Friday, December 28, 2007

Some musings on old-earth creationism

Hugh Ross' The Creator and the Cosmos provides a fascinating overview of old-earth creationism. I’ve been thinking about old-earth creationism lately, and in my view it seems that this belief has theological problems. Moreover, old-earth creationism seems to limit the omnipotence of God.

On page 109, Ross writes:

The Bible declares that God has currently ceased from His work of creating new life forms. But in the fossil record era (God’s six days of creation), God was active in creating millions of species of life, introducing new species and replacing and upgrading all those going extinct by natural processes.

Ross argues that, for millions of years, God simply created life forms until, one day, he created humans. However, there seems to be, in my mind at least, a theological problem with this belief. Palaeontologists have found fossils of many creatures – such as dinosaurs that lived before the supposed creation of Adam and Eve – and these fossils show signs of death, disease, suffering and pain. However, according to traditional Christian doctrine, elements of suffering and death only entered the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. If we accept Ross' interpretation of creation, then we have to accept that elements of sin existed in the world before Adam and Eve existed. Is this a viable theological position?

Why did God wait do long to create humans? On page 116:

The answer is that, given the laws and constraints of physics God chose to create, it takes about ten to twelve billion year just to fuse enough heavy elements in the nuclear furnaces of several generations of giant stars to make life chemistry possible

Why these constraints? If God is truly omnipotent, wouldn't it have made more sense to simply create the universe with the right conditions to sustain human life from the very beginning? It seems a little strange that God would wait a whole 13 billion years before the real reason of his creation (i.e., sorting out humankind’s salvation) came about. That's a long time to twiddle your thumbs! Young earth creationism seems to make more sense when one considers the idea of an omnipotent creator. But even if we consider young earth creationism, why would God spend seven days, or any time at all, creating the universe if he could simply do it all in a single instant?

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I choose honesty over belief

I watched Brokeback Mountain recently. It inspired many thoughts regarding homosexuality and about living life honestly. The two male characters in the movie fall in love, and the whole story revolves around their attempts to keep their love for each other hidden over a period of twenty years. They opt for living heterosexual lives: they each get married and have children; but they still can’t rid themselves of what they really are, and the love that they share for each other. The movie shows how easy it is to live a lie rather than dealing with the truth, especially if what you really are – in this case, being gay – is something that can attract hatred from others in society.

I've thought about homosexuality a lot over the years, and I often wonder if human sexual orientation is less rigid than we think. Is it possible that no one is 100% heterosexual or 100% homosexual, that each human being has a mixture of both? Maybe
a number of factors – such as genes, upbringing, social context, etc determine if a person becomes dominantly (but not entirely) heterosexual or homosexual. I've often thought that extreme homophobes who brandish those "God hates fags" signs actually realise the homosexual part within themselves, but instead of accepting it they lash out at those who are comfortable with their sexual orientation. In other words, extreme homophobes don't hate 'fags'; they hate themselves.

I think that, if I had a slightly different life consisting of a slightly different set of life experiences, it is possible that I would have turned out gay. And I would have been totally comfortable with it, because I've learnt that one of the pillars of good psychological health is to be honest with who you are, and to be yourself despite what society may think.

And this last point applies to my lack of belief in God. My atheism is a part of who I am, and one thing that I decided long ago is that I won't pretend to be something I'm not. I think it is far more honest to live out what I really am, rather than trying to force myself to believe in virgin births, parting seas, talking donkeys, and people rising from the dead – things that are so alien to my natural way of thinking that I find them extremely difficult to accept. If the God Christianity really exists, and if I one day stand before his throne, would he not accept the fact that I lived honesty, over and above the fact that I did not believe in him? If he decides to send me to hell because of his bruised ego, is he truly worthy of worship at all? I find more value in honesty than in belief or in conformity, and for this short life I choose honesty.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pullman on power and religion

The movie, The Golden Compass, has caused some controversy of late. I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy earlier this year, and I watched the movie last week. I'm in the process of writing up my thoughts regarding the books and the movie, and will post them up as soon as I'm finished.

However, I came across a recent article in Time (December 10, 2007) about Philip Pullman, in which he discusses his books and the religious controversy that surrounds them. I found the following quote quite interesting, as it closely resembles my personal thoughts on religion. Like me, Pullman has no problem with religion per se, but he does have a problem when religion gets mixed up with too much power:

"Religion is at its best when it is furthest from political power . . . The power to send armies to war, to rule every aspect of our lives, to tell us what to wear, what to think, what to read – when religion gets hold of that, watch out! Because trouble will ensue."

I think that is one of the main themes that underlines His Dark Materials trilogy: the power of the Magisterium - the church in Pulman's books - represents, for Pulman, what can happen if religion gains too much power.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"God is petty" uproar

There has been some controversy in South Africa regarding 5FM’s DJ Gareth Cliff who announced on air the other day that “God is petty”, in response to the story of Gillian Gibbons who was arrested in Sudan for naming a teddy bear Mohammed. Some Christians are up in arms, and I was recently invited – by an old friend who apparently isn’t aware of my de-conversion – to join a Facebook group that aims to get Gareth off the air.

I can see Gareth’s reasoning behind his comment: why should the almighty creator of the universe (let it be Allah or Yahweh) get so upset over what mortal humans say? Surely God, if he exists, is more mature that that? Anyway, although I believe that anyone has the right to proclaim their religious views (after all, we live in a democratic society), I think Gareth displayed a show of distasteful arrogance when he responded via email to a listener who complained about his original comment. Gareth allegedly wrote back to the complainant: "Stop sprouting nonsense. There is no god. There is no tooth fairy and there is no Father Christmas." Now, I have no problem with someone openly declaring their religious views, but I do have a problem when things start getting personal. Question a belief all you want, but show some sensitivity when dealing with individuals. That’s my approach, at least.

While reading the comments posted on the anti-Gareth Facebook group, I had the following thoughts regarding issues of public ‘blasphemy’.

Free publicity?
All this fuss to get Gareth off the air – including all the email petitions, the Facebook group, letters to newspapers, complaints on radio – is somewhat self defeating. I don’t listen to 5FM, and before all the controversy I didn’t really know much about Gareth at all. But now I’m tempted to listen to his show just to hear what all the fuss is about. I wonder how many additional listeners are now tuning in to hear him speak. In their attempt to get Gareth off the air, Christians have simply given him a lot of free publicity.

Bigger fish to fry?
It’s amazing how many different denominations join forces and mobilise with such efficiency when something like this happens. Church groups join together to draw up petitions, preachers call on their congregations to boycott the media, churches march in protest, etc, etc. I often wonder how effective the Christian church would be if they put as much energy and zeal into fighting more pressing problems. I know some churches do good work in in improving society, but imagine if the same kind of mass mobilisation from different denominations was used to fight issues such as crime, unemployment or poverty. Imagine the difference it would make!

