Dec 23

In the imitation of Christ?

You will often hear Christians state their desire to be more like Christ. To live one’s life in imitation—to the extent possible—of Jesus is the ultimate goal for many.

So how do Christians fare in attaining this goal? Not very well, it seems. I’d like to focus on some of the more difficult teachings of Jesus. It is easy to speak about your love of The Golden Rule, but there are many other statements that could be called moral teachings that are often ignored. I’m only going to cover a few of these, as a complete treatment of the subject would be quite lengthy (I couldn’t even make it through Matthew before this got too long). If you want to do more digging yourself, it’s quite simple—just read the statements attributed to Jesus and test whether you adhere to them.

 

Context

Many teachings of Jesus are extreme. This is probably because of his worldview—that the Kingdom of God was fast approaching and we should prepare ourselves for its imminent arrival. With such a view, you cannot simply live an idle life. Christians cannot ignore this urgency if they truly want to become more like Christ.

 

The Teachings of Jesus

Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matt 4:17)

This is arguably the most basic precept underlying all moral teachings of Jesus and variations on this message are woven throughout the gospels. This also lends credence to the idea that faith without works is vacuous. The idea that we can simply believe and be saved is not consistent with the words of Jesus. Quite simply, if you are doing wrong in God’s eyes, then stop immediately and do righteous acts instead. Read Jesus’ words here along with Matthew 7:21-26 where Jesus goes on to say you cannot just call out ‘Lord, Lord’ and be saved, you must act on God’s will.

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:18-20)

That was a lot, but I felt like the whole passage was necessary to make the point. Here, Jesus is really showing his Jewish side. He is clearly not viewing himself as ending the cycle of following the law (the Torah). Rather, you have to be even more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees (who carry out a very literal and painstaking adherence to the law) if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven. How do you become this righteous? It would seem by not breaking a single one of the 600+ commandments of the Torah. Some feel that Jesus’ death and resurrection means “all is accomplished.” That seems to me to be a view of convenience because it is very difficult to keep to Jewish law. The early church, as described in Acts, still kept the law until it grew among the surrounding Greek culture. Recognize that it is Paul who advocates breaking tradition, not Jesus. The disciples of Jesus who actually walked and talked with him, kept the commandments. Paul, who never met him, did not.

Summarizing: Do not store wealth. You cannot serve both God and wealth. Do not worry about your life or plan for the future. Let tomorrow worry about itself. (Matt 6:19-34)

Do we plan? Do we save money? It is incompatible, Jesus said, to both worry about your money and worry about your preparedness for the coming kingdom. View this alongside the teaching about how difficult it is for a wealthy person to enter heaven, selling everything you own to devote your life to Jesus, and many more and you have a compelling case against striving for personal wealth. The teachings of Jesus on money are some of the most difficult for Christians. I can see why; we cannot help our desire, but such desire is not God’s will. He would apparently prefer you to be like an unthinking flower with respect to setting goals for yourself.

Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’ (Matt 8:21-22)

Here is one of the weirder teachings of Jesus. You can view this as complimentary to what he said about planning. Basically, you should be so concerned with following Jesus that you pay no heed to earthly concerns. Do not even stop to go and bury your dead relatives.

 

Conclusion

I have presented four difficult teachings of Jesus that people do not generally follow and I only made it through a few chapters. How do we reconcile that people claim to want to be more like Jesus, yet do not do what he asked of his followers? Well, I think there could be a few reasons. First, people simply don’t know what Jesus said. Second, people prefer to let Paul trump Jesus (often without knowing they do so). Third, they just don’t want to commit to these difficult things. I think this last is the most telling. Modern Christian apologists try to harmonize these teachings in any way they can. This results in a practice akin to theological Twister.

Read the Gospels and ask yourself: Do you think Jesus wants us to have a lot of money and be concerned with our lives beyond just doing God’s will? Then ask yourself: Do you think modern apologists accurately portray the words of Jesus or are they building their own Jesus to be more palatable to their wishes? I think you’ll find more often than not people are twisting the words of Jesus to have a less difficult meaning.

 

Food for Thought

According to Jesus, there is one unforgivable sin. Would you care to guess? No, it’s not murder, rape, torture, or anything like that. It is blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-29):

Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.

Does this sound like the most unforgivable thing one can do? I didn’t think so either.

Dec 16

On Absurdity: William Lane Craig and Actual Infinites

Assuming creation, what is God’s relationship to time? There are two popular views—God is infinite (existing everlastingly, but within time) and God is eternal (existing changelessly with no relation to time). In both cases, God is uncaused, never begins to exist, and never ceases to exist. William Lane Craig, interestingly, adopts what you might call a hybrid of these two views to make sense of some philosophical problems.

There have been many responses to Craig’s arguments about time and infinity. I consider many of these to be successful, but I hope to take a new approach, or at least new to me. I feel that Craig’s arguments regarding the relationship of God and time fall victim to the same absurdities as the arguments he rejects. I plan to show this through an analogous hypothetical situation.

 

 

Kalam Cosmological Argument

Craig presents some difficult arguments in favor of theism. Probably his best known argument is a defense of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which says[1]:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe has a cause

Some have countered that the Universe could perhaps be infinite. With regard to modern physics, we might say there have been an infinite number of big bangs and big crunches to create a sort of cyclical Universe.

For premises (1) and (2) to be true, though, the Universe cannot be infinite. It must have a finite beginning in order for the statement “begins to exist” to have any meaning. If the cyclical model, or similar model, is true, then Craig’s argument has a problem. So Craig counters that actual infinites are not possible and create metaphysical absurdities.

