Am I Being Dishonest About Fine-Tuning?

In recent discussions with atheists on Twitter, I’ve encountered objections to the term “fine-tuning.” This term refers to the fact that, according to physics and cosmology, the fundamental physical constants and forces of the universe (the strength of gravity, the strength of electromagnetism, the cosmological constant, the number of spatial dimensions, and so forth) all appear to be precisely “tuned” within an extremely narrow range—an incredibly delicate balance that permits the existence of life in the universe. There are dozens of these constants and forces, and if just one of them had a slightly different value—if it were altered by as little as one part in billions or even trillions—life could not exist.

I find that most of the atheists I encounter have never heard of fine-tuning or the anthropic principle. When I explain it to them, they are aghast and refuse to believe what I’m saying. They frequently accuse me of lying or ignorance.

Those who are more astute and well-read will frequently object to the term “fine-tuning” because they think that even using that term is stacking the deck. “‘Fine-tuning’ requires a Fine-Tuner,” wrote one. “The term ‘fine tuning’ is a conclusion disguised as a premise: the argument is truly, technically circular.”

To his thinking, the term “fine-tuning” implies intentional tinkering with the laws of physics by a deity. That’s not how the term is commonly used and understood within the scientific community. “Fine-tuning” is actually a values-neutral, secular, scientific term that describes the nature of the constants and forces of the universe. Physicists, cosmologists, and astronomers actually do observe the universe to be “fine-tuned” without regard to how it got that way. It’s a description of the state of the universe, and does not presuppose how the universe got that way.

Whether or not there was a “Fine-Tuner” (i.e., God), the universe is fine-tuned. It is certainly conceivable that the universe could have come into existence by random-chance processes—with all of its physical constants and forces balanced within that incredibly narrow range, and without the intentional intervention of a “Fine-Tuner.”

Let me say that again for emphasis: Even if there was no intelligent “Fine-Tuner,” the universe is undeniably fine-tuned.

Atheists who wrongly accuse me of trying to bias the discussion with the term “fine-tuning” are themselves guilty of trying to force the discussion toward their conclusion by taking a perfectly common, descriptive, and neutral term, and trying to rule it out of bounds. If you read the literature on cosmic fine-tuning and the anthropic principle, it becomes clear that the term is used by scientists as the best way to describe the condition of the universe, and without any hint or suggestion of theistic propaganda. Some examples:

In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, physicists John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler write:

Hoyle realized that this remarkable chain of coincidences—the unusual longevity of beryllium, the existence of an advantageous resonance level in C12 and the nonexistence of a disadvantageous level in O16— were necessary, and remarkably fine-tuned, conditions for our own existence and indeed the existence of any carbon-based life in the universe.

These coincidences could, in principle, be traced back to their roots where they would reveal a meticulous fine-tuning between the strengths of the nuclear and electromagnetic interactions along with the relative masses of electrons and nucleons.

—John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (New York: Oxford, 1988) 253.

Barrow and Tipler aren’t using “fine-tuning” to promote theism. They are simply describing some of the fine-tuned conditions in the cosmos that make life possible. Similarly, cosmologist Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal (and definitely not a theist), also uses “fine-tuning” in a purely objective, scientific fashion:

These six numbers constitute a “recipe” for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be “untuned,” there would be no stars and no life. Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it the providence of a benign Creator? I take the view that it is neither. An infinity of other universes may well exist where the numbers are different. Most would be stillborn or sterile. We could only have emerged (and therefore we naturally now find ourselves) in a universe with the “right” combination. This realization offers a radically new perspective on our universe, on our place in it, and on the nature of physical laws. . . . If you imagine setting up a universe by adjusting six dials, then the tuning must be precise in order to yield a universe that could harbour life.

—Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 4 and 22.

