Saturday, December 20, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 8)

Part 8: Observing is believing?

In 1870, a shipment of nursery stock from China arrived in San Jose, California, carrying an unsuspecting menace that would cause devastation for farmers across Northern America. The small fruit-eating insect, now known as the San Jose scale, soon spread rapidly across United States and Canada, destroying orchid trees as it went. Carl Zimmer, in his book, Evolution, recounts the fascinating story behind this small pest (pages 241-243).


At first, farmers could totally eradicate outbreaks of the San Jose scale by spraying their crops with a mixture of sulphur and lime. However, by the turn of the century, a number of farmers began to realise that this pesticide was beginning to loose its potency; a few scales would survive the spraying and then breed rapidly. Farmers in Washington state were convinced that manufacturers were supplying poor quality pesticide, so they built their own factory to produce a 'pure' form of sulphur-lime. But even their home-made concoction failed to curb the spread of scales. The question was: why did such an effective pesticide became totally useless in just a few years?

Enter the entomologist A.L Melander. In 1912, after studying the San Jose scale problem, he realised that the scales were developing a resistance to the pesticide. How? His short answer was that evolution was happening.

The long answer is as follows:

  1. In the scale population, there were a few individuals that possessed a mutation that made them resistant to the sulphur-lime pesticide.
  2. Under normal circumstances, the mutation would remain in only a few individuals. However, when farmers started applying the pesticide, most of the non-resistant scales – initially comprising a majority of the population – were killed off. But the resistant scales carrying the mutation survived.
  3. The surviving individuals would then breed with each other and other non-resistant scales to produce resistant offspring. Over time, with consistent application of the pesticide killing off non-resistant scales, the mutation would spread throughout the entire population, eventually making the pesticide ineffective against a growing number of resistant scales.

This is a classic example of Darwin's theory of natural selection, beautifully expressed in an example that was experienced by many people. And this scenario has occurred many times in humankind's struggle against germs and insects. One only has to think about the constant need to change medications in order to combat Malaria, to recent scares over drug resistant strains of Tuberculosis. These and many other cases show that biological evolution does happen.

But there is one very valid objection in response to this. One can argue that all I'm describing here is microevolution, the small changes that occur within species, and what I've argued above does not support macroevolution, the large changes that result in new species.

My response to this? Watch this space . . .

Next post: The unbelievability of change
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 7)

Part 7: So . . . is evolution scientific?

Creationists are right: experimentation and observation are important aspects of science, but this is not the whole story. The process of developing ideas (known as hypotheses), making risky predications based on those hypotheses, and then testing these against physical observations, is what forms the foundation of science. This process, called hypothesis testing, is an integral part of the scientific method (see here, here and here). I find it quite strange that in all the creationist and apologetic books I have in my collection, not one of them mention hypothesis testing when discussing science.

Biological evolution, or the idea of common decent, is scientific because we can test it by making risky predictions about what patterns we should expect to observe in the natural world (i.e., in DNA, in the fossil record, in the anatomy of living animals, etc) if evolution were true. We can also, in principle, falsify evolution by thinking about what observations we would not expect to make if evolution was true.

Although an idea can be scientifically valid, this does not mean that it is a scientific fact. Many scientific ideas have failed testing by continuously disagreeing with physical observations. I have argued that evolution is scientific, but I will also argue in the following posts that evolution has been positively confirmed by such a wealth of data that it can be safely regarded as a scientific fact as per Stephen Jay Gould's definition.

But before I move on, I want to first list my sources. Most of the information that will inform these posts originates from the website TalkOrigins, in particular Douglas Theobald's 29 Evidences for Macroevolution. This paper is quite extensive, running to almost 270 pages, so if you are keen to read it in full you can download the PDF version here. Alternatively, for something less complex, you can visit the excellent site Understanding Evolution (thanks to Lui for bringing this to my attention). I will also draw on various books I've read over the years and will reference these in specific posts.

For those of you who want to read argument against my position, take a look at Answers in Genesis and TrueOrigins. In particular you can download a critique of 29 Evidences for Macroevolution here.

Finally, I want to stress the following: I’m not a philosopher, scientist, or biologist, so if you are an academic working in science, creationism, or evolution and you feel I've misrepresented your field of study, please let me know in the comments section, at least for the benefit of other readers. Everything I write on this blog is open to correction, and I really appreciate those who bring my mistakes to my attention. And I also welcome, and hope for, healthy and respectful debate in the next couple of posts.

Now that I have outlined my story of how I came to believe in biological evolution, and provided a brief outline of what science is, I will now jump straight into the specific evidences that convinced me.

And the first revolves around the question of why we struggle to keep insects off our crops . . .

Next post: Observing is believing?
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 6)

Part 6: 1.7 seconds of arc

On the 29 May 1919, the world witnessed a total eclipse of the sun. The path of totality passed from northern Brazil, across the Atlantic Ocean and finally to Africa. The best place to view that eclipse was the island of Principe, off the West Coast of Africa. On that day, a small team of scientists sat huddled on the island around a bunch of telescopes, waiting to take photographs of the eclipse. The leader of the team was the astronomer Arthur Eddington, and the photograph he eventually took revolutionised our understanding of the universe.

When Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity in 1915, he realised that, if his theory was a valid description of reality, we would expect to make particular and specific observations. His theory stated, for example, that gravity curves space. If this were true, Einstein thought, we would expect the sun's gravity to curve light from distant stars. In other words, if the sun moved in front of a specific star, that star would still be visible to us because its light would curve around the sun. Not only did Einstein's theory make this prediction, but he also used the theory to calculate the exact amount by which the sun's gravity would bend light. The answer: light would be deflected by 1.7 seconds of arc, less than one thousandth of a degree.



The 1919 eclipse (read this article for a full account) was the perfect opportunity to test this prediction, and although there is some doubt over Arthur Eddington's original calculations, the photograph he took proved that light from distant stars was deflected by the sun's gravity, by almost the exact amount which Einstein predicted. This result has been consistently confirmed many times over by many astronomers since 1919, and it stands as one of the many examples in science where a theory was tested and confirmed by empirical evidence.

