"And sometimes he's so nameless"

The Myth of Compartmentalised Minds

Posted in atheism, Debunking myths, Paranormal, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 12, 2010

No, not an attack on modular theories of mind. (If  you don’t know what they are, don’t worry, it’s not relevant today)…

Instead I’m talking about a claim I often see levelled against Christians who believe in Evolution — that we are able to hold two incompatible beliefs by compartmentalising (I’m using the British English btw, as I live in England) our minds, keeping the ideas completely separate. Apparently Evolution (by Natural Selection) is utterly incompatible with Christian belief. Now long time readers will recall  that I have said this was certainly NOT the view of most Christians in Darwin’s own time: perhaps because that battle had already been fought over Lyell and Buckland and geology, but rocks are unfashionable and biology is sexy today; regardless I have written on the myths that cluster around Darwin, you can find my essay here.

I will sometime describe how Christians have reconciled the two, and my own theological thinking on the issue, but to be honest it was not a problem for Darwin’s bulldog T.H.Huxley (himself not a Christian but an ‘agnostic’ – not in the modern sense of the word though) who wrote —

” The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man or in the higher ver-

tebrata, was made with the precise structure which it exhibits, to make the animal which

possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. But it is necessary to remember

that there is a higher teleology, which is not touched by the doctrine of evolution, but is act-

ually based on the fundamental proposition of evolution. That proposition is, that the whole

world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws,

of forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was

composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay potentially in the

cosmic vapour; and that a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of

that vapour, have predicted, say, the state of fauna of Great Britain in 1869, with as much

certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapor of the breath on a cold winter’s

day.” Academy 1869

I think it’s too late at night to explore what Huxley meant by than now: again it’s not strictly relevant. My challenge is far more drastic: I don’t deny that minds well may well be compartmentalised, but I think such an attribute may actually be almost by definition a property of atheist not theistic thinkers. I am not saying atheists are wrong, or stupid: I am saying that some but not all atheists probably have stronger compartmentalisation of neural processes than religious believers, and that I believe if an experiment was conducted, it would show a tendency towards a theists having less compartmentalised mental processes. It’s a typically ironic CJ claim, but I think atheists actually really might have compartmentalised minds. I therefore as so often intend to up end a cliché and play with it till it squeaks…

So what do I mean by “compartmentalised minds”?

OK, firstly I am not sure if this works at mind level (Cognitive process) or brain level (neural connections) or perhaps most likely both, but clear if a mind is ot be compartmentalised then it suggests that parts work relatively autonomously of each other, or only interconnect occasionally. I think the cliché of Christians with “compartmentalisation” is probably meant to work at the level of beliefs, that is I guess heuristic structures  ideas, concepts, whatever. I put my religion in Box A that lives here, and my Science in Box B that works there.  And then I build a bloody great big garden wall in between the two!

There is only one thing wrong with this theory: it’s bollocks. Of course people can hold deeply contradictory ideas, and of course that can arise as a neural network develops and expands, if there is no checking process for consistency.  No disagreement there at all: the whole history of humans on this planet shows it, and I could point out that cancer is caused by smoking, and a lot of people smoke. I know the odds of winning the lottery: I still might buy a ticket (though only about three times since it was launched). That people can hold contradictory ideas strikes me as uncontroversial.  What strikes me as nonsensical though is the assertion that a deeply rational individual such as Prof Ken Miller does this, or I do, or most Christians do it more than atheists.

Now of course individuals brains vary somewhat in anatomical detail, individuals vary in the organisation of their neural networks and relationships to a small extent, and the mass of synaptic connections that  are excited and inhibited and make us “us” are of course unique. Likewise we vary in our cognitive processes at a psychological level, though we presumably share, as with the neurology,  massive overall similarity.  Now I was reading a paper by Dr. Christine Simmonds-Moore, on Thin Boundaries, Transliminality and Positive Schizoptpyy – I’ll reference it at the end when it struck me – atheists should actually have less integrated neural and psychological constructs?

Simmonds-Moore describes the work of Hartmann, especially his 1991 Hartmann Boundary Questionnaire (HBQ). The HBQ examines the boundaries: the compartmentalisation if you like, in the human psyche.His work based on this scale has since been examined, and several predictions confirmed. You can search Google to find experiments and papers, or if you have access just type “hartmann +boundary” in to PSYCHINFO and see what comes up. I’m not making this up… I even found the scale on a website, so you can try the test yourself.

