Monday, February 27, 2006

Confessions of a bibliophile

Okay, I admit it! I spend most of my free time reading! I can’t help it - I’m addicted to books. I confess I’m an addict.
That being said, of all the books that I plan to read, there are three that I definitely want to complete this year.
The first is Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the book that - published in 1859 - set out the theory of evolution by natural selection. I’m fascinated in the whole evolution vs. creationism debate, and, for me, reading this classical work is long overdue.
The second book is Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. I’ve already read Screwtape Letters, and have great respect for Lewis as a writer. I tried to read Mere Christianity when I was much younger, but I don’t think I was mentally prepared for it at the time. I found it extremely complicated, and I gave it up after the first chapter. I will give it another shot this year.
But most important, the third book that I plan to read fully this year is the Bible. As a Christian, I studied and read much of it, but only selected portions. Now I’ve found a renewed fascination for the book, and I want to experience it through different (non-Christian) eyes. I have already completed the books of Genesis and Exodus, and have been fascinated in discovering the Bible for what it really is: not an inherent, word for word dictation of some supernatural being, but rather a rich tapestry of different types of writings from different cultures and people - containing poetry, myths, legends, history, song, and wise council. The Bible contains a lot of good, but also a lot bad. I want to read it with a spirit of discovery, and realise all it weaknesses and its strengths.
Books are powerful things. They enable us to learn and discover. I just want to ask those - Christian and non-Christian alike - who might stumble across this article: which books made an impact on you as a person, and why? For me, Carl Sagan’s A Demon-Haunted World made an impact on my philosophy of thought. Doubt and scepticism are the highest virtues according Sagan’s philosophy, and this is what attracted me to his ideas.
I look forward to another year of reading.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A thank you to my Christian mentors

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my de-conversion from Christianity had nothing to do with the church or with struggles in life. It was Christianity itself that I struggled with – its teachings and claims to truth. Despite what some Christians might believe, I was not deeply hurt by Christians in the church. In fact, I have great respect for the Christians that I grew up with, especially for those few who mentored me in my teens.

While I was in high school, I attended a local Baptist Church in the town I grew up in. Many of my friends attended, and I have many fond memories of the youth meetings that took place there every Friday night. We had good youth leaders at the time. I was involved with the church’s teen youth group from 1992 to 1994. During those three short years, three youth leaders – adults who had undergone training in youth ministry – made a profound impact on my life, not only as a Christian, but also as an individual.

I want to thank Cindy, Linda and John, the three youth leaders who somehow saw potential within me, and both challenged and encouraged me to discover my abilities as an individual.

In Std 8 (Grade 10), I had to do a presentation in English class on my role model. I chose Jesus - after all, I could not let such an evangelistic opportunity slip by! When my Christian friends and Sunday school teachers heard that I had shared my testimony in front of my secular friends, they were ecstatic.

However, John quietly pulled me aside and said something along the lines of: “By all means, follow Jesus and build your relationship with him. But don’t mould yourself too much on those that you perceive as role models. Be your own person, be your self, and discover your own gifts and talents” This is probably the best advice that any Christian has given me. And I still hold onto it today (well, except for the following Jesus bit).

It has been years since I’ve seen any of my former youth leaders. If any of them would chance to come across my blog, I just want to reassure them that all their work was not in vain. Yes, I am not a Christian any longer. Yes, like a snake, I have shed and discarded my old skin of the spiritual. But there is more than spiritual guidance that results from such relationships. The character building inputs that I have received from those three youth leaders - as well as from my parents and some school teachers - will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Why we struggle to understand evolution

