Climategate and the Limits of Science
Picking Flowers for Heaven’s Garden

Let Reason Prevail

When Richard Dawkins blessed the atheist buses rolling out of London's central depot, the word "probably" didn't faze him at all. "There probably is no God," announced those buses via placards pasted to their sides, "Now get on and enjoy life" He defended the clunky wording here. "If we say 'there's definitely no God' can't say that," he waffled. Actually, it's British Truth in Advertising law that wouldn't permit the more straightforward statement, and he, Dawkins, law-abiding to the core, I'm sure, acquiesced.

But I write from America, a land whose people are a curious mix of gunslinger and crybaby. And....let us not mince words here....our atheists are better than their atheists. You're not going to catch our atheists going weak at the knees - sniveling up to us with a namby-pamby "probably." No! When our atheists posted a sign on the Illinois State Capitol grounds, it was to proclaim:

"At the time of the winter solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Any wimpy "probably?" Not on your life! British atheists should be ashamed of themselves. A bunch of  wusses - make no mistake!
The American atheist sign was smack dab next to a Christmas tree and uncomfortably close to a Nativity Scene - you know, Jesus in a manger and the three wise men bearing gifts. It made local politician William Kelly hopping mad, and he tried to tear down the sign (with the cameras running?), but Capitol police chased him off. Free speech, you know.
Now....what is it about this atheist billboard that rankles? It's not a matter of accuracy. Other than its conclusion, which is opinion, not fact, its tenets are more accurate than those of the Nativity scene.

After all, religion certainly can affect people in the way the sign says - it comes in many brands and flavors. Moreover, December 21st is the winter solstice, whereas December 25th is not Christ's birthday. Shepherds are not going to be sleeping outdoors with their flocks that time of year, as the Bible says they were. Moreover, Herod is not going to require his rebellious Jewish subjects to travel to the towns of their birth in the dead of winter. These matters are common knowledge. Jesus may have been born in early autumn, but he certainly was not born Dec 25. It was some slick Roman politician, trying to merge then-apostate Christianity with conventional Roman life who got the bright idea that the birthday of the sun, the Dec 25th Saturnalia, should also be the birthday of the Son! Cool!! Talk about clever marketing!
By the time the Nativity Scene's "wise men" (magi) showed up with presents, the child was two, long out of the stable. They were supposed to report Jesus' whereabouts to Herod, who intended to have the child killed, since the last thing he wanted was a newborn "King of the Jews" amidst his surly subjects. But the wise men fled the other way and Herod, furious, had all the 2-year olds in Bethlehem put to death, figuring one of them, surely, would be this toddler king. Jesus parents were a step ahead of him, though....they'd fled into Egypt. *

No, its not the supporting details that rankle about that atheist sign.  What is it? Could it be that, in advancing "reason" as a cure-all, those atheists presume to have a monopoly on it? Partly.
Am I wrong in thinking that when people say they want reason to prevail, they really just want everyone to come around to their own opinion - an opinion which to them, invariably, is reason personified? Consider the role "reason" might play in the latest diplomatic spat between Britain and China. The Chinese have just executed a British citizen for drug trafficking in their country, the first such execution since the 1950's. But the Brits had wanted him spared, owing to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They'd lobbied hard for that outcome.
When they didn't get it, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown cried: "I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms, and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted......I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken." But China would have none of it. "Nobody has the right to speak ill of China's judicial sovereignty," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations. We urge the British side to mend its errors and avoid damaging China-British relations."
What we are dealing with are different cultural attitudes towards social policy, criminal conduct, mental illness, personal responsibility, individual rights, and drug use. These are values. I defy you to tell me what "reason" dictates with regard to the interplay between them. For the most part, the two citizenries lined up with the viewpoints of their respective governments. Is "reason" only to be found among one or the other population? If so, which one? Actually, it was China that played the "reason" card first. "We hope that the British side can view this matter rationally," Jiang said. Why didn't the Brits think of enshrouding their plea in rationality? Too late now. China beat them to it, and now the Brits are, by default, irrational.

Yet, even that isn't it in its entirety. In fact, I think it is no more than a contributing point. No, that winter solstice sign rankles for other reasons, as well.

