Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Excerpt:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Dealing with persistent subjective atheists

What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.

And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.

Related posts

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Is Mormonism supported by evidence from science, philosophy and history?

This post presents evidence against Mormonism/LDS in three main areas. The first is in the area of science. The second is in the area of philosophy. And the third is in the area of history.

The scientific evidence

First, let’s take a look at what the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, believes about the origin of the universe:

“The elements are eternal. That which had a beggining will surely have an end; take a ring, it is without beggining or end – cut it for a beggining place and at the same time you have an ending place.” (“Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith”, p. 205)

“Now, the word create came from the word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos – chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existance from the time he had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beggining, and can have no end.”
(“Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith”, p. 395)

A Mormon scholar named Blake Ostler summarizes the Mormon view in a Mormon theological journal:

“In contrast to the self-sufficient and solitary absolute who creates ex nihilo (out of nothing), the Mormon God did not bring into being the ultimate constituents of the cosmos — neither its fundamental matter nor the space/time matrix which defines it. Hence, unlike the Necessary Being of classical theology who alone could not not exist and on which all else is contingent for existence, the personal God of Mormonism confronts uncreated realities which exist of metaphysical necessity. Such realities include inherently self-directing selves (intelligences), primordial elements (mass/energy), the natural laws which structure reality, and moral principles grounded in the intrinsic value of selves and the requirements for growth and happiness.” (Blake Ostler, “The Mormon Concept of God,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Summer 1984):65-93)

So, Mormons believe in an eternally existing universe, such that matter was never created out of nothing, and will never be destroyed. But this is at odds with modern cosmology.

The Big Bang cosmology is the most widely accepted cosmology of the day. It is based on several lines of evidence, and is broadly compatible with Genesis. It denies the past eternality of the universe. This peer-reviewed paper in an astrophysics journal explains. (full text here)

Excerpt:

The standard Big Bang model thus describes a universe which is not eternal in the past, but which came into being a finite time ago. Moreover,–and this deserves underscoring–the origin it posits is an absolute origin ex nihilo. For not only all matter and energy, but space and time themselves come into being at the initial cosmological singularity. As Barrow and Tipler emphasize, “At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated at such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo.

[...]On such a model the universe originates ex nihilo in the sense that at the initial singularity it is true that There is no earlier space-time point or it is false that Something existed prior to the singularity.

Christian cosmology requires such a creation out of nothing, but this is clearly incompatible with what Mormons believe about the universe. The claims about the universe made by the two religions are in disagreement, and we can test empirically to see who is right, using science.

Philosophical problems

Always Have a Reason contrasts two concepts of God in Mormonism: Monarchotheism and Polytheism. It turns out that although Mormonism is actually a polytheistic religion, like Hinduism. In Mormonism, humans can become God and then be God of their own planet. So there are many Gods in Mormonism, not just one.

Excerpt:

[T]he notion that there are innumerable contingent “primal intelligences” is central to this Mormon concept of god (P+M, 201; Beckwith and Parrish, 101). That there is more than one god is attested in the Pearl of Great Price, particularly Abraham 4-5. This Mormon concept has the gods positioned to move “primal intelligences along the path to godhood” (Beckwith and Parrish, 114). Among these gods are other gods which were once humans, including God the Father. Brigham Young wrote, “our Father in Heaven was begotten on a previous heavenly world by His Father, and again, He was begotten by a still more ancient Father, and so on…” (Brigham Young, The Seer, 132, quoted in Beckwith and Parrish, 106).

[...]The logic of the Mormon polytheistic concept of God entails that there is an infinite number of gods. To see this, it must be noted that each god him/herself was helped on the path to godhood by another god. There is, therefore, an infinite regress of gods, each aided on his/her path to godhood by a previous god. There is no termination in this series. Now because this entails an actually infinite collection of gods, the Mormon polytheistic concept of deity must deal with all the paradoxes which come with actually existing infinities…

The idea of counting up to an actual infinite number of things by addition (it doesn’t matter what kind of thing it is) is problematic. See here.

More:

Finally, it seems polytheistic Mormonism has a difficulty at its heart–namely the infinite regress of deity.

[...]Each god relies upon a former god, which itself relies upon a former god, forever. Certainly, this is an incoherence at the core of this concept of deity, for it provides no explanation for the existence of the gods, nor does it explain the existence of the universe.

Now let’s see the historical evidence against Mormonism.

