Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Fear of Looking Foolish

I've recently been told that I am a nutbag. I grow weary of telling people that I prefer being called a whacko. When will they ever learn?

But I didn't bring up the subject of my whackoness in order to complain. I brought it up because rather early in my life I was confronted with a choice. I was raised in a culturally mixed environment. I went to a public school, with kids from all different backgrounds. My best friend was a Jewish atheist. We had many discussions about whether God existed.

When I thought about believing in God and in believing in an afterlife, one of the fears I had was that I would look foolish if it turned out that God did not really exist. Everybody would laugh at me. How embarrassing would that be? It caused quite a bit of anxiety until one day the thought occurred to me, "How would anyone ever know that I was wrong?" Afterall, the only way to know for sure that God did not exist and that there was no afterlife, was to wake up after one had died, look around and see that there was no God and that everybody else was dead. But of course, if one woke up after one had died, that meant that there was an afterlife. I experienced a sudden sense of great relief. If I chose to believe in God and an afterlife, and if I turned out to be wrong, there wouldn't be anyone around to laugh at me. Of course, people who hadn't died yet could laugh at me. But since I was dead, it probably wouldn't bother me very much. And if there was an afterlife, I would have the last laugh.

Or would I? There was still that nasty problem of Hell. But at least the fear of looking foolish had been overcome.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


A surprisingly good (but not great) movie came out a few years ago: "Shallow Hal," starring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow. Hal (Jack Black) is put under a spell so that he sees what people look like based on their actual moral character, not on their physical appearance. He falls in love with the Gwyneth Paltrow character (who is of course very beautiful) not realizing that he is seeing her inner moral beauty, Physically, she is quite obese. Eventually the spell wears off and Hal must decide what is more important to him: inner beauty or outer superficial appearance. Hal also sees very ugly people in the story. This is their inner character. Physically they are very attractive. But Hal sees what they really are.

So I was thinking about "Shallow Hal" today, when the thought occurred to me: What if Damnation was being stuck for eternity looking exactly like our real inner moral character that we had here on earth? I shuddered when I thought how hideous I would look.

How would you look?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Am I Brainwashed?

Carl Degrasse Dawtchins suggests that I and most other religious believers in the world are brainwashed, since we are raised in a single religious tradition in which most of us remain for the duration of our lives, even though our religious traditions may be at least partly, if not wholly, contradictory to the religious traditions of people in other cultures and societies.

And, in a sense, I agree with him. I think the religious tradition in which I have been raised is the one that is closest to the truth, and I think that if people in other religious traditions objectively examined the evidence, they would adopt it. And I wouldn't be surprised if they think the same about me.

So what is the correct epistemic posture one should adopt when trying to decide which religious tradition is the most true? We could say that one should reject all religious traditions until one of them is proven to be true. This seems to be the position of John Loftus and his disciples, such as Carl.

But is that the only correct epistemic posture one could take? I suggest there are others, equally as good. One could, for example, maintain one's own religious tradition, while examining others to see if any of them offer better explanations for reality than one's own. If, after careful examination and thought, one decides that one's own religious tradition is better than other's at explaining reality, or at least that other religious traditions are no better than one's own, one could continue to maintian one's original religious traditions, confident that they are at least as adequate at explaining reality as any others. That would be a brief summary of what I have tried to do in my own life. In future posts, I might try to explain in more detail my own examination of the "evidence," just in case it might help others in their own search.

Though perhaps I should add that there was a very dark period in my life when I was angry and bitter at God and tried my best to be an atheist. My atheism period lasted about two years. During that time I succeeded in making myself and those around me very miserable. There are times when I wonder if some (but not all) of the atheists we encounter online are going through their own dark periods. If so, I don't have any words of advice for them besides, "Been there. Done that."

Great Loftus' Ghost!

