Archive for the ‘Creationism’ Category

On this blog, we’ve often discussed the evolution / intelligent design / creationism “debate”. Lately, I’ve been wondering if any of it really matters. I think society would benefit if as many people as possible had a strong grounding in science, especially biology, but there are a lot of people for whom this knowledge would have little or no meaning and a lot of people for whom the idea of evolution causes spiritual anguish. Should we have mandatory education in the theory of evolution? Who actually needs to understand the complicated subject of evolution, anyway?

I’m obviously playing devil’s (god’s?) advocate here but I think we should examine the reasons for and against teahing science, particularly evolution. While’re we’re at it, what about higher math, chemistry, physics, and history? Perhaps the time spent on these should be spent on everyday living topics such as how to balance a check book and how to preform first aid. As important as I think the sciences (and even history) are, these real-life subjects might have a greater positive effect on young people’s lives. We can always offer optional advanced courses, for those young people who are considering a career that requires additional education, right? I would worry that this system might result in a two-tiered society with educated and uneducated classes, but we already have that.

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Reconciling Science and Religion

I think that in this year when Charles Darwin will get a hunk of press for the dual celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the first edition of his book, the question of the conflicts between science and religion will be discussed by a great many thinkers and writers, including me.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennet explained that while Darwin’s  theory of natural selection was not completely original his approach to the question of the role of science in explaining origins was the beginning of referring to our origins without pulling in the need for a Creator.  He was not original even to that, but he layed out a process that completely explains the diversity of all life with no appeal to the supernatural.

Dennet is correct in stating that there had now been a gauntlet laid at the feet of religion in 1859, which had heretofore rained supreme in explaining the existence of the human race.  The prior assumption, untestable yet undefeatable had been that we were in fact a “special creation.”

lion and lamb

lion and lamb

And here is where the real conflict lies, I think.  In early catechism I had been taught that God the Father had existed in eternity (with or without  Logos, I am still unclear on this,) and created the universe because he was lonely for companionship and need us for our love and worship.  Adam and Eve, having been given free will and a warning, sinned at their first opportunity naively thinking that they could have the same knowledge as God.  In His anger, God declared that they would forever bear the burden of their sin unto all generations.  He also cursed the animals, who had until this time never known death nor suffering.  The lions had been laying peaceably with the lambs, the foxes with the rabbits and the parasites with the hosts.  It was always win-win for the animals, if not for the plants.

Theistic evolution, at least as practiced and preached by Ken Miller, needs to have an interventionist God or else it sinks into the quandary of deism and pantheism.  With deism and pantheism, there is no original sin and then from that there is no need for the grace of Jesus’ salvation.  So, the way Miller understands God is as a tinkerer with evolution, a non-“Designer” who nevertheless placed careful modifications to evolution at the level of quantum mechanics so that evolution would still work and lead to the ascent of Man.  We would, God knew, eventually arise to fill our ecological “niche.”

So this is good for Miller, but where does it leave the possibility for reconciliation between religion and science?  It creates a new level of Creationism, in effect.  While Miller, as a crack biologist would bristle at being lumped with Creationism, it is a shoe that fits even it is not a color of his choosing.

Miller carefully avoids all of the fallacies and faults of Intelligent Design, but at the end his finely-tuned universe and his interventionist evolution both point back to his God, the Inventor.

So, I honestly think that there is a quandary for practicing scientists in evolutionary biology who are also religious (whether Christian or some other religion.)

The inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection is largely based on Darwin’s reading of Malthus’ discussion of economics and scarcity.  There is only room for so much life.  Those forms of life which successfully proceed to the next generations succeed long enough to face extinction, in the meantime branching out into populations with common ancestors who may or may not survive.

Natural selection depends on extinction, starvation and suffering.  It is an unpleasant fact.  New species can’t move in if the old ones don’t “move out.” And so nature has ways of dealing with overpopulation; hunger, the need to replicate and the need to survive better than your competitors for the limited resources.

All of this was taking place long before man, and long before Man could have committed the First Sin for which we all need redemption.  The 19th-century scientists who realized this argued that the fossils they were finding represented a separate epoch of Creation, and that it wasn’t until 6000 years ago that God embarked on his final creation; the one that included Us.

With the concept of Theistic Evolution, one would need to accept that the tender, minute touches of intervention are placed by the same being who saw the need to create a cruel world.   It is a world of beauty, yes, but perhaps beauty is all the more precious to us because we know that in large part we will all die and so will all of our fellow life.

This solves one of Epicurus’ riddles, doesn’t it?

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

There is, for the theistic evolutionist, evil in the world because life demands it. Augustine answered to Epicurus by saying that Epicurus had ignored the benefits of suffering in the world.  Indeed, Augustine’s answer is crucial to Catholic theology; it is the idea that one must die in some symbolic way (perhaps to materialism,) in order to be “reborn in Christ.”  That’s not the precise wording of Augustine, but it was the thrust of several of the youth “Teens Encounter Christ” retreats I joined when I was in my teens.  It’s also illustrative of the myth of Jesus’ death and reincarnation.  He died to give us the chance for new life in him.  Rather than dying cruelly to be reborn, we only need to accept his sacrifice; like the grain of wheat that must “die” and be buried in order to give life to a new wheat stalk. (John 12:24.)

I have been reading a new article by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic, which is a dual book review.  In the best tradition of literary criticism Coyne does far more than give a thumbs up or thumbs down of the books he has read.  He is also approaching his understanding of the concepts of the books.  In this case he reviews these books (c -and p because I am getting exhausted and don’t want to create footnotes:)

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution
By Karl W. Giberson
(HarperOne, 248 pp., $24.95)

Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
By Kenneth R. Miller
(Viking, 244 pp., $25.95)

Coyne says that both books miss the mark on Science-Religion and  looks to Gould for help, but even the Non-Overlapping Magisteria are not helpful becaue the NOMA only says that each science and religion should ignore each other.

As Alden said in response to Anastasia’s post , “..because, for Theists, there are no purely secular events.”  Perhaps for theists, there can be no secular science.

The observable world makes so much more sense without using God as any explanation.  Coyne relates the story of Napoleon and LaPlace:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. In the early 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his great five-volume work on the solar system, the Mechanique Celeste. Aware that the books contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” “I have had no need of that hypothesis.” And scientists have not needed it since.

Certain dispensers of modernism would do well to remember that science does not exist to displace the need for an active creator.  It just happens to work out that way.

This is, after all, a finely-tuned universe.

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Much speculation has been made over whether Barack Obama’s Christianity is genuine or not, and it’s easy to understand both the care and the confusion. Most true-believing Christians want a leader guided by “God’s Word,” and many get uncomfortable when Obama does things like point out that making public policy out of Scripture could give the green light to slavery (Leviticus 25:44–46), make it mandatory to stone your children to death should they abandon the faith (Deuteronomy 13:6–10), and criminalize the sale of crabcake sandwiches (Leviticus 11:10–12).[1] Most nontheists, on the other hand, want a leader guided by logic and evidence alone, and many get uncomfortable when Obama calls himself a committed Christian, promises to expand the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives,[2] and has his Presidential inauguration ceremony include prayers given by the Christian evangelist Rick Warren.

