Whom Should We Mock?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My last post on Daylight Atheism, asking non-believers to tone down the contempt for Harold Camping and his followers, and many of you disagreed.  Some commenters didn't believe there was anything intrinsically destructive about mocking others, others argued that ridicule was a necessary tactic to help people deconvert.  TommyP commented to say deconversion was catalyzed by the confrontational attitudes of unbelievers, while Elizabeth Esther wrote on her blog that she was alienated by the people outside her cult who treated her beliefs with contempt, so she could not share her doubts with them.

John Loftus and PZ Myers take an extremely confrontational, contemptuous tone towards Christians, and they've caught a lot of flack, both from accommodationists like Chris Mooney and more hard-line atheists.  I'm skeptical about the efficacy of these tactics, but I'd love to hear from commenters like TommyP in more detail about how mockery and contempt helped them give up their old beliefs.  Even if ridicule is helpful, and worth the danger of alienation and unwarranted pride, we should be careful of  adopting condescension as a default approach if we truly want to convince people.  Before you unleash your disdain, think about these factors.

Consider your audience

Assuming that mockery can work as a shock tactic, it still won't do any good if you write a blog for a primarily atheist audience or if you're joking around with non-believing friends.  If your criticism isn't accessible to the people you're ostensibly trying to help, it's hard to defend jeremiads as tactical rather than self-congratulatory.  And I don't think the Christian trolls who frequent atheist blogs promising hell are likely to be reachable enough to justify any rancor as public-spirited.

They have to care about your opinion to be shamed.

For plenty of fundamentalists, the fact that we're criticizing their beliefs is proof that we can't be trusted.  We're either deliberately in league with Satan or sadly deceived.  But even in milder cases, outright contempt is often a bad opening gambit.  You wouldn't be likely to be shaken by the contrary opinions of a complete stranger, so why do you expect a Christian will take your disbelief as disproof?  This kind of strategy is most likely to work with friends or family, who have a reason to want you to think well of them.  But if you already have built up trust and respect, you can probably mound a more nuanced, substantive attack (and if you can't, it's time to hit the books).

What's the marginal utility of your mocking?

The shocking fact of your disagreement will only make an impression of sheltered believers who are unaccustomed to dissent, and most of us won't have the opportunity to try to deconvert them.  For believers who are routinely exposed to criticism, whether the universally mocked Camping or more mainstream religions that still take fire, it's worth asking yourself how it is that your contempt will make a critical difference.  If you doubt it will, your time is probably better spent coordinating lobbying campaigns against culture war legislation or making your own beliefs defensible and accessible than writing invective on the internet.

Don't lose your compassion

If you do take up the weapons of mockery and ridicule, have an eye to your own character.  It's sad when people are dumb or gullible, and it's scary when those people are in power, but the more foolish you think they are, the less culpable they must be for their error, no matter how destructive.  Intervention may be necessary, but the mentally unstable aren't deserving of contempt of hatred, even if their actions harm themselves or others.  Abandon these tactics if they lead you into overweening pride and teach you that your intelligence/upbringing/etc gives you the right to humiliate and punish others.

So, if you're going to take a sarcastic, mocking approach, you'd best make sure:

  1. You're actually being heard by Christians
  2. Who care about your opinion
  3. Who need your unique brand of contempt
  4. and that you can hate the belief while loving the believer

Else, you should probably make a different use of your talents.

May 25, 2011, 6:43 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink42 comments

Sex and Sensibilities

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

Being a documentary fanboy, I've lately stumbled across a couple of interesting histories on the topic of sex, which have set me thinking about what shape our attitudes to it, so forgive me coming over all Carrie Bradshaw.

Many early European cultures had a decidedly celebratory attitude to sex. Ancient Egyptians practised public fertility rituals which included open masturbation. The homes of ancient Romans were liberally adorned with explicit images of sexual activity and body parts. And this was not pornography, erotic images to enjoy in private; these were lawn ornaments, architectural features, frescos and trinkets to be viewed shamelessly and openly - much to the discomfort of the stuffy Victorians who excavated Pompeii.

Sexuality too was a different concept to the gay/straight/bisexual one we commonly use today. What mattered for the ancient Romans was not who your partner was or who you found attractive, but what role you played. A man was still behaving in a respectable, manly way when he had sex with either a man or a woman, as long as he was the active partner. For men, the only shame to be found in gay sex was that of the passive partner - the man who had taken the 'female' role. The Greeks, meanwhile, openly encouraged gay relationships for their (male) citizens, rationalising that soldiers fighting alongside their lovers would be disinclined to show cowardice, and would fight more fiercely to protect each other.

