The Language of God: YEC is Dumb

The Language of God, Chapter 8

By B.J. Marshall

I can summarize this chapter by quoting Collins himself: "Thus, by any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism [YEC] has reached a point of intellectual bankruptcy" (p.177). He spends the bulk of this chapter providing reasons why YEC is horribly flawed, and then he concludes with a "plea to reason" that is anything but.

Sadly, I don't think Collins does enough (anything, really) to debunk YEC other than saying it's wrong. All he says is that, for YEC to be correct, we'd have to throw out all we've learned about chemistry, cosmology, geology, and biology. Assuming that his readership comprises theists who hold some Creationist views - and Collins calls himself a Creationist (p.171) given that God is behind it all - I would have thought that Collins would have worked harder to bring any YECs around. Here are two examples, which really wouldn't have required much ink to explain:

Aside from asserting that YEC is incompatible with science, Collins makes two other arguments. His first is that there's no reason to take the Bible literally. After all, does anyone take it literally when the Bible states that the right arm of God lifts up the nation of Israel (p.175)? (Of course, Collins then fails to provide some objective measure of how one should know which verses are literal and which ones aren't.) His second is that, by alleging things that are contradictory to all scientific findings, YEC seems to fall back on a Trickster God.

Collins says that YEC does more to damage the faith, by demanding the believers assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the natural world. He states that children, brought up in YEC families and churches, will inevitably see the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and leave the faith. If only that were true!

Finally, his conclusion with the subheading "A Plea for Reason":

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted (p.178)

He continues by saying these battles between science and faith cannot be won by attaching one's position to a flawed foundation. He quotes Benjamin Warfield to emphasize his point: "None should be more quick to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads" (p.179).

The cognitive dissonance is almost too much. Collins encourages others to avoid attaching positions to a flawed foundation, yet at the same time he says one is right to accept the untestable and unverifiable "truths" of the Bible and that one is right to hold that God must be the answer to pressing questions of human existence because science can't explain them (yet).

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March 20, 2011, 6:09 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

The Language of God: The Irony of Misunderstood Agnosticism

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The final part of this chapter on the godless takes aim at agnosticism. Collins first gives Huxley's coinage of the term, and then he proceeds to misunderstand agnosticism in a way that's rife with glaring contradictions.

Collins gives a lengthy quote of Huxley's from Wikipedia, which you won't find in the Wikipedia article he references! His citation doesn't even mention when he accessed that page. Time to rant here: I have a friend who is a media specialist with my local library system, and she - and many others in her field - rant about students citing directly from Wikipedia. Ideally, they say, one can use it to check out information, but one should always go to the source material - the references for the article - to determine the value of the material. After all, they say, one can't just assume that the source material referenced in any given Wikipedia article is a credible primary source. I find Collins' direct citation of Wikipedia as a primary source to be intellectually lazy.

I have no idea where he got his entire quote, but you can find a portion of it here. The gist of the quote is that Huxley noticed that people seemed to have attained a certain "gnosis" regarding the problem of God's existence, whereas Huxley had not attained such "gnosis."

"It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant" (p.167).

Collins misinterprets the quote: "An agnostic, then, is one who would say that the knowledge of God's existence simply cannot be achieved" (p.168). He then describes "strong agnostics" as stating that such knowledge could never be achieved and "weak agnostics" who say such knowledge is simply not available right now.

But wait a minute. Collins wouldn't be able to conclude from Huxley's quote above that an an agnostic would say that the knowledge of God's existence simply cannot be achieved. After all, the quote Collins lifted from Huxley references the people who profess to have such knowledge. Huxley's term would be more suited to simply negate that quote: agnostics are people who profess to have a lack of such knowledge. Just as a-theism is a lack of a belief in god(s), a-gnosticism would be the lack of knowledge of god(s). To conclude that agnostics say such knowledge is simply impossible requires additional steps in logic that Collins does not provide. In addition, Collins contradicts himself: at one point he says that an agnostic would say such knowledge "simply cannot be achieved" and then - in the very next sentence! - states that some (weak) agnostics just think we don't have the knowledge right now, which sounds a lot like "maybe we'll have that knowledge later."

Collins then proceeds to characterize agnostics with bald assertions: "Most agnostics simply take the position that it is not possible, at least for them at that time, to take a position for or against the existence of God," "many biologists would put themselves in this camp," and "It is a rare agnostic who has made the effort to [consider all the evidence for and against the existence of God]" (p.168). There are, of course, no references backing his conclusions. Collins paints agnostics with a broad brush that screams "agnosticism is a cop-out!"