 

 

Infinite Absurdities

I should briefly explain what is meant by an actual infinite. If you think of time as a traditional timeline, with the present being located at time t0 right in the middle, then time would extend endlessly in both directions. There would be an infinite number of moments in the past and in the future. This is in contrast to a potential infinite. One example of a potential infinite is something that has a definite beginning and then can stretch infinitely into the future.[2] It is the actual infinite that Craig addresses.

Craig’s argument, a variation of Hilbert’s Hotel, is succinctly described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as follows:

Craig argues that if actual infinites that neither increase nor decrease in the number of members they contain were to exist, we would have rather absurd consequences. For example, imagine a library with an actually infinite number of books. Suppose that the library also contains an infinite number of red and an infinite number of black books, so that for every red book there is a black book, and vice versa. It follows that the library contains as many red books as the total books in its collection, and as many red books as red and black books combined. But this is absurd; in reality the subset cannot be equivalent to the entire set. Hence, actual infinites cannot exist in reality.[3]

 

In other words, since we know there are black books in addition to red books, how can it be the case that there are as many red books (a subset of the whole) as total books (both red and black)? We seem to have a compelling paradox on our hands.[4]

 

 

Craig’s Resolution

Now we are faced with an interesting problem. Craig has tried to show that actual infinites are absurd, yet some hold the view that God is infinite within time. This would make God absurd. So, he must find a new home for God. The obvious choice is the eternal position.

The other way in which a being could exist eternally would be by existing timelessly. In this case God would completely transcend time, having neither temporal location nor temporal extension. He would simply exist in an undifferentiated, timeless state.[5]

 

What do we make, then, of creation? It seems to be a temporal event. Craig’s resolution is to say that God exists eternally in a changeless state except for the duration of the Universe, in relation to which he is temporal.

With the creation of the universe, time began, and God entered into time at the moment of creation in virtue of His real relations with the created order. It follows that God must therefore be timeless without the universe and temporal with the universe.[6]

 

How can this be? It appears problematic to assert that God fits into both categories of time. Craig himself sees the difficulty in this argument.

Now this conclusion is startling and not a little odd. For on such a view, there seem to be two phases of God’s life, a timeless phase and a temporal phase, and the timeless phase seems to have existed earlier than the temporal phase. But this is logically incoherent, since to stand in a relation of earlier than is by all accounts to be temporal. How are we to escape this apparent antinomy?[7]

 

Craig goes on to briefly describe his response to this problem.

What must be done is to dissolve the linear geometrical structure of pre-creation time. One must maintain that “prior” to creation there literally are no intervals of time at all. There would be no earlier and later, no enduring through successive intervals and, hence, no waiting, no temporal becoming. This state would pass away, not successively, but as a whole, at the moment of creation, when time begins.

But such a changeless, undifferentiated state looks suspiciously like a state of timelessness! It seems to me, therefore, that it is not only coherent but also plausible that God existing changelessly alone without creation is timeless and that He enters time at the moment of creation in virtue of His real relation to the temporal universe. The image of God existing idly before creation is just that: a figment of the imagination. Given that time began to exist, the most plausible view of God’s relationship to time is that He is timeless without creation and temporal subsequent to creation.[8]

 

The way we get here is essentially as follows. Actual infinites are not possible, according to Craig, so God cannot exist infinitely in a temporal state. To avoid this problem, God is considered essentially outside of time. Yet, God created the world, so that means God has relation to the world. This relation has to be temporal in order for creation to happen. So, God is temporal in reference to the Universe. Both ideas have to be true – one in reference to the non-existence of the Universe and one in reference to the existence of the Universe. As of this moment, and for all the history of the Universe, God is temporal and can act within time. Without the Universe, God is timeless and changeless. God cannot act in this latter state because that would imply a passing of time for the action to take place.

 

 

Compounding Absurdities

I find this dualistic argument to also be absurd. I’d like to offer a similar analogy to Craig’s library.

Let’s suppose there is a library that exists. This library is necessarily changeless; it is impossible for the library to change in any way. Thus, the library cannot loan any books because its collection must remain unchanged. Yet, the library has a will and is also omnipotent, and it is the library’s will that it should loan out some books. So, the library’s will is done and books are loaned. Books leave the shelves of the library even though by definition that cannot be the case.

How can the unshakable rule of not loaning books be reconciled with the fact that books are loaned? Even an omnipotent being cannot do what is impossible. For example, an omnipotent being could not be a married bachelor, since by definition a bachelor is unmarried.

In the same way, how can a being that is necessarily changeless and timeless become changing and temporal? It is a counterintuitive absurdity.

 

 

Conclusion

If you agree with me that I have created absurdities similar to those of Craig on infinity, then it seems you are forced into one of two conclusions. Either you reject the idea of God as presented because of the absurdity or you reject that an apparent absurdity derails the argument. If you favor the first, then you think the paradox approach is a good argument, but then you still have to reconcile the notion of God and time. If you favor the second, then you think the approach is a bad argument and an apparent absurdity does not discount the possibility of an infinite Universe.

I tend to agree with the second approach – I don’t think Craig’s apparent absurdities mean there can be no actual infinites. Thus, the Universe could be said to have no beginning. I don’t think it has ever been adequately shown that counter-intuitive results, like those demonstrated by Craig, must mean the proposition is false. Furthermore, if Craig holds a counterintuitive position himself, then it appears apparent absurdities only matter to him when they do not affirm his view.


