Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam

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Book Review

A few weeks ago when I had lunch with Bradley Monton, his colleague and friend Robert Pasnau came along as well. Pasnau introduced himself to me as a philosopher specializing in medieval philosophy. I tried to think of something intelligent to say to that, and I have to admit nothing came out. It wasn’t that I don’t know anything about the Middle Ages; it was that I had no idea where to start with someone who was so vastly more qualified than me. I joked about it a few minutes later, and he replied in all good humor, “I’m used to it; I get a lot of blank faces when I tell people what I do.” We ended up having a good talk in spite of my embarrassingly slow start.

God's Philosophers Book Cover

I thought about that after I read James Hannam’s book, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. I worry that a book with both “philosophers” and “medieval” in its title will elicit blank faces among potential readers, like my initial response to Robert Pasnau. It would be a shame if it did; for Hannam, a Ph.D. historian of science with degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, knows how to write readable history — and the tale he tells is truly fascinating.

It is the latest entry in a controversy with a history of its own. Hannam speaks of the myth that “there was no science worth mentioning in the Middle Ages,” and “the Church held back what meagre advances were made.” These beliefs took flower as late as the 19th century with Thomas Henry Huxley, John William Draper, and Andrew Dickson White, who tried to paint religion as the enemy of science. Their story has been told often; Hannam himself has blogged on it.

A.D. White’s part is particularly unfortunate, in that he produced a highly influential, heavily footnoted, apparently scholarly tome on the historic warfare between science and religion. Hannam assesses his work this way:

Anyone who checks his references will wonder how he could have maintained his opinions if he had read as much as he claimed to have done.

Others have treated White less gently than that.

Hannam situates these myths in historical context:

The denigration of the Middle Ages began as long ago as the sixteenth century, when humanists, the intellectual trendsetters of the time, started to champion classical Greek and Roman literature. They cast aside medieval scholarship on the grounds that it was convoluted and written in ‘barbaric’ Latin. So people stopped reading and studying it…. The waters were muddied further by … Protestant writers not to give an ounce of credit to Catholics. It suited them to maintain that nothing of value had been taught at universities before the Reformation.

This is no simplistic apologetic for Christianity as the root of scientific thinking. Hannam summarizes the church’s relationship with natural philosophy as one of “creative tension.” Nevertheless it’s impossible not to notice who led the way in medieval natural philosophy:

  • A mathematician Pope at the turn of the last millennium.
  • A monk in 1092 who used an astrolabe to construct the lunar calendar.
  • St. Anselm and Peter Abelard, clerics who elevated the role of reason and logic in philosophy and theology.
  • Cathedral school scholars who taught that “God is loving and consistent rather than capricious and arbitrary” paving the way for the study of a consistently operating world of nature.
  • The universities, products of the Church.
  • The influential bishop of Paris who condemned certain (not all, especially in view of the work of St. Thomas Aquinas) Aristotelian-based dogmas. It was an act that remains controversial, yet one which clearly opened the door for experimental study, rather than restricting natural philosophy to Aristotle’s pure reasoning.
  • A Polish clergyman, Copernicus, who challenged Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views of the heavens.

I could go on, but you get the point; and I am on the verge of conveying a false impression about the book. It’s a narrative, not a list of arguments. It’s a story showing that the tension between religion and natural philosophy was indeed a creative one: it led to new technologies (improved plows, the stirrup, clocks, the compass, eyeglasses, mills, and more), new theories (impetus/momentum, theories of acceleration), new observational tools (observatories, telescopes), and new institutions of learning (cathedral schools and universities).

And as the author states in his conclusion, it also produced the metaphysical cornerstone for modern science:

We take it for granted and we do not worry about why people began studying nature in the first place….

To understand why science was attractive even before it could demonstrate its remarkable success in explaining the universe, it is necessary to look at things from a medieval point of view. The starting point for all natural philosophy in the Middle Ages was that nature had been created by God. This made it a legitimate area of study because through nature, man could learn about its creator. Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and worth scrutinising. However, these scholars rejected Aristotle’s contention that the laws of nature were bound by necessity. God was not constrained by what Aristotle thought. The only way to find out which laws God had decided on was by the use of experience and observation. The motivations and justification of medieval natural philosophers were carried over almost unchanged by the pioneers of modern science.

I am still not an expert in medieval philosophy, but I think there is little risk in being confident in what Hannam has to say. (This is no scholarly fraud, á la A.D. White.) It’s a straightforward account of the development of important ideas and inventions, in the context of a continent dominated by Christian thinking. One segment of the story does get convoluted: Galileo gets a full three chapters. Nevertheless the conclusion is clear: the roots of modern science go down deep into Christian culture, theology, and practice.

God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam. London: Icon Books, 2009. 342 pages plus index and additional back material. Not yet distributed in the United States but available through Amazon, US$26.65 and up.