That’s my two cents worth on this issue. I think Gareth needs to improve his PR skills, but I also think he should not be punished for what he said on air. Christians also need to realise that all their efforts to get him off air are in vain – they are simply making him more famous.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

An atheist’s renewed respect for nature

Last weekend a group of us went on a two day hike in Suikerbosrand nature reserve. It was really enjoyable: we hiked over 30 kilometres through grassland and forest, and one night we stayed in a rustic cottage, cooking food over a camp fire and enjoying each other's company. We saw plenty of wildlife: herds of Hartebeest, Wildebeest, and Zebra, as well as various interesting insects and birds.

The hike got me thinking about my current views regarding nature. As a budding metaphysical naturalist, I currently hold the view that it is quite likely that the universe is not divided into supernatural and natural parts, but is a wholly natural unit. This means there is no supernatural element in humans that separates us from the rest of nature; we are completely natural beings, without immaterial souls.

While we were hiking, I sometimes took time out to stand in humble quietness, taking in the beautiful surroundings. I gained a renewed respect for nature as I did this, as I suddenly realised that all that I was seeing and experiencing – the cool breeze on my face, the graceful movements of a dancing Widowbird, the beautiful flower growing nearby – was made out of the same quarks, atoms and molecules of which I’m also completely composed. Everything that is me, my body as well as my mind, is constructed from the same natural material that formed the surrounding landscape, as well as the fauna and flora.

At one point an Eland, a large antelope, stood close by our party and simply looked upon us with curiosity as we passed by. I looked at it, and wanted to say: "Hey there, Eland! You and I have an important thing in common: we are made of the same stuff. Both you and I are fully part of this world in which we find ourselves. Because of this, we are kindred."

When I was a Christian, I held the view that humans were somehow set apart from nature because we possess immaterial souls. The natural was always seen as somehow less important than the supernatural. The material was an inconvenient but transitory phase for those who would one day live an eternity in paradise.

But as an atheist, I’ve gained a renewed respect and fascination for the material. Realising that every part of us might be connected to everything else in a natural state of cause and effect, I suddenly realised how important it is for us to preserve and protect the environment. If we are fully part of nature, then we are fully dependent on nature to survive and prosper; if we don’t have immaterial souls, then there is no part of us that is immune from good or bad things that happen to nature. If we harm nature, we will harm ourselves. So in order to prosper, we need to protect and respect the natural.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Free from the fear of an afterlife?

I've been reading Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis, and the following paragraph made me wonder: are atheists free of the fear of what lies after death? Page 257:

The promise of life after death carries with it the dread that the afterworld will be spent elsewhere than in the bosom of God. Everyone is a sinner, and even the most cloistered nun lives with the nagging worry that she might not be forgiven for that occasional impious thought that slips into her head between endless recitations of the Hail Mary. Likewise, the believer in reincarnation might sometimes worry about living his next life as a rodent . . . On the other hand, the atheist has the comfort of no fears for an afterlife . . . .

What do you think?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bumper stickers 4 Jesus

While driving home the other day, I noticed the following bumper sticker on a car in front of me. It read, in bold letters: “Real men follow Jesus.” At a red robot I took the following picture of it on my cell phone.

This got me thinking about religious bumper stickers, which I’ve started to notice recently. I saw another one the other day which read: “Without the Bread of Life, you’re toast!” Most of the time I chuckle appreciatively at the clever play on words used on bumper stickers in general, even for some of the religious ones, but the bumper sticker above got me thinking about the underlining belief that motivates some religious phrases. The phrase “Real men follow Jesus” is a statement about Christian males. But if you think about it, it is also a statement about non-Christian males: the phrase is effectively making the implicit statement that males who don’t follow Jesus are not real men. I don’t know about you, but there are millions of Muslim, Hindu, atheist and agnostic men – who are loving husbands and fathers; living honest, moral lives – who might take offence at this statement.

I’ve noticed that some religious language promotes segregation; it demeans individuals by making negative statements (explicit or implicit) about those who are not part of the group. I remember, as a Christian, referring to my non-Christian friends – with much sympathy – as those who were ‘lost’ or ‘unsaved’. Such religious language is based on the erroneous belief that if you don’t follow Jesus, you cannot be fully happy or fulfilled; if you are not a Christian, you are somehow incomplete as a human being.

For millions of people Jesus might be the answer – and I have no problem with this – but for many atheists like myself, not only is Jesus not the answer, he isn’t even a viable option. The most important thing that I’ve learnt since loosing my faith is that it is very possible for someone to live a healthy, happy, fulfilled, and complete life without religion. I wonder if Christian language can ever come to a point of recognising this fact.

I’m not one for bumper stickers, but if I ever wanted to stick a bumper sticker on my car, I would choose one that – instead breaking down another person or group in order to raise the attractiveness of my own belief – promotes positive values, respect, and celebrates what it is to be human.


See an update of this post: Bumper stickers 4 Jesus revisited

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Does religion improve a nation’s well-being? (Part 2)

A global view

I once attended a conference in Botswana where there was much discussion on the problem of corruption in Africa. One speaker caused a debate by declaring that Africa could solve corruption by adopting a moral foundation based on religion. Religion will improve society, was her message.

But is this true? In part 1 of this series, I argued that, in South Africa at least, the inclusion of the Christian God in the apartheid constitution did not guarantee moral governance or a prosperous nation. In this article, I will take a broader look at the ‘sick society’ hypothesis that some Christians advocate. If religion really improves a country’s well-being, and secular humanism causes harm, then we would expect to see a positive correlation between religion and societal health in various countries. Unfortunately for the ‘sick society’ advocates, the statistics don’t seem to be that conclusive.

Consider the following indicators of societal health:

  • Infant mortality rate;
  • Poverty rate;
  • Murder rate;
  • Literacy rate;
  • AIDS/HIV infection; and
  • Gender equality.

Phil Zuckerman, in this article from Free Inquiry, explores these indicators and finds that secular nations are generally better off than religious ones. In fact, the top ten scoring nations in the United Nations Human Development Index (a general score of societal health) include countries such as Norway, Sweden and Australia, which have high proportions of atheists. Not only do secular nations fair well in terms of all these indicators, they also rank as the least corrupt countries in the world, as well as the most happiest.

Consider Norway. Although Norway doesn’t have a clear boundary between church and state, it is the country with the largest humanistic organization in proportion to its population. According to the Global Peace Index it is the most peaceful country, and it has the third largest GDP per capita in the world. Norway is full of non-believers, but it seems to be prospering.

However, before secular humanists begin to celebrate, there are two things to consider. First, one statistic is not so rosy: non-religious nations generally have higher suicide rates than religious nations. Secondly, Zuckerman wisely alludes to what is probably the most important adage in statistics: correlation doesn’t imply causation. The fact that religious nations generally score poorly doesn’t prove that religion is the cause of poor societal health. Without further research, it is also premature to confidently conclude from these few figures that secular humanism causes healthy societies. There might be other unknown or known factors at play that determine societal health, such as politics, economics and history.

But it seems, from these few indicators, that religion doesn't play much of a role at all. A nation-wide belief in God doesn't seem to be an important prerequisite for a healthy or prosperous nation.