[1] In Defense of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

[2] Another interesting example of a potential infinite is expressed by the distance between two points. Let’s say you throw a ball at a wall. At some point, the ball will be exactly halfway between the two original points. Then, the distance can be cut in half again, again, again, and so on. You can divide a line segment in half an infinite number of times and the two points will never touch. Given that there are an infinite number of line segments between the ball and the wall, how does the ball ever make contact with its destination? How can it traverse an infinite number of spaces between itself and the wall? Of course, it does reach the wall. The paradox does not make it untrue, as I believe is the case with actual infinites too.

[3] Craig’s entire argument can be found in his 1979 book The Kalam Cosmological Argument

[4] There are mathematical responses to this critique from set theorists, but I am trying to meet Craig on his own grounds. For the same reason, I am also assuming an A-theory of time.

[5] Divine Eternity

[6] Timelessness and Omnitemporality

[7] T and O

[8] T and O

Dec 13

300 Sextillion Stars: It baffles the mind.

Scientists now think there may be 300 sextillion stars in the Universe. I believe that is 3 trillion times 100 billion. In other words, a lot of stars. This adds new fuel to a very old question: Are we alone?

Cluster of stars taken by the Hubble telescope

So how does this affect us? Well, if the number of stars have tripled, then you can also expect the number of habitable planets to approximately triple. Anyone who offers a number of habitable planets is guessing, of course, but it’s not obscene to wonder if there are hundreds of billions of such planets. As of this writing we already know of 509 exoplanets, and that is just what we have observed so far in our “neighborhood.”

In his 2001 testimony to the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said:

At the moment, life on Earth is the only known life in the universe, but there are compelling arguments to suggest we are not alone. Indeed, most astrophysicists accept a high probability of there being life elsewhere in the universe, if not on other planets or on moons within our own solar system. The numbers are, well, astronomical: If the count of planets in our solar system is not unusual, then there are more planets in the universe than the sum of all sounds and words ever uttered by every human who has ever lived. To declare that Earth must be the only planet in the universe with life would be inexcusably egocentric of us.

If you accept the ability of life to occur naturally, as nearly every scientist does, then you are forced into the same conclusion by odds alone. It would be likely that there are many kinds of life in the Universe, maybe even some similar to life on Earth.

If, on the other hand, you think that life can only occur supernaturally, and that we are a unique creation alone in this Universe, then you should ask yourself a question. Is it realistic to think that God made a huge Universe and bothered to make all these stars and planets in order to just create us? 

If that is what you believe, then it truly baffles my mind.

Dec 11

Why the Hell are we so scared? (Part 2 of 2)

What comes to mind when you think of Hell? Fire, brimstone, eternal torture, molten lake, goats? You can sleep easy knowing that these modern Christian concepts are an invention.

As I laid out in Part 1, the term Hell is not used much in the Bible. In fact, it is only used in six groups of text, which are all in the New Testament. It is also not used as a force for conversion, as some churches do today. Jesus was not threatening Hell around every corner. The apostles in Acts never used the term, and neither did the greatest apostle, Paul. It is the writing coming later when the church spreads among the surrounding Greek areas that provides our current scary understanding. More specifically, it is John’s book of Revelation that is shaping our modern beliefs. Let’s look at what the terms translated to “Hell” mean, what Revelation says, and then I’ll discuss the reliability of the sources supporting a place of eternal fire and misery.

 

Terms

When looking at every Biblical reference to Hell, we found that five of the six groups used the term Gehenna and the other used Tartaros. Those who used Gehenna were Jesus and James. You cannot fully understand these without understanding their context as Jews living in 1st Century Palestine. Scholars call this the sitz im leben, or life setting. So what would this term mean to their audience? How would it be interpreted? It would not be as the literal Hell we think of today. But don’t take my word for it; let’s see what the Chaplain of Dartmouth University had to say in his eloquent sermon on the subject.

What did Jesus mean when he talked about hell? Well, the first thing we need to know is that he did not talk about hell. He sometimes talked about Hades, which is a Greek word referring to a shadowy underworld. But more often he talked about Gehenna. He said Gehenna; we translate it hell. Gehenna was the name of a specific place; it was the name of the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, where garbage burned continually. Just as Alcatraz is not for us the name of an island but the name of a prison, just as Auschwitz is no longer for us just the name of a town in Poland but a symbol of horror, so Gehenna was both the name of the place where garbage was burned and a symbol of destruction. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, he was speaking metaphorically. Gehenna, hell, was the destination for trash, for wasted lives. Jesus allowed for the possibility – more than that, he even warned, that certain ways of living would lead not to the kingdom of God, but to the garbage dump, to Gehenna, to hell. And when he talked about the fires of Gehenna, his listeners knew exactly what he meant.

Richard R. Crocker, Ph.D.

College Chaplain, Dartmouth University

While I did not find the use of Hades in my translation, I think Crocker captures my central idea. Gehenna was the Valley of Hinnom, an actual place used in conversation metaphorically by Jews living at the time. More importantly, when Jesus did use the term, he was making a point, not saying this is where you will go if you don’t bow down and worship me. I also wanted to note that even if some translations, like the KJV, use Hades, that is used as a neutral term for the place of the dead—both good and bad—just like in Greek mythology.

The other reference, Tartaros (or Tartarus), came later when the religion began to spread among the Greeks. This is evident in the sheer use of a term from Greek mythology. Tartaros means a “deep place” and it was believed to be under Hades as a place of torture and punishment. Mythology buffs may remember it as the place where Zeus imprisoned most of the Titans, including his father, Cronos. It is also the place where Sisyphus is continually pushing his boulder up a mountain only to have it roll down to the bottom again. The place where this term occurs is 2 Peter, which falsely claims to be written by Peter and was almost not even included in the canon.