I was unsurprised to note I scored as having thin boundaries.

What does that mean?

I really suggest if you want a proper overview you read Dr Simmonds-Moore’s paper.  I will summarise my understanding as follows -a boundary is the division between two ‘structures or processes'; with thinner boundaries, there is increased interaction between them. Those with thinner boundaries will integrate more structures and processes, resulting in a ‘”looser” associational thinking style’, a tendency to find ‘meaning’ in random noise, to integrate subliminal level information   and a tendency to experience altered states while awake. In short we might expect believers to actually have thin, highly permeable conceptual boundaries – their mental structures might well be expected to be considerable less compartmentalised than that of an atheist, who might have a more focussed/linear method of thinking? SOME BUT NOT ALL: obviously believers and disbelievers might be found in either category, thick or thin boundaried, but thin boundaries appear to be correlated with unusual mental states, belief in psychism, and at high levels sometimes mental health issues. I would suggest from the evidence that believers are more likely to be on average thin boundaried than non-believers: that is their thinking is a ‘”looser” associational thinking style’, subject to Type II errors – seeing things that are not there in random noise, finding false positives, mistakenly rejecting the null hypothesis. (Simmonds-Moore notes Brugger has made exactly this connection with Type II errors).

And thick boundaried (highly compartmentalised) thinkers? They are subject to exactly the opposite problem: failing to recognise the falsification of the null hypothesis, they fail to see what is there, and make Type I errors. Believers would be subject to false positives: non-believers false negatives, but belief or non-belief may well be related to the structure and relationships in brain/mind.

Now this is not a stick to beat atheists with: I am sure some of my more acerbic mates on the forums will type “…therefore God.” in a cynical response. Far from it, I make no claim whatsoever that this gets us one iota nearer to the truth or falsehood of any theistic or atheistic hypothesis – it is possibly completely irrelevant. In this brief piece I just wanted to point out something i said last night – we adopt linguistic  structures in our belief (or non-belief communities) and use them to view the world, often irrespectively of common sense – for it strikes me as fairly non-controversial that believers often show loose and associational styles of thinking, that bear no resemblance to reality, but which we repeat uncritically. Believers do it, non-believers do it, birds do it, bees do it, nice young men who sell antiques do it – we,  no, sorry that’s a song. :) I was simply interested in debunking one common cliché used to dismiss scientifically minded Christians as somehow mentally split in two: it appears the reverse may be true?

Anyway next time someone tells you  believers who hold to evolution and Christianity have “compartmentalised minds”; ask for the EVIDENCE. And if anyone wants to do a full study of boundary thinness and religious/spiritual belief, go for it I am aware of no paper, but Dr Simmonds-Moores interesting paper certainly made me think about this.

Night all

cj x


Hartmann, Ernest, (1991)  Boundaries in the mind: A new psychology of personality. BasicBooks, NY.

Simmonds- Moore,  Christine. ‘ Anomalous Experiences and Boundary Thinness in Mind and Brain’ in Smith, Matthew (2010) Anomalous Experiences, McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina

Richard Dawkins ignored me – no surprise there! & the perils of Fundamentalist Atheist loonies

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Religion, Science, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on March 21, 2009

OK, I have removed this post as the debate on Science and Religion is back on.  :)

cj x

Debunking A Modern Myth: the Conflict of Religion & Science – Part Two

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 7, 2009

OK, another extract from the ongoing debate! Part One can be found here —


and an earlier post on a very common part of the myth, that of the Evangelical opposition to Charles Darwin and evolution can be found here–


Frazer and his Myths on Mythology

Sir James Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough managed to pollute the intellectual atmosphere of the world in a way few have rivaled; he did to history what Henry Ford did to our lungs. Within months of Frazer publishing his work was torn apart by serious anthropologists, but it was popular, and went through edition after edition. Frazer’s kooky ideas are with us in many ways today – Tim O’ Neil and I often note their prevalence in Christ Myther circles (as someone asked — a Christ Myther is a person who denies there was a historical Jesus, claiming Christ is a fiction) and other pseudo-historical nonsense, but I’ll briefly explain the relevance here.

Frazer postulated that religion was primitive science, and that as scientific knowledge grew it usurped the role of earlier religious knowledge. His idea, which one can still find similarities with in Gebser, Wilber and some of the transpersonalists, sees Magic as the most primitive level of human interaction with the environment. From Magic develops mythology and Religion, and these fall victim to Science. It’s a historicist, approach, deeply teleological, in which history has an onward momentum, culminating in the White Anglo-Saxon Victorian civilization of Frazer. It’s also b*****ks.

