Saturday, December 23, 2006

Intelligent Design a black box?

Does Intelligent Design kill curiosity and inquiry? I found a really nice recording of a debate between skeptic Michael Shermer and Intelligent Design advocate Jonathan Wells (can be downloaded in MP3 format here) on evolution.

I have much to say about the actual debate, but a comment made by a member of the audience (time: 49:39) during the question and answer session got me thinking about the explanatatory power of Intelligent Design. The audience member recounted a personal story of a nanny she had hired to look after her son. The nanny believed in Intelligent Design, and every time the audience member’s son would ask a question like “Why does it rain?” or “Why is the flower red?”, the nanny would answer: “because God made it so”. It was the same answer for all his questions, and soon he stopped asking altogether. Was the answer of “God made it so” killing his curiosity?

Jonathan Wells responded to this comment by saying that evolutionists are just as guilty by answering “Evolution made it so” to questions that kids might have regarding the complexity of life on earth. He might be right, but there is a crucial difference between the explanation of evolution and that of Intelligent Design. The difference is this: evolutionists can, in most cases, easily elaborate by providing an answer to the possible follow up question of “How does evolution make it so?” Intelligent Design advocates don’t seem to have an answer this question.

In fact, in seems to me that Intelligent Design advocates are not even attempting to provide answers for specific questions we have regarding nature. How did the designer create the clear fossil progression that we see in the fossil record? Did the designer create all these organisms separately, or was a form of natural selection used? Why do we observe whales with vestigial feet, human embryos with trails, and flightless penguins with hollow bones? Evolution at least attempts to answer these questions.

As Shermer correctly pointed out in the debate, Intelligent Design advocates are fond of attacking evolution without providing a testable theory of their own. When pressed by an audience member to provide a testable theory for Intelligent Design (time: 40:15), Jonathan Wells responded by saying that he isn’t obligated to propose an alternate theory. Isn’t this comment from Jonathan Wells the clearest indication of why Intelligent Design isn’t science?

So my question today to all who might read this: does Intelligent Design provide a suitable answer to why life is complex? Or is it simply a black box that provides a mysterious and unusable explanation, an explanation that stifles further inquiry into the natural world?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Our daily bread

It’s a habit that most of us were taught as children: to say a short prayer of thanks before partaking in a meal. I have obviously given up saying grace altogether since loosing my faith, but something happened last week that got me thinking again about this simple gesture.

Often I find myself eating with groups of people – let it be family, friends or colleagues – and saying grace is often a natural activity before eating with a crowd. I’m not one to cause a public fuss over belief or tradition, so when I find myself in such a situation I politely sit by, with my eyes open, as others bow in prayer.

Such was the case a week ago, when Cori and I went out with a few friends to the local Spur Restaurant to enjoy an evening meal together. Once we had received our orders, the group bowed in prayer to offer thanks. As I sat there, with my eyes open, I suddenly found myself looking at the plate of food that had been placed in front of me. I always order a Double Hunger Buster Burger (two hamburger patties with chips) when I go to Spur, and as I sat there looking at it, waiting for the group to finish their prayer, I suddenly found myself thinking about the rationale behind saying grace.

Saying grace implies that it is God, not us, who has given us our food. But this is clearly not the case. It is only through our own effort and toil that we obtain our nourishment. The food that I was about to eat had gone through a long process to get to my table: there would have been a cattle rancher who produced the meat; a farmer who harvested the potatoes for the chips; truck drivers who transported the frozen food; a cook sweating over the grill; a waiter to bring the order to my table. If I have anyone to thank for my food, it would be these individuals who worked hard to produce it. But I also have myself to thank: it is through my effort, of working eight hours a day, that has enabled me to eat at all.

I don’t see where God fits into all of this; if he exists, what role does he play in supplying my daily bread?

Any thoughts?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Can ID one day threaten Christianity?

I believe that if Intelligent Design one day becomes a workable science, it has the potential of causing incredible harm to Christianity.

Think of the following scenario. I know it is somewhat far-fetched, but please bear with me:

It is the year 2020. Intelligent Design advocates have finally managed – after many years of work – to create a workable, scientific theory of Intelligent Design. Instead of trying to weasel Intelligent Design into schools, they have spent years collecting data, creating hypotheses, and testing predictions through various experiments. They have finally solved the initial problems with their theory and have managed to convince a large portion of the scientific community that there is some merit to the idea that the universe was created by a designer.

Will this be good for Christianity? Well, at first it might seem to be. Ardent critics of Intelligent Design, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, will appear on television talk shows, admitting that they were wrong. Pastors and evangelists will ecstatically preach from the pulpit that science has finally proven that God exists. Millions of Christians around the world will experience a renewal of faith; churches will be filled to overflowing with new converts. Apologists, the likes of William Lane Craig and Josh McDowell, will wink at the television cameras, and say something along the lines of: “I told you so.” All will be honky-dory in Christendom.

Then, something happens. Electrified by the newfound euphoria of proving the world wrong, Intelligent Design theorists work double-time to extend their theory. They have provided sufficient scientific evidence that a designer exists, but they have also found a way to obtain information on who the designer actually is. They spend weeks collating data that will provide them with an answer. After much analysis and modelling, the Intelligent Design theorists reach a conclusion. But when they see the answer, a slow, icy horror creeps through each one of them. . .

The intelligent designer of the cosmos is not the Christian God!

Think about this story: if Intelligent Design is simply debunked by the scientific community – if it follows Young Earth Creationism into the wastepaper basket of “outrageous ideas that didn’t make it into science” – Christianity will survive intact. After all, the simple debunking of Intelligent Design will not disprove the existence of the Christian God. However, if Intelligent Design one day reaches the level of being considered science, will it not hold the potential of destroying Christian belief if it reaches unexpected conclusions?

These are thoughts that I had while reading the discussion of Intelligent Design between Lui and R10B in one of my earlier posts.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The day it rained fire

On a fateful day, 200 000 years ago, it rained fire. A lone stony asteroid, about 30-50 metres in diameter and weighing 300 000 tonnes, streaked through the earth’s atmosphere at 16 kilometres a second. When it smashed into the ground a massive explosion, a hundred times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, caused winds of over 1000km/hr to rip across the surrounding landscape, killing everything that happened to be in the area. Anything alive within 24 kilometres of the blast was vaporised, killed or maimed.

200 000 years later, a crater is all that remains of that explosion. The intelligent hominids that populate the earth call it the Tswaing meteor crater, and it is located 40 kilometres north of the city of Pretoria in South Africa. The crater is about 1 kilometre across, 100 metres deep, and is filled with a lake of salty water. The picture on the left is a Landsat image of the site.

On a hot and sunny Saturday three weeks ago, Cori and I, together with Rutger (Cori’s brother visiting from Pietermaritzburg) and Jacomien (a friend of Cori’s) went for an afternoon hike around the crater. The hiking trail is about 7 kilometres long, and runs along the eastern lip of the crater, down into the basin, along the lake and out again towards a museum and picnic area that lies outside.

We started out strong, making our way through the bush and past various ruins that formed part of an old salt mine. We spent time at various viewpoints on the crater lip, admiring the view of the basin, drinking from our water bottles and snacking on apples and packets of Nick Naks (thank you Jacomien for the crisps!). The picture on the right is of me, standing at one of the viewpoints.

It took about three hours for us to complete the circuit. It was easy going until we reached the shore of the saline lake within the basin of the crater. The African summer sun on that particular day was particularly harsh, and within the basin the heat was relentless. Rutger’s face was soon beet red, Jacomien was looking a bit dazed, and even I was starting to straggle behind the group. The only person who didn’t seem to mind was Cori, who chatted away like an auctioneer high on caffeine :-) Despite our travel worn bodies, we finally made our way slowly out of the crater and towards the picnic area.

For me, the crater serves as an ominous reminder of how vulnerable humankind actually is. We run around everyday in the rat-race: we wake up, brush our teeth, rush off to work, fight with the boss and return home with thoughts of supper on our minds. We get so involved with our own lives that we often forget that the cosmos possesses the potential of instantly ending life on earth, or at least changing civilisation as we know it. One can only imagine what damage such an impact would cause if it occurred today in the same spot, or even in a major city like New York or London.

Despite the heat, all four of us enjoyed the hike at Tswaing crater. Not only is it an interesting attraction for those who enjoy astronomy or geology, but it also serves as a warning that we should keep our eyes on the skies.