 

Revelation

The most prominent source of indirect references to Hell—those not using the actual term but conveying the idea—is John’s book of Revelation. The book itself ironically doesn’t say much about Hell itself, but it gives us this understanding that things will be scary and torment will reign. This is the most vivid imagery concerning God’s judgment overall in the New Testament.

For any who don’t know, the book is presented as a vision given by Jesus to a man exiled on an island. This man, John, is visited by Jesus, then taken up to Heaven through a hole in the sky. He sees the throne of God and beings worshipping him. God is holding a scroll which records the future. There are seals holding the scroll together. Jesus (portrayed as an actual lamb during this part of the story) starts breaking the seals. With each broken seal, some great catastrophe happens on Earth. One of these broken seals even causes the sun to go black, the moon to go blood red, and the stars to fall out of the sky. It goes on from there and the antichrist comes and then the end is brought about by the whore of Babylon. Of course it has to all end how it began—with a woman causing trouble! But wait, then the armies of God come and save the day. Satan, the antichrist, and even death itself are thrown in a lake of burning sulfur. Those on the “right” side live happily ever after in a new Jerusalem with pearly gates, streets of gold, and eternal daylight. Oh, and all of those people will have “Jesus” tattooed on their foreheads.

The book says this is all true and it is going to happen soon. It’s not just John saying it; Jesus is saying it! It has to be true.

 

Are these books reliable? – or – How I learned to stop worrying and live my life.

Given the strength of the argument against considering the use of Gehenna in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and James as a literal reference to Hell, and since 2 Peter only has one verse, I want to focus on Revelation. This book is not reliable and its inclusion into the canon was hotly debated. Those early Christians were wary of whether this book was reliable and even later church figures, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, questioned its inclusion.

Revelation is what’s known as apocalyptic literature. Within the confines of the New Testament, it may seem to be unique, which lends to its mystery and ability to convince people it is prophetic. However, apocalyptic literature was very common around the time it was written. We have numerous examples, including The Shepherd of Hermas and The Apocalypse of Peter. All apocalypse tales divide the world into good vs. evil, they tell of journeys into heaven and future events, and they are all imminent. Yet, none of them have happened. It’s easy to say they just haven’t happened yet, but that is a preposterous objection in my opinion. The author of the book is supposed to be prophetic and his opinion is that it will obviously happen very soon—not thousands of years soon, but any minute now soon. You then have to admit fault in his prophecy, and if he is wrong about that, he could be wrong about everything else. This book is not unique. It is not special. It does exactly what every book of its kind does (and is wrong just like the rest). The only difference is this one somehow made it into the Christian canon. For a more detailed description of the genre, and a fantastic discussion of the book, I would read The Book of Revelation by Robert H. Mounce, a respected scholar of apocalypse literature (this link is to a free copy on Google Books).

Let’s also recognize that the book makes completely ridiculous claims based on an uninformed understanding of the Universe. Let’s look at just a few, including those I mentioned above:

  • The sun will burn out, but the moon will still show color
  • The sun will burn out and we keep going
  • The stars are apparently being suspended in order for them to fall out of the sky
  • Heaven is up in the sky and Hell is down in the Earth
  • God seems to be physical in that he requires a throne and holds things
  • God needs the future of the world written down even though he is omniscient
  • Babylon (a reference to Rome) is an evil instigator
  • Apparently when we are in paradise, we will need streets and they will be gold

There are a few points I want you to take from this. First, this person was quite obviously not seeing the future. The predictions are driven by a poor understanding of science, most notably astrophysics. We now know the moon is not internally lit, but a reflection of the sun. We know the stars are not rotating around us in these magical spheres. We know we would all die very quickly without the sun. And we know there is no Heaven in the sky and no Hell in the ground. Apologists try to get around these things by claiming metaphor, but this is obviously based on the scientific understanding of the time. They didn’t need metaphor to talk about Heaven because everyone knew it was up in the sky. After all, didn’t Jesus ascend up to Heaven? They were wrong. Accept it. We also know Rome is no longer the center of power, as it was then. Does it make more sense to say Rome is coming back into global power or that the author was just using the world he knew? Second, they had a hard time imagining a non-physical God, so they personified him. Now, we have a view of this detached consciousness that doesn’t even exist in our Universe or within the confines of time. This is not how the author sees God. Why? Again, because that is how people thought of God. He is not having a true vision. This new approach to God is driven by philosophical objections that have pushed God further and further away until he is unrecognizable. He is in the sky and you can’t reach him, then he’s invisible, then he’s not even physical, then he is in an eternal (timeless) place, whatever that even means. Finally, there are clear cases of the author inserting imagery that reflects human wishes. Won’t we be spirits? Do we really need streets, gold, palaces, gates of pearl, crowns, etc? This is obviously human, not divine.

 

Conclusion

This is not intended to be a complete case. For that, I would follow the link above or read Bart Ehrman’s textbook on the New Testament. Rather, I wanted to get people to notice the following:

  • Hell is not widely discussed in the Bible
  • When it is, it does not seem to support our modern view
  • The place that does give us many ideas about how horrible judgment will be has serious issues

This idea of Hell, judgment, and the world coming to an end is not supported by anything we know. We can trust a person who claims to be a prophet, yet seems to know nothing, or we can move on with our lives and trust only those things that are verifiable. Hell is not one of them. If you believe in it, ask yourself why. If you think it’s because the Bible tells you that you will burn for eternity, I would encourage you to think again.

