Wednesday, June 30, 2010

random news

Hitchens trying out water-boarding - word is he didn't last 30 seconds

Christopher Hitchens is having chemo on his esophegus, which sounds horribly serious.

P Z Myers is fascinated about the lack of fuss we're making about our new, openly atheist PM [about her atheism, I mean]. In fact, it seems he's intrigued by the whole Gillard thing, but he has also found, sadly, that she's against gay marriage. In this interview she gives no reasons for her position. My guess is she's being 'pragmatic' or vote-driven. She doesn't want to alienate too many conservatives. It may be also that, being unmarried herself, she's not too hung up on marriage, and would like to see straights and gays alike getting over it. That's more or less my position, but it's also clear that a lot of people won't get over it and would like to see there relationships sanctioned by ritual [Michael Kirby and partner, for example], and it seems mean-spirited not to give them that if they want it. So, disappointing.

a brave new world

My current reading of Robin Lane Fox [Pagans and Christians] not only informs me, like never before, of approaches to gods and religion in the period of the birth and spread of Christianity, it gives me some pause when contemplating approaches to atheism, especially my own. Some modern philosophers, such as Donald Rurtherford, and intellectuals such as Jonathan Miller, have emphasised the tradition of non-belief going back to the Graeco-Roman period and the likes of Epicurus and Lucretius, and of course there is such a tradition, but Fox and others show through their research that this tradition is very thin, a thin thread through a world thick with belief.

Pagans and Christians covers the Latin and Greek world in second to the fourth century of the Christian era, examining the actual religious practice of the time, as far as it can be revealed from inscriptions, contemporary reportage, and other archaeological and documentary evidence. There's very little place for non-belief. It's unlikely that even those who cynically manipulate the credulity of others - and there are plenty of them - are philosophical non-believers themselves. It's hard to think oneself into such a world. These days we think of paganism as something wild and primitive and vaguely counter-cultural, but essentially it was a Christian, pejorative term for the polytheistic religious beliefs and practices of Graeco-Roman rustics. Coming as we do from a culture of institutionalized monotheism, it's easy, perhaps, to fall into the trap of imagining these beliefs as protean, disorganised and ad hoc, yet in spite of a lack of centralized control and orthodoxy, they followed traditional lines and undoubtedly assisted in maintaining order and continuity throughout the empire. It would be impossible to explain how in a short, or even a long, blog piece, so I'll simply recommend Robin Lane Fox's delightfully detailed book [a long one too - I'm only part of the way through].
Amongst many other things, the book reminds me of just how new and revolutionary atheism is, in spite of De rerum natura. I recall Jack Miles, author of God: a biography, in an otherwise fair review of Dawkins [or was it Hitchens?], having a dig at atheists, those poor beleaguered souls, still battling away at irrational belief systems after more than two thousand years, and apparently getting nowhere. He failed to mention that when the term 'atheist' was used in earlier times, whether in the very early Christian period or during the Reformation, it was almost always in relation to other religions or denominations. Christians often described paganism as atheistic, and no doubt vice versa. It's really only since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the eighteenth century enlightenment that atheism has made much headway amongst the general populace, and it has been gradually growing in popularity ever since. Whole nations now proclaim themselves as largely non-religious - something unimaginable a few centuries ago. I credit this development to two factors. First, the rise and rise of science as a set of methodologies for making more and more sense of every aspect of our world, and second, a universal and compulsory education system that exposes people at an early age to those methodologies and to the value of thinking independently and sceptically.

