Category: "faith/skepticism"

The language of humans

This is a response to Kyle's response to my review of the Language of God. Read those if you want to know what the first sentence of the next paragraph is about.

It's a good story. That kind of connection between people is beautiful and important and maybe even a clue to why we're here. It transcends race, nation, class and religion. Some people look at that moment and see God at work, and I can respect that. It certainly doesn't violate the rules of science and common sense like so many other attempts to prove God is real.

But I see it a different way. I see the connection between humans, the empathy, the struggle against meaningless and despair and ultimately the decision to find or create meaning through your life. Those things are very human and require no supernatural help.

The subtitle of the book is "A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," but the principal reasons Collins believes are neither scientific nor evidence. That came as a surprise and disappointment for me. I was expecting a certain type of answer and got something very different. I know that Kyle finds the personal sources of faith to be the most convincing, but that just doesn't do the trick for me. Feelings can be explained in so many other ways. Evoking the supernatural seems like a much more unlikely explanation than many others.

If science answers some of the questions left after religion is gone, then humanism takes over most of the rest. For instance, in the story Kyle quoted, I think the value, kindness, empathy and searching comes from the people involved. I don't see them as proxies for those same attributes in a deity.

If we have flaws, they are human flaws, not the slings and arrows of the devil. If there's any hope for our salvation, then it comes from the goodness inside humans, not some rescue from outside. This view of the world means we take more responsibility for ourselves and we're less fatalistic. How many times have you heard someone end a discussion about the problems of the world by saying, "Once Jesus comes back, it will all be fixed"? If our problems are going to be solved, we'll have to do it ourselves.

In practice, this is not such a different view from many Christians. As much as I respect and agree with any Christian Humanist, I can't help but notice that they're making a great departure from the essentially apocalyptic teachings of Jesus and Paul. Just as Kyle asked why anyone would believe in God once science has answered certain questions, I wonder why someone would believe in God once they had accepted the humanist explanations for others. That's the point I finally arrived at before giving up religion. For me, all the explaining power of Christianity was gone and the only thing keeping me in it was inertia.

Creationist museum teaches superevolution

The Creation Museum, which opened this spring in Kentucky, teaches its visitors that the earth is under 10,000 years old and that the Biblical story of Noah is literally true. The museum claims that evolution could not have produced the diversity of life that we see today. But if you look closely at what they say, they actually believe in superevolution.

The story of Noah has several problems, but the one I want to point out is that the boat could not have fit two of every species on the planet today. It's safe to assume that there are over 1 million species of land animals today. The Creation Museum, using the most generous of estimates, claims that 10,000 species were present on the ark. Even they won't try to claim that more could fit. So, where did we get all the species we have today, then? Take a close look at this picture from the museum:

This panel from the museum assumes that the ark had one pair of apes and all the ape species that we see today are descended from this one species. One species splitting into multiple species, hmmm. That sounds an awful lot like evolution. But, it's more than that, it's superevolution. Remember, this is all supposed to have happened less than 8,000 years ago. Going from 10,000 species to 1,000,000 in 8,000 years is some pretty rapid evolution. It's much, much faster than scientists think evolution normally happens.

This video
goes into more detail.

Lewis Black on creationism

[youtube]1_BRZoXjOmI[/youtube]
As only Lewis Black can say it.

Geography of faith

Here's an interesting animated map showing the territory of several religions over time:

Histroy of Religion: The Geography of Faith and Its Wars Across History

There are several other interesting maps of war, including the The US Wars and The Imperial Occupations of the Middle East.

Orality

Until recently it has bee commonly thought (again, even among scholars) that oral cultures could be counted on to preserve their traditions reliably, that people in such societies were diligent in remembering what they heard and could reproduce it accurately when asked about it. This, however, is another myth that has been exploded by recent studies of literacy. We have now come to see that people in oral cultures typically do not share the modern concern for preserving traditions intact, and do not repeat them exactly the same way every time. On the contrary, the concern for verbal accuracy has been instilled in us by the phenomenon of mass literacy itself; since anyone now can check to see if a fact has been remembered correctly (by looking it up), we have developed a sense that traditions ought to remain invariable and unchanged. In most oral societies, however, traditions are understood to be malleable; that is, they are supposed to be changed and made relevant to the new situations in which they are cited.

