Monday, 3 October 2011

Religion is based on dogma whilst science is based on evidence? No, actually each accommodates both.

Dr Evan Harris has this morning recommended that everyone read an article in the Guardian newspaper on Science and faith titled, ‘Faster than light story highlights the difference between science and religion’. So I did.

You are welcome to read it yourself (it is very short) but its main message is encapsulated in the following paragraph:

One of the things that appeals to me about science is that, unlike religion, science is not dogmatic. It does not say: ‘This is the way things are, and it can be no other way.’ Instead it says something like: ‘Based on the evidence we have so far, this is how things probably are; if clear and solid evidence is discovered that shows this is not how things are, then we will need to change our minds.’

The article thereby perpetuates two myths believed by many atheists. ‘Science is based on evidence whilst Religion isn’t’ and ‘Religion is dogmatic whilst Science is not’.

Well I can’t answer for other religions but I chose to become a Christian on the basis of examining the evidence. Yes the evidence of personal experience and the complexity of the universe played a part in me coming to believe that God existed. But the key things that persuaded me to become a Christian were the teaching, claims and actions of Jesus Christ as recorded by eye-witnesses.

I suspect that most of the 580 million evangelical Christians in the world today, and many of the total of 2.3 billion who call themselves Christian, would argue similarly. They became Christians because they were convinced by evidence that Jesus Christ was in fact who he claimed to be.

The evidence of Jesus’ teaching, life, miracles and actions, including his death and resurrection, leads us to the conclusion both that God exists, and that Jesus Christ, is this God, creator, sustainer and judge of the universe, in the flesh. Putting our personal trust and faith in him is the logical corollary.

The dogma in Christianity is based on this belief. If Jesus is indeed God then we ought to take what he says rather seriously. To disbelieve God’s teaching is both foolish and arrogant. So is Christianity dogmatic? Well in a sense yes, because Jesus Christ is the absolute authority in the universe, but our belief in the authority of Jesus Christ is actually based on evidence.

What about science? Well belief in science, like belief in Christianity, is based on an interpretation of evidence. We gather data, observe regularities and develop theories which are then tested against further observed regularities.

But science is also based on a number of unprovable ‘religious’ assumptions including the following:

•There is a real world of matter out there that is accessible and correlated to our senses.
•Our minds are giving us reliable information about the world.
•Language and mathematics, reason and logic can all be applied to the world of our senses.
•Nature is uniform – the expectation that the present and future will be like the past.

None of these above assumptions, which are all integral to the scientific process, can actually be proved scientifically. We all accept them all of course, but we do so by faith. And the view of many philosophers is that they are reasonable assumptions only if God actually exists.

True scientists of course should not be dogmatic, but many are, about issues which are actually beyond scientific evaluation. This is most interesting.

Richard Dawkins, in his dogmatic teaching about the Christian faith, stands in a lengthy tradition. Sir Julian Huxley, at the Darwin Centennial, University of Chicago, in 1959 said: ‘In the evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural.’

In the same vein, Nobel laureate Jacques Monod writes: ‘Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution with the result that man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe... Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down.’

Thus, Monod not only banishes God from the universe, he denies any concept of absolute morality. And in so doing he seems to miss the rather obvious observation that many Christians are also evolutionists, whilst for many others, their disputes with Dawkins are disputes about the interpretation of scientific evidence.

Deducing atheism from biology is a very suspect philosophical procedure in itself. However, in some prominent cases, far from the philosophy being deduced from the science, the very reverse is true. Richard Lewontin, a world famous geneticist at Harvard, writes:

‘Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs... in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.’

As John Lennox has remarked, ‘This revealing statement from a prominent member of the scientific establishment is a far cry from the common naive understanding of science as impartially following the implications of experiments wherever they lead. For Lewontin, commitment to materialism comes first, the science follows. And if you shape your science in such a way that you are never in danger of detecting a divine footprint, then of course you never will. But that is to leave wide open the question as to whether divine footprints exist!’

So is it true that religion is based on dogma whilst science is based on evidence? No, there are actually elements of faith, evidence and dogma in each.


  1. Clear, cogent and convincing. Thank you.

    1. And yet, still utter crap. If this is convincing, may I recommend Three Little Pigs as another great true story?

    2. So let's have an intelligent critique then Kees rather than an opinion.

  2. You are an idiot. You're still worshipping a magical fairy in the sky. The other day I walked through a wall. I can get 11 of my mates to testify that I did. I'm therefore the son of God. Your move.

  3. No the key move was made almost 2,000 years ago. It's now your move and you have until the time of Christ's return or the time of your own death (whichever comes first) to make it. Choose wisely.

    1. Death, then. The return of Christ is about as likely as golden clowns raining from a cloud of purple fairies in mid-octember

    2. No the return of Christ is a certainty. Be always ready!

  4. Let's see then no Captain R-Jenk. What do you say? "The other day I walked through a wall." No you didn't. "I can get 11 of my mates to testify that I did." Really? And will they so testify if the penalty for doing so is death, as it was for so many Christian witnesses? No. They won't. "I'm therefore the son of God." No you aren't.
    "Your move?" Let's see your move mate. Let's see you rise from the dead. And you call a Christian an idiot. You are beyond mockery.