Dec 06

In Defense of Science

American students continually fall well below their peers in other developed countries for knowledge of math and science.

There is animosity toward science that has a lot to do with religion. I wouldn’t say this is the main cause of our country’s poor performance, but it certainly must hurt us in some way. If these oppositional groups were bringing up true problems, then it would actually help us to advance by encouraging critical thinking. Instead, they rely on misinformation to garner support. The result is a general distrust of science and little emphasis placed on critical scientific thinking or “Scientific Literacy,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it.

I want to focus on a few points about evolution that these oppositional, generally religious, groups feel are controversial.

Manufactured Controversy

Critics of evolution are notorious for providing misinformation, quote mining, and creating straw men. They must rely on these deceptive practices because the evidence all points to evolution by natural selection. Let’s explore some of their common techniques:

Why are there gaps in the fossil record? We should have lots of fossils showing transitional forms.

There are numerous problems here. First, we have several fossils of transitional forms between nearly every group. For example, there are well-established fossils showing the transition between sea-dwelling and land-dwelling creatures. Second, this assumes that we have an abundance of fossils at all. Most things that die do not fossilize. Those that do are often decomposed or not in one piece. It is not uncommon to find a tooth or a single bone. And there are the practical problems with trying to find all of these fossils. Third, in Darwin’s time, fossils were the main way to find historical evidence of his theory, but this is no longer the case. The DNA of living beings, as well as fossil DNA, provides enormous amounts of evidence in favor of evolution. Fossils are still important, but it is DNA that is our current best way of finding evidence of common ancestry. To appeal to the lack of fossil evidence is deceptive in that it ignores what the fossil evidence actually does show and ignores that this is not our only path to ancestral knowledge.

There is a lot of disagreement on Evolution. We should “teach the controversy.”

There exists no real controversy. The disagreements about evolution are between scientists and non-scientists. This debate has been long settled among scientists based on the evidence in favor of evolution. The number of biologists who doubt evolution is vanishingly small.

There is a lot of quote mining, lifting a quote out of context, to try and show disagreements among scientists. Answers in Genesis is one group accused of this tactic. Ironically, these are often from evolutionary biologists, including Richard Dawkins and even Darwin himself. These are taken out of context to usually present a problem in biology, but then leave out the remaining text which works out the solution to the problem. The best-known example uses Darwin’s quote that the evolution of the eye seemed “absurd in the highest degree.” Of course, he then goes on to explain why he believes the eye evolved. There are disagreements about evolution in the scientific community, but these are within the framework of evolution, not in opposition to it.

Another tactic in this line is used by proselytizing group, The Way of the Master. You may know this as the group spearheaded by Ray Comfort (Bananaman) and former TV star Kirk Cameron. Ray likes to go around college campuses and on the street to interview people about evolution. The first few minutes of this video will show you what I mean.

Notice what Ray is doing. He is interviewing amateurs (people who are not professional biologists) about the details of evolution. The result? They aren’t entirely sure of the technical details. Why not interview scientists if he really wants answers to these questions? That’s not what he’s really after, of course. He wants it to appear as if this is a crazy idea and people don’t have answers to how it works. A biologist, however, can answer these questions quite well. This is merely deception. It only succeeds in showing that people are not well educated on scientific topics, which we already knew. People like this prey upon ignorance to manufacture doubt, when there is none among specialists.

We should teach Intelligent Design in schools along with evolution. Then, the kids can come to their own conclusion.

I happen to agree that Intelligent Design and similar topics should be available in schools…within a philosophy classroom. Intelligent Design is not a scientific proposition, therefore, it should not be in a science classroom. Is there evidence of a designer? Is it testable? No, on both counts.

But evolution isn’t scientific either.

This is another misleading argument. Evolution is somewhat forced into a backward-looking role because of the time lapse for it to happen. This does not mean evolution is entirely postdictive, rather than predictive, or that it isn’t testable. The discovery of evolution created numerous predictions of what we could expect to find if it were the case. They have been verified quite strongly. Remember that the idea was hotly contested when introduced. The focus of the scientific community for a long time was on disproving Darwin’s theory. Unfortunately for our objectors, the opposite happened. As mentioned earlier, nobody knew of DNA in Darwin’s time and that has confirmed what we would expect to find within an evolutionary framework. There are real world tests being performed all the time, as well as inferences based on findings. Evolution has been, and continues to be, tested. And shown to be correct.

Other arguments

There are a variety of other supposed counter-arguments, such as invoking the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the idea that natural selection is only destructive. Those who mention thermodynamics, or entropy, either do not understand the topic or are willfully misrepresenting it. The idea that a system moves toward maximum disorder or randomness only applies to closed systems. The Earth is not a closed system – step outside during the daytime and you will likely see a giant, flaming ball of energy beaming down on us. To the idea that natural selection is only destructive, that it cannot lead to improvements, we need only to read The Blind Watchmaker, within which Richard Dawkins discusses the “arms races” that occur between competing species leading to vast improvements. For example, a hunter becomes better at hunting over time and prey becomes better at evasion through speed, disguise, armor, etc.

Conclusion

In any science that deals with huge expanses of time that we cannot imagine or tiny molecules that we cannot observe with the naked eye, there is bound to be resistance. It may not seem probable, but our measure of probability is limited to what happens in a normal day, week, year, or lifetime. The facts are still there whether or not it is hard to imagine. We should prepare ourselves for these types of arguments and counter them whenever possible. The problem of not having a “scientific literacy” was eloquently stated by Carl Sagan, so I’ll let him close the topic.

