Jeffrey Tayler, a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a writer for Salon magazine who has lived in Russia since 1993, knows quite a lot about foreign languages, a little about science, very little about history, and nothing at all about religion – a subject with which he appears to be obsessed, judging from the 40-odd articles he has written on the subject for Salon magazine, during the past two years. Strangely enough, Tayler wrote much more sympathetically about religion during the late 1990s, at a time when his articles for Salon were actually entertaining to read, and as late as 2006, he declared in his book, River of No Reprieve (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2006, p. 121) that “the older I get, and the more I see of human suffering, the less dogmatic I feel.” By his own admission, the man lives entirely by his writing: perhaps his new-found contempt for religion is driven by a desire for fame. The effort seems to be paying off: Tayler’s tirades against religion (or “faith derangement syndrome”, as he prefers to call it) have won plaudits from New Atheist Jerry Coyne, who, in a recent post titled, A new horseperson? (February 16, 2015), suggests that Tayler is “shaping up to be the new ‘Strident Atheist’ to replace Christopher Hitchens,” although Coyne hedges his bets by adding that he would actually prefer to nominate the Somali-born atheist feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali for the coveted position. I would concur with his assessment, if for no other reason that Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes more lucidly and elegantly than Tayler does.
Despite the fact that he hasn’t lived in the United States since 1982, Tayler’s articles on American politics reek of partisan zealotry: he has described the current crop of GOP presidential candidates as “religious clowns” whose “gullible, lunatic faith is a massive character flaw,” and he recently accused Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia of being “of unsound mind”, and of suffering from “faith-derangement syndrome.” Scalia’s crime against reason, according to Tayler, consisted of “voicing belief in Beelzebub, a comic-book bugaboo the pedophile pulpiteers of your [Scalia’s] creed have deployed to warp the minds of their credulous ‘flocks’ for two millennia.” (Scalia is a Catholic, and in a recent interview with Jennifer Senior of New York magazine (October 6, 2013), he candidly admitted that like the majority of Americans, he believes in the Devil.) Tayler then proceeded to accuse Scalia of advocating the teaching of Biblical creationism in schools and of believing that the human race was created a mere 5,000 years ago. The first allegation is demonstrably false, while the second is highly questionable, to say the least: even New Atheist Jerry Coyne doesn’t believe that Scalia is a young-earth creationist. Finally, Tayler sets his sights on Pope Francis, whom he accuses of “sheltering child rapists” – a preposterous allegation, in view of the pope’s recent creation of a new tribunal to hear cases of bishops accused of covering up child abuse by pedophile priests (BBC News report, June 10, 2015).
In another recent article, Tayler blasted “God bless America!” as “the vilest of stock phrases,” and expressed his utter contempt for “the nonsensical notion that an invisible tyrant rules us from on high.” He lambasted Marco Rubio’s “deranged religion” and Ted Cruz’s “bizarre faith,” and went on to accuse Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton of spouting “pious religious lies,” before finally voicing his opinion that what Americans really need is an atheist president who has the courage to publicly declare, “I do not believe in God. I do not believe in a hereafter.” Not content with that, Tayler also criticized President Obama simply for showing up at a National Prayer breakfast: doing so, he writes, “lends credence to faiths that, by any humane standard, long ago discredited themselves.”
I respectfully submit that if anyone is “deranged,” it certainly isn’t the Pope, or the President, or Justice Scalia, or any of the current crop of presidential candidates. Before I move on, I’d like to leave my readers with a question to ponder: when you call large numbers of eminent and intelligent people in public life “crazy”, what does that say about you?
Tayler’s mis-characterization of religious faith as belief without evidence
In an online debate with Zach Abramowitz, a practicing Orthodox Jew, CEO and co-founder of ReplyAll, Tayler repeated the baseless atheistic canard that “faith” means believing various propositions without any evidence for their truth:
“Person of faith,” meaning as it does, really, “person willing to believe just about anything on the basis of no evidence” should be not a compliment but a term of opprobrium…
Accepting the truth of a proposition without evidence (faith defined) is inherently irrational. A religious person (a doctor, say, or a financial analyst) is allowing him- or herself irrationality in believing tall Biblical tales, but may be rational in other respects…
Making sense of the world through Bronze-Age myths unsubstantiated by evidence of any sort does not seem to me to be a reasonable (let alone admirable) way of making sense of the world. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
In an article in Salon titled, These religious clowns should scare you: GOP candidates’ gullible, lunatic faith is a massive character flaw (August 16, 2015), Tayler argues that the Republican presidential candidates’ religious faith, in and of itself, makes them untrustworthy people:
One who will believe outlandish propositions about reality on the basis of no evidence will believe anything, and is, simply put, not to be trusted. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
Tayler has also published a fawning review of New Atheist Jerry Coyne’s latest book, Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (Viking, 2015), and Coyne has returned the compliment (see here).
