Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My View of the Bible- Part 1

A recent comment asked that I talk about my experience reading the Bible this month.  One of the nice things about commenting on a blog post is that, since I get an average of about 0.6 comments per post, there's a pretty good chance I'll read it.

This is something I've been meaning to do, but I've shied away so far because of the sheer scope involved.  The Bible is a several thousand page document with one of the richest interpretive histories of anything ever written (really only the Talmud and the Koran are in the same ballpark).  I'm afraid my analysis will appear cursory in comparison, but I'll do my best to incorporate links to some of the resources I've found helpful along the way.

I must admit that my Bible reading is slower going than I had hoped for- I tend to get side tracked by the likes of C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, Richard Dawkins, and a slew of blogs and other online resources in an attempt to find answers to the questions I come across while reading the scriptures.  Truth be told, I'm about a hundred pages behind the pace I had hoped to set.  As of now, I'm part way through Deuteronomy, and I'm reading through the gospels in parallel with the old testament.

Finally, this post got ridiculously long as I tried to fit in all the reading and research I've done so far.  Its long enough that it now makes more sense to break it into multiple posts instead.  This isn't such a bad thing, since I was never going to cover the whole of the Bible in one post anyway.  This just means you'll see "My View of the Bible- Part 2" sooner rather than later.

General Impressions

1) The first thing I've noticed in my reading is that the cultural and language barriers between me and the Old Testament authors are HUGE.  We don't value the same things, and we don't talk about them in the same way.  I think I've always severely underestimated this fact.  In the past, I've read and interpreted scriptures as if they were written in English by someone who thinks like me.  The reality is much more complex, and trying to accurately interpret even what the author was going for (much less any spiritual truth behind it) is fraught with difficulties.

2) The second thing I've noticed is that so far, the Bible does not strike me as divine.  I do not mean any insult by this, and I do not mean to say here that the Bible is not in fact divinely inspired- I haven't decided what I think about that yet.  I'm merely saying that I don't think the Bible holds up as a "self-authenticating" divine work.  It may or may not be true, but so far, an honest and open reading of the Bible does not lead me to the undeniable conclusion of a divine work.

3) Third, I find that I am repulsed by the morality professed in the Old Testament.  I must pause here and admit that this is one of the cases where its very difficult to separate culture and language with my attitude towards the events described.  As a modern western thinker, I place a huge emphasis on individual rights, freedom, and justice.  Societies at the time of the Old Testament's writing placed a huge emphasis on patriachical structure, corporal success/punishment, and attributing the outcome of every event to the intervention of God.  It is unclear to me how much of what is written is colored this way- for example, how many of the instances where "God said" something were actually God talking, and how many were actions taken by Old Testament individuals that they (quite innocently, by their worldview) attributed to God.  In addition, some of the morally objectionable parts of the Old Testament do not claim the explicit support of God, but rather are silent or vague about his involvement or endorsement.  All that being said, I find it extremely difficult to reconcile the God that I grew up believing in (the "New Testament" God most modern day Christians believe in) with the one described in the Old Testament.  I will cover some specific examples of these moral problems in "My View of the Bible- Part 2"


1) The Creation story in the Bible is in direct contradiction with modern scientific understanding on several counts.  To the Christian, note that I do not say "scientific fact" here, but we must admit that both the preponderance of evidence and the vast majority of experts are now in agreement on the following subjects.

First and foremost, the theory of evolution.  It is true that evolution is "just" a theory in the same way that it is true that Newtonian Physics was "just" a theory.  In fact, I think that quite an appropriate analogy.  While Newtonian Physics turned out to be wrong, it was not wrong in a binary sense- that is, not entirely wrong.  It was wrong in that it did not correctly deal with the the boundary cases of very large or very small objects.  That is to say, it failed the test of being extrapolated beyond the data points available and the time of its inception.  Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, two of the theories that superseded parts of Newtonian Physics, turns out to explain these extremes much better.  But that does not mean Newtonian Physics was wrong in the way that the Phlogiston theory was wrong (or the classic, if mythical, flat-earth theory).  It was more incomplete than it was wrong.  If you're having trouble seeing what I'm getting at, I would recommend this essay by Isaac Asimov titled "The Relativity of Wrong".

I think the serious scientist would concede that evolution may be much the same.  It may be that we uncover something in the future that leads to a better, more accurate view of evolutionary processes.  But evolution is not "wrong" in the binary sense.  It is not the case that Common Descent is a myth, a misinterpretation, or an outright fabrication.

If you're not buying what I'm selling, and you want to see convincing evidence for Common Descent yourself, I would recommend talk origins.  I've read through several of their articles (though certainly not all), and they go into great detail about the evidence for evolution.  Frankly, I am not equipped (nor is this blog the appropriate place) to talk authoritatively on a field of science that you can literally spend your life learning and still not know everything.  But I am personally convinced with a high degree of certainty by the arguments for evolution.

Secondly, the age of the earth.  Rather than try to put this in my own words, I shall simply quote this view given by a theistic evolutionist, with which I wholeheartedly agree:
There are too many scientific disciplines that state that the earth is more than 10,000 years old. Astronomy, genetics, linguistics, geology, plate tectonics, and archeology all say it is a lot older. The probable figure is about 4 billion years for planet Earth, and roughly 3 billion for life itself. We base our conclusions on appearances and scientific observations. The weight of evidence from all these disciplines is too much for me to dismiss. I do not find at all credible the assertions that the earth is only 10,000 years old and all the natural processes occurred within that time. (Bishop Ussher calculated 6,000 years old, and the Flood at 2348 BC.)

One often reads the statement that "evolution says the earth is billions of years old." This statement is incorrect. Astronomy and geology say that the earth is billions of years old. Evolution draws on these disciplines for an estimate of the time in which the evolutionary processes can work. This point is important in order to realize the breadth of the quarrel about the age of the earth. If you assert that the earth is only 10,000 years old, you are disputing far more areas of the natural sciences than just a portion of biology.

Some young-earth creationists assert that the earth is 10,000 years old, and others assert that the earth is 6,000 years old. That's a big difference: 4,000 years, or 67%. Bishop Ussher's chronology, derived from the Bible, clearly states that the earth is 6,000 years old. Extending the age to 10,000 years conveniently places the date of Creation and the Flood beyond the oldest trees, and beyond the pyramids and dynasties of ancient Egypt. I have heard the following accusation from young-earth creationists: You are interpreting the Bible in the light of science; you should be interpreting science in the light of the Bible. (I have not heard a Bible verse to back up that charge.) 10,000 years is not what Bishop Ussher said. What is the reason for changing his number? Creationists who claim 10,000 years, unless they do so for purely Biblical reasons, should hear that same accusation ringing in their ears at least once.

Third, the idea of Noah's Ark and the global flood.  Simply doing the math for the story of Noah's ark reveals it to be completely unfeasible.  According the the Bible, the ark was constructed to be 450 feet x 75 feet by 45 feet, with a lower, second, and third deck.  I saw no mention of a roof, but lets give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the roof also serves as a deck.  So that's 4 floors of 33,750 feet, so 135,000 sq feet.  That's approximately 2.8 football fields (not including end zones).  According to John Woodmorappe in his book "Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study" (sorry no citation here... I can't find the original article I used for these numbers.  However, some quick google searches yield these two  (Christian) sites, which seem to corroborate the number), there are 16,000 different kinds of animals that Noah would have to fit on the ark.  Since he's writing a Christian book arguing for the feasibility of the ark, I think he can be relied upon to give the most favorable estimate he can in good conscience.  That's roughly 8.5 square feet for each pair of animals.  According to Woodmorappe, 15% of the 16,000 animals are the size of a sheep or bigger, which is roughly 2500 animals. Ignoring all the other animals, and ignoring the fact that some animals are much, much bigger than sheep, that's 54 sq feet for each pair of sheep-sized animals (that's a 9' x 6' cage).  That's simply not enough room to spend the 6 months or so the Bible says they were stuck there.