In The First Three Minutes, Nobel-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg writes about the fine-tuned nature of the cosmological constant:

There may be a cosmological constant in the field equations whose value just cancels the effects of the vacuum mass density produced by quantum fluctuations. But to avoid conflict with astronomical observation, this cancellation would have to be accurate to at least 120 decimal places. Why in the world should the cosmological constant be so precisely fine-tuned?

—Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 186-187.

In The Grand Design, physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow also write about the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant in Einstein’s general relativity equations, calling it “the most impressive fine-tuning coincidence” in cosmology. They go on to describe other fine-tuning problems in cosmology:

Most of the fundamental constants in our theories appear fine-tuned in the sense that if they were altered by only modest amounts, the universe would be qualitatively different, and in many cases unsuitable for the development of life. . . . The emergence of the complex structures capable of supporting intelligent observers seems to be very fragile. The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned, and very little in physical law can be altered without destroying the possibility of the development of life as we know it. Were it not for a series of startling coincidences in the precise details of physical law, it seems, humans and similar life-forms would never have come into being.

—Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2012), 160-161.

So, to answer the question “Am I being dishonest about fine-tuning?,” the answer is no. I’m using the term “fine-tuning” in exactly the same way physicists and cosmologists Barrow, Tipler, Rees, Weinberg, Hawking and Mlodinow use it. I’m not playing word games to force a preordained conclusion. I lay out the evidence, I tell you what I think it means, and you are free to draw a different conclusion.

One of the most annoying experiences I have on Twitter is when atheists who don’t understand my views accuse me of lying. Why would I lie? For one thing, I’m morally and ethically committed to the truth. For another thing, I’m convinced that the evidence stacks up on my side. I believe that if I honestly present the evidence, including the sources and footnotes, the evidence will speak for itself.

I hope you’ll examine the evidence rationally and skeptically. If you are intellectually honest, you’ll at least see that I have valid reasons for my views. You may not be persuaded. You may not agree with me. You may have some counter-arguments to toss my way. Please do. All I ask is that you think critically, challenge everything, demand evidence—then be willing to follow that evidence wherever it leads.

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Christopher Hitchens’ Startling Admission

Here is an incredible two-minute video clip from the end of the documentary Collision, featuring Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great) and Reformed pastor Douglas James Wilson (Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho). The video was recorded during their promotional tour for the book Is Christianity Good for the World?, based on their series of debates.

In my previous posts about Christopher Hitchens (Lament for an Atheist Part I” and Part II”), I made note of the strange fact that Hitchens, in God is Not Great, devotes an entire chapter to “Arguments from Design,” yet he doesn’t make even the slightest reference to the “fine-tuning” or “anthropic” evidence.

(For a thorough presentation of that evidence, see my book God and Soul: The Truthand the Proof; for a brief introduction, see my blog piece “Is Our Universe ‘the Ultimate Artifact’?”)

Ever since reading God is Not Great, I’ve wondered if Hitchens was completely unaware of the fine-tuning evidence or if he simply avoided the subject because it posed an insoluble problem for him. Here’s what I wrote:

Though Chapter 6 of God is Not Great is entitled “Arguments from Design,” he doesn’t devote even one word to the cosmological case for God. The evidence is hardly new or difficult to research. This concept has been around since 1973, when physicist Brandon Carter introduced an idea he called “the anthropic principle.” It has been explored extensively by such writers as Paul Davies, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, John Gribbin, Martin Rees, and others. I devoted an extensive section of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul to the subject.

Why, then, does Hitchens completely ignore the subject in God is Not Great? As I read Hitchens and his fellow “New Atheists,” I’m struck by the fact that they don’t seem merely unpersuaded by the evidence. They seem to either misunderstand the evidence—or worse, they seem altogether ignorant of it. Writing a chapter called “Arguments from Design” without even one mention of the cosmological evidence is like writing a book on the history of Apple Computers without any mention of Steve Jobs. It’s downright bizarre.