Just when we thought it was safe to have religious beliefs, a disciple of John Loftus shows up to remind us how irrational we're being! Over at Shadow to Light Carl Degrasse Dawtchins wrote in a comment:

"If you weren’t brainwashed into your beliefs, how did you come by them? It seems you’re not one of the millions (if not billions) of people around the world who are raised from birth already within a particular religious belief system. Clearly you didn’t have one particular religion that shaped your life for many of your early, impressionable years. As a child you must have been different than so many other children. You must not have been swayed by religious beliefs impressed upon you before you learned how to assess those beliefs critically. I’ve got to say I’m impressed. How do you do it? Given that so many people are reared within a particular religion from birth…given that children don’t develop the essential critical thinking skills before having their parents’ religion a constant presence in their life (similar to Santa, though a bit more significant)…you must have some secret. Tell us, how do you avoid believing the same stuff as your parents, thus avoiding the brainwashing effect (perhaps indoctrination would work better for you)?

P.S. since you weren’t brainwashed/indoctrinated into a religious belief system, did you take the time as you grew to examine the various world religions to determine which one worked best for you? What criteria did you use to determine which religion was truthful and which ones were not? Am I correct in thinking that you chose a belief system with a more progressive mentality? I mean no one in their right mind would pick a belief system that advocates stoning teenagers, chopping off the hand of a woman, blaming people for the actions of their ancestors, casting off ones family to follow a prophet, killing homosexuals, owning slaves, raping women, or committing worldwide genocide by way of a flood. Those who are part of such a system must obviously have been brainwashed from a young age. They were force fed a particular belief before they were able to think about it critically. Sadly, unlike Santa Claus, these children are never informed that said belief system was made up a long time ago by some mysterious men in a faraway land.

I think Carl (and his mentor, John Loftus) deserve some sort of response from me. I'll try to offer one soon.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jesus in Islam

Jerry Coyne raised an interesting question in his post Why Don't the Faithful Debate Each Other? Why don't people of different faiths debate each other? I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure they have and do. But perhaps we should just be happy if they aren't killing each other. However, his question inspired me to find out exactly what Islam teaches about Jesus. If Wikipedia is to be believed, there is a surprising amount of agreement:

"In Islam, Jesus (Isa; Arabic: عيسى‎ ʿĪsā) is considered to be a Messenger of God and the Masih (Messiah) who was sent to guide the Children of Israel (banī isrā'īl) with a new scripture, the Injīl or Gospel.[1] The belief in Jesus (and all other messengers of God) is required in Islam, and a requirement of being a Muslim. The Quran mentions Jesus twenty-five times, more often, by name, than Muhammad.[2][3] It states that Jesus was born to Mary (Arabic: Maryam) as the result of virginal conception, a miraculous event which occurred by the decree of God (Arabic: Allah). To aid in his ministry to the Jewish people, Jesus was given the ability to perform miracles (such as healing the blind, bringing dead people back to life, etc.), all by the permission of God rather than of his own power. According to the popular opinion and Muslim traditions, Jesus was not crucified but instead, he was raised up by God unto the heavens. This "raising" is understood to mean through bodily ascension. Muslims believe that Jesus will return to earth near the Day of Judgment to restore justice and to defeat Masih ad-Dajjal ("the false messiah", also known as the Antichrist).[4][5] Like all prophets in Islam, Jesus is considered to have been a Muslim (i.e., one who submits to the will of God), as he preached that his followers should adopt the "straight path" as commanded by God. Islam rejects the Trinitarian Christian view that Jesus was God incarnate or the son of God, that he was ever crucified or resurrected, or that he ever atoned for the sins of mankind. The Quran says that Jesus himself never claimed any of these things, and it furthermore indicates that Jesus will deny having ever claimed divinity at the Last Judgment, and God will vindicate him.[6] The Quran emphasizes that Jesus was a mortal human being who, like all other prophets, had been divinely chosen to spread God's message. Islamic texts forbid the association of partners with God (shirk), emphasizing a strict notion of monotheism (tawhīd). Numerous titles are given to Jesus in the Quran and in Islamic literature, the most common being al-Masīḥ ("the messiah"). Jesus is also, at times, called "Seal of the Israelite Prophets", because, in general Muslim belief, Jesus was the last prophet sent by God to guide the Children of Israel. Jesus is seen in Islam as a precursor to Muhammad, and is believed by Muslims to have foretold the latter's coming.[5][7]"

As I said, there is a surprising amount of agreement between the Christian and Muslim views of Jesus:

1. Both consider him to be a Messenger of God and the Messiah, who was sent to guide the Children of Israel.

2. Both agree on the virgin birth of Jesus to Mary.

3. Both agree that Jesus was given the ability to perform miracles.

4. Both agree that Jesus was raised bodily into Heaven.

5. Both believe that Jesus will return to earth near the Day of Judgment to restore justice and to defeat the Antichrist.