Sir James Frazer, popular, intelligent, well meaning, and author of myths that have corrupted our reading of myths!

Sir James Frazer, popular, intelligent, well meaning, and author of myths that have corrupted our reading of myths!

The idea is superficially attractive. Knowledge does by and large increase through history, as does technology, taken globally. Individual cultures rise and fall, and there are fits and starts, but generally we see progress through history towards greater scientific and technological achievement. That certain cultures (with their religions) favour science more than others is pretty obvious – I’ll talk about that later. Frazer however saw everything was his own position, as the logical end point of the whole progress caboodle, as do his disciples. An Inuit animist was a “primitive”, being trapped in magical thinking, a Catholic Spaniard to him “a superstitious papist, trapped in the Religion phase” and the Frazer and friends reflected the epitome of rationality and “the high point”. I think we can all see the flaw in this. Compared with what?  It’s arrogant and wrong. Quite an achievement.
Still, that is not the real problem. The problem is Frazer failed to note that religion is NOT primitive science. While we may have difficulties defining science, we can all agree that science serves an explanatory function in relation to the natural world – and this was by and large not the role of magic or religion. Just as very few people really believe “thunder is angels bowling”, so generally religion has not concerned itself with explaining nature.

Confronting the errors: “what everybody knows”

“Everyone knows” that Religion is Primitive Science. My opponent in the debate has implied it. But it’s not true, as a few minutes research will establish definitively for yourself. I’m going to ask you you to think through your own assumptions here, and test them againts the empirical evidence.

Religion does not explain the natural world. Let us look at the Christian Bible, how much of it represents “primitive science”? I set this challenge at the end of my introductory post. You get off to a good start with Genesis and Creation – which I will discuss the meaning of in a future post, and show it is clearly theological NOT scientific, but for now let us accept it is “scientific”. What follows? What explanatory purpose in terms of physical phenomena do the story of the Patriarchs serve? The Exodus? What of the endless law codes of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers? Kings and Chronicles are history – any science in there? Nope. Esther and Ruth lack any explanatory purpose in terms of the physical world. Ditto the Prophets. Judaism generally is certainly not supportive of “religion is primitive science”. The claim is clearly nonsense – Judaism is not interested in explaining physical phenomena, instead Creation is invoked to support the claims of Judaism – not Judaism invoked to explain the natural world. When we move in to the Gospels we find no “explanation” material – Jesus does not, the best efforts of astrotheology kooks notwithstanding, appear to tell us anything about the natural world. You can read the Gospels, Epistles and Revelation in search of “primitive science” – but you look in vain.

Turn to the Qu’ran. Does this book purport to teach you physics, chemistry, biology? I don’t think that is the message in any way. To assert that the revelation of God, or any religious text is primitive science is to completely misrepresent most religion. In fact the natural world is large a mystery to the religious mind, but one that can be explored, and understood, because it functions by rational laws, set by God.

Now let us be fair on Frazer. Frazer was talking about what he saw of Primitive Religion, which he believed reflected a kind of mythic set of archetypes about vegetation gods and reaping, sowing, etc. Unsurprisingly he found agricultural motifs and images in many religions – because naturally enough in an agriculturally based economy these motifs will be central! Frazer saw the great monotheisms as having surpassed this stage – but ever in Greek mythology, his favourite topic, it fails. He gives the story of Proserpine and the seasons as an exemplar – the myth explains the changing of the seasons. Er, quite. Is this really an explanation? As countless students of mythology have pointed out since, Greek, Roman and Norse myth are not explanatory in this way. Not all lightning came from Zeus – he was not the embodiment of the lightning, he was a God who used lightning bolts as a weapon. How does Cerberus, Orpheus, the Titanomachy, Semele and Hera, explain anything in nature? What of Loki, what does he tell us of the physical world? What “scientific” explanation did he give us? Or Jorgumand? Fenrir? What physical principle is reflected in Mjolnir?