Maybe its the crassness of plunking it right next to the Nativity Scene, as if it, too, represented a message of hope. For the Nativity Scene, even if poorly understood, even if misportrayed, even if represented by charletans, still represents hope to countless millions of people that this life, so full of hardship, is not all there is. Now, if there was to be an Atheist Scene, and not just a sign, would it not have to be a fellow in his coffin? You are telling the impoverished and disadvantaged, forever punted about and trod upon by human agencies, that not only is this life rough - it is also all they are ever going to get. Atheism may be attractive and trendy to the young and monied, but it sure is a downer to those poor and hungry and abused. They're to get the warm and fuzzies over "reason prevailing?" I don't think so.
Yeah. that's it. That's what rankles most.

Look, if you believe it, you believe it. It's not holding the notion that annoys me. It's heralding it as if were some sort of great news, worthy of the Births column, and not the Obituaries.

[Edit: this is the reason]
*In the meanwhile, here's what those Nativity Scenes don't tell you with regard to Jesus and the Wise Men, as found at Matt 2:1-23:  (NIV) 


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:

" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel."
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

"A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead."

So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."


Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash






Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'


Capt.. Fogg

I defense of the British buses and maybe Dawkins, science and reason in this era of quantum physics rarely use such absolutes as "God doesn't exist," but usually talk about probabilities being vanishingly small. Since the chances that I will suddenly disappear and rematerialize in your living room can actually be calculated, it's technically more accurate to say I probably won't, even though I'm not betting on it, cause it ain't gonna happen.

That's a nice bit from Matthew, but since Herod died in 4 AD, and there is absolutely no evidence of any program to kill little Jewish boys maybe it's all a crock anyway -- unless he meant Antipas, but I still think the entire Bethlehem story was invented in the late first century to fulfill yet another prophecy that was actually predicting something else entirely.

Anyway, great blog -- keep it up!

tom sheepandgoats

"Since the chances that I will suddenly disappear and rematerialize in your living room can actually be calculated...."

JW scientists have been working on this problem for some time, with obvious applications for the ministry.

Jason Chamberlain

Of course, all we can do is speak in probabilities. However, that leads to absurdity in communication.

Regarding evidence -- keep in mind that there would not have been that many Jewish boys killed because Bethlehem and its vicinity would not have been very many people. It's not like he murdered every Jewish boy in a big city like Jerusalem. Therefore, lack of extant evidence proves or disproves nothing. In the same way, most believe that Jesus was born in 3-5 BC, so Herod's eventual death in 4 AD is not a problem either.

tom sheepandgoats

"...there is absolutely no evidence of any program to kill little Jewish boys"

And I'm not sure why Matthew's book is not alone considered evidence, even if corroborating evidence is lacking. That the Capn's comments should be phrased as they are reflects a knee-jerk prejudice held by many that any record found in the Bible is not to be trusted. I see no particular reason someone would doubt the account, especially since it involves no 'miracles' but only Machiavellian self-interest. I suspect the same account in any other source would be given more weight.

Romulus Crowe

As a dedicated and confirmed 'don't care', it does annoy me to see these atheists acting as though their non-belief counts as a religion.

They are not alone. Recently, global warmers tried to have the 'deniers' (they are not far off shouting 'heretic') silenced under religious discrimination laws in the UK. Since I'm typing from the coldest winter the UK has seen in 25 years, hemmed in by snow, you can guess where my sympathies lie. Global warming? Bring it on!

Science and religion are different things. Science must - MUST - stick to things than can be measured and categorised and cannot mess around with God because science has no method to measure God.

I know many scientists who are also Christian and they have no problem with meshing the two.

Their beliefs and their science are separate. Since science can never prove nor disprove God, God is a matter of belief which does not affect their application of science and their science does not affect their belief.

It doesn't have to be 'I am a scientist and therefore see the world like Spock in pure logic', nor does it have to be 'I am religious and therefore deny science as heresy'. It is perfectly possible to be both. One professor I know, head of an agricultural research department, is also an Elder of the Church. He has never published a paper saying 'Well, I dunno. Maybe God did it'. Neither has he ever tried to apply statistics to his belief. They are totally separate parts of his life and cause no problems for each other.

The 'atheists' who try to bring everyone into their clique are proselytising. They are running a religion. And, as I'm sure Tom knows very well, religion is a snare and a racket ;)

I still say, any meeting of atheists for atheist discussion is like having a train non-spotters group that go to stations and face away from the tracks. Pointless.