Despite the overwhelming evidence for macroevolution, part of my mind still battles to accept the fact that such large changes can occur in living organisms. Why is this so? Why do some, if not many, of us have a hard time accepting and understanding biological evolution?
Richard Dawkins, in the preface of his book The Blind Watchmaker, provides possible reasons. First, humans are successful creative designers. So much so that we are predisposed to the idea that complex elegance is an indication of purposeful design. Evolution is counter-intuitive in this sense. Second, our brains are built to deal with events on totally different timescales from those that characterise evolution. We can grasp timescales of days, months, years or decades, but battle to understand change that takes place over millions of years.
This last point is important when one is thinking about the differences between microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is easy to grasp because it takes place over a period of years and decades. However, our minds naturally stumble when it comes to macroevolution. How do we overcome this problem? The key to understand macroevolution is to realise that if you give microevolution enough time, it will result in macroevolutionary change. In other words, macroevolution is simply a whole lot of microevolution.
Take the human embryo, for example. Straight after conception, hundreds of cellular and genetic changes - all tiny changes - take place over a period of nine months to transform the little pack of cells into a human baby. But this is not all: thousands of changes occur to transform the baby into a child, then into a teenager, then into an adult - over a period of many years. If someone compared a photo of an embryo to an adult human, they might – hypothetically speaking - find it unbelievable that something so small can change into something so large and so different. A similar analogy can be drawn regarding an oak tree: how can such a small acorn develop into a massive, complex organism? Such macro-change does seem unbelievable, but it does happen, thanks to all the small micro-changes that take place over long periods of time. We can see this kind of thing happening in the natural world all around us.
Evolution is similar: it is difficult to imagine how birds evolved from reptiles, or how humans evolved from small mammalian-like creatures. Our brains battle to conceptualise large changes. But if we allow thousands upon thousands of natural micro-changes over millions of years, it doesn't seem that impossible at all.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

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 one that desired to be 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 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. . .

(c) 2005 by Kevin Parry

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Book: Losing Faith in Faith

Losing Faith in Faith deals with Dan Barker’s de-conversion from a fundamentalist Christian preacher to an atheist. He recounts the personal and turbulent story of how he gave up his faith, and how he found new meaning in atheism. Not only does he recount his personal story in the book, but he also provides some chapters with arguments on why a belief in God is not viable, as well as some chapters explaining the concepts of atheism and freethought.

Barker’s writes in an entertaining style. He presents some of his essays (e.g., Christian Designs and Blind Faith) in the form of a dialogue between a freethinker and a Christian, who debate aspects of religion. Although this approach is not at all new, it does make the presentation more interesting.

He also provides some arguments against Christianity that cannot be taken lightly. For example, he provides two fascinating essays near the end of the book: in one he argues that the moral precepts in the Bible are not moral; and in the second he covers the skeptic’s response to the claim that Jesus was a historical figure. In Refuting God, he provides tips on how a freethinker can respond to some of the common arguments for the existence of God, such as the Design Argument and Pascal’s Wager.

However, I felt the book had the following weaknesses:

First, Barker comes across as being extremely antagonistic towards Christians. Some of the Freedom from Religion Foundation pamphlets printed in the book have a note saying that they were deliberately written in a less gentle manner “in order to have something to counter the street preachers and obnoxious door-to-door evangelists”. Barker seems to paint every Christian with the same brush, implying that every theist is somewhat arrogant or in denial. I always dislike such blanket stereotyping.

Second, I feel that Barker does not consider any middle ground with regards to belief in God; everything is black or white with regards to religion. This is the typical paradigm of the evangelist, and it seems to me that Barker is still much of an evangelist, even though he ‘fights’ from the other side.

Third, I found that some of his arguments were left wanting. In the chapter on Bible contradictions, Barker lists a whole range of contradictions found in the Bible, and concludes that this shows that the Bible is not the inherent word of God. However, there have been many responses from apologists to counter this argument, but Barker does not address any of these. Like Jeff Lowder, who criticizes some of Barker’s arguments in The Contemporary Debate on the Resurrection, I feel that instead of simply listing a whole bunch of contradictions, Barker could have made a much more complete case by addressing some of the responses that an apologist might raise regarding those contradictions.

I could relate to the book: Barker’s feelings and turbulent emotions are similar to what I felt when I lost my faith. However, I think that Christian readers will be put off by his antagonism.

Amazon listing