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40 Responses to “ Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam ”

  1. Thanks for the review and recommendation. I just ordered it even though my ‘to-read’ stack is way too high.

  2. So, please permit me pose (what may seem to some members of both sides of the many arguments presented on this blog) a few provocative questions (even if we limit ourselves to Tom’s bullet seven bullets points): WHAT was the Church from Pentecost to the Reformation? WHO were the Fathers and the Scholastics and the “early” modern scientists? WHO issued the encyclicals Fides et ratio and Veritatis splendor? WHY can neither faith nor reason be ever successfully usurped by either fideism or rationalism? WHY can Scripture not interpret itself, why is sola Scriptura unsupportable and why can Scripture not be misused through personal interpretation either to “prove” or “disprove” the Existence of God scientifically or to hang itself before the alleged superior epistemological authority of the MESs (ref 2 Peter 1:17)? WHY have none of the findings of the MESs ever contradicted faith, and why will they never contradict faith? Notwithstanding her serious “warts,” what is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15)?

    A weak, inadequate response to the first and last questions is: the Body of Christ into which I was unworthy to have been baptized.

  3. Hmmm…. I’ve put the book on my wish list and have been browsing the Quodlibeta blog wherein I found this fascinating little tidbit…

    I say atheism is a conspiracy theory in a sense because there are important senses in which it is not. Thinking that all the theistic arguments fail or that the problems of theism outweigh those of atheism does not make one a conspiracy theorist. God’s existence is not blindingly obvious, so to compare those who disbelieve in Him to those who think there is a secret cabal of evil Jews running the world is, in many ways, inappropriate. So I don’t mean to imply that atheism is on a par with conspiracy theories in general; only when looked at in a particular way.

    The sense in which atheism is a conspiracy theory is with regards to religious experience. Throughout human history people have had experiences of “something” beyond the physical world. In fact, this is one of the most common experiences that human beings have. The atheist thesis would require us to believe that virtually all of these experiences are completely illusory. I find this about as plausible as claiming that our experiences of the physical world are illusory. Of course there are differences: everyone experiences the physical world while not everyone has religious experiences; the physical world imposes itself on us constantly, while religious experiences are usually temporary; etc. Nevertheless, the sense of the supernatural, of a “beyond,” can impose itself upon us to a much greater degree than the physical world.

    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2009/09/atheism-and-conspiracy-theories.html

    I considered posting it in the “Final Answer to All Theistic Arguments?” thread, but figured I should give credit where credit is due. Interesting blog and it looks like a good book. “Those Terrible Middle Ages” by Regine Pernoud is an historical look at the same period.

    http://www.amazon.com/Those-Terrible-Middle-Ages-Debunking/dp/0898707811

  4. And does not the utterly inconsistent nature of so many religious experiences (one person seeing a vision of heaven, another remembering his past lives, etc) not weigh rather heavily against the argument for the non-illusory nature of religious experience?

  5. Another thing, saying that a lot of people made the same error is not even remotely the same as saying those people are involved in a conspiracy.

    That’s like saying that, when hundreds of people see a set of flares in the sky and misinterpret it as an extraterrestrial vessel, that they’re involved in a huge conspiracy. No, of course not, they just made the same mistake.

  6. And does not the utterly inconsistent nature of so many religious experiences (one person seeing a vision of heaven, another remembering his past lives, etc) not weigh rather heavily against the argument for the non-illusory nature of religious experience?

    Again with the fallacious “reasoning”.

    First, “utterly inconsistent nature of so many religious experiences” is a categorical, absolutist assertion that is not sustainable. That there are many religious experiences does nothing to invalidate the consistent sense of wonder of the transcendent. In fact, quite the opposite is the case: all spiritual or religious “movements” are quite consistent in sensing and seeking things beyond the narrow-minded confines of the materialism emotionally blinding atheists to needing to explain the transcendent away. (Again, David is a materialist.)

    Second (closely related to the first), do the numbers of religious experiences (concrete) somehow argue for an alleged illusory nature of faith (general)? Of course not: that’s as silly as asserting that because so many humans have lived on earth, then we cannot claim “humanity” exists. (This error distantly echoes nominalism, and more closely echoes reductionism.) It’s a fallacy that sacrifices the general simply by virtue of the fact that the many exist.

    Also, David seems not to have grasped the fine distinction drawn in the “conspiracy” comparison noted above.

    Ah well, here we go again…

  7. I have a lot to do today so I probably won’t have the chance to respond to any further comments until some time tomorrow:


    Again with the fallacious “reasoning”.

    Again with the fallacious accusations of fallacious reasoning.


    First, “utterly inconsistent nature of so many religious experiences” is a categorical, absolutist assertion that is not sustainable.

    Different people have religious experiences which cannot both be taken as veritical. That is too obvious to dispute.


    In fact, quite the opposite is the case: all spiritual or religious “movements” are quite consistent in sensing and seeking things beyond the narrow-minded confines of the materialism….

    Sensing? or imagining? Its not that people have the experiences that’s being disputed. Its the interpretation of them.

    What we have is simply an argument from popularity. Lots of people have experiences they interpret as contact with something(s) that are, in some sense, supernatural.

    OK. So what? Large numbers of people are capable of error. There’s been no argument supporting the claim that the popular interpretation is correct.


    Also, David seems not to have grasped the fine distinction drawn in the “conspiracy” comparison noted above.

    Oh, I understand all too well what’s going on with that. Tarring atheists with the conspiracy theorist label allows one to attach to them the negative associations that come with the word. Never mind that it doesn’t fit. That’s OK, one can twist things until one makes people think it fits if they don’t look too carefully. And with a largely despised group most probably won’t (other than the atheists themselves).