If they really were atheists, they wouldn't even think about God. But then, they now have an Archbishop of Atheism in Dawkins and they don't even notice how much money he's making from them...

Snare and a racket. You were right about that, Tom.

Capt.. Fogg

Sorry for the typo, but Herod died in 4 BC, which makes things a bit different.

To continue that line, Luke says Augustus held a census during the time Quirinius was governor of syria and Herod was King of Judea - he did in 6AD although Herod was dead in 4 BC and Quirinius' governorship didn't overlap. So you see, I'm not indulging in "pure logic" as some sort of shameful habit, I'm just saying absolute certainty in defiance of all conflicting evidence is dishonest.

Sorry too, that my disbelief in magic and mystical certainties offends people who for some reason feel they can attribute feelings and associations that have nothing to do with me, to me. Is lying and name calling how believers win arguments? I think the technical term is bigotry, but I can think of nastier terms.

"those atheists" needs to be explained as "those atheists you imagine fit the box you've made for them so as to further your smug and dishonest denunciation." The only commonality atheists have is the traditional and furious hostility believers have toward them.

And of course it is true - there probably is no God and assuming the conclusion and inventing entities to be used as arguments is something else there's a nasty name for.

No, you may not have to have a shred of evidence to believe something, but you do if you want to call people names for having doubt and that's what you're doing. And by the way if it's OK to believe legends contrary to evidence and possibility, then why not Zeus, or Mithra or Puff the Magic Dragon? Are you engaging in that nasty old "pure logic" here by choosing Jesus over Apollo?

No, thank you very much. Your deliberate and self-serving misrepresentation of people who doubt your opinions is frankly and childishly disgusting. No, I wouldn't think about magic invisible creatures if people didn't try to control my life and behavior with references to them and it's not just science that must speak of probabilities, it's honesty itself, since honest men don't make absolute assertions or speak of absolute truth based on baseless assumptions, magic incantations or certain old legends you've chosen because of where and when you were born.

Uncertainty is not a weakness in an argument or of character, it's the foundation of existence itself as well as the foundation of honesty.

Yes, I know scientists who are Christian and regardless of whether they can keep such duplicity contained and work with such a handicap, that part of them which defends belief against evidence is not the part that learns anything. Belief in belief is always a dead end.

And again, science is not about "Pure Logic" and it should be amazing that anyone could make such an embarrassingly bogus statement. That is what defense of pure belief does to you however; driving one to distortion, misrepresentation, and angry aggression -- sort of like any addict does when told he's addicted.

tom sheepandgoats

' "those atheists" needs to be explained as "those atheists you imagine fit the box you've made for them so as to further your smug and dishonest denunciation." '

Those were the atheists I was referring to. Sorry.

I also searched my post for mentions of "pure logic," which seems to have incensed the Capn, since I don't recall writing them. Gasp!! It wasn't me! It was Romulus! Good ol' Romulus, who himself pursues science, who is not a JW, who doesn't hold to any religion, and whose comment seemed so reasonable to me!

Romulus Crowe

As Tom said, I don't hold to any religion, believe in nothing, and am a scientist by training and by inclination.

Science, as I said, does not have to be 'I am a scientist and therefore bound by pure logic'. Pure logic leads to many mistaken associations. The natural world is full of complex interations that are logical but not always obviously so. But that's a different subject.

As a scientist I hold no opinion on the existence or otherwise of God because I have no method to test whether he exists or not. Therefore I can neither believe nor disbelieve with any conviction, nor do I have any means to, or any interest in, convincing anyone of any particular viewpoint on that subject.

I am interested in religion, in that I am interested to hear why people hold their beliefs so firmly - but I don't question their beliefs because I have no proof whether they are right or wrong. I probably never will unless a big 'Game Over' sign lights up in the sky. If that happens I'll be saying 'Whoops' along with a lot of other people.

The comment was not aimed at anyone in particular but if anyone wishes to take offence, be my guest. I am not defending either side so see no purpose in fighting about it.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that a large group of atheists (not all) hold big meetings to discuss not-God, spend considerable effort and money trying to convince others that they have the only truth, and will not consider for a moment that they might be wrong. Even though they have no more hard evidence for not-God than the religious have for God.

It's become a form of religion and it has, like any other religion, its reasonable adherents and its zealots.

Humans seem to be primed for belief in some form or other and tend to associate in groups who hold the same beliefs. Why that should be, I can't say. Maybe it's because a God put it in our heads or maybe it's because we are all gullible fools. Either explanation will work, neither can be proven or disproven, so just take your pick.

In Scotland, a court of law can return three verdicts. Guilty, not guilty or not proven. The 'not proven' verdict means the jury thinks the accused probably did it but they don't think the evidence is strong enough to convict. The accused goes free but the case can be retried.

For me, God is 'not proven'. He might be there, or might not. I don't have enough evidence either way to be definitive about it.

So I don't go to meetings of atheists and I regard those bus adverts as being no different from ones that say 'Join the Catholics' or similar.

I'm not religious. That includes atheism. I know it's a difficult concept to grasp but I really am a 'don't care'.

Just Peachie

"I still say, any meeting of atheists for atheist discussion is like having a train non-spotters group that go to stations and face away from the tracks. Pointless." Romulus Crowe

Hilarious! Love it.

tom sheepandgoats

Yes, it is, Just Peachie. Thanks. I worried, though, that any references to train-spotting would be completely lost on us yanks, who know nothing of the pastime. It's only by the merest chance that I know of it, having once read an article, I think it was in the WSJ.

Is it a little like that old coot from Dr Who, who's driven out of the house by his controlling wife, and spends his pastime looking at the heavens through a telescope? How quaint. Yes, you have quaint folks and eccentrics in Britain. We just have crackpots.

Capt.. Fogg

Sorry, I did a bad job of directing my comments and I can understand the confusion about who I'm talking to, but when someone keeps referring to unbelievers as a group, or the equivalent of a religion, I take offense from a personal and ethical point of view.

Logic isn't a religion. A preference for verifiable facts is not a religion and most of all, dismissal of a particular assertion isn't a religion. Finding fault with a conjecture or hypothesis on specific grounds would make almost anything a religion, wouldn't it, including not being superstitious about walking under ladders, not believing in the resurrection of Osiris or that vitamin C does not cure cancer.

Maybe I'm touchy, but having rigorous standards for saying something is uneqivocally true is not a religion. Not trusting proof by assertion or the argument from tradition: finding contradictions, errors and dubious sources in the canon is not a religion

In trying to make a group out of all those who don't believe in Jupiter or the tooth fairy -- and then being cute about trainspotting without a train, one perceives a good deal of unauthorized smugness and takes offense.

Nobody likes to be arbitrarily assigned to a group because he doesn't belong to your group, even if he's not being laughed at for it. You'll recall that Christians were dismissed at one time for being Atheists and I think it's safe to assume that they felt unfairly treated.

It seems to be very very difficult for religious people to refrain from contemptuous mockery and that's puzzling, to say the least.

Are you really puzzled as to why I don't take Matthew as a historical source? Why I don't think "it makes sense that he would have" means he did even if he was dead?

I'm not mocking anyone for believing in Jesus or Matthew or Allah or supernatural beings or conscious, sentient entities without substance. I just don't want to be told about Dawkins and buses and how silly people are for not seeing Wotan as fake and Jesus as lord. Belief is not knowledge and you can't get to knowledge without skepticism. That's why the statement that science and religion aren't about the same thing is false. They are, but one has rules based on repeatable observation and testing; the other believes and argues from the conclusion.

So here's my thesis nailed on your door:belief does not provide a platform from whence to look down on others since anyone can believe anything and indeed they do.

So I hope you can see by this that I'm arguing for humility and if that makes me a crackpot or an eccentric, at least that would put me in distinguished company.

tom sheepandgoats

Wasn't it Thomas Carlyle who said sarcasm is the language of the devil? And then resolved not to use it anymore? Even those not believing in the devil will get the point. Add to it hyperbole, poking fun, and so forth. If there's one thing I've learned from blogging, this is it: invariably, your chums will think you very clever for your verbiage and those of the opposite view will take offense. Doesn't matter what the position. I believe it to be beyond hypothesis, beyond theory, but to be an actual Law of Human Relations.

So I suppose I should dispense with such verbal devices. But....ah well, this is blog, not a treatise. Such devices serve as spice, without which everyone goes to sleep. Besides, I don't see any "contemptuous mockery" at all in the post. Strong disagreement, yes, but not c.m.

Only words, all as well-chosen as I can manage, to make various points. Don't mean to offend, of course, but it almost comes with the territory.

Reading your comment again, you appear suspicious that I might have been applying the term "crackpot" to you. I wasn't.

tom sheepandgoats

Regarding the date of Herod's death, the following is taken from the reference book Insight on the Scriptures: (it's too involved to summarize - I'll just quote it)

"A problem arises with regard to the time of Herod’s death. Some chronologers hold that he died in the year 5 or 4 B.C.E. Their chronology is based to a large extent on Josephus’ history. In dating the time that Herod was appointed king by Rome, Josephus uses a “consular dating,” that is, he locates the event as occurring during the rule of certain Roman consuls. According to this, Herod’s appointment as king would be in 40 B.C.E., but the data of another historian, Appianos, would place the event in 39 B.C.E. By the same method Josephus places Herod’s capture of Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E., but he also says that this occurred 27 years after the capture of the city by Pompey (which was in 63 B.C.E.). (Jewish Antiquities, XIV, 487, 488 [xvi, 4]) His reference to that latter event would make the date of Herod’s taking the city of Jerusalem 36 B.C.E. Now, Josephus says that Herod died 37 years from the time that he was appointed king by the Romans, and 34 years after he took Jerusalem. (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 190, 191 [viii, 1]) This might indicate that the date of his death was 2 or perhaps 1 B.C.E.

"It may be that the Jewish historian Josephus counted the reigns of the kings of Judea by the accession-year method, as had been done with the kings of the line of David. If Herod was appointed king by Rome in 40 B.C.E., his first regnal year could run from Nisan of 39 to Nisan of 38 B.C.E.; similarly, if counted from his capture of Jerusalem in 37 (or 36) B.C.E., his first regnal year could start in Nisan 36 (or 35) B.C.E. So if, as Josephus says, Herod died 37 years after his appointment by Rome and 34 years after his capture of Jerusalem, and if those years are counted in each case according to the regnal year, his death could have been in 1 B.C.E. Presenting an argument to this effect in The Journal of Theological Studies, W. E. Filmer writes that evidence from Jewish tradition indicates that Herod’s death occurred on Shebat 2 (the month of Shebat falls in January-February of our calendar).—Edited by H. Chadwick and H. Sparks, Oxford, 1966, Vol. XVII, p. 284.

"According to Josephus, Herod died not long after an eclipse of the moon and before a Passover. (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; 213 [ix, 3]) Since there was an eclipse on March 11, 4 B.C.E. (March 13, Julian), some have concluded that this was the eclipse referred to by Josephus.

"On the other hand, there was a total eclipse of the moon in 1 B.C.E., about three months before Passover, while the one in 4 B.C.E. was only partial. The total eclipse in 1 B.C.E. was on January 8 (January 10, Julian), 18 days before Shebat 2, the traditional day of Herod’s death. Another eclipse (partial) occurred on December 27 of 1 B.C.E. (December 29, Julian)"


As always great article... I like the explanation left by one of the "thinkers/ logical/ scientists" that said that most scientists use the word probably all the time. The real reason they have to use probably is because they are always being proved wrong after they say something is definite. For instance those who always refute the Bible end up being wrong in the end. Babylon was conquered by the Medes and the Persians in 539 BCE, long refuted. The earth is in fact round and hangs upon nothing as stated in the Psalms and was proved when astronauts took pictures from space. These are just two examples of things that in the past were subject to scrutiny by those who wanted the Bible to be untrue.
When they uncover a rock or writing that proves when Herod died and when Jesus was born would you then believe? Not likely, for those who are atheist aren’t really against the Bible they just want to believe that man is the highest entity in the Universe, therefore, as the highest entity they can do what they want and there would be no consequences. However there are consequences, some which you may not see until years or even decades later. Most don’t even realize it at all, very sad.
Tom, again, great article and I look forward to the next installment.

tom sheepandgoats


Same as you, I like to point out how the Bible states, in several places, that the earth is round. Though the Greeks eventually figured it out, Bible references are several hundreds of years prior. Everyone else thought the earth was flat, and usually balanced on a stack of animals - we've all seen the drawings.

The comments to this entry are closed.