The historical evidence

J. Warner Wallace explains how the “Book of Abraham”, a part of the Mormon Scriptures, faces historical difficulties.

The Book of Abraham papyri are not as old as claimed:

Mormon prophets and teachers have always maintained that the papyri that was purchased by Joseph Smith was the actual papyri that was created and written by Abraham. In fact, early believers were told that the papyri were the writings of Abraham.

[...]There is little doubt that the earliest of leaders and witnesses believed and maintained that these papyri were, in fact the very scrolls upon which Abraham and Joseph wrote. These papyri were considered to be the original scrolls until they were later recovered in 1966. After discovering the original papyri, scientists, linguists, archeologists and investigators (both Mormon and non-Mormon) examined them and came to agree that the papyri are far too young to have been written by Abraham. They are approximately 1500 to 2000 years too late, dating from anywhere between 500 B.C. (John A. Wilson, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, p. 70.) and 60 A.D. If they papyri had never been discovered, this truth would never have come to light. Today, however, we know the truth, and the truth contradicts the statements of the earliest Mormon leaders and witnesses.

The Book of Abraham papyri do not claim what Joseph Smith said:

In addition to this, the existing papyri simply don’t say anything that would place them in the era related to 2000BC in ancient Egypt. The content of the papyri would at least help verify the dating of the document, even if the content had been transcribed or copied from an earlier document. But the papyri simply tell us about an ancient burial ritual and prayers that are consistent with Egyptian culture in 500BC. Nothing in the papyri hints specifically or exclusively to a time in history in which Abraham would have lived.

So there is a clear difference hear between the Bible and Mormonism, when it comes to historical verification.

Further study

There is a very good podcast featuring J. Warner Wallace that summarizes some other theological problems with Mormonism that I blogged about before. And if you want a nice long PDF to print out and read at lunch (which is what I did with it) you can grab this PDF by Michael Licona, entitled “Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock“.

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Yale University Press book: fertility rates are in decline worldwide

I saw this article about a Yale University Press book on demographics, posted at Yale University’s web site.

Excerpt:

It’s no surprise that the world’s population is at an all-time high – exceeding 7 billion – although many might not know that it increased by 5 billion during the past century alone, rising from less than 2 billion in 1914. And many people would be surprised – even shocked –  to know that over the past three decades, fertility rates have plummeted in many parts of the world, including China, Japan and even significant regions of India.

These Asian giants have not been alone. In much of Europe, North America, East Asia and elsewhere, the average number of children born to women during the course of their childbearing years has fallen to unprecedentedly low levels.

Our new book, The Global Spread of Fertility Decline: Population, Fear, and Uncertainty (Yale University Press, 2013) analyzes these trends and the demographic, political and economic consequences and uncertainties as low fertility has become a global phenomenon. Like other facets of globalization, low fertility rates are by no means universal: High fertility persists in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of the Middle East, but elsewhere low fertility is more the rule than the exception. These underlying trends in childbearing mean that in the near future the rate of population growth both in Europe and Asia are likely to decline. The world is not on a path of unrestrained demographic growth, as some believe. People all over the world have hit the brakes.

It’s strange because a lot of people on the secular left are worried about overpopulation, which is one of the factors causing them to push for abortion – and even subsidized abortion.

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How likely is it for blind forces to sequence a functional protein by chance?

How likely is it that you could swish together amino acids randomly and come up with a sequence that would fold up into a functional protein?

Evolution News reports on research performed by Doug Axe at Cambridge University, and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Molecular Biology.

Excerpt:

Doug Axe’s research likewise studies genes that it turns out show great evidence of design. Axe studied the sensitivities of protein function to mutations. In these “mutational sensitivity” tests, Dr. Axe mutated certain amino acids in various proteins, or studied the differences between similar proteins, to see how mutations or changes affected their ability to function properly.10 He found that protein function was highly sensitive to mutation, and that proteins are not very tolerant to changes in their amino acid sequences. In other words, when you mutate, tweak, or change these proteins slightly, they stopped working. In one of his papers, he thus concludes that “functional folds require highly extraordinary sequences,” and that functional protein folds “may be as low as 1 in 10^77.”11 The extreme unlikelihood of finding functional proteins has important implications for intelligent design.

Just so you know, those footnotes say this:

[10.] Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004); Douglas D. Axe, “Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors,” Journal of Molecular Biology, Vol. 301:585-595 (2000).

[11.] Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004).

And remember, you need a lot more than just 1 protein in order to create even the simplest living system. Can you generate that many proteins in the short time between when the Earth cools and the first living cells appear? Even if we spot the naturalist a prebiotic soup as big as the universe, and try to make sequences as fast as possible, it’s unlikely to generate even one protein in the time before first life appears.