    Second (closely related to the first), do the numbers of religious experiences (concrete) somehow argue for an alleged illusory nature of faith (general)?

    The numbers of mutually inconsistent ones. And it certainly doesn’t help. There’s so far been no argument but an argument from popularity. And I’m not attempting to disprove the general claim (that would be silly, its unfalsifiable)—only to point out how poorly supported it is.


    Do you suppose this has any relevance to David’s charge?

    What? Data lumping atheists in with the irreligious (defined how? most people who aren’t practicing a religion are still believers in the supernatural) and finding, surprise, surprise, that this broad group includes a lot of superstitious thinking?

    No, I don’t think sloppy use of statistical data has any relevance here.

  8. Actually, David may, for the first time, be facing the dissonant “music” of what atheism is about (and, by extension, what he’s about) and running away by means of any (invariably fallacious) claim possible to salvage some portion of that disordered world view. What struck me about his latest response is the sheer blindness (or purposeful inattention) to what was said: it’s really scary how willfully and tenaciously, against a mountain of evidence, exposure of fallacies, etc., David clings to error… and error is NOT truth. It’s like clinging to an anti-cross.

    One of the effects of sin (to be a sin, it must be intentional, i.e., willful), which I admittedly belabor because it’s that important, is the degradation of the ability to reason. The sad thing is the conspiracy of atheism isn’t so much against faith, it’s against the conspirators themselves: “I will not no matter what!”

  9. David, you missed something here:

    What? Data lumping atheists in with the irreligious (defined how? most people who aren’t practicing a religion are still believers in the supernatural) and finding, surprise, surprise, that this broad group includes a lot of superstitious thinking?

    I agree that sloppy use of statistical data has no relevance. But the data I’m talking about are not what you seem to have thought. (Perhaps you were feeling a bit defensive.) The study was not only about the atheists and the irreligious, it was also about believers: specifically, that believers appear not to be very susceptible to illusory experiences, compared to the rest of the population. That’s what’s relevant here.

  10. This is purely parenthetical. David, you say:

    OK. So what? Large numbers of people are capable of error. There’s been no argument supporting the claim that the popular interpretation is correct.

    I love this “no argument” phrase. I see it all the time (not all of these are from David). There is “no argument” for Intelligent Design. There is “no argument” for the resurrection. There is “no argument” for moral realism. There is “no argument” that God answers prayer.

    Guess what, friends–there are arguments in favor of all of these. Do you mean “no successful argument”? Then you would have to argue that the arguments that have been made are not successful. Shall I retort, there is “no argument” to that effect? After all, you haven’t in this post made the argument that these arguments (which you say do not exist, but surely do) are unsuccessful. So I can say there is “no argument” there. Or I could say that there is “no successful argument” to that effect.

    There are arguments for all these positions. They have not all been made in this thread. That does not mean they do not exist.

    Here’s the easy answer whenever someone says there is “no argument:” Wrong.

  11. Tom:

    On your last point: Bingo! Touche! Well done! Spot on!

    This is a beautiful example of David’s inability to reason properly, and hence why he’s closed-minded not only to reason but to having his errors exposed. Just a few comments before yours, he does it (at that time, I thought it too simple-minded to worry about): To my exposing his fallacious argument in Comment 6 (in which I explained why his argument was a fallacy), do you think he presents a reasoned response? No, he presents the response of the playground bully’s “so there!”: “Again with the fallacious accusations of fallacious reasoning.” And how is what I stated fallacious David, of course, doesn’t provide: it just is because he wants it that way. Point one.

    Point two: look at the very way David makes his claim: there’s no such thing as a “fallacious accusation.” You may have an “unfair” or “incorrect” accusation, but the term “fallacious” applies to arguments–rhetorical or not… the point being David accuses others of being “sloppy” but he himself is either sloppy or ignorant… or both.

    Unfortunately, none of this will matter to David.

  12. Briefly, since I have a test to study for:


    Guess what, friends–there are arguments in favor of all of these. Do you mean “no successful argument”?

    I realize that he employed an argument (I said so—an appeal to popularity). What I’m saying that he’s given no reason for thinking the popular views is the more sensible, more reasonable or more parsimonious explanation. In other words, no argument for his position on the actual point of disagreement.


    he study was not only about the atheists and the irreligious, it was also about believers: specifically, that believers appear not to be very susceptible to illusory experiences, compared to the rest of the population.

    Christians are less likely to believe in superstitions that they think are contrary to their religion (astrology, for example, which is part of some other religions, is viewed as unChristian by many Christians). Same goes for reincarnation (a superstition at odds with their religious beliefs).

    Other superstitions, however, they seem particularly prone to. How many times do we see Christians suckered by a con artist faith healer? How often do we see Christians going nuts over a stain or other random shape vaguely resembling Jesus or the Virgin Mary?

    Its hard to find many naturalists, however, prone to superstition belief in unsupported supernatural claims (nor many, in my experience, taken in by homeopathy and similar pseudo-scientific ideas). The skepticism and atheism communities tend to overlap quite a lot.

    I read your article. It compares non-worshippers with worshippers. Non-worshippers includes the nutty New Agey “spiritual but not religious” crowd. And yes, if you include that bunch you’ll get the Christians coming out better—those people’ll believe almost anything. Same goes if you do the reverse and compare naturalists with supernaturalists (including therefore, the New Agers in YOUR category).