There is a possible objection that would rule out Collins' strong v. weak dichotomy regarding agnosticism and show that agnosticism is far from a cop-out. If a strong agnostic claims that knowledge about god is impossible, then wouldn't this mean that the agnostic has certain knowledge about gods (that gods are pesky in their unknowability) and/or the nature of reality relative to those gods? If that's the case, and strong agnosticism is self-refuting, then weak agnosticism is the only form you have.

I have occasionally run into people who question whether I'm really an atheist or whether I'm an agnostic. Unfortunately, if these people were to read Collins' book, they would not be any closer to understanding why a/theism and a/gnosticism is not an either/or proposition.

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March 13, 2011, 7:14 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

Walk Like An Egyptian

No Simo to be seen in Cairo, and God's Son has no place in Madison

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

I am sure that most of you are aware of the massive grassroots demonstrations that have been taking place at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison in response to Governor Scott Walker's emergency budget repair bill. I have been demonstrating all week on behalf of workers' rights and public employees and unions, alongside public school teachers and firefighters and nurses and many, many more hardworking, middle class workers and their families.

I have been amazed by how peaceful and civil the protests have been, even when a small Tea Party contingent showed up on Saturday, February 19th. The Capitol Square has been teeming with tens of thousands of teachers, students, kids, and families. There is an overwhelming spirit of camaraderie and purpose. Despite the gravity of the historical and political moment, the protests have been fun and festive, with musical acts and drum circles and insanely clever protest signs. Each and every time the firefighters procession shows up, with firefighters in uniform and led by bagpipes, the crowd goes wild. The firefighters were exempted from Walker's attacks on the other public employee unions, but they have been coming out in force to support their brother and sister unions.

Many of the protest signs reference the recent demonstrations in Egypt, which toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and many political pundits in the media have commented on similarities between the two movements. Both movements are fights for democracy (and the movement in Madison does have far reaching implications for the future of the Democratic Party and democracy in the United States, because the downfall of the unions would be the downfall, after Citizens United, of the last remaining institutions that give the people any kind of a real voice in our elections, which are now overwhelmed by the political campaign contributions of corporations). But, it does seem a bit extreme to compare those risking their lives to overthrow a brutal dictatorial regime with Governor Scott Walker's implicit threat to call out the National Guard to quell the peaceful protests of public school teachers and his explicit threat to lay off thousands of public employees if his demands are not met.

But, there is one aspect of the demonstrations in Egypt, which I would like to see duplicated in Madison. As was reported by most mainstream media outlets in the English-speaking world, almost all of the demonstrations in Egypt were secular, and purposefully and purposely so. While the Muslim Brotherhood played a role in the protests, as part of a larger coalition of democracy advocates, including secular democracy and civil society advocates, the Brotherhood agreed to refrain from using any religious slogans and from taking an obvious leadership position. Additionally, displays of religiosity were discouraged at the protests.

The Egyptians knew that the whole world was watching them, waiting to dismiss and discredit their movement as theocratic, not democratic. (It remains to be seen how steadfast will be the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to secularism. I, for one, am not expecting any miracles, but, for now, they have at least demonstrated an ability to abstain from explicit Islamism when politically expedient.) The Egyptians knew they had everything to gain, i.e., worldwide support for their grassroots movement to overthrow Mubarak, by remaining secular. They also understood how easily they could lose global public approbation, by casting their movement as overtly religious, with the implied goals of establishing an Islamic theocracy and implementing Sharia (Muslim law). They also understood the power of a visible female presence at the demonstrations, as an ostensible manifestation of secularism, and granted the women participating in the protests a reprieve from their gender punishment of unrelenting verbal and physical sexual harassment and assault, which is the norm on the streets of Cairo. (The vicious sexual assault on reporter Lara Logan, while she was covering the victory celebrations, certainly does not bode well for the status of women in the Egyptian public sphere.)

Religiosity is the determining criterion by which the West judges Egypt's resolve for both democracy and women's rights. And, rightfully so. Religiosity and democracy are at odds with one another; they are mutually incompatible, as are religiosity and women's rights. They are overlapping magisteria, which destroy one another, like matter and anti-matter, releasing devastating gamma radiation in the process. That is why Thomas Jefferson built up a wall of separation between state and church, to avoid just such a destructive conflagration.

As quick as the protesters are to make comparisons between Wisconsin and Egypt, I wish Wisconsin would mimic the Egyptians' insistence on maintaining the secular nature of their demonstrations. I wish the organizers and protesters in Madison were worried about keeping the protests democratic, not theocratic, for fear of being discredited.