However, as I argued at length in my recent article, Faith vs. Fact: Jerry Coyne’s flawed epistemology, it is a wicked mis-characterization of religious faith to describe it as belief without evidence. Indeed, the Bible is full of examples of people asking God for a sign, and it even exhorts believers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). In Deuteronomy 18:22, we read: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.” Indeed, even Professor Jerry Coyne has stated that he would be persuaded of the existence of God – at least provisionally – by evidence such as “messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees.” What’s more, Coyne admits that evidence for the supernatural would not need to be scientifically replicable – it would just need to be public and very striking.
Tayler also contends that “it is irrational to infer an invisible omnipotent being from what we see around us.” For what it’s worth, I have summarized the scientific evidence for the existence of God (and for miracles) in recent posts (see here, here, here, here and here), which Tayler is welcome to peruse. (For Tayler’s benefit, I should mention that I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy, and that I also have various degrees.) Alternatively, if Tayler would prefer to read articles by recognized authorities in the fields of philosophy and science, then I would highly recommend Dr. Robert Koons’ article, A New Look at the Cosmological Argument (American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (2):193 – 211, 1997), Professor Paul Herrick’s online article, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe—A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009), and Dr. Robin Collins’ article, The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe. Finally, I briefly assess the kinds of evidence presented for each of the world’s major religions in a recent post, before going on to describe the sort of evidence that would (if it existed) falsify theism and the various forms of religious belief.
I’ll say more about the evidence for Biblical claims below.
Tayler espouses consensus-based thinking, but ignores the unanimous verdict of historians on the existence of Jesus
In a post titled, The left has Islam all wrong: Bill Maher, Pamela Geller and the reality progressives must face (Salon, May 10, 2015), Jeffrey Tayler argues for consensus-based thinking: “we should cease relativizing and proudly espouse, as alternatives to blind obedience to ancient texts, reason, progress, consensus-based solutions, and the wonderful panoply of other Enlightenment ideals underpinning our Constitution and the liberties characterizing Western countries.” In another, more recent article, Tayler attacks religion because it “befouls the atmosphere of comity needed to hold reasoned discussions and arrive at consensus-based solutions“, and he attacks GOP presidential candidates for digging in their heels and denying the scientific consensus on global warming. From the foregoing, we can confidently surmise that consensus plays a major role in Tayler’s thinking about important issues.
It is a great pity, then, that Tayler doesn’t practice what he preaches about respecting the consensus of experts in the field, when he writes about history. In a post titled, Let’s make Bill O’Reilly’s head explode: We desperately need a war on Christmas lies (December 23, 2014), Tayler apparently espouses the downright kooky theory that Jesus never even existed:
Some 2,000 years after the alleged event, religious scholars, despite their best efforts, have still found no proof that Jesus even existed. Although it might seem reasonable to suppose such a one as he walked the earth in the Middle East, historical records kept by the Romans (then in charge of Judea and Samaria) and contemporary chroniclers make no mention of him. The Gospels are not historical records and don’t count; they were composed decades afterward. It has even been credibly proposed that Paul and his cohorts created the savior with strokes of their quills by mythologizing history. Footnote: If you’d still like to believe in a prophet whose existence has been established beyond the shadow of a doubt, try Muhammad.
Tayler might be interested to know that the existence of Muhammad has been questioned recently by Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch and the author of several critically acclaimed books about Islam, including his controversial volume, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Wilmington, Del., ISI Books, 2012). An in-depth and highly favorable review by Dallas Roark can be found here, while a thoughtful critical review can be found here. Spencer, who has an M.A. in Religious Studies and who has been described by Opus Dei Father John McCloskey as “perhaps the foremost Catholic expert on Islam in our country”, makes what appears to be a plausible case for his thesis. Spencer is no stranger to Islam, either: he has been studying Islamic theology, law, and history in depth for more than three decades. Nevertheless, Spencer is not a qualified historian, and I am more inclined to accept the verdict of historian Michael Cook, who takes the view that evidence independent of the Islamic tradition “precludes any doubts as to whether Muhammad was a real person” (Muhammad, Oxford University Press, pp. 73–76). In a similar vein, Patricia Crone, professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, argues that a Greek text, written during the Arab invasion of Syria between 632 and 634, which mentions that “a false prophet has appeared among the Saracens” and then dismisses him as an impostor, “gives us pretty irrefutable evidence that he was an historical figure.” additionally, in view of the fact that two separate universities (Tuebingen and Birmingham) are now known to have fragments of the Quran dating back to within 20 years of the death of Muhammad, it would be prudent to conclude that he really existed.