In 1963, Karl Popper, probably the most well known contributor to the philosophy of science, published an article titled Science as Falsification. Drawing on the confirmation of Einstein's theory by the 1919 eclipse, Popper outlined, within just a few pages, his own view on what separates scientific ideas from non-scientific ideas. I suggest you read the entire paper here, but his main points are as follows:

  • It is easy to find confirmations for any kind of theory. So to determine the validity of a theory, we have find some way to test it.
  • Scientists test ideas by making risky predictions (i.e., examples of what evidence we would expect, and not expect, to observe in the world around us if a specific theory is correct). In the example above, Einstein's prediction was that the sun's gravity would bend light, but he made it a risky prediction by calculating by how much it would bend: by 1.7 seconds of arc.
  • By testing a theory in this way, we make it possible to refute (i.e., to falsify) the theory. For example, if we observed that light was not deflected by the sun, then Einstein's theory would be invalidated. According to Popper, a theory which is not refutable, at least in principle, by any conceivable event is non-scientific (solipsism is an example of a 'theory' that is irrefutable and thus non-scientific).

In other words, a theory is scientific if it makes risky predictions that can be tested against physical observations, and is thus liable to falsification.

This is just a basic outline of what makes a theory scientific. For a much more overall and comprehensive description of science as a method, read here.

Next post: So . . . is evolution scientific?
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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 5)

Part 5: Two initial observations

What is science? I know this question cannot be satisfactorily summarised in one or two blog posts. But I will try my best to provide a brief, and thus probably inadequate, response. And my answer will draw upon the story of a young man who, in 1919, was incredibly intrigued by a solar eclipse.

But before I explore his story, I just want to highlight two things I initially observed when I started reading up on the whole evolution/creationism debate:

  • At first, I was struck by a seemingly unsolvable dilemma: both sides of the debate claim to have 'scientific evidence' for their respective views. TalkOrigins has pages and pages of claimed evidence for evolution, so does Answers in Genesis for creationism. So how could I decide between the two?
  • Creationists often argue that biological evolution is not scientific. This article, for example, argues that macroevolution cannot be scientific because it does not adequately meet the criteria of science (i.e., the criteria of experimentation and observation). Macroevolution cannot be observed, the argument goes; thus evolution is not science.

When I started reading up on the philosophy of science, I slowly realised two important things related to the points above: (1) that not all evidence is of equal quality, and (2) there is a lot more to science that creationists let on.

There is some debate, especially amongst philosophers of science, over what actually constitutes science. I will not cover all differing views (read here to find out more), but in the context of this series I will adopt a pragmatic view of science that most scientists are probably familiar with.

And one of the chief founders of this view was the young man I alluded to in the beginning of this post, a man whose answer – to the question of how one can determine if an idea is scientific or not – was inspired by astronomer Arthur Eddington's observations of the 1919 eclipse; observations that resulted in a confirmation of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

This man was Karl Popper, and I will cover his story in the next post . . .

Next post: 1.7 seconds of arc
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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The birth of a snowflake

In the comments section of a recent blog post of mine, Chris wrote:

I just recently had a son. The process of conception to delivery is very beautiful. Do you really believe in your heart that the "designs" or the "creation" that you use big words for, happened without a creator?

Thanks for your thoughts, Chris, and welcome! I can imagine how incredible it must have been for you to experience the birth of your boy. My brother and his wife had a daughter last year, and everyone in the extended family felt the same feelings of wonder and amazement at her birth.

You asked a fascinating question: do I believe that birth happens without the intervention of a supernatural agent? The answer is yes. And I will explain my reasoning by introducing the story of the humble snowflake. When snowflakes are placed under a microscope, one can observe patterns that are intricate, complex, and beautiful. It is often said that each snowflake exhibits a unique pattern; of all the trillions of snowflakes falling around the world, there are no two which are exactly alike.

When I see these patterns, it is tempting to think that such complexity was put into place by something more complex, by an intelligent designer, perhaps. But we know how snowflakes form, and we know that these patterns come about naturally from something far simpler: a few water molecules exposed to specific weather conditions. In other words, this is a case where natural simplicity begets complexity.

I believe the same bottom-up approach to complexity applies to living organisms, including human beings. A human baby is a complex organism that has developed from something far simpler (a microscopic sperm and egg). Sure, a baby is far more complex than a snowflake, but
like the snowflakewe know fairly well how a baby develops in the womb. We know most of the steps involved, the complex interplay between specific genes, cells, hormones and chemicals. There is no point in the development of a baby where we observe any clear or direct intervention from a supernatural agent. This doesn't mean that there isn't any intervention – it's just that we don't need to posit a supernatural agent when discussing how a foetus develops.

I'm not trying to persuade you that God is not involved in the birth of a child; I'm just answering your question regarding what I personally believe. And what I believe doesn't make the event of birth any less wondrous to me. The birth of a child is incredible as it shows how nature – over millions of years – has produced something as complex as a human being from something relatively simple as a few carbon atoms. It also signifies the birth of a sentient being, a conscious individual who will have the ability to one day look upon the universe ask: "Why am I here?"

For me, this is why birth is so beautiful.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 4)

Part 4: Science = absolute truth?

Before I move on to the evidence that convinced me of evolution, I want to ponder the following question: if an idea has scientific support, which I will argue evolution does, can it then be considered as being absolutely true? Is there a direct link between scientific 'proof' and absolute certainty? I think that some might think that if an idea is scientifically 'proven', then that idea is beyond any doubt. But there is another view: that absolute certainty, or absolute truth, is unattainable – even by science – simply because, as human beings, we are not omniscient.

As Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World (page 29, 30):

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have . . . Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science – by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans – teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvements in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.

In other words, our ideas of the universe change as we gain more knowledge and as a result scientific theories or ideas that were once thought to be fairly airtight also change. So in science there is no such thing as absolute or ultimate proof because every idea is open to re-evaluation.

Scientific facts, then, do not refer to ideas for which we have absolute proof, but to those ideas for which we have a great deal of confirmation. As Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, a scientific fact is an idea that has been "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent". This isn't a weakness of science, but its greatest strength: that it is open to change.

In light of this idea that scientific 'truth', or scientific 'fact', is not the same as absolute truth, my goal is not to convince you that biological evolution is True, in a sense of being absolutely true for all persons, paradigms, or ways of thinkingor even true for yourself. Rather, I will be arguing, in posts to follow, that evolution is scientifically valid, and that it is a scientific fact as per Gould's definition.

So if you are a scientist working in a scientific field and you adhere to the rules of science in your daily work, or even if you don't work in science but hold onto the view that science is an important tool, then I will argue that you should at least concede – when it comes to scientific fields such as Biology, Anthropology, Palaeontology, and Medicine – that we should teach, study and apply the idea of biological evolution as if it is true.

