Dennis R. Trumble Favorably Reviews "Christianity in the Light of Science"

LINK. Here is a link to something about Dr. Trumble. His review is below. Enjoy

Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 37 issue 2

"Tipping the Balance Toward a Critical Mass of Critical Thinkers" by Dr. Dennis R. Trumble

Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion, edited by John W. Loftus (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2016, ISBN 978-1-63388-173-0). 380 pp. Softcover, $19.00. Foreword by Frank R. Zindler.

As the light of scientific inquiry gradually expands to illuminate the unlit pathways of human speculation, modern religious thinkers find themselves in an increasingly difficult position. Unlike their not-so-distant predecessors whose core ecclesiastical beliefs rested safely beyond all scientific reckoning, people of faith must now deal with the fact that the accumulated body of scientific knowledge, which could have validated the claims of any one of the myriad religious belief systems still in play in the twenty-first century, has clearly failed to do so. Slowly, if not surely, many of the most cherished assumptions of peoples past have, in the light of accumulating evidence, been either falsified outright (the Earth-centered universe) or shown to be entirely unfounded (the people-centered universe).

And yet, many of these ideas re­main remarkably resistant to the rules of reason—much to the chagrin of those who value empirical evidence and the scientific method over hearsay and hand-me-down beliefs. Indeed, while no one should expect people of faith to abandon centuries of belief in the divine provenance of humankind without a struggle, the plain fact that the testable claims of organized religion continue to stand so firmly against the staggering weight of scientific evidence can be as discouraging as it is bewildering. In fact, these long-cherished but thoroughly discredited ideas would seem so utterly impervious to the proscriptions of logic that anyone with a rationalist turn of mind might reasonably consider any effort to continue the conversation to be pointless at best. Fortunately, John W. Loftus sees things differently.

In his most recent collection of essays, Christianity in the Light of Sci​ence: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion, Loftus and his coauthors continue to fight the good fight, this time critically examining those claims of Christian apologists that most readily lend themselves to scientific scrutiny. (And thanks to the growing scope and power of modern scientific methods, there is now a long and expanding list from which to choose.) Here, the authors—distinguished scholars from a wide range of fields—examine how the Christian faith fits within our current scientific understanding of the cosmos. Intelligent design “theory,” the power of prayer, the authenticity of the Turin Shroud, the credibility of the exodus, the tale of the Bethlehem star, the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus, the concepts of sin, the soul, and free will: all are held up to the light of reason and carefully weighed against the mass of evidence accrued in modern times.

Readers will find this volume replete with thoughtful, well-written arguments that bring the full force of evidence-based inquiry to bear against beliefs that no longer make sense given the current state of human knowledge. Though recent events would seem to suggest otherwise, facts still matter to a great many people. And as long as they do, this compilation will serve as an eye-opening read for anyone open to an unbiased examination of biblical claims.
Loftus writes in his introduction that the main purpose of this book is to “honestly and rigorously expose [the Christian] dog and pony show for what it is.” That’s all well and good, but let’s be honest. The vast majority of people who will read this anthology are unlikely to be devout Christians, or even semi-regular churchgoers. Most readers will come to this book with an eye toward gaining a better understanding of the arguments they already support. And that’s fine too. As Sam Harris has observed on numerous occasions, “no society in human history [has] ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” But even if the contents of this volume were to be widely read among the Christian faithful, is it even possible for this or any other book to mount so compelling a case for scientific rationality as to knock stalwart believers from their ideological perch?

Probably not. It’s certainly no secret that those who are most ardent in their faith are unlikely to be moved by any argument that can be put to paper, no matter how compelling. This is not just human obstinacy; it’s human nature. And the authors, to their credit, acknowledge as much. As anthropologist David Eller notes in his superb essay called “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing,” the human intellect is chockablock with cognitive biases shaped by evolution and tucked neatly within the ample confines of our subconscious. As odd as it seems, our brains were not built to perceive the world as it truly is but rather evolved to perceive the world in a way that enhanced our survival in harsher times. The fact that we are inclined to favor anecdotes over statistics, prefer to confirm rather than question our preexisting beliefs, misapprehend the role of chance and coincidence in life, have faulty memories, and tend to think in an overly simplistic manner has undoubtedly contributed to our overall success as a species to this point, even if these same traits are proving to be dangerous liabilities in modern times. All this leads Eller to conclude: “while it is not always profitless to argue with a believer, it is certainly not as effective as it should be; arguments and disconfirming facts are filtered through all of the cognitive biases we have named, and many more, to produce ‘knowledge’ that is openly refuted by the facts.”