So the most generous estimate we can give, without counting room for humans to live, ignoring the 85% of animals smaller than a sheep, ignoring the enormous creatures like the elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, and giraffe (not to mention dinosaurs, which according to young-earth Creationists were still around at this point), and before accounting for food storage, exercise room, and waste disposal, says that the "two of every animal" theory is out the window.  All this fails to consider whether 8 people could take care of that many animals, how animals might get to Australia or North or South America after the flood, how some animals adapted to particular climates could survive (e.g. polar bears, penguins, etc) and how long it would take (or if it's even possible) for both vegetation (which we haven't even mentioned!) and animals to repopulate the earth.  And we have not yet considered the fact that the water required to cover mount Everest (Genesis 7:19-20 "all the high mountains under the whole sky were covered with flood water. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them 15 cubits deep"), or even a reasonable sized mountain range, simply does not exist in the world today.

Ultimately, you can find Christian sources that try to argue for this being possible.  But none of them use actual math.  They use lots of handwaiving.  After doing the math myself, and reading the arguments on both sides, this one's not even close.  It fails the gut reaction test, it fails the math test, and it fails the reason test on at least (by my count) six different challenges.  The only way you can claim this account is literal is to accept a litany of miracles that go completely unremarked upon in the Bible itself.  And if we're willing to accept "Miracle!" as a valid answer, particularly when the Bible makes no explicit claim of a miracle, then we've lost all basis for even thinking critically about the Bible.  And that makes it of no use to someone who doesn't already believe it to be true.

2) Since a liberal (allegorical) reading of Genesis, combined with Theistic Evolution, seems to get around the scientific problems in the old testament, I feel that I must spend a bit of time enumerating my problems with these two ideas. (I'm doing this in list form to save space)

-Genesis says that plants were created before the sun and stars.  This might work in the young-earth model, where one day without sunlight ain't going to kill you (although the temperature might...), but it most certainly does not work in the old-earth theistic evolution paradigm.  Plants flat out cannot exist without sunlight.  It seems we must accept that not only is this section of the Bible allegorical, it is also plainly inaccurate

-To use the Theistic Evolution model, we must account for "bad" creatures- creatures like tapeworms, Ebola, parasites, etc.  Moreover, we must account for the fact that these must have existed while Adam and Eve were still in the garden of Eden.  So, all that talk about perfection, no pain and suffering, and no carnivorous animals in the Garden of Eden that Christians are so fond of?  Just kidding!

-In the Theistic Evolution model, then, the Garden of Eden doesn't make sense except as an allegory.  Humans were not undying, nor were we somehow free of evil.  We were just humans.  And the "fall" wasn't anything spectacular, because there were already bad creatures and pain and death in the world

-If this is the case, then the doctrine of Original Sin seems to fall apart (I confess that I never really bought this doctrine to begin with, even as a Christian.  I wonder how many other Christians feel the same way?)  We can still have the model of God imparting a soul onto humanity, and of the first humans disobeying him and thus falling from his grace, but we are left without the grandiose language or imagery of man polluting a perfect world through his sin.

-All this seems to say we cannot take the first half of Genesis even a little bit literally.  But then, what CAN we take literally?  I think there's a huge problem here- if we didn't have science, we would (and indeed, we used to) believe something totally false about where the world came from.  Hence, the claim of Biblical Infallibility is falsified.  Or rather, saying the Bible is "infallible" is of no use to us if we can only justify it after the fact by reinterpreting the Bible to fit what we know to be true.  Frankly, the Bible is big enough and vague enough that we can interpret it to mean just about anything we want, so if we're going to go down the road that we have to reinterpret the Bible when we find out things about the world that are ACTUALLY true, then Biblical Infallibility isn't actually a meaningful claim.  I'm not saying that an infallible Bible should give us additional knowledge about science- I'm just saying the Bible shouldn't be leading us to false conclusions, which is clearly what the first half of Genesis does.

- Moreover, this portion of the Bible reads to me like a historical account.  Here I go back to what I said earlier, that there's too big of a cultural and language gap between me and the Biblical authors for me to properly say what should or should not be taken literally.  And I think the presence of so many young-earth creationists tells us that that's true of the experts as well (or, alternatively, the Bible a load of bull).  In light of this, we must ask the question: What else that we consider literal might in fact be allegorical? What about the resurrection of Jesus?  I don't *think* that part is supposed to be allegorical, but then I didn't think Genesis was either (Paul, of course, argues against this, so we may take it that at least one early church leader said otherwise)

3) Finally, I want to quickly ask and answer the question: Must the Bible be infallible to be "true" or useful?  I say no.  We don't hold anybody or anything else to the "infallible" standard.  Textbooks are true.  Science is true.  My family is trustworthy.  My reason is trustworthy.  All of these are useful, but none of them are infallible.  It seems to me an over-zealous and unnecessary claim to make on a religious text.  Moreover, it seems to me to clearly not be the case, at least for the Bible.  But the only way I actually see this as a problem for Christianity is if the Bible claims infallibility for itself.

I guess what I'm saying is that, while errors in your Holy Scriptures are not good, I have a hard time disqualifying a religion because of some historical inaccuracies.  The Bible was written by humans, copied by humans, and translated by humans.  At what point did humans become perfect?  The only way you can make this claim is to say that God actively controlled hundreds of different people throughout history and prevented them from making any sort of mistake.  This seems to me quite a bold, and indeed unnecessary, claim to make.

Next time, I'll cover some specific objections I have to several sections of the Pentateuch, along with some contradictions I see in the Gospels (hint: read the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3).  And, since this is starting to sound pretty negative, I'll also make sure to talk about some of the positive things I see in the Old Testament scriptures

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Supernatural Relationship vs. Probabalistic Belief

The possibility has occurred to me recently that perhaps I've had the wrong idea of Christianity all along.  What I have considered to be the main verifiable claim of Christianity (a personal relationship with a loving God) does not seem to be the evidence offered up by most Christians.  Nobody claims to "know" God in any relational sense of the word.  I do not intend to be contrarian here, and I think a lot of Christians would have a gut reaction disagreement with the previous sentence, so allow me to clarify: when you press the Christian for how exactly they "know" God, it is almost never through direct interaction.  It's through a particularly impacting experience, or through a word spoken from a friend at the right time, or through reading a passage of the Bible at a point in their life where it seemed particularly applicable to them.  For the most part, God does not act as a tangible, interactive presence in daily life. (I must pause here to admit that I have met people who claim this, but they generally tend to be a little bit crazy.  People who "hear" from God are the same people who's testimony I wouldn't trust in court)

This goes against what I was always taught.  I was always taught that Christians ought to have a real, self-authenticating relationship with God.  Indeed, my lack of a real relationship was the thing that ultimately drove me away from Christianity.  It was recently pointed out to me, however, that to focus on this relationship (or lack thereof) is to focus on only one pillar of the entirety of Christianity- and I agree with this sentiment.  However, in my mind, the Christian must have a good answer to the question "what is true about this reality that would not be true if my religion were false?"  Specifically, the Christian must say what about their religion or religious experience would be different if God was not real.  I am of the opinion that most of the rest of it would hold together- living a moral life, loving your enemies, experiencing authentic community with other believers- as this is exactly the portion of other (presumably false) religions that holds together.  But the "relationship" part would be conspicuously absent.  And that's what I saw in my experience.

Moreover, if we say that our "relationship" with God is not a two-way relationship, in the sense that he is not tangibly present to the believer to any extent greater than he can be "seen" in nature, then what does this say about our belief in him?  It seems to me to say that it's probablistically based.  We have no "assurance" of anything.

