Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why are creationists so successful? (part 1)

I have just finished listening to a radio debate between creationist Kent Hovind and evolutionist Massimo Pigliucci. This debate was absolutely fascinating, and it can be downloaded in MP3 format from

Note that when I refer to creationists in any of my posts, I’m referring to those who advocate the idea of a six thousand year earth. I’m not referring to Christians in general, who might indeed call themselves creationists (ie, that the universe was created by a god) but who do not necessarily hold onto the Young Earth view.

I must be honest and say that I don’t take Kent Hovind seriously at all. His arguments are appalling, and are without any scientific basis at all. However, during this debate I realised his one strength: his ability – within a debate – to counter his opponent quickly, with both wit and confidence. As a debater he is pretty slick.

Why are creationists so popular? Why are their debates hailed by their followers as huge successes even though they grossly misinterpret science and evolution? This is the question that I thought about while listening to this debate, and a few thoughts came to mind. This article is quite long, so I will post it over two consecutive posts.

I believe creationists are successful because they appeal to our unquestioned assumptions and beliefs. Each one of us carries a complex array of overlapping beliefs from our culture and upbringing. These beliefs shape the way we interpret the world around us. Many of these beliefs remain unquestioned, and some of them – without us realising it – may be entirely wrong.

Most individuals have incomplete and unquestioned beliefs of what evolution actually is, and how science works. Hovind repeats these beliefs, and so reinforces them in the minds of those who follow him. For example, he stated that science is built around observation and experimentation, and argued that macroevolution is not a science because it does not meet these two criteria. This view of science is probably held by most people, but it is incomplete. I’m glad that Pigliucci added hypothesis testing as a third characteristic to Hovind’s list. Hypothesis testing is the most important part of science, and evolutionary theory is a science simply because it makes predictions that can be tested; and it passes these tests with flying colours.

The other two reasons why I think creationists are so successful will be covered in a second post.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Book: I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist

I’ve just finished reading Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s apologetic book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. I enjoy reading and keeping up to date with apologetics, and I especially liked this book because the presentation was slick, the content easy to read, and topics were placed in logical order to form a cumulative argument for Christianity. Geisler and Turek argue that there can be only one form of truth. This is followed by arguments for the existence of God as well as for the truth of miracles and New Testament writings. The book caught my eye when I read comments on the back cover by other apologists. The following was a comment by Josh McDowell: “If you’re still a skeptic after reading I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, then I suspect you are living in denial!”

I’ve now finished the book, and am in the process of going through it again to take notes. I’m afraid, Mr McDowell, that I’m still an atheist, and as far as I know I don’t think I’m living in denial. I’m simply not convinced by some of the arguments that Geisler and Turek have put forward.

A major drawback was the chapters on biological evolution, which I found wrought with mistakes and misunderstandings of what evolution actually is. Not only do Geisler and Turek make the same mistake as Lee Strobel, in his book Case for a Creator, by falsely linking atheism with evolution, but they also make false statements about what biologists actually claim (e.g., that man evolved from apes, and that the first life suddenly appeared as a fully developed cell in a warm little pond).

I admit I’m no expert on evolution, but I do know something about the topic (I studied Zoology and majored in Botany while at university). I could easily pick out the mistakes in Geisler and Turek’s chapters on evolution because I’ve had some previous exposure in this field. Now this is what worried me: if Geisler & Turek made fundamental mistakes in their chapters on evolution – a topic that I’ve formally studied in the past – what other mistakes did they make with other topics in the book, topics that I know very little about? I was left wondering, for the rest of the book, if all of Geisler and Turek’s claims and premises in other chapters could be trusted.

At this present time I will give Geisler and Turek the benefit of the doubt. However, I’m working through the book more thoroughly and will later post my thoughts regarding some of their arguments.

Why I bother

Since I lost my faith about four years ago, I’ve been fascinated in debates around the existence of God, faith versus reason, and creationism versus evolution. I have spent countless hours reading through hundreds of articles on the internet, and working through books that cover arguments for both theism and atheism. In quieter moments, when my brain isn’t grappling with some new idea, I wonder if all this effort is really worth it. I mean, the majority of people out there might not care about any of this stuff at all. Why do I bother?

I gave this some thought, and I think that I take all this effort because of three primary reasons:

First, I have a deep desire to understand where I’ve come from. I used to be a Christian, and part of all this research and debate is to make sense of what I used to be, and what I left behind. Seeing Christianity through different eyes has been an incredibly refreshing experience. Moreover, and more importantly, I have a deep desire to know why I believe certain things. As human beings, we automatically adopt a whole plethora of beliefs, attitudes, and paradigms from our culture, society, personal experiences, upbringing and education. Many of these beliefs are untested - we have adopted them without asking: “Why do I believe as I do?” I want to identify and think over certain beliefs that I’ve automatically adopted through my life. I want to have solid and sound reasons why I believe certain things.

