Celebrities on Religion #2: Seth MacFarlane

Seth MacFarlane is an American comedian and the creator of the adult animation shows Family Guy and American Dad, as well as the movie Ted and its sequel. He’s starred in a number of movies apart from this. Seth is an atheist and has made some comments about religion through the characters he’s created as well as in interviews. Stewie, a character in Family Guy, says the following about religion:

Stay away from the church. In the battle over science vs. religion, science offers credible evidence for all the serious claims it makes. The church says, ‘Oh, it’s right here in this book, see? The one written by people who thought the sun was magic?’ I for one would like to see some proof that there is a God. And if you say ‘a baby’s smile’ I’m going to kick you right in the stomach.

Of course, the intent is comedy, not really social criticism. However, given that MacFarlane has said he’s an atheist, has expressed support for the New Atheist movement, and has expressed similar attitudes in person, we can probably take this as a good approximation of his views. First of all, the quote assumes a conflict between science and religion. I’ve written a detailed response to this objection to religion here. The popular impression that there’s a conflict between science and religion is the result of controversy between the historic church and a small minority of scientific theories ( in fact, only two are normally named: Darwinism and Heliocentrism). There has arisen popular myths about the Catholic Church’s response to scientific theories, who was, on the whole, a patron of science and encouraged its development and flourishing. Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by the historian of science Ronald L Numbers, addresses some of the historical errors prevalent in this debate. Where the Conflict Really Lies by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga is a great resource on science vs religion questions, which I highly recommend. Science and Religion: A New Introduction by the theologian and scientist, Alister McGrath, is worth a look too.

Firstly, we can say that apparent conflicts between one or two scientific theories and some non-essential tenets of Christian theology is hardly fatal to Christianity. The idea that the Bible teaches Geocentrism is based on an inference from some biblical passages in poetic books of the Bible that may indicate that the world is immovable ( even though, in some of these passages, the reference to the earth is clearly metaphorical. Others can plausibly be interpreted as metaphorical.) This does nothing to show the falsity of central Christian claims about the world. There is no Christian creed or even established theological doctrine that includes Geocentrism as an article of belief. Darwinism presented more of a theological challenge than Heliocentrism, but is not nearly as problematic as some atheists ( and young-earth creationists) like to believe. Evolution does not contradict the creation story in general but merely the prima facie claim that it was completed in 6 days. Long before Darwin, the potential for metaphorical interpretations of Genesis chapter 1 were already being advocated, notably by Augustine and Origen of Alexandria. No generally recognized Christian creeds ( namely, the Apostolic and Nicene creeds), required a belief that the days in Genesis are 24-hour periods. So, Darwinism does not undermine Christian theology either. William Lane Craig’s Defenders series on Youtube is a great free resource on this matter. See the Doctrine of Creation: Excursus on Creation and Evolution. There are 20 Parts to the series. Craig goes into detail on the different interpretations that have been proposed for Genesis 1 and the reasons for them.

It is also worth noting that the extent to which Christian theology coheres with the vast majority of scientific theories is quite astounding. If Christianity and the Bible were truly in conflict with science, one would expect more of science to contradict it and to contradict its central claims, not merely controversial interpretations of certain passages of Scripture that are not central and have not generally been regarded as crucial. In other words, to conclude that Darwinism and Heliocentrism disprove Christianity is a massive non-sequitur. You may say that it disproves the doctrine of Biblical Innerancy, or that it disproves certain interpretations of biblical passages, but it does not disprove Christianity.

Beyond these historical conflicts, the way that atheists normally portray a conflict is by assuming that science can stand on its own as an independent metaphysics and epistemology. This is often done by saying that science proceeds in a particular way           to get knowledge ( which is better) while religion does something different and worse. This assumes that science can stand on its own as an epistemology and therefore can be contrasted against another metaphysical system ( religion). This is called scientism which claims that something can only be regarded as true or knowable if it is provable by science. This claim, however, is self-defeating. If something can only be regarded as true if it is proved by science, then the claim that only science can give us truth is not true, because that claim cannot be proven by science. The scientific method itself cannot be proven by the scientific method, because that would involve vicious circularity. If you presuppose the truth of what you’re trying to prove (i.e. using the scientific method to verify the scientific method) you’ve engaged in circular reasoning. Another problem with taking science to be the key to metaphysics is that it is methodologically naturalistic. It methodologically precludes appeal to anything beyond nature to explain anything. This means that science can never be used to prove that there is nothing beyond nature, because that would involve you in circularity once again. You cannot disprove or give evidence against the existence of something by methodologically precluding it from consideration at the outset. Atheists sometimes respond to the arguments for the existence of God by saying that the phenomena appealed to by these arguments will be explained by science, which means they are engaging in “God of the gaps” reasoning. That is to say, God is inserted into the gaps of scientific knowledge. I address this objection in detail here. This objection is circular again, because it assumes that everything that we are ignorant about will be explained by science, which means it assumes that science will explain everything ( which is scientism). If you’re assuming that science will explain everything in order to respond to religious arguments, then you’ve presupposed your view in order to argue for it. Not only is it circular as an objection to religious argument, there is also no good evidence that science will eventually explain everything. The only basis which one may have to make this claim is to point to the success of science to explain matters that were mysterious to us. What has happened in the past is often not a good indicator of what will happen in the future. Also, the phenomena that science has explained are different from the phenomena that still lack explanation, which makes it irrational to predict science’s future ability to explain certain phenomena based on science’s ability to explain different types of phenomena in the past.