Put it another way- let's pretend for a moment that I'm convinced by the arguments for the supernatural.  By "convinced" here, I would simply mean that I consider the weight of the arguments for the supernatural to be greater than the weight of arguments against the supernatural  (and indeed, I'm actually much closer to this than I ever would have expected).  My belief is therefore Bayesian- probabilistic in nature.  I would remain convinced only so long as I didn't hear new arguments or gain new experiences that render old arguments more or less compelling.  Certainly my belief would not be the "assurance" or "self-authenticating" faith that Christians tout, and I would be just as willing to give up this faith, in light of new evidence, as I am to give up any other fact of nature.

In my mind, such a belief implies two things: first, a totally impersonal "relationship" with God.  You don't accept the existence of a friend, mentor, father, or any other personal relationship on probablistic evidence.  If we fall back on probability to explain God, then we've lost any semblance of a bi-directional relationship.  Second, this strikes me as not true "belief".  Certainly it is not the belief the Bible asks for.  Saying "I accept God as being sufficiently likely that I will act as if he exists" seems to me a much different thing than saying "I have faith that God exists"

It seems, then, that Christianity leaves no room for probabalistic belief.  If you are to believe, you must believe with everything you have- all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul.  For someone like me to do this, I would need an incredibly high level of confidence in its truth.  A level of confidence, I think, that far exceeds what mere rational argumentation can give.  A level of confidence that can only be achieved via a Supernatural Relationship with a being that is clearly and undeniably God.

I must admit I'm a bit confused by those who describe this demand- this requirement of an undeniably supernatural experience before I will believe- as "testing" God.  It is looked down on as a request lacking "faith".  To both of these I say, yes.  I AM testing God- not the personal character of God, or his faithfulness, or his power, but rather his very existence.  To do anything else is irresponsible.  And yes, I do lack "faith" in the blind sense of the word.  Faith, in my mind, is earned.  I have faith in my parents, in my brother, in my good friends.  I trust them, not because I close my eyes and hope really hard that they have my best interest at heart, but because they've demonstrated it throughout my life.  If we are prepared to accept on faith the final conclusion of a religion, then we've lost any basis for differentiating between religions (or more generally, world views), as I could just as easily accept on faith the existence of Allah, or of reincarnation, or of no God at all.

So it seems to me that without some evidence- something I can point to and conclusively say "This would not be true if God were not real"- I can't go beyond my weak Bayesian belief.  And therein lies the heart of my problem.  I have already deconverted on the basis of Bayesian beliefs.  I see no reason to think I won't do so again.

I would be interested to hear any comments from Christians about whether you think it's viable to believe in Christianity on Bayesian principles.  Is it enough to say "I think this is likely, but I'm not sure"?  Or is true, 100% buy-in required?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Problem of the Soul

Humans aren't eternal in the backwards direction- we have no memory of "before" we were born.  To the best of my knowledge, Christianity doesn't claim that we existed before being born, but rather that God creates us at conception.

But here's my problem: you are not "you" until very late in life.  An individual's personality really isn't formed until their late teens (if even then).  Isn't this a problem for the idea of a soul?  If a soul- that which gives us free will- is so fickle and malleable, how can it possibly be eternal?  What makes me "me" doesn't seem to be that I was born as me, but rather that I grew into me- my genetics and surroundings have developed me this way.

Put it another way- if our soul is what goes on, which version of our soul is it?  Is it the one we have when we are born?  Or the one we have when we die?  Or is it the best version of our soul that we ever have?  Any answer here seems rather arbitrary to me.

Or perhaps the Christian claim is that the "soul" is entirely separable from the mind.  Maybe your soul, your nature, doesn't change- but then we are left with the same question about the mind.  And if the mind doesn't continue ad infinitum, then what can we say about the afterlife?  That we do not think, that we are some ethereal being with broad prinicples but no personality?  That doesn't make heaven sound so good (or hell sound so bad).  Moreover, people do change, sometimes in fundamental ways.  How can we say that the soul is eternal if its not even consistent in the brief glimpse we have of it on earth?  Particularly if the attitude of the soul is the barometer of salvation, as is the case in most major religions.  For example, what about someone like me, who once believed Christianity- and I truly did believe it, in every sense of the word- but has since ceased to believe?  Which version of me is it that is eternal?  Which me will be judged when I die?

Ultimately, I don't think these arguments about the nature of the soul are defeaters of Christianity.  But I do think they're important to recognize, particularly in light of what I consider to be the best arguments for Christianity.  Both the moral law argument and the question of purpose are very similar arguments- they ask the listener to apply strict logic to an idea that is "spiritual" in nature, and draw conclusions based on the fact that this logic contradicts the Atheist viewpoint.  I think applying strict logic to the concept of a soul yields lackluster results for the Christian.  Of course, the Christian can always make the argument that "we don't fully understand spiritual matters".  But this sounds a lot like the Atheist who says "just because we don't understand the moral law, doesn't mean it's supernatural in nature."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Question of Origin

In my mind, there are three fundamental "Origin" questions that Atheists need to respond to (Christians pretty much have these locked up).  I don't think not having a satisfactory answer to these would be proof against Atheism, because one of the basic tenets of a scientific worldview (which is by and large what Atheism claims to be) is to only make claims about things you know (or have a good theory for).  So in my mind, a lack of a good answer here would just point to the fact that Atheism, as currently constructed, is missing something pretty important (that something may or may not be God).  My three questions are these:

1) where did the universe come from?
2) where did life come from?
3) where did humans come from?

1) Where did the Universe come from?

*Edit: this argument has grown in importance for me quite a bit over the last few months.  Read this section as you will, but I am now actually more concerned with this question than with the other two*

I am personally less concerned with this question than with the other two.  I think both Christianity and Atheism stand on equally weak footing here, and the reality is that both the going theory for atheists (the big bang) and for Christians (God did it) implies a state of the universe that we can't really hope to have any knowledge of.  What rules would apply when all of existence was compressed into a point-mass?  What new forces would we observe?  What would time even look like at that point?  I do think there's some validity to the "first causation" argument- i.e. if everything has a cause, then either time must go infinitely backwards, in which case we couldn't possibly have gotten to our current point because that would imply infinite time has passed, or there was some unmoved mover.  However, given the implications of relativity, where time is no longer the universal constant, I find it hard to speak sensibly on the subject.  If nothing else, I can say that I am not an expert, I can totally imagine a universe in which time does something crazy like going as e^(1/x):
 "The rate of change of time with respect to... uh...." 
If we're going to talk about time in this way, does it even make sense to talk about a "beginning" of anything?  I don't know.  And I don't know that I'm capable of knowing anything in this realm with enough certainty to claim understanding.  Certainly I don't think I can known anything about this with enough conviction to base my life on it.  I can accept it as an additive argument for a supernatural being, but not as a cornerstone.

2) where did life come from?

I'm definitely not an expert here.  Not a biologist, not a chemist, and not particularly interested in either, beyond a general interest in learning new things.

That being said, I find abiogenesis a difficult pill to swallow.  The general theory goes that, since most of the "building blocks" of life- amino acids, nucleotides, and saccharides- can arise through purely chemical processes, life itself could arise through a purely non-directed chemical process.

Let me make two opposing arguments here: the first is an argument by analogy to something I do know a bit about- computers.  The second is a response to that argument.

Now, I have taken enough biology to know that life is CRAZY complicated.  Much more complicated than the most complicated of computers.  But lets imagine for a moment that you have a processor, and you have some non-directed chemical process spewing random bits onto a process's code segment.  The processor happily trundles along, executing 32 bits at a time (yes... it's an x86 imaginary evolution processor) of this random data.  Now a single 32 bit instruction can accomplish only a minuscule amount of work- you can add two numbers, multiply two numbers, shift some bits, load some data from memory, or jump to a new execution point.  That's pretty much it.  Everything your computer does is a wild, crazy, insanely cool combination of those operations (not unlike life, in fact).