So what to make of Obama’s faith? My own conclusion is that although there are valid reasons to believe that he might well be a Christian (as religious faith is a complex area with many shades of gray), as well as valid reasons to believe that he might not (that his public declarations about being Christian could be for political reasons only), the best answer may be that it might not matter (given Obama’s determination that when it comes to public policy, religious values must be translated “into universal, rather than religion-specific, values … subject to argument and amenable to reason”[3]).

Reasons to Believe That Obama Might Not Be a Christian

The one thing Obama has made clear is that he is not a fundamentalist. In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, for example, he reveals (albeit via through the somewhat safe vehicle of describing his mother’s views) his skepticism of both (a) creationism and (b) Christianity’s claim of an exclusive path to salvation:

[My mother’s] experiences as a bookish, sensitive child growing up in small towns … reinforced [her] skepticism. Occasionally, for my benefit, she would recall the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world’s people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation—and who in the same breath would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary (p. 203).

Obama’s rejection of the idea that Christianity is “the only path” (i.e., his rejection of a literal interpretation of John 14:6’s alleged line from Jesus that “I am the way … no man comes to the Father but by me”) was reiterated in his July 2008 interview with Newsweek:

It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I’ve said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know … I do not believe she went to hell.”[4]

Obama also addresses those who would like to make public policy conform to “God’s Word,” and points out that this could lead to laws that are both cruel and absurd:

But let’s even assume that we only had Christians [and no Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, etc.] within our borders. … Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is all right and eating shellfish is an abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?[5]

Of course, someone can reject fundamentalism yet still be a Christian. But Obama’s critique of the Bible goes beyond mere skepticism of biblical literalism. In The Audacity of Hope, he drops not-so-subtle hints of his suspicion that the entire bible, as well as the so-called sacred scriptures from other organized religions, may well have originated from nowhere other than the human imagination. Note how Obama makes little distinction between the Bible, non-biblical holy texts, and folklore mythology:

In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part … Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its well-spring, just one of the many ways—and not necessarily the best way—that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.

In sum, my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well (p. 204).

Now, if Obama were writing from the position of a philosopher or a mythologist or anyone other than a politician, I would think that the cumulative effect of his four following observations:

(1) that organized religions are regional phenomena (the Arabs, Indians, Greeks, Africans, Chinese, Japanese, etc. all have their own versions of Divine Directions)

(2) that it seems dubious to suppose that one culture’s religion really came from Divinity, and inhabitants from elsewhere are just out of luck—eternally out of luck in the worst way—for being born in the wrong place (as implied by Obama’s remark about “the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world’s people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation”)

(3) that unlike what one would expect from something inspired by an Omniscient Creator of the Cosmos, the Bible contains only primitive guesswork about the universe’s history (as implied by Obama’s remark about preachers who “would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary”)

(4) that the Bible includes:

(a) injustices (Leviticus 25: 44–46—slaves are property and it’s okay to own them, as long as they’re not your fellow Israelites)

(b) cruelties (Deuteronomy 13:6–10—if your siblings or wife or children choose another religion, show them no pity as you stone them to death)

(c) absurdities (Leviticus 11: 10–12: eating sea creatures without fins and scales [e.g. crabs and lobsters] is “an abomination”)

—would lead to the conclusion that there’s nothing “divine” about the Bible: that it belongs in the same category as all of man’s other works of imagination. Or as Obama himself put it when describing his mother’s dismissal of organized religions:

Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its well-spring, just one of the many ways—and not necessarily the best way—that man attempted to control the unknowable.

But although I would argue that this is the rational conclusion from a philosophical perspective, I will also argue that this is not the rational conclusion from a political perspective. For although philosophy, in its safe abstract world, may have the admirable goal of non-contradictory thinking, politics strives for the arguably higher goal of coming up with compromises that allow real world people with diametrically-opposed beliefs and interests to co-exist with as little conflict as possible.

Am I saying that even though there’s no rational reason to be a theist, nontheist politicians need to pretend to be theists—and Christian theists in particular—because politicians need votes, and we all know that most of America’s voters are Christians who won’t vote for non-Christians? Well, yes, I am … although it’s just a bit more complex than that, so before anyone labels my position as simply that of a cynical defeatist, allow me to present my defense of the time-honored and beneficial tradition of political double-talk and hypocrisy (or to cast it in a more positive light, the tradition of “political compromise”).

Look, for example, at the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals. From the philosophical point of view, it’s contradictory if not incoherent: if gays are really that detrimental to the military, they shouldn’t be allowed to serve at all, even if they can be discreet about their sexual orientation. Conversely, if being gay really has no bearing on a person’s military abilities, homosexuals should be allowed to serve under the exact same conditions as heterosexuals. But politically, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” solution was a great breakthrough: it allowed parties with nearly irreconcilable differences to come to an agreement that satisfied at least some of the major concerns on both sides (the military got to keep its prohibition of open homosexual activity, and gay military personnel became legally protected from witch hunts and the accompanying dishonorable discharges).

Or look at America’s “clean needles” programs, in which addicts who are using illegal injection drugs can legally exchange their used syringes for clean ones. Philosophically (at least in the abstract sense of the word), this is nonsensical: we’re taking the contradictory stance that people will be prosecuted for using illegal substances such as heroin, but if they walk into these clinics with used needles—clear evidence of abuse—we’ll not only turn a blind eye, but we’ll give them shiny new needles to shoot up with (which they’d better not be caught using!). Philosophically illogical or not, however, this hypocrisy comes with the societal benefit of reducing the transmission of AIDS: a goal worthier than legal consistency.

Or let’s take the tension between China and the United States back in April 2001 when the pilot of a Chinese fighter plane died after colliding with an American surveillance plane (the plane was flying off the coast of China in an area that China claimed as Chinese territory, and America claimed as international). China said that until America made a formal apology for its crime, the twenty-four members of the surveillance plane would remain captive in Chinese custody. America, in turn, insisted that its surveillance plane was flying in international airspace, that the collision was the Chinese pilot’s fault for flying too close, and that China was the one who was now committing a crime by illegally imprisoning the American crew. Neither side wanted to back down and thus appear weak before their respective countries, but the problem was resolved peacefully thanks to linguistic ambiguity. America’s official statement expressed “regret” about the pilot’s loss of life, China translated “regret” as an apology, America in turn made no comment about the Chinese translation, and the twenty-four American crew members were released.

Now, I could summarize this exchange as:

AMERICA: We don’t apologize because we did no wrong, but we regret the loss of the pilot’s life.

CHINA: Glad to hear that you’ve confessed your guilt!

AMERICA: Ahh, whatever.

—and say that it makes zero sense in the world of pure logic. But in the real life world of politics, it makes 100% sense, in that it may well have been a literal life-saver.

Many will point out that this “the end justifies the means” approach is dangerous, as it can serve to rationalize all sorts of ethical horrors in the name of political expediency. That’s true enough … but the opposite mantra of “the means can never be justified by the ends” is equally dangerous—each situation needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis and weighed for all pros and cons.