Still, the deep-dyed religiosity of earlier, highly sophisticated civilizations does make me nervous or reticent about engaging in too much scorn of religious thinking. I'm bemused, for example, to read of the religious turn that Plutarch took in his later years, as I prefer to think of him as a brilliant this-wordly observer. I'm unsettled sometimes, I must admit it, by the sheer weight of religious belief, not just as we witness it in the present age, but historically, generation after generation after generation. I'm an atheist - and my parents? My father got himself hitched to the Jehovah's Witnesses some years before his death. When I went to his funeral and listened to the eulogy it seemed clear to me that these people knew very little about the man. Well, maybe neither did I? I've no idea whether he believed all that shite - he wasn't a very educated man. He refused to believe me when I told him that crucifixion was a common form of execution for non-Romans back then. He was intelligent but hopelessly unworldly. Anyway, the point is, he wasn't an atheist, and neither was my mother, and I can't go back further in the family tree than that, having been cut off from the grandparents and the extended families by our emigration to Australia from Scotland. Chances are, though, that my generation is the first atheist one. And this must be the case for a great many people. It really is a brave new world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

more problems with Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong -still trying to convince herself those 7 years cooped up in a nunnery weren't a complete waste

Having ploughed my way through Karen Armstrong's A History of God, which I may have even reviewed somewhere in these pages, I can sympathise with anyone else trying to read her, make sense of her, and reflect on whether anything she writes about theology, or rather about the theology of other, historical theologians, really is true to what those theologians thought. So I've enjoyed reading this review, by Eric Macdonald, of a more recent Armstrong offering, The Case for God. Macdonald makes a number of important points about Armstrong's apparently rather repetitive claims about kenosis [self-emptying] and other abstruse ways of extralinguistic knowing. Essentially he questions her claims about a modern failure to recognize or experience earlier understandings of god. She doesn't really prove her point, she merely asserts it, in spite of having no evidence, and much evidence to the contrary.

I like Macdonald's concluding remarks in particular, which deal with her attempts to attack the 'new atheists', and with the problem of her theology, or lack thereof. His last two paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

On several occasions towards the end of her book, Armstrong argues very vehemently that the new atheists are simply making a bad situation worse. Do they not realise that “The history of fundamentalism shows that when these movements are attacked, they nearly always become more extreme?” (295) They should, then, moderate the polemic. Atheists are right, she says, to condemn abuses stemming from idolatrous religion. However, “when they insist that society should no longer tolerate faith and demand the withdrawal of respect from all things religious, they fall prey to the same intolerance.” (308-9) Since she does not cite sources for these claims, it is hard to know what she means. The so-called new atheists have never, to my knowledge, claimed that society should no longer tolerate faith, nor have they demanded the withdrawal of respect from all things religious. What they have said is that religion cannot hide behind the respect that it has been traditionally granted, and that it must be subject, as the expression of all ideas and beliefs must be in a free society, to criticism, to question, and indeed, if need be, to scorn. It has no right to expect special privileges, and it has not unreasonably been suggested that its claiming such special privilege permits it too easily to slip into abuse. If its response to criticism is to become more violent, then it seems clear that more criticism is needed, not less, until those holding beliefs which they believe should be privileged come to understand that, in a free society, none are exempt from criticism and even, it may be, from mockery and scorn. Some religious beliefs have shown themselves to be so deserving.
One comes away from reading Armstrong feeling bruised. The words arise with such force and profusion that the point she is trying to make seems to get lost amongst them. Indeed, it is hard to believe, after the pain of reading one of her books, that she has sold so many of them, for who would willingly submit themselves to such torment? As I said earlier, to some extent Karen Armstrong has but one book, and she has written it many times. This is not unusual. But what is unusual is that she should think the same thing worth saying again and again, when she did not succeed, the first time, to say it convincingly. Armstrong must actually argue for her position. She cannot simply assume that telling the history of it will prove her point. Indeed, what Armstrong needs to do is to develop a theology, not by telling the history of theology, but by doing it. If what she has to say is genuinely worthwhile, this is the next step she will take. If she does not do it, we can be assured that the theology she espouses is as thin as this book is thick. Theology is hard work, as she says, and she has yet to do it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

nothing personal: a first response to Mooney

I've been a bit preoccupied, but at last I've read Chris Mooney's first response to Jerry Coyne, and I must say I'm not particularly impressed, though not being a citizen of that horribly divided and over-heated nation, the USA [or so it seems from here], I'm more relaxed about critiquing the empirical or quasi-empirical claims of the religious.