(The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 45)

Atheism

My name is Danny and I am an atheist. Three years ago I was a youth minister at a fundamentalist church. This change has been gradual, starting with the realization that youth ministry wasn't for me. I think I still believed when I left that job, but I took the opportunity to step back and come to faith again on my own terms. As time went on I found that I wasn't interested in beginning a new devotional life or getting involved in the church again.

I probably could have rode the fence indefinitely, but my wife encouraged me to put some thought into this and make up my mind. I did both. After taking a hard look, I can't find any compelling reason to believe that God exists.

The arguments for God that I latched onto before were the moral argument, the cosmological argument and the perceived reliability of the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his resurrection. Here are my thoughts on those three now.

I dealt with the moral argument in my review of The Language of God. To sum it up, I think our moral sense is an evolved trait rather than evidence of a cosmic moral lawgiver.

The cosmological argument says that the universe had a beginning, so it had to be caused by something, viz God. My main problem with this is that God is then let off of the same hook the the universe is put on. Who made God? I used to answer that question by saying that God is eternal and exists outside of space and time. But now I think that saying God is the first cause doesn't really get us anywhere.

While I used to think the New Testament was historical evidence that Jesus was supernatural, I now see it for what it is, a collection of religious documents. Religious documents and historical documents have very different goals. The NT was written to convert people, not to provide an objective account of what really happened. I hope to write in more detail about this, but here's a quick example.

Compare Mark, the earliest gospel, to John, the latest gospel. Over the 30 years between them, the stories and views about Jesus changed quite a bit. In Mark, very few people in the stories think Jesus is divine. When anyone brings it up, Jesus tells them to keep it secret. In John, Jesus goes on and on about how divine he is. One or both of the gospels has to be wrong about this basic aspect of the life of Jesus. I see this fact as it relates to the tendency for people to improve stories over time and I think that they're both wrong.

So far, I haven't found atheism to be nearly as sad and hopeless as I always thought it was. I still have meaning, love, morality and purpose in my life.

Another quote on religion and science

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Here's a quote that I wanted to include in my book review, but it was too long:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

-- Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis. vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers., vol. 41, Translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J. New York: Paulist Press, 1982

Augustine wrote that 1600 years ago.

Book review: The Language of God by Francis Collins

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Image from AmazonFrancis Collins is an eminent scientist who, as head of the Human Genome Project, led the monumental undertaking to sequence the entire human genome. Collins is also a Christian and he explains why he believes and how that relates to his life's work in the 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief.

Collins sets himself apart from most Christian apologists in a few ways. First, he doesn't see science as an opponent of religion; he insists that they answer different questions. Second, Collins agrees with the scientific consensus about evolution and he doesn't see it as a threat to religion. He spends a great deal of the book presenting the evidence for evolution and arguing in its favor. A third thing that makes Collins' apologetic different from the likes of Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel is that his case is not built on the Bible. He includes illustrative quotes and makes passing reference to the textual reliability of the Bible, but it's far from being central to his argument.

Collins dismisses a few other reasons for believing before getting to his evidence. The origin of life, long believed to be a question that science cannot answer, has been commonly claimed as evidence for God's existence. How did self-replicating life forms come into existence if God didn't breathe life into them? Science has made inroads toward solving this cosmic riddle, and Collins refuses to hinge his belief on a gap in our knowledge that may be closing.

He deals similarly with the claims of irreducible complexity by Michael Behe and other intelligent design spokesmen. Behe claims that certain structures and processes are so complex that they couldn't have evolved because if they were any less complex then they wouldn't provide any advantage to the organism. Nearly all scientists, including Collins, have seen the problems with Behe's idea. The examples that Behe gave have been debunked and there are no known irreducibly complex structures in biology.

After dealing with the origin of life and irreducible complexity, Collins turns to the more general reason for believing in God, called "God of the gaps." This phrase is used to describe a view of the relationship between science and religion. There are gaps in our scientific knowledge, like how life originated and how certain structures evolved. Believers often want to credit God for doing things that we don't yet understand. Humans have taken this approach for time out of mind. Before we understood rainbows, many cultures assumed they had a supernatural explanation. Those who take this view of God find that as scientific knowledge grows, God shrinks. For decades, thinking believers have discarded this view of God. Collins roundly rejects any evidence for God that is based solely on gaps in our knowledge.

So, scientifically, ID (Intelligent Design) fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity. More than that, however, ID also fails in a way that should be more of a concern to the believer than to the hard-nosed scientist. ID is a "God of the gaps" theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain. . . . Ultimately a "God of the gaps" religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith. ID portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life. For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image (Collins, 193).

So, after passing over the claims of creationists, intelligent design proponents, "God of the gaps" evidence in general and Biblical literalists, Collins presents his evidence for belief. It can be narrowed down to two reasons: 1) The universe had a beginning which seems to have been fine-tuned for life, and 2) humans all share a sense of morality.

Scientists have made reasonable explanations for what has happened in the history of the universe all the way back 13.7 billion years to mere microseconds after the big bang. But, it's true that science has been powerless to tell us anything about the universe before that. The singularity that must have existed before the explosion of the Big Bang defies all scientific laws. And as the universe expanded, conditions that would be friendly to life are a very unlikely outcome. This could be seen as evidence of a supernatural designer that brought the singularity into being and sent it out of the gate at the proper trajectory to ensure that life would be possible in a few billion years. Or it could be seen as another gap in what we know. Like other gaps, it's getting smaller all the time. And even if science never learns any more about the beginning of the universe, consider the implications of Collins' view. He says that God set up the conditions of the big bang almost 14 billion years ago, then didn't intervene until two or three thousand years ago, once humans had evolved fully and begun to found civilizations.

Collins second reason draws heavily from C.S. Lewis, who makes the universal human experience of morality his central reason for believing in God. Not only is this line of reasoning susceptible to the charge of finding God in another gap in our knowledge, but that gap has already all but vanished. Collins and Lewis are both correct when they claim that nearly all humans share an inborn sense of right and wrong. The next step in their reasoning is that if there's a moral law, then there must be a moral lawgiver. God is invoked as the absolute standard that our morality is measured against. I used to consider this a very convincing argument, but now I don't see how you get from the fact of shared morality to the conclusion of God's existence. It is one attempt to the question of where our sense of morals comes from, but is it the most probable?

The Darwinian evolution that Collins uses to to explain the complexity and diversity of organisms can also explain the behavior of humans and other organisms. As an example, take the maternal instinct. It's easy to see how any animal with a strong affection for its offspring would be more likely to pass its genes on. As much as I enjoy taking care of my daughter, I recognize that this paternal instinct is a product of evolution. That doesn't make my feelings any less significant to me. Morality could be seen in the same way. A group of evolving humans living a small group, as early humans did, would be more likely to survive than a neighboring group if they took care of each other. Kindness, generosity, forgiveness and bravery would all give a survival advantage. As humans spread around the world and diverged into different cultures, you would expect slight differences in this instinct to evolve but for the heart of the instinct to be shared by all humans. And this is exactly what we see. Does this make our shared morality any less real? I see no reason to abandon an instinct that has served us so well just because we've found out more about its origin.

Many people will find Collins' approach refreshing. Others will find it conciliatory or even blasphemous. For my part, I find it unconvincing.

Compassion

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.
-- Francis Schaeffer

Monkey business

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

Many kinds of monkeys have a strong taste for tea, coffee, and spirituous liquors; they will also smoke tobacco with pleasure.
-- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871

Image from AmazonI'm 1/3 of the way through Darwin (Norton Critical Edition) and that's probably my favorite line so far. Growing up in the church, Charles Darwin was presented as a dark figure, a shoddy scientist who somehow duped the entire scientific community into agreeing with him. I've always been very interested in science and so after learning about evolution in school I thought about it a lot. I knew that it was heresy on some level, but it also made a lot of sense to me and it fit in with what I saw in the world. In time I did my best to compartmentalize my thoughts about science and faith. As long as I kept them separate I could enjoy the benefits of both. It's hard for me to say for sure what my opinion on this has been historically. I know that I read and probably even espoused the idea that evolution is just too unlikely to have occurred. But I've never lost my respect for science.

It has been nice to read about Darwin on my own time and with no agenda. I don't feel the need to take sides for any political or religious reason. There's no longer doubt in my mind that living things have been modified by natural selection over time and that's how the great diversity of life on earth has reached the point it's at now. There are questions that remain unanswered, but that much, at least, makes sense to me.

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