To get anything meaningful to happen in a program, you need thousands- millions- of these instructions all chained together perfectly.  If any one of them is off, you break the whole thing.  Start over.  So you need to get these millions of random bits in exactly the right order to get anything meaningful.  The odds of a string of bits of length n randomly conforming to some predefined string of bits is equal to one in 2^n (roughly 10 ^ (n/3.32)).  So the odds of getting a string of 1000 bits in a row exactly correct on the first try is about one in 10^(300).  Number of atoms in the observable universe? About 10^80.  It's hard to imagine how big of a number 10^300 is.  Even if we had a billion chemical processes' spewing out a billion bits a second for each of the 4 trillion or so planets in each of the 125 billion or so galaxies in the known universe for every second in the last 13 billion years, we'd still have zero chance of getting the 1000 bits correct (10^30 * 10^30 * 4 * 10^40 * 125 * 10^30 * 60 * 60 * 24 * 365 * 13 * 10^30 = 2 * 10^171).  In fact, mathematically speaking we'd have 0 chance of even seeing 600 bits correct (we'd expect to hit 568 bits once or twice)

And this is ignoring two HUGE problems.  First, it takes a LOT more than 1000 bits to create life.  Again, I'm  no biologist, so I don't think I can speak for exactly how complex life is, but wikipedia tells me the largest human chromosome is 220 million base pairs long.  If you're curious, that's 10^66,200,00 bits.

Second, it's not just creating life that we're talking about.  It's creating self-sustaining, reproducing, evolution-capable life.  If someone were to create a self-replicating, randomization-based evolutionary computer program that was able to not only survive, but evolve to the point of forming its own network cluster that was capable of rational thought and had a sense of self awareness on the scale of a human being, that would be the single biggest achievement of humanity.  By a lot.  Despite all our capability for design, all our effort, and all our ingenuity, we can't even come close to doing this.  Not even close.  Yeah, machine learning is cool, but compared to human reasoning?  It's a joke.

Now, I think the abiogenesist has a good counter argument: what's all this talk about randomness?  There's nothing random about this process.  This is chemically driven.  Chemicals react with each other in particular ways under particular conditions, such that it's totally conceivable that the right chemicals in the right proportions in the right conditions could create the cell structure necessary to facilitate life.  Any "randomness" only comes into the picture when we ask whether or not that cell survives long enough to reproduce, and in what direction evolution takes that life.  To use the computer analogy, anyone who's ever done fuzz testing knows that randomizing data inputs is almost never a successful attack vector.  Instead, you take already existing ("good") data, and you tweak one or two bits to see what happens.  If chemistry can get you the "good" data, and the environment can tweak a few bits, then all that math we talked about was for nothing.

The problem with the abiogenesist argument, of course, is that we haven't been able to find the right chemicals in the right proportions in the right conditions to replicate this.  My understanding (again... not an expert) is that we've found some interesting reactions that look vaguely like they might be related to life formation, but we're not particularly close to replicating the correct conditions, or even verifying that it's possible to create all the base elements necessary, much less that they can combine in any meaningful way.

I'm not really sure how I feel about these arguments.  I sort of like both arguments, actually.  Let me put it this way: if abiogenesits are ever able to create life in a lab through purely chemical processes, I think it strikes a pretty big blow to religion.  But they haven't yet.  And they're not close.  So what now?  After all, they've only been at it for a hundred years or so, so are we really justified in saying they've failed, and we should turn to a religious answer?  On the other hand, if the religious answer is true, then won't we forever be stuck in this "well, we just haven't figured it out YET..." paradigm?  My inclination is that the totality of these arguments points towards life being unexplained by natural phenomenon- at least so far.  While this seems to me a decently compelling argument for the supernatural, it does not, in my mind, have the strength necessary to convince me of the supernatural in a vacuum of other evidence.

3) Where did humans come from?

Two points to make here.  First, humans are different from everything else in existence.  We operate at a cognitive and self-aware level that no other life matches.  And it's not just that we're different, but everything else is the same!  All other animals are in the same ballpark in terms of instincts, intelligence, self awareness, etc.  We're playing an entirely different sport.

The second point is that human civilization has a startlingly short history.  Think about everything we've done in the last 5000 years or so.  What exactly were we doing for the 50-200 thousand years before that?  How is it that we managed basically no progress for the first 90+% of Homo Sapiens existence, but then have this explosion to the point of our modern understanding of the universe in the last tiny bit?

There seem to be two major theories here.  The first says that there was some transformative event that caused humans to reach this level of behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago. The second says there was no such event, and the transformation from beast to humanity was a gradual one,  happening over the last 200,000 years.

The first theory seems to me a much better fit for what we observe.  If the change was indeed a gradual one, I would expect our intellectual growth to be a gradual one as well.  It hasn't been.  The only thing slowing us down seems to be the base starting knowledge of the generation before us- not our intellectual capacity.  Moreover, I would expect to see discernible differences in the intellectual and social capacity of different people groups that have been separated for the last several thousand years.  We don't see this.

But if the first theory is correct, then what was the source of this change?  A single genetic mutation seems to be the only explanation.  But how crazy big of a change is that?  That's not how mutations work- small changes accumulate over time, you don't have multiple significant changes all happening at once.

Incidentally, I see a way for Christianity to coexist here.  What if the story of God "creating" Adam in the Old Testament is simply God making this transformative shift?  I can see how God giving humanity the spark of life - the "soul", as it were- would be a form of creating humanity.  This is the argument given by the Theistic Evolution crowd.


My ultimate conclusion to all this is that we simply don't know the answers one way or another.  I find that a religious approach has answers to these questions- but it requires accepting something that seems at least as implausible as the natural explanations for these events, namely the existence of a deity.  Atheism does, at least, provide some theories to explain our origins, but I find them unsatisfying.  Moreover, there doesn't seem to be a consensus opinion among the experts about which of these theories is the most reasonable.  As I said before, in my view a lack of a good answer here points to the fact that Atheism, as currently constructed, is missing something pretty important.  However, that something may or may not be God.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The problem of Evil

In all honesty, this question has never really bothered me too much, but I figure I should cover it for completeness.

The argument goes that there is too much evil in the world for us posit a "good" God.  If there is a good, all-powerful God, then why is there so much in existence that by its very definition goes against his character?  Moreover, how did evil even start?  If it was introduced by God, then God is not good, and if it was introduced by something other than God (or is a mistake of God's), then God is not God.  Thus, the paradigm of a good God is self-refuting in a world with evil.

As I said, I am not overly troubled by this.  It seems to me that if a good God only allows for good, then he necessarily bans free will from existence.  I don't think I have the faculties necessary to make a value judgement on which is better, free will or a good universe, but if I had to pick one, I think I'd pick free will.  At the very least, we can say that free will presents a powerful counter argument to the problem of evil, and a reasonable explanation as to how a good God and evil can coexist.

But I think there's something deeper here that is often missed.  Not only is evil not a defeater of God (in an epistemological sense), I would argue that it actually qualifies as evidence FOR the supernatural.  Making any sort of claim about evil carries with it an implicit assumption that good and evil are real things, and that good is definitionally superior to evil.  This is ultimately just a rewording of the Moral Law argument.  So in arguing against the existence of a good God, we are forced to invoke (or rather admit) a real, objective standard of good and evil.

My own view is that this whole good and evil business doesn't make sense in a purely natural world, and we therefore only have justification for believing in it if we are prepared to admit something beyond the natural world (here by "believing in it", I mean believing that good is superior to evil in an objective way, and is not an arbitrary value judgement conjured up as a relic of our evolutionary past.  This is distinct from believing in the fact that we experience the pull of what we would call "good" and "evil", which I don't think any reasonable person would deny).  It should be noted that there are a great many very intelligent atheists who disagree with me on this point, and think that an objective moral standard can coexist with a purely natural world.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Can we choose what we believe?