If you have read this far, and please do say something about this in the comment thread, please examine what you have taught and your cultural beliefs about mythology. Have you been taught to think of the Gods in this mechanistic way, with deities associated with a particular realm? We often think of “X as God of Y”, and apply this across all pantheons, as if Gods represented natural forces – “Surt was a fire demon/giant”, “Flora goddess of vegetation”, and do forth. Nope, it does nto work like that. It’s a shorthand, to explain things the Gods are associated with, but most pantheons for not follow these neat (X=”corn god”) categories – while it made the old  D&D book Deities and Demigods much easier to use, it doe not reflect real mythology. Classicists (and I hope some are reading this and will jump in to tell me if i am seriously wrong!) can point out that they “unlearn” these associations early. The Gods, and religions, were never “primitive science”, and if you think they were, who is the Sun God in Norse religion? Who embodies Rain? And who embodies the Wind? Not so easy is it?

Religion is not superseded primitive science. Once you realise this, you realise that a great deal of the Dawkinite assault rests upon this thoroughly mistaken assumption, as does much of the Conflict Myth.

Please do comment if you have read this far!

cj x

Debunking A Modern Myth: the Conflict of Religion & Science – Part One

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 5, 2009

A Word of Explanation

On Christmas Eve 2008 having reached 7,000 posts on Professor Richard Dawkin’s forum I publicly issued the Professor with a challenge to a debate on Religion & Science. My contention was that the supposed conflict between religion and science is a modern myth, and that furthering claims of this “inevitable conflict” is just a nonsense and a harmful one.  Sadly he never got back to me, unsurprisingly really as a busy chap, and I am now developing the discussion for a TV series – so my concerns, which actually represent the academic mainstream, will hopefully reach the public after all. :)  Here is the opening post of the debate, which finds me in a playful, whimsical mood…  I will post later installments over the next few days if anyone is interested…

On the Absurdity of the Conflict Myth

I believe the notion that science and myth are in conflict is not just a myth; I believe it is an absurdity. I think the fact the notion is so widely held is simply testimony to the fact it is so rarely considered; it appears hard to believe it can be held for long, in the weight of the evidence against it. Of course sometimes science and religion are in conflict; for that matter, so is poetry and science.

When the poet tells us he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, I feel it would be inappropriate to inform him nimbostratus have no feelings – we would miss the point. I recognize that science and religion both make claims to objective truth. So do science and history, science and philosophy, science and mathematics, science and cookery (– and I chose those carefully – if you think mathematics is part of science, is cooking? If not, why not?) So are science and history in conflict? Science and philosophy? Science and poetry? Science and cookery?

Science and Religion

Yet science and religion are seen as in conflict… or scientists and the religious, as ideas do not fight well unaided. Well, some scientists have been in conflict with some religious folks – so have some poets. That is to be expected. Some scientists also rode bicycles, and others drank vodka. Some do ride and drink. That cases can be found where scientists clashed with theologians should surprise no one, nor is it particularly interesting.

The real question is “is there a tendency for fights? is there an underlying reason demanding fights? what is the principle fought over?” I have been interested in these questions for years, and have examined the classic “stories” one finds in popular science books, and the claims of necessary conflict. I find them a silly fairy story, one of those “things everyone knows” which turn out to be a myth when examined.  Science and religion are not opposed, and conflict is uncommon. In fact modern science developed in a religious framework, and owes the great monotheisms much. After all there would be no scientists without an Anglican priest – the Reverend William Whewell coined the word ‘scientist’ in the 19th century.


The Genesis of a Myth

Two men created the conflict myth, writing within a few years of each other. The first John William Draper wrote the History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874), the second Andrew Dickson White, with The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).

This according to historians of science is where the myth arose. and It was never established in the academic specialty of historians of science – the books were dismissed as flawed and filled with canards. They were an extreme form of Whig history, and a gross form of the historicist fallacy – history is seen as teleological, as man’s escape from ignorant superstition and theism to enlightenment and science, here categorized as scientific progress. By 1918, even more 1945, such books would never have the same appeal – but in what Wells categorized as the “age of whoosh!”, before his own despair and loss of faith in progress, they were immensely popular. Bad history often is – these are the Holy Blood, Holy Grail of their day – attacking the wicked conspiracy of clerics who hold back enlightened science.

Of course they were just spouting Enlightenment myths – for is there was one place where the Enlightenment failed, and throws us in to darkness, it was in the philosophes treatment of history.

A Myth Becomes Dogma

Draper was alarmed by the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1875; White was responding to the criticism he received from conservative Christians on his secular appointment to a University position. Neither condemned all religion – Draper was concerned only with Roman Catholicism, White’s target was Protestant fundamentalists, but this is often overlooked.