Now, to be fair, the protests in Madison have been largely secular. But, to my dismay, each day of the protest has had to suffer one or another speaker's ill-conceived attempts to inject Jesus Christ into the proceedings. Someone feels the need to pray to Jesus or refer to Jesus or try to motivate us by preaching and praising the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When this occurs, most of the crowd seems palpably uncomfortable, and everyone sort of looks around at each other quizzically and incredulously. A few persons feel obligated to humor the speaker and embark on half-hearted and bungled renditions of whichever hymn or prayer.

But, I resent the concerted crescendo of Christianity being perpetrated upon the masses at the Capitol. Ours is a secular government. I think it represents a complete miscalculation on the part of the perpetrators. This began as and remains a secular, democratic movement with secular, democratic aims. I do not want to see it usurped or adulterated or obscured by religionist interlopers. Additionally, those who are waging a war on workers' rights and public and private sector unions and the lower and middle classes are those same persons who are waging a war on women and children and social safety nets, and they typically invoke religious ideology as justification for their malfeasance. They would love nothing more than to see the U.S. turned into a White American Christian Theocracy. The evangelical Scott Walker (who stated at his inauguration prayer breakfast that there is no "freedom from religion") ran on a platform that cow-towed to the religious right and was anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-stem cell research. At his inauguration prayer breakfast, he also made clear that "our freedoms are derived" from the "Great Creator" and "not the government." The religionists' insistence upon insinuating themselves into the protests in Madison comes across as unctuous and opportunistic and mercenary.

And, of course, because the Christianists are attempting to impose Christian religious law upon the American citizenry and not Sharia, they are incapable of appreciating the double standard of judging the Egyptian protesters' commitment to democracy according to their displays of religiosity, but not the Wisconsin protesters. In their minds, Christianity is compatible with democracy, but Islam is not. This is a fallacy. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafts U.S. federal legislation, which relegates American women to sub-human status, something has gone very, very wrong. This is Sharia. It is Christian Sharia. And, there is nothing democratic, and everything theocratic, about that. I would love to see how the Christianists would respond if someone stepped up to the podium in front of the Capitol and declared the fight for workers' rights an Islamic jihad, in the proud tradition of Mohammed's example.

Go sell crazy somewhere else. We don't want any in Cairo. And, we don't want any in Madison.


February 27, 2011, 10:23 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments

The Language of God: Questions for Atheists

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The next part of Chapter 7 shows Collins' poor understanding of atheism. He starts by differentiating between "strong" and "weak" atheism, but then he makes the baseless claim that for the majority of atheists, strong atheism is "generally the assumed position" (p.161). He makes this distinction so that he has a group he can refute. He asks three questions, and I'd like to address them similarly to those posed by Michael Egnor.

But first I would like to address Collins' assertion that most atheists are "strong atheists." I would have liked to have seen some data here on the composition of atheists. I mean, if we're just speaking anecdotally, then I'm perfectly fine to say the majority of atheists I know are weak atheists - that is, we're not making a positive claim that there are no gods, so the burden of proof lies squarely with the theist - so I could go ahead and call that "generally the assumed position."

Here's how I've explained the position to people. I tell my wife that I've stuffed a monkey down my pants again. She rolls her eyes, looks, and doesn't see the usual monkey-shaped bulge; "No no," I reply, "this monkey's really small and invisible!" Knowing that she can't see my monkey, she'll then try to feed the monkey; "No no, see - it doesn't require any food." Can she sense heat from it? Can she hear it breathe? At some point, she's going to say, "You know, love, I really don't think you have a monkey in your pants this time." She's an a-pants-monkey-ist, but only because she lacks belief in my monkey. She isn't definitively saying I have no monkey, because she could not possibly meet the burden of proof. If anything, a-pants-monkey-ism - like weak atheism - may very well be the default position; I don't believe in god because I have not seen compelling evidence to warrant my doing so, and my lack of belief requires no positive evidence.

Now on to the questions. I'll provide Collins' musings on the subject before providing my responses:

1. If this universal search for God [that Collins has argued for previously] is so compelling, what are we to make of those restless hearts who deny His existence?

Recall that Collins has argued previously that humanity seems to have a universal desire to seek God. In this particular section, he tosses out yet another Augustine quote from Confessions: "Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (p.162). Since my deconversion, I've thought it odd that a god would create us for himself and stir in us a desire to praise our creator god. What a megalomaniacal tyrant!

The search for god is not entirely universal. There are cultures, like this Amazon tribe, who have no purpose for god and deconverted missionaries sent to them. The search for god might just be our hypersensitive agency detection device. And, as scientific history has amply shown, "Throughout history / Every mystery / Ever solved has turned out to be / Not Magic." (Thank you, Tim Minchin.) So, I first refute Collins' claim that his Universal Search for God Argument is not at all compelling.