This is a rather esoteric idea, and I'm not even sure it meets the technical definition of "meaningful".  But it is a question that has plagued me, particularly in conversations with Christians.  Many times I have been told that I need to "believe before I understand".  My contention is that belief is not a choice, but rather a state of being

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Problem of Believing What You Want

*EDIT: upon rereading this post, I realize I have left out a critical point.  Fortunately, the point pretty much makes itself when you read the definition of confirmation bias.  Ah, the perils of instantaneous publishing...*

I have a confession to make: I desperately want to believe in Christianity.  And it's not just about the girl anymore.

The more I devote myself to figuring out what I believe, the more I realize how purposeless life is without God.  Without something more to believe in, the best we can possibly do is jump from one fleeting happiness to another.  And that's only if we can achieve the cognitive dissonance necessary to ignore the fact that none of it matters (I will admit here that this may not be a problem for everyone; some people may be perfectly satisfied with a life of happiness that has no grander meaning.  I am not one of those people)

But there's a problem.  As much as I want to believe, I still need a reason to.

If the truth is uncertain, the natural tendency is to believe what you want to be true.  And for the most part, that's fine.  That's a reasonable way to live your life- in fact, it's healthy.  Only a truly cynical human being goes through life expecting the worst without any reason to.  But what happens when what you want changes?

I believed in Christianity for a very long time.  I was no more or less rational then than I am now.  But it wasn't until I looked at it with unbiased eyes- until I admitted that what I wanted more than belief was truth- that my doubts overcame my faith.  In the end, I had nothing with which to fight those doubts.  I walked away from Christianity because when I looked at it without the desperate desire to believe, I didn't believe it.

Let us stop here for another honesty break- there's no such thing as unbiased eyes.  Bias is a frustrating beast, in that you can rarely recognize it within yourself.  I have no doubt that I was biased in a hundred different directions by a thousand competing forces when I walked away, most of which still remain unknown to me.  However, I can say with confidence that I was, when I believed, most definitely biased towards belief, and that my acceptance of Christianity was in no small part  (though I will not go so far as to say entirely) based upon this bias.

If Christianity seems plausible but uncertain to me now, then what's to stop me from doing exactly what I did before and walking away at some point in the future when I don't desperately want it to be true?  If I am ever to believe in Christianity again, then I need an answer to the question: "What's different this time around?"

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I play basketball a couple of times a week with a group of guys.  We're a motley crew, and none of us are all that good.  I've noticed something over the last couple of weeks, ever since I started to take a serious look back into Christianity: I've noticed I make a lot of excuses.

Whenever something goes wrong, it's NEVER my fault.  It's always someone else.  If only he'd cut when he should have, if only he'd rotated on defense like I rotated to help the other guy, if only he could make a layup, our team would have won.

I think making excuses is a common human trait.  It also happens to be a particularly big character flaw of mine.  In many ways, I think this is directly related to pride.  We need ego- it's part of every healthy, functioning adult.  But pride is an over-inflation of that ego, and the easiest way to keep our ego inflated is to deflect anything that would cause us to question our own value.

When it comes to religion, there's a delicate balance.  Do I think I walked away from Christianity for good reasons?  Yes.  In retrospect, do I think I made excuses for my behavior, my thoughts, and the world I observed?  Also yes.

But this works both ways.  Christians are really good at making excuses.  They make excuses for their behavior (say you felt led to do something in Christian circles and you're immediately off the hook), but more often than not they make excuses for their religion.  They make excuses for Old Testament morality ("That's just how society was back then", "It's a cultural thing we just can't understand", "this was a huge step forward compared to other societies of the time"), for contradictions in the Bible ("I know it SAYS this, but it really MEANS that...", "Well, if you look at the original Greek, you see that the word can actually have many different meanings..."), and they make excuses for God ("We can't understand his plan", "He works in mysterious ways", "You just need to have faith").  I understand, from their point of view, all of these arguments.  But from the outside looking in, they all ring hollow.  They sound like someone justifying their religion against the evidence.  They sound like a blind faith.

Figuring out the line between valid criticisms and excuses (or valid defenses and excuses) is difficult business.  I think that we can all pretty clearly see when other people are making excuses.  We need no help in identifying where the man who believes opposite from us has gone wrong.  We need a great deal of help, however, identifying where we've gone wrong ourselves.

I guess there's not much of a point here, other than to say that I'm trying to wrap my head around the excuses I've made in the past, and I think it's a worthwhile exercise for anyone to do.  Particularly if, like me, you've lost your belief in something, I think you need to be extra careful about the real reasons you lost that belief.  You will almost assuredly miss most of the major excuses you've given, but you will also most assuredly end up closer to the truth than when you started.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Moral Law

I've mentioned C.S. Lewis on many occasions, and this post will be particularly Lewis-heavy. He discusses the existence of the Moral Law in his book Mere Christianity with great clarity, and I would recommend the book to anyone curious, whether for intellectual or religious reasons. 

The Moral Law

Essentially, the argument goes that we all have this innate sense of Right and Wrong, and that this sense compels us to do what is Right- that we "ought" to do what is right.  Moreover, our Right and Wrong are appealing to some outside standard of Right and Wrong that is shared by all humanity.  Lewis makes the argument that, in the case of a conflict between instincts, this sense of what we ought to do often actively increases the strength of the (typically weaker) Right instinct at the expense of the (typically stronger) Wrong instinct.  This is therefore a value judgement, and not an instinct in and of itself.  It is the method by which we differentiate which of our instincts is appropriate at a given time and which is not (each instinct having its appropriate place and time).  In short, it is the Humanness of being Human.  

The second part of Lewis' argument is that we all know that there is some moral standard to which we ought adhere, but we curiously do not even follow our own idea of Right and Wrong.   Any other "standard" you can point to in nature talks about what DOES happen, not what OUGHT to happen- in fact they cannot distinguish between the two.  A rock doesn't know whether it should or should not fall to the ground; it merely does.  And our theory of gravity does not say that a rock should or should not fall, it merely attempts to explain the particulars of the fact that it does (and perhaps, in some more ambitious theories, the reason it does).  The appeal we make to this moral standard seems quite unique amongst all of creation.

Finally, Lewis makes an argument that at first seems tangential, but I think is an important one in considering the weight we should give to this Moral Law idea.  The argument goes that Man is the only thing we know non-scientific information about. Everything else we merely observe, but we ARE men. We have some inside knowledge, and it is here- and in the Moral Law- that we would expect to see evidence of a real kind for God.  If in fact we do see such evidence in the one place it seems reasonable to expect it, we ought give it some more weight in our overall consideration of the question of God.

An Atheist Response

An atheist defense to this question is given over at unequally yoked- essentially the argument is "I don't know why we have this idea of a moral Right and Wrong, and I don't need to know for my everyday life."  The author makes the analogy to the fact that I am justified in believing that what I see with my eyes is reality, even without a full understanding of the inner workings of the human eye.  Understanding of the mechanism is not essential for an understanding of the result.

This answer seems to me to stop a bit short of the important point. The point is that morality is not a physical process at all, and it is somewhat nonsensical that it exists in the first place. Moreover, it seems to me that morality is much less trustworthy than sight, in that sight is clearly a wholly natural process that requires no appeal to a non-natural standard. While each of us may appeal to different standards of sight (color blind people, for example, see the world much differently than I do), we have an objective standard by which to judge that sight.  We can interact with our other four senses and verify the authenticity of that sight. Morality provides no such verification.  I see no way to argue, for example, that my morality is any better than any other man's morality.  