As for looking at the “ends” vs. the “means” when it comes to winning a presidential election, note that the characteristics we want from a president pull us in opposite directions (at least from my biased nontheistic viewpoint). On the one hand, we want a politician who is as intelligent and rational as possible—and from my perspective (which I prefer to call “biased” rather than “smug,” although one could argue that both apply), this means someone who doesn’t believe that an ancient text full of contradictions and scientific errors and ethnocentric absurdities could possibly be the work of an Omniscient and Omnipotent Creator. On the other hand, we want a person who will actually get elected, and once elected, will lead effectively. And in a predominantly Christian nation, this means (at least according to poll after poll after poll[6]) that a presidential candidate must at least claim to be Christian (and preferably mainstream Christian[7]). So for nontheists who would like to see fellow nontheists in office, electing a closet nontheist may be the best bet compromise.

TANGENTIAL NOTE: even though I believe that being a theist includes a certain degree of being guided by delusion and wishful thinking, one thing that continually surprises me about people is how good we are at compartmentalizing our beliefs. So if being a theist could reliably be equated with a lack of rational thought in other areas as well, then I would think it’s important to have a nontheist in office … but I have to admit that I haven’t found this to be the case. Thanks to compartmentalization, theists can just tuck that irrational part of their thought process into a small area (perhaps dragging it out on selective Sunday mornings), and then be completely rational in every other aspect of life. And being an atheist is certainly no guarantee that someone is rational in other aspects of life, or is even an atheist for rational reasons. So as long as I see that candidates have sufficient respect for the separation between church and state, their religious beliefs play little role in my decision of whom to support.

Back on track—let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that Obama’s professed Christianity really is for political reasons only. If so, why does he have to be so supportive of faith: repeatedly using religious imagery (he refers to helping others as “the Lord’s work”), promising millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to churches for his “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” program,” and giving Rick Warren—the Christian evangelist who equates homosexuality with bestiality and incest—such a prominent role at the presidential swearing-in ceremony?

My own conclusion is that these displays of religiosity simply make good political sense when it comes to being the leader of Christian-dominated nation. But even though I’m an atheist, I don’t think of Obama as “pandering” or “selling out.” Rather, I actually admire the way he doesn’t alienate the Christian masses, and at the same time manages to harness their faith in ways that I see as mostly positive.

In the below excerpt from Obama’s website (www.barackobama.com), note that when he talks about the “Lord’s work” he puts it in terms not of spreading the message that salvation comes from Christ alone, but about things like ensuring benefits for veterans, rebuilding communities destroyed by natural disasters, and working to prevent ex-prisoners from returning to crime. And when he talks about his “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” program, note that he spells out the terms in which separation between church and state can be maintained:

I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work.

There are millions of Americans who share a similar view of their faith, who feel they have an obligation to help others. And they’re making a difference in communities all across this country—through initiatives like Ready4Work, which is helping ensure that ex-offenders don’t return to a life of crime; or Catholic Charities, which is feeding the hungry and making sure we don’t have homeless veterans sleeping on the streets of Chicago; or the good work that’s being done by a coalition of religious groups to rebuild New Orleans.

You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who’ve come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they’re particularly well-placed to offer help. As I’ve said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

That’s why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today—from saving our planet to ending poverty—are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.

I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I’m not saying that they’re somehow better at lifting people up. What I’m saying is that we all have to work together—Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike—to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square … make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that ideaso long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against themor against the people you hireon the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. [8]

As for Obama asking Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, well, I can understand why many people, particularly gay rights activists,[9] are offended by that. But Rick Warren is complex in his own right, because Warren is one who also believes, like Obama, in channeling the church’s energies to help solve secular problems. Even though Warren adopts the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality and abortion, he often makes these issues take a back seat to social action projects like expanding educational opportunities for the poor, helping to reduce international poverty and disease, and working to stop the spread of AIDS and global warming.

Still, many secular people (and religious liberals) feel that Warren’s inflammatory words on homosexuality—as well as his support for Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in his home state of California—overshadow all positive aspects of his social activism. But as I see it, what’s a pastor to do: say the Bible is wrong? After all, Warren’s anti-gay sentiments are all right there in the Good Book: Leviticus 20:11–17 describes homosexuality, incest, and bestiality alike as “abominations.” Warren’s condemnations are actually rather mild, in that he doesn’t follow through with the Bible’s instructions that all those who commit such offenses—including adulterers (Leviticus 20:10)—should be put to death.

In the USA Today article “Obama defends inaugural invitation to Warren,” Obama’s response to protesters includes some fuzzy language—that our “noisy and opinionated” diversity is “part of the magic of this country”—that doesn’t quite succeed, at least for me, in downplaying the fact that Warren’s influence in getting Proposition 8 passed has contributed to depriving the gay community of its rights:

“During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented,” said Obama … “And that’s how it should be because that’s what America is about. That’s part of the magic of this country — that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated.”

Yet Obama also has also taken measures to counteract perceptions that inviting Rick Warren means that Obama is endorsing Warren’s biblical-based bigotry. For one, Obama has requested that his ceremony’s closing prayers will be led by Joseph Lowery, a minister who has spoken out in favor of gay clergy. The USA Today article includes the following observations from Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion at Princeton University:

By choosing Warren and Lowery as the religious bookends to the inaugural ceremony, “he’s reaching across a wide swath of the American religious community,” Glaude says. “[It’s] a sign of how shrewd he is.”

Second, Obama also specifies that he remains a “fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.” He adds, however, that his and Warren’s clash in the area of gay rights doesn’t eliminate all common ground:

We’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere … where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.[10]

The advantages of inviting Warren are clear: he is arguably the most influential evangelist in the country at the moment (his book The Purpose Driven Life is one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time, selling over 20 million copies), and having him deliver the inaugural invocation strengthens Obama’s support from Warren’s millions of Christian fans (helping to lessen the impact from the attacks Obama has received from other influential evangelists, such as James Dobson[11]). The disadvantages are also being made clear from the numerous protests from those insulted by the perceived legitimacy bestowed upon Warren’s anti-gay sentiments, but I’d like to think that Obama’s outspoken defense of gay rights, as well as the ceremony’s inclusion of Joseph Lowery, succeeds in taking at least some of the sting away from that insult.

Given that politicians will be criticized for whatever stance they take when it comes to mixing religion and politics, Obama admits the temptation for politicians to try to shy away from the subject of religion altogether (the following excerpts are all from The Audacity of Hope):

Those of us in public office may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that—regardless of our personal beliefs—constitutional principles tie our hands on issues like abortion or school prayer (p. 213).

—and indirectly (that is, by mentioning the views of “some on the left”), Obama even acknowledges the danger of mixing political power with something as “inherently irrational and intolerant” as religion:

Some on the left (although not those in public office) go further [than simply avoiding religion], dismissing religion in the public square as inherently irrational, intolerant, and therefore dangerous … (p. 213).