Next, why do we atheists deny his existence? Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by an angry God who demanded to know why he had not believed. Russell said his reply would be "Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence" (The God Delusion, p.104). I personally deny god's existence for the following reasons:

2. On what foundation do they make such assertions with such confidence?

Collins doesn't really address this; or, at best, his answer is combined with his assessment of the historic origins. We'll give this one a skip on Collins' part.

For those strong atheists who positively assert there is no god - and by doing so, take on the burden of proof - I would suspect that they predominantly take two paths. Not being a strong atheist (yet), I know I'm putting myself out there are as potentially setting up a straw man. I don't pretend to speak on behalf of the strong atheist community, but I'd like to put my thoughts out there in case any strong atheists can help me correct my thinking.

The first path is arguing that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. I know that apologists like William Lane Craig have argued that this is incorrect thinking. However, I think it is valid when applied correctly, in the same way that the professional exterminator who does a thorough investigation, looking everywhere where evidence might be found, concludes that the absence of evidence of termite damage most probably (almost certainly) means an absence of termites. Michael Martin, as reference by Matt McCormick in an Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on atheism cites that:

A person is justified in believing that X does not exist if:

  1. all the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
  2. X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
  3. this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
  4. the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
  5. there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists..

I think the second path also has a lot of power but is seldom used effectively: arguing that certain definitions of god are incoherent due to internal inconsistencies. For example, I think the concept of the Holy Trinity is incoherent (God is "Holy Spirit" and God is "Jesus" but the Holy Spirit is not Jesus; it seems contrary to the transitive property) so I'm quite confident I can rule that type of god out, though I'm not sure whether this is a category error.

As far as weak atheists go, I think it's a simple case that the arguments are not compelling and the evidence is lacking: "The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on nothing; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing and admits of no conclusion." —Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

3. And what are the historic origins of this point of view?

Collins talks about atheism playing a "minor role" until the Enlightenment and the "rise of materialism" (p.162). A more powerful force, Collins says, was a "rebellion against the oppressive authority of the government and the church, partiularly as manifested in the French Revolution" (p.162). Collins states that atheists who equated the organized church with god himself decided it best to discard both. Finally, Collins mentions Freud, who argued that belief in god was just wishful thinking.

I would say the historic origins of atheism have roots in the increasingly open and decreasingly unpunished application of human reason. It was kind of hard to be an atheist when the Spanish Inquisition was around. As societies have become increasingly tolerant of free speech, I think fewer people have shied away from speaking their minds on this subject.

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February 20, 2011, 10:58 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

The Language of God: A Flurry of Fallacies

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 7 covers Collins' first option: "Atheism and Agnosticism: When Science Trumps Faith." I expect to cover this chapter in a number of posts - probably no fewer than four. He goes into more specific detail on agnosticism later in the chapter, so we'll save that for now. In fact, I can't even get to Collins' position on atheism until the next post. The first three pages of this chapter are enough to blog about, given how Collins falls into enough fallacies that he gives ample material.

The chapter starts with Collins relating that, despite a trove of negative events ranging from Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia to the escalation of the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the launch of Apollo 8 marked a much more positive event. I won't spend more time on that sentence other that to say this: As I read that passage, I thought of a balance of scales. On the negative end, we have wars and assassinations; on the positive, the moon landing. I read it as if Collins were saying that the moon landing makes all the rest of the bad stuff equal to a net positive. I may have read it wrong, but that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway, Collins talks about how three astronauts broadcast on live television on Christmas Eve a joint reading of the first ten verses of Genesis. Shortly after, American atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair filed suit against NASA for permitting the reading. She wished to ban the astronauts - who were Federal employees - from public prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. Collins refers to this "militant atheist taking legal action against a Bible reading" (p.160) as a "symbol of the escalating hostility between believers and nonbelievers in our modern world" (p.160). He points out that no one objected in 1844 when Samuel Morse's first telegraph message was "What hath God wrought?"

PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula had a blog post about how long child molestation had been going on in the Catholic Church. He points out how Mary MacKillop was banned for uncovering sex abuse back in 1871. Now, following Collins' fallacious logic, the public never seemed to get all up in a tizzy over that one, so why should the public be decrying sex abuse now? Collins seems to me to be an example of an Argument from Tradition. I also think comparing the world-wide live transmission from space to a telegraph is a bad analogy.

Collins is writing a book to persuade users that evolution is true and can fit nicely with Christian theism, so it makes perfect sense to say that "it is not secular activities like O'Hair who make up [atheism's] vanguard - it is evolutionists" (p.160). He marks Dawkins and Dennett as articulate academics, but that's only naming two. What about Hitchens (Vanity Fair columnist), Harris (neuroscientist Ph.D. and author), Loftus (former pastor), or any of the other atheist proponents who have taken to the Interwebz? Way to take two data points and generalize their class (evolutionists) as being atheism's vanguard. This looks like a case of Hasty Generalization, but it also looks like the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy where he draws the bullseye around the opponents of his intended audience.