In addition, there is good reason to believe that science cannot explain at least some of what it has not explained. For example, the existence of the natural world cannot have a scientific explanation, because it cannot have a naturalistic explanation. A naturalistic explanation of the universe as a whole would require you to appeal to the the universe or something in it in order to explain it, which is irrational. If you’re trying to explain the existence of something you have to appeal to something outside of it, because any existential explanation that appeals to the thing to be explained will be circular. Therefore, it is logically impossible for the existence of the natural world as a whole to have a naturalistic ( and therefore scientific) explanation. Also, the existence of natural laws arguably cannot have a scientific explanation. Science appeals to and points out the existence of patterns in the natural world, but why there are natural laws in the first place is not something that can be explained by science. Why is there regularity in natural processes? You cannot use a natural process to explain why there are natural processes. Consciousness will probably not have a good scientific explanation, because science explains in terms of impersonal mechanisms, but consciousness is personal. Any attempt to explain consciousness scientifically will make the human being look like an impersonal mechanism and will be forced to say that the first-person experience of consciousness is false or illusory in some way. If your theory forces you to say that what you’re trying to explain is an illusion, then you’ve clearly failed to explain it. Objective morality also cannot have a scientific explanation. Science can perhaps tell us why we and other human societies regard certain things as moral or immoral, but they cannot tell us what really is moral or immoral. In other words, they cannot give a reason or justification for moral obligation, which is the heart of objective morality. Also, science cannot tell you about your existential purpose. What is the meaning of your life? Some atheists say that because science cannot answer the question, that must mean that the question is vacuous, which only works if you’ve already assumed that science explains everything ( a claim that we’ve seen is irrational). But most people do intuit that life is or should be meaningful and purposeful. Science will not be able to answer these questions ( or, at least, it will answer them badly).

Let’s get to the second part of the quote:

The church says, ‘Oh, it’s right here in this book, see? The one written by people who thought the sun was magic?’ I for one would like to see some proof that there is a God.

This is similar to the ideas expressed by Joe Rogan about religion. The belief is that because the people who wrote the Bible were ignorant about science, they can teach us nothing of value. This seems like an implication of scientism. (Just in case someone takes this literally, I should add that while there have been primitive religious groups that worshiped the sun, Christianity is definitely not among them and regards the sun as a part of the natural world, as does the Bible.) We’ve already covered why scientism is irrational. And we’ve also covered that science cannot tell us what we are obligated to do and what we should not do ( morality), it cannot tell us what is a meaningful life or how to live a meaningful life, and it cannot explain the existence of the natural world( to name a few). So there is no reason why people who are ignorant of scientific theories could not give us knowledge, particularly if God exists. As for the demand for evidence for God’s existence, there are several great arguments for God’s existence that can be found under the menu headers of this website. Reasonable Faith has done some great work summarizing the arguments for God’s existence in short entertaining video clips which I’ll link to below:

  1. Kalam Cosmological Argument
  2. Argument from Contingency
  3. The Fine-Tuning Argument
  4. Moral Argument
  5. The Absurdity of Life Without God
  6. Ontological Argument
  7. The Resurrection of Jesus Part 1 and 2

On a 2009 episode of the Adam Carolla show, MacFarlane also claims that morality does not come from religion, because it can be found in the animal world. Firstly, the presence of behaviour which coincides with what our own ideas of morality recommend does not make that behaviour “moral”. Why is that? If you do something purely from instinct or merely based upon fear of someone stronger, have you behaved morally? If someone who has no concept of morality and no beliefs about right or wrong behaves in a way that coincides with our beliefs about morality, they have not behaved morally. Morality arguably requires some concept of morality. It requires the belief that certain things are right and wrong and that you will do the right thing even when you might not feel inclined to do it. That is not what we see with animal “morality” and it could not be shown that they have a concept of morality. Also, the presence of some universal moral emotions could not sustain the many moral precepts we take as self-evident in the West. As I’ve argued here, homo sapiens have been on the planet for thousands of years and a set of moral beliefs that secular Westerners would regard as self-evident has only developed in the last 200 years. If the moral intuitions that led to Western moral ideas were truly universal and self-evident, then we would expect them to be roughly present from the beginning of human history and at least in most human communities or cultures. But that is not what we find at all. We find the moral ideas we regard as self-evident originating in a single culture ( our own culture!) only in the last few hundred years.

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