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Thank God for Steven Weinberg

Weinberg has a knack for seeing through pretensions. His reference to Sontag’s “piety without content” reminds me of Martin Gardner’s “loyal liars” in his delightful and depressing theological novel The Flight of Peter Fromm (available from Prometheus — I’m going to be using it in my apologetics course this fall).

MR. WEINBERG: In my experience most physicists are not particularly religious. A few are – no question about it. But most are not. In fact, I would say they’re not so much irreligious as simply uninterested in this subject. They don’t know enough or think enough about religion to qualify as atheists. And but I think that’s not so limited to physicists. In my experience many Americans think of religion as important, and want to do whatever they can to support it. But if you ask them what they themselves believe, you’ll find they’re very uncertain about their religious beliefs. They don’t actually accept the theology of their official church.

One piece of evidence I give for this is the fact that I have very good friends who belong to religious denominations whose teaching is that since I don’t accept their teaching I am damned for all eternity. And you would think that these friends would try to convert me. But they never do. Now, you could explain this in various ways. It may be that they really don’t like me very much and are just as glad to see me damned for all eternity — that’s a possible explanation. But another explanation which I tend to think is more likely is that although they know what their church teaches and they give lip service to it, they really don’t believe that if you don’t follow that particular form of worship you’re damned for all eternity. And when you talk to them about what they believe they’re likely to say something like this: “That I think there is a great mystery; we don’t know what it’s all about. Who knows what’s going to happen when we die? Who knows whether there’s a heaven or hell? I was born into this faith. I think it’s important to have a faith, therefore I will continue to attach myself to this faith.” But it really is pretty much what Susan Sontag a long time ago called “piety without content.” They believe in religion more than they believe in what religion teaches.

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20 Responses to Thank God for Steven Weinberg

  1. Prof WEINBERG “One piece of evidence I give for this is the fact that I have very good friends who belong to religious denominations whose teaching is that since I don’t accept their teaching I am damned for all eternity. And you would think that these friends would try to convert me.”

    We are damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.

  2. I remember reading about a study that showed that a surprisingly large percentage of American evangelicals differ from church doctrine in their beliefs about who is eligible for salvation (I’ll post a link if I can find the study again).

    Contemporary American morality is big on fairness, and it seems unfair to most of us that sincere, truth-seeking individuals could be denied salvation simply because they find Christianity implausible.

    My own sincere search for truth, and a desire not to worship a false God, led me away from evangelical Christianity. I reason that if God exists, if he is fair, and if he desires us to find him, he will provide us with evidence which will unambiguously lead us to him.

    Given the large number of honest seekers in the world who are not Christian, it is obvious that the evidence for Christianity does not meet that standard.

  3. I think Prof. Weinberg is forgetting something. I love to share the Gospel, but it’s not the easiest thing to do (though in theory it should). I have thought many times that I should share with my professors their need for Christ, but have been too intimidated (totally my lack of faith), so it may seem to Prof. Weinberg that they “don’t really believe,” but they are intimidated or just a lil scared for now.

  4. One should never judge a faith by it’s adherents, but by the core values/principles of that faith. Jesus’ words leave little room for ambiguity. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes unto the Father, but through me.” You must be born again.” “For God so loved the world, that He sent His one and only Son, so that whosoever believes (puts their complete trust and hope) in Him, shall not die, but have everlasting life.”

    Yes, His followers, people like me, and I think the majority of us here, and Dr Dembski himself, all at some point or other, do or say things that don’t cast Jesus in the best light. We, though, are not the perfect sinless man as Jesus was, just people (hopefully) trying our best. Please do not judge Christianity’s merits by us, judge it by the words of Christ Himself and the life he lived and exampled for the rest of us.

    As a friend of mine says when people say they don’t understand the Bible, “I don’t think it’s what people DON’T understand that’s the problem.”

    Hope this post is not one of those things that doesn’t cast Him in the best light.

  5. The source interview for this post is well worth a look.

    “Darwin, I believe, lost his attachment to the faith of his childhood as a result of his development of the theory of evolution.”

    “I believe that there is no point in the universe that can be discovered by the methods of science. … I believe when we find the ultimate laws of nature they will have a chilling, cold impersonal quality about them.”

    “There is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. The only drama we’re starring in is one that we are making up as we go along.”

    “”God” historically has not meant the laws of nature. It has meant an interested personality. And that’s not something we’re finding scientifically. It’s not something for which I see any evidence.”

    “Science cannot give us what religion gives those who believe in it. Science can’t give us the consolation of knowing that when we die we are going to continue in some sense to exist. It leaves us with a much bleaker view of our own future.”