Many seem to attribute the birth and spread of sexual shame to the rise of Christianity, though I'm not totally convinced it's a fair accusation. I'm no historian, but for my money, social attitudes rarely have such simple and singular causes. But in any case, one of the many oddities that sets Christianity apart from so many of its contemporary religions is the fact that Yahweh apparently fundamentally disapproves of sex and sees nakedness as shameful, rather than entirely natural and (shock, horror) enjoyable! For the Pagan religions, sex was a fundamental, even semi-divine, part of life. For Christianity, it was a barrier, a temptation that led you away from the divine. Early church fathers seemed to only grudgingly permit sex within marriage if people find themselves unable to keep to the nobler state of chastity. In St Paul's words:

I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9, KJV)

Paul's letters to the Corinthians took on an interesting twist when I learned that in Roman times, Corinth, with it's temple to the goddess of beauty and love Aphrodite, was rather notoriously for sexual conduct. 'A Corinthian girl' was an expression for a prostitute, while 'a Corinthian businessman' was a pimp. For me, it makes St Paul's letters sound like an outraged viewer writing in to a television network to complain about the disgraceful scenes of debauchery they've had the nerve to broadcast.

It also surprised me to learn that the church officially opposed not only sex, but marriage too for being a vehicle for sex, until as late as the 12th century. Previously, marriage was not really a religious institution at all, more a personal, business arrangement. But here the church took over the business of marriage and controlled it (and by extension, sex), rather than simply oppose it. Though there remained many prohibitions on sex even within marriage - never on a Sunday or religious holiday, missionary position only (man on top), and never naked. And it was only in the sixteenth century that the marriage oath was made a sacrament that had to be performed by a priest.

Attitudes to sex in the Christian west have remained on the rather prudish end of the scale since. Until today where it seems, if anything, rather commercial. Perhaps it is understandable in societies built on capitalism, where selling is the order of the day. After all, nothing sells like sex, and a sexually enticing advertisement cannot help being instinctively arresting. But though we are surrounded by the PROMISE of sex, sex itself is still largely conspicuously absent from our public culture. There's hardly a film made these days without a sex scene, and though it seems like film-makers are constantly testing the boundary of how much of the sex act they show, actually graphically showing it is still confined to our top shelves, our private cinemas in seedy districts, our secret 'bedroom stashes' and behind proof-of-age paywalls. Public displays of affection are often viewed as rude to others, and nakedness a thing for which there is 'a time and a place' - neither of which seem to be in the public arena. For all its promoting and selling of sex, our modern society still seems to have far more in common with the Christian mindset of sex as something naughty, than with the pre-Christian cultures who were literally shameless about it.

Now even though we atheists hold no belief in God, we cannot help being products of our culture, and our culture is steeped in Christianity. So where does that leave an atheist drawing their own sexual boundaries? Where once I promised myself I would only ever sleep with the one and only man I would ever fall in love with (oh for those innocent days of youth again), I've since found myself in bed with men mere hours after meeting them. Is that something for which I should be ashamed? Is there anything wrong with being a slut?

Certainly there are health aspects to consider. Then again there are precautions we can take which make sex a relatively safe experience. Accidents, of course, happen even when everyone is being responsible, but that is true of practically any activity. We wouldn't consider cooking a meal shameful just because someone might have an accident.

Perhaps I shouldn't have come at this from a religious angle. Perhaps our notions of sex come as much from the 'one true love' fantasies of Disney and fairy stories? But in any case, where do you, as an atheist (or not...?) draw your own sexual boundaries? Are you comfortable with your naked body? Can you look at yourself naked in a mirror without the urge to cover up? Who are you comfortable being naked around? Do you kiss your partner in public? Do you mind when others do? How long do you like to know someone before you have sex with them? And what would you think of someone who would do it in half the time? Share your thoughts.

May 23, 2011, 3:48 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink35 comments

Meat is Dinner?

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

Just over two years ago, DaylightAtheism featured an essay discussing vegetarianism - though coming at it largely as an environmental issue. Seeing as so many faces on here seem new, I thought I'd tackle it again and hit the moral question head-on: can we justify eating meat?

Many religions include restrictions on consuming meat, from total abstention to restrictions on eating certain animals, considered either sacred or unclean. Even the Christian Bible contains a passage prohibiting eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10-12), though I think the number of Christians who observe this is small.

Nevertheless, in the west, religion has often been used to justify eating meat. Did God not put animals on Earth for our convenience? Are we humans not specially created by God in his image? Do we not to hold dominion over animals?

Hopefully we atheists can see this for the arrogant nonsense it is. We humans were not specifically created at all. We are animals ourselves; descended from the same ancestors as every animal alive today. Animals are, albeit distantly, our cousins. That is not to say that there is nothing that sets we humans apart. Every species is unique, and it seems humans have achieved heights of awareness, intelligence and civilisation unmatched on Earth. But does this difference justify killing animals to eat?