But Obama also points out the greater danger—the “bad politics”—of a politician taking such a secular approach that s/he appears to neglect the religious concerns of the devout. For one, he writes, this leaves a dangerous vacuum:

… over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and so avoid joining a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

To begin with, it’s bad politics. There are a whole lot of religious people in America … According to the most recent surveys, 95% of Americans believe in God, more than two-thirds belong to a church … and substantially more people believe in angels than believe in evolution … When we abandon the field of religious discourse … when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations toward one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts … others will fill the vacuum. And those who do are likely to be those with the most insular views of faith, or who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends (pp. 213, 214, 198).

As an example of a negative political repercussion of ignoring the concerns of the faithful, Obama recaps the history of how the Republican Party started taking advantage of this vacuum in the 1980s, and “harvested the crop” of alienated Christians:

By the time the sixties rolled around, many mainstream Protestant and Catholic leaders had concluded that if American’s religious institutions were to survive, they would have to make themselves “relevant” to changing times—by accommodating church doctrine to science … Academics, journalists, and purveyors of popular culture … failed to appreciate the continuing role that all manner of religious expression played in communities across the country.

What happened? … Pushed out of sight but still throbbing with vitality throughout the heartland and the Bible Belt, a parallel universe emerged, a world not only of revivals and thriving ministries but also of Christian television, radio, universities, publishers, and entertainment, all of which allowed the devout to ignore the popular culture as surely as they were being ignored.

[Yet social upheavals such as] the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, the increasing assertiveness of gays and lesbians, … Roe v. Wade, dismantling segregation, eliminating prayer in schools … seemed a direct challenge to the church’s teaching about marriage, sexuality, and the proper roles of men and women. Feeling mocked and under attack, conservative Christians found it no longer possible to insulate themselves from the country’s broader political and cultural trends. … it was the Republican Party, with its increasing emphasis on tradition, order, and “family values,” that was best positioned to harvest this crop of politically awakened evangelicals and mobilize them against the liberal orthodoxy.

The story of how Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and finally Karl Rove and George W. Bush mobilized this army of Christian foot soldiers need not be repeated here (pp. 199 – 201).

Back once again to Rick Warren: by welcoming, rather than excluding, such an influential evangelist to be at least a symbolic part of his presidency, Obama is increasing the likelihood that the Christian masses will not feel alienated, and will be less likely to be “harvested” by ultra right-wing fundamentalists with “the most insular [i.e., the most narrow-minded] views of faith”: fundamentalists—such as Dobson[12]—that make Warren look tame in comparison.

So, it may well be that Obama’s position on religion is that of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, who said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

On the other hand …

Reasons to Believe that Obama Might Be a Christian

My experience with several years of interviewing Christians[13] is that faith—even among Christians in the exact same sect—is maddeningly complex, non-uniform, and comes in many shades of gray. For although it’s common for fundamentalist Christians to claim that their faith casts away all doubt—that faith overrides even the most solid contradictory evidence—many non-fundamentalists see doubt as something they can allow space for while maintaining their Christianity. In The Audacity of Hope‘s chapter on “Faith,” for example, Obama specifically writes, “faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts” (p. 207). He ends the chapter with ruminations on exactly how he should have responded to his young daughter’s question about death, admitting his doubts about the answers offered by his religion:

I wonder whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn’t sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang (p. 226).

In a Newsweek interview, Obama goes as far as admitting that his religious views might be wrong in every way:

I’m on my own faith journey and I’m searching. I leave open the possibility that I’m entirely wrong.[14]

The fact that Obama makes repeated mention of his doubts is one of the reasons I don’t rule out the possibility that he might indeed be sincere when he calls himself a Christian: it seems that he’d be less likely to dwell on such doubts if his Christianity were strictly political. Could it be a part of his calculated act? I suppose it could … that’s why I’m calling this section “reasons to believe that Obama might be a Christian.” More importantly, however, is my next section, which present my reasons for why I believe it might not matter.

Reasons to Believe that Obama’s Christianity (or lack of) Might Not Matter

Obama’s solution to balancing the demands of the religious world with the secular is that the religiously-motivated can cite their faith as the source of their morals, but those values must be translated “into universal, rather than religion-specific, values” (again, the following excerpts are all from The Audacity of Hope):

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

For those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, such rules of engagement may seem just one more example of the tyranny of the secular and material worlds over the sacred and eternal. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice (p. 219).

Obama also cites positive ways that religion can be used in conjunction with politics, at least when religion is restricted to using its imagery as a vehicle for understanding morality:

Scrub language of all religious content and we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord,” or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without reference to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible and move the nation to embrace a common destiny (p. 214).[15]

But when it comes to looking for Scripture to provide specifics, Obama notes that no one can hear “God’s voice” when it speaks in someone else’s head, so “the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know”:

The story of Abraham and Isaac offers a simple but powerful example. According to the Bible, Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his “only son, Isaac, whom you love,” as a burnt offering. Without argument, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, we know the happy ending—God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute. Abraham has passed God’s test of devotion. He becomes a model of fidelity to God, and his great faith is rewarded through future generations. And yet it is fair to say that if any of us saw a 21st century Abraham raising the knife on the roof of his apartment building, we would call the police; we would wrestle him down; even if we saw him lower the knife at the last minute, we would expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away and charge Abraham with child abuse. We would do so because God doesn’t reveal Himself or His angels to all of us in a single moment. We do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of what we know to be true—as individuals or communities of faith—will be true for us alone (p. 220).

From my own atheistic perspective, the idea that religious values should be translated into what we might call “humanistic values” simply means that those “humanistic values” are traveling full circle. That is, from the nontheistic viewpoint, morals pre-date man’s creation of religion, and even pre-date humanity itself. Although natural selection certainly involves no small amount of violent competition, the struggle for survival also demands a degree of compassion and cooperation (cooperative traits are widespread in just about all animals that live in social groups: social animals need to band together to raise their young, warn each other of predators, and hunt their food and fight their enemies). Religious founders take innate tendencies such as care & cooperation and give them a formal structure by putting them in the mouths of their gods, but religion is only underlining pre-existing capacities.[16] (Religion underlines, of course, not only natural selection’s peace-enhancing traits like “be good to your kin” [e.g. the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on murder, at least within the community], but also its violent traits, such as the ability to be utterly ruthless with outsiders [e.g. the alleged instructions from the alleged Jehovah to go into the Promised Land and murder every man, woman, and child].)

So from the strictly logical perspective, using religion as a source for morals is like going through an unnecessary middleman, and one that comes with negative baggage as well (particularly when it comes to gay rights, stem cell research, science in the classroom, fighting “God’s wars,” etc.). But from a political perspective, we neglect the concerns of the devout at our peril—at the cost of having zero influence.

So I for one am happy to have a president who has managed not to alienate most of our religious fellow Americans, yet who has also laid out strong arguments for why scripture cannot dictate public policy, and who has even managed to project some well-placed hints of religious skepticism along the way. And to all this I say, “Amen!”