We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend upon science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. I worry that, especially as the Millenium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.

Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World

Dec 01

Why the Hell are we so scared? (Part 1 of 2)

Dante and Virgil in Hell

People fear Hell. Is it their reason for belief in a god? That’s hard to say, but I think we can agree at least some people believe solely because they are scared of the imagined alternative. I argue that we can reasonably discard this fear.

I’m going to focus specifically on the modern Christian view of Hell. I will discuss that this is a Christian invention, it is not widely supported by the Bible, and the places it is supported are not very reliable as sources. Since this is an in-depth topic, I will break it into two parts. The first will set up the case and the second will provide some “meat” for my conclusions.

  

Hell, as we know it, is a Christian invention.

In my experience, Christians are surprised to learn that many Jews do not believe in a physical Hell. Those that do only believe it is for the most wicked among us, like Hitler. The Rabbinic literature does talk of a purgatory-ish place where some people will go after they die, but it’s only a temporary stay until they are united with Yahweh. This place, Gehenom, is for purification of the soul – kind of like acclimatizing on your way up the mountain. In general, Jews are also not nearly as concerned with the afterlife as Christians. Concepts like tikkun olam (“repair the world”) are very focused on how we can make the most of this life and maintain the beauty of Yahweh’s creation. So how do we get from this very limited place that doesn’t really affect our religion (or no place at all) to a central tenant and driving force for conversion?

As you will see when I examine the Biblical references, the idea didn’t really take off until it spread among the Hellenized culture, who had a background belief in Hades. Of course this influenced the Jewish culture also, but not to the extent it did Christianity.

 

 What does the Bible say?

As I’ve said before, my Bible of choice is the New Revised Standard Version Oxford Annotated Bible. That is the version I will use here, but I will discuss translation variations, as well. I prefer this Bible because it provides great notes and introductions throughout and it uses Hebrew for the OT and Greek for the NT. The only knock against it is that it uses inclusive language (him and her instead of just him – that type of stuff) but that shouldn’t really affect my purpose. I also used my handy Bible concordance, Synopsis of the Gospels, and interlinear Greek-English NT. The Synopsis is especially helpful because it shows you “linked” stories that must have been derived from the same source. You can see this quite clearly when you compare verses within the groupings below. I have arranged groups using a few criteria – from the same sermon and/or expressing the same idea. In such cases, I am counting the reference as being one rather than multiple. What we are left with are 13 individual verse mentions and six particular groups of mentions. The Greek word being translated to “hell” is provided for each in parentheses.

  

Group 1

Matthew 5:22

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell (Gehenna) of fire.

Group 2

Matthew 5:29 – 30

29 – If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). 30 – And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna).

Matthew 18:9

And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell (Gehenna) of fire.

Mark 9:43, 9:45, and 9:47

43 – If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell (Gehenna), to the unquenchable fire. 45 – And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). 47 – And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell (Gehenna).

Group 3

Matthew 10:28

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).

Luke 12:5

But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell (Gehenna). Yes, I tell you, fear him!

Group 4

Matthew 23:15

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell (Gehenna) as yourselves.

Matthew 23:33

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell (Gehenna)?

Group 5

James 3:6

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell (Gehenna).

Group 6

2 Peter 2:4

For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Tartaros) and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment.

I can see Group 3 being disputed, but I think these are pretty agreeable groupings. I would maybe even argue to put Groups 1 and 2 together due to proximity in the narrative, but have kept them separate due to the different ideas being expressed. So what have we discovered? Of the 13 mentions and six groups all but one are translated from Gehenna. The remaining is translated from Tartaros. You will also notice that the best example, in my opinion, supporting the modern view of Hell is Group 6, that lone instance of Tartaros.

 

Translation Variance

Among different translations, we will find a varying number of terms translated into “Hell.” These vary from zero to a maximum of 54, though most are in the 12-13 range. You can find a handy table here along with some interesting commentary about uses of Hell in the Bible. This author uses a King James translation, so his numbers and terms are different from my own if you want an expanded view to include possible Hebrew Bible references.

  

To be continued…

Next time, I will go into the meaning of these Greek terms, indirect references—those that don’t specifically use the term—as well as the reliability of these sources and discuss John’s book of Revelations, which I think is a primary source for our modern belief. Continued in Part 2.

Nov 29

In the beginning…

When a creationist asks how the Universe was caused, is it fair to restate the question and ask how God was caused? There is some concern with this approach among philosophers, as pointed out in the post Who Designed the Designer?. The post comes from one of my favorite atheist blogs, Common Sense Atheism. The author has a good grounding in philosophy, makes interesting posts (not a million links to news stories), and also provides interesting podcasts. I highly recommend the blog.

CSA thinks the retort is a poor argument. So let’s examine his case.

He thinks that “God did it” is a poor explanation for anything, but the “who/what caused God?” response leads us down a slippery slope. Invoking this argument can require us to explain our initial explanations ad infinitum until even the most knowledgeable among us will reach the precipice beyond which we have no more explanations. Since this is the case, it would appear we don’t hold ourselves to the same standard of having to provide every possible explanation. How, then, is it fair to expect this of theists? He thinks instead we should ask “How is ‘God did it’ the best explanation?” This is a very brief overview of a more complex argument, so I suggest you read his post (linked above) for his full case.

