Sunday, January 29, 2006

My take on Pascal's Wager

In a previous post, I responded to a comment left on my blog by an anonymous visitor. I outlined my belief that it is possible for someone to find meaning without the hope of an afterlife. In this post I will respond to another remark made by the visitor.

“What hurt does it do living the life of a christian...if you turn out to be wrong you lived a good life of living for a reason, having a meaning for life or dying as an atheist to find your views were wrong and suffer the consequences of hell."

This a variant of an argument originally formulated by Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, and is consequently known as Pascal’s Wager. It isn’t really an argument for the existence of God, but more a reason for believing in God.

My problem with this argument is that it uses the fear of hell as a reason to believe in God. The problem using fear is this: if I come to God through fear, can I truly and sincerely love and respect that God? If Christianity is all about relationship, what kind of relationship is based on fear? It is the kind that a wife has with her husband who beats her, or the kind that a slave has with his cruel master. If a person’s motivation to believe is based on fear, there is no chance for a healthy relationship.

Moreover, the use of fear as a reason for belief is used as a last resort by those who can’t logically argue for their beliefs. This is where I have respect for apologists, who at least appeal to reason and evidence as tools to argue for the existence of God. I have an intense disgust for any evangelist, pastor or church that uses the fear of hell as an evangelistic tool. It might get people into heaven, but only those with shallow intensions. What would God prefer: those who come to him through love, or those that come to him through fear? Which is more sincere?

When I was a Christian, I believed that Christianity was based on love and respect. I believe that this is what most Christians believe today. If this is the case, why should one use fear as a reason to believe? This is the primary reason why I don’t take Pascal’s Wager seriously at all.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Anthropic Coincidences

Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, as well as Lee Strobel, in his book Case For a Creator, use the Anthropic Coincidences as an argument that man was placed here by some intelligence. The argument is incredibly appealing, and I find it a fascinating concept. Geisler and Turek cleverly use the ill fated Apollo 13 moon mission to list about fifteen physical or environmental factors in our solar system that are vital for the existence of life. These include the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels on earth, moon-earth gravity interactions, water vapour levels, etc. Like the Apollo 13 spacecraft, if any of these factors were slightly different, humans would not be able to live, or even exist, on earth. The odds are highly unlikely, they argue, that all these conditions just happened to occur all together by chance. The conclusion is that man must have been placed here for a reason, by some form of intelligence.
The following are possible counter arguments:
First, this argument assumes that one type of life is possible. If any of conditions were slightly different, life would not have been possible, but this would be life as we know it. Who knows, some other kind of life could have developed in our place.
Second, the universe is incredibly large, containing billions of galaxies, each containing billions of starts and possibly trillions of planets. With such a large number of planets, it’s no surprise that at least one planet happened to find itself in conditions favourable to life.
Third, the argument is extremely anthro-arrogant. It argues that conditions were put in place to sustain humans. But the opposite might be true: what if humankind is a just a chance by-product of the set of conditions that just happened to form in this part of the universe? A well-known story illustrates this point. A puddle of water that finds itself in a small hole in the road, looks around, and suddenly exclaims: “Wow, the shape of the hole was designed exactly right just to fit me!”
We have no empirical evidence of the intelligence that was supposed to have placed us here. However, we know that life is incredibly resilient, and can exist in a wide variety of conditions. Therefore, until new information comes along (and despite the fact that I find this a fascinating concept), I will lean towards the view that life was not a result of intelligence but of conditions that happened to form in this part of the universe.

Friday, January 20, 2006

An omnipresent recluse

Why did I loose my faith? To be honest, there was no single reason, no silver bullet that turned me from a serious, bible believing Christian to a self-professing agnostic/atheist. My faith struggle took place over a period of three years, and was the result of many different reasons. I will cover some of them in later posts, but one of the main causes can be summed up by a quote in Philip Yancey’s Disappointment With God. Yancey recounts the true story of Richard, a young Christian writer who looses his faith after a long and painful struggle with his belief. Yancey records Richard as saying: “How can you have a personal relationship if you’re not sure the other person even exists?” This was the exact problem I had – dealing with a hidden friend.

I started to slide from my faith when I realised that although I was talking a lot to God, I wasn’t hearing much in reply. As a believer, I was expected to share my all with God, every thought and desire; but in return he didn’t share his every thought or intention with me. Many times I asked for guidance and answers to specific questions, and all I received were the same old verses that were simply too vague. I was expected to speak to him directly - God should have had no problem hearing my prayers - but in return I had to work hard to decipher and decode ambiguous messages through sermons, the Bible, and other Christians.

As a result I was almost always uncertain of what God was trying to say to me individually. I must have prayed countless times and spent many mornings talking to God. In all those years I only once ‘heard’ a clear and direct message to me, through a single Bible verse that popped up two or three times from different sources in a single week. A thought occurred to me: was this a real message to me from God, or was it just my imagination creating faces out of random static? Only one clear message in 13 years! I suddenly got tired of being in a one-way relationship, where I did all the work and got little in return. I then started to doubt if God cared for me at all, or if he even existed.