Well, now we know that Hitchens did know about the fine-tuning argument—and what he says about fine-tuning in this video stunned me. It will shock anyone who truly groks the implications of Hitchens’ statement. Click “play” and hear it for yourself:

Here’s a transcript of the first part of the conversation between Hitchens and Wilson:

Hitchens: At some point, certainly, we are all asked which is the best argument you come up against from the other side. I think every one of us picks the fine-tuning one as the most intriguing.

Wilson: The Goldilocks idea. Yeah, okay.

Hitchens: Yeah. The fine-tuning, that one degree, well, one degree, one hair different of nothing—that even though it doesn’t prove design, doesn’t prove a Designer, [the fine-tuning] could have all happened without [God]— You have to spend time thinking about it, working on it. It’s not a trivial [argument]. We all say that.

(By the way, when Hitchens says, “We all say that,” he refers to himself, to Richard Dawkins, and to the rest of the New Atheists. And Wilson’s reference to “the Goldilocks idea” refers to the fact that our fine-tuned universe is “just right” for life.)

In this brief clip, Christopher Hitchens has given us all—theists, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, and anti-theists—a lot to think about. And the biggest question on my mind is this: If Hitchens and the other New Atheists know that fine-tuning is not a trivial argument, that you have to spend time thinking about it, why do they omit it or misrepresent it in their books? What are they afraid of?

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Addendum — Sunday, October 14, 2012 — “NO PROOF!”

Yesterday on Twitter, I sent out some tweets regarding the anthropic (fine-tuned universe) case for God. An atheist tweeted back two words in all caps: “NO PROOF!” I looked up the atheist tweeter’s profile and found that his profile consisted of a single quotation by Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence” (from page 150 of God is Not Great).

Perfect! I love that quote, because (a) it cuts both ways, and applies with equal force to atheist assertions, and (b) because the anthropic case for the theistic worldview consists of a mountain of irrefutable evidence. I also love that quote because (c) Hitchens HID that mountain of evidence from his readers when he wrote God is Not Great.

So I replied to my atheist friend (in a multi-part tweet):

Hi. Your profile quotes Hitchens, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” But Hitchens acknowledged that there IS evidence for the existence of God, that the evidence is “not trivial” and cannot be dismissed. See the Hitchens video at: [LINK].

This morning, I checked Twitter to see if my atheist friend had replied. In a way, he had. He had BLOCKED me.

Clearly, some atheists can’t handle the truth.

An Atheist’s Admiration for the Sermon on the Mount

I’m convinced that if everyone in the world practiced the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), 95 percent of the world’s problems would be solved. It might surprise you to know that even atheist extraordinaire Richard Dawkins shares my admiration for the Sermon on the Mount. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes:

“Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 283.

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Addendum, September 30, 2012:

I recently discovered a blogpage written by Richard Dawkins entitled “Atheists for Jesus” (April 10, 2006). At the top of the page is a photo of Dawkins wearing a T-shirt that reads “Atheists for Jesus.” In the article, Dawkins explains in greater depth his admiration for Jesus as an ethical teacher, while dismissing the theistic worldview of Jesus. Here’s an excerpt:

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” . . .

I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. “Atheists for Jesus” would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of “Atheists for Jesus” might be just what is needed to kick-start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right—could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?

I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists.

Dawkins is wrong, of course, when he claims that a “reborn Jesus” would not be a theist. Jesus would know all about the anthropic, fine-tuned universe—a body of evidence that Dawkins actively misleads his readers about in The God Delusion. In fact, I think it is likely that Jesus, being the absolute exemplar of intellectual honesty, would connect his ethical teachings to the evidence for a Cosmic Designer that permeates our growing understanding of cosmology and quantum mechanics.

But I do agree with Dawkins on this: Jesus might well wear a “Jesus for Atheists” T-shirt, because Jesus is for all people, weak and strong, young and old, male and female, believer and nonbeliever. The one who said “Love your enemies,” the one who forgave those who crucified him, would certainly be for atheists. He would not be for atheism, of course, because atheism doesn’t square with reality. He would want everyone to know the truth.