That's quite a lot of agreement about some central tenets of Christianity. But of course, there are some disagreements:

6. Islam rejects the Christian view that Jesus was God incarnate.

7. Islam rejects the Christian Trinitarian view.

8. Islam rejects the view that Jesus was crucified.

9. Islam rejects the view that Jesus rose from the dead.

10. Islam rejects the view that Jesus atoned for the sins of humanity.

11. Islam rejects the view that Jesus ever claimed any of 6-10.

I think there could be reasoned debate between Christians and Muslims regarding 6-11 that wouldn't necessarily rely upon the question of whether the New Testament is God's revelation. I think such a debate could rely upon the question of how historically reliable the New Testament is. Of course, if Islam insists that its view of Jesus relies upon revelation, then Muslims must reject as historically reliable any part of the New Testament that contradicts 6-11. Then the debate would necessarily rely upon deciding whether the received texts of Islam are God's revelation. I think that debate could also be carried out in a reasonable manner.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Non-religious film about Faith

I just finished watching the film, "The Next Three Days." Russell Crowe plays the husband whose wife (Elizabeth Banks) has been convicted of murder. The appeal process has been exhausted and it looks like she is doomed to spend the next twenty years in prison, while their very young son grows up. She despairs and tries unsuccessfully to take her life. It is at that point that Crowe's character decides to take drastic action: attempt to break his wife out of prison.

Of course, we the audience don't know if the wife is guilty or not. We see the circumstancial evidence, which weighs heavily against her. And the thought must cross our minds, why is he risking his own life and freedom, and the stability his son will lose if he fails? To us in the audience his decision seems rather irrational. How does he even know that she is innocent? What if she isn't? What if she really did murder that woman? Even her own lawyer suspected she might be guilty. We want to yell at him, "Give up this idiotic idea and accept reality!"

There is even a part in the movie where the wife tells him, "You don't even know if I killed her. Well, I did."

And then he says it: "I know you didn't kill her. Because I know who you are."

"Yes!" I thought, "Here's someone who knows what faith is!"

Faith in God isn't about believing that God exists. It's about knowing who God is.

Faith in Jesus isn't about believing that he existed. It's about knowing who he is.

We can try arguing people into faith. But until they know who God is, and who Jesus is, I sometimes wonder, what's the point? Perhaps all we should say to people is what the Psalmist said long ago,

"Taste and see that the Lord is good."

Four Approaches to Methodological Naturalism

  In reply to my comment about YEC and MN, Ted Davis, a Senior Fellow for the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College, offered his own thoughts in the comment section of his thread, which I thought were worth repeating:

"Re #1: If one accepts methodological naturalism (MN), then (as you say) one might be faced with data that cannot presently be “explained” fully—not a novel situation in any science. It seems to me that we identify at least 4 possible approaches to MN, in general.

 (a) ALL events have “natural” explanations, whether or not we can produce them now, based on our limited knowledge. It is *never* legitimate to invoke “supernatural” agency. We might perhaps call this the strong form of MN; it’s not held provisionally and not open to supernatural agency in any way.

(b) A weaker form of MN: we should always do the best we can to find a “natural” explanation, since we know from experience that “natural” explanations almost always work well to explain events. Science must confine itself to such explanations, but we cannot rule out the possibility that certain events simply do not have scientific explanations.

(c) A strong rejection of MN: MN is appropriate for the experimental sciences, but absolutely inadmissible in the historical sciences. The Bible tells us what God actually did, and we must interpret all data in light of this.

(d) A weaker rejection of MN: MN is generally valid, even in the historical sciences, but it must not be used arbitrarily to rule out design; it must allow the possibility that an intelligent cause (whether acting “naturally” or “supernaturally”) is a necessary part of the complete explanation of the data."