Certainly it is important to get all the nutrients to keep ourselves healthy, but in an age and society where our supermarkets are kept stocked with food from all round the world, sustaining a meat-free diet which includes everything we need to stay optimally healthy is easy. The myth that a vegetarian diet is often lacking in protein – or any other dietary necessity - is just that, as millions of perfectly healthy vegetarians across the world can attest to.

In fact, insisting that humans are, by nature, meat-eaters very quickly sounds remarkably like something a Creationist might come out with. 'Humans were designed to eat meat' might be changed to 'Humans have evolved to eat meat', but the argument is essentially the same. We cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. The fact that humans can eat meat says nothing at all about whether they should. Yes, we can eat meat, but we can also survive perfectly well without it. Our ability to eat meat carries no moral obligation to do so.

Nor can meat-eating be sufficiently defended by insisting that we would be overrun with animals in a world of vegetarians. Battery farms have hugely inflated the numbers of animals kept as livestock over the past century to meet the demand for meat, and if that demand was reduced, the numbers of animals kept for meat would inevitably follow.

Meat is, of course, tasty. That I won’t deny. When I ate meat, I loved it. But how much weight does that carry morally? I’m sure it’s nice to be pampered and have your every whim attended to by your own personal slave, but I don’t think that justifies the institution. Exploiting others may bring material rewards, but surely a moral person will be troubled by the fact that others have paid a dear price for their convenience.

Note that I am not arguing that animals should enjoy the same rights as a human being. I am not saying the life of an animal is more, or equally, valuable than the life of a human being. Faced with an angry bear, I would indeed shoot it. But this is simply not the situation we face with the meat industry. We are not locked into a them-or-us conflict. The question is whether the life of an animal is worth more than whatever preferential pleasure we might get from eating them as opposed to a vegetarian meal.

Atheists are, by definition, not united by any common belief, merely by a common lack of belief in something specific. However, most atheists I know claim to follow a broadly humanitarian code of ethics – seek to maximise happiness and minimise suffering. But why should only human happiness or suffering be taken into consideration? Anyone who has ever owned a pet will, I am sure, agree that their animal could suffer and feel a range of emotions. Is the pain a pig feels less important than the pain a human feels?

Not that I think meat-eaters are indifferent to animal suffering. I’m sure I don’t know a single person who would happily watch anything suffer for fun, and many of my meat-eating friends purposefully seek out products of ‘free range’ animals, wanting their meat to have had as pleasant a life as possible. But surely this is a good argument for eating our pets - something many meat-eaters would, I suspect, find repulsive? And even then, is a painless killer blow justified? Is murder acceptable if it is done painlessly? And if not, why is the killing of an animal different?

In our mainstream society, vegetarians tend to get a rather bad reputation. All too often they are portrayed as irrational and outraged militants, and their opinions mocked rather than honestly addressed. In that, they share something in common with atheists. But atheists, I hope, know what it is like to swim against the tide of popular opinion and think for themselves. We know what it is like to take a stand and hold to our convictions against a herd mentality.

And so I ask, can we justify eating meat?

May 21, 2011, 5:44 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink116 comments

The Rapture of Charlie Sheen

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

I'm sure this is just one blog post among many in your feed to reference the Rapture predictions of Harold Camping. His apocalyptic forecast for this weekend is all over the news cycle and even snagged front page coverage in The New York Times. And why is everyone telling this story? Because it's fun to laugh at stupid people.

No one outside this small group of zealots gives their claims the slightest bit of credence; they don't receive the "but who can ever know" kind of deferential treatment that more mainstream religions command. This laughable theology deserves no more attention than do the claims of the sedevacantist popes who've set up shop in Spain and Kansas. Camping and company get coverage because we all have a sickening urge to watch the rug pulled out from under this delusional sect.

The fascination of the media reminds me of the coverage surrounding Charlie Sheen at the height of his public flameout. Sheen was obviously unstable and addled, but we eagerly kept offering him more platforms to embarrass and endanger himself. For his family, it should have been a private tragedy, but we accepted it as entertainment that we were entitled to enjoy. Every time I hear one of my friends punctuate a conversation with "WINNING!" I flinch a little. The fact that Sheen's troubles were self-inflicted makes him more pitiable, not more deserving of our contempt.

If the May 21st rapturists were isolated individuals, we would grieve that they had lost themselves in madness, but now that they've gathered together and entered the public eye, everyone feels a kind of license to mock them. Gizmodo has suggested that pranksters set up piles of abandoned clothes to trick believers into thinking the rapture has occurred, but they were left behind. It's hard to find it funny once you listen to Elizabeth Esther's childhood Rapture panic or read Fred Clark's discussion of the toxic consequences of these beliefs.

Talk to anyone who grew up in a Rapture-believing church or family and they will tell you stories about panic-inducing moments when they found themselves suddenly alone and feared that everyone else had been raptured while they had been rejected by God. This guy thinks that's funny, but it's actually traumatic. That's why no one forgets the horror of such moments...