Mooney's essay of over a year ago has evoked over 100 responses, which deepen the debate, but for now I'll focus only on the essay itself. He begins with what seems to me a bit of bluster - claiming that he'd be the first to join an alliance of believers and non-believers for the promotion of evolution. My immediate response, considering that I've joined a few alliances in the past, is - what if members of that alliance start saying things about evolution that I can't agree with, or that are just plain wrong? Which then raises the question - and Coyne and others raise it too - when do believers ever get evolution right? For example, the claim that humans and humans alone have a soul, a claim common to the Judaic, Christian and Islamic religions I think, just can't be reconciled with the theory of natural selection. I really think the theory refutes this belief. I therefore think that anyone holding this view cannot at the same time, without contradiction, hold the view that natural selection accounts for the diversity of species, including homo sapiens. 

Mooney considers it important to distinguish between religions, but we all know that it's the politically powerful religions, notably Christianity in the US, but also Islam, that constitute a threat to science education and the spread of scientific knowledge. Of the other religions, I'd suggest they all base themselves on supernatural explanations for real world phenomena, and as such, are in opposition to scientific thinking and methodology. Many of the more intellectual believers profess a vague deism in public and never address the particular problems of their particular religions - Charles Taylor, for example, or Howard Smith, a leading astrophysicist and a 'self-described observant Jew', whose defensive response to the 'new atheists' is this: 'I'm not religious because I'm ignorant: I'm religious because I'm in awe'. Now 'awe' might be a necessary condition for religious feeling but it's hardly a sufficient one, and it's certainly not a sufficient condition for believing in a particular god, with a particular and frankly bizarre history tied up with a so-called chosen people, whose history as related in the Tanakh seems to bear very little resemblance to the facts uncovered on the ground. How people like Smith reconcile scientific methodology and analytic reasoning with such a bizarre and largely counterfactual belief system is the real problem. All religions are particular, and it's with these particularities that many non-believers take issue. Clearly it's not so much about awe as about maintaining a cultural tradition which many people feel lost, identity-less, without. In my view, awe, which I personally feel on a regular basis, just doesn't cut it as a basis for religion.

This, of course, takes us into areas of religion and its relation to cultural identity, a minefield I'll avoid for now, while acknowledging that it's probably the key issue in understanding the persistence of religious belief.

So returning to Mooney, he quotes from Coyne's original essay and takes him to task for daring to criticize coalitions intended to achieve shared goals. Yet he fails to acknowledge that the cobbling together of such a coalition means smoothing over areas of real dissent, and the excluding of those scientists - more than a few - who see no value in such a coalition,or who know a thing or two about history, and how organised, powerful religion has sought to block every step of scientific progress over the years. Here in Australia, for example, there's no serious threat from creationism, despite the occasional wild rumour coursing through atheist circles. So we're free to focus on what divides us rather than on what unites us.

Mooney fares much worse, it seems to me, when he attempts a deeper criticism of the paragraph he quotes from Coyne. Here are his first remarks:
First, I don’t see anything particularly “philosophical” about the accommodationist stance. Rather, holding that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science is an empirical matter:  There are a vast number of different religions traditions in the world, and a still more vast number of ways in which different people profess and live out their faiths. In some of these traditions, and for some of these people, there is stark conflict with science; in other traditions, and for other people, there isn’t. That’s just a fact, and one that can be demonstrated simply by identifying any number of scientists who are religious, any number of religious leaders and denominations which embrace evolution, and so on.
It's true, of course that there are many different religious traditions, but along with many other non-believers, I think it's fair to single out Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the main causes for concern, and especially the last two, as they are the only religions, in my part of the world at least, politically powerful enough to interfere in any way with scientific advancement. It's also true, of course, that within those two religions, people profess and live out their faiths very differently, many of them completely ignoring the defining dogmas of their particular denominations. Bully for them. Yet there are defining dogmas, and I have already written about them with regard to Christianity, and to Judaism in passing. Interestingly, and I think unsurprisingly, those Christian denominations that have most readily embraced evolution have weakened themselves thereby. One feels a sense of drift with them, or retreat to a vague deism. On the other hand, Catholicism, which to me has only pretended to embrace evolution, and the more conservative side of the Anglican church, still have some political power in this country at least, and Catholicism is making great strides in Africa and rural China, where evolution has no purchase. The sexier Pentecostal-type churches don't seem to have lost any popularity by appealing to the lowest common denominator with regard to evolutionary understanding.
The official Catholic position on evolution is full of claptrap, and any biological scientist worth her pay would surely be happy to point this out. It may well be that there are many practising Catholics who have a sophisticated and accurate understanding of evolution which contradicts the official line, and that is all well and good, but rather odd. It would surely mean no belief in the exclusively human soul, and no belief in souls in general, because I don't see any place for disembodied souls in a genuinely correlated scientific understanding of our world. With these beliefs and many others shredded by a commitment to coherent scientific understanding of what we are, I don't really see what these practising Catholics would have left to practice.