But Jesus welcomed the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion, the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, the rich and the poor, the drunks and prostitutes. So why wouldn’t he welcome an atheist as well?

Read Richard Dawkins’ “Atheists for Jesus” in its entirety at RichardDawkins.net.

Answering a Reader’s Objection . . . and Answering Richard Dawkins

On May 5, 2012, reader Thopter raised an objection to my earlier blog entry, “The Big Bang Is Happening Now.” Thopter wrote:

The Big BangThere is another option: That the only reason the universe *appears* to be fine-tuned to support life is because if any of those things were different, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. We don’t know if other universes exist, with different force strengths, which are incapable of accommodating life, so we cannot rule out the possibility that we just happened to hit the jackpot and develop inside a rare universe that has the right balances to harbour life. There is no evidence either way just yet, so neither scenario can be dismissed.

To restate, Thopter suggests that the seeming fine-tuning of the universe could simply be an incredible fluke, and if we hadn’t “hit the jackpot,” we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it. I addressed this objection in my book God and Soul, so to save time, I decided to simply plunk down an excerpt from my book. In that excerpt, I also critique Richard Dawkins’ discussion of these questions in The God Delusion.  Dawkins’ discussion is, in my view, extremely misleading. The excerpt follows. I’d be eager to know what you think . . .

BEGIN EXCERPT:

Richard Dawkins takes an odd approach when discussing the anthropic principle in his 2006 book The God Delusion. He writes:

It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.

I don’t know if Richard Dawkins is engaging in sly disinformation or if he simply hasn’t done his homework. In either case, he’s simply wrong. There are not just “two candidate solutions” to the question of origins, either God or the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle comes in assorted flavors, including a weak and strong version.

The weak anthropic principle is essentially a circular statement or tautology: The universe appears to be fine-tuned for life because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be here to observe it. This weak form is apparently the flavor of anthropic principle Dawkins refers to above.

The strong anthropic principle goes a step further and says (according to Brandon Carter) that the universe and its constants, forces, and parameters “must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage” in order for the universe to exist. Why must the universe and its parameters be fine-tuned so as to admit the creation of observers? In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), John Barrow and Frank Tipler offer three possible answers to that question:

(A) There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers.’ 

(B) Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being.

(C) An ensemble of other different universes is necessary for the existence of our Universe.

Option A is the God hypothesis, the Cosmic Designer. It suggests that perhaps the universe is able to produce and sustain living observers because it was deliberately designed to do so. That is the goal and purpose of the universe, and the parameters necessary to achieve that goal and carry out that purpose were laid down at the moment of the Big Bang. This is the view I present throughout this book.

Option B, “Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being,” is known as the participatory anthropic principle. Physicist John Wheeler entertained this view. George Greenstein’s “symbiotic universe” is also a version of this view. According to Greenstein, observers need a universe to live in, and a universe needs observers in order to exist, so the universe and its observers participate symbiotically in bringing each other into existence. Fred Hoyle also considered this view when he wrote:

A further possibility … [is that our existence] forces the nuclear details to be the way they are, which is essentially the common religious position taken backwards. Before ridiculing this last possibility, as quite a few scientists tend to do, it is necessary … to explain the condensation of the universal wave function through the intervention of human consciousness. While this could be seen as a matter for philosophical discussion, I suspect its resolution will eventually come from exact science.

Option C, an “ensemble of other different universes,” is the multiverse concept, which we will examine in Chapter 4.

Scientists such as Paul Davies, George Greenstein, John Wheeler, and others all acknowledge the validity of Option A, the God implications of the anthropic principle. I can’t explain why Dawkins misstates the case. Is it because he’s a biologist, not an astrophysicist, and simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Doubtful. He could certainly have done his homework, as I have done. His misrepresentation of the anthropic evidence is inexplicable coming from a scientist of Dawkins’ calibre.

