Reading Time: 4 minutes

I take it as a challenge. Every time a Christian quotes an atheist scholar, I wonder if I can spot how the quote was taken out of context or misunderstood or just mangled. Granted, the quotes are usually correct, but this blind spot for using quotes properly is a glaring weakness in many Christian articles.

Let’s continue with three more scholars (part 1).

4. Robert Jastrow, astronomer

Robert Jastrow was the director of Mount Wilson Observatory and was founder and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Here’s his quote:

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (God and the Astronomers, 1978)

But what is this “bad dream”? The preceding paragraph clarifies. Science has tracked the beginning of the universe back to the Big Bang, so we want to know what caused that. It’s the next logical question, but Jastrow points to the problem:

And science cannot answer these questions, because, according to the astronomers, in the first moments of its existence the Universe was compressed to an extraordinary degree, and consumed by the heat of a fire beyond human imagination. The shock of that instant must have destroyed every particle of evidence that could have yielded a clue to the cause of the great explosion.

Jastrow isn’t saying that science, taking the difficult route of hypothesis testing and evidence following, finds that theologians discovered the same scientific truths centuries earlier. That wouldn’t make sense, because not even theologians claim that Religion taught society centuries ago about the heliocentric solar system, the 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and the Big Bang. Theologians across all of humanity’s religions have never reached a consensus on anything supernatural. They can’t even agree on the names of the god(s).

What he’s saying is that the science has reached its limit, at least on the question of the origin of the universe. Data from before has been lost, and cosmologists can make no progress. But theologians aren’t similarly constrained. They don’t use science, and they have no obligation to support their claims with evidence.

And he said that in 1978. As with Penzias, much has changed. Is the prospect of finding out the origin of the Big Bang still so bleak? Perhaps not, but that’s a tangent. By reading Jastrow in context, it’s clear that he’s not claiming that Religion can reliably answer questions within science.

Conclusion: it’s a great quote for the Christian if it’s out of context and without a common sense check. Otherwise, Jastrow isn’t saying what Christians might hope.

5. Charles Darwin, biologist

Darwin’s writing style often explored the difficulties with explaining a feature of nature by evolution … and then explained it. The temptation to extract the puzzle from the first paragraph and ignore the resolution in the second has been too great for many Christians.

One example is Darwin’s study of the evolution of the eye in On the Origin of Species. The Creationist book The Collapse of Evolution accurately quotes this:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

A frank admission by Darwin of the inadequacy of his theory? Not really. The very next sentence explains how evolution could account for it—a sentence that was not included in the Creationist book’s quote. Here’s the sentence:

If numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist … then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection … can hardly be considered real.

Creationists apparently can’t trust other Christians to provide honest quotes.

Another popular Darwin tangent is eugenics. Ben Stein’s crockumentary Expelled correctly quotes Darwin from The Descent of Man:

Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Does this mean that Darwin advocated for eugenics? Nope. In the very next paragraph, curiously overlooked by Stein, Darwin rejects eugenics with an acknowledgement of our instinct for compassion.

Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

Darwin in context doesn’t make the point they want, so Expelled takes it out of context to completely misrepresent Darwin’s views.

One final misquote (actually, pure fiction) is Darwin’s supposed deathbed conversion. Lady Hope (née Elizabeth Cotton) claimed to have visited Darwin shortly before his death in 1882. More than thirty years later, she documented the supposed events of that meeting, during which Darwin, at this point an earnestly Christian, recanted his famous theory. Darwin’s surviving family rejected the story.

Conclusion: out of context quotes + lies.

See also: Who Cares About Darwin?

Theologians across all of humanity’s religions have never reached a consensus on anything supernatural. They can’t even agree on the names of the god(s).

6. Dawkins, zoologist

Richard Dawkins was also treated unfairly in the Expelled movie. Dawkins explained that one plausible way life might have started on earth was with the seeding of something (chemicals or bacteria?) from another planet. This could have been deliberate (an experiment by advanced aliens) or accidental (rocks kicked off one planet with life can become meteorites onto another planet). This is called panspermia.

Ben Stein, the host of the movie, concluded,

So Professor Dawkins was not against Intelligent Design, just certain types of designers, such as God.

Wrong. Dawkins was very much against Intelligent Design, which imagines an intelligence that didn’t just jumpstarting life on earth but took an active, ongoing part in the development of life on earth.

There’s a big difference between the seeding of life on earth from an intelligent species and magic from the supernatural. We know about intelligent life forms, we know about space travel, and we know about biology. It’s speculative though not ridiculous to consider this. It’s a very different thing to imagine god(s) doing it, because we have zero agreed-to examples.

Conclusion: deliberate misunderstanding.

So far, Christianity’s killer quotes are turning out to be duds. We’ll wrap up this series with three final examples.

Christianity:
Because you’re so awful
you made God kill himself.
— seen on the internet

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...