Jacinta: It raises the question of what would constitute evidence for the virgin birth.
Canto: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I'd want DNA evidence. Or rather, evidence of no DNA, since clearly the god that did it doesn't have any DNA.
Jacinta: Yes, I was thinking there might be DNA from Mary's side, but then that would make Jesus only a demi-god, and what a theological problem that would make.
Canto: The Arrian heresy would return with a vengeance.
Jacinta: Of course this question is allied to the larger one. What would constitute evidence for the existence of a deity?
Canto: Well, scientists tend to rule out supernatural claims from the outset. Russell Berg, a microbiologist, has written a little essay in a recent issue of Philosophy Now, in which he provides 'fifteen criteria for scientificness'. His very first criterion is 'Does the theory use natural explanations?' Here is his rationale:
Thales of Miletus, the first recorded natural philosopher, believed that natural events have natural explanations, not divine. This rejection of explanations invoking gods or spirits led to the need for natural explanations and the development of the scientific method. Untestable supernatural explanations act as stoppers which prevent or retard further enquiry or research.Jacinta: Well hallelujah to that, though I think Berg has it the wrong way round. It was the need for reliable, consistent, testable explanations, and our gradual uncovering of these explanations, that began to undermine the need for invoking gods and spirits. But let's wrap up our treatment of this Williams essay. Does Williams make any valid or worthwhile points?
Canto: Well, he criticizes Grayling for his treatment of the religious as irrational - though he's unable to quote Grayling as actually saying this, and then he launches into a defence of religion as practised by many people who are far from irrational. Again he quotes John Gray: 'Unable to account for the irrepressible vitality of religion, [humanists] can react only with puritanical horror and stigmatize it as irrational'. But the fact is that 'humanists', or secularists or sceptics, or atheists, or antitheists, or agnostics, or non-believers, are an even more diverse breed than Darwin's barnacles, and many, in fact I'm sure most of us, recognize the everyday reasonableness of the religious, and also of flat-earthers and numerologists and homeopathists. Williams wants to encourage dialogue 'on the common ground of our shared humanity', and that is probably a good idea, but it is hard work. Our scientific understanding of the world has reached the sophistication it has today by ignoring religion rather than by seeking an accommodation with it. Flat-earthers and creationists rarely change their minds. People don't actually enjoy beating their heads against a brick wall, they prefer to keep the company of like-minded types - but that too has its dangers.
Jacinta: Yes but it's hard to know what to say to someone who believes that his particular god suspends the laws of nature occasionally. Of course, as with someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens, you can point out the unlikelihood, the difficulties involved in something happening to her without the rest of the world detecting it and being affected by it, and so on. But it's such hard, and often unrewarding work. The writings of so many so-called 'new atheists', it seems to me, display much of this frustration and fatigue. Yet they've unleashed something, it seems, something that flatly contradicts John Gray's ridiculous assertion that 'secular ideology [sic] is [being] dumped throughout the world..' It's a new fighting spirit, full of wit and eloquence, as well as a new enthusiasm for exploring religion and belief systems generally, how they're made and maintained, what they mean in evolutionary terms, their place in our individual and collective psyche. I'm enjoying the show.