    The article also doesn’t provide much detail on wording or the sort of questions asked. If you really want to discuss this we need the actual data (and related studies). Not an opinion piece by someone with an axe to grind.

    Definitely an interesting topic though. I’d like to read more about it.

    Tomorrow, when I have more time, I’ll try to find more info about the study and others on the same topic.

  13. OK. So what? Large numbers of people are capable of error. There’s been no argument supporting the claim that the popular interpretation is correct.

    The non-sequitur, “people can be mistaken about their experiences, therefore the interpretation of experience X is in error” is not a valid argument. There are too many examples where the conclusion does not follow from the premise. In addition, it’s a self-defeating argument when taken all by itself. I haven’t heard much more than this from David.

  14. I realize that he employed an argument (I said so—an appeal to popularity). What I’m saying that he’s given no reason for thinking the popular views is the more sensible, more reasonable or more parsimonious explanation. In other words, no argument for his position on the actual point of disagreement.

    This reminds me of arguments about the mind and free will. Nobody can point to a mind or to free will. Nobody can verify reasoning, logic, intentionality or choice – but we all interpret them as such via our experiences.

    Is this an appeal to popularity, or an appeal to properly basic knowledge gathered through common first-person experiences (i.e. common sense – another thing you can’t verify)? I say it’s the latter.

    As far as I can tell, David, the reasons you give for not accepting common properly basic knowledge as the explanation for common experiences is because you require all explainations to be rooted in scientistic, reductionistic or materialistic philosophies. You say you don’t subscribe to these, but I haven’t heard you say anything that would cause me to think it is actually true.

  15. David,

    What I’m saying that he’s given no reason for thinking the popular views is the more sensible, more reasonable or more parsimonious explanation. In other words, no argument for his position on the actual point of disagreement.

    Think it through, David, when you’re done studying for your test. Does your answer here have the slightest impact on what I wrote about this? Are you saying that there is no argument on the actual point of disagreement? If so, then my answer is still the same: wrong. Or are you saying that no argument was supplied this time around? Then why didn’t you say so? (Again, this was a parenthetical issue as I noted when I wrote about this earlier. But I think it’s significant nonetheless. Here’s what I wonder when I see, “there is no argument…” I wonder whether the person has the ability even to see, much less to evaluate, a contrary opinion.)

    The study was reported in What Americans Really Believe, Baylor University Press, 2008. You can take a look at it any time. It’s not an opinion piece by someone with an axe to grind.

  16. Good point, Steve, on scientism/reductionism and/or materialism. I don’t know what David believes, but he sure seems to ascribe to something in that neighborhood. Also a good point about the self-defeating argument with respect to experience.

  17. Tom quoting the author:

    The starting point for all natural philosophy in the Middle Ages was that nature had been created by God. This made it a legitimate area of study because through nature, man could learn about its creator. Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and worth scrutinising.

    Contrast this with some of the alternative starting points that never took off, but somehow are still around despite being non-sensical today.

    That nature was created by nothing (literally) or by something contingent and non-intelligent, and that man could depend on this contingent, non-intelligently induced process to give him the ability to somehow transcend the process in order to accurately understand the process itself (a loose paraphrase of Lewis).

    If we could somehow rewind the tape, taking with us what we know today, I doubt this starting point would ever take root because of where it ultimately leads most people. That ultimate destination doesn’t jibe with what our common sense perceptions tell us about what’s in the cube. Science thinks it can unravel the mystery, but it can’t because it admits that it doesn’t have access to the cube. Fortunately not all knowledge comes from scientific endeavors.


  18. The study was reported in What Americans Really Believe, Baylor University Press, 2008. You can take a look at it any time. It’s not an opinion piece by someone with an axe to grind.

    I said the article you linked to was an opinion piece by someone with an axe to grind. Not the study. I haven’t even had a chance to look at the study yet.


    Good point, Steve, on scientism/reductionism and/or materialism. I don’t know what David believes, but he sure seems to ascribe to something in that neighborhood.

    The thing I share with materialists is that I have no belief in mental events that happen in the absence of something physical. Nor any sort of deliberate act not mediated by something physical. It’s not based on a metaphysical theory about the nature of the substance that makes up the world. I simply see no good evidence that the world works in any other way (and this is consistent, by the way, with idealism and neutral monism just as much with materialism).


  19. The non-sequitur, “people can be mistaken about their experiences, therefore the interpretation of experience X is in error” is not a valid argument.

    Obviously not. And since I didn’t make that argument this fact is rather irrelevant.

    What I said was that no argument has been presented for the proposition that the popular interpretation is the correct one. And in that, despite Tom’s claim to the contrary, I am correct. Read what the article said. It simply states the author’s opinion that she finds the atheist’s position implausible. Well, so what? I find her position implausible. Its not an argument. Its an opinion.

    I don’t think there’s a good argument to be made for her position but until one’s actually presented I see no need for further commentary. I can’t criticize an argument that’s not been put forward.


    Is this an appeal to popularity, or an appeal to properly basic knowledge gathered through common first-person experiences (i.e. common sense – another thing you can’t verify)? I say it’s the latter.

