Some Christian apologists like to find a scientist or celebrity atheist who supports some bit of Christianity. They reveal this turncoat in the atheist ranks, tell us that this person is one of our own, and insist we follow their lead.
Let’s see where this gets them into trouble.
Before we go any further, let me admit that I’ve done the same thing. For example, I’ve cited Dr. Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian and well-respected biologist, in the hope he could argue some sense into evolution-denying Creationists. Collins has said, “If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof of our relatedness to all other living things.” This is the beginning of a compelling argument from someone with the necessary science credentials. Collins was the director of both the Human Genome Project and the (U. S.) National Institutes of Health.
Another example is biologist Dr. Ken Miller who is Catholic and who supported the science side of the 2005 Dover Intelligent Design case.
You get the idea. Anyone who is an expert in a scientific or scholarly field and is religious could help reach that religious community in a way that an atheist could not.
I’ll look at nine examples of Christians trying the same thing but aimed at atheists. I argue that my use of Collins and Miller is legitimate, while the Christian examples are not. See if you agree.
What launched this article was my reply to Christian Tom Gilson. Gilson quoted philosopher Tomas Nagel and biologist Richard Lewontin, showing them to be among the few atheists “honest” enough to admit to Christianity’s strength. Unfortunately for Gilson, Nagel’s quote actually didn’t support Christianity, and Lewontin’s simply explained an aspect of how science works.
What follows is nine more examples of quotes taken out of context, of misquoting, of Christians celebrating atheists they think they can manipulate, and of quotes that don’t mean what Christians think they mean. Let’s see if they provide any stronger support for Christianity.
1. Arno Penzias, physicist and astronomer
My argument is that the best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole. (New York Times, March 12, 1978, page 1)
That’s surprising, because I don’t remember anything like that in the Bible. Does the Bible tell you that the universe is open rather than closed (that is, that it will keep expanding)? That this expansion is accelerating? That the universe is 13.8 billion years old? That it started from a tiny point? Presumably black holes, gravitational waves, dark energy and dark matter, and more are in there as well. An eager world awaits the relevant Bible verses.
But of course we don’t get that. Penzias is simply declaring “Oh, yeah—I knew that” without evidence.
Does the Bible resolve cosmologists’ unanswered questions, too? I’m thinking of questions like what created the universe (or was it uncaused?), if there’s a multiverse, if the zero-energy universe hypothesis is correct, if string theory is correct, how to unify Relativity and quantum physics, and more.
Note also the date on that quote. He said that 44 years ago! We have learned a lot since then. Is this Penzias quote still relevant? If so, is the Bible still a cosmology textbook? How many scientific papers have cited the Bible?
Conclusion: unconvincing. If we had learned any science from the Bible, Penzias would’ve given the verses.
2. David Gelernter, computer science professor
Gelernter is a professor at Yale who is an evolution denier. He said,
Stephen Meyer’s thoughtful and meticulous Darwin’s Doubt (2013) convinced me that Darwin has failed. (“Giving Up Darwin,” 2019)
Darwin as the personification of evolution is a clue that we’ve left science and have been sucked into Intelligent Design (ID). Stephen Meyer is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, an ID thinktank. And he’s not a biologist. Neither is Gelernter. The mission statement of the Center for Science and Culture (the Discovery Institute’s Intelligent Design division) makes clear that following the evidence isn’t their goal but rather supporting their predetermined conclusion of ID.
Playing by science’s rules is hard. The nice thing about Intelligent Design is that it’s unconstrained by rules. Any puzzling observation can be dismissed with, “Well, the Designer is smarter than us, so he must’ve had his reasons.” But of course this assumes the Designer up front.
If this sounds too easy to you, like it must be cheating, you’re right.
Gelernter isn’t a biologist, and he’s enamored with the argument of someone who’s also not a biologist, which attacks the tentpole argument of biology. Why are we wasting time on this? Let’s get our evaluation of evolution from biologists (spoiler: evolution is the overwhelming consensus).
Conclusion: No one should reject the consensus view of a branch of science because of the writings of an outsider to that branch of science. This example isn’t a scientist being misquoted but a scientist being used by Christian apologists.
3. Antony Flew, philosopher
Have you heard of Nobel disease, where a giant in one scientific field runs off and says something stupid in another? Linus Pauling (Nobel in chemistry) thought that megadoses of vitamin C would cure colds and treat schizophrenia. Brian Josephson (physics) promoted homeopathy. William Shockley (physics) supported biological racism.
While Antony Flew didn’t win a Nobel (he was a philosopher), he had his own problem with legitimately-smart-person-says-something-stupid disease. Nearing the end of his life, in 2007, he published There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
Even from the title you get a hint of something amiss. Referencing Flew in the third person in the subtitle is how you title a book written by one person about another. And indeed, that’s what happened. The cover of Flew’s book gives his name and that of his ghostwriter. Read the book, and it’s clear Flew wrote little or nothing new for the book. The structure is that of a book report with “Flew” quoting himself with fragments from other Flew books. Critics have questioned Flew’s state of mind, and one critic of the book said, “Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, [the book] rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.”
The punch line is why Flew says he dropped his atheism in favor of a deist worldview. Did this great philosopher, at the end of a long career, rely on philosophy to finally fit the last pieces in place to reveal the hand of a Creator? Nope, it was “the laws of nature, life with its teleological organization, and the existence of the universe”—three scientific issues. Flew the philosopher said it was scientific inquiry that led him to his deism. But why is his conclusion interesting when he’s not a scientist?
Like David Gelernter, Christian apologists were eager to swoop in to claim him as one of their own. In Gelernter’s case, they gave him publicity, and in Flew’s, they gave him a ghostwriter to put words in his mouth.
Conclusion: Flew rejected atheism based on arguments out of his field. He was welcome to embrace any worldview he wanted, but his outsider’s opinion shouldn’t be compelling to any of us.
Bonus: the atheists who aren’t atheists
For completeness, I’ll mention several more pawns of apologists. I’ve discussed three people who claim to be atheists and yet can’t shut up about how great Christianity is. (Read my responses to John Steinrucken, Adam, and “John.”) Christian apologists unsurprisingly admired their honesty and held them up as examples for atheists to follow. I was unimpressed.
Continued in part 2.
It is not the things which I do not understand
in the Bible which trouble me,
but the things which I do understand.
— attributed to Mark Twain