God: The Evidence
|Great and terrible|
|On our shelf:|
God: The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World is a book authored by Patrick Glynn in 1997. Patrick Glynn was a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute from 1989 to 1996, but has no scientific training (he received a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard).
Introduction: The Making and Unmaking of an Atheist
Here, Glynn tries to represent himself as an atheist turned theist after examining the "evidence" for God. There are several famous Christian apologists, like Lee Strobel and Kirk Cameron, who have also written books with the same plotline (and there are also examples going the other way.) These are popular because many atheists would not bother reading arguments by a theist but might be interested how a fellow atheist came to the same conclusions. It also lends credibility, as the atheists starts by assuming there's no God and must prove otherwise to himself or herself. Thus the first chapter begins by establishing the authors atheistic "street cred".
On page five, Glynn says that “the embrace of atheism did not bring joy. Somewhere, despite my 'agnosticism,' I had clung to the hope that I might be proven wrong. The day I grasped that the entire tradition of Western philosophy, from ancient to modern times, was essentially a refutation of the religious worldview – of the idea of God – was not a happy one.” Glynn might have been atheist but had a deeper need for meaning that wasn't satisfied with nihilism. As he rightly points out, western philosophy and science has been on a long march towards eliminating the supernatural from our metaphysics. How will he refute such a large body of thought that leads thus? In his personal story, this is a pivotal moment where he realizes that knowledge won't bring him peace or telos.
On pages 12 to 15, Glynn discusses how his belief in “nihilism” fell apart when he began to realize that “under such conditions, one's intentions may be generally good. But if you come to imagine that there is no moral order to the universe, the incentives to good conduct, particularly in private life, are, unfortunately, much weakened. There is little to justify great self-sacrifice or deep personal commitment. Indeed, it is hard, as I later saw in retrospect, to feel or express love to the fullest extent. Even if one cares for others and thinks one cares greatly, one is inclined to be guided in the final analysis by one's selfish wishes. What is there in the nihilist's universe to call forth sacrifice?” Equating nihilism with atheism is a common canard among Christian apologists yet not all atheists are nihilists. However, many are and at least the author was, also, and his depiction of the effects of nihilism are common. But is it a straw man to pose Christianity against nihilism alone? It's not clear if he's arguing that or simply describing his own pre-theistic beliefs and their effects on him with an audience that may share that common experience, establishing that he was in fact atheist at the start of his journey. A fuller treatment could examine other ways nihilists find their way out and why, but this is a book about God not about escaping nihilism.
Glynn also states, “I am not claiming that anyone today can reason his or her way to faith in God. This was not even true in my case. For one thing, there was a stage in my life when I never would have bothered to pick up or read a book on near-death experiences, simply because such literature did not fit with my preconceptions of what was important or what was true.” This is both an honest admission of 1) the faith required to believe in God--there may be evidence but not a proof--and 2) preconceptions the author had and thinks are also relevant to his audience. A charitable interpretation of this passage is that reasoning from unchallenged assumptions cannot lead anywhere else besides where those assumptions allow (a familiar concept to those who have read GEB), and this is an attempt to open the readers mind to reconsider strongly held assumptions before having seen or read anything for themselves.
Chapter One: A Not-So-Random Universe
In this chapter, Glynn tries to defend the anthropic principle proposed by Brandon Carter in 1974. He defines the principle as "seemingly arbitrary and unrelated constants in physics have one strange thing in common--they are precisely the values you need if you want to have a universe with life...In essence, the anthropic principle came down to the observation that all the myriad laws of physics were fine-tuned from the very beginning of the universe for the creation of man - that the universe he inhabit appeared to be expressly designed for the emergence of human beings." According to Glynn, even the slightest deviation from these constants would make life impossible. Careful readers may note that this is precisely the opposite conclusion reached via the anthropic principle, at least in its weak (and most commonly cited) form.