    The gems keep falling from his lips.

  6. Weinberg: “I reason that if God exists, if he is fair, and if he desires us to find him, he will provide us with evidence which will unambiguously lead us to him.”

    The more a man strives (and inevitably fails) to live as a Christian, the more he starts wishing for “mercy” rather than “fairness”. Conversely, the LESS I examine my life in light of The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, etc., the more “fairness” I seem to deserve.

  7. God’s iPod: “One should never judge a faith by it’s adherents, but by the core values/principles of that faith. Jesus’ words leave little room for ambiguity.”

    What about a faith/philosophy like Marxism? Marxism/Communism ALWAYS results in oppression of others, because it’s core assumptions about human nature are false. Couldn’t the same be true of a particular religion?

  8. russ wrote:
    “The more a man strives (and inevitably fails) to live as a Christian, the more he starts wishing for “mercy” rather than “fairness”. Conversely, the LESS I examine my life in light of The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, etc., the more “fairness” I seem to deserve.”

    russ,

    I am not arguing that God (if he exists) must be fair. He might be fair or unfair, good or evil, concerned or indifferent, loving or hateful.

    But Christians generally believe that God is fair, yet have some trouble reconciling the doctrine of salvation with fairness. What Christian has not wondered at some point, “What about some remote tribesman in the highlands of New Guinea who has never heard of Jesus? How is it fair for him to lose salvation when his ignorance is not his fault?” But the Bible itself is unambiguous: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

    How do you reconcile the two? Are you comfortable with the damnation of a New Guinea tribesman who has never heard of Jesus? Are you comfortable with the idea that God might deny salvation to people who honestly seek the truth, try to live good lives, but conclude that Christianity is false?

    This is one of the many internal contradictions in Christianity which led me to conclude that it was a human invention, not a divine truth.

  9. Weinberg:

    I don’t see any clear evidence that the laws of nature or the constants of nature as we know them are fine tuned to allow life. I mean, certainly the laws of nature do allow life. But I don’t see anything clearly in them that looks like a spectacular coincidence. I’m not convinced by any of those arguments.

    Such statements are intimidating and discouaraging to me. Weinberg makes this claim without backing it up–just because he says it, it must be so. Whom do I believe? Weinberg who thinks 120 orders of magnitude isn’t enough evidence for fine tuning of the universe to support life? Or scientists like Davies and Gonzales who give the mathmatical facts supporting fine tuning? How spectacular does the coincidence need to be to qualify as evidence?

  10. By the way, Bill, I know the point of your post Weinberg’s discernment of wishy-washy Christianity.
    But I read the whole article and it seems Weinberg is very selective in what he constitutes as evidence for God. I’m with jpark on this one. It would be very intimidating for another scientist to approach Weinberg with the gosepl since he doesn’t seem to be open to the evidence for belief–let alone a layperson. That’s no excuse, but it’s surely a factor.

  11. Zaptazero:

    My own sincere search for truth, and a desire not to worship a false God, led me away from evangelical Christianity. I reason that if God exists, if he is fair, and if he desires us to find him, he will provide us with evidence which will unambiguously lead us to him.

    What sort of evidence would you find convincing?

  12. ds,

    I don’t find a single one of your “problems” at all compelling. I think they qualify more as “excuses” than problems.

    1. So what? Are we supposed to believe that the followers of Jesus made up his statements? In that case, why do they seem to pretty much agree about what he said? If the really believed that he was the Messiah, why would they not attempt to accurately record and spread what he said? Why is the onus not upon the critic here?

    2. Again, so what? This is true of everyday language and even without translation. It doesn’t seem to stop us from talking and even believing to be true the statements of others. And it’s not like there is a single translation. Is there any language that is not nuanced? So why does this fact preclude us from accepting something that is stated in a nuanced language or translation cannot reasonably be relied upon?

    3. Pretty much false. Custody? What do you mean? That it was in too many hands, or too few? Either way the critic can find an objection, so what about the objection should be considered reasonable? In what sense is the integrity questionable?

    4. Again, pretty much false. What is the basis for the assertion that “the God of the New Testament” is different from “the God of the Old Testament”? What is the most striking difference you can think of? The “God of the Old Testament” is not loving? False. The “God of the New Testament” does not take vengeance? False. Again, if the differences are so striking, you should be able to present one of these striking differences to me and we’ll go from there.