(Google satellite image of the Tswaing crater)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Kids: it’s not only about Bunsen burners

High school science class was so boring! Remember all those endless experiments involving Bunsen burners and electric light bulbs? Remember all those meaningless equations that we had to cram for the end-year exams? Did we actually come away with anything useful? I think back to those years of high school and I’ve come to realise that as a student, I didn’t learn anything about science in science class.

As students we didn’t realise it, but the stuff we did at school was simply the end product of something greater: it was the product of a method of thinking that involves aspects of reason, hypothesis testing and critical thought. Although we learnt a lot about what science can do, we learnt very little about scientific thought. I wish that we did fewer experiments at school, and learnt more about developing a scientific mindset, a mindset that places emphasis on the pursuit of truth rather than the proclamation of truth.

The historian Richard Carrier writes an interesting article in which he describes a scientific mindset as being:

“. . . a system of beliefs that produces advances in knowledge, including a belief that public evidence and verifiable reason trump all authority in explaining what is and can be, that persuasion by appeal to observable evidence and sound logic is the only valid means of gaining consensus about the truths of this world, that this requires embracing everyone's intellectual freedom to accept, reject, or propose any idea they please, and that it is valuable and good to devote your life in this way to the pursuit of progress in understanding any aspect of nature or existence.” (emphasis added).

Let’s focus on the value of intellectual freedom. All religions have, at one time or another, suppressed intellectual freedom in favour of dogma. Intellectual freedom, the free market-place of ideas and thought, implies that everyone can make up their own minds regarding nature, religion and personal meaning. It is a threat to those institutions, such as religious fundamentalism, that aim to control the thoughts and beliefs of people.

Scientific progress can only be effective if it can operate within the context of intellectual freedom, if it is free to propose and test ideas that might seem blasphemous or heretical to the current status quo. Even now, religious fundamentalism is fighting against current advances and ideas in science. Biological evolution is but one example: the non-scientific approaches that creationists use – such as appealing to faulty arguments and trying to ban the teaching of evolution in schools – is cause for concern. Each time a school board in the United States votes against teaching evolution for religious reasons, I get nightmarish visions of what such actions can lead to if left to spiral out of control: another Dark Age of suppression, extreme censorship and persecution of non-believers?

We have much to learn from the Dark Ages, from what religion can do if it is given too much power. I think science class can be much more effective if it can teach children about the dangers of dogma, fundamentalism, and an unquestioning devotion to one type of paradigm. Reduce the number of textbook experiments; teach a little more about critical thinking and scientific thought. That’s my humble opinion.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Rejecting the concept of God

Since loosing my faith, a number of Christians that I’ve interacted with through email have implored me not to give up on God, with comments such as: “nothing and no-one should stop you from serving God”, “God still loves you”, and “I would plead with you to continue to follow Christ”. I know that those who wrote these comments mean well, and I truly appreciate their concern. However, I’m always somewhat perplexed when I read these kind of comments, simply because they are based on a faulty premise: the premise that I, an atheist, still believe – deep down inside – that there is actually a God out there who wants me to serve or follow him; that there is a supernatural being who I can “go back” to.

If I’m a person who still believes in God (as some Christians would believe), why don’t I follow him? Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in their apologetic work I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, provide an answer that fits well with this faulty premise. When speaking about atheists, they write:

“. . . many believe that accepting the truth of Christianity would require them [atheists] to change their thinking, friends, priorities, lifestyle, or morals, and they are not quite willing to give up control over their lives in order to make those changes” (pg 30).

So, according to the Christian paradigm, I, an ex-Christian and atheist, still believe, deep down inside, that there is indeed a God out there, and atheism is simply an excuse for me to live a life free from the moral constraints that God has imposed on humans.

Is this true?

The simple answer is no.

Let me spell this out clearly: I did not leave Christianity because I wanted to snub God or his laws, or because I wanted to live a life of reckless abandon. I did not leave because I was angry with God, or for any other emotional reason. I left Christianity simply because I stopped believing the incredible claims of the Bible. I did not reject God as an actual, personal being (like a wife rejects her husband). Rather, I rejected the concept of God (like a growing child rejects the concept of Santa Claus). I did not turn away from God; I simply stopped believing in his existence. This is the subtle difference that some Christians have difficulty grasping.

How can I be angry at something I don’t believe exists? How can I reject the love of a being I don’t even seriously consider as being real? When a Christian asks me a question like: “Why did you turn your back on God’s love?”, I do not have an answer. It is like someone asking me: “Why did you turn your back on Apollo’s love?” The question makes no sense to me, simply because it assumes that I still have some sort of belief in the supernatural being under discussion. How can I turn away from God when I don’t even believe that there is something to turn away from in the first place?

In order to reject the love of a specific being – or express any kind of emotion associated with that being – you have to first acquire the prerequisite of belief in the existence of that being. Without this belief as a foundation, all talk of said being in terms of relationship, emotional rejection or anger is meaningless.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

One candle on the cake!

This blog celebrated its first birthday on the 12th October. I just want to say thank you to all that have sacrificed their time to make comments. I want to thank Tin Soldier, Roger, Peter, Lui, SuperSkeptic, Cori, eddie, Skywolf, Jason Hughes, tichius, Dar, Mike, Marc and many others for challenging my thinking and providing fascinating discussion on this blog. I hope to write many more articles regarding my thoughts on religion, atheism, God, evolution and philosophy; and I’m looking forward to another year of discussion with you all.

Looking back over the 60 articles that I’ve written over the past year, there are many that provide some detail regarding the reasons to why I left Christianity. But the one article that I think adequately captures – in just a few short paragraphs – the feelings I went through during my faith struggle, is an article I posted earlier this year. It is called One-way Mirror, and is posted below.

One-way Mirror
This is a little something I wrote up. It captures the feelings I went through when I lost my faith.

I could never see what was behind the one way-mirror, but I always believed and truly felt that there was an awesome presence there; a presence worthy of the highest respect, but also – to me – an intimate friend. I used to speak directly to the mirror, believing that that the presence – possibly in some adjoining room – listened, and cared for me. Sometimes I even thought that the presence spoke back to me, although not in an audible voice, mind you. Its messages had to be found and studied elsewhere: in a book, from other people, from a feeling deep down inside of me. There was never any direct correspondence.

One day I started to doubt that there was someone behind the mirror. I asked – and then cried – for the hidden presence to reveal itself. It did not, and in a final stroke of frustration I flung my chair at it. The mirror shattered into a thousand pieces, and I suddenly froze when I saw that there was no room behind the mirror. No friend. Just a blank, solid wall.

“But this is impossible”, I cried to myself, “I know, deep down inside, that someone was there. I could feel his presence. I could hear his small, still voice. If there was no-one there, where did all these impressions come from? Where did all the certainty and belief have its source?”

I suddenly looked down and found my answer. From one of the shards of glass on the floor, I saw a reflection – a face looking back at me.

The face was my own. . .

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A short note

Hi all

This is just a short announcement to say that I won’t be posting much over the next month on Memoirs of an ex-Christian. As some of you might have noticed, I’ve been posting less and have been writing fewer comments. The reason for this is that I’ve been extremely busy at work: the organisation that I work for holds customer workshops all over South Africa in October and November, so I have been travelling around the country. Next week I will be in the Bloemfontein, the week after I will be in Cape Town.

In addition to this, I’ve been studying over the last three months for a management diploma. My final dissertation is due for the 13th November, so I’ve been working pretty hard to complete it. With travelling around the country and participating in this course, my spare time – time usually spent blogging – has been significantly reduced.

I’ve also received emails from many who have read my articles. I have read all of your emails, and I really appreciate the feedback, but it will take me a little while to respond. So please be patient.

Despite the busyness, I will try my best to post one or two articles over the next few weeks. After the 15th November things will quieten down at work as the year draws to a close, so I hope to resume my usual blogging activities after that date.

Thank you again to everyone who has taken the time to read my articles. And I want to especially thank those those who have made comments or who have emailed. It is you who challange my thinking and who add all the spice to this blog. I owe you all a great deal.

All the best

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Prophecy 101

The world was supposed to end on the 12th September 2006.

This was the word of the House of Yahweh, an American based cult who firmly believed that our civilization would be destroyed by a nuclear war before or on that date. The cult made the prediction on their website, and devout followers in Kenya dug bunkers and stored food supplies in preparation for the war. As it turns out, nothing happened.