I believe it was Emily Dickinson who said "They say God is everywhere, and yet we always think of him as somewhat of a recluse."

I was taught that God is a constant companion who will never leave your side. I wonder why I struggled so much to hear him, then, if he is supposed to be so close by.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Why are creationists so successful? (part 2)

This is the second post of some thoughts I have regarding the successfulness of creationists. Why are they so successful? Why do so many believe what creationists say - hook, line and sinker? I had the opportunity to listen to a radio debate between creationist Kent Hovind and evolutionist Massimo Pigliucci, and these are some of the thoughts I had.

Before I continue I want to spend a little time defining whom I refer to when I speak of creationists on any of my posts. In part 1 of this post (click here), I defined a creationist as someone who advocates a six thousand year old earth model. I’ve been thinking about this, and I want to narrow this definition even further. When I refer to creationists in my posts, I’m not necessarily referring to those who believe in a young earth. Rather, I’m referring to those who appeal to science to advocate such beliefs. I have no problem with anyone who holds onto a young earth belief. However, when someone claims that science supports their case, I feel that their claims – like all other claims in science – have to undergo the necessary scrutiny to be qualified as science.

That being said, lets continue.

In the last post I suggested that creationists are successful because they appeal to unquestioned beliefs and assumptions that we have regarding science and evolution. In this post I cover two more reasons.

The second reason why I think creationists are successful is that they appeal to common sense. The design argument, for example, is incredibly appealing, and makes sense to anyone. However, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to realise that the design argument is actually logically flawed, as Pigliucci pointed out in the debate.

The third reason why creationists are successful is that they paint evolution as a ludicrous idea. Hovind made the comment that evolution states that bananas turned into dogs. Naturally, this sounds incredibly ludicrous. However, this is an incorrect statement of how evolution actually works. I’m glad that Pigliucci corrected Hovind by pointing out that evolutionary theory actually states that dogs evolved from the same common ancestor as the banana, and this ancestor was not a dog or banana. Evolution makes a lot of sense when one takes time to learn about its intricacies. Creationists ignore the intricacies and make sweeping, incomplete statements that make evolutionary theory seem like a laughable concept.

There are probably many other reasons to why creationists are successful, but these are the few that came to mind.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Film: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

A few weeks ago I saw The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I have great respect for C.S. Lewis as a writer, and I’m a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia. I really enjoyed the movie, and thought that it adequately captured the wonder of the book.

The one thing that stood out for me, and which I think could not be avoided, was the strong Christian symbolism in the story. The sacrificing of Aslan’s life in place of Edmund’s treachery is quite similar to the Christian story of Jesus sacrificing his life for our sin. The beating of Aslan as he walked to the alter (the beating of Jesus before the crucifixion), the approach of Susan and Lucy to his body just before dawn (the approach of the woman to Jesus’ tomb just before dawn), the splitting of the stone table (the splitting of the curtain in the Temple as Jesus died?), and the rebirth of Aslan are symbols that represent the story of Jesus.

In fact, C.S. Lewis’ decision to represent the character of Aslan as a lion was probably no accident either: in Revelation 5:5, the writer refers to Jesus as the Lion from Judah’s tribe, the root of David. At the end of The Voyage of the Dawntreader, the fifth book in the Narnia series, Aslan appears as a small lamb, and after the lamb slowly changes to his lion form, he says to the children that in their world (i.e., our world), he is known by a different name.

The symbolism linking Aslan to Jesus is quite obvious. Some reviews of the movie criticised the symbolism, but I honestly can’t see how anyone can make a movie of the book without this feature. It is an integral part of the story.

I hope that movies of the other books in the series will be made. I would love to see how they represent the other characters on screen, like Reepicheep, the Mouse (my favourite character); Bree, the talking horse; and Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle. We will just have to wait and see.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Does the word 'Lucifer' refer to Satan?

The word Lucifer is commonly associated with Satan from the Bible. However, it is interesting to note that the word might not even refer to Satan at all. It is not found in most translations of the Bible. In fact, it only appears once in the King James Version, in Isaiah 14:12.

Let’s take a look at the verse from the King James Version:

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

Many Christians interpret this verse as Satan’s banishment from heaven. Interestingly, it has been argued that this is not the correct interpretation at all. The Latin word Lucifer does not refer to Satan, but is actually the name given to the morning star (the most common Latin name for the morning star is Venus). In the original Hebrew context, this verse was actually referring to a fallen Babylonian king, not Satan. This makes the most sense if you read the Isaiah passage in context. The Hebrew word used in this verse is heylel (or heilel), which can mean “star of the morning”.