    So when one person has a religious experience in which he recalls past lives and another has a religious experience in which he sees a vision of Jesus telling him that he alone is the way to salvation the most reasonable conclusion is that both are in contact with a supernatural realm and not that at least one of them is just imagining things?

    All of you keep trying to sidestep just how big a problem this is for your thesis but it won’t go away by ignoring it.


    That nature was created by nothing (literally) or by something contingent and non-intelligent, and that man could depend on this contingent, non-intelligently induced process to give him the ability to somehow transcend the process in order to accurately understand the process itself (a loose paraphrase of Lewis).

    We’ve discussed several variations of this argument before. I don’t see much point in getting into it yet again so I’m going to let it pass for now. I’m more interested in the bit about the relative levels of credulity among atheists/naturalists vs Christians. That’s a less thoroughly discussed issue.

    Now back to the books.

  20. David,

    The thing I share with materialists is that I have no belief in mental events that happen in the absence of something physical.

    I will leave it to others to dissect this more than I possibly can, but it seems to me that, at minimum, you are saying

    1) the mental is not physical, and
    2) the mental can act upon the physical.

    If you are saying that, then you are saying the non-physical can act upon the physical. However, you are saying that this only occurs when the physical is present. Do I have that correct?

    Oh….and hope you do well on your test. Study, study, study.

  21. David,

    So when one person has a religious experience in which he recalls past lives and another has a religious experience in which he sees a vision of Jesus telling him that he alone is the way to salvation the most reasonable conclusion is that both are in contact with a supernatural realm and not that at least one of them is just imagining things?

    I don’t see a necessary contradiction here, however I admit that I may not fully understand what you are trying to say.

    Both can be reasonably accurate descriptions of their respective experiences and both can be an experience with the supernatural realm. How do you come to the conclusion that one (or both) must be imagining things? You could be correct, but I’m asking how you reasoned your way to this conclusion.

  22. I responded to this at length here, but I want to add this also to what Steve said lest it appear we are contradicting each other. I would say that if one person has an experience of recalling past lives, and another person has an experience of Jesus as David described, there is a contradiction in terms of the beliefs those experiences would lead the person to adopt. I think that’s a necessary contradiction.

    But Steve’s last paragraph is accurate nonetheless. It could be that Jesus is the only way to God and that the Bible is fully true in all it affirms, and that a person could have an experience with the supernatural realm, a real and not imagined one, in which that person was led to believe she was experiencing her own past lives. This is possible because Christianity never claimed that the supernatural was all holy and true. There is a dark and evil side to it as well, a side led by “the father of lies,” “the deceiver.” The past lives-experiencer may be experiencing something real in the sense that it is not purely psychological, not imagined–real as an aircraft pilot’s simulation experience is real–and yet something false.


  23. I will leave it to others to dissect this more than I possibly can, but it seems to me that, at minimum, you are saying

    1) the mental is not physical, and
    2) the mental can act upon the physical.

    Actually, all I’m saying is that I see no reason to believe that minds exist in the absence of physical brains of some sort and that I see no reason to believe in such paranormal phenomena as telepathy and telekinesis.

    Try not to make inferences from that to a particular position on metaphysical theories. You will almost certainly err since I find these facts consistent with several.


    Oh….and hope you do well on your test. Study, study, study.

    Thanks.


    I don’t see a necessary contradiction here, however I admit that I may not fully understand what you are trying to say.

    I’m assuming that reincarnation is inconsistent with Christianity being true. This seems to be the view of most Christians.

    If you want a more explicit contradiction imagine one individual having a religious experience in which he believes God is communicating to him that Christianity is the one and only true religion and that only Christians have salvation while another has a religious experience in which he thinks that God is communicating to him that there are many paths to him and that no one religion is the only path to salvation.

    Both can’t be right. At least one of them must be dead wrong.

    And it then comes down to the question: how do we tell whether a person is right in thinking their religious experience a true communication from God or not?

    Note that the “not” category above fits the diabolical deception Tom mentioned (I’m surprised this idea was not brought up sooner) as much as human imaginings.

    And, I note as well, that no argument has actually been presented for the original claim that the popular interpretation of religious experiences as having a supernatural source has yet been presented. The author originally quoted simply says she finds the contrary implausible.

    Which is, of course, not an argument.

    Its a shame that in all this time no argument in support of this claim has actually been presented. Please quote where this occurs if you consider me mistaken in thinking no such argument has yet been advanced–I’d be interested in discussing whatever argument you have for the claim.

  24. David,

    And, I note as well, that no argument has actually been presented for the original claim that the popular interpretation of religious experiences as having a supernatural source has yet been presented.

    1. That was not argued for originally:
    a. Dave posted a “tidbit,” a reference to another web page of interest. Clearly the purpose of the post was not to argue a point but to point to an argument.

    b. The tidbit he posted was not primarily asserting that spiritual experiences have a supernatural source. It was primarily asserting that there is something like a conspiracy in effect among those who deny that possibility.