Collins briefly points out that people like Dawkins and Dennett proclaim that acceptance of evolution requires an acceptance of atheism. Enter the Strawman Fallacy. In The God Delusion, Dawkins ranks belief on a seven-point scale, with 7 being "strong atheist - I know there is no God" (p.51 of TGD). On that same page, Dawkins ranks himself a 6, saying that he doesn't know there is a god to the same extent that he doesn't know there fairies at the bottom of the garden. Dawkins defines his rating of 6 as "de facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there'" (p.50-1 TGD).

One last fallacy to round them out. Collins mentions how, as a marketing ploy, the atheist community has attempted to promote the term "bright" as an alternative to atheist. Collins expands: "The implied corollary, that believers must be 'dim,' may be one good reason why the term has yet to catch on" (p.161). I agree that implied corollary probably does hurt the efforts for "brights" to catch on, but that implied corollary is fallacious: Denying the Antecedent. It's fallacious to say "If atheists are bright, then non-atheists are non-bright."

Other posts in this series:

February 13, 2011, 5:38 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink11 comments

The Language of God: Intellectual Dishonesty

The Language of God, Chapter 6

By B.J. Marshall

Collins begins Part III of his book, entitled "Faith in Science, Faith in God," by trying to wrap his mind around why evolution is so difficult for some religious people to get. He recalls an experience where he was at a men's dinner at a Protestant church discussing how faith and science can mesh. All was well until the senior pastor was asked whether he believed in the literal story of Genesis. The priest carefully chose his words to give a non-answer any politician would be proud of. This prompts Collins to lament: if evolution is so well attested, why is it so hard for people to accept it?

He provides two possible answers: 1) it takes such a long time for evolution to occur that people have a hard time comprehending it, and 2) it seems to contradict the role of a supernatural creator. For his first point, Collins draws a comparison between evolution on earth and a clock, pointing out that, if the earth was formed at 12:00:01 a.m., humans would not have come onto the scene until about 11:59 p.m. For his second point, Collins talks about the creation myths (yes, both of them) in Genesis. To stress the idea that these myths might just be "poetic and even allegorical description" (p.151), he points out some odd things in the stories: Genesis 1 has vegetation showing up three days before humans, while Genesis 2 has humans first; if the sun was not created until the third day, what exactly does the notion of "day" mean? There are lots of contradictions in Genesis that Collins doesn't cover, but he's clearly asserting his view that Genesis ought not be taken literally.

When discussing Genesis and all its various interpretations he mentions St. Augustine, who wrote five analyses of the Genesis accounts:

With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not brashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. (p.152)

It's amazing to me how the Augustine quote Collins pulls parallels the politically adroit Protestant pastor in his non-answer. After writing five analyses on the subject, all Augustine can do is give one big shrug? I find it disappointing sthat the preeminent Doctor of the Church couldn't take a stand on what interpretation might be better. Although, given how violent the church has been throughout history, maybe it was better for him to not ruffle feathers by saying it's all a crock of bull. But what's the pastor's excuse - a need to protect his organization's dependence on dogma?

Collins recounts the problems the church had with heliocentricity in a way to show that this story - science vs. dogma - has been done before. Although scriptural passages speak of how the earth is an immovable foundation, Collins notes that the scientific correctness of the heliocentric view won out despite strong theological objections. Showing the church's strong stance toward science, the Dominican Father Caccini insisted that "geometry is of the devil" and "mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies" (p.155). Collins wonders whether evolution can be harmonized with the Bible just as heliocentricity was. Collins ends his introduction with exhortation from Augustine's De Genesi ad Litteram to say something like, "Hey, Christians. You're really making yourselves look bad when you don't face the indisputable facts."

If [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

Quick answer, St. Augustine? We won't. Even if Christians had their views right about a range of topics from the efficacy of prayer to heal their kids to evolution and cosmology, that still wouldn't warrant our belief in the resurrection or the walking zombie hordes that accompanied it. We arrived at our understanding of the efficacy of prayer, evolution, and most everything about objective reality through reason and evidence; and our views are provisional based on new evidence that comes to light. I'm doubtful that reason and evidence can get me to buy the resurrection, talking donkeys, zombie hordes, or the existence of a deity.

The next few chapters in this section explore what Collins sees as possible responses to the contentious interaction between the theory of evolution and faith in God:

Given Collins' options with respect to science and faith, and how he sees evolution as just an example of how God operates in the world, I'm more likely to see Option 4 as "When Faith Needs Scientific Help." But even that position is rife with problems since it presupposes that faith is something that needs helping. It's as if people cling to their baseless dogma so tenaciously that they can't budge; all they can do is try to reconcile scientific discoveries to their flawed worldview.