Naturally, I think (d) is the most reasonable approach. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How YEC and Methodological Naturalism are Similar

I’ve noticed a parallel between YEC (Young Earth Creationism) and Methodological Naturalism.  Just as someone working with the YEC presupposition that their literal interpretation of Genesis is the correct one and supercedes all apparent empirical evidence to the contrary, so someone working with the presupposition of Methodological Naturalism believes that no amount of empirical evidence should allow for a Supernaturalistic interpretation, but must await a Naturalistic interpretation, however long it may take to come up with one.  It would seem to me that a more rational position would be one that allows for empirical evidence to have more input on our original presuppositions, allowing us to modify them if so needed. (I first made this comment here).

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Quotation from The Great Divorce

C.S. Lewis wrote a story about a bus trip from Hell to Heaven, called The Great Divorce.  I thought I would quote one of the many memorable parts:

That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, "No future bliss can make up for it," not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say, "Let me have but this and I'll take the consequences": little dreaming how damnation will spread back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man's past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man's past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say "We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven," and the Lost, "We were always in Hell." And both will speak truly.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sheldon and his Cats

Sheldon and his Cats

 I just noticed that Sheldon is wearing an evolution shirt. So do you think this episode was taking a subtle, good-natured jab at Jerry Coyne? Or am I reading too much into it?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Big Bang Theory

No, not the scientific theory. The TV show. I don't have cable or dish, so I only use my television to watch DVDs. It's been like this for the past 10 years. Needless to say, I've missed a lot. So I'm stuck in a place with cable television for the night, and I turn to a channel that's showing an episode of "The Big Bang Theory." I'm hooked. I must watch every episode that has been shot. The sooner the better. BTW, I happened to catch an episode where Sheldon breaks up with his girlfriend Amy...not his girlfriend. She's a girl and she's his friend. Or was his friend. So he replaces her missed company with a cat. Then two cats. Then three cats. Pretty soon he's up to 25 cats. I couldn't help being reminded of a certain biologist and blogger some of you may have heard of.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Magic of Song

I read the words of the hymn to myself, while the deacons passed the collection baskets. I'm one of those people on whom most poetry makes no impression. And this was a typical case. Then the music began and we began singing the hymn. Suddenly, I couldn't see the words. Everything had become blurry because of the tears welling up in my eyes. What had been a meaningless list of words now became a living sound that pierced my heart. I wiped away the tears as the hymn ended.

 As I sat down, I noticed an elderly woman in the pew in front of me. She was wiping away her own tears. I wondered if it was for the same reason. Had the hymn affected her the way it did me? Did we share a common, unspoken bond?  I was a visitor to the church, didn't know her and was too timid to approach her after the service. And even if we shared that bond, perhaps it was best left unspoken. Talking about it would somehow spoil the magic.

 In one of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, The Magician's Nephew, there's a scene where Aslan creates the world of Narnia. He does so by singing. As he sings, things begin to appear, come alive, and grow. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and I suspect he borrowed many of his ideas from authors I've never even heard of. But I wonder if this idea might go back to Genesis. We are told that God spoke and the Spirit of God brooded over the deep. Was the Spirit the Music, waiting for the Word of God to give meaning and direction to creation? Was God really singing creation into existence?

 I've written before about how I think the cell might be understood as the image of God: The DNA would be the Father (the Creator); the RNA would be the Son, the word or expression of the DNA; and the Protein would be the Spirit, waiting for the RNA to give the right expression, so that it could be ordered in the right way and do its work. Are there a trillion songs going on in my body right now? In everyone's body? I can't wait until I get to hear the music someday. And when we sing, it will be with tears of joy.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Short Evaluation of Dembski's Essay at BioLogos

I've already given some reactions I had to Dembski’s essay. I don't see a need to say much more. I expected much better from a man who is a trained theologian, philosopher, mathematician, etc. At best, Dembski might show that there are some "tensions" between Christianity and Darwinism, though I don't think he even succeeds at doing this. The one thing we can conclude from his essay, is that if even Dembski cannot come up with substantive theological or philosophical objections to “Darwinism,” then there aren’t any.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Part I on Darrel Falk's response to Dembski

Part I of Darrel Falk's A Biologos Response to William Dembski is now up. I think it's a very good beginning. I agree with the distinction that Prof. Falk makes between God's normal or "natural" activity in creation, and God's "supernatural" activity. 