In short, the numbers of the religious who embrace evolution and science are of no consequence. Coherence is all. That's a scientific criterion of course. Who cares how many people embrace the theory of general relativity? Its coherence, its testability and its fruitfulness, these are the measures. Those who question the compatibility of science and religion do so on these grounds. It's nothing personal.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

silly season

Dr Alan Leshner, BC, resolves the compatibility issue once and for all

The fact that so many are weighing in on the science-religion compatibility issue is an important sign. There's a lot of discomfort about. As Ophelia Benson reports, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, obviously a Big Cheese, has come out with the same line as that country's NCSE. Some 50% of US scientists are religious, therefore science and religion are compatible, end of story, and he hopes that will bring an end to the debate!!??#&! No mention of epistemology, which is what this is all about. The utter inanity of these remarks, from such a Big Cheese, is sure to fire up the issue all the more. What fun!

science and faith are incompatible: preliminary stuff

So I've been reading Jerry Coyne's first two posts on the problems with science cosying up to religious beliefs. Coyne's first post is a general argument, while his second is a critique of the apparent policy of accommodationism at the National Center for Science Education [NCSE] in the US. I've not found anything to disagree with, and there's much to bolster my own thinking. Clearly the first post is most relevant to me, though the second post does make me wonder whether there are any issues here in Australia, on the equivalent level of the NCSE, which might be worth investigating. For now, though, I'll focus on the general issue.
As I've already pointed out, attempts by Christian believers to reconcile fundamental tenets of their faith - the fallenness of humanity, the existence of the human soul, the specialness of humans as a species 'in God's image' - with scientific understanding, and particularly evolution, have been pretty well disastrous. Even so, these attempts are continually made, which itself is indicative of the belief that science and faith are not 'non-overlapping magisteria' - the pretentious terminology coined by Stephen J Gould. The Christian doctrine of human fallenness is a claim about how the world is for us, not 'metaphorically', but really. All religions, as Coyne points out, make these claims about how the world is, and this is clearly the province of science. Virtually all the flat-earthers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were 'guided' by religion, and of course we have the young earth creationists and other religiously inspired pseudo-scientific groups, all claiming to have science on their side. The Catholic church is constantly fudging on the issue of evolution and human specialness. Its position is essentially incoherent, but it clearly doesn't suffer from the delusion that evolution is irrelevant to the Christian faith.
But I won't belabor the point - religion invokes supernatural stuff to explain aspects of our natural world. Science is all about explaining the natural world, and finds no need for supernatural hypotheses. Clearly they are in opposition to each other.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Proust and the squid

In a post from about a year ago, Jerry Coyne provided a useful set of links to the main pro and con arguments in the science-religion-compatibility argument of recent times. No doubt more arguments have been put forward since then, but I suspect all the philosophical issues have already been thoroughly covered. So I'll read through these arguments and add my own amateur piece to them in due course.

Last night I was watching Doctor Who [which I rarely do] and it featured a dyslexic lad who the Doctor encouraged with a reference to dyslexic geniuses such as Einstein and Da Vinci. 'Ahh', thinks I, 'the show's writers have been reading Proust and the Squid.'