And that terror is what Harold Camping and his followers are feeling now. And it is what they will be feeling again Saturday evening, after that terror and despair first abates, then metastasizes in the realization that the world has not ended and that they are not the righteous remnant they staked their identities on being.

Look back at that NYT story, and you'll see that Camping's followers have been sundered from their families and friends by the fervor of their beliefs. Their children feel a mix of pity and despair, burdened by parents who don't plan for their futures on Earth. Although their premises are absurd, many of the rapturists are trying to be as kind and compassionate as possible within their twisted theological framework. Robert Fitzpatrick has spent his life savings blanketing New York with ads in the hope of saving even one person from perdition. Come Sunday, he'll be counting his losses, but the more tragic harm is the way that false beliefs have blighted the lives and relationships of all of Campings adherents, including Camping himself.

By focusing on the absurdity of their beliefs, we've given ourselves permission to ignore the human cost of their derangement. The post-Rapture parties and merchandise hawked by atheists are in the same poor taste as the Sheen memes. Our sanity and stability is not the result of individual merit; we have no standing to delight in the dissolution of others.

May 20, 2011, 6:18 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments

The Language of God: A Final Word

The Language of God, Closing Thoughts

By B.J. Marshall

Collins' final word comprises two points: that there is joy and peace in God's creation, and that the war between science and spirit should end. In this post, I'll discuss these two points. I'll conclude by giving a final word of my own as my journey of blogging through a book closes.

Collins' first point fits perfectly well whether one holds to science or spirit or, as I'll rephrase the dichotomy, faith and reason. I do not believe in any supernatural entities, and yet I can unequivocally say that the universe is freaking awesome! I remember having a conversation with my parents shortly after I came out as an atheist, and they questioned me as to what meaning my life had now. I told them that I had far more meaning in my life as an atheist than I did as a Christian. Knowing that this life is the only shot I have, that there is so much awesome and beauty to behold, and that there is so much suck I want to combat so my son and his generation can live all give me ample reason to get out of bed in the morning.

In fact, I am so enamored by the universe, that I find amazement in salt! I had a cold recently and used this salt/baking soda mixture as a sinus rinse. And I would find myself in awe that the elements that combined to form the salt in this little container came from stars. Billions of years ago, stars fused heavier and heavier elements before exploding. And I used some of that stellar explosion to rinse my sinuses - amazing!!

I remember being just as enamored by the idea that surrendering control to God gave one a certain sense of freedom. But now I feel an even greater sense of freedom in that my life is incredibly more purpose-driven now, because I am in the driver's seat. I no longer feel like a pawn in some cosmic game that God plays between good and evil. If I'm going to fight against evil, it's because I want to do it, not because I think I should do it because God would want me to. And, because I live in a society and not as an island, I don't think it follows that acknowledging that I'm in control and responsible for my actions drives me to nihilism or hedonism.

However, in our search for joy and peace, I disagree with Collins as to a likely source of assistance. It comes in a quote from James 1:5:

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and will be given him.

I wonder how well this tactic worked for faith-healers, who watched their children die of easily curable ailments. I wonder how well that worked for parents killing their children for fear that they're witches. Or how Christians used the Bible to advocate slavery in the U.S.; where was the wisdom in that?

Collins implores us to work together. Even if we discount the previously mentioned source of wisdom, Christians and atheists probably have more similar goals than different goals. However, it's the thought process and methodology behind these goals that differs strongly. We both have views favoring stronger family values; many Christians want to strengthen them by fighting against homosexuality, whereas atheists want to strengthen them by fighting for equal marriage rights. We both have views supporting life, despite us having differing opinions regarding when life begins. We both want to protect our rights; Christians might think they have free speech to hang the Ten Commandments in a courtroom or say a prayer to start of a government meeting while atheists think it violates the Establishment Clause. I am reminded of Representative John Shimkus, who hoped to chair the House Energy Committee, saying that we don't need to worry about global warming because of God's promise to Noah. He might have the same goal as I do - taking care of our environment - but his way of attaining the goal is by punting to God to take care of us whereas mine is to take action based on conclusions I draw from the available evidence.

I think what Collins perceives as the war between science and spirit - faith or reason - is due in large part to the differing sense of what "truth" is. And as long as some viewpoints ground truth on the observations of objective reality while other viewpoints ground truth on subjective, traditional ideas that have no basis in objective reality - or are even contrary to objective reality - then I'm not sure this war will ever end. Sad face.

* * *

Well, that pretty much ends it for my journey through this book. It's been interesting and fun. When I came out as an atheist and my parents gave me "The Case for a Creator" for my birthday, I was a fairly new atheist who needed help understanding all the drivel in that book; this site helped me a lot. I hope my effort has returned the favor.