The question, then, would be whether the origin and evolution of life can best be explained by God's natural activity, or whether there are good reasons for thinking that God's supernatural activity was also involved.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My Reactions to Part II of Dembski's Essay

William Dembski's essay, Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral, Part II is now up at Biologos. Before I give my reactions, let me note that I am an ID proponent, but that I have no theological or philosophical objections to Darwinian evolution. Just empirical ones. With that in mind, here are my reactions:

 Dembski gave a list of "non-negotiables" for both Christianity and Darwinism, which Biologos repeated at the beginning of Part II:

Non-Negotiables of Christianity 
(C1) Divine Creation: God by wisdom created the world out of nothing. 
(C2) Reflected Glory: The world reflects God’s glory, a fact that ought to be evident to humanity.
(C3) Human Exceptionalism: Humans alone among the creatures on earth are made in the image of God. (C4) Christ’s Resurrection: God, in contravention of nature’s ordinary powers, raised Jesus bodily from the dead. 

 Non-Negotiables of Darwinism:
 (D1) Common Descent: All organisms are related by descent with modification from a common ancestor. 
(D2) Natural Selection: Natural selection operating on random variations is the principal mechanism responsible for biological adaptations. 
(D3) Human Continuity: Humans are continuous with other animals, exhibiting no fundamental difference in kind but only differences in degree. 
(D4) Methodological Naturalism: The physical world, for purposes of scientific inquiry, may be assumed to operate by unbroken natural law. 

1)  It's not at all clear (to me) from Scripture that (C3) is true.  We are told that Humans are made in the image of God.  We are not told about the nature of the other creatures on earth are or how they differ from us.

2)  It's not at all clear (to me) that (D3) is true.  It seems possible for a Darwinist to hold that just as there are sudden changes in physics or chemistry, when a certain threshold is reached, so there may be a sudden change in biology when a certain threshold is reached.  Humans may or may not be continuous with other animals.

 To be sure, one might want to bring in further theological reasons for rejecting Common Descent (such as that large-scale evolution implied by (D1) is wasteful and unworthy of a good God)....

3)  But such an objection is sound only if we know that the creatures that existed previously but are extinct now only existed for the purpose of bringing us about and had no intrinsic value of their own.  And how would we know that?  

 Variations for Darwin were not correlated with any future benefit to the organism. Natural Selection, or (D2), is therefore in tension with both (C1) and (C2).

4)  But a non-teleological process such as Natural Selection is in tension with (C1) only if we know that it was unwise for God to create using this process.  How would we know that?

5)  And Natural Selection is in tension with (C2) only if the process of how God created different species is the only way that the world reflects God's glory.   Does Dembski really want to maintain that?  Unfortunately, it seems that he does, since he writes:

 ... it seems odd, given (C1), that God would create by Darwinian processes, which suggest that unguided forces can do all the work necessary for biological evolution. As Phillip Johnson noted in Darwin on Trial, Darwinism doesn’t so much say that God doesn’t exist as that God need not exist. 

Does Dembski really buy the idea that if Darwinism is true, then God need not exist?  Supposedly, Dembski is a professional philosopher.  Is he really saying that he can't think of any other reason why God might need to exist than as an explanation for the origin of species?   I'm afraid so, since he writes:

 Given that science is widely regarded as our most reliable universal form of knowledge, the failure of science to provide evidence of God, and in particular Darwin’s exclusion of design from biological origins, undercuts (C2).

Move over, Jerry Coyne.  William Dembski  wants to join you on the Scientism bandwagon.

 The most difficult tension to resolve in our present discussion is the one between Human Exceptionalism, (C3), and Human Continuity, (D3)

The problem for Dembski is that both (C3) and (D3) are the least defensible positions for Christianity and Darwinism, respectively.

I'm out of time for today.  I'll continue my critique tomorrow.