    5. If God wanted you to know what things, specifically? God created a world in which man was to be a participant. The Ten Commandments? That was the basis of a covenant between God and a single nation. Why would he put them on the moon and confuse everyone? Why would he put them some place where they could not be seen until just recently? What a silly proposal. You normally do much better than this.

    6. Are all these billions of people correct? Were there always billions of people on the planet? Do you agree that they can’t all be right? So is that a reason not to make a choice?

  13. As one who recognizes the need to “try to convert” others, as one who has had a smattering of success in that reguard, and as one who has stuck his foot deep down his throat and alienated himself and his faith on a number of occasions, I claim a right to speak on this topic.

    I would generally agree that there is a significant “christian” community whose debth of faith and knowledge about their beliefs is minimal. These would hardly believe that their friend, who is a nice person after all, needs salvation or will experience damnation.

    There are certainly a few brash folk, I having been one of them, who would confront their neighbors with the message of the gospel to the point where they only have christian friends — all others run from them. These brash few, usually immature either in life or in their faith, often develop a more mature position in a few years. Though they get themselves into trouble, I have a fondness for them, knowing that their dynamic faith, once tuned, will become a valuable witnessing tool.

    Eventually some of us become much more strategic in our witnessing. We believe that we must first become credible before we present our views. We believe that we must wait for the “Spirit guided” moment before speaking of our faith. This waiting on the Lord causes us to never witness to some — presumably because the Lord recognizes that their hearts are not yet soft to the message. A non-christian, never the less, who knows christians who are clear thinkers, who have not abandoned reason, but whose faith is unwavering, is much more able to hear the message than the non-christian who has never met an intelligent, genuine, christian.

    I suspect that I would never feel the Spirit’s leading to speak to Mr. Weinberg about my faith. Therefore I suspect, however, that Mr. Weinberg would place me in the camp of those who he is talking about. If this is so, then Mr. Weinberg is placing those whose faith is shallow with those who have the maturity to wait for the Spirit’s leading.

  14. This idea that the average church goer know nothing about the theology or beliefs is not a new thing. I have seen so many people around my little town who go to church because of the worship music, or the pastor is more entertaining. I have seen people go from Calvinistic Baptist churches to Nazarene Churches. Which are on far ends of the spectrum based upon God’s Sovreignty and man’s freewill. Before I thought carefully about theology, I felt that it didn’t matter about theology. However, I have an entirely different view of theology now. I have a hard time listening to Pastors who I know have not properly exegeted the word of God. I see false doctrines floating around all the time, that I have to deal with.

  15. Problems:

    1) We are reading a secondhand account of what Christ said and do not know that the quotes are accurate. And I’m sure you’ve heard of quote mining.

    That is a common criticism of secondhand creatures, yet we wouldn’t necessarily understand any bit of information first hand even if given the opportunity to see the metaphoric Light that bears the information directly anyway. Information relies on an agreement between the sender and the reciever to admit to its nature. Even now you expect people not to dissect you and to accept what you have to say as bits of information, although they are secondhand artifacts of your brain events that may have “errors” naturally enough. If we assume that there is such a thing as error then if there is any unfolding of events (or chain of witnessing) after the original word/form is spoken or given then there is the possiblity that it may be deformed and the information corrupted as it unfolds.

    5) If God wanted us to know these things why did He need human spokesmen and human writers to communicate and record it? God could have emblazoned the ten commandments on the face of the moon instead of on stone tablets that Moses could carry down off the mountain.

    Hypothetically, what would your argument be to living words that rejected their capacity to bear wit/knowledge for the reason that they could also witness the information that they contained? I suppose my argument would be, why reject your opportunity or perhaps wish for your own death? Of course God could have emblazoned the ten commandments on the face of the moon as well as the truth of all that is in a way that we could understand if the earth revolved around us, yet it clearly does not. Instead of such writing there is plenty of evidence of Natural Law that acts as a sense of good and evil written on the metaphoric hearts of billions of people that unfold biologically into the general forms again and again. The problem seems to be that people dislike the sense that comes naturally to them because of disordered/perverted desires and so would rather believe nonsense.

    Would it be better to have a message written on the moon? Perhaps, although most likely all that would happen with a “Made by Yahweh.” written on the moon* is that some fellow named Rael would come along and say, “Yahweh was the Big Meanie God but there’s really some Yawehian aliens that he’s taking the credit for by writing on the moon as if he did it. And….uh, the first rule of the Yawehians is that young women have sex with me because that’s the rule of loooove.”

    Etc.

    Some notes on 2,3 and 4, not really answers, yet that may be appropriate if some questions aren’t really questions.

