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:

Thursday, May 10, 2007

An Atheist-Christian marriage can work

Cori’s blog post about our marriage caused quite a bit of interest. Not only did many readers respond in the comment section, but both Cori and I have received emails from Christians and non-believers alike, interested in the fact that we have managed to make our relationship work despite our differing worldviews.

Liesbeth left the following comment on Cori’s post:

My husband is an atheist and I think one of the hardest things is the idea that he won't be saved. But when I read the Bible I really think it tells about hell too, whether I like it or not.

One person who emailed me indicated:

When I saw that your wife is still a 'believer', well that was what really forged a connection, as my wife is also a Christian, and my struggles have been a source of great worry to her.

It seems that this is something that some couples struggle with. Cori and I had a discussion the other day, trying to identify how we have managed to make it work. The following is what we came up with:

The person is more important than ideas
Cori and I have decided that individuals are more important than the beliefs they hold. I guess the question is: do you love and fully accept a person because they believe one thing or another (e.g., if they believe in God or not), or do you love them for who they are? If your partner changed her/his beliefs, would you still love and fully accept them?

Meeting in a shared space
Cori and I are not extremist in our views: Cori does not hold fundamentalist beliefs; I’m not a staunch Randian. Both of us roll our eyeballs at tele-evangelists and young earth creationists; both of us get frustrated with aggressive atheists who are highly disrespectful. Not being fanatical about what we believe has enabled us to meet in a shared space where our beliefs overlap.

Celebrating diversity
Cori said it so well when she responded to one of the comments:

I think the most frightening thing in any intimate relationship is accepting that someone is different from you. I remember the pastor who married us telling me once that we always get so excited when we find someone is just like us! And then feel such frustration and disappointment when they're actually not . . . the true strength of a relationship is not trying to be the same, but celebrating the difference, the diversity.

I hope this has shed some light for those who were wondering about us. Despite 2 Corinthians 6:14, this is one example where two individuals, with differing belief systems, have managed to create a happy union. I'm sure many other couples can do the same.


Read my other articles related to our marriage here

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Why I left Christianity

Can we hang out tonight underneath Your ceiling
I could stare up at a million lights and listen to You breathing
If I fall fast asleep it's just because I feel so safe in You
It won't take much to wake me up

These few lines are taken from one of my favourite songs, A Million Lights, by the South African Christian rock band, Tree63. The lyrics of the song describe and epitomise the exact feelings I felt as a Christian: one of absolute wonder and awe at the fact that I - a small, insignificant speck - had a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. The words from the song say it so well: God’s breathing was so evident in the motions of the planets and the twinkling of the stars. In my mind, God existed, and not only was he interested in me, but he had suffered for me. Such a God could only receive the best of my love and worship.

But now I’m not so sure anymore. The faith that I once had in God’s existence is gone. After many years of struggle and personal introspection, I’ve come to a point where I no longer consider myself a Christian. I did not fall away from Christianity because I wanted to live a life free from moral constraints; I did not leave because other Christians hurt me. I left because the claims of Christianity simply did not match up with what I observed and experienced in the world around me. I was struggling to build a puzzle of my understanding of life, the world, and existence, and I slowly realised that the puzzle didn’t match the box cover (i.e., the paradigm of Christianity) that I had been taught.

There were many reasons why I left, but here are the main ones. I’ve included links to relevant blog posts under each heading if you want to read further.

1) Relating to a God behind a one-way mirror
An omnipresent recluse
One way-mirror
Rejecting the concept of God
The potter and the clay

2) God’s morality
Following God’s example?

3) The concept of Hell
My take of Pascal’s wager
Using the fear of hell

4) God's demand for belief
Why is God so concerned about my beliefs?

5) Evaluating Biblical claims
Consistency of thought
Invisible bunnies in my computer
Miracles and the truthfulness of Acts
Why I don’t believe in the Resurrection
Skeptic in training
Bible study: The dangerous child myth

I have now reached a place of peace regarding my position, and have begun to build a new world view based on four beliefs: (1) my life is valuable for its own sake; (2) I’m not a second-class citizen in the universe, deriving meaning and purpose from some other mind; (3) I am not inherently evil, but inherently human, and (4) I possess the rational potential to make a positive difference in this world.*

The following posts describe how I’m striving to find meaning without religion:
Can an atheist find meaning in life?
What does it mean to be an atheist?
Living by the rule, rather than the exception

Although I am no longer a Christian, I’m open to respectful dialogue regarding my de-conversion with Christians and non-Christians alike. So you are welcome to read my posts and leave comments.

I still feel awe and wonder when I look up at the night sky, but not at the fact that there is a supernatural being out there looking after me, but at the fact that I, a sentient and frail being, have acquired – against incredible odds – a brief period of consciousness in which I can learn, experience life, and make a small difference.

(*) from Dan Barker’s Loosing Faith in Faith (pg 233)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Book: The Handmaid's Tale

If you believe that a literal interpretation of Biblical law should become the legal foundation of South Africa, the United States, or any other country, you should take time out to read The Handmaid’s Tale for a different perspective. Margaret Atwood, in this beautifully written but incredibly disturbing fictional novel, describes what could happen if religion gains too much power, and what society could become if women’s rights are not protected.

The story is set in the United States in the near future. A brutal attack has left all members of Congress dead and the country has collapsed into civil war. A section of the United States, governed by religious fundamentalists, becomes a totalitarian state called the Republic of Gilead. The Constitution is suspended; civil liberties and freedoms are dissolved; the death penalty is instituted for dissidents, homosexuals, and non-Christians; and women loose the right to work and earn money.

Radiation poisoning from the war has resulted in almost all women becoming infertile. Those few in Gilead who can still bear children are forced to become Handmaids, surrogate mothers for infertile couples. The book takes the form of a personal diary belonging to a Handmaid named Offred, who is commissioned to the house of a Gileadean commander, and whose sole purpose is to routinely copulate with him in order to bear a child for his infertile wife. Using this as the basis of the story allows Atwood to address the conservative, traditional and sometimes religious belief that the only purpose of a woman is to bear children. In Offred’s own words:

“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” Pg136.


“What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies.” Pg 194.

Offred takes the reader through her many trials as she struggles to come to terms with her place in a suppressive and legalistic society. The story frequently flashes back to Offred’s memories of her life before the war, when she had her own job, money, a loving husband and a young daughter. This dualistic nature of the story provides the reader with a comparison between two societies: one where women have choice and the other where women have little or no choice at all.

This is a dystopian novel, and through it Atwood provides a warning of what could happen if religion becomes the ultimate law of the land, and if women are no longer free to make their own decisions, especially regarding sexuality and reproduction.