Proust and the Squid, written by Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, is my own most recent venture into book-learnin. I have to admit that, having read it, I feel I should read it again, it's so rich in knowledge and speculation about the process of reading, and the future challenges to reading in our electronic, visual, sound-bitey age. It touches, and often more than touches, on such matters as the origin of writing, the different types of writing systems, the history of the teaching of writing, the way reading and writing affects the brain, and how problems in learning how to read and write [what is dyslexia exactly?] have taught us so much about how the brain functions and adapts.

Reading is a relatively new invention, but very important for the development of civilization and modern humanity, because the human brain was considerably altered by it - not in a basic anatomical way, but certainly in terms of information processing and organisation, and this in turn has affected our social development quite substantially. Just think, we divide history from prehistory on the basis of this single transformative invention. Reading combines vision and spoken language in revolutionary ways, and it has involved the adaptation of much older and slowly evolved circuitry for the acquisition of new tasks. Wolf refers to the 'open architecture' of the brain, a computing term, and the brain's plasticity and versatility is such that a Chinese child will learn to read her native language using quite different neural connections and pathways than those of an Australian child learning to read English.

Wolf chose this title because, first, the squid was a creature used in the fifties to study brain processes and brain repair. The squid's long central axon made it an ideal subject for these early studies, and now the 'reading brain' is offering a similarly ideal subject for more advanced work in cognitive neuroscience. The reference to Proust is one more obviously apposite to someone like me, as, in his book On Reading, he describes that inner sanctuary of the mind as it communes with a writer and follows and further elaborates upon a narrative; a precious place, a storehouse of unique memories, emotions, revelations. Wolf is especially alive to this ineffable impact of reading upon the psyche. She describes Machiavelli, who 'would sometimes prepare to read by dressing up in the period of the writer he was reading and then setting a table for the two of them'. Okay, I'm a bit sceptical of the story, but it evokes a period when reading, far from a universally acquired skill, was something precious, almost sanctified. Nowadays, it is virtually regarded as a sin not to be able to read; hence the stigma associated with dyslexia.

So what happens when we read? How are we enabled to do so? There's no easy answer. For a start, as mentioned, reading is a different process in different cultures with different writing systems. Our modern alphabet has twenty-six letters, compared with 900 or so cuneiform characters [used in the Akkadian and Sumerian writing systems], and thousands of hieroglyphs [the Egyptian writing system]. This suggests an increase in efficiency, and many scholars have argued that the development of an alphabetic writing system [probably by the Greeks in around the eighth century BCE] not only made writing easier to learn, but much more flexible and able to express novel and complex ideas. Yet brain scans have shown that people can master more complex syllabary writing systems, such as Chinese, which has thousands of characters, quite proficiently, and though these things are difficult to measure, there's no obvious reason to suppose that the Chinese are any less novel and complex thinkers than users of the 26-letter alphabet.

I could write much more about this book - in fact every page raises a multitude of questions and sets the mind off on a wondering journey. I'll definitely read it again, and I'll examine and reflect on more material from it from time to time. An endless sort of book.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