Creationists often argue that evolution is not scientific. This post on the Josh McDowell blog is one example. This is the claim that I will attempt to argue against in the following posts.

But in order to determine if evolution is scientific, we have to first explore the question: what is science, and how does it differ from other ways of gaining knowledge?

Next post: Two initial observations
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 3)

Part 3: The golden thread

Evolution runs like a golden thread throughout the life sciences. It is the one fact that holds all of Biology together. As Theodosius Dobzhansky stated, nothing in Biology make sense except in the light of evolution. During my years at university, as I studied my way through Botany and Zoology, the concept of evolution became more common place in my work; not a lecture would go by without the word being mentioned at least once. It became a familiar topic, so much so that I lost my apprehension and fear towards it. I realised that it wasn't the big, ugly, faith-eating monster that I had thought it was. It was instead quite harmless, a normal scientific theory written in books, not unlike all other ideas and subjects written throughout history.

Although I spent much time hearing the word and the basic conclusions of Darwin’s theory, I never fully appreciated the subject until my third year. It was only then, while attending a Botany course specifically on evolution, that I finally realised how important evolutionary theory was to Biology.

But what was more important about that specific course was that the lecturer was a born again Christian. For me, this was incredible, and for the first time in my life I suddenly began considering the possibility that I could be a Christian, but at the same time believe in evolution. So as I studied through university, evolution slowly lost its teeth, and as a result became less of a threat. The Bible says that love drives out fear; but for me, understanding was the thing that freed me from the fear of evolution.

But although I knew what the theory involved, I never fully made a committed decision in accept of reject it. I let it hang on the fence, in a sort of mental limbo. At the time I was moving away from the life sciences (my interests were more directed towards Geography), and I was starting to become more concerned about my future - like getting a job, for example.

So I didn’t think much about evolution when I left university, but if I were forced to describe my beliefs, I think they were at the time roughly consistent with theistic evolution. I believed that there was a good case for the evolution of plants and animals, and that God was responsible for this. However, I was still reluctant to accept that human beings were part of the same process.

But three years later, in 2002, while working at my first job in Eastern Cape, my interest in evolution was reignited. At the time I was between projects, so I had plenty of free time to browse the internet at work. It was probably by chance that I came across the topic of evolution, and it sparked many years of reading and thinking. I finally came to the conclusion that evolution is an observable fact that we see in nature, and that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the best theory that we have at this time to explain this observation. And I slowly realised that humans were not exempt from this process.

What finally convinced me? Read on . . .

Next post: Science = absolute truth?
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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Obama: the end of pure culture?

I never thought I would live to see an African American becoming president of the United States. The fact that Barack Obama was voted in as the next president of a country with a turbulent racial history, and where African Americans are in the minority, is an event of such historical magnitude that I think it will take some time before anyone grasps its full significance.

What do the results of these US elections signify? I think that, for the United States, this was a result of an entire nation thirsting for new, inspiring leadership. But I think, on a broader scale, that election result signifies a major cultural change that has been occurring for some time.

I think that Obama represents the world as it is today. When you walk through any of the large cities, let it be London, New York, or Johannesburg, you quickly notice how cosmopolitan they are: the many different cultures, languages and religions; millions of individuals with differing life stories, interacting together in the incredibly large melting pot that is the modern world. Obama represents the Spanish born woman whose parents immigrated from Algeria; the English born man whose mother is Irish and his father Turkish; the Rwandan child of both Hutu and Tutsi decent; and the marriage of an atheist husband and Christian wife.


I wonder if Obama represents the fact that, in this day and age, there is no longer such a thing as pure culture or belief, or an absolute, one sided way of thinking and doing things. If the modern world has done anything in recent times, it has blurred the lines of demarcation between different languages, worldviews, religious beliefs, and ways of thinking. The old colonial view of separation, which frequently used violence to protect a certain view of ‘superior’ culture and to force this culture on others, has been slowly replaced by a world where many people are starting to cross historical boundaries to interact with others. Could it be that this paradigm shift has been growing for some time, but only now – through the election of Obama – it is finally represented at the highest level of leadership?

Obama might fail in his presidency; he might only serve one term and be replaced by someone much more mundane. But the fact that he was voted in to begin with is a sign that major cultural changes are afoot. And these changes will continue in all spheres of society long after Obama leaves office.

I am excited that Obama is the next president of the United States. But more than that, I am excited to be living in this time of cultural change.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 2)

Part 2: The first sparks of realisation

It was my very first university lecture. I remember it so clearly. It was a bright morning in February 1996, the time was around 8:00AM, and the subject was Zoology.

Like all other first year students, I was a bright eyed and naive, ready to tackle the ivory tower of tertiary education on my first day. As we settled down in the lecture theatre, the lecturer walked in. The students grabbed their newly sharpened pencils and waited for the lecture to begin. There was a moment of silence as the lecturer wiped the blackboard clean, and when he turned around he said, quite loudly (and I kid you not, these were his first words): "Ladies and gentlemen, there is one thing I want to make clear before I start: evolution is a fact." We were caught by surprise, and I remember sensing a few of the students squirming uncomfortably in their seats. He then began his lecture, the first of my university career.

That is how university approached the subject of evolution: uncompromisingly and without apologies. Evolution was taught as a strongly supported theory. As a first year student who was never fully exposed to evolution at school, I battled with it. All my life I had believed that evolution was not true, and that the creation story in the Bible was valid. If I look back now, my beliefs at the time had 'evolved' in high school from young-earth creationism to something that resembled ideas advocated by old-earth creationists like Hugh Ross: that the earth is indeed millions of years old; that humans were created by God separate from other species; that Adam and Eve did indeed exist; and that evolution was false.

But university seemed to put the spanner in the works where these beliefs were concerned. My beliefs regarding origins were starting to shake. As I wrote in my last post, many people who I grew up with considered evolution as an attack on Christianity and their personal faith. As a child I was taught that we as Christians had to constantly be on guard against evolution because it had the power to erode and weaken our faith. So my feelings regarding evolution during my first year at university were feelings of uncertainty and fear.

But the struggle was soon to end. . .

Next post: The golden thread
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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 1)

Part 1: The infusion of creationism

I was never taught evolution in school. Not once in my school career did I read the word 'evolution' in a textbook; not once did I hear it formally mentioned in any Biology lesson. Although it was taught in a few South African schools during the 1980s and 1990s, evolution did not feature in the official syllabus. After all, within apartheid's Christian National Education system, religiously controversial topics were often ignored.