By the same token, the existence of Jesus as a historical individual is also certain beyond reasonable doubt, as I demonstrated in a recent post, in which I criticized New Atheist Jerry Coyne for openly doubting the historical existence of Jesus Christ. In my post, I quoted from atheist Paul Tobin’s excellent article, The Death of James, in which he argues convincingly that Josephus’ account of the death of James the brother of Jesus in A.D. 62 “was probably an eye witness account,” and that Josephus would have witnessed James’ martyrdom as a young man aged 25. I also quoted from the atheist amateur historian Tim O’Neill, who writes:
The overwhelming majority of scholars, Christian, non-Christian, atheist, agnostic or Jewish, accept there was a Jewish preacher as the point of origin for the Jesus story simply because that makes the most sense of all the evidence. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
O’Neill has no theological ax to grind here: indeed, he declares that he “would have no problem at all embracing the idea that no historical Jesus existed if someone could come up with an argument for this that did not depend at every turn on strained readings.” O’Neill exposes the shoddy scholarship of these “Mythers” (as he calls them) in a savagely critical review of “Jesus-Myther” David Fitzgerald’s recent book, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All. Tim O’Neill’s more recent online article, The Jesus Myth Theory: A Response to David Fitzgerald (December 1, 2013) is also well worth reading. It is a devastating take-down of the second-rate scholarship of Jesus-Mythers.
Finally, I should point out that there is very good documentary evidence that St. Paul was martyred. One does lay down one’s life for a character that one has invented with a stroke of one’s quill, as Tayler absurdly hypothesizes Paul did with Jesus.
So I have to ask: in view of the fact that there is a very solid consensus among historians that Jesus existed, how can Jeffrey Tayler claim that he is being rational in doubting this fact?
The genuine scientific consensus that Tayler never dares to mention: conception marks the beginning of a new human individual
A sperm fertilizing an ovum. Electron micrograph photo. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Tayler is curiously silent regarding a scientific consensus which GOP presidential candidate Senator Ted Rubio appealed to in May 2014, when he stated: “The science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life beings at conception” – a claim he repeated at the GOP debate on August 6, 2015.
Senator Rubio got a lot of flak for making that statement from Professor P.Z. Myers (see here and here) and from feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte (see here). Myers and Marcotte attempted to depict Senator Rubio, who obtained a J.D. degree cum laude from the University of Miami School of Law in 1996, as a misguided simpleton who lacked the training required to comprehend the complex genetic events leading up to conception, which (according to Myers) is just one of many stages along the continuum of human life.
But as I convincingly showed in my recent post, Memo to Myers and Marcotte: Embryologists agree that an individual human life begins at conception (August 13, 2015), it was the ideologically motivated Professor Myers, not Senator Rubio, who got his scientific facts wrong. In my post, I cited several eminent doctors and embryologists who testified to the existence of a scientific consensus that the life of an individual human being begins at conception. I’ll quote the testimony of just two experts here:
Dr. Hymie Gordon, professor of medical genetics and a physician at Mayo Clinic, has stated:
“I think we can now also say that the question of the beginning of life – when life begins – is no longer a question for theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life or purpose of life, but it is an established fact that all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception.” [The Human Life Bill – S. 158, Report 9, see Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 42.] (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Dr. Micheline Matthew-Roth, a principal research associate at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Medicine, concurs with Dr. Gordon’s view:
“It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of life.” [The Human Life Bill – S. 158, Report together with Additional and Minority Views to the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, made by its Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, 97th Congress, 1st Session (1981) see Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 43] (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
Jeffrey Tayler accuses religious people of “halting progress in reproductive rights” and “science (think the Bush-era ban on stem cell research)”. But if the verdict of science clearly indicates that conception marks the beginning of a new human individual, and if the law is meant to protect the rights of human individuals, then isn’t it Tayler who is sticking his head in the sand?