    2. Your comment in response to that tidbit was,

    And does not the utterly inconsistent nature of so many religious experiences (one person seeing a vision of heaven, another remembering his past lives, etc) not weigh rather heavily against the argument for the non-illusory nature of religious experience?

    a. With that comment you turned the discussion toward an attempt to disprove the possibility that religious experience was non-illusory. This is somewhat closer to what you call the “original claim” here, but it is your assertion, and it is not quite the same.
    b. The original claim, I remind you, was that there is some kind of conspiracy going on (and the original claim was merely pointed to here, not argued).
    c. Your response was that there is an argument in favor of religious experience being illusory. We have answered that argument.
    d. You continue to fault us for not answering a different question, which is whether there are grounds for believing religious experiences may have a supernatural source. I answered that argument in the new blog post I just wrote.
    3. Later you said,

    What we have is simply an argument from popularity.

    There is an argument from popularity there, yes, but to say it is “simply” that is false and disingenuous. We have discussed ways in in which it is more than that.

    4. Now you seem to want us to mount a proof that religious experience can have a supernatural source, and you seem to want us to do so without reference to associated information, because you reject it (the historicity of the Bible, philosophical and existential arguments, etc.)

    In summary: you keep posing new assertions of your own, as if we had made them, and you keep asking why we have failed to argue in favor of those assertions. Do you recognize what you’re doing? Do you see that it’s illegitimate?

    Now here’s an overall observation that I might find time someday to go back and demonstrate. (Charlie does this thing sometimes, too, so go for it if you’re interested, Charlie.) This is what happens on blog post after blog post. (I called Geoff on this recently, but you were right in there with him.)

    What happens time and again is that I post some thinking or evidence in favor of Christianity, with the not unreasonable hope that you and other atheists or skeptics will take it by the horns and respond to it. But you take the topic off in a different direction. You attempt to control the debate by making us answer your question. This time you even dressed up your question as if it was one of ours, which it wasn’t.

    Dave’s link to Hannam’s blog was obviously parenthetical to this topic; he said he wasn’t even sure where to put it, but he chose it on the basis of the connection to Hannam. It was not on the basis of a connection to the argument I had raised in the original post. It was an aside, but you answered it as if we had positioned it as the main thing.

    Now, I don’t mind if the conversation wanders from here to there in a discussion thread, if there’s some semblance of linear connection to it. But I do mind when you misrepresent our position, misrepresent the thrust of our arguments, and in the process completely duck the point of the original post.

    So here’s my challenge to you. Forget this rabbit trail on which you’ve been trying to take us, falsely imputing assertions to us and then asking why we didn’t argue for them. Forget this whole issue about religious experience, which is the topic on which you’ve been doing that this time. And please, forever quit demanding we prove assertions that we haven’t even made.

    Answer me this instead: what do you think about the thesis of the original post?

  25. Let me rephrase that last question. David, you who accused us of evading issues in this very thread have yourself been avoiding the issues raised by the original post. You’ve been doing it with impressive finesse, I’ll grant you. But are you willing to address the original post–or will you continue to sidestep it?


  26. The tidbit he posted was not primarily asserting that spiritual experiences have a supernatural source. It was primarily asserting that there is something like a conspiracy in effect among those who deny that possibility.

    You have misread. It accused atheists of being like conspiracy theorists—not conspiracists (there’s a rather big difference). And it was making that accusation in regard to their not believing that religious experiences have a supernatural source.

    More later, I have to leave for classes.

  27. Perhaps I should respond, sonce my little tidbit appears to have ignited a minor controversy…

    David Ellis wrote;

    And does not the utterly inconsistent nature of so many religious experiences (one person seeing a vision of heaven, another remembering his past lives, etc) not weigh rather heavily against the argument for the non-illusory nature of religious experience?

    2) The fact that everyone tells the same story (that there is something beyond the physical world) is more significant than the disagreement of the details. It’s therefore strange to claim that the answer must lie in precisely the opposite direction. When eyewitnesses give contradictory accounts of a car accident, we are not justified in believing that no car accident took place.

    That’s like saying that, when hundreds of people see a set of flares in the sky and misinterpret it as an extraterrestrial vessel, that they’re involved in a huge conspiracy. No, of course not, they just made the same mistake.

    2) My focus is not on the cause of the conspiracy theory but on the effect. Atheists, by claiming that religious experiences are a widespread illusion, are making the same claim as other conspiracy theories: 9/11 wasn’t what it seemed to be; the Moon landings weren’t what they seemed to be, President Kennedy’s assassination wasn’t what it seemed to be, etc. Of course, many things aren’t what they seem, but to simply dismiss the experiences of billions of people as illusory seems no more reasonable than to dismiss all the eyewitness reports that the Pentagon was struck by a large airplane and assert it was a guided missile instead.

    [All quotes from original thesis]
    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2009/09/atheism-and-conspiracy-theories.html

    OK. So what? Large numbers of people are capable of error. There’s been no argument supporting the claim that the popular interpretation is correct.

    The “argument”, such as it is, is not about the validity or the veracity of particular extra-mundane experiences but about the atheist reaction to such extra-mundane experiences. Your objections to the thesis were addressed by its author and, on the surface anyway, appear to confirm the hypothesis. “Large numbers of people are capable of error.”, lacking as it does any “supporting evidence” could apply as assuredly to the naturalistic error as it could to any extra-mundane error.