are science and religion compatible? preliminary remarks

I'll begin my exploration of this theme with an elaboration from my previous post. The Australian Christian propagandist Greg Clarke has written: 'Christianity teaches us that we are all people who have fallen from grace'. By and large, this is an accepted Christian claim. I say 'by and large' because, in my reading, I've encountered Christians who don't accept the virgin birth, who don't accept the resurrection, who don't accept the miracles in either the OT or the NT, so it wouldn't come as a surprise to me that some Christians reject the doctrine of the Fall and original sin. Christianity's almost infinite flexibility must be one of its star attractions. But probably a majority of Christians see this as a central doctrine.
So, to narrow things down, let's ask if this 'doctrine' [some would call it a dogma] is compatible with science. To ask this is to ask how we are to understand the claim. Is it empirical? Is it testable in any way? If not, how then are we to understand it?
The doctrine of course originates in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve, the first humans, were made in the image of God and lived in an earthly paradise, until they ate of fruit forbidden to them by their creator, and were cast out of this paradise and condemned to a 'fallen' existence, along with all their descendants, the entire human species. It's a doctrine common to the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.
Nowadays, though, most educated 'liberal' Christians agree that Adam and Eve never 'literally' existed. They accept that Homo sapiens evolved from earlier species of Homo, and that chimps and bonobos are our closest living relatives. This is not to say that they reject the Adam and Eve myth as a load of rubbish. They feel that it should be retained as a story symbolizing what we might be, or might have been, and what we can and should strive to be. Others, of course, take a more dim view. After all, Adam and Eve's fall was the result of disobedience, indeed an act of disobedience which might seem minor to an outside observer, which seems to suggest that the price of this state of grace or bliss is total obedience to the creator. And there are a number of other questionable assumptions in the story.
In any case, given the symbolic nature of the story, isn't it reasonable to assume that it's compatible with science, or at least that it operates in a different field, while science only deals with matters of fact?
I think there are real problems with this assumption. First, while many Christians reject the literal truth of Adam and Eve, the idea of a 'fall from grace' is very real to many of them. This leads, of course, to much confusion, as evidenced by the mess of official Catholic doctrine, which tries to reconcile the Adam and Eve story with modern evolutionary understanding, and still tries to claim our fallenness as a 'fact'. This site of the Global Catholic Network, which strives to provide readable accounts of Catholic doctrine, offers ample evidence for why the Catholic Church is in serious trouble in the scientifically literate nations of the world. It is full of factual claims about the soul, original sin and 'sanctifying grace', as well as claims about the state of evolutionary theory [e.g. 'the scientific evidence for bodily evolution is almost non-existent'] which seem to make a mockery of claims, by Francisco Ayala and others, that science and religion occupy mutually exclusive realms [usually identified as 'factual' and 'moral' realms]. Somebody may have forgotten to inform the Catholic Church of this 'fact', though it's clear that the Catholic Church isn't the only religious organization to make many claims of fact based on 'revelation' or holy texts. Alongside the history of modern science can be read the history of implacable opposition to scientific findings, invariably driven by religious conviction - be it in relation to the shape of the earth, the age of the universe, or the origin of our species. So, on the face of it, it's hard to argue that religion and science occupy these entirely different spheres, to say nothing of the way that greater factual knowledge informs our values. And a major problem here is that the great themes of Christian belief - original sin, the soul and the afterlife, being made in God's image, the idea of being 'saved' - these are felt as real truths about the world and human existence. To water them down into mere metaphor is to destroy what is religious about them. Yet when claimed as truths they inevitably clash with our understanding of human life and human history as revealed by scientific investigation.
However, Ayala has apparently written about epistemology and how it can be used to shed light on the differences between science and religion, and Chris Mooney has tried his hand at revealing the limitations of methodological naturalism, and of course Plantinga and others have tried to show that science and religion need not be at odds with each other [not to mention the Reverend Michael Dowd as shown above], so I'll try to look at some of their arguments over the next few posts.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

