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.