This sentiment is echoed a few pages later by Sharon Nichols, who optimistically suggests, “If we can understand that part of human nature that is so ready to believe, perhaps we can inoculate ourselves against the tendency toward knowledge denialism and combat the unreason that accompanies it.” Maybe so; but to develop a truly effective vaccine of this sort, it is important to understand that fact-aversion is a multifaceted affliction. True, we humans are supremely susceptible to self-deception, but not all self-deception is a sole product of the irrational tendencies instilled by the forces of natural selection. In truth, there are perfectly good reasons why people of faith might choose to ignore, or even actively oppose, the findings of science when they threaten to undermine beliefs central to their sense of well-being. Cosmic clarity may be a common aspiration, but on balance what people want even more is to feel safe and reassured. Sacrificing a certain measure of intellectual integrity for a little peace of mind is a trade that many folks are willing to make given the discomfiting uncertainties of the world at large.

This aspect of knowledge denial has nothing to do with logical inference or cognitive bias and everything to do with base human emotions, with fear of the unknown being the most prominent player. Consequently, perfectly smart people can view the scientific evidence and understand its implications while still denying its veracity based purely on a (not altogether unreasonable) reluctance to trade a faith-based worldview that has always worked for them for a scientific outlook that might not. I call this the “Linus Syndrome,” based on the “Peanuts” character who wanted so desperately to believe in the Great Pumpkin. After having been challenged by Patty with the assertion that the Great Pumpkin is a fake, Linus continued his letter to the fictional squash, writing: “Everyone tells me you are a fake, but I believe in you. P.S. If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” And so it is with certain science deniers.

Many harbor a nagging suspicion that their beliefs might not be firmly grounded in reality but at the same time are willing to accept and/or promote traditional beliefs they judge to be beneficial—whether personally or socially—over evidence-based ideas that threaten to upset the applecart. Consequently, there is a substantial swath of religious believers who will never be swayed by mere evidence no matter how “undeniable” as long as they feel that some beliefs are worth holding whether they are true or not.

To reach these, the fearful faithful, we need more than cold, hard facts; we need to convince our devout friends that moral truths and personal meaning are more than just religious constructs. Scientists, educators, and rationalists everywhere need to share the happy news that we need not take anything on faith to live full, meaningful lives and that truth and meaning are not either/or propositions. And we need to make plain the fact that scientific knowledge and moral reasoning are inexorably intertwined and that a true sense of right and wrong can come only from first knowing what is true. As Darwin once noted, there is grandeur in this view of life, and rationalist thinkers would do well to accentuate this positive as they work to make critical thinking the norm and not the exception in all areas of human discourse.

This is easier said than done, of course. Even the most eloquent defenders of science and reason have managed to make only modest inroads in this regard, and there is no reason to expect the path to widen any time soon. So the most that any defender of science and critical thinking can reasonably hope to accomplish through publications of this sort is to chip away at the edges of unthinking faith by cultivating skepticism in those believers in whom the seeds of doubt have already been sown.

The good news is that we need not draw everyone to the rational side of the scale in order to shift the balance toward a more considered and considerate way of thinking. In truth, like the movements that abolished slavery, sought equal rights for women, and currently work to destigmatize the LGBTQ community, we need only nudge our collective perspective past a psychological tipping point beyond which unjustified beliefs (and prejudices) are no longer made respectable by virtue of their popular acceptance.

Precisely how many converts will be needed to tip the scale toward science and reason is difficult to discern, and there is no way to tell how close we are to achieving that goal—or how far away. But this much is certain: this tipping point must be reached, and soon. Why? Because efforts to develop scientific solutions to global problems simply cannot move ahead without the weight of broad-based public support to lend them traction. A recent editorial in the journal Science may have said it best: “The ability of science to deliver on its promise of practical and timely solutions to the world’s problems does not depend solely on research accomplishments but also on the receptivity of society to the implications of scientific discoveries” (“Bridging Science and Society,”Science 327 [February 19, 2010]: 921).

For better or worse, these days it is not enough that scientists and engineers understand how science works; a working majority of the general public must also be conversant in matters of scientific discovery and fact-based reasoning if we are to wield this knowledge—and the power it imposes—without destroying ourselves in the process. As much as we might like to think otherwise, there is no escaping the dangers created by a scientifically naive and grossly misinformed global populace. Sink or swim, we are all in this together.

This is what makes books like Christianity in the Light of Science so important. It might not trigger a seismic shift toward science and reason all by itself, but it certainly adds another grain to the rational side of the scale. And who knows, by continuing to engage in frank, open discussions of this sort we may find that there are more than a few “people of faith” sitting quietly in our corner; covert skeptics kept closeted by the stigma of disbelief and feelings of isolation fueled by the silence of like-minded people all around them. Simply knowing that they are in good company might encourage these hidden doubters to “come out” and lend their voices to the conversation, which, in turn, might encourage others to follow suit. And who can say which grain in the balance will finally tip the scale? We owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to find out.

Dennis R. Trumble is assistant research professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and author of The Way of Science: Finding Truth and Meaning in a Scientific Worldview (Prometheus Books, 2013).