some explorations of the definition of faith

Greg Clarke - defender of the faith

Endless distractions and matters of interest.
I was going to have a look at philosophical and methodological naturalism and the apparent debate between Chris Mooney and Jerry Coyne on accommodationism, but someone has sent an email letting me know that, via the public library system here in South Australia, I can now now gain full access to Australia's and the world's best known [and some not so well known] newspapers. So I've been exploring that this morning and with my interest in religious apologetics, I couldn't go past a new Christian paper, non-affiliated apparently, called Eternity. It comes out of Sydney, unsurprisingly, the home of Arthur Stace and his 'eternity' scribblings, and it first appeared late last year. The most recent issue has the irresistible headline article 'Taking on the new atheism.' Have just glanced through a mildly interesting piece on Marcion, the murderous Old Testament god, and the soi-disant 'true gospels', by Michael Jensen [don't know if he's related to the unpleasant Anglican Jensen brothers]. It's a typical mixture of history, dogmatism and propaganda. Now I'm onto the main piece, by one Greg Clarke, who along with John Dickson - remember him? [also here] is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity, in other words a Christian propagandist writing for a Christian propagandist newspaper. The title of his piece is 'the f word', and that's faith. Which reminds me that in my own 'big work', The Faith Hope, there's a big essay missing, one making an attempt to define 'faith' from the perspective of believers and of non-believers.
Clarke himself gives definitions of faith provided by Harris, Dawkins and Grayling, and unsurprisingly, says he doesn't recognise any of these definitions. The Grayling one, which provides as good a start as any, is 'a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason'. Clarke then counters with a more positive definition. Faith is 'a conviction that grows out of an 'encounter' with God'. By 'God', Clarke means the 'the god called God', or 'the god formerly known as Ywh', one of many many deities worshipped by people, past and present, on this planet. Clearly, his preliminary definition of faith doesn't contradict Grayling's, as claims of personal 'encounters' with deities, or ancestor spirits, or fairies, have never yet been backed up with evidence of the kind generally recognised, and the faithful generally see no point in trying to provide such evidence.
Clarke tries to elaborate this 'encounter' further, as an encounter with the Biblical god, an encounter with Jesus, either personally or through the revelation of scripture, but it all amounts to the same thing, some kind of subjective experience that supposedly reveals some kind of objective truth. He tries to smuggle in the idea that this constitutes 'knowledge' of some kind, thereby blurring if not obliterating any boundary between knowledge and belief. His claim that 'this fits remarkably well with contemporary theories of epistemology' is ridiculous. No theory of knowledge worthy of the name counts belief per se, no matter how fervently held, as knowledge. Clarke invokes good ol' Al Plantinga to back up his claim. As Plantinga describes it, these kinds of revelatory encounters involve 'no leap in the dark, not merely because the person with faith is wholly convinced but also because, as a matter of fact, the belief in question meets the conditions for rationality and warrant.' Unfortunately, Clarke doesn't elaborate on this extraordinary and dubious assertion, but I'm confident, in spite of not having read Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief, that it won't stand up to much scrutiny. In fact, we can get a taste of Plantinga's attitude to the calls for evidence from this quote:
Must my criteria, or those of the believing community, conform to their examples? Surely not. The theistic community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs.
This might be termed the 'we're taking our bat and ball and going home and inventing our own game with our own rules' theory of knowledge. Or the 'self-serving claptrap' theory of knowledge.
Clarke goes on, as if he's somehow clarified the meaning of faith, - as if by mentioning words like 'reasoning' and 'reliable testimony' he has shown that believers employ these things, which he manifestly has not - to shake his head at critics' misunderstanding of the faith concept. In doing so, he entirely misrepresents the critics of faith. Non-believers, new or old, do not argue that believers are wrong in claiming their beliefs are logically or evidentially true. Their arguments are more or less entirely devoted to the unlikeliness - that's to say unreasonableness - of any particular version of revealed religion being true, bearing in mind that these beliefs contradict each other and have particularities that make them irreducible to mere deism. Not that there aren't sound arguments against deism too.
The rest of the Clarke piece contains no philosophical arguments to speak of, it simply asserts that people of faith are called on to do this, that, or the other - presumably whatever your interpretion of scripture, or your local holy person's interpretation of scripture, calls you to do. This, of course, gets us nowhere. I will mention one more claim, though - a well-known one. 'Christianity teaches us that we are all people who have fallen from grace...'
Of course, Christianity doesn't really teach us this, it tells us this. The difference between teaching and telling is essentially the difference between encouraging people towards insight, and indoctrination. I can't accept that we are people who have fallen from grace. I love the word 'grace', it's one of my favourite words, but it holds no religious connotations for me. Homo sapiens sapiens are the products of a long process of evolution. We have never been perfect, and whatever grace we have attained has never been other than fleeting and all the more precious for that. The best we can do for ourselves is to go on working at working out who exactly we are and how we can strive to make ourselves and our world better, whatever that might mean exactly.