But how did the word Lucifer become associated with Satan? The word first appeared in the Latin Vulgate Bible, around 400 AD. St. Jerome, who was responsible for the Vulgate, translated the word into the Latin lucifer, which refers to Venus. However, the English King James version kept the Latin word, and expressed it as a proper name. Through the years - possibly due the King James’ use of the word as a proper name, and the similarity of the story to Jesus’ account of Satan in Luke 10:18 - this verse became associated with the fall of Satan, and the word Lucifer was eventually attributed to him. The works of Milton and Shakespeare, who used the word Lucifer to refer to Satan, further reinforced this view.

Newer translations of the bible have corrected this erroneous belief. If we have a look at the New International Version, the verse is as follows:

“How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations.”

And the Good News Bible:

“King of Babylon, bright morning star, you have fallen from heaven! In the past you conquered nations, but now you have been thrown to the ground”

For a more in-depth discussion of the Lucifer debate, click here, and here.

In conclusion: the word Lucifer was not originally intended to refer to Satan at all, but to Venus, the morning star. Moreover, Isaiah 14:12 refers to a fallen king, not Satan.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The meaning of life for an agnostic/atheist

This post is a response to a comment made by an anonymous visitor to my blog. The comment can be viewed under my post regarding the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. I will respond to the following remark made by the visitor:

“. . . but as I contemplate these things I think about the universal question: ‘what is going to happen to me when I die?’ So...through the Atheism view you can rot in the ground like a log or Christianity believes you spend an eternity either in heaven or hell”

Anonymous raises a good point here. What hope does the atheistic view hold for life after death? How can an atheist find hope and meaning without an afterlife?

I’ve always battled to conceptually grasp things that I cannot see or directly experience. Heaven and hell were concepts that I never really got to fully understand. Where is heaven and hell? Are they actual physical places somewhere? If so, why haven’t we been able to find any evidence of their existence? There is no way that I, or anyone, can test the validity of the Bible’s claim that such places exist, so I doubt that they exist at all.

And what about the soul? Over the last century we have also been able to discover more about how the brain works. Antonio Damasio, in his book, Looking for Spinoza, provides a good case that all human emotions, feelings and memories – aspects that have been attributed to the soul – have their origin within the brain, and are affected negatively when the brain is damaged. Michael Persinger, among others, has shown that specific spiritual states – that are commonly attributed to supernatural or religious experiences – can be experienced when certain parts of the brain are stimulated by electrodes. If the soul is separate from the body, why is it affected by the brain? I've slowly come to the belief that what we call the soul is not only a product of the brain, but it is also dependent on it. If there is no brain, there is no soul. If the brain dies, the soul dies.

I know this sounds gloomy, and it took me quite a while to accept it. I always thought that if I adopted this belief I would commit suicide, go and kill people, or fall into depression. But this has not happened. Instead, it has humbled me as an individual: I now realise how totally insignificant I am in this ancient and incredibly large universe. But at the same time I'm extremely special: out of 250 million sperm cells I was the one that was awarded this brief period of consciousness. Life has suddenly become more valuable, every day more special. In all its complexity the universe is suddenly more wondrous. I take less for granted. If there is no afterlife, this is the only life that I will ever have. I find meaning within this life.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Book: Disappointment with God

Philip Yancey is a Christian writer who is not afraid to show the real grittiness of life. In his books there are no easy answers to life’s struggles, and he doesn’t console people with the superficial, sickly-sweet “God loves you”. There are few happy endings in the factual stories that he writes about.

Although I don’t often read Christian books that aren’t related to apologetics, I was particularly intrigued by Yancey’s account of Richard, a young Christian who looses his faith. Richard, who is writing a book on Job, slowly finds his faith falling apart. Despite the fact that Richard does everything right as a Christian, his life is plagued with struggle and pain. Eventually, he ends up loosing his faith entirely, and as a result he burns all his Christian books in his backyard. Yancey captures the de-conversion struggle well, and succeeds in painting a realistic picture of what it is like for someone to loose his or her faith. I can relate to this story. When I lost my faith I felt the same as Richard who says in the book: “A great weight had lifted. I had been honest with myself. Any pretense was gone, and I no longer felt the pressure to believe what I could never be sure of. I felt converted – converted from God”.

However, although Yancey accurately outlines what de-conversion can be like, he implies that Richard lost his faith as a result of the church and of the bad experiences in his life. Although these can be reasons why some leave the faith, Yancey doesn’t consider the third possibility that Christianity itself can be a major factor leading to de-conversion. From my own experience, I did not leave Christianity as a result of the church or of life’s struggles. Rather, I left because the claims and precepts of Christianity did not make sense to me any longer. I did not want to give up my faith, but I could no longer adopt a life philosophy that, in my mind, did not match what I observed in the world around me.

The rest of Disappointment with God was less interesting to me as a skeptic. Yancey’s guided tour of the Bible, highlighting the way God’s relationship changed with regards to humans, and offering of possible answers for life’s struggles from the book of Job, are all based on the assumption that the bible is true. This is okay, as Yancey himself admits that he does not write apologetics. For this reason I think this book is focussed more towards the struggling believer than the ex-Christian.