Second, I want to be able to defend my beliefs, if any such opportunity should arise. If a person has adopted a belief without thinking why they believe as they do, then they will not be able to defend that specific belief. If one has battled and struggled with a belief, then it can be said that one truly owns that belief, and thus one is much better prepared, and much more willing, to defend it.

Third, I want to stay open minded on certain issues. This ultimately means that I will sometimes change my mind, or go through paradigm shifts, when new information comes along. When a person scrutinizes and thinks about unquestioned beliefs, they sometimes end up rejecting some of those beliefs. This can happen when a former racist becomes culturally sensitive, or when an atheist becomes a Christian.

So I will keep on with my philosophical journey. It is worth it, after all.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Gay marriage in South Africa

The Constitutional Court in South Africa finally reached a decision at the beginning of this month to legalise homosexual marriage. Homosexuals will be able to legally marry in December 2006, and the Marriage Act will be changed accordingly. My own opinion is that this is a good thing. My wife and I know a gay couple who love each other very much, who live together, and who have been committed to each other for many years. I could never understand why they could not enjoy the same rights as my wife and I do, such as signing an marriage contract, or sharing insurance policies, bank cards and home loans. In our country’s past, couples of different race groups were not allowed to marry. I see this decision as a step closer to protecting the rights of everyone who lives in this country.

I’ve also read that those opposing the legalisation of homosexual marriage want the debate to be decided by a referendum. "Let everyone decide", they say, "we live in a democracy, after all". I believe that if a referendum took place, the majority of the population would vote against homosexual union. However, I think that democracy isn't about letting the majority decide on every issue; democracy is primarily about protecting the rights of those who live in the land, especially of those who belong to minority groups. When the rights of minority groups are in question, the decisions have to be made - not by the majority of people - but by the leaders (in this case the Constitutional Court). If the majority decided on every issue, I think that over time the minority would become increasingly suppressed. I could be wrong here, but I think a healthy democracy aims to strike a balance between the amount of decision-making power held by the majority, and the rights and freedoms of minority groups and individuals.

I for one am glad that we live in a secular country where we can enjoy certain freedoms - of expression, religion (or non-religion), association and speech. Christians should be thankful that they live in a secular society, as well, as they are protected, and thus can worship in church without being shot or tortured. However, in order to enjoy this freedom, majority groups - let it be racial groups, language groups or religious groups - have to sometimes make certain sacrifices so that the minority can also enjoy these freedoms as well. The sacrifice that Christians have made in this case is that they can’t expect the rest of society – especially those that don’t follow their religion – to adhere to Christian rules and norms. Human diversity, and recognition and protection of that diversity, is the key to a healthy society. I believe this month’s decision recognises just that.

Atheism and agnoticism – a cocktail mix?

Am I an atheist or an agnostic? When I first left Christianity, this question wasn’t important. I called myself an agnostic then, as I considered the reality of God’s existence as something I could not know for sure. I adopted the ‘fence sitter’ definition of agnosticism: I viewed agnosticism as a halfway stop between atheism and theism; I could not make a commitment on whether God did or did not exist. To me, an atheist was someone who declared: “God does not exist”. I lacked the supposed certainty that an atheist needed to make such a claim, so I did not consider myself an atheist at all.

However, after much reading, this issue became a topic of much thought, mainly due to the discovery that the actual definitions of atheism and agnosticism are those not held by the general public. According to George H Smith, in his book, Atheism, The Case Against God, an atheist is not necessarily someone who actively denies the existence of God, but is also someone who passively lacks belief in God. I’ve come to adopt this broad definition atheism. After all, the word atheism simply means “without belief”.

Moreover, I now tend towards the idea that agnosticism and atheism are not different in degree, but are different in kind. Agnosticism has to do with knowledge; atheism concerns itself with belief. If someone asked me: "Do you believe in God", I would say "no", as I have not yet come across convincing evidence that a deity exists. Technically, this makes me an atheist with regards to belief. However, if someone asked me: "Do you know for certain that God does not exist?” I would answer: "I don't know for certain". I would have to know every nook and cranny of the universe to know for sure if God does (or does not) exist. So with regards to knowledge I'm an agnostic.

Ellie Arroway, the main character and agnostic scientist in Carl Sagan’s Contact, makes a distinction between being convinced that God doesn’t exist; and not being convinced that he does exist. I still fall into the latter camp. I don’t make the claim that God doesn’t exist. I only lack belief, in a passive way, and this makes me an atheist according to Smith’s definition. However, I’m also an agnostic in that I lack the knowledge to say for certain that God does or does not exist.

So what am I? Well, I’m an atheist, as well as an agnostic. A cocktail mix of the two.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Malicious design

Intelligent Design (ID) theory – if it can be called a theory – claims that, instead of evolving from natural forces alone, life was intelligently designed by some master designer. If this is the case, then the designer – whoever it was – was quite mean to create viruses, bacteria and parasites that are responsible for much death and suffering in humankind.