[1] These remarks are from page 218 of Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, and included in his June 2006 “Call to Renewal” Keynote Address. In response, the evangelical leader James Dobson accused Obama of “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology” (“James Dobson Says Obama ‘Distorting’ Bible,” NPR.org, 25-Jun-2008).

[2] Obama’s updated office will be called the “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”

[3] Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 219.

[4] Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe, “Finding His Faith.” Newsweek, 21-Jul-2008.

[5] Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 218.

[6] Austin Cline, “Gallup Polls & Other Surveys on American Attitudes Towards Atheists: Over 40 Years of Research Show Atheists Are Despised, Distrusted.” (http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheistSurveys.htm)

Pulsar Research & Consulting, “TIME Poll: Survey on Faith and the Presidential Election,” May 10-13, 2007 (www.pulsarresearch.com/PDF/TIME_Report.pdf)

[7] James Joyner, “Black President More Likely than Mormon or Atheist” (a 20-Feb-2007 article that draws on polls taken by Gallup) http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/black_president_more_likely_than_mormon_or_atheist_/

[8] “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” (http://www.barackobama.com/2008/07/01/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_86.php)

[9] Not all gay activists are offended—see footnote 12 for comments of support for Rick Warren by Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

[10] Mimi Hall, “Obama defends inaugural invitation to Warren.” USA Today, 23-Dec-2008.

[11] In addition to Dobson’s accusation that Obama “deliberately distorts the Bible” (NPR.org, 25-Jun-2008), Dobson also released an attack called Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America—a hypothetical letter from a Christian in the year 2012. The letter describes a nightmarish America after four years of Obama’s rule: the removal of obscenity laws results in television broadcasts of explicit sex acts 24 hours a day, al-Qaida takes over Iraq, and terrorist bombs kill thousands in U.S. cities. And to top it off, homosexual marriages become the norm in all 50 states, and the Boy Scouts have disbanded rather than obey a decision forcing them to allow homosexual scoutmasters.

[12] Just as I was getting ready to submit this post to “Clashing Culture,” I came across an excellent analysis comparing Dobson and Warren in a blog from Jonathan Rauch (author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America). I’m too lazy to work Rauch’s observations properly into this post, but his commentary (http://www.indegayforum.org/blog/show/31681.html) is too good for me to leave it out altogether:

[Dobson’s Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America is] long and hysterical—another sign of how beleaguered the hard-core Christian Right is feeling. Still more revealing, I count 18 paragraphs on homosexuality and gay marriage, versus four on abortion (aka, from a pro-life point of view, murder of babies). I found no instances of the word “divorce.” “Adultery”? You gotta be kidding.

This is the kind of anti-gay obsessiveness and upside-down prioritizing that Rick Warren and others of his ilk and generation are moving away from. The more I think about Obama’s choice of Warren to lead the inaugural prayer, the more I like it. Culturally, the moment is right to reach out to reachable evangelicals and marginalize the hysterics and obsessives who have all but monopolized their movement. The cultural left doesn’t understand the difference between Warren and Dobson, but evangelicals sure will. And they’ll know Obama and Warren are publicly declaring Dobsonism obsolete.”

It’s also worth reading Rauch’s prior blog post, called “James Dobson He Ain’t”—http://www.indegayforum.org/blog/show/31676.html.

[13] The interviews were for my book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer (a dialogue between a Christian apologist and a Socratic skeptic).

[14] Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe, “Finding His Faith.” Newsweek, 21-Jul-2008.

[15] Just for balance, I would have also liked for Obama to mention how this phenomenon can also occur outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and cite how Gandhi’s political use of Hinduism was key in India’s incredible and unprecedented non-violent defeat of the militarily-superior Great Britain.

[16] I explore this subject further in “The Roots of Morality,” endnote 12 of Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer (p. 213).

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Lancaster, Minnesota

Children Praying

Children Praying

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post at Tangled Up in Blue Guy about my real hometown of Lancaster, Minnesota.  A science teacher was fired for teaching evolution because the school board was largely made up of Creationists.  The situation was a real mess of “small-town values,” politics and other chicanery that had to do with sexual misbehavior.

A student who graduated from Lancaster High School recently contacted me and promised to get me more details, because I was basing the story on the details provided by my dad.  I will update that story after he gets back to me.  The interesting and ethical question related to this post is based on a comment he sent me in an e-mail:

The crazy thing was that it wasn’t the kids from that covenant church that had the problem; it was their PARENTS!  Some oversaw the homework they were doing and then one mom talked to another mom at their women’s church night and before you know it something like this happened.  The kids who led the protest of Mr. D not being hired back by the schoolboard was actually the kids of the parents who caused the biggest stink about it.  Thats what you do for your kid, get their favorite teacher fired.

Okay, Mr. D wasn’t fired but his contract was not renewed.  The question I have been turning over in my ethical mind is the question of the responsibility of parents to raise their children in the best way possible to give them all of the tools they need to live happy, productive and intellectually- and emotionally-rich minds.

Of course, this subject is going to touch on religious education.  My parents raised me in the Catholic Church because even though she had been brought up as a Lutheran, my mother had agreed to raise us in the Catholic religion.  It was a stipulation of marrying a Catholic.

Richard Dawkins took a lot of flak for suggesting that the raising of children in a religion is a form of child abusre. The question sensibly raises quite a furor among the religious and the atheists alike because of society’s conflicting values over who “owns” children.  I am a parent now, with one child out of the house and two teenagers who are intellectually rebellious (yea!)  Actually, all three of our children have been taught to question authority and to “speak truth to power.”  (Except when the Power is Mom discussing chores and homework that need to be done.)

I am divorced and the kids are being raised in their mother’s home.  I am an atheist and their mother is an active pagan.  We try to balance our beliefs in regards to the children, giving them the opportunity to participate in our activities but not forcing them to do so.  When they have questions we give them our best answers.  We sent them to a Catholic School because of the reputation that Catholic Schools provide the strongest educational opportunity (unfortunately, this didn’t turn out to be the case,) and also to give them exposure to Christianity untainted by our own biasees.  Both their mother and I had been raised Catholic.

We want our kids to interact with people of other religions so that they don’t fear the people who hold other beliefs, and I have to admit that sometimes I say things in their presence which could bias them against Christianity.  So, they also need to learn the perspective of other people because as they grow into adults they will have more of a grounding in religious belief when they start to think about how they approach religion as adults.

Most people I know are in the same religion as they were when they were children.  They are not necessarily in the same Church, or Jewish tradition, or even the same Mosque, but their core beliefs are still the same.  Because we live in a “Christian Nation” most of them are still Christian.  Sure, they may be evangelical where they were raised liturgical, but in the case of Christianity their core beliefs on religion are still based on the salvation issue, even if the specific teachings differ quite wildly from the church of their youth.

My cousin was raised in an atheist family, and he and his brother adapted a fundamentalist faith when they went on their own.  My aunt and uncle were dismayed, but still loved their adult children.  One of my cousins has backed away from the fundamentalist faith he tried, but the other is now a sincere Jehovah’s Witness.  His parents still love and support him, and he has an understanding that he is not going to try to evangelize his famly members.  Raising children in an atheist household is no guarantee that they will always be atheists despite our best hopes.