Thank you for being with me on this journey through The Language of God. I want to extend a warm, heartfelt thanks to Ebonmuse for giving my ideas voice. I really appreciate all the time and effort he's taken to post my series and catalogue it on his blog. I also want to thank all the readers and commenters, especially where you challenged me to think differently and more clearly. You've helped push me over the fence to "strong atheism," you've helped me refine my ability to perceive and explain logical fallacies (especially the ones I've made myself, showing that I still have a lot to learn!), and you've encouraged me to help expand this community.

The road, including this series, hasn't been easy. Since coming out atheist, I've spent a lot of time struggling with how to deal with people whose beliefs I no longer shared. I still struggle with that: I don't necessarily think all beliefs should be tolerated, and yet I find it's very difficult to argue over beliefs (maybe even attack beliefs) without people thinking I'm attacking them personally. I shouldn't be surprised (but I was) when I found the same thing with myself: When my thoughts were challenged, as they were throughout this series, my first reaction was to get defensive. I was kind of amazed at how much mental energy it took to overcome (hopefully successfully) my biases to look at challenging views with an open mind to the possibility that I could learn something.

Thanks again for reading.

Other posts in this series:

May 8, 2011, 9:13 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink7 comments

The Language of God: Truth Seekers

The Language of God, Chapter 11

By B.J. Marshall

Aside from summarizing the points he's made in previous chapters, Collins uses this final chapter as his last chance to be a Christian apologist, but he surprisingly leaves the door open for other options.

First, I feel compelled to highlight Collins' honesty. He states that, after twenty eight years as a believer, "the Moral Law still stands out for me as the strongest signpost to God" (p.218). I appreciate the candor because it's sometimes difficult for theists to articulate the single best reason they have to believe in God. But here, Collins is explicitly drawing a line in the sand: The Moral Law is the single and best reason why he believes in God. Now, I'm not saying that he'd have plenty of other claims to fall back on if someone were to refute his A-game. But I appreciate him laying out what his A-game is.

In a subsection of this chapter entitled "What Kind of Faith?", Collins give us this gem:

Most of the world's great faiths share many truths, and probably they would not have survived had that not been so. Yet there are also interesting and important differences, and each person needs to seek out his own particular path to the truth" (p.219).

I'm not exactly sure what he means by "share many truths," since "truth" and "idea" could be interchangeable here given the lack of validating those "truths." Maybe multiple religions share the same truth that it's OK to beat your slave if that slave doesn't die after a day or two (Exodus 21). That these great faiths would not have survived for so long had they not been touching the "truth" is a textbook case of an Argument from Antiquity or Tradition. This argument basically says that the fact that an idea has been around for a long time implies that the idea is true. I have heard this often from acupuncturists: "It's been around for thousands of years, so it must have something going for it." However, the longevity of an idea does not necessarily correlate to its, to use a Stephen Colbert term, truthiness.

Many times in this book we've noted cases where naturalistic phenomena are completely explained, and yet Collins feels compelled to invoke God. I found it interesting that Collins states that each person needs to seek out his/her own particular path to the truth without invoking the caveat that one had better choose Jesus unless one wants to burn in Hell forever. Would Collins be cool with someone choosing a "path to the truth" that involves a deistic god that doesn't intervene in the world? Given that Collins' truth "can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul" (p.204), I suppose he'd have to. It reminds me of Shepherd Book's final words in Serenity: "I don't care what you believe in, just believe in it."

But, still, Jesus is where it's at. Collins says he spent considerable time discerning God's characteristics. God "must care about persons, or the argument about the Moral Law would not make much sense" (p.219). Collins seems here to have started as his conclusion - the Moral Law exists - and worked backwards from it to posit a premiss that he insists is true, that there is a God who cares about people. This is backwards logic: Affirming the Consequent. It may very well be the case that, if a God exists (p) then there would be a Moral Law (q). However, q could obtain through means other than p. So, by saying "q therefore p" is an inference that Collins makes to his, and his readers', detriment.

Anyway, now we have this God who cares about people. Well, God is way above us sinful humans, so Collins was having a really hard time bridging the gap to God. Enter Jesus. "As I read the actual account of His life for the first time in the four gospels, the eyewitness nature of the narratives and the enormity of Christ's claims and their consequences began to sink in" (p.221). I think I only have space to touch briefly three problems this sentence poses: the accounts aren't actual, they're not from eyewitnesses, and the enormity of the claims count for nothing given the lack of extra-Biblical references.

Regarding actual accounts, I find the statement relating to four actual accounts as specious given that Matthew and Luke take 93% of their material verbatim from Mark, according to a presentation (Which Jesus?) by Jeremy Beahan of the Reasonable Doubts podcast.