But the creation account in Genesis, although not taught in Biology, was covered in Bible Study classes that were compulsory for all students at the time. It was also widely accepted by many of the teachers who taught me; I grew up in a relatively conservative town, and most of my teachers held conservative views. I still remember our Grade 7 Geography teacher telling us that the theory of continental drift could not be true because it contradicted Genesis. So as a child I believed in the seven day creation account, simply because that's the only account that I was ever exposed to.

The only time I remember evolution being discussed in school was during a Grade 12 Biology lesson in which the teacher declared her belief that microevolution occurred, but that macroevolution was impossible. She also went on to say that Darwin, on his deathbed, had whispered, with his last breath, that his theory was wrong and had been a mistake (this myth is known as the Lady Hope Story).

And we believed her. After all, she was an excellent teacher, and despite her stand regarding evolution, she encouraged me, and many other students, to excel in Biology as a subject. I'm grateful to her because she sparked my initial interest in the life sciences. As I think back now to that day in class, I find it a pity, for if she believed differently she would have done a sterling job at teaching the fundamentals of natural selection.


So I knew very little about evolution. All that I believed was some truth and plenty of myth: that Charles Darwin was the one who proposed the idea, that he said that we had descended from apes (another common myth), and as a result God could not exist. Evolution as a subject was seldom discussed, and as a result opinions were based largely on hearsay. As a result, evolution was grossly misunderstood.

And as with any subject that is not well understood and seldom talked about, evolution often induced fear in many people. Evolution, within the context of the particular environment I grew up in, was seen as a threat, an attempt to discredit the church and God.


And I was soon to become a victim of this fear . . .

Next post: The first sparks of realisation
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Evolution and Me

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Evolution and me: a personal story (index)

Since Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the theory of evolution has been, and still is, a subject of intense debate. From the Scopes 'monkey' trial of Tennessee in 1925, to recent debates on Intelligent Design, the subject of evolution has probably been the most hotly discussed scientific theory in modern history. I used to be a creationist, in a sense, but over the years my beliefs have shifted towards evolution. Over the next month or so I will focus on my own personal journey of how I came to accept evolution, and outline what convinced me in the end.

I cover my personal story in the following posts:


I briefly tackle the question of what is science in:


These are followed by the following posts outlining the evidence that finally convinced me:


Finally, I end off with:

  • Part 17: The convergence of evidence

However, before I begin, I want to stress three points:

First, I believe the theory of evolution by natural selection does not disprove that a god (or gods) exists. In fact, there are many Christians who accept the theory of evolution; it doesn’t pose a threat to their faith at all.


Secondly, I did not reach my current belief in evolution because I had problems with Christianity. Nor was it the cause of me losing my faith.


Third, contrary to what some might believe, I did not adopt evolution as an excuse for adopting an 'immoral atheistic' lifestyle. Rather, I accepted the theory of evolution because the evidence for it seems so overwhelming.


But what did I believe before I accepted evolution? I will cover this in my next post.

Next post: The infusion of creationism.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Potter and the Clay

By Kevin Parry

When I once looked into the heavens

And into the starry lit sky
I thought I could see your wonder
And thought I could never deny

That you were the Rock of Ages
The potter, and I the clay
That you were my creator
For whom I could only obey

That on the Cross you suffered
Died and rose again
My burden was yours to bear
The sorrow, the grief, the pain

But despite all that you did for me
I still could not see your face
In the shadows you remained hidden
From every conceivable place

I then cried out to you
I gave you my soul, my all
But all you gave me was silence
Silence to my desperate call

When I now look into the heavens
And into the starry lit sky
I now know you are not there
Looking down from up high

For you do not live amongst the stars
But only within my mind
For I shaped you in my image
Within my head you are confined

Because I now know the truth, Yeshua
And I’m sorry to say
That I am in fact the potter
And you, are in fact, the clay

© Kevin Parry, 2008

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Quote

"A true patriot is one who protects her/his country from the government"

- I heard this quoted by South African playwright, Pieter-Dirk Uys, in a TV interview, but it can be attributed to Thomas Paine.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I might not believe, but I can still appreciate


My wife, her parents, and I visited Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind last weekend. Sterkfontein is famous for hominid fossils that have been excavated there; it is one of four sites in the world, all of which are in South Africa, where fossils of the hominid Australopithecus africanus have been found, and currently a full skeleton of a 3 million year old specimen, fondly named “Little Foot”, is being painstakingly removed from the wall of one of the chambers.

My wife and her parents are Christian. In fact, her parents are retired missionaries who worked in rural KwaZulu-Natal for many years. But all three are comfortable with evolutionary theory. I guess I’m quite lucky, as a person who believes in evolution, to have many Christian friends who don’t view evolution as a threat to their faith, and this always makes for interesting discussion! In fact, most of the Christians I currently know would consider themselves theistic evolutionists, albeit of differing persuasions.

While we were waiting for the cave tour to begin, Cori, her parents, and I had an interesting discussion revolving around the question of whether Christians, who don’t believe in evolution, can come to the caves and, despite not believing, still at least acknowledge the depth of work that palaeontologists have done, and have some appreciation of the importance and beauty of the site. After all, I – as an ex-Christian – can still visit St Paul’s cathedral and stand in awe at its splendour, and I can still appreciate the impact that Christianity has had on art, literature and culture. I guess the question we were grappling with was: can a person have appreciation for a site like this, despite the fact that they might not agree with what it teaches?

By the way, if any of you are around in the Johannesburg area, do yourself a favour, visit Sterkfontein, and take one of the cave tours. It is incredibly fascinating.

Monday, October 06, 2008

When it's right to disobey God

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Israelite soldier at the time of the Old Testament. One day, King Saul - claiming that he has received a command from God - orders you, together with your fellow soldiers, to raid a nearby Amalekite town, and to kill every man, woman, child and animal. Now imagine that you feel uncomfortable about that order: killing enemy soldiers during war might be justified, you think to yourself, but woman and children? You have reservations. So as an Israelite soldier, under orders from the creator of the universe, would you be ethically and morally right if you refused to obey this command?

Take particular note of your answer to this question, as it might indicate what type of ethical philosophy you subscribe to.

Deontological ethics
The story of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22 clearly highlights the ethical and moral philosophy advocated by much of the Bible. Abraham was willing to obey God’s command, despite any major reservations he might have had, because Abraham, like many theists today, based his moral and ethical worldview on the foundation of deontological ethics, an ethical system that is based on obligation and duty. But more specifically, Abraham adhered to divine command theory, a form of deontological ethics that states that whatever God commands must be right, and that reward and punishment should be used as motivation.

On an apologetic website, the following answer was given to why God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Notice how much emphasis is placed on unquestioning obedience to God, which is an important element of divine command theory?

[Abraham’s] unquestioning obedience to God’s confusing command gave God the glory He deserves and is an example to us of how to glorify God. When we obey as Abraham did, trusting that God’s plan is the best possible scenario, we lift up His attributes and praise Him for them.

The problem with divine command theory
As a Christian, I once subscribed to the divine command theory of ethics, but since leaving the faith I have realised that deontological ethical systems can be incredibly disempowering for the individual, as well as extremely dangerous. The divine command theory is ultimately authoritarian, and the biggest danger that I see in an authoritarian approach to morality and ethics is that it emphasizes following orders over and above anything else. If we follow God’s instructions, then we are good; if we don’t, then we are bad. It doesn’t matter if we cause untold suffering and destruction in the process. In other words, the consequences of our actions don’t matter; what matters is that we please God.

There are other issues as well. As the following article argues, there are three main problems with deontological ethics:

  • There is no real moral merit in following an order, anyone can follow an order while not all orders should be followed;
  • The ability to follow an order is more characteristic of robots, not free ethical individuals; and
  • Orders are followed simply because they are given, not because they reduce suffering, increase happiness or are in any way virtuous.

Is obedience more important than consequences?
As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I’m in the slow process of developing a ethical and moral system that is not based on religion. I’m not done yet, but the one thing I do know for certain is that I’m moving away from deontological ethics. I try not to measure the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of my actions according to whether I follow rules, commands or orders, but rather according to the consequences of my actions. When I consider a particular action, I ask myself: what would the consequences be for myself and for others? The command itself no longer matters.

So, if you were an Israelite soldier, would it be right for you, if you based your ethical system on consequentialism, to disobey God’s command to annihilate the Amalekites?

What are your thoughts?

(I just want to thank Phil; my discussion with him on an earlier article inspired this post)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

This time I interview a theist - TGIF

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being interviewed at TGIF, a Christian forum that takes place on Friday mornings at a coffee shop in Brooklyn Mall, Pretoria. The interview was about my walk away from Christianity, and my current beliefs as a ex-Christian.

Last week Friday, I took part in another interview at TGIF, but this time the roles were reversed: Roger, who interviewed me last time, was now in the hot seat as I asked him questions about his faith. The questions I asked focused on his beliefs as a Christian, in particular his affiliation to the emerging (or emergent) movement, as well as on his responses to some of the arguments against Christianity.

I think that this session flowed much better than last time, and there was much more lively interaction from the audience (especially regarding my question on the problem of evil), as well as between Roger and myself. Roger also did a good job in answering all the questions.

Below are the questions that I asked:

  • You are part of a religion. Do you think of yourself as religious?
  • You call yourself a Christian. What do you mean by that statement?
  • Do you subscribe to any particular denomination?
  • Explain how you got involved with the emergent movement?
  • What is the emergent church?
  • The emergent movement affiliates itself with postmodernism. If staunch atheists and conservative Christians have anything in common, they both attack postmodernism with the belief that it is a threat to absolute truth. Do you share this view?
  • In terms of apologetics (defending the faith): do you rely on apologetics to strengthen your belief? Do the concepts of evidence and reason support your faith in any way?
  • Why do you believe that god exists?
  • There are many who don't believe in god, and there many who argue against Christianity. How would you respond to the following questions posed by a non-believer:
  • (1) The problem of evil: if the theists' version of god exists, then he is by definition a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. Since this god is benevolent, he would want to eliminate all evil and human suffering that is not necessary for some higher moral purpose; and since this god is omnipotent, he should be easily able to do so. But then why does suffering exist in this world?
  • (2) Why would God choose to hide his presence from our five senses?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Will objective morality please stand up?

A common argument against atheism states that the atheist worldview can't determine moral absolutes. The apologist, Ravi Zacharias, in this podcast, Why I am Not an Atheist, argues that if atheism is true, then there is no moral law in this universe (15:25); without a higher moral standard – a law above our laws – there can be no point of reference on which we can anchor our value system. The idea of an 'objective morality' or 'ultimate standard' for human behaviour, which is determined by a universal law giver, is a common idea amongst theists.

But I’m always left wondering: do Christians know for certain what this ultimate law actually is? Can Christians know what is truly wrong and truly right in God's eyes? I don’t think they can. If you are a Christian, take some time to write down what you think what kind of precepts constitute God's objective morality. What will your list look like, and what is its source?


What about the Bible?
Some Christians might point me to the Bible as their source of objective morality, but when I page through the Bible, I'm struck by the contradictory moral views that are contained within its pages.

For example, some Christians might write down 'Thou shall not kill' on their list as a universal moral precept, but then those Christians should condemn, in the strongest terms, the Israelite killings of thousands of men, woman and children in the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament, which contains that very commandment, also contains a range of commands that impose the death penalty for various victimless crimes, such as working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), or believing in other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).

Various biblical teachings also seem to run counter to moral precepts that many Christians adhere to; it seems to condone misogyny, genocide, and the belief that individuals can be punished for the sins of their forefathers. In other words, whatever moral precept you write down on your list as an ultimate moral law – let it be from the Bible or from your own moral sense – there is often another part of the Bible that will probably contradict it.

The changing face of Christian morality
Of course, you might argue that I'm misinterpreting certain parts of the Bible, or that I don't fully understand the context in which certain texts were written. But I would ask the question: which moral precepts from the Bible are relevant, and what standards do you use to determine this? The moral ambiguity inherent in the Bible has enabled many Christians, throughout history, to argue for almost any moral view. At one point many Christians thought slavery was okay, and they appealed to the Bible as their source. After all, there are various verses that seem to condone slavery (e.g., Titus 2:9-10 and 1 Timothy 6:1).

The fact is that Christians, over the centuries, have changed their moral outlook on many topics, ranging from birth control, abortion, divorce, woman's rights, religious freedom, racial tolerance, and even homosexuality. For every ultimate rule that you write on your list, somewhere in the world, or sometime in history, another Christian believes, or has believed, otherwise. And these Christians with different views have appealed to their own interpretation of biblical text as proof that they are right.

When it comes to determining what is right and wrong, it seems
that many Christians do not appeal to God's supposed objective moral code, but rather to their own, sometimes subjective, interpretations of biblical text. They pick the verses that support their view, and reinterpret or play down the importance of verses that don't ("well, that verse doesn't really mean what it says").

Basing God's moral code on our own
So what forms the basis of Christian objective morality? As we have seen, the Bible seems to contradict its own commandments, and even Christians can't agree with each other on what is actually right and wrong. Does God agree with homosexuality? Does he condone the use of condoms? Different Christians will give different answers. So I think Christians are overoptimistic when they claim to know the mind of God concerning such matters. I think that, if there is a God who holds onto some form of objective morality, we still know very little about what that morality is all about.

I wonder if this is a case where Christians are building an image of God based on their own values and beliefs. God doesn't inform humans of his perfect moral code. Rather, it seems that humans impose their own moral precepts on God.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Quote

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides."

[Carl Sagan, 1996 in his article "In the Valley of the Shadow" Parade Magazine Also, "Billions and Billions" p. 215]

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Christian replies that lack substance

Peter: “I wish he’d just given me some sort of proof”
Lucy: “Maybe we’re the ones who need to prove ourselves to him”

Peter: “Why didn’t I see him [Aslan]”
Lucy: “Maybe you weren’t looking”

There are a group of theistic clichés that, at face value, seem quite profound, but under closer scrutiny turn out to be quite vacuous, simply because they fail to set God apart from all other imagined beings. The quotes above, from the movie, Prince Caspian, fall into this category.

I remember another example from the movie, Contact, which is based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name. Ellie Arroway, the film’s protagonist – who does not believe in God – challenges her friend, Palmer Ross – who is deeply religious – to prove that God exists. He replies by asking if Ellie loved her father, who had died earlier in the film, and when she answers yes, Palmer says “Prove it!” In the movie, Ellie is stumped, and does not reply.

The problem with Lucy’s replies, as well as Palmer Ross’ argument, is that they cleverly sidestep the topic at hand (i.e., evidence for God’s existence), and distract the skeptic by shifting focus onto something completely irrelevant, often onto the skeptic herself, highlighting her motives (e.g., “you don’t want to prove yourself to God”), or perceived deficiencies (e.g., “maybe you are not looking hard enough”). So although these one-liners sound impressive, notice that they don’t actually provide any evidence?

This is what I explained at the TGIF interview about why I reject Pascal’s Wager. Not only does Pascal’s Wager use fear as a motive for belief, as I’ve explained here, but it also doesn’t argue, or provide any support, for the existence of God. Rather, it argues for belief in God.

You see, the human mind can dream up a plethora of gods and mythical creatures that might possibly exist, but which are hidden from our five senses. These creatures and gods all have an equal possibility of existing. To convince me that Thor exists, one of the things you have to do is present arguments that specifically provide support, in terms of verifiable evidence, for Thor. In other words, you have to show that Thor exists outside the confines of the human mind, that the likelihood of Thor’s existence is higher than that of any other imagined being.

A person can believe anything they like, but if they want to convince me that what they believe is true, they have to provide support. Pascal’s Wager, as well as the quotes listed above, fail to do this; they fail to set God apart from all other conceived, possible gods. And this is why these clichés and replies can be used just as effectively to argue for any kind of god: replacing Yahweh or Aslan with Allah or Apollo makes no difference. In other words, what proves too much, proves nothing at all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Living life as a spiritual atheist


One of things I thank my father for is introducing me to the beauty and wonder of nature. I remember, as a young boy, accompanying my father to his work on some weekends, where he showed me the many gadgets and instruments in his lab. To a young and enquiring mind, the visits to this magical room of test tubes, centrifuges, and colourful chemicals was awe inspiring and amazing. It was here where I was shown the counter-intuitive properties of mercury, the metallic liquid in which metal balls would float, and how two inert metals, when mixed together in powder form, would suddenly burst into flame.

But the instrument that was my favourite was a small glass vacuum chamber. My father, who was always willing entertain his kids with the lab equipment, would fill the chamber half-way with water, seal it, and then turn on the vacuum pump. As the air was sucked out of the chamber, the water inside, to my utter amazement, started to boil – at room temperature! And I asked my dad: why is this boiling without any heat?

When I’ve come across mystery, I’ve always asked such questions. How do clouds form? What is lightning? Why are plants green? Where did we come from? These questions have always flowed out of me, like an excited bubbling brook, from the intense wonder that I have always had regarding the universe and our place in it. I guess one of the reasons why I eventually left religion is that the answers it provided to some of these questions seemed somehow weak and unsatisfying, always wrapped up in mystery and riddles, forever out of reach of human intellect. And the answers that science provided – through fields such as physics, chemistry and biology – have always instilled a sense of empowerment within me, a sense that I could, as a simple human being, grasp – to some extent – the world around me. As I’ve written before, the beauty of nature is awesome, and a source of great inspiration, but understanding how nature works has been, for me at least, even more incredible.

Could I be so brave as to label this wondrous sense of nature, together with the tool of my understanding – science – as a form of spirituality?

How can an atheist be spiritual, you may ask?

Well, I would reply with a question: does a person have to believe in the supernatural to be spiritual?

Carl Sagan, who was an atheist as well as a scientist, wrote in his book, The Demon-Haunted World (page 32):

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in the immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Lurther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

As an individual who has always found meaning in understanding, empowerment through knowledge, and excitement in detail – this is how I feel. Finding out how nature works has been incredibly enriching for me. And as my father, standing over that vacuum chamber, began to tell me the story of water molecules and how they react under different pressures, I started my journey to the realisation that for me, I don’t need the supernatural or a form of mysticism to provide me with meaning in life or a sense of spirituality. As the cartoon above illustrates, nature is all I need, and nature is enough.

Friday, August 15, 2008

God does play dice!

The other night, while playing Trivial Pursuit with Cori’s family, God – yes, the God of the universe – moved the dice we were playing with. How do I know this? Well, at one point in the game we were amazed when we threw the dice six times, and got six every time!

Was it by intelligent design that the six was thrown six times in a row? Did some mysterious, intelligent force tweak the roll of the dice? Yes, I’m sure it did. After all, the chances of throwing any number six times in a row, if my calculations are correct, is 1 in 46 656. Wow, what a large number! The odds of this happening by pure chance is pretty slim, and we didn’t even throw the dice a dozen times before this occurred. So it must have been by divine design, and not by pure chance, that this happened!
Not only did God move my dice, but he also created the universe. Hugh Ross, an old earth creationist, in his book, The Creator and the Cosmos, lists 26 characteristics of the universe, as well as 40 characteristics of the solar system, that seem to be ‘fine tuned’ for life. If any one of these were slightly different, then life wouldn’t exist! Did all of these come together by pure chance? Impossible, argues Ross. He calculates that the odds of all of these parameters coming together naturally and by chance is so large, that must have been by divine design.

True, something that is improbable – even highy improbable – doesn’t mean that it is impossible, but it’s difficult to believe this when you see how many zeros are attached to the end of Ross’ numbers, which are so large they boggle the mind! And well, although the numbers he comes up with are much, much larger than 46 656, he doesn’t specify the exact probability when something that is ‘naturally created’ becomes ‘intelligently designed’. Without this dividing line, I can use my relatively small, but still large by everyday standards, number to argue for a case of divine meddling in dice throwing.

At least I now have evidence that God exists!

(I wrote this tongue-in-cheek to make it an interesting read, and to point out some of the problems I see with probability arguments that apologists use. For those who are interested: yes, we did throw six sixes in a row).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thoughts from an atheist-Christian marriage

Most emails that Cori and I receive concerning our blogs are from readers who are interested in our cross-faith marriage. I am an atheist; Cori is a Christian. How do we make it work?

From all the emails that we have received, it seems as if many couples are struggling with cross-faith issues, and in the last few months alone, both Cori and I - in our immediate circle - have met several friends who are embarking on relationships where one partner is a Christian and the other a non-believer.

Cori has written a recent blog post here about our marriage. Take a read of it, she always seems to express this issue much better than I ever could :-)

Cori has also written about this topic before. I've also written a previous post about our marriage here.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Feeling cheated, somehow

Is it right to ban religiously offensive material from the media? I was thinking about this the other day, especially with regards to when, two years ago, the Muslim world exploded in uproar over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed. In South Africa, which has a sizeable Muslim community, the Johannesburg High Court at the time banned newspapers in the country from publishing the cartoons, arguing that the sketches impinged on the constitutional rights of the Muslim community to dignity. This in turn set off a debate about the freedom of press in this country.

I understand how offensive the cartoons were, and still are, and I can understand the pain that some Muslims feel about the tasteless depiction of someone who they respect and admire, but after much thought, I now believe it was incorrect for the High Court to ban the cartoons from the press. The reason is this: through the ban, the High Court removed the ability for me to make my own decision on whether the cartoons were offensive or not. The Court – in response to the Muslim Judicial Council, who applied for the interdict – in affect forced a Muslim point of view on thousands of non-Muslims in South Africa. It was as if the entire population, irrespective of religious belief, were forced to live – in terms of deciding about the cartoons – by the Muslim code. In a strange way, as a non-Muslim, I felt cheated by this decision.

But thank goodness for the internet. The cartoons were displayed on thousands of blogs and websites, and after surfing the internet, looking at the cartoons, reading different points of view, I came to the decision that the sketches are indeed offensive in nature. But the important thing was that, through the use of the internet, I had arrived at this decision without any help from the Muslim Judicial Council, or the High Court. I had made up my own mind on the issue.

Not only does general banning of religiously offensive material forcibly remove from others the freedom to choose for themselves, but it also has a negative consequence for the group who calls for the ban. If someone bans offensive material, then they miss out on the opportunity to educate broader society on what offensive material actually looks like. The Muslim Judicial Council would have been a lot more progressive in their approach if they had allowed the printing of the cartoons, but at the same time write a piece, appearing next to each printed cartoon, explaining why such material is offensive to Islam. This would have raised general awareness of, and sensitivity to, Islam through public debate, and would have reduced the chances that someone else in the future, acting out of ignorance, might produce something just as offensive.

So we should tread carefully when there is a call to ban offensive material, because censorship stifles both intellectual autonomy and healthy public debate.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Conversation with an atheist - TGIF

Yesterday I had the unique opportunity of being interviewed at TGIF, a Christian based coffee-shop meeting that occurs every Friday morning at Brooklyn Mall, Pretoria. The interview revolved around my journey away from Christianity, and my current beliefs as an atheist. Roger, who I’ve known for a number of years through blogging, and Thorsten, who leads the TGIF talks, originally came up with the idea as a way of presenting, through a non-confrontational discussion, some of the reasons for unbelief.

This is the first time that I’ve articulated my beliefs in front of such a large group of people, and naturally I was quite nervous. Thinking back over the interview, I thought I spent too much time on some of the answers, wasn’t too clear in others, and at one point I lost my train of thought (next time I will remember to bring notes!) But I think I did okay in terms of bringing the central points across.

The formal questions that were asked of me:
  • You were once a Christian. Tell us about your Christian story.
  • You say you are an atheist, but your position sounds agnostic. Why is this?
  • What do you do about Jesus?
  • What are the common theistic arguments you come across, and why don't you accept them?
There were many more formal questions, but we were running out of time (probably due to me), and I think Roger decided, quite wisely, to spend the remaining time on questions from the audience.

There were many questions from the floor, but these are the few that I remember off-hand:
  • Isn't atheism just like any other religion?
  • How do you find meaning in life as an atheist?
  • Do you think your current beliefs about God are influenced by the relationship you had with your own father?
  • How do you make sense of evil and good?

I want to thank Roger who prepared and conducted the interview, and for Thorsten for providing the opportunity. And also I want to thank everyone in the audience who asked questions, and who spoke to me afterwards.

If you are reading this, and you attended the interview, please comment below and let me know your thoughts. What was the most interesting part of the interview for you, and was there anything that I wasn’t too clear about? And if we did something similar again, what could be improved, in terms of the way it was conducted?

The interview, as well as the resulting discussion, was recorded, so a podcast of it might appear on-line soon.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The problem with the New Atheism

'The New Atheism' is the term that has been used to describe the recent surge in books on atheism over the last couple of years. Authors in this genre include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. I’ve read stuff from some of these authors, and I've been feeling, for a while now, slightly uncomfortable with the way in which the New Atheists have exerted themselves in the public sphere.