I would even go so far as to say that, from an atheist perspective, I have no claim to having a "better" morality than *insert your favorite archetypal evil character here- Hitler, Mousolini, Kony, etc*.  My only option is to appeal to a standard that I see so clearly, but cannot with any certainty say that anyone else sees.  That is to say, even if there is an objective standard, I have no method by which to verify it.  I have no way to differentiate any two views as being "closer" or "farther" from that standard, because the only observations about the standard I can make come through my own interpretation of that same standard.  This is, in many ways, the same failing of human nature that allows people of different religions to fervently believe themselves to be in the right.  Their beliefs are not objectively verifiable, and therefore they find themselves open to rampant psychological predispositions and biases.
It seems to me that this is a big weakness of atheism (and strength of Christianity). If I am to believe that my morality is not arbitrary (and I very much would like to believe that, though I'm not sure I have justification to), then I need an explanation for the source of this morality. To have the morality without the source is tenable- that is, I can live my life in such a way- but it leaves me unsatisfied, with the general impression that I'm missing something important.

My Response

I take exception with two points Lewis makes that I would like to call out.  Firstly, I am not wholly convinced that all men share the same objective standard that we appeal to.  Even in simply reading the Old Testament, I find myself repulsed by the actions of many of the main players (and God himself) on moral grounds.  If we were really appealing to the same standard, how did we arrive at such different conclusions?  Lewis downplays the differences as generally minor in absolute terms, saying that while we don't necessarily agree on how many wives a man ought to have, we don't disagree that a man ought not have any women he liked.  I, however, find quite extreme differences between my morality and that shown in the Old Testament- from God's treatment of the Egyptian people during the 10 plagues, to God killing a man for not impregnating his brothers widow, to Sarah and Rachel giving servants to their husbands in order that the servants might bear children in their stead- and then immediately turning on the servants.  These actions do not seem to me to be appealing to the same standard of Rightness that I have.  And if they are appealing to the same standard of Rightness, how is it that I am so repulsed and they are not?  And if there is indeed an objective standard, what justification could I possibly have for thinking that my views are any closer to this actual standard than theirs?

My second objection is to Lewis' assertion that such things are not a consequence of evolutionary psychology.  He gives an argument against it being part of the "Herd Instinct", in that our idea of Rightness is what helps us judge between following the Herd Instinct and some other instinct (self preservation, for example), and therefore cannot itself be the Herd Instinct.  I would contend the following, however: if a group of individuals develops an algorithm (genetic or otherwise) to determine which instinct is optimal for the success and growth of that group, then that group is more likely to succeed and grow.  The algorithm need not be perfect, just better than the next best thing, in this case no algorithm at all.  Therefore from an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that human beings would develop on such a path as to give them the ability to differentiate appropriate times to use their instincts.  To put it into context, if a man is being attacked by a single wild animal, and his entire tribe is nearby, it is advantageous to the group if they come and save him.  However, if that man is being attacked by a pack of wild animals, and only a single tribe-mate is nearby, it is evolutionarily advantageous for that second tribe-mate to run, and survive.  Right and Wrong could, therefore, be nothing more than a genetic algorithm to predict the highest expected value of all possible actions for the survival of the species.

This answer leaves me unsatisfied, however.  In the previous example, my sense of Right and Wrong tells me it is Right to try and save my compatriot, even if it will more than likely result in my death.  This fact I cannot explain in evolutionary terms, other than to say that if Right and wrong truly is a judgement amongst competeing instincts, it is not unreasonable that we are left with a sour taste in our mouths when we must deny one of our very strong desires in favor of a slightly stronger one.

Lewis talks a lot about how we're transgressing against the moral law. I can't seem to get there. I don't FEEL sinful. I'm trying to think of instances where I've gone against the moral law, and I'm having trouble. I suppose I lust, if we're calling that a sin and not simple biology. I get peeved at people who behave in a way I disapprove of. I make excuses for failures and blame others. But none of these strike me as all that heinous. 

Perhaps this is the missing link between me and God? That's certainly what Lewis thinks: "When you have realised that our position is nearly desperate you will begin to understand what Christians are talking about.  They offer an explanation of how we got into our present state of both hating goodness and loving it"

My Conclusion

I love the Moral Law argument.  It speaks to the empiricist in me.  It doesn't start in a void and try to derive God- rather, it starts with the fundamental human experience, and concludes "look, this is utterly absurd without God".  I think the moral law argument is an excellent one, and combined with the problem of purpose I've already spoken about, is the rational basis on which Christians are justified in believing as they do.

But let us take this to its logical conclusion.  If we are to talk about experience, and from that draw our conclusions on God, then we must admit that experience is our ultimate barometer of truth.  Or perhaps I have said that too strongly.  If experience is what leads us to accept God, then experience can also lead us to reject God.  And that's what happened to me.  My experience in this world of good and evil, of moral right and wrong, is very convincing.  But so was my experience of not being able to find God when I looked for him, of seeking and not finding, of failing to find the self-authenticating reality of the Holy Spirit in my life. 

So which of these experiences am I to believe?  Am I justified in holding one on faith and rejecting the other?  For the purposes of that question, I'm not even sure it matters which I accept and which I reject.  It seems to me just as irrational to accept my Moral Law experience and ignore my Lack of God experience as it is to accept my Lack of God experience and ignore my Moral Law experience.  I'm not entirely sure I can even characterize which experience was "stronger".  Both were/are fundamentally different, but both were/are also very intense.  But this leaves me in a bit of a pickle, doesn't it?  I have seemingly contradictory experiences, and I don't know that I'm justified ignoring either.

I see two possible outs of this predicament.  First, I could ignore both.  That, however, strikes me as wrong if my intention is to look for truth.  Ignoring evidence that doesn't fit seems to me to never be a good idea (and indeed, has been one of my criticism of Christianity). 

Second, I could accept both.  Here again I see two major forms this can take: one is the atheistic humanism approach given by the author of unequally yoked- essentially, yes, I have this moral law experience, no, I can't explain it, but no, it doesn't really matter that I can't.  Moreover, the fact that I can't explain it doesn't prove a God- it just proves there are things about this world that I don't understand.  I already knew that.  The second approach is to say yes, I did experience a Lack of God, but that is not a proof against the existence of God.  There are a great many reasons I could have experienced this.  I could have been praying to the wrong God; I could have had incorrect ideas about God; God could have intentionally drawn away from me for some unknown plan or purpose; I could have drawn away from God (presumably through sin) to such an extent that I would have been unable to find him when I looked; I could have failed to look hard enough for God; I could have failed to look for God in the right way.

I don't as of yet have an answer for the question of how to escape this predicament.  I suspect that when I do, I shall have my answer about whether I am a Christian or an Atheist.

"Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. "dark" would be a word without meaning."
--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Problem of Geography

All religions share a single huge flaw: they all claim to be the only way to God. The religious distribution of the world is in stark contrast to what we would expect if any one of these religions were true.  For starters, let's take a look at a map of the worlds different religions from Wadsworth:

I don't question the source or accuracy of this map too much, based on the fact that every map I've found has essentially the same distribution, with a higher or lower granularity

Christianity (and therefore salvation) seems largely geographically dependent.  Moreover, as responsible thinking adults, aren't we forced to acknowledge that where you are born plays a much larger role in your salvation than anything else?  It matters more than your reasonableness, your goodness, your capacity for logical thought, your desire to know God (for each of these religions claims to offer God, in some sense of the word), your intellectual honesty, even how hard you try to find God.

How can you justify this in the paradigm of a loving God?  How can a loving God condemn his creations- WHOM HE LOVES- based almost entirely on where they were raised?  This problem is further exacerbated when you realize that, prior to the last 100 years or so, people not native to the "true" religion had literally no way to discover the true God.  Some still don't.