Tayler, I am sure, has many objections to pro-life arguments. Before he puts pen to paper, he should have a look here: I’ve already answered them. Four years ago, I wrote an online book, Embryo and Einstein: Why They’re Equal, in which I argued that a strong intellectual case can be made, on non-religious grounds (i.e. without assuming the existence of God or an immaterial soul), for the pro-life view that a human person comes into being at the exact moment when the sperm cell penetrates the ovum (or oocyte, to use a more accurate medical term), and that a human embryo – even if it is severely deformed – has the same right to life as a fully rational human adult. In my electronic book, I also pointed out that that abortion was outlawed in America in the nineteenth century primarily for humanitarian reasons, at the instigation of physicians, who were convinced on medical grounds that conception marks the beginning of an individual human life, and that the destruction of this life was morally equivalent to infanticide. Until the mid-nineteenth century, American law turned a blind eye to abortion. The story of how abortion came to be outlawed has been chronicled by James C. Mohr, in his book Abortion in America (Oxford University Press, 1978), and more recently by Frederick Dyer in his work, “The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion” (Science History Publications, USA, 2005. ISBN 0-88135-378-7.) Myer attributes the legal ban on abortion in the United States to a concerted campaign by American doctors: “Hundreds of physicians published articles, letters, and editorials in medical journals that defended the unborn from earliest conception and condemned the seekers and providers of unnecessary abortions.” The instigator of this crusade was a physician named Horatio Storer. The result? “From 1860 to 1880 nearly every state and territory passed stringent anti-abortion legislation.” Dyer concludes: “If you have primarily Protestant ancestors who lived in the U.S., you can be fairly certain that your own existence was one result of the successes of Storer’s ‘physicians’ crusade.’”
Tayler’s ignorance of science and medicine
In an online debate with Zach Abramowitz, Tayler reveals his ignorance of science and modern medicine – two fields in which he has no academic qualifications whatsoever (he has a B.A. and an M.A.):
I also wish to call out the rank hypocrisy exhibited by those who feel fine denying the fact of evolution, yet who have no qualms about, say, receiving medical care that would not be possible had Darwin not discovered evolution — the basis of modern biologies and thus of much of modern medicine.
In another article, Tayler asserts that “the concept of evolution through natural selection forms the basis for modern biology (without which modern medicine would not exist)”.
Here’s a challenge for Jeffrey Tayler: name one form of medical treatment that would not have been discovered if Darwin had not come up with his theory of evolution. Here’s another challenge: name one medical fact about human beings that would never have been discovered without Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Before Tayler attempts to respond, I would strongly advise him to read a 2007 post by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, who points out that “Darwin’s theory isn’t taught in medical school and there are no specific requirements that pre-medical students have any grounding in the theory.” Egnor adds: “There are lots of things that medical school admissions and curriculum committees recognize as indispensable to medical practice and research–calculus, physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology and pathophysiology, to name a few–but Darwin’s fundamental assertion–that all natural functional biological complexity arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection–isn’t a part of the required curriculum.” Darwin’s theory, observes Egnor, “isn’t the basis for comparative medicine” – a field of study that predates Darwin and that goes back to Aristotle. Egnor ends his post with a challenge of his own:
…give me the specific examples of medical practices or advances in medical research in which Darwin’s fundamental assertion–that all natural functional biological complexity arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection–has played an essential role, or any role.
The consensus on evolution: broad but fragile
Let me state up-front that I happen to believe in common descent, as some Intelligent Design proponents do. At the same time, I would happily acknowledge that some of the arguments put forward in support of common descent are fallacious. For instance, Dr. Douglas Theobald’s attempt to test the hypothesis of universal common ancestry is flawed, as Casey Luskin points out in an article for Evolution News and Views (November 29, 2010):
In other words, he finds: (1) the odds are very slim of highly similar DNA sequences arising via independent evolutionary processes (“multiple-ancestry”), and (2) therefore inheritance of these sequences from some universal common ancestor must be the correct explanation. The problem is that everyone knows that (1) is obviously true, and finding (1) doesn’t necessarily demonstrate (2). …
…[T]he problem with Theobald’s test is that he didn’t consider the possibility that a multiple-ancestry model might involve common design–a game-changing possibility for the whole field of systematics that he hoped this paper would scuttle through technical argument.
However, there is a very striking feature exhibited by living things: the fact that they fall into “groups within groups”, or what biologists refer to as a taxonomic nested hierarchy. (There are of course exceptions; but as they say, the exception proves the rule,and the high degree of agreement between the different taxonomic family trees is a strong argument for their objective reality.) This nested hierarchy, to my mind, is the most powerful piece of evidence for common descent. Darwinists are fond of pointing out that Markov processes, which are the only natural processes known to generate nested hierarchies, are memoryless and unguided, making the hypothesis of Intelligent Design redundant. However, the reason why some scientists (at the present time, a minority) still believe in Intelligent Design has nothing to do with the branches in the tree of life, but with the vastly improbable complex structures which are found in living things, and which perform highly specific biological tasks. It is because of the sheer improbability of these function-specific structures that some scientists draw a design inference when they observe Nature. In other words, belief in common descent does not imply belief in unguided common descent.
