Keith Ward and Dr Mark Vernon
Does the History of Science and Religion depend on the Narrator?
Dr Allan Chapman and Prof. Ronald Numbers

For more details including bursaries and discounts, see
or call +44 (0)1223 741281


Steven Carr said…
'Does the Evolutionary Narrative Support Theism or Atheism?'

The course of events always seems to run like this.

Theist 'You will never find an explanation for X. The only way this could have happened is if my God did it. No other explanation is possible.'

Atheist (after a pause, possibly of some centuries.) 'X happened this way.'

Theist 'That proves nothing. It happened that way because God did it using that mechanism.'
Steven Carr said…
‘Like the porridge in the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, the
universe seems “just right” for life, in many intriguing ways.’ So
says cosmologist Paul Davies in his book The Goldilocks Enigma.
If the universe was created by the God of the great monotheistic religions,
this is not surprising: God would have good reason for creating
a universe with properties such that intelligent creatures could
evolve who would be capable of a relationship with him.

And if somebody wins the lottery, we can suppose that their guardian angel had good reason to fix the draw so that that person won...

At every stage of cosmology, theists have claimed that that understanding of the world was evidence that their god had designed it to be that way.

Take Arthur Eddington in 1929 'The idea of a universal Mind, or Logos, would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of theory.'

If the universe rested on the back of 4 elephants, you can bet that people will claim those elephants were designed by their god.

What is clear is that the universe is a killing machine which kills all life which appears in a very short space of time. No person on this Earth lives more than 130 years, before God's universe rubs him out one way or another.
Thomas Larsen said…
“Does the Evolutionary Narrative Support Theism or Atheism?”

It depends what one means by “theism.” Really. (Oh, and “evolutionary narrative,” too. Are we talking about the evolution of species by natural selection here, or social evolution as well? Because, judging from the last century, social evolution is largely a myth.)

I do think the evolutionary account of human origins provides some weak evidence against Christian theism. But generic theism? Not necessarily.
Bernard Hurley said…
I'm not sure I understand the logic of the goldilocks zone argument. It's a bit like saying:

Everest is a ideally suited to provide an ultimate challenge for a mountaineer.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that a race of aliens with the requisite technology who wanted human mountaineers to be so challenged would build such a mountain.

This provides powerful evidence for the hypothesis that Everest was built by aliens.
Steven Carr said…
Of course, as soon as Stephen Law produces his evil god challenge, theists suddenly lose the power to tell us what their god would or would not do.

They then become skeptical theists.

Their power of reading God's mind and intentions only returns when they want to talk about how they could expect their god to create a world just like the one we see.
Thomas Larsen said…
To be honest, Steven, most Christian philosophers don't seem to find Stephen's evil-god challenge particularly difficult to deal with.
Michael Fugate said…
Why? because they know their god is evil?
Thomas Larsen said…
No. The evil-god challenge (EGC) simply doesn't bear on how most orthodox Christian theists come to believe that God exists and is good. The additional gratuitous complexity of the evil god hypothesis compared to the hypothesis that a good God exists makes "flipped" arguments less likely to be true than the original arguments. And so on.
Steven Carr said…
The evil-god challenge (EGC) simply doesn't bear on how most orthodox Christian theists come to believe that God exists and is good.

So most orthodox Christians haven't thought through their position properly and accept that their god is good because it is a dogma to be accepted by faith, not an empirical fact to be discovered by looking at reality.

And that refutes Stephen Law's challenge how?

Michael Fugate said…
So the OT god is not evil? Are you saying the Bible has incorrectly characterized their god?
Thomas Larsen said…
Michael, perhaps the Old Testament doesn't accurately record God's revelation of Himself. But I wouldn't want to come to such a conclusion simply because contemporary Western society can't stomach some of the commands and deeds attributed to God in the Old Testament; that would be base arrogance and presumption.
Steven Carr said…
So it is 'base arrogance and presumption' to state that it is wrong to order the killing of entire tribes of men, women and children?