Religions abound with failed prophecy. This article and this article list numerous historical predictions made by various religions and Christian denominations – predictions of events that eventually never happened. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a good example: they have been known to make specific predictions about the end of the world, but none of those have come to pass. When Armageddon failed to materialise in 1914, it was predicted that it would occur in 1915, then in 1918, 1925 and 1975 (see here). One would think that prophets, who claim a hotline to their respective omniscient gods, would be able to at least get things right most of the time. Sadly, the success rate of specific predictions – those that can actually be tested – seems to be pretty low.

In fact, it can even be argued that Jesus made a prediction that didn’t come true: in Matthew 24, his disciples ask him when he will return to signal the end of the age (verse 3). Jesus replies by first listing the characteristics of the end of the age – wars, famine, false prophets, etc – and then describes how he will appear in sky for all to see. He then states: “Remember that all these things will happen before the people now living have all died” (verse 34). A similar prophecy is made in Matthew 16:28. Obviously, the disciples have been dead for centuries. Is this not then an example of failed prophecy?

Of course, if you are a prophet or astrologer, and you are somewhat clever, you can adopt three methods that can save you from much embarrassment:

First, do not include any specifics in your prediction. In this way, your prophetic powers cannot be invalidated. Remember, specific dates are a big no-no. Just say general things like, “There will be unrest in the Middle East during 2007”, or “Nobody knows the exact date when Jesus will return.”

Second, make your prediction so vague that it can be applied to almost any situation or person. Astrological horoscopes are a great example of this. If you feel up to it, ask a friend to look up the weekly horoscopes in any magazine, then ask her to cut out each prediction, one for each of the signs of the Zodiac, but request that she remove the names of the twelve signs. Then read each of the predications and try figure out which one belongs to your own sign, by comparing it to the events of your week. You probably won’t be able to identify your sign at all using this method. Instead, you will probably find that parts of all twelve predictions are relevant to your present life.

Third, if you are smart, infuse your predications with so much symbolism that your readers (or listeners) won’t have a clue what you are speaking about. The confusion you reap will result in endless speculation for centuries. The writings of Nostradamas and the book of Revelation are good examples where this method has been implemented. The advantage of using confusing symbolism as prophecy is that any prediction you make can be read into almost any situation. Some skeptics will argue that symbolic prophecy does not tell us anything useful in advance, but this won’t deter your followers from offering countless interpretations.

So if you are a budding prophet or astrologer and you don’t want to make the same mistake as the House of Yahweh, adopt these three methods. The problem is that there will be no way to test the validity of your prophetic powers. As a skeptic, I will point this out and will remain unconvinced of your claims. But I guess it’s not me you are trying to convince at the end of the day. It’s your followers that really matter. And they will probably continue to believe every word you say, no matter what you say or how you say it.

(After writing this I discovered a much better article on this topic here)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dialogue with an atheist (2): what about agnosticism?

This is part 2 of a fictional dialogue between two friends: a Christian and an atheist. Sam is a fictional character. As usual, comments and corrections are welcome!

Read part 1

Sam: This coffee is great, thank you!
Kevin: Well, it’s not as good as the stuff you get at Mug n’ Bean, but it gets me out of bed in the morning.
Sam: If I don’t have my cup when I wake up, I can get really grumpy.
Kevin: At least you and I have something in common: we both have faith in caffeine.
(both laugh)
Sam: I will have another cup later on. Getting back to our discussion: you said earlier that you don’t believe in the existence of God, but you also said that you don’t claim that God doesn’t exist. Can you explain further?
Kevin: If it is okay with you, I will answer with a question. Do you believe in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster?
Sam: Well, no.
Kevin: Why?
Sam: Sufficient evidence is lacking. All we have are a few eye witness accounts and a couple of fuzzy photos that are somewhat suspect in nature.
Kevin: So after some examination of the evidence you are not convinced?
Sam: Yea, kind of.
Kevin: But let me ask you this: do you know for certain that the monster does not exist?
Sam: No. I don’t know for certain that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist. Although I don’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster, I could be wrong in my belief. I’m not omniscient, and I don’t know every nook and cranny of the Loch Ness. It is probable that the Loch Ness Monster does exist, but it is hiding away quite effectively somewhere in the depths. I need more knowledge in order to justify belief.
Kevin: Exactly. The same applies to my belief in gods: if someone asks me if I believe in supernatural beings, I will reply no. In this sense I am an atheist, as I’m not convinced in the claim that a god or gods exist. However, if someone asks me if I know that gods do not exist, I will answer that I am not certain. I can’t say “there is no God” – I can only say this if I search the entire universe and find that there is no God. But this is impossible for me to do.
Sam: But aren’t you an agnostic if you not certain that God exists?
Kevin: Yes, I am an agnostic.
Sam: But you said that you are an atheist. How can you be an atheist and agnostic at the same time?
Kevin: I am an agnostic in terms of knowledge of a god or gods. I am an atheist in terms of belief in a god’s existence. There is a commonly held belief that agnosticism sits on the same scale between theism and atheism, that it differs in degree from these two extremes. However, others have argued that agnosticism sits apart from theism and atheism totally. It differs in kind. One can be both a theist and agnostic, or an atheist and an agnostic. I am an agnostic atheist. Ellie Arroway, the main character in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, makes a distinction between being convinced that God doesn’t exist, and not being convinced that he does exist. At the moment, I fall into the second camp.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Free will and omniscience

I’ve written the following dialogue that outlines the common interaction I see between theists and atheists when discussing the doctrine of free will. What do you think? Is the skeptic’s argument valid?

A short discussion about free will . . .

“God allows evil,” says the apologist, “because he has given us the ability to choose him or reject him. He has given us free will. God is not responsible for evil; we are responsible for evil through our choices.”
“Okay,” replies the skeptic, “but let me ask you a question.”
“Sure,” says the apologist.
“If you were a character in a book,” asks the skeptic, “would you, as a character, have the ability of free will?”
“Well,” replies the apologist, “if I was a character in a book, I wouldn’t really exist. I would just be a figment of the author’s imagination.”
“Fair enough. But let’s say, for sake of argument, that you and I are conscious beings but are also characters in a story. Our very dialogue, the words that I am saying to you right now, has actually been written down by a writer. However, we don’t know that this is the case. Would we have free will?”
The apologist answers: “No, I don’t think we would.”
“Why?” asks the skeptic.
“Well,” replies the apologist, “once the story is written, it can never be changed. Whenever the story plays itself out in the eyes of the reader, it will always follow the same path.”
“Well done,” says the skeptic. “Let me now ask you this: does God know the future?”
“Yes, the Bible clearly states that he is omniscient.”
“So God knew, from the beginning of the universe, every little detail that would happen in the future?”
“He knows everything,” replies the apologist.
“Let me explain the problem with that,” says the skeptic. “If God knew everything in the future, then he would know all the choices that you and I would make in our lives – including the choice of choosing or not choosing him. The universe would be like a story already written, and the normal sequence of events playing themselves out would be like someone who is reading the story. If God knew from the beginning of the universe that I would not choose him, then how can I have free will?
“Even if God knew,” replies the apologist, “he still left the choice up to you.”
“But how can that be?” says the skeptic. “If God knew – from the beginning of time and with absolute certainty – that I would reject him, then no matter what I do in my life, there will be no way in which I can choose otherwise. As humans, we don’t have free will. However, God, as the author of the universe, had a choice what to include in the story. He chose that suffering and evil would be a part of this world.”

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Redefining marriage

“It’s not natural.”

“The traditional family will be destroyed”

“Children will be harmed.”

These are some of the arguments that were raised during an informal debate on gay marriage that arose during a management course I attended a few weeks ago. It arose from a discussion that focused on managing diversity in the workplace with regards to race, religion and sexual orientation. I took part in the debate by making a few points in support of gay marriage. Most of the group argued against homosexual union, while two of us voiced support for the idea. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate for all of us.

Where does South Africa stand with regards to gay marriage? In December 2005, the South African Constitutional Court (analogous to the Supreme Court in the United States) ruled that South Africa’s Marriage Act was unconstitutional on grounds that it discriminated against homosexuals. Last Thursday, Cabinet voiced its support for this decision. The result of this is that from December this year, homosexuals can legally marry and share all the legal benefits that heterosexual unions enjoy.