    Oh, I understand all too well what’s going on with that. Tarring atheists with the conspiracy theorist label allows one to attach to them the negative associations that come with the word. Never mind that it doesn’t fit. That’s OK, one can twist things until one makes people think it fits if they don’t look too carefully.

    Do I detect a whiff of paranoia here? Perhaps this illustration of the type of negative labeling that “religious” people face from the “rationalists” will help to illuminate your mind.

    The title of this paper, “The Psychology of Atheism,” may seem strange. Certainly, my psychological colleagues have found it odd and even, I might add, a little disturbing. After all, psychology, since its founding roughly a century ago, has often focused on the opposite topic-namely the psychology of religious belief. Indeed, in many respects the origins of modern psychology are intimately bound up with the psychologists who explicitly proposed interpretations of belief in God.

    William James and Sigmund Freud, for example, were both personally and professionally deeply involved in the topic. Recall The Will to Believe by James, as well as his still famous Varieties of Religious Experience. These two works are devoted to an attempt at understanding belief as the result of psychological, that is natural, causes. James might have been sympathetic to religion, but his own position was one of doubt and skepticism and his writings were part of psychology’s general undermining of religious faith. As for Sigmund Freud, his critiques of religion, in particular Christianity, are well known and will be discussed in some detail later. For now, it is enough to remember how deeply involved Freud and his thought have been with the question of God and religion.

    http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth12.html

    And with a largely despised group most probably won’t (other than the atheists themselves).

    It’s interesting to note how atheists cling to the results of a poll as evidence that they are despised and marrginalized while ignoring the positions of influence held by (functional) atheists in the fields of education, legislation, jurisprudence, literature, and popular media. Even more revealing is the majority of people, despite the best efforts of this elite over several generations to indoctrinate them and their children with the dogmas of athiesm, still “cling to their guns and religion”.

    http://questiondarwin.blogspot.com/2009/09/irony.html

    The thing I share with materialists is that I have no belief in mental events that happen in the absence of something physical. Nor any sort of deliberate act not mediated by something physical. It’s not based on a metaphysical theory about the nature of the substance that makes up the world. I simply see no good evidence that the world works in any other way (and this is consistent, by the way, with idealism and neutral monism just as much with materialism).

    Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. John 9:41

    I see you are still dancing around, deliberately avoiding the implications of your metaphysic while claiming not to have a metaphysic. Everybody has a metaphysic, whether they are aware of it or not. It is the subtext to their view of reality and guides their vision.

    Actually, all I’m saying is that I see no reason to believe that minds exist in the absence of physical brains of some sort and that I see no reason to believe in such paranormal phenomena as telepathy and telekinesis.

    And you have offered no reason for this conclusion other than the observation that “Large numbers of people are capable of error.” – hardly an “argument” for the validity of your belief.

    The author whom I quoted finished the article with a quote from C. S. Lewis which I reproduce here.

    If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.

    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2009/09/atheism-and-conspiracy-theories.html


  28. The fact that everyone tells the same story (that there is something beyond the physical world) is more significant than the disagreement of the details.

    A sees past lives in a vision.

    B sees a vision of Jesus telling him that only by accepting him as savior can one join the saved in heaven

    C sees a vision in which it is communicated to him that all who do not die in battle will go to hell and only warriors who die in battle go to Valhalla.

    These people are not “telling the same story”. They’re telling completely different stories that simply have the feature in common of involving supernatural claims.


    My focus is not on the cause of the conspiracy theory but on the effect. Atheists, by claiming that religious experiences are a widespread illusion, are making the same claim as other conspiracy theories: 9/11 wasn’t what it seemed to be; the Moon landings weren’t what they seemed to be….

    Conspiracy theories, by definition, involve the accusation that people are actively deceiving others. Not that a lot of people are making an error with no active deception involved.

    The author is misusing the term to smear atheist by associating them with people we generally view as nuts.


    The “argument”, such as it is, is not about the validity or the veracity of particular extra-mundane experiences but about the atheist reaction to such extra-mundane experiences.

    It, quite obviously, directly involves BOTH. Its is about the atheists disagreement with the interpretation of religious experiences as having a supernatural source.

    Regarding the authors replies to potential objection (I failed to notice the link, my fault, thanks for reminding me):


    1) the disagreements have been exaggerated. There are, of course, differing aspects of them and even contradictions, but there is also much more agreement than atheists are often willing to admit. 2) The fact that everyone tells the same story (that there is something beyond the physical world) is more significant than the disagreement of the details.

    These I addressed earlier in this post.


    When eyewitnesses give contradictory accounts of a car accident, we are not justified in believing that no car accident took place. 3) So at most the differences between these experiences would justify skepticism toward a particular account, but not to the phenomenon as a whole. 4) Again, this objection would apply equally to our experiences of the physical world.

    Such experiences, when they involve any definite content (as in visions), have more in common with dreams and hallucinations than with sense perception.

    A topic I’ll elaborate on later. And I’ll try to get to your comment, Tom, too. I know I haven’t yet responded to most of your last comment.

    Thanks, Dave, for bringing the blog QUODLIBETA, from which your quote comes, to my attention. I’d never heard of it before and it looks interesting.