The specifics were lost in the general argument – a myth had been born. And from thesis; antithesis – Burtt (1924), Whitehead (1926) and Butterfield (1949) reversed the argument, showing how religion provides the framework for the development of modern science. By Butterfield it was clear that science and religion have a complex relationship, a relationship which can not be simplified to conflict or support.

Yet as recent studies have shown, among the public, scientists and outside of professional historians, the “conflict hypothesis” persists. No one in the academic study of history of science takes it seriously – but outside those who study these things, “everyone knows” it’s true. In my experience when a fact is something “every one just knows”, we can usually be sure it’s a culturally constructed myth. Hegemony is not a sound way of knowing.

Definitions, Definitions

When I say science I might mean

i) the pursuit of understanding of natural laws

ii) the application of certain methodologies to research

iii) the social institutions and cultural milieu within which certain research is carried out

iv) as including both research and development, that is pure science and technology

v) as excluding technology, pure science, typically conducted in certain institutional forms, such as the university or basic research institute.

Not my definitions but after Rose and Rose, Science and Society, 1969

Religion is incredibly hard to define – the dictionary gives me


1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.

3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Nothing here seems to suggest conflict?

The notion of “religion as primitive science”, as explanatory and superseded one finds in Frazer is a myth: I shall dedicate much of my second post to demonstrating why, and scholars refutations. For now flip through the Bible, Qu’ran, and Tanakh, and underline all the “science” passages you find… How much of these scriptures is “primitive explanatory science?”

There is more of this – continued here –


The Men of Science & The Witches

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Paranormal, Religion, Science, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on February 27, 2009

So how is the new legislation that was designed to replace the Fraudulent Mediums Act working out? Have we actually seen any increase in prosecutions? I supported it fully in principle, but as always am hesitant about how it will work out in practice… If there is one thing that deeply concerns me, it’s when supposedly rationalist scientists turn their attention to witchcraft, superstition and religion. My reason is that I have read rather a lot of history, and I am unwilling to ignore its lessons.

Witchcraft and World War Two

Let’s start in England back in 1956. While the Pope was busy promulgating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the UK government had weightier concerns. In the last days of the Second World War a British medium named Helen Duncan had been prosecuted for Witchcraft and imprisoned, and had died shortly afterwards as her health deteriorated. Her supporters were keen to claim it was because she was giving away secrets of British losses in seances — HMS Barham I believe, whose sinking was supposedly classified — her detractors pointed out she was already caught out in fraud long before that date. Whatever the cause, the persecution of witches was clearly out of step with enlightened post-war Britain, and something needed to be done. Spiritualists could now rightfully fear religious persecution — and after all, Spiritualism was a religion in its own right. The need to do something was clear. So in 1956, the British Government repealed the Witchcraft Acts, and replaced them with the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which remained in force till last year. This piece of legislation was somewhat redundant — it merely made obtaining money fraudulently by deception in a spiritualistic manner illegal. Very few prosecutions have been brought under it, as fraud and obtaining money by deceit are already illegal regardless of the context, and as the Act requires the approval of the home Secretary or Director of Public Prosecutions to bring a case. As soon as Witchcraft was legal, Gerald Gardner brought out High Magick’s Aid, Wicca was born, and everything got more complex.

Religion, Scam, Mumbo Jumbo or Occultism?

As the legislators found out, its quite hard to distinguish between what is a religion, and protected by UN Charter of Religious Freedom, what is a scam, and what is occult practice. Is there much difference? Any difference? Yet the British Government made a rational choice. In 1948 Orwell wrote 1984, and the idea of Thought-Crime sickened many. This is where I and Sam Harris of the New Atheists totally disagree – well we disagree on many things, but God comes high on the list-  I believe that people have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, but that behaviours should be subject to law. Harris apparently does not.  We do not in my opinion need laws limiting religious freedom – we need laws that protect people from criminal and anti-social behaviour, which may curtail active expression of those religious beliefs. You can believe what you want about the value of virginity, but that does not give you the right to wear a purity ring to school. As Lou Reed sang, “Between thought and expression, there lies a lifetime…”

So if you want to believe you can talk to the dead, and try to convince others, such is your right. If you however defraud or injure others in pursuit of your mediumship, you go to prison. Actions, not beliefs can be legislated for. It is when people lose sight of this fundamental distinction I get worried, and from what I have seen Sam Harris has.