I am excited about this decision. I could never understand why Cori and I could easily marry and enjoy legal benefits of such a union, while gay friends of mine - who were in committed relationships with their partners - were barred from those same benefits. During apartheid, mixed racial couples were not allowed to legally marry in South Africa. Fortunately, this changed after the advent of democracy in 1994. The South African constitution, which was drawn up in 1996, prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. It is only logical that if South Africa repealed laws that discriminated against couples of mixed racial groups, it would also have to repeal laws that discriminate against gay couples. The amendments suggested by the Constitutional Court for the Marriage Act was a positive step in this direction.

Some conservative Christian groups have naturally reacted negatively to these developments. Listening to some the arguments raised during the debate, I can understand their concern. However, South Africans live in a secular society that is characterised by many different cultures, races, religions and beliefs. To enjoy the benefits of secular society (e.g., to have the freedom to worship one’s religion of choice) one has to make various sacrifices (e.g., to be subject to limitations that restrict one’s ability to impose religious beliefs on others). Conservative Christian groups should realise that they cannot force society to live by some of their values, simply because there are many individuals in society who are not Christian.

I look forward to attending and celebrating the marriages that will eventually take place between my gay friends. It is a freedom that should not be taken lightly because it is a freedom that was hard fought for.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Dialogue with an atheist (1): what is atheism?

This is part 1 of a fictional dialogue between two friends: a Christian and an atheist. I’ve written this to provide answers to those Christians who I know personally and who wonder about my position with regards to my unbelief in god(s). I don’t speak for all atheists, so corrections to what I've written are welcome. Sam is a fictional character. Thank you to Cori who provided ideas for this dialogue as well as constructive criticism. Enjoy!

Kevin: Hello Sam. How are you doing? Why do you look so down?
Sam: Hi Kevin. I just came back from a church meeting. We had a discussion about atheists and atheism. I can’t understand why so many people don’t accept the fact of God’s love, and why they have such anger towards God. I feel such an incredible burden for those people.
Kevin: Sam, I know we’ve only known each other for a few weeks, and we’ve hit it off really well over this time. But, I don’t know how to break this to you … I am an atheist.
(a moment’s silence)
Sam: An atheist? But how can that be? You are such a nice guy!
Kevin: Well, I try to be (laughs). Look, its okay. Despite the much maligned label, I’m not a Christian bashing kind of person. I’m your normal, average guy. I just lack belief in God’s existence, that’s all.
Sam: I’m sorry, but I’m completely surprised. I never knew that about you. I assumed that you were going to your own church. Wow! I can’t say I’ve ever met a self declared atheist before. I’ve got so many questions to ask you, if you don’t mind.
Kevin: Sure, I don't mind at all.
Sam: If you’re an atheist, why do you say that God doesn’t exist, and why are you so angry at God?
Kevin: These are good questions! Firstly, I don’t make the claim that God doesn’t exist. Secondly, I’m not angry at God at all; I mean, how can I be angry at something I don’t believe exists?
Sam: Let me get this straight: you lack belief that God exists, but at the same time you are not claiming that he does not exist? That doesn’t make sense to me.
Kevin: At face value it does seem confusing. But look, I think that to effectively answer all your questions, we have to start at the beginning. We have to ask: what is atheism?
Sam: Rejection of God and his love?
Kevin: That is an interesting definition, but it is not the one that I subscribe to. Do you know what the word “theist” means?
Sam: A theist is a person who has some belief in a god. I am a theist, for example.
Kevin: Yes, you are. So are Muslims, Hindus and any other individual who believes in some supernatural deity. Well, the “a-“ prefix in the word atheism simply means “non-“ or “not”. Simply put, an atheist is “not a theist”. In its basic form, atheism is not a belief; it is an absence of belief. It is an absence of belief in the existence a supernatural deity or deities. That is all.
Sam: I see.
Kevin: The word atheist has become falsely associated with immorality and arrogance. Despite what many may claim, I believe atheism says nothing about the personality, moral status, political affiliation or character of a specific person. It simply refers to their lack of belief in gods.
Sam: This is fascinating! I’ve got so many questions to ask. If you don’t believe in God, what moral system do you use? How can you find meaning in life? What do you believe will happen to you when you die? Why don’t you believe in God?
Kevin: Gosh, those are good questions! I’ll have to answer them one at a time. It’s going to be a long night, though. Coffee?
Sam: Please!

To be continued. . .

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Aliens are among us! (or not)

Okay, I will admit it here. I once believed in alien abduction. Dar’s comment in response to this post brought back memories of my adolescent years, when I spent hours in the local library (the internet was not that big then) devouring every book I could find on accounts of alien abduction, stories of Roswell, and the many newspaper accounts of UFO encounters in South Africa.

Oddly enough, my eventual rejection of Christianity had an impact on other spheres of belief. The skeptical thinking that eventually resulted in my rejection of faith also spilled over onto my beliefs regarding the paranormal. I eventually had to question the whole subject of UFO’s from a skeptical point of view, and I found that evidence was severely lacking. To cut a long story short, I don’t believe any longer that we are being visited by actual alien beings. My disbelief in alien visitations and abductions was further reaffirmed by the following arguments put forward by Carl Sagan in his book, A Demon-Haunted World:

  • It is telling that most alien abductions occur mainly on falling asleep or waking up. This is consistent with sleep paralysis, as well as with experiments done by Canadian scientist Michael Persinger, who can stimulate or stop such hallucinations using chemicals and electrical impulses to the brain (pg 105).

  • Alien abduction stories are mostly local (i.e., they are mostly concentrated in America and Europe). Moreover, different aliens appear in different countries, and they seem to follow our current ‘view’ of what aliens should look like (i.e., alien’s have changed over the decades in line with our culture!) (pg 126).

  • Many abductees claim that aliens provide them with general warnings about man’s destructive use of the earth’s environment. The problem is that many of these warnings are about dangers that we already know about: in the 1960’s aliens warned us about nuclear war. In the 1980’s they warned us about CFC’s. Why not warn us about something in the future we can strive to prevent? It would have been very useful for aliens to have warned us about CFC’s or HIV/AIDS in the 1960’s (pg 95).

  • On government conspiracy: if the truth of UFO’s and aliens are covered up by various governments, hundreds of employees should know about this. Why hasn’t a bona fide whistle blower come forth with sufficient evidence yet?

  • Many American homes have sophisticated burglar alarms and cameras. Of all the millions of alien abductions, why hasn’t there been one authentic video tape of one of these encounters from a burglar or security system (pg 174)?
Maybe the experience of alien abduction tells us more about the human mind than actual extraterrestrial beings from outer space.

    Wednesday, August 09, 2006

    Can evolution cause God's extinction?

    Does God’s existence depend on the validity of biological evolution? I believe that evolution does not prove or disprove the existence of God (or gods). On a recent post of mine I was asked to clarify this belief.

    To begin with, one might argue that evolution disproves the literal account of the creation story as found in the Bible. This is true, but the literal account is held by only one group of Christians living in a world where there are many other Christians (as well as other theists) who don’t necessarily hold the same view. I have the privilege of knowing some Christians who accept the idea of an old earth and biological evolution, but who still have a personal and meaningful relationship with their god. For them, evolution does not necessarily close the door on faith; they feel no threat, they see no conflict. Ultimately, the threat of evolution is only a threat to the theist who holds a literal view of religious text.

    After all, a supernatural being could have started the whole process of evolution billions of years ago, as many theistic evolutionists believe. To see evolution as part of a god’s creation can be a wonderful insight to the theist who seeks understanding of the natural world around us.

    For example, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975), who made incredible contributions to our understanding of evolution in the context of genetics, was himself a Christian. In his essay, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, he wrote:

    "I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's, method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way... Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology."

    And what of the deist, who believes that a god (or gods) created the universe and then took a back seat? It is possible that the deist’s god can exist, even if life was not predestined or created by supernatural means.

    So I don’t believe that evolution disproves or proves the existence of a god (or gods). At best, it only provides a possible god with a less defined role in the development of life on earth. For me, my non-belief in supernatural beings has nothing to do with biological evolution; it has everything to do with philosophical, and other, problems that I have with religion.

    Update: 12/08/06
    Francois Tremblay was kind enough to bring my attention to a counter argument to what I've written above (see here). If I understand it correctly, the argument is as follows: the only mechanism that we know of that produces intelligence is natural selection. In other words, intelligence is a product of biological evolution. The conditions that cause biological evolution did not exist before the existence of the universe. Thus, intelligence did not exist prior to the universe. Therefore, the universe did not have an intelligent creator. Read it through and let me know what you think.