Regarding eyewitnesses, Burton L. Mack, in "Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth" provides a timeline of the gospel authors based on the earliest manuscripts we have:

The testimony of eyewitnesses is on incredibly shaky ground. You've probably all seen this video of kids - some in white t-shirts and some in black t-shirts, passing basketballs to one another. You're told to count how many times some team bounces the ball. Meanwhile, a person in a gorilla suit walks in the middle, thumps its chest, and walks off. I attended an IT conference last year where this was done. The audience was then asked how many people saw a gorilla. Seriously, out of 1,500 well-educated IT professionals, a full third of them did NOT see the gorilla! Eyewitnesses can be amazingly fallible; "eyewitnesses" recounting their stories decades after the fact is just asking for fallibility.

Regarding the enormity of the claims, Collins also gives a quick reference to Josephus as among the "non-Christian historians of the first century" who bear witness to this Jesus guy. He doesn't say who the other non-Christian historians are, but Josephus' hat tip to Jesus is generally recognized as a Christian interpolation; a section in the Testimonium Flavianum reads like a Holy Bullet List of Christology: He was crucified, died, rose from the dead, appeared to them on the third day, "as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him". The lack of good, sound extra-biblical evidence for the enormity of the claims leaves me with the Bible to prove itself, which is illustrated nicely in this comic.

Collins references one scholar who said "The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar" (p.224). Interesting, then, that a ton more information is written about Julius Caesar than Jesus (apart from the Bible, that is), and yet Caesar was considered a god after his death; sadly, I don't see anyone worshipping Caesar anymore. It is possible to separate the actual history of whether a person existed from claims that the person was, in fact, a god.

Collins concludes this chapter, and this book, with a final word. I will save this for my next, and last, post in this series.

Other posts in this series:

April 30, 2011, 10:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink6 comments

The Language of God: Biologos: Epic Fail

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

In this chapter, Collins tackles the claim that BioLogos damages both science and religion. Collins disagrees in a way that fails so epically that it almost makes the previous sections of this book seem prescient.

For the atheist scientist, BioLogos seems to be another "God of the gaps" theory imposing the presence of the divine where none is needed or desired. This argument is not apt. BioLogos doesn't try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as "How did the universe get here?" "What is the meaning of life?" "What happens to us after we die?" Unlike Intelligent Design, BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul" (p.204).

I can see how BioLogos isn't wedging God between gaps in our understanding of the natural world, but only because BioLogos seems to set God outside of the scope of our inquiry. There's simply no place for God in our understanding of the natural world. After all, even if science can one day explain everything naturally, there could still be some questions to which someone could point to God. However, to the extent that those unanswered questions don't concern our understanding of the natural world (that is, well, everything we can know), the entire concept of God seems to be a red herring. Pretty much ends the conversation, doesn't it?

But apparently BioLogos isn't completely outside of our inquiry. We just have to ask god-questions with our hearts. Yes, the spiritual logic of the heart, mind, and soul; which is, of course, unfalsifiable.

I once asked a group of friends in a philosophy club if my idea of truth made sense. I said something like "truth is the extent to which the ideas in our mind correlate to objective reality," and they thought that made sense. And here's the problematic part. If we have to weigh the ideas in our minds against objective reality, then regardless of how logical our arguments might be, they can stand only with the support of evidence. The logic shows us that our thinking is internally consistent and sound, but we can't see how that thinking correlates to objective reality without the evidence. For example, it's completely logical and consistent for me to posit that all rocks fall to Earth at 3.0 m/s. But, given the facts shown through experiments, I'd be wrong.

So without any evidence to check whatever this "spiritual logic" is, how can one see how strongly those spiritually logically derived thoughts correlate to objective reality? I don't think we can, which I think highlights the fact that scientific inquiry tends to converge on one answer (maybe not all at once, as it's a sloppy process), while spiritual inquiry diverges into thousands of different sects and cults. In hindsight, I probably fell into some undocumented offshoot of Roman Catholicism, stemming from my decisions (which changed over time) to pick and choose certain parts of the official canon to believe.

Other posts in this series:

April 18, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

The Language of God: Biologos: It's All Greek to Me

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

After formally laying out his premisses and his conclusions, Collins muses why Theistic Evolution (TE) hasn't caught on. He surmises that it simply isn't widely known that one can mix science and religion harmoniously, that the position is in effect invisible in the harmony it creates by blending the two harmoniously, and that "theistic evolution" is just a terrible name. He introduces BioLogos as a humble alternative.

There simply aren't very many advocates out there trying to blend science with religion, Collins says, on either side of the fence. He states there are "many scientists [that] ascribe to TE, [but] they are generally reluctant to speak out for fear of negative reaction" (p.202). We're left to wonder how many "many" is and what whether any of these scientists are in fields relevant to biology. On the other side, there are few theologians who have enough knowledge of evolutionary theory to try blending of the two. Collins cites Pope John Paul II as one of these rare birds: "new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis" (p.202). That certainly is a lukewarm endorsement of evolutionary theory at best.