Part 3: Idealising the past

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Confusion at the gates

Kevin: Um, hello? What’s happened to me?
Angel 1: Hello there. You have just died. Welcome to the gates of heaven.
Kevin: Heaven! Oh, my word! I was wrong. God really exists!
Angel 2: Indeed he does. Now, what is your name?
Kevin: My name?
Angel 1: Yes, we need to find your file.
Kevin: Okay. I’m Kevin Parry. That’s Parry with an ‘a’, not an ‘e’.
(A few moments pass as a large file is recovered from a cabinet and placed on the table. Both angels start reading)
Angel 2: Oh, dear. I’m sorry, but it looks as if you cannot enter heaven. Eternal torment for you, I’m afraid.
Kevin: Darn! I knew I should’ve taken Pascal’s Wager more seriously.
Angel 2: You see, your file says that you are an atheist. I will make arrangements for your transfer to Hades. . .
Angel 1: Hang on a moment! It says here that Kevin was a Christian. That means he qualifies for heaven.
Angel 2: (sighs) No, no. Kevin was a Christian, yes. But he has since rejected the saving grace of our Lord Jesus. He has lost his salvation.
Angel 1: Since when was that a rule? Once saved, always saved, right?
Angel 2: Where did you learn that?
Angel 1: Err . . . well, that’s my interpretation of the Word.
Angel 2: You have obviously interpreted incorrectly. The Word states that any person who stops believing is like the branch that breaks off the olive tree. Romans 11:17-22.
Angel 1: I beg to differ. The Lord himself, In John 10:27-29, says that no believer can ever be plucked out of his hand.
Angel 2: You are not reading that verse in context.
Kevin: Excuse me. . . .
Angel 1: But many of the Lord’s followers believe in eternal security. Take the Calvinists, for instance. . .
Angel 2: The Calvinists are wrong. It’s the Methodists that have it right: a human can loose his or her salvation.
Kevin: Sorry to interrupt. Are you going to let me in or not? I’ve had a bad day, being dead and all, and I want to get this over with.
Angel 1: Sorry about all this. You see, there are so many different teachings on important issues; so many interpretations of the Word; so many verses that seem to contradict each other. It’s all a bit confusing really.
Angel 2: I’m afraid you will have to go back to earth until this is sorted out with the boss up stairs.
Kevin: Does this mean that I will have a second chance at salvation?
Angel 1: Yes.
Angel 2: No.
(Everything fades as another fierce argument breaks out, and Kevin wakes up)
Kevin: Wow, what a horrible dream. That’s the last time I eat pizza just before going to bed.

Laughing Boy has posted a clever response to this dialogue over here.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Does religion improve a nation’s well-being? (Part 1)

South Africa as a case study

Does recognition of God make a difference to a country? Some Christian organizations think so. The (South) African Democratic Christian Party (ACDP), for example, appeals to Deuteronomy 28 and sates:

All authority and law originates from God, therefore obedience brings blessing to a nation and disobedience brings cursing

If obedience comes from following God’s law, what might encourage disobedience? The Christian website Frontline Fellowship argues that secular humanism is the factor that has caused societal decay in South Africa since the adoption of democracy:

In 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) came to power and established a human rights culture. It has been busy replacing laws founded on Christian principles with humanistic laws. . . .The social decay is such, that, according to the police, 2,5 million crimes are committed in South Africa every year, an average of 7000 a day.

Before the adoption of democracy in 1994, South Africa was ruled by the apartheid government that adopted Christianity as a state religion. Have things really worsened, as Frontline claims, since the Christian God was removed from the constitution?

Frontline Fellowship fails to mention the fact that the “Christian” apartheid state was responsible for mass forced removals, torture, cross-border raids, death squads, detention without trial, and dehumanization on a grand scale. Crime may be a problem in post-apartheid South Africa, but it was much worse during apartheid because crime was state condoned.

The 1983 constitution declared that the country was “to uphold Christian values and civilized norms”. Apartheid’s leaders believed they were accountable to no-one but God, but they also believed that what they did was condoned by God. Without being accountable to those they governed, they could do as they pleased with what they thought was divine backing.

Frontline also ignores the great improvements that have occurred since South Africa adopted “humanistic secularism”. Not only has the economy boomed under democracy, but great strides have been made improving fiscal policy, GDP growth, protection of human rights, and access to basic services. There are still problems, but these can be better tackled under a forward thinking democracy than under the backward mind-set of the apartheid state.

I’m not blaming Christianity for apartheid; in fact, there were many Christian organizations that fought effectively against the system. Rather, I am arguing that having a religious foundation for a country does not guarantee a moral system of governance, or a prosperous nation.

Part 2: A global view
Part 3: Idealising the past

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Living life as a respectful atheist

I work in an office that is characterised by many different cultural and religious beliefs: there are Muslims, Hindus, and Christians from various denominations. As part of this multi-religious environment, I sometimes find myself wishing my Hindu colleagues a happy Diwali when they are in celebration, or congratulating a Christian colleague on the christening of his or her child. My Muslim friends and colleagues are celebrating Eid ul-Fitr today. As an atheist, should I wish them well? Can I respectfully acknowledge the beliefs of those I know, even though I don’t hold those beliefs myself?

Some atheists might feel that by affirming religious beliefs, I’m flirting with the enemy. Religion is nonsense, they might say, so if I was true to my atheistic beliefs, I should be trying my utmost show my colleagues and friends why they are wrong, instead of affirming what they believe. Should I not be the one to hold the torch of reason high for those in my circle of influence?

Well, I don’t think so. And this is why: this kind of black and white thinking that some atheists advocate is the same kind of thinking that turned me off Christianity in the first place: the conviction that others must conform to what I believe; the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality; and the idea that I have to shoulder the burden of bringing others to the Truth, whatever that truth might be. I swept aside this kind of thinking when I left Christianity; I still reject it as an atheist.

One of my core values is respect for democracy and human rights, and one of these rights is the freedom of conscience and religious expression. The journey of de-conversion that I have shared on my blog is deeply personal to me. My beliefs were a result of me thinking for myself; they were hard fought for, and thus they are dear to me. Many theists, although not all, arrived at their beliefs in much the same way, so should I not also respect their individual journeys as well?

But respect does have its limits. Speaking against American foreign policy, Arundhati Roy once said that she isn't anti-American, but anti-power. As an atheist, I can say the same thing regarding religion: it is not religion in general that I have a problem with, but with religion’s misuse of power through violence, politics, and the dehumanisation of the individual (by using guilt and the fear of hell). I am not anti-religion, but anti-fundamentalism and anti-intolerance. It is against these that I will make a stand.

So when I positively affirm the religious beliefs of others, I am affirming the individual: a human being who holds cherished values, a human being who has a story to tell. I respect another’s journey because I respect my own.

So, to any Muslim who might be reading this: Eid mubarak!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Extra dimensions an ad hoc explanation?

How can God exist without a cause? Why does the doctrine of the Trinity seem so illogical? The Bible claims that God is everywhere, but why we can’t see him? Through the centuries theologians and philosophers alike have wrestled with these important questions, but Hugh Ross, astronomer and old earth creationist, solves these ageless conundrums with a single, simple answer: extra dimensions. On page 96 of his book, The Creator and the Cosmos:

. . . the Bible also speaks of the existence of dimensions beyond our time and space, extra dimensions in which God exists and operates.