Other posts in this series:

February 7, 2011, 7:30 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

Fading Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age

By James A. Haught

[Editor's Note: I'm proud to feature the writing of James Haught on Daylight Atheism. Mr. Haught has been an editor and columnist for the Charleston Gazette for over fifty years, as well as an eloquent and prolific freethinker and author of books like Holy Horrors. I've been a fan of his ever since I discovered him, through the Freedom from Religion Foundation, soon after becoming an atheist myself. You can read more of his work at his own website, To Question is the Answer, or in this interview on The Eloquent Atheist. This essay is from his latest book, also called Fading Faith, and is reprinted by his permission. —Ebonmuse]

Philosopher-historian Will Durant called it "the basic event of modern times." He didn't mean the world wars, or the end of colonialism, or the rise of electronics. He was talking about the decline of religion in Western democracies.

The great mentor saw subsiding faith as the most profound occurrence of the past century - a shift of Western civilization, rather like former transitions away from the age of kings, the era of slavery and such epochs.

Since World War II, worship has dwindled starkly in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced democracies. In those busy places, only 5 or 10 percent of adults now attend church. Secular society scurries along heedlessly.

Pope Benedict XVI protested: "Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience." Columnist George Will called the Vatican "109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief."

America seems an exception. This country has 350,000 churches whose members donate $100 billion per year. The United States teems with booming megachurches, gigantic sales of "Rapture" books, fundamentalist attacks on evolution, hundred-million-dollar TV ministries, talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, the white evangelical "religious right" attached to the Republican Party, and the like.

But quietly, under the radar, much of America slowly is following the path previously taken by Europe. Little noticed, secularism keeps climbing in the United States. Here's the evidence:

Rising "nones." Various polls find a strong increase in the number of Americans - especially the young - who answer "none" when asked their religion. In 1990, this group had climbed to 8 percent, and by 2008, it had doubled to 15 percent - plus another 5 percent who answer "don't know." This implies that around 45 million U.S. adults today lack church affiliation. In Hawaii, more than half say they have no church connection.

Mainline losses. America's traditional Protestant churches - "tall steeple" denominations with seminary-trained clergy - once dominated U.S. culture. They were the essence of America. But their membership is collapsing. Over the past half-century, while the U.S. population doubled, United Methodists fell from 11 million to 7.9 million, Episcopalians dropped from 3.4 million to 2 million, the Presbyterian Church USA sank from 4.1 million to 2.2 million, etc. The religious journal First Things - noting that mainline faiths dwindled from 50 percent of the adult U.S. population to a mere 8 percent - lamented that "the Great Church of America has come to an end." A researcher at the Ashbrook think-tank dubbed it "Flatline Protestantism."

Catholic losses. Although Hispanic immigration resupplies U.S. Catholicism with replacements, many former adherents have drifted from the giant church. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 20 million Americans have quit Catholicism - thus one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.

Fading taboos. A half-century ago, church-backed laws had power in America. In the 1950s, it was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or R-rated movie - or for stores to open on the Sabbath - or to buy a cocktail or lottery ticket - or to sell birth-control devices in some states - or to be homosexual - or to terminate a pregnancy - or to read a sexy novel - or for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. Now all those morality laws have fallen, one after another. Currently, state after state is legalizing gay marriage, despite church outrage.

Sociologists are fascinated by America's secular shift. Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard, author of "Bowling Alone," found as many as 40 percent of young Americans answering "none" to faith surveys. "It's a huge change, a stunning development," he said. "That is the future of America." He joined Dr. David Campbell of Notre Dame in writing a new book, "American Grace," that outlines the trend. Putnam's Social Capital site sums up: "Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate."

Oddly, males outnumber females among the churchless. "The ratio of 60 males to 40 females is a remarkable result," the 2008 ARIS poll reported. "These gender patterns correspond with many earlier findings that show women to be more religious than men."

Growing secularism has political implications. The Republican Party may suffer as the white evangelical "religious right" shrinks. In contrast, burgeoning "nones" tend to vote Democratic. Sociologist Ruy Teixeira says the steady rise of the unaffiliated, plus swelling minorities, means that "by the 2016 election (or 2020 at the outside) the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even farther down the road, white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population by 2040, and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the Republican base, will be only about a third of that - a minority within a minority."

Gradually, decade by decade, religion is moving from the advanced First World to the less-developed Third World. Faith retains enormous power in Muslim lands. Pentecostalism is booming in Africa and South America. Yet the West steadily turns more secular.