  29. Sidestep reality? Consider the following…

    The Most Unusual Event in All of My Debates Took Place Today

    09/26/2009 – James White

    I never saw this one coming. I had a feeling Dan Barker would be going a different way in his presentation than he had in his 2007 book, Godless. But when he gave a completely different presentation than he had in a book published only two years ago (with a foreword by Dawkins—a book he was selling in the foyer of the church, and which I have heard him promoting at colleges around the US this year), I knew something was up. He went first, so I had the second 20 minute opening statement. Exactly 20 seconds into that statement he interrupted me, objecting to the moderator. His objection? I was quoting from his own book! “This debate isn’t about my book. Please stick to the topic!” Can you believe it? He wanted me to do my presentation without any reference to the very arguments he himself had put in print on the very same topic in a book he was selling in the foyer of the church! […]

    http://aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3514

    [italics in original]

    Don’t Quote Me, Bro! Video

    09/27/2009 – James White

    As I noted in the previous article, Dan Barker’s attempt to hide the horrifically bad argumentation he presented in his 2007 book Godless failed badly. I promised the video, and here it is […]

    http://aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3515


  30. Do you have any opinion whatsoever about the discussion that preceded all this rabbit trail?

    I haven’t commented about your post because:

    A. I don’t know a lot about the topic. And:

    B. I don’t have any objections to the idea that medieval thinkers contributed to the emergence of science and a great many other things.

    I realize a lot of people denigrate the medieval period. I’m not one of them.


  31. With that comment you turned the discussion toward an attempt to disprove the possibility that religious experience was non-illusory.

    I simply responded to Dave’s statement. Sorry if you have a problem with discussion taking a different direction from the topic of your post. It happens sometimes. I don’t really see that its a bad thing. If anyone wants to discuss what you wrote they’re free to do so.

    And I was not making an attempt to “disprove the possibility that religious experience was non-illusory”. It doesn’t strike me as a falsifiable claim. I was simply criticizing the idea that popular view is the most reasonable one (and the idea that the atheist’s view is like a conspiracy theory).


    Now you seem to want us to mount a proof that religious experience can have a supernatural source, and you seem to want us to do so without reference to associated information, because you reject it (the historicity of the Bible, philosophical and existential arguments, etc.)

    Did you not read my comment on the post you just put up in response to my comments. You’re more than welcome to argue that other lines of evidence support the view that religious experiences are non-illusory (or at least some of them—I doubt you claim all of them are).


    Dave’s link to Hannam’s blog was obviously parenthetical to this topic; he said he wasn’t even sure where to put it, but he chose it on the basis of the connection to Hannam. It was not on the basis of a connection to the argument I had raised in the original post. It was an aside, but you answered it as if we had positioned it as the main thing.

    I was responding to it simply because its something I disagreed with–not in an attempt to divert the discussion. I didn’t see much, if anything, that I particularly disagreed with in your post—which is why I felt no need to add my own commentary to it.

    But if it bothers you so much that the discussion strayed from your chosen topic I’ll not comment further on it here. It may be best if all involved in the discussion of that topic carried their comments about the subject there. That’s probably what I’ll do anyway.

  32. David, I can appreciate that you were responding to Dave, and that’s okay.

    We may have reached the end of this discussion. I think I’ve said what I need to say about it now.

  33. I don’t have any objections to the idea that medieval thinkers contributed to the emergence of science and a great many other things. I realize a lot of people denigrate the medieval period. I’m not one of them.

    The responses to each of these three sentences is (1) yes you do; (2) and…?; (3) yes you are.

    The claims David makes in these three sentences—especially in the context of his atheism and plethora of errors—is nothing short of anti-intellectual savagery or barbarism. It is akin to that of the Barbarian hordes descending upon Rome. Why? Of course the Barbarian hordes, generally speaking, were not “opposed to” the good thinks of Rome. That’s not the point. The point is they raped, pillaged and burned Rome (it’s always a good idea to rape and pillage before you burn!)—taking advantage of the good while remaining barbarians. (Historical note: what civilized the Barbarians and assimilated them into European medieval society? Christianity.)

    That’s what atheism really is: anti-intellectual barbarism.

    So, the point with respect to science is not that the Medieval universities and scholastic contributed to science. They did not contribute to an already existing science (as we know it today) but made it possible in the first place by removing all sorts of nonsense and cultural holdovers from the Ancients, and then (this is crucial) thinking through the philosophical pillars upon which the MESs operate today. (David appears to be completely ignorant of the 75 or so Scholastic axioms vital to the MESs.) In other words, the MESs came into being during the Middle and High Medieval periods (and subsequently handed to the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers) because of the Christian view of reality—not in spite of it.

    David and his fellow atheist travelers (at a certain significant level) presuppose Christian thinking doesn’t matter because it has nothing to do with the rise of the MES—what matters is the product (the MESs)… and we’ve seen that reflected in his and Tony’s genetic fallacies that impute “bais” against Christians while implying atheism is unbiased. Yet, it is the atheist position turns reality on its head (hence why it is “reality avoidance”), for the following claim on their part is factually incorrect: science arose during the Enlightenment [a historical myth] despite Medieval Christianity’s opposition to it [another historical myth].

    This latter point is crucial, because for an atheist to admit that Christian thinking was central to the development of the MESs is to commit worldview suicide.

    Conspirators and barbarians come in all types… and their idols aren’t necessarily made of stone or gold.

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