The truth about the Witchfinder General

We have all heard of the Witch Trials I am sure – and i am going to briefly describe a couple of them, Salem, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. I’ll keep it short. Let’s start with Matthew Hopkins. Pretty much everyone knows he was a religious fanatic, a Puritan Zealot who hanged and tortured little old ladies for fun and profit, till an angry mob “swum” him and lynched him. Problem is, it’s all rubbish. We don’t know much about Hopkins, but we do have his book,  The Discovery of Witches . I have read the original, and what we find is very interesting. Firstly, Hopkins was no Puritan. We can tell this because he was eventually denounced by a Puritan minister named John Gaule who bravely denounced him for persecuting innocent folks. The idea he himself was a Puritan is founded on nothing more than the fact a minister of Great Wenham was named Hopkins, and some scholars thought he might be his father.   What we do know is that he did not like the Rev. John Lowe, who may well have had Catholic sympathies, and who was hanged.

Secondly, Hopkins was a lawyer, and an educated man, quite probably university educated. Thirdly, his reign of terror was completely extra-legal – it took place in the chaos of the English Civil War, and the legality of proceeding was dubious – the older Elizabethan Witchcraft law required two previous convictions before it was punishable by death, and you were not killed for thinking you were a witch, but rather for capital crimes you claimed to have committed by witchcraft. The law of James I, an educated and inquisitive fellow with an obsession with witches, had become rather harsher, but torture was still illegal, and indeed Hopkins very quickly gave up on it once this was pointed out. His career after all attracted constant condemantion and controversy, throughout.

So what kind of fellow comes over in The Discovery of Witches? It certainly is not a religious fanatic. It’s a man who has a lawyers attitude of investigation, and is keen to refute his critics. He poses questions and answers them, and is keen to try and substantiate his claims with evidence — it’s interesting reading.


Hopkins was attacked by a bear, and with many other witnesses believed he saw imps and demons. What the heck was going on? Whatever the truth, he strikes me as rational…

Also it is worth noting that the conviction rate at Hopkin’s Assizes was about 33% — they were by no means show trials, and the majority of those accused were released — and those who were hanged see to have almost all confessed. Why?Were they actually witches? Did they believe they were witches? Was it just coercion? What was going on?

So how did Hopkins come unstuck? Because the Reverend John Gaule, an outspoken Puritan Minister denounced him from the pulpit for superstition, and for preying on the innocent and misguided. As a result a Parliamentary Enquiry was held, and the (Puritan) Oliver Cromwell with his (fanatically Puritan) Rump Parliament denounced Hopkins, and ordered him to cease and desist. He retired back to Mistley, where he died in 1646 or 47 of consumption, within a few months of Parliament shutting him down. So the story of Hopkins is quite the reverse of the myth: not a vicious religious fanatic puritan, but an educated man who seems to have made a genuine attempt to come to grips with phenomena he thought were witchcraft, and who was quite rightly shut down by Puritans before his investigations became even more genocidal. So much for the Witchfinder General…

Salem: home of the educated, not redneck loonies

OK, so what about Salem? Many readers of this forum are American, and everyone knows the Salem witch trials were caused by sexually repressed ignorant Puritans, right? Well Congregationalists, and in the spirit of Puritanism. The bare bones of the story from the children’s accusations through mounting hysteria to the trials and executions are too well known to bear repeating here, as is the sad postscript as the town realised the tragedy of its mistake and apologized to the victims, too late for many And since Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century writings we have all known that Salem was the ultimate expression of the darkness in the Puritan soul, and the ignorance and superstition therein. Ignorance and superstition like that of …

Cotton Mather, FRS, BA. 1678 (Harvard College), A.M. 1681; honorary doctorate 1710 (University of Glasgow), author of 450 books and pamphlets, instigator of Smallpox Innoculation in the 1721 Boston epidemic, perhaps one of the keenest scientific minds of his time?

Increase Mather, BA Harvard 1656, MA Trinity College Dublin 1659, Hon. Degree Harvard (STD) 1692, Acting President, then Rector, then President of Harvard University. Best known for his sensible dictate at Salem that “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned”.

Trial Judge William Stoughton BA Harvard 1650, MA New College Oxford, 1652, colonial chief magistrate, the first Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and later Governor of Massachusetts.

Magistrate Samuel Sewell, another Harvard man who wrote The Selling of Joseph (1700), for instance, he came out strongly against slavery, making him one of the earliest white colonial abolitionists.