And the 'Evolutionary Narrative' tells us that this alleged god appears to have allowed entire species of humanity to become extinct?

Were Neanderthals Untermenschen and it was part of God's plan that they all die out?

If God fine-tuned the universe to allow humanity to live, why do whole branches of humans die out?
Michael Fugate said…
Lame, Thomas, lame. What you are saying is that if a god exists it is nothing like the one described in the Bible. Revelation is unreliable or simply doesn't occur.
Thomas Larsen said…

"What you are saying is that if a god exists it is nothing like the one described in the Bible. Revelation is unreliable or simply doesn't occur."

Absolutely not! My claim is simply that some passages in the Bible may possibly attribute commands to God that He never gave. That doesn't mean that God hasn't revealed Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, or that the Bible isn't largely reliable; it certainly doesn't mean that revelation doesn't occur.


"So it is 'base arrogance and presumption' to state that it is wrong to order the killing of entire tribes of men, women and children?"

I don't think that God is a moral agent, so I don't think it would be wrong for God to give such an order. We do need to ask, though, whether God ordered such an action in the first place. And I don't think we should reject the possibility simply because we, as members of contemporary Western society, find it a bit repulsive.

I would encourage you to read Matt Flannagan's three-part series on God and the Canaanites; he espouses a hagiographic hyperbolic interpretation of the relevant biblical accounts. (Part one, part two, part three.)
Dan P said…
Leaving aside the question as to whether there is a good or evil god, what is the consolation in there being a good god?

I supose the existence of a good god, makes cognitively tolerable the suffering in the world, senseless as it may seem. However, arguments for a good god in the face of enormous suffering seem comically rude, or in bad taste!

Of course, this is not an argument against such positions. It is just that in the face of theodicy, I cannot stop laughing!

I picture Emily Post scolding such defenders of a good god, saying, "It is never appropriate to tell a quadraplegic that it is for the best!".
Thomas Larsen said…
Dan, given that God does not exist in some sort of contingent way for the sake of human beings, the question of whether there is "consolation in there being a good [G]od" is irrelevant to the question of whether God actually does exist and can be known.
Michael Fugate said…
Perhaps you can answer this for me. Religion differs from other ways of knowing in its reliance on revelation from a supposed divine source. How do you know when a revelation occurs? How do you know its source is divine and not just a random thought popping up in your brain? How do you know when someone else has received a divine revelation?
Thomas Larsen said…
Michael, as a Christian, I understand Jesus of Nazareth to be God's ultimate revelation of himself, on account of his personal claims to be the divine Christ and God's vindication of Jesus' claims by raising Jesus from the dead after his execution for blasphemy and treason. The Christian scriptures, too, which point to the work of Jesus Christ and God's redemptive plan to establish a kingdom on earth and bring about new creation are plausibly revelation in some sense as well, although my reasons for thinking are pretty complex and would take quite some time to explain.

Now, what if someone claims to have received a revelation from God? I guess such claims generally have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; but I suppose I would ask questions like:

"Does this supposed revelation point to Jesus Christ?"

"Is the person who received the supposed revelation?"

"What is the significance of this revelation, if true?"

"What kind of proof can the person who received the supposed revelation give for their claims?"
Thomas Larsen said…
Bother! Try to ignore the grammatical errors in my last comment. I should've proof-read it...
Thomas Larsen said…
* "Is the person who received the supposed revelation usually honest and trustworthy?"
Dan P said…
Thomas Larsen:

I understand that there being consolation in the existence of a good God is irrelevant to whether such a God exists and is knowable.

Additionally, it may be that God's goodness and the success of any theodicies would not provide consolation in the face of the enormous suffering and harm inflicted on millions of people in events like the Holocaust or the acts of Pol Pot.

That God is good, or that these events are consistent with such goodness, or that they are not in fact bad in and of themselves in some inconceivable way, seems to have little motivational force.

How is such a God worshipable?
How is the existence of such a God relevant to humans more than the existence of a distant quasar?
Anonymous said…
Bully for God!