ID advocates – who are primarily Christian – argue that organisms had to be designed because of their complexity. However, these advocates always use benign examples, such as the eye or the blood clotting mechanism in humans. They never use examples such as the tapeworm, or the Plasmodium parasite that causes the death of millions of people every year through Malaria. Harmful viruses, bacteria and parasites are extremely intricate organisms, so according to the ID argument they must have also been designed.

I once asked a creationist on a debate forum about this problem, and he indicated that nasty organisms were the result of the fall of humankind; they appeared in the world through our sin. Is sin then a sentient entity, capable of conscious design? I don’t know if this is what the bible teaches. Or, did harmful organisms just appear out of nowhere, without any help from God or some other conscious entity? If this is the case, then ID advocates seem to be contradicting themselves by claiming that all complex organisms need a designer, but then believe that harmful complex organisms do not.

I still did not get any satisfactory answer from the creationist. Who designed all harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites? If we believe that the designer is unknown, then this doesn’t pose a problem to the ID hypotheses, as it is quite possible that the designer possess a malicious streak. However, if we believe that the designer is the benevolent God of the Christian tradition, then this does pose a problem.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Evolution and Religion

I recently attended a day long seminar at Wits University, titled The Story of Life - A new perspective on South Africa's 3.5 billion year fossil record. It was a large event - there must have been about a thousand people who attended. There were 18 lectures from prominent South African palaeontologists, geologists, geneticists, and archaeologists, who sketched out what science currently knows about the origins and evolution of life. It was absolutely fascinating, and confirms - for me at least - the wealth of evidence and data that currently supports evolutionary theory.

The seminars fuelled some of my own thinking on the perceived tension between religion and evolutionary theory. The more I learn about evolution, the more I fail to understand why there is tension at all. I, for one, strongly believe - and have for sometime - that evolutionary theory does not prove or disprove the existence of God. Any atheist or agnostic who claims that God does not exist because of evolutionary theory is using a faulty argument - evolutionary theory only tries to explain the changes that we observe in living organisms, including humans, over time. It makes no claims at all about the supernatural.

Moreover, there are many Christians - referred to as theistic evolutionists - who have no problem at all with evolution. From what I understand, theistic evolutionists believe that God created life, and he guided evolution to bring about man. In fact, when I was still a Christian at university, studying Botany, I had come to accept evolution in animals and plants, although I still had reservations about human evolution at the time.

I should also note that evolution had nothing to do with my struggle and eventual journey away from Christianity - this was a result of other philosophical problems that I had with my faith. I think that, if I were still a Christian, I would have finally accepted evolution in its entirety. I believe that evolution is compatible with a belief in God - it only presents a problem for those who hold a literal interpretation of the bible.

So this means that I will never use the argument that proof of evolution disproves the existence of God. Likewise, if creationists ever convince me that evolution is false, I will not automatically accept this as proof of God's existence. I believe that God's existence does not depend on the proof or disproof of evolutionary theory at all.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Complexity of Mind

While posting on a faith & philosophy discussion group, a question was raised about reductionism. Does all of human experience stem from neurons only? I personally believe so, although I agree that one should not try and explain the whole of reality on one small aspect of reality. A holistic approach is definitely needed. However, my approach follows the ideas of John Searle, a mind philosopher who argues against reductionism and dualism. His approach is not reductionistic in the strictest sense, because it considers the impact of complexity. The human brain contains billions of neurons. This is an incredible amount! Synapses within the brain fire ten million billion times a second. Like a single molecule of water, a single neuron on its own doesn't express many properties. But if we add billions of water molecules together, for example, they exhibit unique properties that a single molecule of water cannot express on its own (e.g., wetness, coolness, etc). As we add more water, complexity increases, and additional properties enter the system: such as capillary action, complex weather systems, and hurricanes.

Likewise with neurons: if you consider only one neuron, there is nothing special about it. If you consider a couple of million neurons, the complexity of the situation can be explored through neurobiology. But if you consider the entire brain - all the billions of neurons - new properties emerge from the system, such as consciousness, feelings, emotions and maybe even the mind. To understand this level of complexity you need to use tools such a psychology. If you consider trillions of neurons (i.e., many millions of brains), new properties emerge that only be explained by sociology, and new properties at this level might include morals and culture, and maybe - as Richard Dawkins argues in his essay, Viruses of the Mind - religion.

Different tools and different fields of study need to be used to explain different levels of complexity of human nature, but I still believe that all these different levels of wonderful complexity have their origins in the humble neuron, but not on one neuron alone, or just a few. The levels of complexity have their origins in many billions (or trillions) or neurons that interact to form complex neural and social networks - in other words, many intertwined layers of complexity. My personal philosophy is one of finding meaning this complexity, and celebrating it to its fullest.