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JonIsbe 07-04-026


A professor and a punk rocker discuss science, religion, naturalism & Christianity



Preston Jones, ed.

InterVarsity Press, 2006, 164 pp., ISBN 0-8308-3377-3


Preston Jones is a professor of history at John Brown University, a fan of punk rock, and a Protestant who attends a Catholic church.  Greg Graffin is frontman for the punk band Bad Religion.  Greg, an atheist, also has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.  The book consists of email correspondence between the two about belief, philosophy and science.  It provides some of their arguments both ways and reveals how some rockers and some theologians in their late 30s think.  Considering an evangelical theologian who is a fan of punk rock stretched my mental categories before I ever started the book!


A study guide in the back of the book addresses some of the most important issues discussed: Christianity and violence, the sense that there is something else, science and Christianity in conflict, hating God, and the question of meaning.


“We’re two guys of similar age, temperament, musical taste and intellectual interests…  We’re both curious about how ideas shape behavior and cultures.  We both tend to be nonconformists….  We’re both committed to learning.  A major difference between us is that Greg is an atheist songwriter whose lyrics often concern themselves with religion.  I’m a Christian with a deep commitment to God that somehow coexists with a skeptical disposition toward much of what I hear people say about God.”  “I have sometimes felt more at home with atheists than with fellow believers…because atheists often come to their beliefs after asking difficult questions about evil, suffering and the seeming indifference of the universe.”  (15-17)


The churches he grew up in often didn’t take the Bible seriously enough.  “It’s such a ferociously realistic, truthful and profound book.” (17)


He is frustrated by American Christians because too often “Americans prefer Wal-Mart to libraries, Big Macs to big ideas, and TV to education.  This worries me….” (18)


“My hope is that Greg’s and my correspondence will encourage people to use the brains God gave them.” (20)


The book uses different type faces for the two men as follows:

Preston Jones, Christian professor

Greg Graffin, punk rocker


“The naturalism I, and most scientists I have interviewed and learned from, subscribe to is simply the belief that truth comes from the empirical investigation of the universe.” (37) 

“Naturalism is a young, new religion.  It is satisfying because it is a teacher.  It is not purposeless; it merely focuses on proximate meaning instead of ultimate meaning.” (38)  “Naturalism teaches one of the most important things in this world: there is only this life, so live wonderfully and meaningfully.” (39)


“…naturalism as a complete outlook on life is self-defeating.  It seems to say that the universe is indifferent, and we are part of the universe, yet we are not indifferent.  The university knows nothing about love, and we are part of the universe, yet we love and seek to be loved.” (42)


“In fact, more conflict has arisen over religious ‘truth’ historically than any other factor.” (44) [Preston rebuts this on p. 135 ff. dlm]


“But simply as an educational matter, a general knowledge of the
Bible is crucial to understanding much of Western history (and, increasingly, global history).  Also, our literature is full of biblical allusions.  And the God Western atheists don’t believe in is, so to speak, the biblical one.  The Bible is basic literature with which, I think, all educated people in Western societies should be at least passingly familiar.” (48)


“Metaphysics is concerned with the question, ‘what exists?’  If something exists, then a naturalist believes she can find evidence of it.  If no evidence is found, we have to conclude that it either doesn’t exist—i.e., the possibility of its existence is nullified—or we haven’t figured out a way to discover it yet.” (55)  “There is no metaphysical reality to God.  God is an epiphenomenon of the human brain.” (56) 


“Attempting to show that the universe is elaborately designed doesn’t suggest to me that there is a God.  It just means some very elaborate things can materialize given enough time.” (57) 


“Which brings us back to the fundamental problem with raw naturalism: It can’t explain why people long for ultimate meaning when they live in a world that comprises only proximate and relative meaning.”  “A world that is ultimately meaningless couldn’t produce a concept of ultimate meaning.” (58, 59)  Response: “This sounds like philosophical nonsense.  Philosophers love to sit around and talk about this stuff, which very few naturalists take seriously.  It is not very hip with current neurobiology.” (59)


“Both Christians and naturalist-materialists are responsible for atrocities….  The question is, which of these faiths is least likely to lend support to brutality?”  “Both Christian theists and materialistic naturalists exercise faith.” (71) “Christian faith has no problem absorbing the discoveries of naturalists.”  “On the other hand, materialistic naturalists, as a matter of faith, must protect their creed from impurities: No deities allowed.” (73)


“The central problem with theistic faith is that it can’t give a good explanation for so much obvious suffering, not only in humans, but everywhere a biologist looks.” (74) “Atrocities are a part of human civilization and are the result of ignorance about human nature.”  “As long as Christian theology has no satisfying answer to human suffering, it is at a terrible disadvantage.” (75)


“Naturalism depends on science….  But it has to be repeatable.” (76)


“We are at a transitional period in the intellectual history of the United States (and perhaps the world).  The average citizen depends less on, and reads less of, the Bible while at the same time is more knowledgeable about the natural world than ever before.  This will continue, and will probably move theology even farther to the back burner.” (77)


“The traditional Christian view is that all the world—all of nature—is warped as a consequence of the Fall, i.e., man’s rebellion against God.” (79)


“All intellectual questions revolve around biology, whether we admit it or not.”  “Much strife occurs because the average citizen is completely in the dark about how life works.” (91)


“Richard Dawkins put it this way: ‘The illusion of free will is so powerful that we might as well assume we have it.’” (91)


“The really good biologists have no difficulty destroying the philosopher’s weak foundation for rebuttal.  People need to study more biology.  Then they can make better claims about human nature….” (99)


“God is not the end, but a great beginning, a challenge for science to adequately explain.  Explaining God is a hurdle for science and, if you ask me, an equal hurdle for theologians.” (108)


“I worry, even today, about persecution for my beliefs.”  “So I guess it is because of fear that Christianity is so popular.”  [This would not appear to be the case in many places in the world! dlm]


“Why do American churches mimic the general culture—brainlessness and emotionalism on one hand, a mildly Christianized political correctness on the other?” (114)


America’s Christians could effect a revolution immediately if every one of them chucked their TVs in the garbage.  But the Christians are just as addicted to brainless entertainment, and just as afraid of silence, as everyone else.  There will be no revolution. 
The Sudanese Christians get snuffed and sold into slavery, but they’re just Africans.” (115)


“I have been discouraged lately with many of my students who in some ways sound like the kids she knows.  They are good with outward piety; they know the Jesus lingo.  But their ‘faith’ seems to make no practical difference in their lives.  Perhaps by making them smug, it makes them worse people than they might be otherwise.” (123)


Believing that there is not a god, you have as little evidence for that as you do for believing there is a god.  You have no evidence for either…. You can’t answer the questions except by an act of faith, and if it’s an act of faith, it’s just as much an act of faith as saying there’s not god as saying there is a god.” (132,  Quoting John M. Thoday, geneticist (2003))


Preston challenges something implied by Greg, “that Christianity has been a source (in the West) of unparalleled oppression and violence and that if Christians had their way, they’d subjugate everyone.  This is a popular view and, like most popular views, it’s mostly false.  Secularist ideologies have led to much more hardships, political oppression, economic chaos and mass killing than any Western theological system has.”  “Also, very few people were executed for religious reasons without trial.  Of course, the evidence gathered at the trials was usually bogus. … But trials were conducted, and a lot of people were set free.  At Salem over 100 people were accused; about 20 were executed.  Once the hysteria subsided, the authorities acknowledged publicly that those executed were innocent, and money was given to their families.  This is all quite pathetic, but the image one has of Puritans out to fry all disbelievers is false.  The famous ‘heretics’ Anne Hutchinson and roger Williams were not executed.” (134-35)


“…systematic mass slaughter without trial has been an innovation … of secularists.  We see it first with the mass killing by drowning of the anti-Christian fanatics of the French Revolution.  We see it in Stalin’s atheistic regime, in Hitler’s anti-Jewish, anti-
Christian regime.  And then we see it in other places were secularist ideology was imported—Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia.  And today existential misery and suicide are highest precisely in the places where secularism is most prevalent. (135-36)


“Even though I can’t formulate any ultimate meaning for it all—I know I am just a small part of it and I will soon be dead and so will my offspring—I know that the studying, teaching and sharing of natural history provides a lifetime of meaningful enterprise for me.”  “We can live with proximate purpose alone and still live fully satisfied lives without the mythology of ultimates.” (139)


“I notice that you, Albert Camus and John Kekes follow the same route: (1) You acknowledge that people have a desire for meaning,  (2) for various reasons, you reject the idea of extra-ordinary meaning, and (3) all that’s left is proximate meaning.  I don’t know anyone who has consciously made the jump from (1) to (3) without pausing at (2)….” “Even when a person decides that there is no ultimate meaning, the decision itself shows that thoughts about such a thing come naturally.  This says something about the way people are wired.”  (145)


Greg and Preston remain in touch and friendly.




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