    Saturday, August 05, 2006

    Skeptic in training

    The human mind is prone to error and self-deception: we tend to believe in stories that lack evidence, such as urban-legends; we have the strong desire to believe what a strong leader or most people around us believe; and we tend to remember things that never occurred, as our memories are not perfect. The human mind is definitely fallible, and therefore prone to suggestion and manipulation.

    Skepticism is a philosophy that attempts to mitigate these weaknesses of the human mind. It holds the belief that absolute knowledge is not achievable and thus one should measure the ‘truth’ of various claims by employing doubt. The goal is not to obtain absolute knowledge, but rather relative knowledge of the world around us. The modern day form of skepticism is popularised by writers such as Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer. The following are what I think are the main characteristics of what it is to be a skeptic. The first three points listed below are from an article written by the historian Richard Carrier.

    As a skeptic, one should believe that:

    • The mind is highly prone to deception, self-deception and error. We do not know everything;

    • Thus, inquiry and doubt are essential checks against such deception. We need a method, something outside of the confines of the mind, that can provide some kind of truth that we can work with;

    • Logic and the scientific method seem to be the best methods we have at present that can provide us with some sort of truth that we can work with. This is borne from the belief that truth, or some degree of truth, can be realised through constant testing and scrutiny. We can never reach absolute certainty about anything – rather, we can strive to reach some degree of certainty about any idea that has withstood years of testing;

    • Finally, as skeptics, we must never accept anything as ‘gospel truth’, or label any idea as absolute folly. We must strive, against the temptations of the mind, to find faults with ideas that we find highly attractive or that we strongly agree with. On the other side of the coin we must find some merit with ideas that we find repulsive. In other words, we must constantly challenge the beliefs that we hold. For all we know, we could be wrong, and the best way to find that out is to constantly test our beliefs. This is an extremely difficult exercise, to say the least!

    For the conservative Christian, doubt can be seen as an inconvenient burden. For the skeptic, doubt is a virtue. As an old Hungarian proverb states:

    “The believer is happy; the doubter is wise”.

    What do you think? Is skepticism valid? What are the weaknesses?

    Saturday, July 29, 2006

    The gospels: middle ground?

    I’m quite surprised at the amount of debate and discussion that is taking place under the last post. As I read through the various lines of argument put forward by marc, eddie, Bishop Rick and others, my mind kept on coming back to the whole aspect of historical documents. Where do we draw the line between belief and non-belief when it comes to claims made by documents of antiquity?

    On the one hand, there are Christians literalists who believe that every event recorded in the gospels, including the miracle accounts, are historically true. I don’t think this position is very defendable, for reasons that were covered in the discussion. However, is it also valid to disregard everything in the gospels as pure myth? Although there are no non-Biblical references to Jesus during his lifetime, can we not regard the gospels themselves as evidence of some sort of historical truth?

    At this present time I can accept the proposition that a man, who might have had the name of Jesus, caused a brief stir in ancient Palestine, and was responsible for starting the cult that was to eventually transform into Christianity. However, I don’t believe that this man was born of a virgin, conducted miracles, rose from the dead, or was the son of God. These mythical attributes of divinity were only ascribed to him by his followers at a later stage. Although it can be argued that the gospels are heavily coloured by myth, are there not some grains of truth that we can detect within the texts?

    Do you think this ‘middle ground’ view of the gospels (i.e., believing that Jesus might have existed, but rejecting the miracle claims) is defendable?

    Comments, anyone?

    Thursday, July 20, 2006

    Finding tranquillity in unbelief

    In a recent post, the following comment was left by a visitor to my blog:

    Nick wrote:
    “My Prayer is that God reveal himself to you as he did to me when I was not interested.”

    My response:
    When I was struggling with my faith, I did ask God to reveal himself to me, a number of times. I remember one night when I went for a walk under the clear, star-lit sky. I remember praying and asking God in anguish, over and over again, that he somehow reveal himself to me – even if it was in a way that only I could understand. But despite this earnest prayer, there was no answer. There was nothing but silence. That was the point where God had his chance, the point when he could somehow and in someway enter the picture and say: “Don’t worry, Kevin, I am here.” But instead I suddenly realised that I was alone in the quietness of that night. I can remember a number of pivotal turning points in my faith struggle – that night was one of them.

    I never wanted to leave Christianity; I never wanted to give up my faith. But how could I keep on having faith in something I could not honestly believe in, that I could not intellectually accept as being true? Isn’t it a Biblical promise that if you search with all your heart, you shall find? I searched with all my heart and I did find. But it wasn’t what I expected. I found that I was alone, that there was no supernatural being looking out for me. I found that my existence, including my consciousness, would one day be extinguished. First I felt dread at this prospect, but this was quickly replaced by an inner, quiet confidence. I realised how totally insignificant I am in this old and incredibly large universe. But as I’ve written before, I also realised how incredibly unique I am: out of 250 million sperm cells I was the one that was awarded this brief period of consciousness. Upon this realisation life suddenly became more valuable, every day more special and wondrous. I now take less for granted. There is no afterlife to work for, no heaven in which to invest treasures. I now place all my energies into making this life count, as it is the only life I will ever have.

    I searched with all my heart and I discovered my frail mortality, the brief horror of realising that one day I will be no more, in both body and mind. But at the same time I found an incredible appreciation for this brief life of mine, a realisation that only I, and no-one else, can make this short life meaningful in some way.

    I searched with all my heart and I did not find God.

    Instead, I found peace.

    Monday, July 17, 2006

    Miracles and the truthfulness of Acts

    Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in their apologetic work, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, list an impressive array of arguments for the truthfulness of the New Testament. One of these arguments appeals to the historical details found in the book of Acts. They reference the work of Colin Hemer, who chronicled 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological research. Geisler and Turek point out that Luke reports 35 miracles in Acts and argue:

    In the light of the fact that Luke has proven accurate with so many trivial details, it is nothing but pure anti-supernatural bias to say he’s not telling the truth about the miracles he records. (pg 260)

    Lee Strobel, in The Case For Christ, argues along the same lines:

    If Luke was so painstakingly accurate in his historical reporting . . . on what logical basis may we assume he was credulous or inaccurate in him reporting of matters that were far more important, not only to him but to others as well? (pg 99)

    Is this argument valid? It may be. However, as George H. Smith notes in his book, Atheism: The Case Against God, the apologist who adopts this argument is faced with a dilemma of selectivity: on what basis can the Christian apologist accept the miracle stories of the New Testament, but reject those found in holy texts of other religions? (pg 216).

    On this site, a good example is mentioned. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, recorded his revelations and life story in The Pearl of Great Price (see here). Within this book there are many historical facts that can be verified to be true. For example, it can be verified that Joseph Smith was born on December 23, 1805; that the Mormon Church was organised in 1830; that there is a place called Sharon in Windsor County, Vermount; etc. However, Smith also claims in this book that he was visited by God and Jesus, and that the angel Moroni gave him golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written.

    The Pearl of Great Price contains many historical claims that can be verified as true. Does this mean that we should believe everything contained within the book? According to the logic of Geisler, Turek and Strobel, we should. If we don’t, we – Geisler, Turek and Strobel included – will be exhibiting ‘anti-supernatural bias’.

    If Christian apologists accept the miracle stories from the New Testament, but reject the miracle accounts from other religions, then what objective criteria are they using to distinguish between fictional miracles and those worthy of belief?

    Wednesday, July 12, 2006

    Why do I still bother with Christianity?

    I’ve been asked: why do you still bother with Christianity? If you are an atheist, why do you still study and discuss a belief system that you have long since rejected?

    These are good questions. I’ve thought about this a lot and I think there are two main reasons as to why I still bother with Christianity at all.

    Understanding where I’ve come from
    Christianity has been a part of Western culture for two thousand years. For better or for worse, it has influenced language, thought, music, literature and philosophy. It has shaped our views of both origins and of the human condition. Despite the relatively recent move away from Christianity in Western countries, elements of Christian symbolism and thought still remain deeply ingrained in Western consciousness.

    I was born in the context of Western culture. I have a great desire to learn about where I’ve come from, to learn about the history of my heritage. Christianity may or may not be true, but no one can deny that it has made an impact on Western thought. It is this impact that I like to study.

    Understanding myself
    Not only was I born in the context of Western culture, but I was also born in a country that was entrenched in a Christian way of thought. Before the advent of democracy in 1994, Christianity was the religion adopted by the apartheid state in South Africa. As a child in the 1980’s, I grew up in a society saturated by Christianity: every South African child had to attend classes on Christianity at school; school prayer was mandatory; and Christianity was the religion that received the bulk of airtime on radio and television.