C.S. Lewis gives an interesting argument for this in Chapter 5, book 2 of Mere Christianity: "The truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are.  We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."  His point is essentially that someone following God with a true spirit might yet be saved, even though he doesn't know the name of Jesus.  From what I understand, this is a sentiment echoed in two of Lewis' most famous works, The Great Divorce and The Chronicles of Narnia (though I haven't read them myself)

I'm not really sure how I feel about this argument.  On the one hand, it seems reasonable that a just God would care a lot more about which "side" a person was on (to use Lewis' terminology) than about whether or not he got the details just right.  Who's to say that a true dedication to God, the moral law, and truth isn't enough?  After all, if we require a belief in Jesus, then what exactly is the standard?  Must you say his name out loud?  Or must you simply think his name?  Or is his name not so important, just the idea that someone or something has paid for your sins?  Or must we realize that it was God incarnate, who came down as a man, but his name is not so important?

But this leaves something wanting in my view.  If God can and will save those who have not explicitly invoked the name of Jesus, then why not save us all?  If he loves us all, that seems the reasonable thing to do.  I have a hard time imagining that, faced with his glory and grandeur, those of us who did not believe will still harbor any doubts.  What is to be gained by sending us all to hell, if he has the ability to save us?  (again, here I am told The Great Divorce is an interesting read, and runs counter to much of what modern Christians say about Hell)

The truth is that the reasonable Christian will admit (and here I include Lewis, for he does admit this) that he simply doesn't know.  God has not revealed to us the standard by which we are judged- only that Jesus is a necessary part of that standard.  Or perhaps to put it better- the Bible has revealed A way to God.  It is not clear that it has revealed the ONLY way to God (this is a statement that most Christians would call heresy, but I believe Lewis would agree with.  That is not to say that Lewis does not think Christ a necessary part of salvation- he clearly does- but merely that the knowledge of the story of Jesus and the totality of the doctrines of the church may not be)

In the end, this seems to me a difficult problem to overcome.  I can see where a Christian could make the argument that to force a normalization of religion would be an infringement on free will, which seems to be the whole point and purpose of why we are in this "sin" mess to begin with.  As Lewis puts it, "If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will...then we may take it it is worth paying."

But in trying to decide if there is a God at all, this does not look good.  It seems like if there is a God, and if his glory and power and right-ness are so obvious as to be self-authenticating and apparent to all humanity, then how is it that over half of the world simply disagrees?  And it is well over half- according to wikipedia (I know... official, right?) over 1.6 billion of the world population are Muslim, and between 1.5 and 3 billion are Christian.  So that's a minimum of 4 Billion or so people who are dead wrong about God.  Not only dead wrong, but absolutely convinced that they are correct.  And this seems to me the most damning evidence of all.  This is proof- incontrovertible proof- that it's possible to be absolutely full of religious conviction and be totally, completely wrong.  So how can we possibly trust ourselves, much less others, when we experience such conviction?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Science and Religion

*NOTE: here again I refer to the "Christian" and attribute to him a very specific set of beliefs.  These are the beliefs I was taught in my conservative, Non-Denominational American Christian upbringing.  I do not think these beliefs are the only possible ones to hold as a Christian (and indeed, if I do become a Christian again, I do not expect to hold these same views).  I am merely giving some justification for what drove me away from Christianity last time around.*

What is clear to me is that Christians do not interpret faith through the lens of evidence, but rather interpret evidence through the lens of faith.  I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with very smart Christians who try to convince me that the flood is reasonable given the historical evidence, or how flawed all of our dating methods are, or that evolution takes just as much faith as Christianity.

The last point I will treat first, for I find it the most insidious.  Science does not operate on faith. It operates on theories.  And the fundamental difference between theories and faith are that theories are discarded when either a) contradictory evidence or b) a better theory comes along.  It is not necessary to invoke faith to believe something that we are unsure of, because belief is a probability distribution.  What the Christian would call "faith", the scientist would call "uncertainty".  This is important to note, because we cannot equate believing in a less mature scientific theory with believing in the supernatural- the scientific theory, if it is a valid one, has evidence behind it, while there is no *natrual* evidence that can sufficiently convince us of the claims of the *supernatrual*.

That Christianity requires faith and science does not is not in and of itself a condemnation of Christianity.  For as we have said before, Christianity is not scientific, and it does not purport itself to be.  The evidence for Christianity is, and must be, experiential.  It must be a conviction beyond denial.  And this conviction, if strong enough, gives us rational license to take certain things on faith.  The question becomes how MUCH license, and what things we should be taking on faith, and how we should deal with evidence that flies in the face of that faith.

But let us return to the original point. The scientist's goal (as least his claimed goal) is to observe reality and form unbiased theories based on these observations.  When a scientist forms a theory, he starts with the data and interpolates a model that explains the data.  This is fundamentally different from what the Christian does.  The Christian starts with a model (the historical account given in the old testament) and tries to explain why the data supports (or at least does not contradict) that model.  It must be admitted, of course, that the advent of a new scientific model is in fact quite rare.  Most of science deals with verifying the congruence of new data with existing models, and therefore looks very simillar to the method employed by Christians.  But the key difference here is that the scientist is willing and able to discard his model if and only if a better model comes along.  The Christian is not afforded this luxury.  The Christian is stuck with the historical claims made by the Bible, and they must defend these as vociferously as they defend the inerrant nature of the Bible, regardless of what new data may arise.  To be locked into one such model runs counter to what it means to be science, and in my view, counter to the appropriate use of the human intellect.  If there is a God, and he has gifted us both a desire and an ability to understand the world around us, why then should we shy away from such knowledge?  Why try to box it in when it doesn't fit what we think it should be?

I think this ultimately comes to a question of your view of Biblical Innerrancy and/or Infalliability.  I will cover this in another post, but I will say that I find the doctrine a curious thing, and that I think it is the aspect of the Christian Doctrine with which I grew up that I am most certain is incorrect.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Divinity of Love

I don't think I understood love until very recently.  Of course, that's one of those things you can say at any point in your life and its basically true- things like "If only I'd known five years ago what I know now..." or "You kids have things so much better than back in my day..." or "Man, I really hate the Celtics" (or is that just me?)

While I'm sure there's a good chance I'll say the same in a few more years, I do think it's fair to say that I have an expanded view of love from what I knew even just a few months ago. Specifically, I've experienced a new side of love: loss.

In the interest of maintaining continuity with this blog's tag line, I need to stop here and be honest for a second.  I have experienced loss before.  I lost God.  And I truly did experience real and poignant emotions.  But it felt rather more like I was betrayed, left behind by someone that never really loved me in the first place (or in this case, never existed).  It is quite a different feeling than losing someone tangible, someone you know beyond a shadow of a doubt exists, someone you still love, and someone who, at one point, loved you too.  Rather, you can't still love what you don't believe exists, so at some point my feelings towards God ceased to be of longing and rather transformed into a dull annoyance at the mention of his name (at one point I was de-friending anyone who posted a Bible verse that showed up in my Facebook newsfeed).  But I digress; examining my feelings at the loss of God is not the point of this post.

Trying to describe lost love is sort of the universal challenge to all artists.  Nobody's done it justice yet- it's something you have to feel to understand, just like any other aspect of love.

And that, I suppose, is the point of this post.  When I feel love- in any aspect, whether fulfilled, scorned, failed, exciting, or uncertain- I can't help but think that its not a natural process.  That is, it is not just biological.  It feels, it pulls, it registers so deeply that I can't help but think it something more than a human invention.

Hormones are powerful things.  They turn the teen from a little angel into a smelly, angry, rebellious little devil, they turn the strong weak, and they turn the weak strong.  And perhaps that's all love really is.  A release of chemicals, a flood of uppers or downers, all meant to trick our bodies into taking whatever action is necessary to pass on our genetic code.