Arguably, it's one of the biggest news stories during our lives - although most of us are too busy to notice. Durant may have been correct when he wrote that it is the basic event of modern times.

February 4, 2011, 6:20 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink14 comments

The Language of God: Clarke's Goalposts

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

At this point, Collins mentions, "godless materialists might be cheering. If humans evolved strictly by mutation and natural selection, who needs God to explain us? To this, I reply: I do" (p.140).

In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain special human attributes such as knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates (p.140-1).

Does Collins mean to imply that DNA sequence should be able to explain knowledge of the Moral Law or this universal search for God? Dennett and others have posited that religious belief may come from some hyperactive agency detector in the brain, so perhaps DNA could eventually point to that. Even if Collins were to shy away from the fallacy of confusing the unexplainable with the unexplained, is it really reasonable to think that DNA sequences should point to knowledge of the Moral Law?

You've probably all heard of Arthur C. Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Theistic Evolution seems to me to follow a sort of parallel argument: Any goalposts moved sufficiently far enough away are indistinguishable from no goalposts at all. If science were to come up with completely naturalistic theories that explained every single thing in the entire universe (or multiverse, if there happens to be one), all that would do for the ardent theist is give a complete account of how God operates. The goalposts of "how God operates" will have been moved so far away as to be indistinguishable from "there is no God."

Collins' position for why he needs God to explain us appears to me to take the following format, with implied premisses in parenthesis:

  1. A certain naturalistic theory obtains truth.
  2. That naturalistic theory cannot explain certain things about what it means to be human.
  3. (Those certain things do, in fact, need explanations.)
  4. (Invoking a God is the only way one could explain those certain things about what it means to be human.)
  5. (Therefore, God exists.)
  6. Freeing God from [actions performed by the naturalistic theory] does not render God obsolete; rather it shows us how He operates.
  7. Therefore, the naturalistic theory and my belief in God are harmonized; I should write a crappy book about that!

Here I should take a few minutes and explain that Collins gives his readers an overview of what a theory is. It's in a section entitled "Evolution: A Theory or A Fact," Collins defines a theory as "fundamental principles underlying a science, art, etc.: music theory, theory of equations" (p.142). I have to admit I have misgivings about that false dichotomy and the poor wording. Evolution is both a fact and a theory. A fact would be a thing that one saw, like how the blow holes of whales moved, while a theory is more like a group of facts formed to make a clear view of the world and how it works - a view one can test. I hope my definitions are better, especially considering that I tried to define each term by only using monosyllablic words. (I bet you all had to go back and re-read them, didn't you?)

Back to invoking both theories and God, here's an example for the new position I like to call Theistic Gravity:

  1. Gravity exists, and the theory does a pretty decent job accounting for how objects are attracted to each other.
  2. But, alas! Gravity cannot explain the immense joy of the Double Rainbow or why I am so moved by a frozen waterfall.
  3. The existence of God could surely explain those things.
  4. Freeing God from making sure everything falls back down to earth does not render God obsolete; rather it shows us how He operates.

Feel free to add your own Theistic [naturalistic theory] in the comments.

This concludes Part Two of Collins' book. His next part, "Faith in Science, Faith in God" is where he tries to synthesize science and faith. "Now that we have laid out the arguments for the plausibility of God, on the one hand, and the scientific data about the origins of the universe and life on our planet, on the other, can we find a happy and harmonious synthesis?" (p.142).

Other posts in this series:

January 30, 2011, 10:40 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

The Language of God: Deeper DNA Comparisons

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

In the last post, we saw Collins give a foothold to Creationists who want to deny macroevolution. Even granted that he should have never allowed this foothold in the first place, he makes a valiant effort to tear the false micro-v-macro wall down by comparing our genome to those of other animals. It is here that Collins asserts that "[t]he study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things" (p.134). Aside from the genetic similarities discussed in the previous post, Collins presents three additional lines of evidence that help lead us to his inexorable conclusion: the order of DNA sequences, ancient repetitive elements (AREs), and pseudogenes.

I think Collins doesn't spend much time on the first line of evidence, the order of DNA sequences, because it's pretty easy to follow. The argument is something like this: If you find human genes A, B, and C in that order, you are also likely to find A, B, and C (same order) in other animals. The spacing might differ, but it's there. (AREs fill in most of the gaps between these protein-coding genes, so that'll come into play shortly.) His example to demonstrate this is a comparison between a human and a mouse genome. Particularly, virtually all the genes on human chromosome 17 are found on mouse chromosome 11. Collins here takes a stab at a potential objection. While one might argue that the order of genes is critical in order to function properly - therefore hinting at a Designer - there is no evidence supporting the claim that this would have to occur over such large chromosomal differences.