  5. Excellent use of the word 'corollary'.

  6. Actually, *none* of the stories about Jesus's supposed resurrection was recorded by an eye-witness. Not a single one. I would encourage any theistic Christians to go back to their bibles and read the relevant passages in what we have of the gospels. The truth of course is that these stories were made up many years later by people who had never met Jesus. They are hugely unreliable and even contradictory (although they do sometimes contain interesting information that reveals the motives and misconceptions of their authors and editors).

    Happy reading, & thanks Peter for the Twitter follow :-)


  7. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ and John writes in in his first letter ' That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.'

    I leave you with Bible Gateway's verse of the day Shane - blessings

    'Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.' (Matthew 7:7-8 NIV)

  8. So you are a Christian, because of the evidence? Even if Matthew & John were eye-witnesses, are you confident that the version of the gospels they left are exactly what they wrote, unedited and unaltered? Even if they wrote down their stories? And that the evidence in their gospels is compelling evidence for the christian beliefs?

    If you are convinced by this evidence, then it's a good job you aren't a professional historian.

    And to state that science has "unprovable ‘religious’ assumptions" is a poor straw man argument. The statement in the original article you cite is correct: there are axioms, and things that have not been disproved, upon which science may rely - for the time being. But scientists remain willing to change their minds when the evidence shows they should.

    To accuse all atheists as believing that there is no god as a matter of faith is another straw man argument. So is the idea that they must have deduced atheism, e.g. from biology...

    There may be people for whom atheism is akin to a religious belief. For them, there is no possibility of God at all, because they believe this to be so... I can't say that I know many people with this belief. Iif you believe that there is no God - but based on the lack of evidence or plausibility, rather than as a matter of faith - most would consider you to be an atheist. I am among those. I cannot - indeed feel no need to - prove that there is no god. But in the absence of any proof to the contrary, or any cogent reason to believe that there is a god, I believe that there isn't. Like any good scientist, I would change my mind if compelling evidence were presented. To some that would make me an agnostic; but until compelling evidence to the contrary is presented, I do not believe there is a god; and for me, that makes me an atheist.

  9. Most Christians I know are Christians because of the evidence. As for the Gospel records there is more manuscript evidence for the resurrection than there is for Shakespeare's plays and they were written 1,500 years later and after the invention of the printing press!

    The life of Jesus is by far the best documented event in antiquity, far better so than many historic events that most people take for granted. The problem is its personal implications!

    The real question for you is what level of evidence you require and what effort you have actually taken to evaluate it. And whether you apply a different test to Christianity than you do to all the other things you accept and believe.

    Atheists like Anthony Flew and AN Wilson have recently changed their minds on the basis of the evidence. But in my experience those who most go on about evidence are those who are least interested in actually looking at it, mainly because they actually have some other reason for not believing.

    I read Bertrand Russell's 'Why I am not a Christian' when I was a kid expecting it to challenge my faith but discovered that there was virtually nothing in the book about Jesus Christ of the accounts of his life. I have since learnt that this kind of evaluation is sadly typical of many of those who do not believe (or more accurately choose not to believe).

  10. Peter, most Muslims I know would claim they are Muslims because of the evidence. Except, as in your case, the "evidence" is a load of soap - a combo of uncritically accepting outright nonsense (you refer to Lennox, for instance) and the "warm fuzzies" (which you view as the "presence of the Holy Spirit").

    "Evidence" of the"resurrection" is pitifully weak - all we have is the New Testament, and that is it. Matthew and John were not written by the original disciples, but came much much later. Matthew and Luke both based the narrative sections of their gospels on Mark (i.e. they copied large sections of Mark). In the case of Matthew, it's really funny, as this author (who is anonymous, as indeed are all of the gospels apart from Luke) actually *twists* Mark's text to "correct" theological problems. The most hilarious example of this is the case of the double donkey - Matthew's poor understanding of Hebrew poetic idiom leads him to insert a whole extra donkey under Jesus during the Triumphal Entry! Also, the birth narratives in Matt & Luke are completely at odds; John and Mark never mention Mary even being a virgin.
    As for the resurrection tales, these are also hopelessly contradictory - they don't even exist in Mark (the current ending of Mark is a late add-on, although there is some debate that the second ending in John was originally attached to Mark - not sure whether I buy that hypothesis).

    The problem is that your view is not evidence based. It is conviction based, and you screw the facts to fit your prejudice. I have an ethical objection to this, since it screws over Jesus one more time - it's not enough that the poor dude was crucified for making a claim to the kingship and starting a riot in the temple - now he's been mutilated into a messiah, and used as an excuse for some appalling atrocities. You guys have really never quit crucifying Jesus.

    Maybe it's time you got yourself a few bibles, laid them side by side, and had a look at these parallel sections, paying particular attention to the resurrection tales. You'll discover that Luke was pushing a Jerusalem agenda against a Galilean one. You'll find that Matthew invented stories about a tomb guard and the dead coming back to life in Jerusalem. You'll find completely weird stuff in John that can't be reconciled with the other three. And that's even before we get to Paul's declaration in his epistles.