In an article in Salon (August 16, 2015), Jeffrey Tayler mocks Harvard-educated neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson for rejecting the scientific consensus on evolution (which Carson pithily but accurately mocks as the belief that the human brain “came from a slime pit full of promiscuous biochemicals”), and for espousing a belief in creationism. (Dr. Carson is a Seventh-Day Adventist.) Religion, asserts Tayler, “befouls the atmosphere of comity needed to hold reasoned discussions and arrive at consensus-based solutions, sows confusion about the origins of mankind and the cosmos, and may yet spark a nuclear war that could bring on a nuclear winter and end life as we know it.”
Tayler might be interested to know that another neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Egnor, who used to be a Darwinist until he read Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, doesn’t share his views on evolution, either. In an article for Forbes magazine (February 5, 2009), Dr. Egnor argues that “[t]he most reasonable scientific explanation for functional biological complexity – the genetic code and the intricate nanotechnology inside living cells – is that they were designed by intelligent agency,” adding that there is “no unintelligent process known to science that can generate codes and machines.”
It isn’t just Intelligent Design proponents who talk about living things in this way. Biologist and engineer Stephen Larson, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego, and is CEO of MetaCell, a research company that seeks to understand biology through computation, gave a TED talk last year titled, Digital biology and open science — the coming revolution (published December 1, 2014), in which he declared his perplexity at the sheer cleverness with which living things appear to have been put together:
…[W]hen I look through a microscope at a humble bacterium — by the way its ancestors were on the planet a billion years ago, billions of years ago — I still wonder how it really works. Because the mechanical watch that is life is not like any watch we’ve ever built. It is biological gears and springs, but they fill rooms and buildings and cities of a vast microscope landscape that’s bustling with activity.
On the one hand it’s extremely well organized, but on the other hand the sheer scale of all of this unfamiliar well-organized stuff that happens in there makes me feel that I’ve stumbled onto an alternate landscape of technology that’s built by an engineer a million times smarter than me. The more that I search for principles beyond the ones we’ve already learned, the more I am overwhelmed with the feeling that this stuff was built by aliens.
OK, not literally. I don’t literally mean that I think little green men and women came down to the earth and seeded life here a billion years ago. What we understand of course is that life evolved on the planet over billions of years. But the results of evolution confuse even our smartest engineers when we try to understand how we could build what biology has evolved.
Darwinists are fond of saying that “Evolution is smarter than you are,” butI would reply by quoting Christopher Hitchens at them: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” Until biologists come up with evidence that unguided processes are capable of building radically new designs that not even our smartest scientists are able to come up with, I shall remain skeptical.
Jeffrey Tayler might be even more surprised to read the views of Professor James Tour, who was ranked one of the top 10 chemists in the world over the past decade by Thomson Reuters in 2009, and whom I blogged about here. In a recent talk, titled, Nanotech and Jesus Christ, given on 1 November 2012 at Georgia Tech, Professor Tour declared that no scientist that he has spoken to understands macroevolution – and that includes Nobel Prize winners! Here’s what he said when a student in the audience asked him about evolution:
…I will tell you as a scientist and a synthetic chemist: if anybody should be able to understand evolution, it is me, because I make molecules for a living, and I don’t just buy a kit, and mix this and mix this, and get that. I mean, ab initio, I make molecules. I understand how hard it is to make molecules. I understand that if I take Nature’;s tool kit, it could be much easier, because all the tools are already there, and I just mix it in the proportions, and I do it under these conditions, but ab initio is very, very hard.
I don’t understand evolution, and I will confess that to you. Is that OK, for me to say, “I don’t understand this”? Is that all right? I know that there’s a lot of people out there that don’t understand anything about organic synthesis, but they understand evolution. I understand a lot about making molecules; I don’t understand evolution. And you would just say that, wow, I must be really unusual.
Let me tell you what goes on in the back rooms of science – with National Academy members, with Nobel Prize winners. I have sat with them, and when I get them alone, not in public – because it’s a scary thing, if you say what I just said – I say, “Do you understand all of this, where all of this came from, and how this happens?” Every time that I have sat with people who are synthetic chemists, who understand this, they go “Uh-uh. Nope.” These people are just so far off, on how to believe this stuff came together. I’ve sat with National Academy members, with Nobel Prize winners. Sometimes I will say, “Do you understand this?” And if they’re afraid to say “Yes,” they say nothing. They just stare at me, because they can’t sincerely do it.