Magistrate Bartholomew Gedney, a doctor.

Magistrate Thomas Danforth, Treasurer of Harvard, Deputy Governor of Mass, President of Maine, later Deputy Governor of Maine, etc, etc

Magistrate Col. Nathaniel Saltonstall, BA Harvard 1659. He appears ot have resigned as he disagreed with the trials.

John Hale, Prosecution, BA Harvard 1657. Later changed his mind after his wife was accused. “It cannot be imagined that in a place of so much knowledge, so many in so small compass of land should abominably leap into the Devil’s lap at once”

Samuel Willard, Minsiter of Religion, who denounced the Trials. BA Harvard 1659, President of Harvard after Increase Mather

Notice a recurring theme? Salem was not some backwater lost in the New England woods, where primitive Puritans played out a savage holocaust in ignorance. As someone has remarked it is rare to find so many future members of the Royal Society, distinguished scientists all, as were  found at Salem that year. Salem in fact was far from a bastion of ignorance — it attracted some of the greatest minds of the age. So what the hell happened? Quite simply, there was no existing model to explain what was occurring – and to some extent we are even more perplexed today. I don’t believe anything “paranormal” or “supernatural” has to have been involved – but I do believe that a body of highly intelligent men decided to go with the evidence of their senses, and their considered judgment, and executed innocent people. What I believe most firmly however, was that this was no religious scandal, as the 19th century anticlericals who shaped many of our modern view of history believed. The Salem Witch trials were presided over by men of learning, and men of scientific distinction, not religious bigots…

It is all too easy to forget that fact. Maybe there are lessons here for us today?

Myths of Evolution

Posted in Debunking myths by Chris Jensen Romer on February 24, 2009

It’s the Year of Darwin, and boy am I bored with it. All the myths are being cranked out – and very little new (with some honourable exceptions — see below.) It’s also a year after I spent a lot of my energy examining Darwin and the Church, and reading around the subject. I thought it might amuse people to read some of it here – because most of  “what we know” is wrong… This will be the first of a short series of posts on Dancing on Darwin’s Grave,  as I lash out at the absurd hagiography surrounding the chap, and the modern myths that have grown up around the birth fo Evolutionary theory. And no, I am not a Creationist! I fully accept Evolution by Natural Selection – just making that clear, ok?

Everyone knows that Darwin was opposed by the Church right? Evolution was accepted by scientists, and mocked by evangelicals? Fundamentalists hated Darwin, and Soapy Sam and Wilberforce had a huge row over religion? Er, nope. It never happened like that.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

I argue quite the opposite is true – at a time when the scientific community were still intensely sceptical of Evolution in the Darwinian model, many Evangelicals played an important role in supporting and accepting evolution, and few Evangelicals seem to have opposed it in the period 1850-1920… I suspect this will please almost no one, from Darwinians to Fundies!

I’m assuming most people are aware that what we call Young Earth Creationism, the belief the earth is a few thousand years old, is really only a North American Protestant belief and has only been prominent there since 1961. Sure, in recent years it has grown in the Islamic World, and in the rest of the Christian world following US example, but YEC is really quite a modern thing.

It was not the most common belief at all in the time of Darwin, even among conservatives. Age Gap, Framework and Age Day theories were the ideas common in the Evangelical mainstream before Darwin – a fact reflected in the massive contribution of Evangelicals and Anglican churchmen to the geological breakthroughs of the early 19th century.

Ah, some may cry,  what are they? Wikipedia to the Rescue! You don’t really need to know this to get the main point, but hey–




Catastrophism and flood geology was an extreme minority position, and only one Evangelical newspaper, The Record, appears to have much time for it.

Evolution was pioneered in America by the devout Evangelical Asa Grey, writing Darwinia (1876) which reconciles his Evangelical beliefs with orthodox Darwinism, and indeed being the only non-British member of the Darwin circle who saw Origin of the Species (1859) prior to publication. He dedicated much of his life to publicising and popularising Darwinian Evolution. A good bibliography is here- http://www.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/asa/asabio.html So by Darwin’s time, a number of  Evangelicals were already evolutionist.

Many of the objections raised like those of Soapy Sam Wilberforce were primarily scientific not theological — Kelvin pointed out Darwinian Evolution was completely impossible in terms of our understanding of the laws of physics and a theory not substantiated by the empirical evidence: indeed it ran contrary to much we knew until we understood stellar nucleosynthesis. It was of course correct,but that was not to be established for many decades to come.