The anthropic principle is not an alternative to the God hypothesis. It doesn’t solve the problem of human existence. Rather, the anthropic principle IS the problem. The question posed by the anthropic evidence is the most important question facing science, philosophy, religion, and humanity as a whole. It’s a question that doesn’t merely cry out for an answer — it shouts to us and shakes us and demands that we answer it. The question is: WHY is the universe so incredibly, unbelievably fine-tuned to produce life?

Theistic philosopher William Lane Craig stated the problem in a 2003 debate with then-atheist philosopher Antony Flew (not long after this debate, Flew announced his conversion to a theistic world view):

The chances that the universe should be life-permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable. For example, Stephen Hawking has estimated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed into a hot fireball. P.C.W. Davies has calculated that the odds against the initial conditions’ being suitable for later star formation (without which planets could not exist) is one followed by a thousand billion billion zeros, at least. Davies also estimates that a change in the strength of gravity or of the weak force by one part in 10100 would have prevented a life-permitting universe. There are around fifty such quantities and constants present in the Big Bang which must be fine-tuned in this way if the universe is to permit life. And it’s not just each quantity which must be finely tuned. Their ratios to one another must also be exquisitely fine-tuned. …

Paul Davies comments, “Through my scientific work, I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.”

Now, this is knowledge that Dawkins seems to suppress in his allusion to the anthropic principle. In fact, the above statement by William Lane Craig scarcely begins to convey the real enormity of the problem posed by anthropic principle. What kind of analogy could I use to convey the astounding odds against a life-giving universe? I could say: Imagine flipping a coin trillions and trillions of times and every single time it comes up heads — what are the odds of such an event? Or I could say: Imagine selecting the one winning lottery ticket out of trillions and trillions of lottery tickets sold — what are your odds of winning that lottery?

Yet even those analogies don’t come anywhere close to conveying the odds against our finely tuned, just-so, life-giving universe arising by sheer chance. If Richard Dawkins understands the true implications of the anthropic principle, he should have presented them honestly, as his fellow atheist, George Greenstein, did in The Symbiotic Universe. Or as I have done in this book.

It pains me to say this because, on the whole, I admire Dawkins as a fine writer and science popularizer. I enjoy his writing in The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. I agree with Dawkins’ statement that natural selection is a “consciousness-raiser” because it makes us aware of “the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without deliberate guidance.”

But Dawkins fails to understand that the anthropic principle is an equally powerful consciousness-raiser. The anthropic evidence forces us to squarely face (if we have the courage and intellectual honesty) the riddle of our existence — and the riddle of our life-giving universe.

From God and Soul: The Truth and the Proof by Jim Denney, copyright 2012 by Jim Denney.

Orthodox Unbelief

The Ascent of Wonder

“The problem with unbelievers is that they are believers, too.””What do you mean?”

“They can’t just disbelieve. They’ve got to disbelieve in a certain way. Orthodox disbelief! Talk with an atheist sometime; you’ll never get a clearer vision of the fundamentalist God. God, they’ll tell you, wouldn’t play games with fossils or light waves just to trick us into thinking that the universe was older than six thousand years. Now, Loki might very well do that, or Raven; but those aren’t the gods that they disbelieve in.”

“You don’t really believe that—”

“That the physical universe was created in 4004 B.C.?” He made a face. “Of course not. Although the date does approximate the creation of our cultural universe. No, I was merely using it as an example, to show how even unbelievers hold certain unquestionable beliefs.”

MICHAEL F. FLYNN, in his short story “Mammy Morgan Played the Organ; Her Daddy Beat the Drum” from The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (pp. 956-957).

Lament for an Atheist (Part II)

or How Hitchens Got It Wrong About God

I’m a longtime admirer of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote numerous books plus many columns for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. I share his admiration for George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. Hitchens once described his antitheistic approach as “the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it.”

Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great is not so much an argument against the existence of God as a caustic indictment of organized religion. Here’s a representative passage:

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience. … Religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. By this I do not mean it “looks forward” in the purely eschatological sense of anticipating the end. I mean, rather, that it openly or covertly wishes that end to occur. Perhaps half aware that its unsupported arguments are not entirely persuasive, and perhaps uneasy about its own greedy accumulation of temporal power and wealth, religion has never ceased to proclaim the Apocalypse and the day of judgment. This has been a constant trope, ever since the first witch doctors and shamans learned to predict eclipses and to use their half-baked celestial knowledge to terrify the ignorant. It stretches from the epistles of Saint Paul… through the deranged fantasies of the book of Revelation … to the best-selling pulp-fiction Left Behind series.

Hitchens blames religion for misrepresenting the origin of humanity and the cosmos; for telling people they are “lowly sinners” (destroying their self-esteem); for telling them their Creator loves them (inflating their self-importance); for causing “dangerous sexual repression;” for promoting wishful, magical thinking; for killing millions of people through holy wars, inquisitions, pogroms, and terror attacks; for revering religious texts that are riddled, he says, with “contradictions and illiteracies;” for making claims of miracles and doctrines of heaven and hell based on myths; and for failing to make religious people behave virtuously.

He concludes that the human race needs a new Enlightenment, a new Age of Reason like that of 18th century Europe and America, when Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson shaped the science, culture, and government of the Western world. Hitchens believes that a new 21st century Enlightenment is not just for intellectuals, but is “within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.”

By attacking organized religion, Hitchens (whose given name, Christopher, means “Christ-bearer”) ironically aligns himself with another caustic critic of institutional religion, Jesus of Nazareth. Read through the four gospels, and you find the Nazarene blasting organized religion at every turn. He breaks the Sabbath, thunders against the corrupt religious bosses, eludes their attempts to entrap him, tells parables that plainly condemn them, openly blasts them as frauds and hypocrites, and exposes their corruption in the temple courts. Jesus would likely find a lot to agree with in Hitchens’ book.

In 2007, when I heard that God Is Not Great would soon be released, I was eager to see what kinds of arguments Hitchens would level against the scientific case for God (see my earlier posts on the cosmological case for God here and here). Upon opening my copy of Hitchens’ book, however, I was astonished to find that Hitchens completely ignored the cosmological evidence.

Though Chapter 6 of God is Not Great is entitled “Arguments from Design,” he doesn’t devote even one word to the cosmological case for God. The evidence is hardly new or difficult to research. This concept has been around since 1973, when physicist Brandon Carter introduced an idea he called “the anthropic principle.” It has been explored extensively by such writers as Paul Davies, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, John Gribbin, Martin Rees, and others. I devoted an extensive section of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul to the subject.

Why, then, does Hitchens completely ignore the subject in God is Not Great? As I read Hitchens and his fellow “New Atheists,” I’m struck by the fact that they don’t seem merely unpersuaded by the evidence. They seem to either misunderstand the evidence—or worse, they seem altogether ignorant of it. Writing a chapter called “Arguments from Design” without even one mention of the cosmological evidence is like writing a book on the history of Apple Computers without any mention of Steve Jobs. It’s downright bizarre.

In my newest book, God and Soul, I present the cosmological evidence for the existence of God—the evidence that Hitchens oddly ignores. To me, the evidence is convincing, even overwhelming. I’ve often asked myself: If the evidence is as persuasive as I think it is, why are so many atheists unconvinced? I can’t escape the conclusion that most atheists, including Hitchens, simply haven’t gotten the memo.

They really don’t know.

Please don’t take my word for it. Read Hitchens’ book. And while you’re at it, read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Compare their case for atheism alongside the case I present in God and Soul. Then you tell me who has presented the more intellectually honest case—the New Atheists or God and Soul. If you make that comparison, you’ll find that Dawkins and Dennett don’t present the evidence accurately—and that Harris and Hitchens don’t present it at all.