This interested me in particular because I invoked the argument in a previous post, Common Arguments for God’s Existence. In it, I provide very brief rebuttals to three classic arguments for the necessary existence of God. Below is an exerpt from that post regarding the Cosmological Argument:

Everything that exists was caused, the universe exists and must have a cause, nothing can cause itself…

The most obvious flaw, and one that I assure you can never be overcome, is that God would have to be held to these same restrictions. There is no adequate proof that God should count as an exception to this. You could say that God has always existed, but then you open the possibility of the Universe always existing, and you’re back to square one. God, in this case, acts as a typical deus ex machina.

While I don’t disagree with anything I said there, I want to address CSA’s objection, because I think it is a good one.

  

Why invoke ‘Who caused God?’

I agree with CSA that this leads us down an unproductive path. However, I don’t think it necessarily leads us down an unproductive path at the fault of the objection. I think it is the theist’s initial assertion that is problematic and by restating the question, which they cannot adequately answer, it merely shows the fault of their own claim. Do two bad arguments make a good argument? No, but I personally have found this method successful at getting on the same page with a theist about sound arguments. For example, if a Christian asks me if I’m scared of going to Hell, I may ask them if they are scared of being reincarnated as an amoeba. This at leasts gets them to see the argument through a doubter’s eyes. I can at least show them that even they don’t find their arguments convincing.

Is the retort a powerful one philosophically? I’d have to agree with CSA that it is not, though, I feel this type of retort can still be an effective tool if used in the way I described. But there are more effective arguments out there and we should all make attempts to use the best arguments for our case.

 

Is the best explanation approach better?

CSA proposed instead asking “Why is God (magic) the best explanation for that? Will you explain please?”.

Is that approach ultimately more successful? Perhaps. I think you first have to set some ground rules.

It seems you have to first establish that the theist is proposing a best explanation. I think most would grant this, but there could be a few slippery responses. The trickier part may be having the theist agree that a natural explanation will be better than a supernatural one. Of course, everyone does this in the course of their daily lives, but when it comes to God, theists have a hard time granting this.

Ultimately, I prefer to attack the premises, rather than the conclusion of this argument. Does everything have a cause? Can the Universe be infinite? If we can provide other possible answers in either of these areas, then the conclusion fails automatically. To answer these questions, read up on your physics.

Nov 26

Stuck at the Kids’ Table

Many atheists believe that all religions are equally crazy and all believers equally deluded. I tend to disagree. I think it is less intellectually excusable to be part of a modern religion, such as Scientology or Mormonism.

The advantage of older religions is that their foundations are veiled by the shadow of time. This implies a founder, so I am generally speaking about the popular religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We can surmise a bit about their founding, but a lot of guesswork is involved. Unfortunately, this provides a scapegoat for many believers. It works similarly to the claim that atheists should prove God does not exist.

For the two newer religions, on the other hand, we know much about their founders and church formation. The believers will often deny the information, but we have it nontheless. I will treat each in turn, with more focus on Mormonism because it seems to be more accepted.

 

Scientology

Early Thetans?

People are pretty well aware by now that L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, was a science fiction writer. It is not coincidental, then, that his church sounds like a bad sci-fi movie. Scientology contradicts modern science about numerous events (by the way, this is because Xenu is tricking us, kind of like when the devil hides really old dinosaur bones). It also is a fairly obvious cash cow for those in control. It seems more than a bit odd that you have to pay your way up the levels within the church. The farther up you go, the more you pay, and the more brainwashed you’ve been along the way. They won’t allow analysis of their precious e-meters and they desperately guard their secret upper level teachings. This is because both would expose them. We know much about these areas because brave individuals have left the church and spoken about its inner dealings. They have a whole group, the Sea Org, just to derail anyone who attempts this.

Hubbard was, of course, as much of a fraud as his church. Prior to starting the church he spoke about founding a religion as a way to get really rich. He made many claims that he could not support, the most telling of which was that he could not die. He died in 1986 under questionable circumstances. Is there really any other way to go in the upper echelon of Scientology? There are many interesting things about Hubbard’s life that cast extreme doubt on his sovereignty, but I won’t go into all the allegations here. If you want to know more about him, L.Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman? would be a great place to start.

 

Latter Day Saints

Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, is another interesting character. The Mormons, similarly have some rather odd beliefs to have come from a modern age. I’ll recount a few of my favorites here:

  • The Garden of Eden was in Missouri
  • God lives on or near the planet Kolob
  • Magical underwear can prevent physical harm to your body
  • They have a prophet who can receive infallible teachings from God (that sounds like trouble)

But we can pick on any religion’s silly beliefs. Why are the Mormons special? Well, I’ll give you two reasons. The first is a matter of simple arithmetic. The Mormons consider themselves a kind of Christianity 2.0 – a modern, corrected remix. So they take all the crazy beliefs of Jews and Christians and add even more on top of them. That could make the case alone, but my second concern is their founder. I’ll tell two anecdotes about his life.

Thanks to South Park, many people now know that Joseph Smith translated The Book of Mormon from golden plates that he had the special power to see using magical seeing stones. No one else had been granted this power – only him. This seems to be a recurring theme among prophets and founders. Prior to founding his religion, Joseph Smith lived in New York State. He made his living there as a treasure seeker. People would pay him money to look through magical seeing stones and similar devices to reveal hidden treasures. Of course, he could not really accomplish this because the stones didn’t really contain magical powers nor did he. So, he was arrested and convicted of fraud in New York using the same methods that would later start his religion.