The concept of the Trinity, problems with free will and God’s attributes are not problematic at all, argues Ross, because they relate to a God who operates in the context of complex dimensions, the nature of which is beyond human understanding. On page 157:

. . . these concepts are provable contradictions in four dimensions, but each can be resolved when eight or more space-time dimensions . . . are taken into consideration.

But is this a good explanation? There is an old axiom that says: an answer that explains too much explains nothing at all. I think this applies here. Ross seems to sweep away major theological and logical problems with the single explanatory broom of extra dimensions; it just seems too easy, somehow. Richard Carrier in Sense and Goodness Without God (page 72) argues that this kind of explanation seems too easy simply because it is ad hoc in nature. Ross advocates extra dimensions without first demonstrating how they do in fact solve these problems, or how a God can actually operate outside time and space. It is an easy explanation because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t explain anything.

Richard Carrier also raises an additional point: if God is dependent on extra dimensions in which to exist and operate (which implies that, without them God would not be able to exist and operate), then where did these extra dimensions come from in the first place? What caused them to exist? If God created these extra dimensions, how did he exist and operate before he created them? Within extra-extra dimensions, perhaps? If this is the case, where did these extra-extra dimensions come from?

See the problem here.

What do you think?

Monday, October 01, 2007

I believe in one less god

Richard Carrier, in Sense and Goodness Without God, writes on page 255:

But if the idea of a god is inherently illogical (if the very idea is self-contradictory or meaningless), or if it is contradicted by the evidence, then there are strong positive reasons to take a harder stance as an atheist – with respect to that particular god. For in this sense, even believers are strong atheists – they deny the existence of hundreds of gods. Atheists like me merely deny one more god than everyone else already does – in fact, I deny the existence of the same god already denied by believers in other gods, so I am not doing anything that billions of people don’t do already.

In other words, if you are a Christian, you probably don't believe in the existence of Allah, Vishnu or any of the myriad of other gods that people have followed throughout history. I don't believe in those gods either, so in this sense I'm not all that different to you. The only small difference is that I believe in one less God.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Book: Encountering Naturalism

Most of us have a worldview – a set of beliefs about what exists, how reality is organized, and how we fit into it. Whether explicit or not, a worldview helps to shape our goals and actions; it’s an overarching cognitive framework that helps us to make sense of things, practically, ethically and existentially.

With this as his introduction, Thomas Clark begins his exploration of naturalism, the worldview to which most atheists subscribe. In just under 100 pages, this book provides a brief overview of the topic.

What is naturalism? On page 1:

In a nutshell, the naturalism I’ll present holds that there is a single, natural, physical world in which we are completely included. There isn’t a separate supernatural or immaterial realm and there’s nothing supernatural or immaterial about us.

In other words, naturalism is the belief that the universe is entirely natural, a completely whole unit. It doesn’t consider the existence of supernatural phenomena, such as God, the soul, or life after death.

What informs this worldview? Clark argues that science is the driver of naturalism, as it unifies our view of what exists by showing the natural connections between different things:

Naturalism takes science, and more broadly a rational, evidence-based empiricism, as the most reliable means for discovering what exists. If we stick with science, the world is united in our understanding, not divided into the natural versus the supernatural. Science shows that each and every aspect of a human being comes from and is completely joined to the natural world, which encompasses culture and biology.

In other words, naturalism holds that human beings are fully part of this natural universe; everything about us, including our minds, is connected to everything else in a natural state of cause and effect. We are, in the words of Clark, completely at home in this world.

But any worldview has its perceived problems, and Clark provides reassurance to those who worry that naturalism leads to fatalism, meaningless, or immorality. He also discusses possible advantages that naturalism can provide for individuals, relationships and society.

The briefness of the book is its major downfall. I would consider myself a budding naturalist, but I still have problems with some of the finer implications of such a worldview. For example, although Clark, like Daniel Dennett, believes that naturalism entails a totally deterministic universe, he argues that humans still have free will (although not free will in the traditional sense). This is an issue that I still have to grapple with, and although the topic is covered concisely, the length of the book doesn’t allow for in-depth discussion.

In a nutshell: as an introduction to naturalism the book does the job well, but for the finer details one would have to read more widely. I think Clark realises this - he provides a detailed list of sources at the end of the book that one can consult for further reading.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

God and the concept of goodness

I would like to ask Christians the following question: what would God have to do in order for you to call him evil?

The God of the Bible, especially the one of the Old Testament, seems to do horrible things to people (see my post Following God’s example). I ask this question because apologists spend a great deal of energy defending the biblical actions of the Christian God; they would never consider him evil, despite what he has done.

My last post, Dear Father, highlighted the difficulties in reconciling the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God with the existence of suffering. The argument that God has to shoulder some, if not all, of the responsibility for evil in the world is an argument that many apologists tackle in earnest. No apologist would consider God evil for allowing the existence of evil, despite the fact that they believe he created everything, and that he knew beforehand the suffering that evil would cause.

I could be wrong, but it seems apologists believe that God is good, despite what we read in the Bible or experience in the world. If this is the case, then doesn’t the very statement ‘God is good’ loose all meaning?

George H. Smith, in Atheism: The Case Against God, writes on page 85:

. . . by what standard does the Christian claim that God is good? What criterion is the Christian using? If man cannot pass correct moral judgments, he cannot validly praise or condemn anything--including the Christian God. To exclude God from the judgment of evil is to exclude him from the judgment of good as well.

In other words, by defending the Christian God, apologists have created a situation in which we are unable to discern a good God from a bad God; because, whatever God does or whatever he allows – no matter how shocking it might be to human sensibilities – the apologist would still consider God as being good.

If there are no criteria to judge God’s actions, to discern good from bad – or if there are no conceivable actions of God that would count as contrary evidence of his goodness – then doesn’t the very concept of good become meaningless?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Dear Father

A believer kneels to pray . . .

Dear Father, they say that you are all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing. But Father, try as I might, I can not reconcile this with what I see in the world around me.

Dear Father, if you are all-knowing, why did you not warn us of 9/11 if you knew it was going to happen? Any person, with any prior knowledge of the attacks, and with a shred of moral fibre, would have warned the authorities. Why did you simply sit by when you knew what the terrorists were planning? By willingly withholding such vital information, are you not partly responsible for the lives that were lost that day?

Why do you not intervene when you see all the rape, crime or murder? Police forces around the world – some of them stretched to breaking point from lack of resources – are trying their best to stop people doing horrible things to each other. But you, an all-powerful God, do not seem to provide any assistance.

I’ve been taught that you look after the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, and that we should not be concerned about our basic needs because you care far more for us. But Father, do you not care for those thousands of individuals who die annually in Africa from disease and chronic starvation? Why do you meet my needs, but not theirs? Aid organisations work around the clock to fight what seems like a loosing battle, but I do not see you helping them in any way.

I’m beginning to think, Father, that you are either incapable of helping, unwilling to help, or ignorant of what is going on. If you are unwilling to help, how can I have any respect for you: an all-powerful being that can make all the difference, but willingly chooses not to do so?

How can I love you, Father, if this is what you are?