In a follow-up post, I demonstrated, by quoting the testimony of world-renowned evolutionary biologists, that there is no current scientific consensus regarding the relation between macroevolution (or evolution beyond the species level) and microevolution: some biologists maintain that macroevolution is merely an extrapolation of microevolution over long periods of time, while others are equally adamant that macroevolution and microevolution are “fundamentally different processes with fundamentally different mechanisms,” as Cornell evolutionary biologist Allen MacNeill puts it. Who is right?
To make matters worse, there is currently no mathematical model of macroevolution which establishes that macroevolution can even work, let alone work within the time available. Professor Gregory Chaitin, a world-famous mathematician and computer scientist, admitted as much in a talk he gave at PPGC UFRGS (Portal do Programa de Pos-Graduacao em Computacao da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul.Mestrado), in Brazil, on 2 May 2011, titled, Life as Evolving Software, which I blogged about in my post, At last, a Darwinist mathematician tells the truth about evolution (November 6, 2011). In his presentation, Professor Chaitin candidly acknowledged two very awkward facts. First, the mathematical “toy model” of Darwinian evolution which he has developed is only capable of reaching its goals if guided by a Turing oracle, which Chaitin described as follows: “You’re allowed to ask God or someone to give you the answer to some question where you can’t compute the answer, and the oracle will immediately give you the answer, and you go on ahead.” That certainly doesn’t sound like an unguided process to me. Second, Chaitin’s model implies that if a process of intelligently guided evolution (where the Designer selects the mutations that occur) takes, say, one billion years (1,000,000,000 years) to reach its goal, then an unguided process of cumulative random evolution (i.e. random mutations culled by natural selection) should take one billion times one billion years (or in mathematical jargon, N squared, where N is the time taken by intelligently designed evolution) to reach the same goal. That’s one quintillion years, which is about 100 million times longer than the history of the universe. As Chaitin despondently put it in his talk, “if you take something of the order of 10^9 and you square it or you cube it, well … forget it. There isn’t enough time in the history of the Earth … Even though it’s fast theoretically, it’s too slow to work.”
Readers might also be interested to know that it was Professor James Tour who was largely instrumental in getting Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, to reject Darwinian evolution and accept Old Earth creationism, shortly before he died in 2005. It was Tour who persuaded Smalley to delve into the question of origins. After reading the books “Origins of Life” and “Who Was Adam?”, written by Dr. Hugh Ross (an astrophysicist) and Dr. Fazale Rana (a biochemist). Dr. Smalley explained his change of heart as follows:
Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading “Origins of Life”, with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred. The new book, “Who Was Adam?”, is the silver bullet that puts the evolutionary model to death.
Strong words indeed, for a Nobel scientist. Readers can find out more about Professor Richard Smalley’s change of views here.
Dr. Richard Smalley is not alone. My post, The Big Picture: 56 minutes that may change your life (January 24, 2012) featured a talk given by Professor John C. Walton, who holds not one but two doctorates. Professor Walton is a Research Professor of Chemistry at St. Andrews University, and he is also a Chartered Chemist. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In a recent talk for the Edinburgh Creation Group entitled, The Origin of Life, given on September 21, 2010, Professor Walton outlined his reasons for believing that the first living cell was the product of Intelligent Design. The main highlights of Professor Walton’s talk were as follows:
- Statistically, the chance of forming even one “useful” RNA sequence can be shown to be essentially zero in the lifetime of the earth.
- The complexity of the first self-replicating system, and the information needed to build it, imply intelligent design.
- Hope of beating the colossal odds against random formation of replicating RNA is based on ideology rather than science.
- As lab experiments on model replicators become more complex they demonstrate the need for input from intelligent mind(s).
- Acceptance of an early earth atmosphere free of oxygen atoms strains belief beyond breaking point!
- No chemically or geologically plausible routes to nucleotides or RNA strands have been developed.
- Geological field work shows no support for a “prebiotic soup.” It favors little change in the atmosphere over time. Living things have been present since the first crustal rocks.
- After over 50 years of sterile origin of life research it is time to give intelligent design a fair hearing.
To sum up: while there is a scientific consensus regarding the fact that all living organisms spring from a common stock, there is no consensus on what macroevolution is, or how macroevolution is supposed to take place, let alone how it could have generated the various organisms which we observe around us, within the time available. Additionally, there are excellent scientific grounds for doubting that life on Earth arose from inanimate matter.
The scientific consensus on climate: it’s much weaker than Tayler imagines
In a recent post, Tayler savagely berates Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for rejecting the scientific consensus on global warming and for recently telling a class of graduating high school students, “You should not leave Stone Ridge High School thinking that you face challenges that are at all, in any important sense, unprecedented. Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or alas even much different, from what they ever were.” Tayler’s acerbic riposte:
At least one “challenge” (anthropogenic global warming) is indeed unprecedented, and scientifically demonstrated, and, considering the threat it poses to humanity, not something to ho-hum about. But what is science to a man suffering from faith-derangement syndrome? Not much. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Now, I should point out here that the alleged 97 per cent consensus among climatologists regarding global warming was simply that “humans are causing global warming” (see here and here). However, there is no consensus among climatologists regarding the outlandish claim, repeated ad nauseam in the popular press, that global warming is “real, man-made and dangerous” (italics mine), as President Obama claimed in a tweet dated May 16, 2014. Even Dana Nuccitelli, one of the authors of the widely-cited 2013 paper (Environmental Research Letters, vol. 8, 024024) claiming that there was a 97 per cent consensus among climatologists on global warming, has publicly admitted: “[W]e were careful to point out that the consensus was that ‘humans are causing global warming.'” Nothing more than that.
Jeffrey Tayler is convinced that global warming poses a threat to humanity. He may be right or wrong about that, but one thing is certain: there is, at the present time, no scientific consensus to back him up on that claim.
Tayler also asserts that anthropogenic global warming is “unprecedented.” He might like to take a look at the following the following graph:
Holocene temperature variations. Source: Robert A. Rohde, Global Warming Art Project. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The black line, which shows the average of eight different records of temperature records extending over many hundreds of years, indicates that temperatures have gradually fallen from a peak around 8,000 years ago, but have sharply risen from around 150 years ago onwards, to a current level which is still below their peak level, 8,000 years ago. (This point has been acknowledged even by global warming activist Dr. James Hansen, who wrote back in 1982 that the temperature 5,000 years ago was up to 1 degree Celsius warmer than it is today. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently states on its Website that “the mid-Holocene, roughly 6,000 years ago, was generally warmer than today, but only in summer and only in the northern hemisphere.” However, in the far southern hemisphere, it was certainly warmer than today between 8,000 and 10,500 years ago.) I should add that the sharp temperature rise observed during the last 150 years isn’t the only one; as the graph shows, there seem to have been other rises around 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000 years ago. The conclusion which I draw from the graph is that the global warming we have experienced so far isn’t anything to worry about.
Of course, one could argue that what matters is future warming. I agree. However, the currently observed rate of warming (0.11 degrees Celsius per decade, or thereabouts) is no cause for immediate panic. It suggests that we may not have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2070, as the UN insists we should: perhaps 2100 would be a more realistic target date.
I might also add that the wild divergences in the colored curves shown above illustrate the massive uncertainties in the science of global warming. Faced with such uncertainties, scientists should avoid strident dogmatism.
Finally, I would put it to Tayler that if there’s one thing more harmful than a politician who refuses to recognize the reality of global warming, it’s a politician who recognizes its reality but proceeds to squander tens of trillions of dollars on ineffective solutions to the problem, bankrupting the world economy in the process. In a recent post titled, Straight talk about global warming: an open letter to the Catholic clergy (June 12, 2015), I point out that the total cost of fighting global warming could easily come to $100 trillion, and that money spent on politically chic solar and wind power projects is money ill-spent. Nuclear power is the only viable solution to the problem of global warming which can power the planet and be implemented relatively rapidly. For solar and wind energy, the energy returned on energy invested is too low. I put it to Tayler that if the American government were to pursue this solution more actively, they would probably get a lot more bi-partisan co-operation on the issue.
Tayler’s ignorance of history
Did the Exodus happen?
A recurrent theme running through Taylet’s essays on religion is that the Bible is a largely mythological document. I have already drawn attention to Tayler’s credulity on matters historical: this is a man who seriously believes that Jesus was probably a mythical person. But there’s more. Tayler doesn’t think the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt happened either. Here, at last, Tayler is on more solid ground: in one essay, he cites an archaeologist and a historian (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman) in support of his contentions (see here and here).
What Tayler neglects to tell his readers, however, is that many other experts vocally disagree with Finkelstein and Silberman’s conclusions. To broaden his horizons, Tayler should read The Exodus Is Not Fiction, an interview with Professor Richard Elliott Friedman, author of the bestselling Who wrote the Bible? Tayler would also do well to read a recent essay in Mosaic magazine (March 2015) titled, Was There an Exodus? by Professor Joshua Berman, who makes a powerful case that the Exodus account of the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea was deliberately modeled on (and adapted from) an Egyptian propaganda poem celebrating a victory by Pharaoh Ramesses II’s army over the Hittites at Kadesh in 1274 B.C. (but see here for a contrary view). In the Exodus account, God takes the place of the Pharaoh, but the language used bears striking parallels with the Egyptian poem. A fuller account of Berman’s intriguing and novel conclusions is due to appear in an upcoming volume titled, Did I Not Bring Israel Out of Egypt?, edited by Alan Millard, Gary Rendsburg, and James Hoffmeier.
