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.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Another debate; another dissappointment

What I expect is for people to discuss ideas with an open, but active mind. It'd be nice if people could discuss a topic the way they do in the old movies. An exchange of ideas where each endeavors to hear the other's perspective and offers their own thoughts. Reality falls somewhere short of this ideal.

People become vested to ideas - married to them. When those ideas are religious in nature they become even more charged. They are not only just ideas, but they are what we are - we become the sum of our religious beliefs. Rarely do we change them, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

An interesting thought emerged, however, from this lively debate. He asked me if I wondered why or just how. He was attempting to move the discussion from the how (science and empirical knowledge) to the why. Religion and philosophy live in the realm of the why; that is its proper scope. Science, by definition, usually is concerned with the how. How did this mountain with all these layers get here. How did life come to be. How did the universe come about. How does a light particle travel across space and time. Indeed, what is light? The how, and the what are the playground of science. Making sense of it all is philosophy and religion's court.

The problem was, he was not concerned at all about the what and the how; he only wanted to discuss the why. I sensed that he felt that it was in they why that he could win the argument. The what/how he referred to with words like "minutiae", "details", and trivia, but he referred to the why as much more important. In fact, however, it is the what and the how that reflects most importantly on the conversation and provides the raw materials to understand the why. Should our model of how the universe and world was formed is wrong, our understanding of why could also be flawed. If our understanding of how life emerged on this planet is wrong, our understanding of why we are here could also be wrong.

To say that we are here for the glory of God sounds harmless enough. To say that the purpose of our life is to glorify God has more implications. How do we glorify God? God is referred to as spirit and truth: does it glorify God to believe and teach something that we suspect or know is false - that is not truth? If fundamentalist Christians want to believe that the world is only 6,000 years old I say let them. However, if they want to teach my child that I have a problem with that. If they are urging congress to halt funding for some astronomy program because it conflicts with their Young Earth Creationist model - no we have to have a lively discussion that may involve some pointing out the errors of their understanding. This is inevitable. If the native living in some bush village in Africa wants to believe something, that has no impact on me. If that person somehow becomes president of NASA, however, his belief system is important. His understanding of what is important, and the "why" of life is tainted by a lack of education and thought.

Truth matters - but not to everyone. To many, including my Christian friend from today, what matters most is their own version of truth based on their own understanding of the Bible and how it should be regarded. He sees the Bible as fully true, inspired and protected by God and inerrant. If the Bible says that there was a flood of water that covered the entire world, then it happened just like it says. If we can calculate that it happened around 4000 years ago, then it did - and the presence of evidence that refutes this, or the lack of supporting evidence is immaterial. The fact that the Bible teaches it ends the discussion. Should I offer some evidence that does indeed refute the world-wide flood, that evidence is simply details of fact that are trivial: what matters is the why and what the message of the flood is: God was displeased with mankind and destroyed it.

I'm saddened by this type of conversation. I genuinely wish that I could have been more peaceful and open minded in my conversations with people who knew things that I did not. I wish we could be less attached to our pet ideas - even the religious ones that promise us eternal life - and more honest with the facts that we find. I wish that we could be as truthful about what we find in the field as we are with our assessment of the human condition. Unfortunately, given the human condition this is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Questions of Life

In the excellent movie The Truman Show Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, is having a crisis of identity and perception. His whole life he has been told that the world operates a certain way, yet he is noticing strange anomalies; His observations often don't match how other people relate, and tell him to relate, to the world. Ultimately, he comes to understand what everyone has been trying to hide, namely, that he lives a sheltered and artificial life where much of what he thought he knew about the world was false.

Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with how to best understand reality for as long as we have recorded history. The proposals have ranged from the bizarre and mystical to skeptical ideas such as Solipsism, which denies that we can know anything outside of our own minds. Rationalists debate with Empiricists, and skeptics argue with believers. The question of how to understand our existence has occupied our consciousness and after many thousands of years of debating we wonder if we ever will fully understand our existence and how we view and interpret it.

Religion stakes out its territory through means of "revelation". While many have decided that we understand through a process of investigation and discovery, religions insist that we also must consider the possibility of divine revelation and of truths that originate from God himself (or herself). Where there is a conflict between what is observed and what is revealed, the revealed is believed to preempt the observed (or even reason) since the latter depends upon our ability to correctly and clearly observe and process what we see. Our own deductive powers are considered no match for God's divine revelation since He ultimately knows and sees all from an unrestricted perspective.

For those of us who were brought up in a religion-dominated culture, realizing that there are empirical truths that directly contradict what we were taught is unsettling. We were told to view reality through the filter of Scripture and church dogma and were taught to regard Science and reason as suspect. God had taken the responsibility of teaching us exactly what we needed to know in order to help us navigate this evil and deceptive life.

Christian pastors and theologians insist that the spiritual doctrines of Christianity can not be subjected to reason; what is expressed in terms of faith can never fully satisfy the inquiry of reason. The difficulty with this idea is that where empirical data contradicts facts presented in the Bible Christian apologists object to both the data and the method of deriving the data. When observers began to suggest that the earth was round and orbited around the Sun, the Church objected to the ideas and to the people and methods. (So tradition holds - I suspect the issues were much deeper.)

I find it interesting that my own, and many other, denomination used science to disprove other religions. For example, mainstream Christians use the disciplines of archeology and biology to disprove the claims of the Book of Mormon. They show in solid terms that there is simply no evidence to support the existence of the Nephi and other Mormon civilizations and Joseph Smith claimed existed. They use DNA evidence to demonstrate that the native American populations came from Northern Asia rather than from Europe and so could not be the lost tribe(s) of Israel. Science solidly disproves the claims of Mormons, and is used to refute the credibility of the Book of Mormon and of Joseph Smith and the subsequent Mormon prophets and scholars.
When the same types of techniques are applied in verifying the claims of the Bible, however, they are considered evil. They are, in that context, the tools and the attacks of the Devil. When biology and archeology and geology make discoveries that seem to -- or solidly do -- run contrary to what the Bible teaches, it is Science that is attacked. This is obviously a double standard.

For my part, I feel like Truman in a way. I've discovered that there are a number of scientific observations that negate the possibility of a world-wide deluge. More disturbing is that my laundry list of creationist refutations and "proofs" have dissolved one-by-one as I've researched them.
  • Footprints in Paluxy
  • Carbon 14 dating wildly inaccurate
  • Radiometric dating inaccurate and based on flawed assumptions
  • Principle of uniformatarianism flawed
  • Grand Canyon carved by receding floodwaters
  • Polonium halos

There are many more than these. I've discovered that most scientists are guided by three things: First, they are very smart and well-informed and educated. Second they are honestly searching for truth. They want to understand. Finally, science has a built in checks-and-balances system where a scientists reputation depends on his accurate description and interpretation of the data. Even if the scientist is evil incarnate he is still motivated by selfish ambition to make sure that his data is accurate and his interpretations are logical and sound. While this peer pressure can, and does, work against the facts, the blanket statement that all of science is tainted with evolution and the dogma of billions of years does not address the core question: Are evolution and the dogma of billions of years false?

And so the journey continues...