Glynn briefly mentions the Big Bang Theory and evolution. Glynn says the Big Bang proved there was a beginning to the universe, and the theory of evolution is in "trouble." (What evolution has to do with the Big Bang is another question.) Glynn argues against scientists who disagree that the universe had a beginning by quoting Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time. Glynn argues that Hawking's models was simply to "get around" the problem of the beginning. However, Hawking's conclusions were about quantum mechanics, not the beginning of the universe.
Glynn also tries to cast doubt upon evolution by citing a dispute between Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould about the validity of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution and Gould's theory of “punctuated equilibrium”. Glynn blows this scientific dispute out of proportion and strongly argues that evolution is “fraying at the seams” because “a consensus is growing that natural selection cannot by itself explain the order of the biological world.” Glynn is grossly mistaken and simply did not do his research. Gould, Dawkins and the scientific community agree that evolution via natural selection is a theory and a fact, and it explains the order of the biological world — though like any rigorous scientific theory, it has been examined and improved with time (for example, by incorporation of the additional force of genetic drift and Gould's proposition of punctuated equilibrium). There is no other scientific theory or model to explain the diversity and order of life without getting into crankery.
There are several huge problems with Glynn's arguments, such as that Glynn cannot explain or defend the assertion that if indeed the Anthropic Principle is true then his specific version of God is responsible. However, Glynn falls short of reaching this point because he misunderstands (or at least misrepresents) the anthropic principle in the first place.
Glynn proclaims that the anthropic principle purposely made human life possible, and this proves God. However, the anthropic principle is like a two-way mirror in that if you look at it another way it shows something else entirely: namely, an argument against God's existence. The universe is very wasteful and human life is insignificant on a cosmic scale, and it's very problematic for a perfect God to create such an imperfect universe. The anthropic principle falls on its face as an argument for Christianity due to several simple questions. Since a cause exists prior to its effect, how could God be the cause of the Universe since, according to Big Bang cosmology, time came into existence at the beginning of the Universe? Why did it take billions of years for human life to evolve if it was designed by God? Why does human life have so many problems if it was designed by God, e.g., disease, natural disasters, etc.?
A more fitting model for the universe is the Copernican Principle.
Chapter Two: Psyche and Soul: Postsecularism in Psychology
In this chapter, Glynn tries to argue, while showing studies, the benefits of religion, suggesting that it enhances a healthier life. He tries to show that higher levels of religiosity reduce suicide rates, drug abuse and depression, as well as lead to longer marriages. Based on this, Glynn notes, "what we have learned ... points to a mind and body designed for religious faith." Glynn is very selective in the evidence he presents. Most of his data comes from the National Institute for Healthcare Research, a Templeton Foundation-funded organization specifically dedicated to promoting religion as the key to better health. Glynn doesn't explore or investigate any alternative explanations for the connections between religion and health. Finally, and probably most important, he does not subject the extravagant claims of faith-based medicine to any critical scrutiny. Glynn cites several works, but does not share that they have been highly criticized and shown to be flawed.
As you might expect at this point, many studies show the direct opposite of what Glynn tries to argue, such as by the Christian sociologist George Barna regarding divorce. Statistics show that Christians are more likely to get a divorce than Jews and non-religious couples. An Associated Press study, using data supplied by the US Census Bureau, found that the highest divorce rates are to be found in the Bible Belt.
Studies regarding depression rates between religious and the non-religious show a mixture of results; however their conclusions are far from what Glynn wants his readers to believe.
Moving on to suicide, Glynn cites studies that purport to show that people who do not attend church are four times as likely to commit suicide as those who attend it frequently. One basic problem with this is that the studies he cites do not control for various relevant causal factors. As a case in point, the suicide study finds a correlation between lack of church attendance and suicide. However, many people who attend church go for social, not religious, reasons just as many people who do not go to church have a deep religious faith. Thus, the correlation may be a function of the social support and community feeling provided by regular attendance at churches or church surrogates and may have nothing to do with religious belief itself.
Near the end, Glynn tries to argue that psychotherapy can't and doesn't supply morals. However, this is false and Glynn's use of one-sided data is once again evidence that he wanted to find evidence for a god and the supernatural and did not conduct a thorough search of the evidence.