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reasons for unbelief = reasons of the heart?

What are the reasons for unbelief? Many atheists – myself included – claim that they reject Christianity on intellectual or rational grounds. However, I’ve noticed a trend in Christian apologetics that seems to argue that atheists reject Christianity and God on grounds other than science and philosophical argument.

I’ve covered this before in this post – in which apologists mistakenly confuse belief in evolution with unbelief in God – but comments in Hugh Ross’ The Creator and the Cosmos have inspired me to think about the issue again.

Ross for example, seems somewhat perplexed that there are still scientists and astronomers who do not accept the idea that the universe was created by the God of the Bible. Ross provides three reasons for their unbelief:
  • Some individuals do not want to give up their sexual immorality by submitting themselves to the creator of the universe (pg 163).
  • There is stubborn rebellion and arrogance lurking under the cover of intellectual objections (pg 163). Some scientists attack the idea of a creator because “the Bible seems an affront to their intellectual prowess”. (pg 93)
  • Many who reject the creator hypothesis were once ex-Christians. They are simply reacting to their past, “holding bitterness over the wrongs and abuses they incurred in their experience with Christians.” (pg 103).

I received a recent email from a reader of this blog who shared similar sentiments:

When it all comes down to it, I believe that many of these persons [atheists] are hurting and confused individuals as well as people who find trying to live according to the standards of a Holy God just too much to bear!

Is there any room for intellectual reasons for unbelief? Alister McGrath, in his book The Twilight of Atheism, doesn’t seem to think so. He argues that nobody can conclusively determine, on intellectual grounds, the existence (or non-existence) of God. On page 179:

It is increasingly recognized that philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt. The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith . . .[this forces] us to reach two conclusions: either no decision can be reached . . . or a decision is reached on other grounds. As Blaise Pascal (1623-62) pointed out, “reasons of the heart” play a far greater role in shaping our attitudes to God than we realise.

To summarise the above: apologists argue that atheists have chosen to disbelieve because: (1) we have been hurt by the church, (2) we want to be free from sexual, and other moral, restraints; and (3) we are rebellious and arrogant.

What do you think? Do you think atheists reject theism on intellectual or emotional grounds? Maybe it’s a bit of both? And if there are valid intellectual reasons to reject theism, why do apologists insist that “reasons of the heart” are solely to blame?

Monday, August 20, 2007

100 waypoints on a journey away from faith

It was on a cool October evening in 2005 when I logged onto Blogger for the first time and created an account that would eventually lead to the birth of this blog. I was going through much contemplation and reflection at the time regarding my loss of faith, and I decided that a blog would be the best platform on which to capture and express my thoughts. On October 16 of that year I posted up my first article, Complexity of Mind. You can’t imagine how excited I was when my posts started soliciting comments; I was quite surprised that people actually took my writing seriously enough to respond.

Well, it’s taken some time, but this post is my 100’th.

Memoirs of an ex-Christian
has provided me with the opportunity to share my ideas on philosophy, religion, atheism, and evolution with a variety of people from different backgrounds and beliefs. And ‘people’ is the key word here: without your participation – without all your comments, thoughts, emails and ideas related to my articles – this blog would have been a useless endevour. Each one of you, through all the discussion and debate, has left a positive impact on my thinking.

Although I want to thank all of you who have either written on this blog or taken the time to email me, I would like to thank the following individuals in particular for their willingness to challenge my thinking:

Brian from Estonia; Brock; Casey Kochmer; CyberKitten; Dar; Don from Canada; eddie; ercatli; Jason Hughes; KenC; Kevin Cadman; Kyaroko; Laughing Boy; Lui; marc; Mark Fouche; Mike; Noell; P3T3RK3Y5; paul; r10b; Rodolfo; Roger Saner; Shmanky; Skywolf; Stardust1954; Steve Hayes; Sze Zeng; Tichius; Tin Soldier; and Zoe.

If your name appears above but is not linked to your site, please email me with the address so I can acknowledge your blog as well. And please let me know if I've linked you incorrectly.

Not only do I want to thank these individuals who I’ve interacted with through cyberspace, but I also want to thank personal friends who have also provided insight into my journey, either through reading this blog, the Bordlerlands discussion group, or through personal discussions. I want to thank Cori, my wife; Jono and Candice Smith; Rutger Wielenga; Andrew (Drew) Davies; Anne-Marie Smith; James Roger; Jacomein van Niekerk; Geertje and Bob Wielenga; Ian Stuart and Debbie Garner.

It is only through constructive dialogue with all of you that my thinking has been enriched, and it is through you that I’ve realized the truth of what Socrates said when he proclaimed that an unexamined life is not worth living.

Thank you to you all. look forward to another 100 posts of discussion, debate and dialogue.

All the best


Some of you might be wondering what the jumble of words are at the top of the post. These words represent a word cloud of this site, and it highlights the most common words that have been used in all my articles – the larger the word, the more often it has appeared on this blog. I think it gives a very nice overview of the main topics covered in these 100 posts.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Teaching creationism in schools?

Curtis left the following comment on a recent post of mine:

Currently students are taught the theory of evolution as if it is a fact not a theory. What is wrong with teaching the competing theories with all the evidence on both sides of the arguements and then letting the students make their own better educated decisions?

At face value this does seem like a noble idea: teach both creationism and evolution in schools, and let the kids decide. However, in my view, the problem lies in the fact that the primary aim of school is not to necessarily teach children what to believe, but to teach them what they need to know.

For example, every student who plans to enter the medical field needs to know the germ theory of disease in order to be a successful doctor or nurse. Likewise, in order to become a successful biologist, botanist, microbiologist – or any other occupation that falls within the life sciences – you need to know and understand the theory of evolution, simply because evolutionary theory describes how nature works.

A microbiologist, for example, who needs to understand how the Tuberculosis bacterium evolves to become immune to treatment, needs to know the elements of natural selection. She can use her knowledge of evolution in this case to solve the practical problem of developing a more effective drug against the disease. What value does the ‘theory’ of creationism add this endeavour? How can it be useful as a tool?

What I'm arguing is that creationism shouldn't be taught on equal footing with evolution simply because it won't add value to the future work of school kids who might become biologists, anymore than alchemy will add value to a chemical engineer’s ability to do the job well. For a biologist to be successful she needs to know evolution, but she doesn’t need any knowledge of creationism at all. So why waste time teaching it in science class where it isn't needed?

I’m not saying that we should throw out creationism entirely. Maybe it can be mentioned in an historical review of humankind’s changing beliefs about origins, or taught alongside other creation stories in a class on philosophy or religion. But it should not be taught as an alternative to evolution, simply because, as an alternative, it doesn't contribute any value to the practical field of biology.

Your thoughts?

Change of style!

Hi all

My blog has been running for almost two years now. Since the beginning I've been using the Rounders template for this blog, and I've decided - in order to try something fresh - to change the look and feel.

I hope this new look will inspire more discussion and debate :-)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Morality based on honour?

In Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog, writing about the South African Truth Commission, documents the horrors that were perpetrated by the apartheid regime before democratic elections in 1994. One interesting aspect of the book was Krog’s distinction between two opposing types of morality in society: universal morality vs. morality based on honour. Universal morality is based on individual responsibility, discussion, consultation, and human rights. However, morality based on honour has its foundation in the veneration of a specific leader or ideology. Those subscribing to a morality of honour will be more likely to do horrendous things to other people in order to protect their leader, ideology or culture. They are also less likely to stand up to their leader or comrade when she/he does something wrong. Krog argues that apartheid was sustained by a morality of honour. On page 262:

The ethos of honour is opposed to a morality which affirms the equality in dignity of all people and consequently the equality of their rights and duties. . . Honour became Verwoerd’s driving force. To protect the honour of the Afrikaner, anything was permissible – even the most dishonourable policy.

In other words, to protect the honour of the Afrikaner, the apartheid regime resorted to stripping people of their rights and dignity. One only has to think about Nazi Germany’s veneration of Hitler, or the South African government’s reluctance to criticise Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, to realise how dangerous an honour based moral code can be.

But what about conservative Christianity? Which moral code does it advocate? This is something that I’ve recently thought about, and I’ve only begun to clarify my own thoughts. So please let me know if my thinking is in error.

I would argue that all indications seem to point to a morality based on honour. After all, the divine theory of morality states that all moral law comes from God, so whatever he commands must be right. But what if God told you do something you felt was wrong? Think of the story of Abraham sacrificing his son according to God’s command. Abraham was fully prepared to sacrifice Isaac, not because he felt it was right, but because he didn’t want to disobey God. Is this not an indication of a morality based on honour: the belief that it is more important to obey than to do what is right? I wonder how Abraham would have reacted if his moral code was based on human dignity and individual responsibility. Maybe he would have told God to get lost.

One also only has to think about God’s horrendous actions in the Old Testament (which I’ve mentioned here), and how modern day apologists bend over backwards to defend him. Lee Strobel, for example, devotes an entire chapter in The Case for Faith defending God’s atrocities against innocent children. Is this also not an indication of a morality based on honour: instead of standing up against God for doing something wrong, his followers go all out to defend him?

Just some food for thought . . .

Sunday, July 29, 2007

If you are a Christian, imagine the following scenario

You open your door one evening and find a neatly dressed man, handing out pamphlets. He tells you that Allah is the one true God, and that you can only find fulfilment and meaning if you join Islam.

A few months later, you listen to the news, and find out that Muslims are demanding that the commands of Sharia law be placed on the wall of your local court.

Sometime later, your daughter comes home from school and informs you that Muslim parents are requesting that Muslim prayer be instituted at the school, and that the biology teacher should teach that Allah created all living things.

A Christian friend of yours suddenly finds out that his promotion at work has been blocked because he does not believe in the truth of the Quran.

As a Christian, how would you feel if this happened in your country? What would be going through your mind?

Think about this for a moment, and then read through this passage again and replace ‘Muslim’ with ‘Christian’, ‘Islam’ with ‘Christianity’, and ‘Allah’ with ‘God’. Now you have some idea of how atheists feel about the rising power of the Christian Right in the United States, the teaching of creationism in schools, and the slow erosion of separation of church and state.

Laughing Boy, while commenting on a recent blog post of mine, posed the question of why atheists are so concerned about that which they don’t believe:

I'd think a person with your obvious positive qualities (and I am most definitely not being sarcastic) would quickly get bored writing about what he considers nonsense. Do you have other blogs where you invest as much time and energy discussing other things you find equally absurd as God, e.g. trolls and fairies?

This is a good point. I can’t speak for other atheists, but I have my own reasons for writing about Christianity (see here). However, there is another, less personal reason: the protection of secular society. The power of a supernatural being is directly proportional to the number of people who believe in that being. Few people believe in trolls and fairies, and those who do lack the power to influence major political decisions with their supernatural beliefs. However, belief in the Christian God is widespread in the Western world, and this has both good and bad, but very profound, implications for society.

I agree with Laughing Boy’s sentiments elsewhere on this blog: an incredible amount of suffering has resulted in societies where religious belief, and maybe even non-belief, has been forced onto individuals. One of my aims, like many other atheists and theists out there, is to protect secular society, which ensures that each and every individual has the freedom to chose what they believe, and that each individual should be free to worship (or not to worship) according to the beliefs that they have chosen. No person should be forced or coerced – by family, society, culture, law, or government – to believe in, or subscribe to, a specific religious creed.

I’m probably overambitious, but I hope, in some small way, that my blog furthers the ideals of secular society: by keeping the debate alive and by informing individuals that no belief is perfect or free from error or abuse.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

More on finding meaning in life

When people find out that I don’t believe in God, two questions often arise: (1) as an atheist, how can I be moral, and (2) as an atheist, how can I find meaning in life. I’m busy working on a number of posts to answer the first question, but I’ve already provided some thoughts regarding the second question here and here. If you read these posts on finding meaning in life, two important conclusions are made:
  1. Life can be meaningful, even if it is temporary. We can find meaning in the here and now.
  2. Life can be meaningful, even if it does not form part of some higher purpose or greater scheme.

Richard Carrier, in Sense and Goodness Without God, also discusses how an unbeliever can find meaning in life. He argues the above points on page 161, and then writes:

Nor do we need to be some superbeing’s creation for our lives to have value. After all, believers seem comfortable with the fact that God was not created, yet his life has value. Just as theists understand God’s love as giving God himself and the universe value, so naturalists understand our love as giving ourselves and the universe value. Even if I were the accidental by-product of a giant rubber tire machine, my life would not be meaningless. It would be meaningful to the precise extent that I endeavored to make it so, to imbue my own life with meaning and purpose, to make it valuable, to myself and to others. But if I did nothing to make my life meaningful, even being created in some god’s image would add no meaning to my life. I would be nothing but a pawn or lab rat, a mere homunculus cooked up in some divine kitchen, if I did nothing on my own to make myself into more than that.

Richard Carrier is adding the third point to the above list: atheists create their own meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose are elements that can be formulated from within, not necessarily from something outside of one’s self.

What do you think?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dear creationist

Dear creationist

Since I was a child I’ve always been fascinated in the ‘ho
w’ questions of life and the universe. How do clouds form? How do plants grow? How do computers work? The answers that science provided were, and still are, deeply satisfying; the main reason being that science provides detailed and useful explanations that stir wonder and satisfy curiosity.

But I’m sorry to say that, after reading many of your books and watching some of your seminars, I’m still dissatisfied with your explanation of how we got here. You see, the only explanation that you provide concerning life on earth is “God did it”. You do not provide any detailed information of how God did it. Did God simply pop organisms into existence out of nothing, or did he use chemical and physical processes to create? How exactly did God create living things?

Imagine I asked a climatologist how clouds form. She can tell me, in detail, how hot air rises, how condensation occurs, how water molecules attach to small dust particles to create droplets. This detailed answer not only satisfies my curiosity, but I can in turn use this knowledge to solve practical problems (for example, artificially seeding clouds to produce rain in drought stricken areas). But imagine if the climatologist simply answered “God did it”, and left it at that. Can you see why such an answer is no answer at all? Can you see why it has no value?