I think parents of all religious positions need to take a step back and examine how much contriol they should have over their childrens’ minds.  I maintain that the best we can do for our children is to make sure that as they grow they should be taught critical thinking skills so that as they approach adulthood they have the tools to make thoughtful decisions about the directions of their lives.  As adults, our kids need to own their own miinds.

Since the creationism-evolution debate is not a scientific one, it really is a cultural debate over how we educate our children and the reaction of creationist parents is a religious one.  If children are taught about how evolution works, they will abandon religions which insist on a literal belief in a Genesis-creation myth.  While there are large numbers of people who homeschool because they have better intellectual tools than the public schools provide, a much larger majority homeschool because they don’t want their kids exposed to evolution.  They think that evoluton is a threat to their children’s (read their own) religious beliefs, and that their children will turn to atheism if they find out how natural mechanisms account for the diversity of life.  They are afraid that their children will lose their chance at “salvation.”

I want to open this up for discussion, and I want to know what the readers think:

1.  Do parents have the right to thought-contril of their children until those children are grown and on their own?

2.  Does society also have a role in shaping the way that children learn to think?  is this too redolent of socialism?

3.  For religious parents, is the question of choosing one’s own religion too dangerous when eternity is at stake?

4.  For atheist parents, is it mush-minded to allow your children to participate in religious activities?

I would also appreciate any other questions and answers in this thread.



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Making Sense of the Veep Candidates

Minnesotans were waiting throughout Friday morning to see if we would once again have a presence on the national ticket of one of the two major parties.  Some of us breathed a sigh of relief when Tim Pawlenty was not named (it would leave us with Carol Molnau as governor and Molnau is credited with the failure of the MnDOT to prevent the I35W bridge collapse.)


Sarah Palin Fishing

Sarah Palin Fishing

We, along with the rest of the country, were completely taken by surprise that Sarah Palin of Alaska was the Vice Presidential nominee for the Republican Party.  Palin’s biography has been published and there is a great deal of discussion of her background and the shallowness of her experience in government.  I’m not going to pile on that.  I am also going to leave alone her positions on abortion, stem cell research, abstinence-only education and polar bears.  I think that those things are being covered in enough of the media and blogosphere to make it unnecessary here.


No, what I want to approach here is her attitude towards the idea of teaching Intelligent Design along with evolution in science classes.  I also want to mention that our own governor of Minnesota, a frontrunner for the Vice Presidential nomination has a similar position on science education.  This was a surprise to me, even though Pawlenty had appointed Cheri Pierson-Yecke as the Commissioner of Education when he first took office in 2002.  Yecke was the commissioner who had tried to write “Teach the Controversy” into the science standards when they were being reviewed in 2004.  She was narrowly defeated in her efforts.

Many people wonder what the problem is regarding teaching the controversy, and accuse scientists of academic suppression when they don’t let Intelligent Design into school standards.  Simply put, there is no science to Intelligent Design.  Introducing Intelligent Design into the science classroom would be a clear example of a violation of the three-prong Lemon test developed by the Supreme Court in deciding the case of Lemon v. Kurtz.  Intelligent Design is religiously motivated (and transparently so) and has been determined to have no secular value.

Sarah Palin said in an interview that the schools should teach both Intelligent Design and the competing theory of evolution (as if there were only one.)  She actually didn’t specify the Intelligent Design form of Creationism, but she did say  this at a gubernatorial forum in Alaska in 2006 (Anchorage Daily News:)

• PALIN: “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. “Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject — creationism and evolution. It’s been a healthy foundation for me. But don’t be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.

Intelligent Design isn’t actually based on information (although they spend a great deal of time mis-using Shannon Information Theory,) and so “giving information” on Intelligent Design would be a disservice to education.  Those are the main reasons that I see a problem with Palin’s position.  We really should be teaching kids how science is done, and not bring the “origins” and religion debate into it.  And evolution as we understand it is based on the same methods of science as chemistry, physics and geology. Hypothesize, research, test, analyze, test again and re-analyze.

Tim Pawlenty said recently (August 31 on Meet the Press🙂 


Tim Pawlenty Fishing in Polluted Waters

Tim Pawlenty Fishing in Polluted Waters

GOV. PAWLENTY: We’ve said in Minnesota, in my view this is a local decision. Intelligent design is something that in my view is a plausible and credible and something that I personally believe in; but more importantly, from an educational and scientific standpoint, it should be decided by local school boards, by–at the local school district level. 

I can assure you that this is not the case in Minnesota, and it doesn’t make sense for Pawlenty to claim that local schools are free to set their own standards. He signed the current standards into law (MNSCE’s Judy Budreau:)

 In the past, Governor Pawlenty has been unclear about his position on including Intelligent Design in Minnesota classrooms; his first appointment for Commissioner of Education, Cheri Pierson Yecke was publicly supportive of Intelligent Design/Creationism. Dr. Yecke’s appointment was not confirmed, due at least in part to this stand. To Governor Pawlenty’s credit, he signed into law the current Minnesota Academic Standards for Science, which do not contain provisions for teaching Intelligent Design/Creationism. 
    On the other hand, when several Minnetonka citizens spoke to officials at the Minnesota Department of Education in November and December 2005 to get clarification on whether or not the Minnesota standards allow or encourage teaching ID/Creationism, the reply was always the same: Minnesotans favor local control of school districts and the academic standards allow for this. 

Oh, so even though the local control aspect is in contravention to state law, the governor’s office and the Department of Education are enforcing the policy that they want rather than what is in the law.  This seems to bean example of the Republican strategy of legislating from the Executive Branch (see the Bush Signing Statements.)

Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin were but two of the finalists to be McCain’s running mate, but it was a short list and both of them are in favor of subverting science education.  What is going on here? Well, either McCain is unaware of their positions, or he is aware and doesn’t think that this is a problem.  

In my mind, the approach to Intelligent Design serves as a bellwether for how a person approaches important issues.  The evolution denialists use the same thought processes to establish their positions on origins as do the global warming denialists (I can’t call them skeptics for obvious reasons.)  And McCain’s tacit approval by proxy of this sort of thinking process calls into question his ability to choose people who will be able to advise him on science matters.

It also brings up another problem with McCain and who he would choose for his cabinet.  If critical thinking is unimportant to him in evolution and climate, how important will it be in economic matters?  Will he be willing to examine the effects of tax cuts for the wealthy from an economics standpoint or will he be compelled to follow the Reagan line that the benefits to the wealthiest of such tax cuts will trickle down to the rest of us?  Will he be able to exercise reason in foreign policy, or will he continue to take advice from a neo-con lobbyist such as Randy Scheunemann?

The Republican Governors, one chosen and one nearly chosen, send to me a message that McCain’s own power of discernment, which he needs in order to be president is lacking.  The President of the United States doesn’t do all the deciding on his or her own.  They surround themselves with people we expect to be competent to enact sensible policies.  I don’t trust the people McCain favors, and Palin is only one of many problems with McCain.