  16. Mr. Weinburg seems a little confused to me, or perhaps just forgetful. He claims that “…no one has ever gone to war on behalf of a scientific principle, or exterminated whole populations because they disagreed on a point of science.” but conveniently forgets to mention that Hitler used science (the theory of evolution) to help justify the extermination of millions of Jews and the deaths of millions more innocents as the result of his war. I’m not saying it was the reason for war, but it was a convenient excuse and justification based on the moral implications of the scientific theory of evolution by RM+NS.

    On a smaller scale, scientists themselves appear to be in a constant state of war against one another – often leading to the ruin of scientist’s careers simply because dissent from the consensus opinion is forbidden with apparently religious fervor.

  17. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes unto the Father, but through me.”

    ds, I once openly questioned these passages in much the same fashion as you did above, upon having being ambushed by christian fundamentalists (while attending what was, ironically enough, dishonestly advertised as a scientific roundtable discussion). The response you received from Mung is virtually indistinguishable from what I was told. For protestants in general, and fundamentalists almost by definition, the bible is the unerring revelation of God. It’s veracity and divine authority in most every detail simply can not be questioned. In my opinion, having rejected the notion of authority being embodied in some historical christian church, the bible needed to be “reborn” into its new role as the direct conduit to God’s will. Again, in my opinion, it was never intended to be any such thing. There is no authority of equal or greater status that has conferred this role upon the book and its contents. It is argued that God would certainly guarantee *some* means of communicating his will, in an incorruptible fashion, to his subjects. Perhaps. Of course, it’s far easier to make that argument in contemporary times when literacy is widespread. For much of christian history this direct conduit to God was only available to the literate elite. The rest had to trust it was being conveyed to this properly. Yet did the supreme being even see it fit to send a revelation? The more one ponders on the unfathomability of who/what God could be, the more absurd our attempts to extend our human motivations/reasoning to such an entity. I disagree strongly with Weinstein’s assertion that the word “God”, for the sake of linguistic consistency, should be pinned down, via historical usage, to a personal god of specific characteristics. It is my opinion that the word “God” and equivalents have always been for many people–particularly those who paused for reflection–a humble gesture towards something which is inconceivably greater than ourselves.

    And Mung, there is absolutely nothing confusing about emblazing the ten commandments, in a suitably legible font, on the moon for all to see. Large stone tablets, conveniently hand-delivered by your one and only deity are, as it would turn out, quite easily misplaced.

  18. “How do you reconcile the two? Are you comfortable with the damnation of a New Guinea tribesman who has never heard of Jesus? Are you comfortable with the idea that God might deny salvation to people who honestly seek the truth, try to live good lives, but conclude that Christianity is false?

    This is one of the many internal contradictions in Christianity which led me to conclude that it was a human invention, not a divine truth.

    Comment by zapatero — June 25, 2006 @ 8:31 am”

    I agree, your New Guinea example is difficult to reconcile with a human concept of “fairness”. But I don’t consider it “contradictory” in a mathematical sort of way. We don’t have the perpective of God, and my own qualification as a moral judge is not the same as God’s so I’m willing to live with the tension between evidence “for” Christianity and evidence “against” Christianity. Each person allots greater weight to different pieces of evidence, and I think that’s what’s occuring here.

    There are lots of reasons that make me doubt that Chrisitianity is a human invention: Odd or unusual commands to “love one’s enemies”, “be the greatest of all by becoming the least”, as well as the offer of forgiveness for the worst of the worst; the strange, risky ascetic yet somehow not ascetic behavior of Jesus; public miracles attested to by many witnesses, etc.

  19. Newton’s ideas about God – and in fact, Newton’s ideas about science – are difficult for a modern to get in tune with. As John Maynard Keynes said, he wasn’t the first modern scientist, he was the last of the magicians.
    So how about Faraday or Mendel or Pasteur or Lemaître?

  20. Weinberg is quite perceptive: “In my experience many Americans think of religion as important, and want to do whatever they can to support it. But if you ask them what they themselves believe, you’ll find they’re very uncertain about their religious beliefs. They don’t actually accept the theology of their official church.” Amen to that! And thank God for that–what with all the nonsense and cruelty that official religion has promulgated. Maybe it’s time we approach religion the same way we ought to approach science: with a good dose of humility.

    In fact there are more out there than one might think who still believe in the Scriptures but just cannot darken the door of a church anymore. Newton was one of them. He may be “difficult for a modern to get in tune with.” But if one places himself outside all ecclesiastical authority–including the Church of Darwin–then I think he will find Newton less difficult to get in tune with.

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