On a large note, the effects of religion (i.e., whether it's good) are irrelevant to the question of whether God exists (i.e., whether it's true). While every religion ever known to man may be false, some form(s) of divine beings could exist. However, the evidence presented thus far in this book has failed to meet the burden of proof. Also, Glynn does not use good health as a model to determine which of the many Christian sects is the true one. If he did, he might conclude that Mormonism is the true faith while Christian Science is heresy.
Glynn noted that human minds appear designed for religion and prayer. However, history would suggest that man is more likely designed for praying to multiple gods than to a single one, and he manages to avoid mentioning that, somehow.
Religion can be beneficial, but its consequences arguably outweigh the benefits. Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal pathologies of human culture, and has the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religious faith. Religion inspires violence from divine command, and great numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of religious affiliation (Northern Ireland and India/Pakistan are good examples). This raises serious questions about religion's claim to be a source of morality.
Chapter Three: Faith and the Physicians
Continuing from the previous chapter, Glynn tries to show that religion further benefits physical health. There are numerous problems with this approach, including that even non-believers can be and often are just as healthy as believers. One would think that the followers of an omnipotent God who improves the health of His faithful would be unmistakably much healthier than anyone else, and we wouldn't have to sift through the data for statistically significant differences to know what's what.
In any case, comparing the United States (one of the most religious countries today) with non-religious countries, the health of citizens of the non-religious countries is much better. According to the most recent 2010 Human Development Report the most healthy countries aren't the most religious, but are the most secular and contain the most non-believers. Norway is in the lead, followed by Australia and New Zealand. Actually, taking a bird's-eye view of such countries suggests that their development status, wealth equality, and people's access to universal healthcare have more to do with citizens' health than their religiosity — but he probably isn't eager to go there.
Chapter Four: Intimations of Immortality
Blanke and colleagues stimulated the right angular gyrus, also called the inferior parietal lobule, during surgery on a 43-year-old woman with epilepsy. This produced an OBE in which she saw her trunk and legs from above. Blanke proposed that the OBE was produced by disrupting the part of the brain responsible for feeling and knowing the position of the body. While this area is part of the parietal lobe, it is at the angle of the temporal and parietal lobe and is inside the area reported by Penfield to produce psychical experiences.
As much as some would like to use NDEs as proof of the existence of God, heaven, and a life after death, NDEs are most likely due to severe lack of oxygen to the brain. In the hippocampal portion of the temporal lobes this results in the release of two excitatory neurotransmitters, glutamate and aspartic acid, both of which cause nerve cell death. In a last-ditch effort to prevent this, two endogenous psychedelic compounds are released—alpha- and beta-endopsychosin. Although they bind to and block the action of the NMDA receptors, thus preventing or delaying nerve cell death, they also produce spiritual sensations. This, in combination with the release of endorphins, produces a pain-free state of peaceful bliss. This biological explanation doesn't change the power of NDEs to produce life-long spiritual changes, but it also means that NDEs and OBEs are hardly the bulletproof evidence that many would like to believe.
In addition, what one experiences in NDEs seems to depend on one's beliefs. Hindus generally see Hindu gods and Hindu themes, for instance. So even if NDEs are evidence for some kind of afterlife, they seem poor evidence that the Christian one is right over all the others. Again, this escapes mention in the book.
Chapter Five: Reason and Spirit
This last chapter basically reviews all the material covered in the previous chapters, plus he argues the limitations of reason and science and the need for spirituality. However, his arguments are nothing more than unclear rambling. If Glynn believes that reason and science are questionable, this seems to be self-refuted by the mere fact that he appeals to science and reason throughout his book to support his belief in God and immortality. You can't have it both ways. As far as morality goes, Glynn seems to have never heard of recent ethical philosophers William Frankena, Richard Brandt, and David Brink.
- Irwin Tessman and Jack Tessman, review of Hebert Benson's Timeless Healing, Science 276 (18 Apr 1997), 369-370.
- Jeff Witmer and Michael Zimmerman, "Intercessory prayer as medical treatment? An inquiry", Skeptical Inquirer 15 (2) (Winter 1991), 177-180.