    The explanation for all this is pretty simple. Jesus died, and stayed dead. No internet back then. No way for people to check sources. We know Jesus had more than one group of followers, and his family were a/ embarrassed by him, and b/ didn't get along all the time with his disciples. We also know that many people left the "early church" because they *did not* believe that he rose from the dead, so we only have one side of the story. We don't really know what the disciples believed (even Saul Paulus is pretty sketchy) or why (or even IF) they went to their deaths for it. The Romans had a pretty low threshold for killing people, so this is hardly surprising.

    So what you need to do is go back to your bible, and teach yourself a bit about the myths and legends that rose up around the tragic figure of Jesus the Nazarene (which does not mean "comes from Nazareth" - Matthew got that wrong too).

  11. Dear dear Shane. Where does one even begin with you?

    Your confident dismissal of what scholars far more intelligent than you have spent a lifetime reaching reasoned conclusions about is simply breathtaking.

    I've wasted too much time with you already today and am not going to waste any more.

    Jesus is God. Jesus was crucified. Jesus is risen. Jesus is coming back. Be ready!

  12. Dear Peter,

    I am happy for you that you have such faith that you can continue to believe in God, Jesus, the resurrection and the rest of the Christian belief system. It must be very reassuring to you.

    But I am concerned that you should propose that you do so rationally, based on good quality evidence.

    What evidence, Peter?

    Extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence. Resurrection from the dead and ascention into heaven are pretty extraordinary claims.

    It's one thing to believe that Jesus existed, as a man; but to believe in the supernatural aspects is another matter.

    It is well recognised that people who have been close to somebody may "feel their presence" after they've died; and many works of literature, TV and film (including the Shakespeare you - rather oddly as I can't see the relevance - mention above) include story lines in which somebody who has died returns in some literal or metaphorical way; and this proves, if anything, that we tend to believe in spirits.

    It is easy to see how people might be able to believe in the supernatural; but this does not constitute objective evidence about the existence of spirits, but rather about the human tendency to believe in them.

    It seems far more likely that the stories have been "improved" in re-telling, translation (isn't the "virgin" myth based on the use of a word which can mean "young woman", or virgin - like "maid" in English?) and transcription.

    So, what evidence do you have for the ressurection? Some stories about the tomb being opened and the body disappearing? Not very convincing evidence of resurrection; earthly explanations are far more plausible. And these stories about Jesus' being taken up into heaven by some godly force?

    The evidence is far too flimsy, with far too many more plausible explanations to justify belief in something so unlikely.

    To dismiss Shane's responses by referring to "scholars far more intelligent than you" is a well-known logical fallacy: argument from authority. It matters not how "intelligent" these "scholars" may have been. Indeed, they might have used their intelligence to cleverly twist logic to make their arguments appear stronger than they are (it's not for nothing that the word "jesuitical" is used in this sense). Such arguments are not worthy of you. If there's good evidence or logic to your beliefs, share it; don't just say that cleverer people have worked it out so it must be right.

    1. Dear Peter,

      The first thing that you need to ask yourself when considering any evidence is whether, like Lewontin cited in my article above, you have 'a prior materialism', an a priori adherence to an absolute materialism that 'cannot allow a divine foot in the door'.

      If so, and you must be honest with yourself about this, there is no sense in having a discussion because no amount of evidence will convince you. You will always seek a materialistic explanation.

      If not, and you are genuinely agnostic on the issue of whether theism is true, then it is a matter of examining the evidence for both theism in general and Christian theism in particular.

      Anthony Flew, as you may know, became a theist, but not a Christian, on the basis of a cosmological argument based on the anthropic principle - the fine tuning of the universe.

      Peter May and Peter Williams on 'Be Thinking' are worth a look on this ( and ).

      Wrt Christian theism you need to start with the person of Christ and the evidence for the resurrection asking whether Christian theism is the world view which best explains the observed facts. There is of course a secondary independent question about the reliability of the historical record.

      There is an outline of the main arguments for the resurrection in concise form on this blog at

      Most people who reject these arguments do so in my experience on the basis of 'a prior commitment to materialism'.

      You are of course absolutely right that intelligent people can be mistaken. My comment to Shane was not an appeal to authority. I would not do that. It was a response to the way he dismisses positions he disagrees with without showing any respect for those who hold them in good faith, examining them fully or advancing proper arguments.

      I will do my best to cater for anyone's intellectual integrity if they are wanting serious dialogue but I'm not interested in engaging with trolls (Shane is not one of these btw) or with people who approach these matters with an attitude of intellectual arrogance or their minds already fully made up.

      Kind regards


  13. There is more external evidence for the historical authenticity of the Bible than any other book in antiquity. 1 Cor. 1:18, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Praying for eyes to be opened.

  14. If this is the centerpiece of the author's evidence, I am interested in who this refers to: "recorded by eye-witnesses"
    If in fact this refers to the Bible, it is in no way evidence. At best it is hearsay.


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