Another well-known feature of the religion is its teaching about multiple wives. This came to Smith as a conveniently timed prophecy from God. Allegedly, Smith was having an affair and his wife confronted him. He told her about his prophecy and she said she didn’t believe a word of it. That didn’t seem to matter, though, since many historians believe he went on to take over 30 wives. I imagine the conversation as something like this:

Honey, thouest think I would cheat on you? You are mistaken for thine…wait, hold on, I’m receiving a transmission from God. Ok, this is ironic but He seriously just told me that He wants the men to sleep with many women. What? No, not you. Don’t be ridiculous; only the men.

Speaking of prophecies, Smith, like Jesus, said Zion would be built in his own generation. They were both wrong, and there were many Smith prophecies that did not come to pass. If you want to know more, I would point you toward No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. This is a scholarly, unbiased work.

 

Conclusion

When those of us who are not Scientologists or Mormons look at the mounting, damning evidence we see clearly these two men sought only money and power (and sex). I’ve only laid out a few items here due to the brief nature of blogs. There is much more evidence out there, and none of it is positive for the believers. Are they committing more of an error than, say, Christians? Yes, I think they are.

Nov 25

Blogroll

Foxhole Atheism has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. There is a link to the blogroll in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

Nov 18

It’s a Miracle!

There are many issues surrounding miracle claims, both in ancient and modern times. There are enough to fill an entire book. I want to focus on a few relevant topics that have come up in recent conversations. If you feel I missed an important point, please comment and I will respond.

 

You cannot prove a negative claim.

I’d like to start by saying that you can’t prove a negative (and it shouldn’t be required). For example, if I said to you that unicorns exist, you could not prove that they do not. We could search the world and even space and not find them. Yet, I could say they are invisible or they exist in a separate dimension or something like that. Similarly, I can’t prove that god or miracles do not exist. It’s simply not possible – a logical loophole. However, the onus for an extreme claim, many would agree, is on the person making the claim, not the other person. So, I should have to show you that unicorns exist. Likewise, the onus is on the person claiming a miracle to show that it is true. No one has ever been able to prove anything supernatural, thus, they reside in the loophole so they don’t have to abandon their belief.

 

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you don’t think you should have to provide proof of an extraordinary positive claim, then let’s run through a thought experiment:

 

Let’s say you are walking past a newsstand and you see a magazine claiming a Bigfoot sighting, accompanied by the customary grainy photo. Will you walk around the rest of the day believing Bigfoot has been found unless someone comes along to prove the article wrong? Of course not. You will regard it with skepticism unless there is a really convincing argument presented for believing it. However, if you see an article saying that the President just returned from Asia, you will probably not question it without good reason. This is precisely because we expect above average proof for extraordinary claims.

 

Now, if the Bigfoot claim is viewed in this way, how much more extraordinary is a super being that is all powerful and all knowing? It is to your benefit to agree that the onus should be on the claim-maker. Otherwise, you would have to believe all kinds of nonsense from alien encounters to astral travel to Scientology or at least consider the beliefs as valid as your own. I imagine not many people are willing to make this concession.

 

Miracle healing claims are unique.

This is not true. There are many claims of miracles from every religious group. These include healings, becoming immortal, suddenly being able to read a new language, virgin births, etc. A few examples of groups that believe in supernatural healing include Mormons, African religions, native American religions, voodoo, psychics, new age groups, and many more. These are claims made in the present day and they similarly have a person diagnosed as sick, followed by some ritual, followed by a person better (or apparently better). On what grounds would you accept your own claims and reject these as fraud?

 

On a side note, uniqueness has nothing to do with the truth of a proposition, as I discussed in earlier posts.

 

Miracle claims do not rule out extraneous variables.

Everyone involved in making miracle claims is committing a logical fallacy, popularized by David Hume, that just because one event follows another, that means it was caused by it. This is similar to the person who wears a certain pair of socks, then wins a poker tournament and deems them lucky, then always wears that same pair of socks to play poker. Obviously, this person’s socks are not really affecting the cards, his opponents, etc.

 

Just because something is a fallacy doesn’t mean that it’s not true. It just means that the simple order of events is not enough – we need more evidence.

 

So what can provide enough evidence for a supernatural claim?

This depends on whether the claim is a physical or metaphysical one.

 

If the claim is physical, like the Eucharist becoming the literal flesh and blood of Christ, a simple test of the materials will suffice. To my knowledge, the Catholic Church has never submitted to such a test in real time.

 

If the claim is metaphysical, then we should see consistent statistical significance. We have tried this in double blind studies. Described simply, do sick people improve more often when they have people praying for them? We have found there is no significant statistical difference so far. If, through a controlled double-blind study, significance is found, then repeated several times with similar results, we can say that prayer may positively affect health. If, over several years, this continues to be the case, then we’ll have a pretty good idea of its causation.

 

Since we don’t find any correlation, people come up with excuses. We’ve probably heard them several times before: God works in mysterious ways. You can’t understand the mind of God. God has a plan, and this is part of it. We are supposed to learn something from this unanswered prayer. We must not have had enough faith.

 

These are all apparent attempts to resolve cognitive dissonance. If we can sufficiently show that there is no difference between praying and not praying, then why pray at all? What does it accomplish? If there is no more significance in whether someone prays than in whether they are right or left-handed, then I can’t think of a rationale to continue the practice.

 

If you want to convince non-believers, then show us the evidence. Specifically, show us the scientific evidence or at least the significant correlations. Without it, stories of magic healings (by the way, random disease remission happens to people without prayer too), sports victories, awards, monetary success, and whatever else you may attribute to prayer are meaningless.

Older posts «

» Newer posts