    I believe the first six to ten years of a child’s development are extremely important as this is when the child builds psychological foundations regarding belief systems, values, aspects of self esteem, elements of culture, sexual attitudes, etc. The society and culture in which the child is raised determines many of these foundations, and it’s upon these foundations that everything else in later life is built.

    However, some of these foundations might hold false representations of reality, or they might be destructive (e.g., holding false stereotypes of other races). Others might be beneficial. Like a struggling alcoholic, a person who recognises and works hard to change a destructive or false neural foundation built in their childhood will struggle with it for the rest of their lives.

    Despite my rejection of Christianity, I still have those odd times where I fall back onto the false Christian neural patterns that were built in my childhood. In times of crisis something deep inside still wants to cry out for help to the god I grew up with. In times of great serendipity I feel something is missing, and I suddenly realise that there is no-one to thank for my good fortune. These habits of theistic thought and action are difficult to get rid of. The concept of the Christian god is built deep within my psyche, cemented within my mind by the society in which I was raised. I can only begin to dismantle this neural foundation by understanding it.

    Despite being an atheist, Christianity is still an integral part of my subconscious. To understand Christianity is to understand my heritage. To understand Christianity is to understand myself.

    Monday, July 10, 2006

    Characteristics of frindge groups

    I have just finished reading Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. I will write a full review of this book at a later stage. However, what I found most interesting about the book was Shermer’s discussion on the characteristics of pseudoscientific and pseudohistoric groups, such as ‘scientific’ creationists, Holocaust deniers and extreme Afrocentrists. These fringe groups make various claims that are supported by very little evidence and their beliefs run contrary to common scholarly views on history and science. Shermer argues that these groups, due to the lack of evidence for their claims, resort to fallacious modes of argument in order to advocate their views. These groups share the following common characteristics:

    • They are absolutely certain that they have the truth (pg 206);
    • They concentrate on opponent’s weak points, while rarely saying anything definitive about their own position (pg 212);
    • They exploit errors made by scholars who are making opposing arguments, implying that because a few of their opponents’ conclusions are wrong, that all of their conclusions must be wrong (pg 212);
    • They use quotations taken out of context to buttress their own position (pg 212);
    • They mistake honest, genuine debates between scholars about certain points within the field for a dispute about the existence of the entire field (pg 212);
    • They focus on what is not known and ignore what is known, emphasize data that fit and discount data that do not fit (pg 212);
    • They rely on post hoc rationalisation, after-the-fact-reasoning to justify contrary evidence (pg 216); and
    • When the ideas of fringe groups fail to be accepted by mainstream scholars, advocates propagate conspiracy theories. (pg 206).

    Anyone familiar with ‘scientific’ creationism – especially the young earth variety – will recognise some of these tactics.

    Tuesday, July 04, 2006

    The ineffectiveness of intercessory prayer

    These interesting articles (see here, here and here) outline the results obtained from a recent study on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. 1802 patients, undergoing coronary bypass surgery, took part in the study which spanned almost a decade. The patients were split into three groups, two of which were prayed for by various Christian congregations. The study’s aim was to find out if intercessory prayer had any affect on the health and recovery of the patients.

    As it turns out, the results showed no statistically significant differences between the prayed for and non-prayed for groups. In other words, the intercessory prayer seemed to have had no noticeable affect on the health or recovery of those patients who were being prayed for.

    Now this obviously raises the question on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. If there are no measurable affects of such prayer, then why bother?

    A theist might come in at this point and argue that the primary use of prayer is not to ask things of god, but to build a relationship with god. I accept this. Aspects such as praise, love, meditation and confession are all important parts of prayer. Prayer can be an incredible spiritual experience and can even have positive affects on the health and well-being of the individual who is praying. It is not with prayer in general that I have an issue with; it is the intercessory aspect that is in question here.

    The results from intercessory prayer are not consistent. Some people who are sick are prayed for, and they are healed; other people who are prayed for die. Some people who are not prayed for are healed; other people who are not prayed for die. Wouldn’t it be better to do something constructive with the time and energy used for intercessory prayer? I’ve often heard the expression: “Two hands working do more than a thousand clasped in prayer”.

    So what does this study mean for intercessory prayer? I think that it would be wonderful if more experiments were done on this field of study, but at this time it seems that intercessory prayer has no impact on the health and well being of medical patients. It cannot be used in conjunction with known medical cures. With prayer having so little effect, it would be best for everyone, for the time being, to rely fully on the scientific cures that actually show consistent results. As Carl Sagan noted in his book, The Demon-Haunted World:

    We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours . . . The scientific treatments are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives. (Pg 13)

    Thursday, June 29, 2006

    Bible study: The dangerous child myth

    Imagine, if you will, a nation in ancient times, ruled by a cruel and vindictive king. He cares nothing for the people of his land. He rules by fear but he is hated by many. One day, the king hears that a particular child that has just been born. A prophecy states that this child will one day grow to become a leader and will eventually take the throne. Naturally, the king feels threatened. He gives orders to his soldiers to march through the land, and to kill every male child below a certain age. “Kill them all!” he barks at his generals. Despite the king’s actions, the special child manages – due to a divine warning – to escape the slaughter and to eventually fulfil its destiny.

    Does this story sound familiar? Can you name the king in question or the small child? The characters in question are not the ones you would expect. The king in this story is King Kansa and the child is baby Krishna, the incarnation of the god Vishnu. This story appears in the Hindu poem Mahabharata, which was written two centuries before the birth of Christ.

    Variations of the ‘dangerous child’ myth, as it is called, have appeared in many religions and legends. They roughly follow the same basic pattern as the story of King Kansa and Krishna: (1) a divinely appointed chid is born with a special destiny; (2) a local leader hears of the threat this child can become and orders the child be killed; (3) however, the child, through divine intervention, manages to escape. Various variations of this story can be ascribed to Jason, Hercules, Cyrus (king of Persia), and Zoroaster (see here, here and here).

    This raises the question of whether the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod, as recorded by the writer of Matthew, really happened, or if it was simply an attempt on the writer’s part to use popular myth to raise the divine importance of Jesus in the eyes of readers at the time. It is telling that the story, which appears in Matthew 2:1-8, 2:16-18, does not feature in any of the other gospels, nor is it mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Moreover, it is not recorded in any non-Christian records at the time. For example, Josephus, a Jewish historian living in the first century AD, went to great pains to list all of King Herod’s atrocities in Antiquities of the Jews. Strangely, the slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned. One would expect such an event to have a huge ripple effect in that region but strangely the writer of Matthew is the only person who mentions it.

    So we presently have no other accounts of this story. We also have an historical record of the ‘dangerous child’ myth, which is often associated with divinely chosen individuals of various religions and legends throughout history. Is it not safe to conclude, until further evidence is forthcoming, that the story of King Herod ordering the killing of male babies is itself but a myth? Is this an example where a mythical story has been infused in-between the pieces of historical truth within the Bible?

    Tuesday, June 27, 2006

    Book: The Case For a Creator

    Was the universe created by an intelligent designer? In this book, Lee Strobel, a journalist, attempts to answer this question by interviewing various advocates of Intelligent Design (ID) theory, who argue that: (1) the universe, including life, was the product of an intelligent designer; (2) the naturalistic processes of evolution fail miserably to explain how life began; and (3) the designer of the universe is possibly the god of the Christian Bible.

    I must admit that I enjoyed the book. Strobel provides an easy summary of theistic arguments for ID. His style is also easy to follow: he records his conversations with the experts in a dialogue format.

    However, I’m afraid that I have more criticism than praise for the book. Although I have much to say, I will only offer three points of criticism.

    Unbalanced presentation
    I have copies of Strobel’s two earlier books: The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ. While reading these two books I was quite frustrated by the fact that Strobel only interviewed advocates from one side of the argument; only Christian apologists were considered. I was disappointed to see that The Case for a Creator is no different.

    The false link between evolution, immorality and atheism
    Strobel also spends an entire chapter arguing that belief in evolution was the cause of his atheistic world view and his atheistic world view was the cause of his immoral behaviour before he became a Christian.