Despite these problems, the Evangelicals response was generally positive. So who accepted evolution in those first years? It’s a Who’s Who of Evangelicals. Marston & Forster list BB Warfield, AH Strong, Van Dyke, Landey Patton, AA Hodge, WT Shedd, James McCosh — all hard core Evangelical leaders. ( They cite  Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, Scottish Academic Press, 1987).

Many historians of science and religion have already surveyed this territory and found that on both sides of the Atlantic works in favour of Darwin in Christian circles far outnumbered the minority opposition. Fundamentalism? Looking at The Fundamentals, I am immediately minded of Chapter 69 – The Passing of Evolution. (online here – kudos to the chap who undertook this herculean task! – http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund69.htm ) As you can see, this limited acceptance of Darwinism and objections based upon scientific principle is not quite what one might be led to expect from the very founding document of Fundamentalism. Orr’s chapter 18 contains a resolute defence of evolution, though he was Lamarckian and here disparages Darwinism. You can read it for yourself here http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund18.htm

Orr accepted Lamarckian evolution, or at least appears to. I could go on and on – I probably will, it’s what I do – but I suspect that the “meme” of Evangelical refusal of evolution has developed quite recently, and part of the “conflict between science and religion” woo one sees so much of these days. The popularity of the idea is simple — it appeals to both hard atheists wishing to disparage religion as an opponent of reason, and to devout Young Earth Creationist types who wish to claim this was always the Christian faith.

Few voices speak out against it – few people bother to check the facts, despite the mountains of printed material available, and modern studies like those of Marston and Livingstone.

My contention is that YEC only dates really from 1961 and Henry Morris – certainly OEC was common, but that looked at an earth many millions of years old (though limited by Kelvin’s calculations on the sun which gave the Earth an age of not more than 25 million years –  http://www.me.rochester.edu/courses/ME201/webexamp/kelvin.pdf – which led to his and many other physicists rejection of Darwin as physically impossible.)


Lord Kelvin, critic of Darwin's theory

The debate between physicists and geologists over the age of the Earth was ongoing, until the understanding of the actual processes involved in the sun showed the geologists were right. Physicists however probably were greater opponents of Darwinism in the early years (as pseudo-science that defied our understanding of physical law) than Evangelicals? Dunno! The Creationists as we know them are very modern – the Seventh Day Adventists, who gave Americans many interesting doctrines almost unique to that continent did much to support the rise of OEC, and McCready Price in the 1920’s was the first major anti-evolutionist who went for seven literal days I can think of? Willliam Jennings Bryan for example (he of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) favoured one of the two main Evangelical theories –, Age/Day, where a Day represented millions of years not a 24 hour period, and the famous Schofield Refence Bible of 1909went for the other – Gap theory, where there was a Gap of millions of years between Day 1, and Day2, and possibly between other Days. Both arguments preserve Biblical inerrancy.

The myths were already building fast even by then, indeed before the end of the 19th century, one of the most famous being about the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce over On the Origin of  Species. Superb essay on the history of this by JR Lucas here, well worth reading (honestly it is!) — http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html As you can see, this encounter is one of the most common stories almost everyone knows, but the truth is shall we say a little more obscure? Legendary indeed! Inerrantists has long accepted Gap Theory, Framework Theory or Age/Day by Darwin’s period – many leading geologists were devout evangelicals, so the age fo the Earth was known to be exceedingly ancient, and as Augustine and Origen both accepted the reading of this passage as non-literal as did theologians all through the ages, it is not surprising really they had cheerfully gone with the new science. It was a reaction to be expected in light of the dominant Baconian “Two Books” paradigm? Anyway, one does not have to be stupid ot be a Christian, it’s entirely optional – then as now. A few of us still possess brains, and a cynical scepticism about how susceptible we are to modern myths, no matter how much we can see the problems with ancient ones… Hope my historical whitterings have not bored to death.

I wrote that brief summary last year, after conversations with Beast, then luckily John Van Wyhe (Historian of Science, Cambridge University, leader of the Darwin Online Project)  published a very interesting article in BBC History magazine — January 2009 – Volume 10 – No 1 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/currentissue.asp in which he also exposes ye olde myth. :)  Anyway, question all these myths! :) I f everyone knows something, it’s often nonsense!

cj x


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