Moreover, creationism does not seem to provide adequate explanations to some perplexing things that we observe in nature. If God was the creator, we
are left with some ‘why’ questions regarding his motives. For example, why did he give chimps and humans (who are closely related according to evolutionary theory) similar DNA? Why did he decide to place the majority of the world's marsupials in Australia? Why are whales and dolphins mammals (and not fish), and why do they breath air despite the fact that they are sea faring creatures?

I don’t fault ‘scientific’ creationism for not having answers to these questions. Rather, it seems to me that creationism is not even attempting to find answers. Maybe I haven’t read all your resources, but I haven’t found any reference to creationists who have actually suggested creationist explanations to these problems, and have then gone out into the field to empirically test their ideas.

Yes, there is a lot we don’t know regarding biological evolution, but at least evolutionists, like other scientists, are attempting to solve the mysteries of nature with workable explanations that we can empirically verify. Every year they are making important discoveries
regarding life on earth, and they are filling gaps in knowledge with specific details.

As an individual who has always found meaning in understanding, empowerment through knowledge, and excitement in detail, you can understand why I'm not satisfied with the answer of “God did it” to the question of how we got here.

Thank you for listening


Sunday, July 01, 2007

If we have souls, why do we need physical brains?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading through Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God. I like his book because it focuses on what atheists are, rather than on what they are not. Most other atheist books that I’ve read are mostly devoted to criticising religion, but Sense and Goodness is somewhat refreshing as its main goal is not to attack religion, but to defend metaphysical naturalism, the worldview to which most atheists subscribe.

One section of the book is devoted entirely to defending the idea if mind-brain physicalism. Carrier argues that what we think of the soul is simply the mind, and that the mind is totally dependent on, and cannot exist without, a functioning, material brain.

Theists believe that intelligence is possible without a brain (think of God, for example). Moreover, when we die, most religions teach that our souls or minds (containing our feelings, thoughts, impulses, memories, and sense of self) will live on, independent of the body.

Carrier makes the observation that mental powers of living animals are in direct correlation to the complexity of their brains. The human brain is possibly the most complex, containing a large cerebral cortex. He then argues on page 153:

It follows that a physically complex brain is necessary for a mind, and that a mind can only develop when the brain develops physically . . . If our minds were not dependent on the human brain, then there would be no plausible reason for us to have one. At best, all we would need is the minimal sort of hardware a comparable mammal had, though even that would be hard to explain the need of, since if the mind were independent enough to be able, for instance, to see, hear, think, and remember all on its own, the vast majority of the brain of even an ordinary mammal would be useless material to us, dead weight, a needless drain on our oxygen supply, of which our brains now take the lion’s share.

This is an interesting thought. If intelligence is possible without the body, then why did God give us such a large brain, an organ that is a physical disadvantage?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Why is God so concerned about my beliefs?

For some reason, belief seems to be quite important to God. And I can’t figure out why.

The God of conservative Christianity asks that I first believe in him before he initiates a relationship with me. Why this prerequisite? Not only does he set this as a requirement, but he also holds accountable those who do not believe in him. According to conservative Christianity, a mass murderer who has accepted Jesus will go to heaven, but a person who has a lived a moral life caring for others, but who has not accepted the Gospel, will go to hell (John 20:29 and John 3:16). It makes no sense to me why the personal, mundane and victimless action of belief (or unbelief) is such a big deal to the creator of the universe.

As Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion (page 104):

But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? Isn’t it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility? Or sincerity?

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his great speech in Washington, DC, on 28 August 1963, spelt out his dream of a land where his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. He realised, as many of us do, how unjust it is to use skin colour, over and above character, as a way to measure a person. Isn’t it just as unjust to judge someone by the thoughts that they hold, over and above what they are as individuals? This was one of the great stumbling blocks that I faced as a struggling Christian: I couldn’t understand why believing in stuff like the cross, Jesus, and the Trinity was so important to salvation, seemingly more important than goodness, kindness or honesty. God may not be a racist, but he certainly seems to discriminate along lines of belief.

Richard Carrier, also concerned by this aspect of conservative Christian theology, writes in Sense and Goodness without God (page 17):

The good judge others by their character, not by their beliefs, and punish deeds, not thoughts, and punish only to teach, not to torture.

I’m with Carrier here: when I left Christianity, I decided that thoughts are not as important as deeds; that when I meet a person for the first time, I should evaluate that person according to who they are as individuals, and how they treat other people – not according to their skin colour, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.

Why doesn’t God do the same?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Philosophy verses religion

I'm busy working through Richard Carrier's Sense and Goodness Without God. Here is a quote that I found quite interesting, where Carrier outlines what he believes is the difference between religion and philosophy (page 26):

Philosophy is . . . fundamental to our lives. It should be our first if not our only religion: a religion wherein worship is replaced with curiosity, devotion with diligence, holiness with sincerity, ritual with study, and scripture with the whole world and the whole of human learning.

The philosopher regards it as tantamount to a religious duty to question all things, and to ground her faith in what is well-investigated and well-proved, rather than what is merely well-asserted or well-liked. Instead of keeping her nose ever in one book, she reads widely and constantly. Instead of aligning herself with this or that view and keeping only like-minded company, she mingles and discusses all views with everyone. And above all, she commits herself to the constant study and application of language, logic, and method, and seeks always to perfect, by testing and correcting, her total view of all things.

What do you think?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The last human alive

The last human alive sits huddled in a dark cave, alone and weak. The friends she once knew, the family she had loved: all are gone. Six billion lives lost in just six months; victims of the deadly virus that had spread throughout the world.

The last human alive, the final gasp of what was once a successful species, begins to cough and wheeze. She knows that she doesn’t have much time left. In her despair she whispers to the one stable comfort that she knew as a child.

“God,” she utters into the dark, “please help me.”

Despite the pains in her chest, she calls out again, more loudly this time.

“God, if you can hear me, please help. God, where are you?”

But there is no answer. No voice. Nothing. The last human alive suddenly realises that she is utterly and entirely alone. There is nobody here, no other intelligent mind to hear her speak. Her words are simply meaningless sounds.

She wonders: where is this being called God? Why does he not come to the last human ever to walk this earth? She realises that maybe, just maybe, God had not been a spiritual being after all, but a natural one. Like the billions of single neurons creating the complex networks of her personality and character, the billions of human brains throughout history had created the character and personality of God.

God had existed, but not in the way most people had believed: his very essence had simply been a product of the human mind, a powerful and complex pattern that had spread through billions of brains over thousands of years. Humans did not depend on the existence of God; rather, the concept of God – like the concepts of language and music – had depended upon the existence of humans.

And now, in this dark hole in the ground, the once great and powerful essence of God splutters like a candle flame in the rain; a belief that once occupied billions of brains, now reduced to dwell in a single human mind.

As her breathing slows, her eyes close, and her mind clouds over, the last human alive suddenly realises that her death will be the most unique human death in all of history: through her death all of what is human – courage, love, and imagination – will die with her. Her death will mark the ultimate end of the brief period in the universe’s history in which intelligence life had existed.