Now we get to these AREs, called "jumping genes" or transposons, that fill most of the "junk DNA" portion of genomes. They comprise about 45% of our genome and, when one aligns these AREs in human and mouse genomes, they occur in the same order. So, not only do the protein-coding portions line up, but so do these AREs. Collins points out that the process of transposition often damages the jumping gene, and that's what makes them "junk." And these don't bode well for the Creationist; "[u]nless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable" (p.136-7).

Bringing AREs closer to humans, Collins moves to comparing us with chimpanzees. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes; chimps have 24. The difference appears to be where two proto-chimp chromosomes fused together to create human chromosome 2. (I say proto-chimp as means of refering to the common ancestor that led to chimps and humans. It's my attempt to avoid that horrendous claim "we evolved from monkeys.") What's more, Collins argues, is that scientists found this fusion exactly where they predicted it would be! The fusion would be "very difficult to understand ... without postulating a common ancestor" (p.138).

Finally, Collins comes to pseudogenes, which are genes that have almost the same properties of a functional DNA instruction packet but have some glitches that muddle things up. Three examples include capsase-12; MYH16, the gene for a jaw muscle protein; and FOXP2, involved in the development of language. Capsase-12 is inactive in humans but active in chimps. This gene works just fine in nearly all mammals except us. So, Collins asks, why would God have gone to the trouble of inserting such a nonfunctional gene in this precise location?" (p.139). MYH16 plays a significant role in the development and strength of jaw muscles in other primates. Collins states that inactivating this gene freed our skulls from having to anchor larger jaws and enabled us to expand our skulls outward to accommodate larger brains. Finally, FOXP2 enables language. Collins talks about uncovering this gene on chromosome 7 via a single family in England where members for three generations had severe difficulty in speaking. They found that a simple one-letter misspelling was occuring. This gene has been remarkably stable in nearly all mammals, and two significant changes have occurred in the coding region of this gene to finally (as in, as recently as 100,000 years ago) imbue humans with the capacity for language.

At this point, Collins mentions, "godless materialists might be cheering. If humans evolved strictly by mutation and natural selection, who needs God to explain us? To this, I reply: I do" (p.140). Stay tuned for Collins' explanation of why he thinks that; the next post will get to the heart of Theistic Evolution.

Other posts in this series:

January 23, 2011, 1:33 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink4 comments

The Language of God: Micro vs. Macro

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

Before tackling the gritty details using DNA evidence to support human evolution, Collins addresses Darwin, mutations, and the "rather arbitrary" distinction between microevolution ("incremental changes within a species") and macroevolution ("major changes in species") (p.131-2). In my discussions with Creationists, the micro- v. macro-evolution thing always comes up. So I was pretty excited to see how Collins would cover this topic.

He does a fairly decent job mentioning how we've seen lots of changes within species, such as finch beaks changing shape over time. He also discusses saltwater v. freshwater sticklebacks and rapid variation in viruses. He even brings stickleback evolution into a DNA setting by stating that the specific gene - EDA - has repeatedly and independently appeared in freshwater, resulting in sticklebacks losing their plates. Oh, but it gets better, because humans also have an EDA gene, and "spontaneous mutations in that gene result in defects in hair, teeth, sweat glands, and bone" (p.132). So, Collins adds as he tries to connect sticklebacks to humans, it's not tough to see how the differences between sticklebacks could be extended; "larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps" (p.132). And that's fine for highlighting "microevolution," which is something Creationists can believe anyway. And it's even good for alluding to macroevolution given his "succession of smaller incremental steps." But he only ever leaves it at the hypothetical.

He does his readers a disservice when he claims "we haven't seen new species arise" without expanding on what speciation is (p. 132). Additionally, he leaves the door open to Creationists by saying macroevolution only consists of "major changes" in species. Speciation is kind of a vague line but is usually delimited by two species' ability to interbreed; they usually can't or, if they do, their male offspring are sterile. And the fact is that we have observed speciation in a number of instances. One example is in polyploidy organisms that contain a multiple or combination of complete genomes; these usually result in new organisms that, due to the number of chromosomes, can't reproduce with their originating species. It's called allopolyploidy if genome duplication happens through crossing two different species. Another way speciation can occur is through sexual isolation, such as in ring species such as the Ensatina eschscholtzi salamander.

But, regardless of whether we've observed speciation, Collins gives Creationists a foothold by leaving it up to interpretting what constitutes "major changes" in species. For example, perhaps the inability to breed isn't too bad, because all those salamanders still look very salamandery. It's not like you get a crocodile and a duck together!

Other posts in this series:

January 16, 2011, 4:30 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

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