    This link is fallacious, simply because: (1) despite what creationists believe, and what some atheists might claim, the theory of evolution says nothing about the existence or non-existence of a god; (2) there are many Christians who believe in the theory of evolution and have no problem with it (in all fairness, Strobel does mention this fact); and (3) there are many atheists who are moral, considerate and who do not “pursue personal happiness and pleasure at all costs.” (pg 25)

    Answering the unknown with the unknown
    How exactly did this god create existence out of non-existence? What processes and methods did god use in order to create atoms? Where did god come from? ID theory remains vague and nebulous as it does not provide satisfactory answers to specific questions such as these. In other words, the postulation of a god to explain the mystery of the universe explains nothing as it only presents us with more unanswered questions (i.e., it only presents us with a bigger mystery). As an atheist, I’m content just to answer “I don’t know” to the question of existence.

    I am fascinated by the ID hypothesis, and this is why I enjoyed Strobel’s book. Although Strobel did a good job in summarising the main arguments of ID theory, I feel that The Case for a Creator has a long way to go to build a solid case for an intelligent designer. For a much better critique of the book, visit this page.

    Thursday, June 22, 2006

    A short note

    Just a short note to those who are accessing my blog through a RSS reader: I have changed the Blogger setting to include my articles in their entirety when I post. I know in the past Blogger only included the first 250 letters (or words?) of each article on the atom feed, which wasn’t very useful for RSS readers. This also means that those receiving my posts through Feedblitz via email will also now receive my posts in full. Thank you to Roger for pointing this out.

    To access my site through a RSS reader, all you have to do is add the following link as a new feed:

    If you want to receive my posts via email, all you have to do is add your email address to the text box in the sidebar to register with Feedblitz.

    All the best

    Tuesday, June 20, 2006

    Truth and effort

    Last week I attended a short course on data mining at work. Basically, from what I understand, data mining involves certain techniques that can be used to discover patterns in large computer data sets that otherwise would remain hidden from us. For example, a large database containing the buying habits of customers of a particular store can be analysed, and through such analysis it can be discovered that there is a strong correlation between the purchasing of juice and jelly (i.e., those customers that buy juice are more likely to purchase jelly). Using this discovery, the store can maximize profits by placing their jelly selection in the drinks isle, preferably next to the juice.

    The problem, however, with data mining, is that with large datasets it is easy to find a large variety of false patterns or correlations. For example, it is easy to analyse the last two thousand numbers of a roulette table and suddenly find correlations. However, these correlations are not significant as they are totally random and any gambler relying on these will loose just as much money.

    So how do we separate the false patterns from those that are significant? This is where the field of statistics comes into play. There are various statistical tests and procedures that can be used to interrogate one’s analysis on a particular set of data. It is easy to find patterns in data, but it takes a lot of work and effort to determine which patterns are meaningful and which are vacuous. In other words, finding out what is really true can be an arduous process. I wonder if this concept applies to other spheres of life? Does it take effort to discover truth?

    When I started doubting my faith I threw myself into reading up about Biblical history, evolution, creationism, science and philosophy. I have my own digital library containing almost 1 600 articles, reviews and debates that I’ve downloaded off the internet; my book collection is growing by the year with titles from apologists and sceptics alike; and I plan, for the first time, to formally enrol in philosophy courses at a local university later this year. Since I left Christianity I’ve had a great desire to get to the bottom of things. But I’ve also realised that finding out the truth about certain subjects, such as evolution and philosophy, can be a difficult and time consuming process involving a lot of work. I did not arrive at my current beliefs about God and the universe lightly: much blood, sweat and tears have gone into the process. And the more I learn, as the old saying goes, the more I realise how little I in fact know. For me, the journey of discovery continues.

    And this brings me to thoughts on ‘scientific’ creationism. To me, and I could be wrong here, it seems that ‘scientific’ creationism is incredibly easy to believe. It requires little effort to get to the bottom of how it actually works, or what it entails. I sometimes wonder, then, if the very ease at which creationism can be believed is somehow a warning sign to the status of its validity. Where are the efforts, from the creationists themselves, to try and prove creationism false? Should they not, like all other scientists, be testing their own ideas in order to determine if, like the patterns found through data mining, creationism has any value? Although we should not disregard all claims out of hand, should we not be cautious of those that hold effortless views of truth and nature?

    Saturday, June 10, 2006

    God and war

    This image was sent to me by a friend via email. I could be mistaken, but I think this is a group of American soldiers in Iraq, having a prayer meeting. It is a powerful image and it got me thinking about the relationship between religion and war.

    If God exists, I wonder what he thinks about this picture. Would he respond to this group by saying:

    “I have heard your prayers. I will protect you and help you in your cause”.

    Is God on the side of the Americans? We know that the Americans invaded a sovereign nation that posed no threat. We continuously hear of all the innocent civilians that have lost their lives and how Iraqi prisoners of war have been tortured. I feel great sorrow for the American soldier who has been sent to this country to die for a meaningless war that should not have taken place, for an ideal built on faulty premises. Is God supporting this mess?

    I can’t understand how leaders of a government, who are responsible for so much suffering and death, can believe that the loving God of the universe condones their actions.

    If God is the God that Christians truly believe in, I think his response to this group of soldiers would be:

    “Haven’t you learnt that I am loving? Haven’t you been taught to follow the example of my son, Jesus, who preached that you should love your neighbour? Why do you pray to me at one moment, and then kill in the next? Why do you follow your earthly leaders so blindly?”


    Monday, June 05, 2006

    Film: The Da Vinci Code

    The other night Cori and I watched The Da Vinci Code at the local cinema. I will write in a moment what I thought about the movie and how it compared to the book, but first I want to focus on something peculiar that I noticed as we entered the cinema itself.

    Behind the ticket booth, as in any cinema, the various posters of all currently showing films were displayed. It was quite strange to see the following, large warning sign pasted across the poster for The Da Vinci Code: “Special warning: content not taken in the fictional context might disturb religiously sensitive viewers”. The word ‘fictional’ was underlined. I looked at what other movies were on show: Mission Impossible 3, The Hills Have Eyes, and The X Men. Strangely, these posters had no large warning signs, despite their content of violence and sex. I found it quite bizarre that media content glorifying violence, degrading sex and entrenching stereotypes is easily tolerated, but media content that slightly upsets our religious beliefs is suddenly adorned with ‘special’ warning signs.

    Anyway, we bought our tickets and went in to watch. The reaction of the audience was also quite interesting. As the movie progressed there was some uncomfortable laughter, some low whistles of disapproval, and even some sporadic clapping as the major claims of the story regarding Jesus were revealed.

    What did I think of the movie? Well, I read the book in 2004 and really thought it was a well worked story, with quick pace and clever twists in the plot. I found that the movie was just as enjoyable. If you are looking for a movie with Oscar potential, historical truth and extensive character development, this movie is NOT for you. This is a fun thriller, and despite all the negative reviews, I enjoyed it.

    There was one thing that I noticed that might have differed from the book. In the movie, the main character, Robert Langdon, suffers from claustrophobia – the result of a childhood experience of falling into a well. I honestly can’t remember if this appeared in the book (please correct me if it did). I also can’t remember if Langdon’s monologue at the end of the movie – where he recounts the story of the well, how he had prayed to Jesus to save him, and how Jesus was real to him personally – actually appeared in the book. If it was not in the book, I wonder if it was intentionally worked into the movie to placate conservative Christians who had just gone through two and a half hours of what they would regard as blasphemy.

    What are your thoughts?

    Saturday, May 27, 2006

    Purpose inherent or purpose imposed?

    Are purpose and design inherent in the universe, as theists believe, or do humans impose the idea of purpose on the universe as we look at the world through rose tinted glasses?

    Many Christians that I’ve spoken to appeal to creation as evidence for God. They list examples of incredible and intricate structures found in nature, such as the cell or DNA, and then argue that these structures, that work together so efficiently, indicate purpose and design. “If this is design, who is the designer?” the theist asks. The natural answer is God.

    On the other hand, Michael Shermer, in his book, Why People Believe Weird Things, argues that purpose is imposed. The human mind is a skilled, pattern and causal finding machine. This ability allowed humans to detect connections between things and events in the environment, which made us extremely successful animals. However, the pattern-seeking ability of the brain is so good that it sometimes makes the error of observing patterns where none actually exist.

    For example, if we look at clouds we automatically see recognizable shapes, but few would argue that clouds are intentionally created by an intelligent designer to look like dragons or cars. We know that clouds are created purely by natural means, through processes that we know well. In other words, when we look at clouds, the brain automatically thinks it observes design when in fact there no design at all.

    What does the cloud below remind you of?