I don’t know if Christopher Hitchens ignored the cosmological case for God because he was unaware of it—or if he knew that it presented a deadly minefield for his atheist beliefs. What I do know for sure is that no one can claim to be a serious, intellectually honest, inquiring skeptic without fearlessly confronting the evidence I have assembled in God and Soul.

And it saddens me that Christopher Hitchens died without ever grappling with possibly the most important body of information that science has ever revealed.

Lament for an Atheist (Part I)

Christopher Hitchens in 2007

In June 2010, I heard that Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to do a talk and book signing at a Borders bookstore in San Francisco. I considered going and having him sign a copy of his book Hitch-22, then hand him a copy of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul. But just days before he was to appear, he canceled his book tour without explanation.

A couple of weeks later, I was saddened to hear that Hitchens had been diagnosed with cancer. He died two months ago, on December 15, 2011. His death was due to pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer.

I have admired Christopher Hitchens for years. It took great moral courage for him to shelter novelist Salman Rushdie in his home in 1993 after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. And it took great physical courage for Hitchens to voluntarily undergo waterboarding so that he could write about the experience in Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, Hitchens got it wrong about God and the soul.

After the publication of his book God Is Not Great, I frequently found myself in the odd position of defending the razor-tongued atheist from some of my devoutly religious friends who were exasperated with his views. I’d ask them, “How can you be angry with Hitchens for believing what he feels compelled to believe, based on the evidence he’s seen?”

And then my friends were exasperated with me!

Hitchens formulated his views on God in much the same way he arrived at his political views. He observed, read, and debated great minds. He’d follow logic and evidence wherever it led. Whenever I watched Hitchens debate, I came away convinced he was daring his opponents: “Prove me wrong.”

But as near as I can tell from his writings and speeches, Hitchens was completely unaware of the evidence I present in my book God and Soul. Though I didn’t agree with him on the question of God and soul, I genuinely liked him. I enjoyed reading his work and hearing him speak. I wanted him to live, and I’m very sad that he’s gone.

In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens blamed much of the evil in the world on religion. And it’s true that many atrocities, savageries, and cruelties have been committed in the name of religion: The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the execution of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade, Martin Luther’s rabidly anti-Semitic treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, the Salem Witch Trials, the 1066 Granada Massacre and other pogroms, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel-Palestinian problem, Jonestown, India versus Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jihad, 9/11, and on and on—all of these evils were rationalized on religious grounds. But does religion really poison everything? It depends on how you define “religion.”

If, by “religion,” we mean a tribalistic social unit organized around certain beliefs, rites, rituals, and traditions, defended by figurative or literal “holy wars,” then yes, that sort of religion has a distinctly poisonous history. (And by tribalism, I mean any social structure that demands philosophical conformity within the group and that practices hostility toward those outside the group.)

But if, by “religion,” we mean a commitment to live according to the teachings of, say, the Sermon on the Mount—teachings that cut across the grain of our tribal instincts by commanding us to love our enemies, forgive those who sin against us, and pray for those who persecute us—then Christopher Hitchens was simply wrong. That kind of rational, selfless religion has never poisoned anything.

In fact, another prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, writes in The God Delusion, “Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.” In other words, the Sermon on the Mount is the sort of religion that even an atheist can endorse.

So Hitchens’ blanket statement that “religion poisons everything” couldn’t be more wrong. The Crusades and the Inquisition and the pogroms weren’t caused by the Sermon on the Mount or anything else said by Jesus of Nazareth. As physicist Freeman Dyson explains:

We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls.

When evil people want to do evil things—when they want to commit acts of murder, genocide, oppression, or terror—they will grab any rationale to make their evil seem “good.” If it weren’t some twisted pretense of religion, it would have been some other excuse. But the evil would have happened in any case.

There is no evil in the Sermon on the Mount. The evil is in people—in human nature itself. That’s what poisons everything.

Next, in Part 2: How Hitchens Got It Wrong About God.