In a follow-up article titled, Biblical Criticism hasn’t negated the Exodus, Benjamin Sommer weighs up the evidence and concludes:
To put it bluntly, there are no archaeological or historical reasons to doubt the core elements of the Bible’s presentation of Israel’s history. These are: that the ancestors of the Israelites included an important group who came from Mesopotamia; that at least some Israelites were enslaved to Egyptians and were surprisingly rescued from Egyptian bondage; that they experienced a revelation that played a crucial role in the formation of their national, religious, and ethnic identity; that they settled in the hill country of the land of Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1300 or 1200 BCE; that they formed kingdoms there a few centuries later, around 1000 BCE; and that these kingdoms were eventually destroyed by Assyrian and Babylonian armies.
The birth of Christ
In a post titled, Let’s make Bill O’Reilly’s head explode: We desperately need a war on Christmas lies (December 23, 2014), Tayler pokes fun at Christian celebration of the Nativity, which he calls “a lie”:
…[W]hat originated Christmas? Why would the church propagate such a holiday? In all likelihood, to win converts from among pagans and help Christianity go viral. What do pagans like doing? Carousing, of course. Christmas roughly coincides with the great Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a festival around the Winter Solstice involving gambling, drunkenness and gift-giving performed in honor of the deity Saturn and the mighty god-letch Bacchus, and rung in with the cry of “Io, Saturnalia!” A “Saturnalian prince” led the festivities, and his orders, however lewd or ludicrous, had to be obeyed by the partiers. For people not quite sure if the sun would necessarily return from its winter hibernation, Saturnalia was a big deal. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
There’s just one problem with Tayler’s “Saturnalia” theory: it’s probably wrong, for important historical reasons, which are discussed in the article, How December 25 Became Christmas by Andrew McGowan (Bible History Daily, December 2012):
The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times…
There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character…
…[I]n the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.
This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Here’s some more recommended reading for Tayler on Christmas:
Was the Virgin Birth of Jesus Grounded in Paganism? by Jon Sorensen.
The Dating of Christmas by Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin.
Do sheep prove that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th? by Jimmy Akin.
Why we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 (Slate, December 18, 2013), by Andrew Santella.
“Unto You is Born this Day”: The Biblical Case for the Dec. 25th Birth of Christ by Kurt Simmons Esq.
How the accounts of Jesus’ childhood fit together: 6 things to know and share by Jimmy Akin.
Does St. Luke contradict himself on when Jesus was born? by Jimmy Akin.
Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius (JETS 54.1 (March 2011) pp. 65–87) by John H. Rhoads.
Josephus (not Luke) Misdated Quirinius’s Census (Biblical Archaeology.org, December 18, 2012) by Assistant Professor Jared M. Compton.
Was the Star of Bethlehem a myth? A UFO? Or something else? by Jimmy Akin.
Responding to the “Go To” Skeptic on the Star of Bethlehem by Jimmy Akin.
I am not arguing here that the truth of the Christmas story can be demonstrated, or even rendered probable, on purely historical grounds. What I would maintain, however, is that attempts to discredit the Christmas story are based on flawed arguments. For someone who has independent historical grounds for believing in Christianity, the Nativity narrative should present no problem. Tayler’s objections to the story are based on hoary old skeptical arguments which have been trotted out for well over a century now.
A new horseman? I think not
New Atheist Jerry Coyne has remarked that Jeffrey Tayler is “shaping up to be the new ‘Strident Atheist’ to replace Christopher Hitchens.” As someone who watched and enjoyed some of Christopher Hitchens’ online debates, I have to say that Tayler lacks three qualities that Hitchens possessed. The first is humor. Despite his bombastic intensity, Hitchens was undeniably funny. Tayler’s articles in Salon aren’t funny; they’re angry, and that’s all. It’s lava all the way down.
Hitchens was also fond of quoting his mother’s aphorism that “The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” One cannot imagine him penning dozens of anti-religious polemics for Salon, as Tayler has done.
Finally, Hitchens was, in his own way, modest. He was extremely well-read, but he wore his learning lightly, and he didn’t sneer at people for their stupidity.
It will be some time before the New Atheist movement gets a spokesperson who can hold a candle to the late Christopher Hitchens. In the meantime, they would be well-advised to refrain from belittling people. Let them attack crazy ideas all they wish; but there is nothing admirable in deeming people to be crazy.