    Could the theist’s belief that purpose and design are evident in the universe be a cognitive mistake of the same nature? As in the case of clouds, is it possible that the universe had a purely natural beginning, without a creator, but the human mind mistakenly imposes the belief that design is present?

    So which is it? Do we live in a purposeless universe in which we impose design, or do we live in a created universe in which we discover design?

    What do you think?

    Monday, May 22, 2006

    A question for young earth creationists

    This is a humble question for those who advocate a literal interpretation of the Global Flood as recorded in the Bible, and who believe that geological strata were a result of this flood: how do you explain certain oddities and patterns that we see in the geological record, such as:

    • Pollen and spores found alongside fossils of each age (stratum). Surely these would have floated to the top of the flood waters and settled in the top strata? See here and here.

    • The fact that light organic fragments, such as feathers and pieces of egg shell, appear in the same strata as the species that produced them. One would expect these fragments to be spread haphazardly through the geological column by the violent deluge of water. See here.

    • The fact that whale fossils are found above marine reptiles such as Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs. What attribute of the flood kept these animals separate from each other? See here and here.

    • The fact that fossils of trilobites appear below fossils of dinosaurs and mammals. Again, one would expect some mixing to take place. See here.
    • The fact that therapsid reptile fossils became sorted in a sequence that looks like evolutionary decent. See here and here.

    • Only recently has molecular evidence confirmed the ancestry and relatedness of some animals. The evolutionary tree created from protein sequencing closely, but not always, matches that of the tree deduced from the fossil record. How did the Flood manage to roughly sort living organisms according to their proteins? See here.

    • The fact that we find 140 -150 meteor craters scattered through the various strata. If all these meteors fell during the short period of the Flood (which is a logical conclusion if the geological strata were the result of the Flood), the energy released would have incinerated everything on the surface of the earth. How did Noah and his Ark survive this quick and savage meteor bombardment from the skies? See here and here.

    I am asking this in an attempt to understand your belief. To me, the idea of a worldwide flood seems inconsistent with what we presently observe in the geological record.

    (Much better lists of Global Flood problems can be found
    here and here)

    Tuesday, May 09, 2006

    Verses of ambiguity

    One of the things that blew my mind away about the Bible – when I left the faith, that is – was suddenly realising that the Bible is not 100% complete or certain. There are still verses and sections of the bible for which meaning is still ambiguous. To see this for yourself, all that you have to do is compare different translations of the Bible. In this post, three ambiguous verses will be explored.

    1 Samuel 13:1 – How old was Saul when he became king, and how long did he reign over Israel? According to the NIV (New International Version), Saul was thirty years old when he became king but according to the ASV (American Standard Version), he was forty years old. The KJV (King James Version) does not mention his age and the GNB (Good News Bible) has omitted this verse entirely. In fact, the original Hebrew text states that Saul was one year old when he became king, which is impossible. It has been suggested that the original numbers in this verse have been lost in transmission. An interesting discussion on this verse can be found
    here and here.

    2 Samuel 15:7 – How many years went by before Absalom spoke to King David? According to KJV and NIV, it was forty years. According to the GNB, it was four years. In Kiel and Delitzsch’s Commentary on the Old Testament, four years is argued for, simply because King David only ruled for just over forty years, and it is improbable that Absalom’s rebellion took place in the final weeks of David’s rule.

    Judges 14:15 – When did the Philistines speak to Samson’s wife? According to the KJV and NIV, it was on the seventh day. According to the GNB, it was the fourth day. The Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge says the following:

    The LXX reads “on the fourth day;” with which the Syriac and Arabic agree. This . . . is certainly right; for it appears from Jdg 14:17, that she wept the remainder of the seven days; for which there could have been no time, if they did not threaten her till the seventh.

    These are just three of many discrepancies that I have come across. I must stress that I’m not using these discrepancies to disprove the existence of God, or to pass judgment on the relevance of the Bible. I am just raising the following question for possible discussion: is there such thing as a correct translation of the Bible?

    Saturday, May 06, 2006

    Was I a true Christian?

    This is a response to a comment left by an anonymous writer (see here).

    Anon wrote:

    When you were a Christian, did you ever personally accept Christ as the lord of your life and savior from sin, or did you merely belong to the group known as "Christianity?" That is, did you really believe in your heart that your sins had been forgiven and that you were saved, or did you simply go to church with your family on sundays. I ask because I have never before heard of someone who had a personal relationship with Christ leaving it later on.

    The simple answer to this question is yes. I did personally accept Christ as my Lord and Saviour. I did believe, with all my heart, that my sins had been forgiven and that I had a relationship with the creator of the universe. I took my faith quite seriously: I worked on the committee of our church’s youth group, building youth ministry in our area, as well as spending an entire year travelling around South Africa, with a Christian drama and music team, spreading the Gospel in schools, prisons and old age homes. I even led a few people to Jesus. Yes, I was a ‘true’ Christian – just like Anon. And yes, I did leave Christianity.

    I’ve heard the argument from some Christians – and I must point out that Anon was not necessarily using this argument – that ex-Christians, before they left the faith, were not really Christians to begin with. There are two things I would like to say in response to this claim:

    Firstly, when one clings with all their strength to a specific ideology or belief, which they view as absolute truth, they cannot accept the possibility that they could be wrong. When some fundamentalist Christians see others leaving Christianity, they naturally place the fault on the person leaving the faith (i.e., “she was never really a Christian”), instead of considering the possibility that the belief being rejected could be at fault (i.e., “maybe Christianity is false”). In other words, in the mind of a Christian making such an argument, Christianity is absolutely true and perfect; therefore, the fault of unbelief has to lie with the ex-Christian. Is it not possible that Christianity itself is the cause of believers leaving the faith?

    Secondly, I believe this argument acts as a type of protection mechanism in the mind of the believer. Inherent in the argument is the fear: “If Mrs X can loose her faith, then it’s possible that it can also happen to me!” In an attempt to rid oneself of this fear, all that one has to do is believe that they are a true believer, who can never possibly backslide into unbelief, and that ex-Christians were not really Christians to begin with. In this way, one fashions the false belief that they will be immune to ever reaching the point of rejecting God.

    Anon set out very clear criteria of what defines a true Christian. When I was a Christian I passed these criteria with flying colours. I lost my faith. No one is immune to paradigm shifts.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    Does evolution depend on abiogenesis?

    When discussing ‘new life forms’ that are supposed to arise from evolution, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in their apologetic work, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, point out that the most difficult problem for evolution is that Darwinists can’t explain where the first life came from:

    If Darwinists don’t have an explanation for the first life, then what’s the point of speaking about new life forms? The process of macroevolution, if it’s possible at all, can’t even begin unless there’s preexisting life. (pg 139)

    This argument is similar to one used in this article on evolution, posted on the apologetic website, Stand to Reason. Gregory Koukl, the author, states that for evolution to be a fact, two things are needed: (1) life coming from non-life (i.e., abiogenesis), and (2) change in that life from simple forms to complex forms over time. He then states that nobody knows how life arose, and then argues:

    Evolution is claimed to be a fact, but you can't have the fact of evolution unless you have the fact of abiogenesis. Yet nobody knows how such a thing could ever take place. And if life can't be shown to have come from non-life, then the game can't even get started.

    One thing is correct in the above argument: scientists don’t yet know how first life arose, although there are some tantalising theories (see here). But is it then valid to argue that evolution is not true because we don’t know how abiogenesis occurred? I don’t think it is.

    The above argument does not consider the fact that we can actually observe evolution happening. Many new species have been observed to have formed through evolutionary processes (see
    here for examples). Not only can we see evolution happening but there are many clues, from many different spheres of research, that suggest that evolution has occurred throughout the ages (see here). The evidence for evolution is so good that evolutionary theory does not depend at all on the validity of abiogenesis. In other words, evolution happens, irrespective of what we know (or don’t know) about the formation of first life.

    I will highlight the weakness of the argument further with this analogy. It is not a perfect analogy but it will do the trick. Humankind has only recently, over the last few centuries, discovered the exact process involved in conception. Would it be logical for someone in the Middle Ages, for example, to deny that humans physically grow from babies into adults because Middle Age society lacks complete knowledge of how life begins in the womb?

    No. This conclusion is fallacious in that we can observe people growing and developing physically all around us. In other words, physical development in a human individual happens, irrespective of what we know (or don’t know) about the formation of life in the womb.

    So not only is this argument an appeal to ignorance, but it also wrongly assumes that the truth of evolution somehow depends on the validity of abiogenesis.