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Religion and Science

I don’t personally agree with all of the viewpoints, but I think that this video, thanks to The Panda’s Thumb, helps to illustrate Stephen’s position.  Intelligent Design is a misdirection to try to show that science is an attempted refutation of a Creator, when in reality science is a method for exploring nature and testing causal links to phenomena.

Intelligent Design really is a muddled attempt to achieve contradictory philosophical goals:

1. Science shouldn’t be talking about God, because science isn’t theology.
2. Science proves theology.

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During my romantic stroll through Uncommon Descent many weeks ago, I was struck by one of the recurring claims of some of the residents of that asylum.  The claim is that “design” in nature is what a Christian should expect to see, based on some basic biblical pronouncements concerning God and his creation.  Here’s an example, from a comment in a thread bashing “theistic evolutionists:”

As Psalm 19 instructs us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And, of course we read in Romans 1:20, that the invisible things are clearly seen “being understood by the things that are visible.”

Now I would expect even a mainstream Christian to take these passages seriously, but a “devout” Christian ought to be downright passionate about them. According to St. Paul, design is a self-evident truth, so much so, that a Christian, agnostic, cynic, or anyone else who questions it is “without excuse.” What can we say, then, of those who, in fact, don’t believe it at all and yet publicize their Christianity for strategic advantage.

Pretty inflammatory stuff, actually, and we can look some other time at the way in which this fellow is badly twisting the intention of those scriptural passages.  Here I’d like to explore the basic idea that we ought to expect certain things in a universe that is or isn’t designed or otherwise directed by God.

People of all sorts of persuasions seem to think this way.  Creationists like Hugh Ross at Reasons To Believe claim to believe that the properties of creation are just like the Bible says they should be, cooking up painfully contrived comparisons between the expansion of the universe and the Ancient Near Eastern (and biblical) cosmology of a firmament “spread out like a tent.”  Design proponents like David Snoke have published arguments that are indistinguishable from the UD comment above.  Consider what Snoke wrote in a 2001 article in Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith (the official journal of the ASA):

Both theism and atheism are theories that make falsifiable predictions about things we should see in the realm of science. Specifically, the atheist theory predicts that we should find a mechanism by which all life could have arisen as the result of many simple, uncorrelated causes; Christianity says that the world is explained by a unifying Purpose, and expects that the hand of God should be evident in the world around us (Rom. 1:20).

And what is the evidence we expect to see?

The present “gap” in the atheistic theory comes from a successful prediction of the theistic theory, that we should expect evidence for exquisite fine-tuning and apparent design.

Richard Dawkins has clear expectations as well.  This famous quote is occasionally misattributed to Darwin:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

That’s from River Out of Eden.

Now, I’m not convinced that any of these people knows what they really ought to expect.  It’s obviously way too easy to report, post hoc, that everything you’ve just seen is just precisely the way you thought it should be.  We humans are famously prone to such elaborate rationalization, and I think we should be suspicious of such confident assertions regarding the expected properties of the whole bloody cosmos.  Snoke, at least, admits that the jury is out, but he makes it clear that he expects a certain kind of universe.

So am I the only one who is agnostic on all of this?  My position is radically different from Ross’s and Snoke’s, and surely accounts for much of the incompatibility between my approach and that of the ID movement.  I maintain that Christians ought not assume much of anything about the structure or governance of the cosmos, because God created it and governs it without restraint.  He is free to proceed as He sees fit, and for me to assume that it must unfold in a certain way is to decree that He cannot or should not proceed in other ways.  This, to me, is ludicrous and blasphemous.

(Of course, if God has specified certain modes or preferences regarding biological creation or anything else, then it’s reasonable to ascribe those preferences to Him.  He hasn’t done that, and this is clear when considering the general nature of the biblical passages – Psalm 19, Romans 1 – that are always quoted by creationists and ID proponents in this context.)

Similarly, I just can’t take seriously Richard Dawkins’ claim that the universe has “precisely” the characteristics that he would expect.  Whether a universe ruled by “blind pitiless indifference” would look like this one, I don’t know, and neither does he.  As popular discourse on the Problem of Evil, I guess it works as well as anything else, but his blatant assertion about the “properties we should expect” is pure bluster.  (Imagine.)

What kind of universe did you expect when you got here?

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Subtitle: What the ID/Creationism movement should preach if they truly want to inspire faith in a Designer/Creator

Literal creationism is scary. Not because I think they are right and some vengeful god will spite me for being a scientist, but because I worry about the future, about what will happen in a world that is increasingly dependent on science and technology but where more and more children learn some biblical interpretation instead of reality. I think I’m justified in this fear because of things like the Creation Adventure Team, the Creation Museum, Dr. Dino, etc. These would be amusing if they weren’t actually believed by people and intended to replace science. The avowed goal of creationists such as those at the Discovery Institute Culture is to kill science as we know it, which they equate with materialism, replacing it with some religion infused science lite that prefers predetermined conclusions to actual hypothesis testing (ok, so those aren’t their words exactly, but they are awfully close, see The “Wedge Document”: “So What?” which is in many ways even scarier than the infamous Wedge document itself). I’m not saying that people shouldn’t challenge the science status quo, but that doing so still requires a certain vigorous application of the scientific method, something I haven’t seen in works published with the intent to prove or disprove something for religious purposes.

There is much writing on the dangers of creationism out there (by people far more qualified and experienced than I), so I’ll just say that my problem with it is its dismissal of true critical thinking in favor of dogma, which leads inevitably to such horrifying things as refusal to allow condoms for those who want them, refusal to vaccinate children, and refusal to acknowledge environmental degradation, among many others. Sadly, the problem is much more than academic, affecting lives far beyond classrooms.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) got your attention, here’s my theory: aside from these detrimental effects on society, pseudo-science has two effects on the ears it falls upon: alienating potential congregants and decreasing opportunities for current congregants.

Potential congregants (as defined for the purposes of this post) are those people who become distanced from the churches of their upbringing, at least partially due to the increasingly out-of-touch way religion interacts with the world. For those raised without religion, outdated world views are made even less attractive by literal bible interpretations. Politicizing religion’s unwillingness to adapt in court rooms and school boards only makes drifting away from church easier. These people might still attend church, maybe bring a dish to a potluck, but are forced to put their faith aside when it comes to things like science and medicine. Happily, some people do find a balance between their religion and science, but they are not common (maybe they could help their fellows and the rest of us by writing about how they came to their current position and why /how it is beneficial).

Current congregants, the choir to whom the creationists preach, are the ones who tell their children that Creation Adventure Team is “god’s honest truth”, steering them away from the “evils of science”. These children might break free, but are going to inevitably be behind children who were introduced to basic critical thinking skills at an early age. They are far less likely to be the medical researchers, civil engineers, etc. of tomorrow than their unindoctrinated counterparts. (Yes, I am insinuating a number of things here, including 1. that current believers of literal creationism are for the most part a lost cause, 2. that schools teach something like critical thinking, and 3. that children of creationists are less likely to seek careers that require critical thinking, even though there are notable exceptions. I am not, however, saying that I have any problem with faith itself, or god, or religion, only with literal interpretations of a book that is more than a little bit old and over translated.)