Here’s Doug Axe to explain his research:

If you are building a protein for the FIRST TIME, you have to get it right all at once – not by building up to it gradually using supposed Darwinian mechanisms. That’s because there is no replication before you have the first replicator. The first replicator cannot rely on explanations that require replication to already be in place.

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Lawrence Krauss debates “A Universe From Nothing” with an astrophysicist

Dina sent me news of Saturday’s episode of Unbelievable, which features Lawrence Krauss, who debated William Lane Craig. Krauss’ book was also reviewed in the New York Times.

The MP3 file is here.

Details:

Lawrence Krauss is a Cosmologist at Arizona State University who describes himself as an “anti-theist”. His latest book “A Universe From Nothing” has received both acclaim and criticism for its attempt to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Debating the issue with Krauss is Rodney Holder, Course director at the Faraday Institute, Cambridge. An astrophysicist and priest by background. In a lively exchange they debate whether Krauss’ “nothing” is “nothing”, fine tuning and multiverses, scientific knowledge, miracles and the usefulness of theology and philosophy.

This debate is quite entertaining, and do not be intimidated if your don’t understand science. You can understand pretty easily who is arguing based on facts and who is speculating about unobservable, untestable entities. At one point, Krauss actually denies that there is any fine-tuning in the universe, so please see this link to refute that claim as well as this podcast which explains some examples of fine-tuning. Krauss gets a bit angry at the beginning, but calms down.

Quotation marks are for direct quotes, italics is for made-up snark. See below the summary for more posts that are related to this one.

Summary of the discussion: (picked up at 9:30 when they start talking about the book)

Brierley:

  • explain your theory of how the universe can come into being from nothing

Krauss:

  • the nothing that preceded the universe is “no space, no time, no universe”
  • theists say that God is responsible for creating the universe out of this nothing
  • but the laws of nature can create the universe uncaused out of nothing

Holder:

  • Krauss sometimes writes that the nothing is really a quantum vacuum, but that is not nothing
  • He even acknowledges in his book that a quantum vacuum is not nothing
  • He thinks that the nothing has properties, even though it has no being
  • It has the property of being unstable
  • It has the property of being acted on by quantum fields
  • It has the property of being acted on by gravity

Krauss:

  • But nothing can have the potential to do things inside it
  • For example suppose you have an electron, which is not nothing
  • If it jumps from one level to another, it emits light
  • There was no potential for the light in the electron, but it was there as part of atomic structure

Holder:

  • But in cases like that, there is something physical that has the potential
Krauss:
  • Well, how did God makes the universe then if it had no potential?

Holder:

  • God existed, and the potential for creating the universe in himself

Brierley:

Krauss:
  • It was written by a philosopher, so I dismissed it

Brierley:

Krauss:
  • These book reviewers have not even read my book!

Krauss:

  • Science will be able to figure out how to make something from nothing in the future
  • We are even now speculating about interesting questions, like is there a multiverse?

Brierley:

  • Consider the critical review of your book in the New York Times
  • The author of the review claims that you equivocate on the term “nothing”
  • In order to get things to pop into being, you have to make “nothing” mean “something”
  • Reviewer: none of Krauss’ theories explain how something can come from actual nothingness

Krauss:

  • In physics, something and nothing are not that different
  • The reviewer doesn’t understand the physics
  • He doesn’t understand quantum field theory
  • You could call a quantum vacuum “nothing”, (this is the vacuum fluctuation model, refuted by William Lane Craig in a peer-reviewed publication in an astrophysics journal - get the full text of the article here)
  • Maybe there is an eternally existing multiverse that we can’t observe or test scientifically
  • Maybe it has laws that we don’t know about which allow our universe to pop into being
  • Maybe this popping into being is uncaused
  • (alarmed) Who made God? Who made God?

Holder:

  • God is eternal and necessary

Krauss:

  • (interrupting, angry) What does it mean for something to be necessary?

Holder:

  • Basically, you have to decide whether there is more evidence that the necessary being God or a multiverse

Brierley:

  • So Dr. Krauss are you willing to say that the universe is a brute fact, in some sense, and requires no explanation

Krauss:

  • (angry) Religious people are stupid because they just assume brute facts, not like me and my unobservable, untestable multiverse
  • (angry) Religious people are against the progress of science, they don’t want to figure out how things work

Brierley:

  • But isn’t it possible that naturalists can be opposed to the progress of science?
  • What about the way the Fred Hoyle opposed the Big Bang because he wanted an eternal universe

Krauss:

  • (angry) But naturalists like me let the facts determine our beliefs, like the facts about the eternal unobservable, untestable multiverse
  • (angry, shouting) Philosophers are stupid, they know nothing!