But more than that, her end will mark the death of God.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Extra-dimensional Jesus

How did Jesus pass through locked doors when he visited his disciples after the Resurrection? Hugh Ross, an astronomer and old-earth creationist, in his book, The Creator and the Cosmos, provides a possible reason on page 79:

Though it is impossible for three-dimensional physical objects to pass through three-dimensional physical barriers without one or the other being damaged, Jesus would have no problem doing this in His extra dimensions. Six spatial dimensions would be adequate. He could simultaneously translate the first dimension of His physicality into the fourth dimension, the second into the fifth, and the third into the sixth. Then He could pass through the walls of the room and transfer His three-dimensional body from the fourth, fifth, and sixth dimensions back into first, second and third.

Say that again? Like the words of a Star Fleet engineer in an episode of Star Trek, this paragraph left my head spinning.
The reason why I mention this paragraph is that it doesn’t seem to fit in with the preceding chapters of Ross’ book. In the first nine chapters, Ross does a reasonable job at listing the evidences for the Big Bang model of the universes’ origin. He then argues that the Big Bang model points to the fact that something caused the universe to come into being, and that this something was a creator who is transcendent and who exhibits extra dimensional attributes. Ross’ argument, however, gets a bit shaky in Chapter 10. Ross lists various verses in the Bible that, according to his interpretation, state that God is timeless, transcendent and extra-dimensional. Therefore, the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe. Jesus exhibited extra-dimensional attributes when he walked through locked doors, and a verse in the Bible says that Jesus created the universe. Thus, Ross concludes on page 80:

General relativity and the big bang lead to only one possible conclusion: a Creator matching the description of Jesus Christ. He is our Creator-God.

I could be wrong, but there seem to be large gaps in this line of reasoning. Ross takes it for granted that: (1) the universe had a causal beginning, (2) this cause was an intelligent creator who is still alive today, (3) the Bible accurately describes this creator, (4) the Bible contains historical truth, (5) Jesus existed, (6) Jesus was the creator, and (7) the writers of the Bible – who lived two thousand years ago – used our definitions of space, time and creation when they wrote their texts. Moreover, Ross doesn’t provide any idea of how material objects can actually shift from one dimension to another.
To make a strong case, shouldn’t Ross tackle these issues first?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book: The God Delusion

The God Delusion is a difficult book to adequately summarise in a single post. Richard Dawkins covers many different topics, so trying to pin down a central theme is somewhat of a challenge. But if I were forced to provide a brief description of the book, I would say that The God Delusion is a description of what it means to be an atheist living in the 21’st century, and a portrayal of how most atheists view the world, society and religion.

Dawkins’ main aim of the book is to raise four consciousness raising messages: (1) that atheism is a realistic aspiration for any individual; (2) natural selection describes the complexity of life better than the Creator hypothesis; (3) children should not be labelled by their parent’s religion; and (4) atheists should not be apologetic about their beliefs. Although Dawkins focuses on these four central themes, he also explores other topics, such as the origins of religion and the evolutionary origins of morality.

The most significant message of the book for me was Dawkins’ message that there is nothing wrong with unbelief. On page 1:

[This book is intended to] raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who his happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.

In Chapter 4, Dawkins focuses on the well known creationist argument that design was responsible for life because biological complexity is too improbable to have arisen by chance. Dawkins argues that both chance and design were not responsible; rather, the third option, natural selection, caused complex life by breaking down improbability into small pieces. Although I disagree with Dawkins’ argument that refuting design refutes God (at least, this is what I think he argues), his arguments for evolution are, as always, his strong point.

However, I thought the weakest part of the book was Chapter 3. Dawkins’ critique of philosophical arguments for God seems far too simplistic; he hurries through each argument, and as a consequence they are only superficially covered. I feel there are better books out there that provide more comprehensive responses to philosophical arguments for theism.

Finally, I have difficulty with Dawkins’ confrontational style. I absolutely share Dawkins’ concern regarding religious fundamentalism, but I think his abrasive approach to religious belief in general not only polarises religious debate, but also hinders constructive dialogue between those on opposite sides of the fence who are willing to speak to each other.

In conclusion . . .
Although I admire Richard Dawkins’ views on biology, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the antagonism he expresses towards religion in general. Although the book provides a clear summary of atheistic beliefs, arguments and concerns, its confrontational tone in parts might turn some Christians off from reading it altogether. This, I believe, is sad, as there are many parts of the book that provide positive and refreshing insights into what it means to be an atheist.

Have you read the God Delusion? If so, what did you think of the book?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Wow! What a game!

Well done, Blou Bulle. You have made Pretoria proud!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bible Study: The virgin birth prophecy

Did the Old Testament predict Jesus' virgin birth? According to some Christian apologists, it did. In Isaiah 7:14 the prophet writes (NIV):

Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Matthew, after recounting the virgin birth of Jesus, writes in Matthew 1:22-23 (NIV):

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us".

Isaiah wrote the prediction about 700 years before Jesus was born, so at face value this does seem like an incredible example of fulfilled prophecy. So much so, that apologist Josh McDowell, in his book, Christianity – a Ready Defence, appeals to this prophecy and writes on page 187:

. . . the Bible declares that God decided His Son would have a miraculous entrance into humanity.

However, when one takes the time to read Isaiah 7:14 in different translations of the Bible, one quickly realises something odd. The Good News Bible, for example, translates the verse as follows:
Well then, the Lord himself will give you a sign: a young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him "Immanuel."

Notice that young woman appears instead of virgin. The same reads in the Revised Standard Version, the Revised English Bible and the Jewish Tanach. Apparently, there is some dispute over the exact translation of this verse. From what I've read, the original Hebrew word that Isaiah used in this verse is almah, which does not mean virgin specifically, but rather young woman. If Isaiah was referring to a virgin, we would have expected him to use the word bethulah, which specifically refers to virginity. Have modern Bibles erred by translating almah as virgin?

So why did Matthew use the Greek word parthenos, which can specifically refer to virginity, when he quoted Isaiah’s prophecy? The historian Richard Carrier, suggests that Matthew either took liberties with the text, or he copied the verse directly from an extinct version of the Septuagint (there were a few versions doing the rounds at the time Matthew wrote).

Reading in context
Another problem with the apologist’s claim of prophecy is that when one reads Isaiah 7:14 in the context of the rest of the chapter, the verse seems to be referring - not to an incident far in the future - but to contemporary events. Chapter 7 is a prophecy for the Judean King Ahaz, who is concerned about Israeli and Syrian forces laying siege to Jerusalem. When read in context, Isaiah seems to be predicting the birth of a child in the near future, because in verses 15-17, Isaiah claims that before the child reaches maturity, the lands of the two kings (Israel and Syria) will be defeated. This is probably why the Good News translation reads: “a young woman who is pregnant." Isaiah is not referring to a woman who will give birth far in the future, but to a woman who is currently alive and already pregnant.

If one considers the above, as well as the fact that the idea of virgin birth was somewhat alien to Jewish thinking (it was more consistent with Roman and Greek culture), doesn't it make more sense to interpret Isaiah 7:14 as a contemporary prediction, rather than a prophecy of Jesus' birth?

Additional reading: