Saturday, September 22, 2007

Science vs. Religion; Reason vs. Confusion

Dawkins and Krauss on Religion and Science

Scientific American ran a bit on a debate between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, who debated the question of science and religion's compatibility. In effect they both argued from the same basic perspective, but argued mostly on approach and style rather than on substance of belief. In both cases they viewed Religion as "wrong", though Dawkins has a book entitled The God Delusion while Krauss is more content to allow for religion as an expression of our humanity. He, however, urges education as a means to combat the irrational responses to science.

While I can now understand and even somewhat appreciate Dawkin's hard-line approach, the idea that we must eradicate the concept of God and religion is not only too severe for my taste, but is predicated on the idea that there is no God and that religion is totally false. In the absence of evidence proving the non-existence of God (impossible) and full documentation that all the tenants of religion are not only contrary to reason but have been empirically proven false, we must allow room for belief in the unknown. Science is all about speculation of the unknown in order to better understand the universe and to uncover previously unknown truth.

Science - unlike religion - is interested mostly with testable and falsifiable claims. So, the postulation "God exists" (or the antithesis, "God does not exist") is not testable nor falsifiable. There is no way for us to fully investigate the infinite span of the time/space continuum nor to peer past the theoretical 11th dimension to search other universes for evidence of the existence of a divine creature. Due to our limitations and the impossibility of instant and complete knowledge (without in fact becoming or being god) we simply can not know if there is or is not a God. Science, then, should have no interest in the question.

Unfortunately, however, science is too willing to suggest that since the question can not be tested it is therefore false. That is, since we can not test for God therefore he does not exist. This is a fallacy. On the other hand, religion is too eager to suggest that since the question can not be falsified therefore God exists is equally fallacious. The only honest question is a gentle agnosticism that allows both for the possibility of existence and non-existence, and is gentle to both those who cannot believe and those who must. The gentle agnostic allows operational room for both the man who chooses to believe as a result of Pascal's wager and the one who courageously presses forward in search of evidence and a full understanding of the universe. Both have made an honest choice and over the course of their life journey, both are likely to adjust or even totally reverse their position. Evidence and experience both will either reinforce their belief or change their perspectives.

Unfortunately prior belief has the effect of influencing or filtering events and facts. That two miles of ice has been drilled from cores in Greenland means something completely different to the Bible literalist and the scientists. The scientist views the core as a wealth of historical and statistical data for weather research while the literalist believer sees the great depth of the ice as evidence for the mountains of water laid down during Noah's flood. Yet when more data about the cores reveals more than superficial depth of the ice the Biblical literalist may well come to understand that there is more to the ice depth than water from the flood. The total absence of mud and other sedimentation throughout the ice beyond the dust we would expect from normal weather activity or volcanoes raises questions as to the accuracy of the Christian explanation of the ice presence. If the water and resulting ice were from the flood, and if the massively deep sedimentation in other parts of the world are explained as effects from the flood causation, then why is the ice so clean? Is it reasonable to expect that the water carried massive amounts of sedimentation in other parts of the world, but that only clean and clear water was present and circulating in and around Greenland? Further, what of the ice in Antarctica, on mountain ranges and in other parts of the world? If the age of the ice can be no more than some 6,000 years and if a world-wide flood occurred, would we not see extremely muddy layers in the ice? Further, would any ice pre-dating the flood exist since it would have been washed away and melted by the flood?

From this we can see that even though the prior belief of a person has the effect of initially skewing the interpretation of data by the Biblical literalist, as more information about the ice is understood the honest and gentle believer is forced to acknowledge the difficulties with his position. It is precisely at this point that the person stands at a crossroads of thought and is forced to choose. Will he adjust his prior belief given the new knowledge or will he struggle to force the new knowledge into his current belief system. In the former case he must ultimately do some violence to his belief system; in the latter he must do violence to the data and his reason. His choice and his resulting behavior will effect all of his future activities and influence his very way of and ability to think. If he is honest with the data and allows it to correctly influence and mold his model of the world and of history he will continue to be able to properly think and analyze data. However if he ignores any number of facts that refute his position and continues to dogmatically assert his previous position (against the data) he will begin to lose his ability to think. The practice of denying reality and of continuing to view the world through the model and lens of his faith will destroy his ability to honestly and fully understand reality.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Loss of hope, loss of joy?

The recurring theme that my family tosses my way is "What has your new belief done for you? Has it made you any happier?" The truth is, it has not. Where ignorance is bliss, it just might indeed be folly to be wise. In fact, the question that pops into my head especially while I'm sitting in my beautiful backyard in the evenings is, "So this is it?" The question has more profundity now that there is no hope of a glorious hereafter.

Previously, whenever I'd have one of those weeks and would wonder if there was more to life than the rhythmic echos of a mundane existence I would console myself in the knowledge that but for a time we suffered but had heaven to look forward to. True, this life sucks but the next will be be filled with perfection, love, and joy. The very fabric of heaven and the universe will be woven in harmony and laced with the sensation of ultimate belonging and acceptance only that being with God can achieve...

If only. Bummer to realize that it is all the stuff of poets and dreamers. Would have been nice. I guess the insightful philosopher was correct: "Life sucks, and then you die." Bummer.

It's not all that, of course. There is much to be happy about and to enjoy. In fact there are many times that I'm filled with laughter and just plain having a grand time. It doesn't last. A story about suffering in other parts of the world or just the normal miasma oozing from the zealot determined to suck you back into the Matrix.

But I guess it's always been that way. There are those who have set themselves to live life here and now, and those destined to ignore this life in hopes of spinning a better number in the next. Yet for my part I enjoyed the idea that the worst that this world could roll my way paled in comparison to the matchless charms that awaited us of faith.

If only. Bummer.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

God's a gang banger?

He was kidding - he had to be. Of course this is a guy that says, "Hope you didn't pay more than $2 for those classes." I paid about $4 and they are just for reading. He asks, "You still worshiping Satan?" "Ya", I reply. I still think Christians are full of it.

He tells me about a pastor from back in his earlier years who was the real deal - living it. The genuine article. He loved this pastor. Why do they always need to turn the guy into a saint before they quote him. Credibility, I guess.

Seems this pastor used to say, "If the Big Bang happened God banged it." Must have been a really, really old pastor to have known that. I wasn't there so I don't feel qualified to unequivocally declare that God, or anything else, was the cause of the effect of the expansion of the Universe.

And that was pretty much it. I said a few things, but he wasn't really listening. It was a one way conversation. He'd done his duty. He'd spoken for God working for my salvation. It wasn't a discussion. It wasn't an inquiry into the ultimate nature of the universe or how we determine truth. It felt like I was wrong and he was right and I needed to be told something.

Why is it always that way? Why do they never want to actually discuss the facts or hear any sort of criticism of their position - of their flawed arguments? It's drive by philosophy. Bang, bang you're wrong. Here, let me unload a clip and drive off. Hope that did the trick. See you in heaven...if you make it. Good thing we are friends.

Scientific unreasoning

I still get emails forwarded to me by Christians who think that I still subscribe to their nonsense. The truth is, all these sorts of emails irritated me all along - they just are more foreign in their "though process" now.

This was one of the stories in an email entitled: "7 reasons not to mess with children."

7 reasons not to mess with children.
A little girl was talking to her teacher about whales.
The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small.
The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible.
The little girl said, "When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah".
The teacher asked, "What if Jonah went to hell?"
The little girl replied, "Then you ask him ".

I'm sure that Evangelical soccer moms just love this little story. It, and the other 6 stories, are probably not true but written by some Pastor who feels that he's being clever with his illustrations. Perfect fodder for and most certainly urban legend. It is offensive and expresses the judgmental attitude toward actually thinking about an issue with any amount of rationality. We should be horrified that this attitude is transmitted into children; what is more likely is that it engenders pride and satisfaction.

What is frightening is that not only children think this way, but adult Christians can also fall into this line of thought. My Christian friends loved to sidestep issues in a debate and redirect the conversation away from a fact debate and into a religious or spiritual one. A discussion over the age of the Earth is deviated into a faith and trust one. Rather than examine the evidence from science the issue is reframed into the role of the Bible and our relationship to its authority. Authority of the Bible is exactly what is in peril should the evidence from science and observation be allowed to stand. The evidence refutes a part of the Bible or at least an interpretation of it.

But then again I also like the T-Shirt I saw recently related to the above story:

I may be going to hell, but at least you won't be there.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The issolation of education

Over the past months I've read a number of books in an effort to "catch up". I've read:

  • The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, Paul Andrew Mayewski
  • Potassium-argon dating, G. Brent Dalrymple
  • Age of the Earth, G. Brent Dalrymple
  • Science Held Hostage, Howard J. Van Till
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Ancient Egypt (read only the first few chapters)
  • Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, Andrew J. Petto (Editor)
  • The God Who Wasn't There [DVD] (dumb)
  • The Two-Mile Time Machine, Richard B. Alley
  • The Creationists, Ron Numbers

This, in addition to watching innumerable Science Channel programs, "The Tomb of Jesus", and many articles from Scientific American (online) and other journals. I've read many article from Talk.Origins as well as some from Reasons to Believe. I've gone through most of a course from The Teaching Company on scientific discoveries that gave a good survey of physics, astronomy and quantum theory.

I've also had both my parents, my wife and friends try to pursuade me that I'm wrong with some of the most inane arguments - but ones that I used to use also. I've had my dad tell me that a world noted expert on DNA has declared that he can't believe in evolution due to his research on DNA, but also seen that he's (my dad) has failed to forward me the researchers name or where he has published. I've had him argue that Greenland can not possibly have 110,000 years of ice since it was a green land at the time of the Vikings; hence the name. Yet this reflects a total lack of understanding of where the Norse lived on greenland, when they settled there and why they ultimately faded out. (They lived there only during the warm period just before the recent "Little Ice Age".)

In the end I've come to two conclusions about the Christians/creationists around me:

  1. They are more ignorant than I was about all things science and historic that is not a part of the Christian "talking points" and tradition.
  2. They are wrong, dead wrong but refuse to listen to any illumination that might "deceive" them from their world view

I have shot right past the "anger" stage, through the disgust stage and currently really don't know what to make of all of it. I note that for centuries now honest and educated scientists and students have been forced to accept the antiquity of the earth and the evidence of evolution; they have generally adopted the "theistic evolutionist" position so despised and derided by fundamentalists, or have simply come to view religion and the Bible in terms of alegory and myth.

Presently I find it impossible to discuss science with any Christians or to attend any Christian function. Given my new perspective much of what they say now sounds ludicrous to me. Either I am more aware of what is false or have been deceived into a way of thinking that is unable to detect truth. Either way, the spell is broken.

I also, however, find the virulent Atheists anoying as well. While "The noble lie" of Plato might explain the beginnings of religious thought insisting that we must now stamp out all religion as lie falsely assumes that we've proven all religious thought is indeed a lie. Finding flaws and suspecting that religion was created and promulgated to control the masses does not disprove the existence of a diety. Neither does it explain why Hutchens and other Atheists look simply miserable and angry. Give me happy Christian ignorance over obnoxious Atheist anger any day.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Creationists, Ron Numbers

I picked up Ron's exhaustive survey of creationism this weekend. Exhaustion well describes how I felt carrying it back to the car. It's a giant book and I'm looking forward to reading it.

I've read the first two chapters and they are enlightening. My narrow up-bringing is reflective of Seventh-day Adventism - the conservative type. It's illuminating to discover that may theologians readily and honestly accepted the factual findings of science in favor of the great antiquity of the earth and of evolution.

It strikes me that the real questions are not in the details but in the broad categories that are easily discernible. That the world is 4.5 billion years old, or 4.5 million years old matters little in a discussion regarding a 6,000 year old earth and recent creation. That we descended from a common ancestor naturally or through the divine guidance of God matter's little when compared to the words of Genesis 1 and 2. That the early theologians in Darwin's day felt free to interpret the "days" of Genesis as eras or long periods reflects the credibility of the findings of science and the honesty of those theologians. That modern theologians refuse to acknowledge an old earth or any type of evolution apart from within species or other than "micro evolution" (Um, does the theory say that many, many little mutations over time produce the larger changes we like to label "macro evolution"?) - that they take such a dogmatic stance is fully understandable.

Modern thinkers understand the end result. If Darwin was correct, and if other branches of science are correct, there are many teachings in the Bible that are unsubstantiated. If the origins of this world are not correct, who's to say that the eschatology can be trusted? This really is a case of "give an inch, lose a mile." If theology were to concede, at this late stage of the game, that Science has a solid case they fear that the entire house of cards that is the religion of Christianity will come thundering down.

That the modern theologians are more dogmatic and more loudly proclaiming the inerrancy of the Bible should come as no surprise. They, of necessity, must continue to turn up the volume of their rhetoric to counter what is an ever increasing flood of evidence that refutes the young earth model and the global flood (which produced the geological effects that are purported to be caused by eons of time.) Should they seek to be balanced and honest with the evidence they would concede ground that they can ill afford to concede.

So, what does this mean to me? I'm still not sure. Suffice it to say I'm a little surprised at the numbers of theologians, in the 1800's, that were all to ready to accept an ancient earth and evolution. Guaranteed: SDA's were not among them.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

"Humble yourself"

It didn't take long. My wife's family is now reported to be praying for me. The line from a prayer went something like this, "...and help him to humble himself before the eternal god..." or something like that.

I had wondered how long it would take someone to repeat that line to me. Humble yourself. As if I've erected myself into the position of god and am following my own wisdom over his. How did I know that this would be said of me, or to me? I said it myself many times. The logic goes something like this. We know that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. In it we find exactly what he wants us to understand in order to attain salvation and glorify him. Those who question the Bible are in effect questioning the wisdom of God. Those who dare to suggest that some part or all of it may be wrong are treading on hollowed ground, and are following their own wisdom rather than God's. They should humble themselves in the presence of God and declare their error and recognize his perfect wisdom.

Isn't that what every cult leader has told his followers over the centuries? Hasn't that logic been used to control the followers of some sect or religion and keep their most crucial ideas alive in the collective minds of the followers? And, have we learned nothing by history?

Mormons are taught not to question the Book of Mormon or the prophets. Should we all simply accept that Mormons are correct and Joseph Smith is indeed a prophet of God? Should we ignore the abysmal lack of archeological evidence supporting the stories and claims of the Book of Mormon, and should we ignore the DNA evidence that proves that the American Indians were not the lost tribes of Israel who migrated from through Europe, but rather are descendants of Asians? Should we ignore all the evidence against that book and simply accept it as true?

We as Christian scholars use the rigors of logic, science and history when examining and refuting the claims of other religions. Yet, when those same rigors are employed to disprove a claim from the Bible then we insist that men should humble themselves before God and leave behind their own logic and follow God's instead. Never mind that there is evidence upon evidence insisting that there was not, and could not, have been a global flood. Never mind that without the flood dynamics the geological formations require time orders of magnitude beyond 6000 years (even a global flood does not explain the geological formations). Never mind that there are mountains of evidence of a very old and very active Earth. Are we simply to humble ourselves and ignore what we see and what we know to be true and accept something without question and examination just because it is purported to be from God? Can we apply logic and investigation to refute cult leaders, but not mainstream religious ideas and foundations?

Humble myself? What is so humble about ignoring truth - and how does that glorify an eternal and omnipotent God? Did God created a wonderful fairytale, deliver it to his people, and insist that they believe it and not what they clearly see around them? Did the God who commanded, "Thou Shalt not Lie" lie to us? Does he want us to believe a lie? Is that our definition of "humble"?

I believe that Christians should re-examine their beliefs. Jesus Christ sounds like a wonderful person. But if Noah's flood can not stand up to examination, how am I to believe that Jesus was resurrected and promises to give to me eternal life if I believe in Him? Paul insists that He is superior to angels in every way, and one of the evidences is that through Him the universe and the world was created. If Christians insist that this creation was a very recent and very instantaneous event, do they not stand in danger of invalidating the credibility of Jesus entirely?

Humble myself? Let popes, cardinals, priests and pastors take off their smugness and their ceremonial and pompous robes and let's see them give their all to the redemption of the people of Africa who are starving and suffering the worst drought, and the most beastly in-fighting in recent history, and let them humble themselves to the teaching of Jesus. "Love one another." It's not a trick question. The world is very old. The flood did not happen. People are starving in Africa. These are facts. Humble myself? Remove the Redwood Forest from your own eye and then you'll be able to see well enough to help me flick out the specks or two that I have in my own.