In order for the creationists/IDers/etc to attract and maintain the largest number of followers, to cultivate widespread faith in Christianity, yet also ensure that followers become successful members of society in a variety of career fields, they are going to have to reconcile their beliefs with modern science. What I’d recommend (as if any Christian would come to me for advice) is a more holistic view of god’s influence on the universe. Instead of being concerned with exactly how (or how not) god influences things, rest assured that god is there, letting all of the mechanisms he set in place take care of the details. In other words, be satisfied with the wonder and awe inherent in everything. Don’t force “evolutionists” to battle you over the details, instead elevate your beliefs beyond the material realm. I say this not to avoid a “messy” debate but to allow people to keep their faith and have science too. Forcing religion to fit inside a scientific argument involves admitting the possibility that a hypothesis may be false. To me, this is equivalent to challenging god with a man made construct. I know I’m out of my league here, but my latent Catholicism finds the mixing of science and religion (beyond that general sense of wonder at creation) frankly sacrilegious. Now, this loftier view of god doesn’t necessarily take away from the idea of a personal god. To be flippant: god can do whatever he wants! He can certainly cause the big bang, get evolution started, and give strength to you in times of sadness.

Abiogenesis is the best example I can think of to support the idea that science and religion are different animals. If/when science has all of the answers as to exactly how life originated from non-life, science will not be able to disprove the existence of something that is undetectable. Neither will religion be able to prove that god exists, except through faith, something that is far removed from the scientific method. Let’s all stay within our lanes.

Image by loxias via Flickr.

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What ID should focus on

Subtitle: What the ID/Creationism movement should preach if they truly want to inspire faith in a Designer/Creator

My husband, a computer scientist, and I took our first class together this summer: Practical Bioinformatics at Iowa State. He’s helped me with the software and computation aspects while I helped him with biology and genetics. One conversation leads to another, and we often find ourselves discussing how these amazingly complex biological mechanisms came to be.

He shared the example of the compiler, required to translate a computer program from the language it was written in to “assembly”, the language the computer understands. At some point, there had to be a first compiler, produced by a “creator”. He asks: “what was the origin of the first compiler in biology?”

My husband and I are both what we call “Catholic-agnostic”, although he is more truly agnostic than I. This conversation on the origins of life started flurries of conversations about the existence of god and god’s role in our lives/universe – much more so than any other topic we have discussed or any activity we have done in the seven years that we have been together.

The process of copying DNA and transcribing DNA to RNA then post-transcriptionally modifying the RNA and translating that RNA to protein then modifying the proteins to perform roles to do all of the above functions and so much more… it’s a beautiful, amazing chicken-and-egg dilemma. Which came first? How did it all get started in the proverbial primordial ooze?

The most amazing thing about these questions is: No one has the answers! Sure, we have some really good theories (I’m a fan of the RNA world), but I don’t know if we can ever really know. Synthetic or artificial biology is bringing us closer to understanding, but it’s not quite the same as recreating what happened 4 billion years ago.

I’ve heard many “proofs” for the existence of god, but strangely, the idea of abiogenesis (life from non-life) is rarely mentioned. There is no way to prove or disprove the possibility that some some force guided the formation of these complex biological molecules (be it god, angels, aliens, comets, etc). All we have is faith.

Not knowing and not being able to know aren’t proof of anything in a scientific sense, but the human need to explain is the origin of religion. Civilizations across the globe invented sun gods to explain the source of light in the sky. Does knowing the physical reality of the sun invalidate those beliefs? I think we need to accept they physical reality, but we all have the choice to partake in a more ethereal beleif to accompany it. Similarly, when/if scientists find the key to abiogenesis, the idea that the hand of god took part won’t be invalidated. Neither is god invalidated by evolution or the earth being billions of years old.

Trying to prove the existence of god with things like flagella is, frankly, sacrelige – especially since examples of “irreducible complexity” only take additional research to disprove. We can’t prove (or disprove) the existence of god, but we can inspire or discourage belief.

Miracles are all around us – simply watch a seed germinate. Knowing how cells in the stem elongate doesn’t make it any less miraculous. In fact, knowledge of the process makes it even more awe inspiring. The  wonder and joy inspired by learning about the world around us feels a lot more like the presence of god than learning dogma to most people. The stories in the bible are nice, but can they really compare to knowing how mountains came to be?

Catholics have long known that evolution and the creation story are simply two different ways to explain the same thing, one via science and one via religion. Some religious scientists (particularly Catholics, for some reason) know that every discovery they make adds to the glory of god. What is the alternative to this approach? The faithful could “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and leave science alone, but ignoring science isn’t much of a solution.

They could continue to condemn science as materialism that detracts from god, but this forces most people to choose between two very different (and mostly unrelated) things. It seems that this strategy has two possible effects: those who choose science simply leave their church, and those who choose religion dismiss and villify science. I have no problem with those who leave the church to become productive citizens, but those who remain are keeping themselves and the entire country behind (sorry for being Americentric) when it comes to science and technology. It serves no one, least of all god, for people to ignore problems in the world that need science and technology. All of these doubters, coached by groups like the Discovery Institute, are refusing to help their fellow man and to be good stewards of god’s creation by not partaking in all of the tools that god has given us.

In sum, literal creationists and their ilk are in effect making a mockery of god with their efforts. To best encourage faith, they should instead preach about the beauty of god’s world, in all it’s complexity.

Image: “The Fourth World was Black and White” by Julie Newdoll, depicting a juxtoposition of part of the Creation story of the Dine’ tribe with the RNA world theory.

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From Wiki-How

I found this Wiki-How site, apparently a guide for life which can be democratically edited much like Wikipedia. It has several guides on how to effectively argue a position, and one of the ones that I like best is the guide to defending Christian Creationism based on Genesis against Evolutionism. Being editable, this article has a few points that look to me like it may have been sabotaged. Or it may have been sincerely edited by a creationist who doesn’t want the readers to look too foolish.

  • It is helpful to know that while many examples of microevolution (i.e., changes to size, shape, color or other features within a species) have been observed. It is not true that scientists have not observed examples of macro-evolution (i.e., evolution above the species level). Therefore using this argument against evolutionists would be a fallacy, although TalkOrigins.org has many examples of Macro evolution. http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB901.html
  • Rather than argue over evidence that is difficult to disprove / disavow, it would be much more persuasive to argue against the philosophical underpinnings of science. Unfortunately, even this avenue can backfire, as most of the philosophical attacks against modernity work as well against theology / theism.
  • Remember that there is actual scientific evidence of evolution, whereas you are going by a fictional book written by humans

It seems to me that whoever has added these edits is interested in leading the creationist on a dangerous path towards a true understanding of evolution.  In the hopes of not appearing to be a fool, whoever follows the advice of this “Wiki-How” will instead learn enough about evolution to actually, finally accept its explanatory power.

(Crossposted at Tangled Up In Blue Guy)

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