Alister McGrath, in his historical outline of atheism, The Twilight of Atheism, argues that atheism is ultimately a worldview of fear, a fear of what might happen if religious maniacs were to take over the world. Atheism, he argues, thrives when the church is seen to be privileged, out of touch with the people, and powerful. Although I don't agree with McGrath that fear is the motivation for atheism as a belief, I do think that fear is the motivation for vocal atheism. The recent surge of atheist books, it can be argued, is probably a knee-jerk reaction to the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and in the Islamic world. Like many other individuals, the New Atheists are worried, and their worry is fully justified.

But where the New Atheists have erred, I think, in their approach is that they have alienated themselves from other groups – which include Muslims and Christians alike – who also share the same concerns about religious fundamentalism. I think they have done this by doing two things: first, by presenting the idea that atheism is linked to evolution; and second, by adopting a unbalanced strategy of attack that does not take into consideration the positive attributes of religion and religious living.

In terms of evolution: the creationists have always preached – quite falsely – the idea that evolution and religious belief are incompatible, and that evolution is based on atheism. I believe that Dawkins, in particular, has entrenched this idea by stating, for him at least, that evolution led him to atheism. I often wonder if Dawkins, through other, similar comments, hasn't unwittingly provided the ammunition the creationists need to strengthen their attack on evolution in the political sphere. There are many, many theists who don't regard evolution as threat to their faith, but I wonder how many young, bright theists will decide against pursuing evolution as a career, because they might mistakenly believe that evolution will kill their faith.

In terms of unbalanced attack: the New Atheists have written much on the evils of religion, but they have written little – as far as I have read – on the positive aspects of religious belief. The idea that all of religion is bad is a view that immediately divides the entire religious debate into two camps: those who don't follow evil religion (i.e., the good guys) and those who follow evil religion (i.e., the bad guys). This binary view automatically alienates those theists who exist in the grey area between these two extremes, those theists who share similar values to the New Atheists in terms of respecting democracy, secularism, and civil virtues.

By painting all of religion with the same brush, and by linking atheism with evolution, I think the New Atheists have weakened their position considerably. There is value in a lot of what they say, but I think the tactic they have used of bringing their concerns to the wider world has alienated many who otherwise might be willing to give them a hearing.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Yielding to doubt

How does one deal with doubt about God’s existence? I recently watched Prince Caspian, the latest instalment of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and was interested to see that one of the themes of the tale – if we consider the Christian symbolism intertwined in the story – was how the Christian journey is sometimes characterised with doubt. At one point one of the main characters, Peter, wonders in distress: “I wish he’d [Aslan] just given me some sort of proof.”

Doubt seems to be a recurring theme in Christian literature, and it seems that many Christians battle with it. I recently received an email from a Christian struggling with uncertainty, and his anguish was something that I could completely relate to. But what struck me most about his email is that his doubt in God was followed by a form of self-abasement. The question “Does God really exist?” was followed by “What is wrong with me?” The feeling of guilt that accompanies doubt is, I believe, a result of two general Christian beliefs: the first, that doubt is undesirable; the second, that God is perfect, and thus cannot be blamed for an undesirable situation. In other words, doubt is a problem; and if we doubt, we are to blame.

As a doubting Christian, I also believed there was something seriously wrong with me when I tried in vain to get some sense of God. But the one thing that I slowly realised is that the problem didn't lie with me at all, but with Christianity (or with God, if he exists). I couldn't for the life of me understand why a loving God would hide himself from me, and cause me so much anguish through the doubt I was experiencing. One day I came to the conclusion that a hidden God is no different to a God who doesn't exist. If there is no difference, I reasoned, then why waste energy and time – and experience so much anguish – believing in him.

When I finally gave up Christianity, doubt no longer remained an issue. No longer did I have to expend so much mental energy trying to believe in invisible demons, virgin births, parting seas, and people rising from the dead – things that seem so contradictory, incredible, and counter to everyday experience and common sense. I felt a strange sense of relief when I finally changed to a worldview that seemed more consistent with what I plainly observed in the world around me.

I now view doubt
as an opportunity for change, no longer as a threat. Questioning my own beliefs has lead to growth as it has enabled me to discover problems in my thinking. In the words of Dan Barker in Losing Faith in Faith, I conquered doubt by totally yielding to it, and I think – for me at least – I am better for it.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Book: 1984

I could not help, while reading 1984, comparing this George Orwell classic to another dystopian novel: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Both cover a similar, overarching theme of how the collective, gone bad, infringes on the freedoms of the individual. While Orwell focuses on the incredible evils that can result from a totalitarian state, Rand focuses on the virtues of individualism.

There are many differences between the two novels, but one that I noticed, quite clearly, is how Rand’s work – filled with idealism and optimism – differs to Orwell’s, which is deeply cynical. In Rand’s world, good – individual liberty and freedom – can only win, and does win eventually; in Orwell’s, evil – resulting from the abuse of power – can win, and win absolutely.

This got me thinking about how our culture tends to believe the idea that good is somehow much stronger than evil, and despite what humans do, good – the ultimate source of which lies somewhere outside of us – will somehow win in the end. This belief is entrenched in the media, religion and literature: think of the all to common narrative where the hero – even after much suffering and sacrifice – wins eventually, and evil is always defeated. The belief that there is something intrinsic in good that makes it more powerful than evil is widespread. But is it really true?

1984 seems to crush this ‘just world’ bias. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is not the strong-willed, confident hero that we see in Rand’s story, but a middle aged, unattractive, nervous guy with a varicose ulcer on one ankle, who rebels against the totalitarian state of Oceania. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s heroes, with god-like qualities, eventually come away unscathed as they tussle with the powers that be; in 1984, Smith is tortured, beaten, starved, and finally broken down completely by those in power.

I wonder if there is a possible danger in believing that good will always win, as it might encourage complacency when we observe abuses of power. Instead of taking action, a few individuals might sit back, not believing that the horrors described in 1984 can actually happen. “Evil will never fully take over our country and lives”, they might think “because good will always prevail.” And some might also add: “because God is in control.”

But one can argue that there is no god, or any other entity out there, who will ensure that good will prosper; it is totally up to us, and us alone. What freed the Jews from the concentration camps, or disbanded apartheid? Was it not human intervention – through the bearing of arms or through negotiation – that halted these acts of violence and suffering? In other words, Orwell’s message is that those with the most power will determine if good or evil prospers, and this places the responsibility on each one of us, in democratic societies at least, to hold those in authority accountable for the way they wield their power.