But then he muggles it all up by being sensitive to religion: "If the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God" (p.202). The premiss itself is on shaky ground because it sounds vague enough to be obscured into nonsense; one could read it as saying that new human bodies come from previously alive human beings, like I just sprung up out of my dead grandmother or something. The conclusion simply does not follow, although I will admit that spiritual souls and God are related in the sense that neither exists. However, I doubt that's what JP2 meant.

I find it interesting how few theologians actually do try to meld evolutionary theory to faith in God. Almost without exception, every apologist I've heard debate, like William Lane Craig or Dinesh D'Souza, use reason and evidence whenever possible. Craig's debates involving the Kalaam Cosmological Argument rely heavily on our current understanding of science, as in when he mentions virtual particles. Even Craig's debates about the empty tomb, as in his debate with Bart Ehrman, involve Bayesian probabilities. So the question remains why apologists haven't incorporated evolutionary theory into their debate arsenal. It's all a moot point anyway, as apologists use reason and evidence capriciously; they are quick to use reason and evidence where it suits them but discard it when it doesn't support the conclusion they want to reach about God's existence.

A second reason Collins provides is that TE creates such harmony between warring factions. He muses how, as a society, we gravitate toward conflict; an example he gives is all the bad stories one hears on the evening news. "We love conflict and discord, and the harsher the better.... Harmony is boring" (p.204). This reason is just plain naïve. Perhaps a better explanation for why TE is invisible is that the "harmony" TE creates is baseless illogical drivel. It's probably for the best that TE is as invisible as Collins claims it is.

I would say that science does a far better job of creating harmony than religion. Yes, science is a messy process, and there are egos and strongarming that might get in the way, but it's a process that self-corrects over time to converge on one idea. We have one theory of evolution by natural selection, and one version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Religions make up different versions of what they want the truth to look like, so one ends up with over 30,000 denominations of Christianity. Imagine having 30,000 competing views of heliocentrism.

Collins' last idea on this is that TE just has a bad name. After all, "most non-theologians are not quite sure what a theist is" (p.203). Unfortunately, many of the terms used to bring science and evolutionary theory together have become full of baggage: one dare not use "creation," "intelligent," or "design." Collins thinks we need to start afresh by dusting off our old Greek-to-English dictionaries: BioLogos. Collins points out that scholars will recognize bios as the Greek word for life and logos as Greek for "word." To many believers (read: only Christians, naturally), the Word is synonymous with God.

So, given that the average non-theologian doesn't even know what a theist is, what part of catering to the scholars and well-read Christians sounded like a good idea to Collins? And why Greek? Collins doesn't understand his target audience; if I were trying to popularize his view of meshing God and evolutionary theory to the general populace, I would want to use words that my target audience understood.

In the next post, we see Collins defending Biologos against atheistic scientists who see this position as just another "God of the gaps" view.

Other posts in this series:

April 10, 2011, 1:08 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink3 comments

The Language of God: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Faith

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 10 introduces Collins' concept of BioLogos, but first he gives an overview of Theistic Evolution (TE) and why it works to bridge science and faith. Although we've talked about TE previously, this chapter shows Collins laying out six premisses that support TE. He then has a short discourse explaining the conclusions he thinks follow from these premisses.

Premiss 1: "The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago." This premiss is difficult to accept if you acknowledge that the universe has zero net energy and could have, as Lawrence Krauss presents, come from nothing. It's also difficult to accept this premiss if you think Hawking and Hartle might be onto something with their no-boundary universe model.

Premiss 2: "Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life." I find fine-tuning arguments to be incredibly arrogant; why must we place ourselves as the result par excellence of fine tuning? One could argue that our universe was fine-tuned for iPads. Life is incredibly rare, and iPads are more rare still, but hydrogen and helium are abundant. Shouldn't we say that it's more miraculous that we could wind up in a universe with so much hydrogen?

Premiss 3: "While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time." One might quibble over semantics, since I might have written "evolution by natural selection." This premiss is one I'm willing to accept, except that he completely ruins this premiss later.

Premiss 4: "Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required." I think I understand what he's trying to say, and I can accept that, but that's only because I was charitable enough to rephrase his premiss to be clear. This premiss as stated is unclear and ambiguous, in my opinion. By saying that no special supernatural intervention was "required," the reader might assume that a supernatural agent acted anyway, even though it wasn't "required" to act. Also, the way this premiss is worded sounds like a supernatural intervention might have been required to set off evolution in the first place. While in either case the reader would be falling into an illicit contrast fallacy, Collins' poorly worded premiss doesn't help the reader.

Premiss 5: "Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes." Here's another premiss I can accept pretty easily. I do wonder, though, how much his readers would have cringed if, drawing from his earlier chapters on DNA similarities, Collins said "sharing a common ancestor with the great apes, rats, and banana trees."

Premiss 6: "But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history." Do I even need to comment on this one?

The conclusion is a polemic diatribe of suck that sounds like he rewrote Genesis for the 21st century:

"[a]n entirely plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent synthesis emerges: God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures (here's where he ruined Premiss 3), God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law."