=== Break ===

Brierley:

  • Do you see any evidence of purpose in the universe?

Krauss:

  • Well maybe I would believe if the stars lined up to spell out a message from God

Brierley:

  • Actually no, that wouldn’t be evidence for God on your multiverse view
  • if there an infinite number of universes existing for an infinite amount of time, then anything can happen no matter how unlikely it is
  • therefore, no evidence could convince you that God exists, since the unobservable, untestable, eternal multiverse can make anything it wants

Krauss:

  • That’s a true statement, and very convenient for atheists who don’t want to be accountable to God, don’t you think?
Brierley:
  • Back to the multiverse, how does it solve the fine-tuning?

Krauss:

  • “We have no idea if the universe is fine-tuned for life”, even though the atheist Martin Rees who endorsed Krauss’ book wrote his own book about the fine-tuning of the universe called “Just Six Numbers”
  • Inflationary theory does suggest a way to create multiple universes, (this is the chaotic inflationary model, refuted by William Lane Craig in a peer-reviewed publication in an astrophysics journal – get the full text of the article here)

Brierley:

  • But this theory is still very much a hypothesis, isn’t it? We can’t observe or test this hypothesis can we?

Krauss:

  • “No, and that is really important to state”
  • “I’m an empiricist, so if you can’t falsify it and if you can’t test it then it’s not science”
  • In my book, I speculate about a way that we could test the multiverse theory

Holder:

  • Yes, in principle, the multiverse would be scientific if you could test it through other theories like inflationary theory
  • There are a lot of speculations about multiverse theory, but no evidence from predictions that were validated in the lab

Krauss:

  • “I agree completely with everything you just said”

Brierley:

  • Roger Penrose agrees with Holder that the multiverse theory is too speculative
  • (To Holder) Isn’t the multiverse theory better than positing a completely different kind of being, which is God?

Holder:

  • The multiverse theory is extremely speculative
  • Even if the multiverse were true, you would still need to explain the multiverse

Krauss:

  • People don’t oppose my book because it’s full of self-contradictory speculations
  • People oppose my book because they are stupid and ignorant

Holder:

  • There are things that exist that science cannot measure, like objective morality
  • It’s possible to give explanations for moral behavior by appealing to evolution
  • But that does not ground self-sacrificial morality, such as what occurs in the Christian life

Brierley:

  • Dawkins says there is no purpose or morality in in the universe, do you agree?

Krauss:

  • “There is certainly no evidence of any of that”

Brierley:

  • In the book, you talk about how we live in a special time in the universe’s history to be able to do science, (i.e. – The Privileged Planet hypothesis)
  • You also write about how all the discoveries were are making will not be communicated to anyone in other places in the universe
  • So what is the meaning of doing science on your view? And why are you sad at the knowledge that will not be available to people in the future?
  • Are you longing for some kind of purpose?

Krauss:

  • No, I just get enjoyment from studying the universe with science to gain understanding

Holder:

  • What do you make of Einstein’s statement about the unexpected comprehensibility of the universe
  • Theists would say that this is because God wanted us to study and understand and gain knowledge

Krauss:

  • “It is remarkable that the universe is comprehensible”

Brierley:

  • Why is the universe comprehensible?

Krauss:

  • Well, maybe the universe just has to be that way

Brierley:

  • What do you make of the heat death of the universe, when all life in the universe will die out?

Krauss:

  • That’s the way the universe is
=== BREAK ===

Krauss:

  • I wouldn’t want to live in a universe where there was a God
  • God is a cosmic Saddam Hussein
  • “Religious people turn their minds off” and believe in God for consolation

Holder:

  • First, Jesus is the revelation of God and he is no Saddam Hussein
  • Second, the Christian life is anything but easy, we are facing some persecution already in the UK
  • Third, there is also the problem of being accountable to God when we die
  • It’s very much like science – Christianity is the way it is, not the way we want it to be

Krauss:

  • “If you don’t believe in him, you don’t get any of the benefits, so you have to believe”
  • “And then if you’ve done something wrong, you’re going to be judged for it”
  • “So I don’t want to be judged by God, I want to be… that’s the bottom line”

Holder:

  • Well, Jesus has died to pay the price for those things we’ve done wrong
  • Although we will have to face the charges for what we’ve done, believers will ultimately be forgiven

UPDATE: Peter Sean Bradley note that Krauss is now walking back his rhetoric in response to criticisms from people like atheist John Horgan.

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