But monogamy tells me otherwise.  The fact that love persists past the opportunity of procreation tells me otherwise.  The true attachment, the desire for another person's wellbeing that you happily place above your own tells me otherwise.

I don't think I'm making an argument for anything specific here; I realize that love can be explained both biologically and evolutionarily- at least adequately enough so as to not require a religious explanation.  Mostly I'm just saying that love is either a supremely impressive fiction, or its a pointer toward something much more impressive.  I suppose I would like to say that the existence of love, while by no means sufficient to prove the existence of a God, is at least positive circumstantial evidence; the existence of love is something I would very much expect in a world with a God, but very much not expect in a world absent a God.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Question of Purpose

The question of purpose is a scary one for me.  It's one of those topics that I find it very difficult to think or speak rationally about.  For those who haven't read my story, losing my sense of purpose when I left Christianity was a big deal to me.

And here's the frank truth for an Atheist:

We don't matter.

None of us do.  Not one single bit.  Everything we do, love, fear, hate, strive for, work for, suffer for?  Doesn't matter.

I say this, of course, in the grander sense.  We are a bunch of specs of dust on a tiny rock hurtling through a small corner of one small galaxy out of billions.  And then we die.  More than that, we would attempt to attach meaning to our interactions with other people, or our impact on this world, or on the universe.  But all of these are dying too!  The universe is expanding, and will one day simply run out of enough heat to go around.  It's only a matter of time until the sum of all existence is transformed into a barren wasteland, a graveyard of whatever insignificant little bit "life" managed to get done before the curtain closed.

Even more than that: everything we do that we attribute meaning to is ultimately just a deterministic chemical reaction in our brains that stimulates some part of our anatomy to make something happen.  We are the universe's great Rube Goldberg Machines.

To the first point, I think the atheist an effective response: So what?  Why should what happens in another couple of Billion years even matter to us to begin with?  Is anybody even actively thinking about that on a day to day basis?  Why not say that the meaning of this life is to enjoy yourself, or to help others, or any number of things we value as "good"?  I find this a fairly effective argument- I see no reason we need a grander meaning to be happy day to day.  Moreover, I've been happy as an atheist- granted not in a consistent way, but I do tend to think that in the right circumstances, I could be happy.  Certainly there are other happy atheists, just as there are unhappy Christians.  After all, having a grander sense of purpose is different from being happy.  Nobody stops in the middle of sex and says "Gee, you know, this really doesn't ultimately matter, so lets just call it a day".

It is the second point, however, that distresses me.  It seems to me that if I'm an atheist, I am obligated to admit that I am ultimately just a bag of atoms, firing off chemicals in some semi-random ordering so as to interact with the world around me.  How can I claim meaning if I can't even claim control of my own actions, my own thoughts, my own feelings?  Even scarier, what has happened to my precious reason in this scenario?  It seems to me like both its validity and even its desirability have disappeared.  Why bother being reasonable if it ultimately doesn't matter anyway?  Doesn't it make more sense to be happy, no matter what framework that entails?  And if I can convince myself that reason still has value, what justification do I now have for thinking my view of reason (i.e. my deterministic chemical releases) is even accurate?  These are questions that I have no good answer for, and have yet to hear a good answer for.  If anyone has a good answer, or a link to one, please feel free to comment.

We need to make the distinction here about whether purpose is important in and of itself, or whether its important only insofar as it gives us greater satisfaction with life.  I would tend to side with the latter, but I say that with very little confidence.  But then, I have to question why I even have this desire for purpose.  Can this be evolutionarily explained?  Maybe.  No other animal seems to suffer from this.  They live, they procreate, and they die.  But perhaps this is simply a relic of increased intelligence, an inevitable outcome of any creature that is truly self aware?

In point of fact, many people do try to fill this "hole" in their life with a family, which seems to be a good argument for evolutionary selection.  But I think this falls short.  Why is this any more effective than the pure animal desire to procreate?  If procreation fills the role of purpose in life, I have to believe that would be a better selector than the arbitrary need for meaning, which may or may not be filled with children.  But perhaps I traipse too far off the beaten path here.  Evolution to the Atheist is sort of like God to the Christian, in that it can be invoked to explain just about any discrepancy between his view and reality.  I think I ought not speculate on what "evolution" would and would not select for (there are some interesting blog posts over at unequally yoked about the danger of treating evolution as a sentient force that selects "for" what we consider desirable things- moral goodness, for example).  I will conclude this point, then, by saying that I remain open to the idea that both our desire for purpose and our (or at least my- I can't speak for every atheist) inability to find it outside of religion could be pointing to a God.

I think we also need to admit that purpose (along with fulfillment, joy, and all other emotions generally claimed by the religious) exists entirely in the self, and is not external in any way.  That is to say, the definition of someone with purpose is someone who thinks he has purpose.  An individual's purpose cannot be judged as "good" purpose or "bad" purpose.  For example, Christians and Muslims essentially share the same "purpose" (to glorify God with their actions and relationships), so you can't possibly claim one purpose as superior to the other.  What matters (at least in terms of their satisfaction in life) is not whether or not they are correct, but whether or not they believe they are correct (and how strongly they believe it).

Ultimately, I find that I have a congruent sense of self, and that seems to me a strong argument against me being a random bag of atoms.  Were I to admit to being nothing more, I find that I would lose a rational basis for just about everything I do- including my desire to find truth.  I would cease to be a "person", but would rather be a set of semi-related particles doing whatever it is that semi-related particles do given the proper initial shove at the beginning of time.

Finally, I'll leave you with these questions, all of which are unresolved in my mind.  The scientist in me says one thing, and the human says another:

Can we ultimately believe in God because we just can't bear to not believe in him?  Is this enough of a reason?  And does it even matter if it's a rational belief at that point?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

God vs. Religion

I talked to my brother last night, and he made an excellent point.  It's a little bit nonsensical to consider whether or not Christianity is true before you decide whether or not God is real.

I think there are two sides to this.  Certainly you could argue that taking God out of the context of a particular religion renders God much too fuzzy, much too hard to define, much too ambivalent to take seriously as a concept.  After all, the differences between the God characters in major religions are pretty big.  If all we're really saying is that there's some big power out there that we don't understand, that's not much of a claim.  That's almost something Atheists could get behind, so long as we call the power something other than God.

The other side is that you can't really relevantly consider fine doctrinal points until you acknowledge that what you're arguing about it a real thing.  It's one thing to point out inconsistencies in a book about a fictional character, and it's quite another to challenge the character of God.  More to the point, no argument for Christianity would be cogent without the implicit assumption of God, and so no argument for Christianity will seem even reasonable to him who has not accepted that there is a God.  It would be a bit like arguing about the finer points of evolutionary theory with someone who doesn't accept the scientific method as a valid framework.  You might give air to some interesting points, but you're never going to make real progress.  In fact, you may do more harm than good- any theory that presupposes God to support religion will strike the Atheist as absurd, and any theory that assumes there is no God to defeat Christianity will seem to the Christian to be nothing more than a close-minded attack.

I think this is the point on which so many Christian/Atheist discussions get stuck.  Christians come to the table assuming the existence of God, and Atheists come to the table assuming there is no God.  These are vastly different starting points, and it actually proves quite difficult to construct an argument about anything meaningful that works in both frameworks simultaneously.

I was definitely guilty of this in discussing my questions of Christianity with the girl I keep mentioning.  She would enter the discussion with the assumption that God exists, and it is therefore rational to explain things in terms of their relation to God.  I would enter the discussion with the assumption that God must be proven real (which upon further reflection, as I mentioned in The Christian View of Conviction, I've come to believe is impossible) before you could invoke his name in any argument.  Naturally, chaos ensued.

I think you need to accept the POSSIBILITY of God before you can meaningfully talk about Christianity (or any religion, for that matter).  Just some food for thought.