That intelligent people like Collins can find the Goddunnit explanation as plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent disappoints me. I shouldn't say it baffles me, because I understand why people believe weird things. To me, the Goddunit hypothesis is not:

  1. Plausible: Assuming one were to looking for an inference to the best possible explanation, how does "an omni-being that is spaceless, timeless, noncorporeal yet magically and physically operates in space and time" fit that bill?
  2. Intellectually satifying: Goddunnit is a mystery. Answering a mystery with another mystery and thinking you're done is just plain stupid.
  3. Logically consistent: Argument from Ignorance much?

Now that Collins has formally laid out TE, he'll pose some critiques on why TE hasn't been more widely adopted and present his BioLogos idea.

Other posts in this series:

April 3, 2011, 5:39 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

The Language of God: Intelligent Design

The Language of God, Chapter 9

By B.J. Marshall

The subtitle to this chapter is "When Science Needs Divine Help," which immediately sets up a couple of problems. First, is Collins asserting that Intelligent Design (ID) is science? Second, where does divine help fit in with the application of the scientific method? In response to the first, Collins concludes that ID is not science. He doesn't really address the second problem. That second problem brings to mind a quote by J.B.S. Haldane:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

Focusing on that first problem, we want to see whether ID is a valid scientific endeavor. According to Collins, the ID movement rests upon three propositions:

  1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God (p.183)
  2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature (p.184)
  3. If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necssary components during the course of evolution (p.186)

Collins doesn't really address the first claim at all. He states right up front that Phillip Johnson, the founder of the ID movement, was more interested in defending the faith than by a "scientific desire to understand life (he makes no claim to be a scientist)" (p.183). Referencing the "wedge document," which "was originally intended as an internal memorandum but found its way onto the Internet" (p.183), Collins concludes that ID is not science. It fails to make predictions, is an unfalsifiable position (Collins says one couldn't verify it "outside of the development of a time machine" (p.187), and makes no claims providing a mechanism by which the postulated supernatural interventions would give rise to complexity. (Here's another example of where double-standards apparently elude Collins. His own position, that every naturalistic explanation just shows you how God works, seems to be an unfalsifiable position; even if we were to somehow explain the Moral Law, that would just show you how God works.)

The proposition Collins seems to be refuting here is "ID is science." He doesn't address the proposition as stated of whether evolution promotes an atheistic worldview. I found this very interesting, given that this would have been a perfect time for Collins to once again drive home his thesis of theistic evolution. He tore down Johnson's claim without ever reminding readers of the alternate case that is the main thesis of this book. Fail.

Collins does a much better job addressing the second proposition. He addresses the problems of irreducible complexity with examples such as the evolution of eyes, the bacterial flagellum, and the human blood-clotting cascade. He also talks about the suboptimal design in eyes, which seems problematic. Ultimately, he concludes that claims to irreducible complexity are just arguments from ignorance.

Collins also fails to properly address the third claim (so he's batting 0.33). All he says in response to this claim is that ID proponents haven't specified who this designer might have been "but the Christian perspective of most [not all?!] the leaders of this movement implicitly suggests that this missing force would come from God himself" (p.186). I shouldn't be surprised, but Collins did not address how this third proposition fits together into a framework that makes no sense given the first two. Proposition 1 states that evolution promotes an atheistic worldview, so ID would want to be done with the concept entirely, right? Then they backpedal a bit and say, "Well, maybe evolution works, but - look at Proposition 2 - it's fundamentally flawed!" Then they backpedal even more and say "OK, evolution's flawed but - look at Proposition 3 - our god, I mean, ahem, an intelligent designer could step in and fix that flawed, atheistic system." But, then the system wouldn't be atheistic anymore, since some god is mucking around with evolution.

So one can see how ID is getting really close to the edge of where Collins wants to take theistic evolution, but ID just can't seem to cross that line. And the next chapter will bring us there. Collins concludes this chapter on Intelligent Design with an exhortation. He starts by citing William Dembski, who said in "The Design Revolution":

If it could be shown that biological systems that are wonderfully complex, elegant, and integrated - such as the bacterial flagellum - could have been formed by a gradual Darwinian process (and thus that their specified complexity is an illusion), then Intelligent Design would be refuted on the general grounds that one does not invoke intelligent causes when undirected natural causes will do. In that case, Occam's razor would finish off Intelligent Design quite nicely (p.194 of The Language of God).

Of course, one cannot expect Dembski to just let ID die, but that's as separate an issue as the fact that Collins has pushed God so far back that Occam's razor can't even touch it. Collins instead focuses on the question of what happens to a believer's faith when one can no longer give God a resting place in ID. Take away ID, and where does that leave God?

Enter what Collins calls BioLogos.

Other posts in this series:

March 27, 2011, 10:40 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

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