Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rethinking sex before marriage

Responsible sex is more important than abstinence. That’s the conclusion I’m slowly reaching after rethinking my position on premarital sex. As a Christian, I once believed that sex outside the bounds of wedlock was pure sin. I remember, as a 13 year old, reading a book by Dr James Dobson that contained a whole chapter on all the terrible things – guilt, unwanted pregnancy, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), low self esteem, broken relationships, and depression – that would suddenly befall me if I partook in premarital mischief. As a young teenager, sex was something to be afraid of, to be avoided at all costs. And this fear, I believe, has stunted the sexual growth and maturity of many individuals.

If I had teenagers of my own, I would consider handling the topic of sex in a different way. Instead of teaching them that premarital sex is wrong, I would instead ensure they are adequately informed about sex and contraception, and guide them in terms of learning what responsible behaviour, respect for oneself and one’s partner, negotiation, communication, and commitment are all about.

This holistic approach to teenage sex, which focuses on personal responsibility rather than on abstinence, seems to be quite effective. Switzerland, for example, has one of the lowest levels of abortion and teenage pregnancy rates in the world, and the key to its success seems counter intuitive to those of us who were brought up in a religious culture: the Swiss consider teenage sex as perfectly natural and healthy (see here). This acceptance of teenage sexual activity, combined with easy access to contraceptives, together with

. . . comprehensive and balanced information about sexuality and clear expectations about commitment and prevention [of] childbearing and STDs within teenage relationships, are hallmarks of countries with low levels of adolescent pregnancy, childbearing and STDs.

This approach seems to be far more progressive than a finger-wagging, ‘thou shall not’ abstinence-only message. And there is some weight to the argument that responsible sex before marriage can be beneficial: through premarital experimentation, a person can get a fair idea of what they can give their future spouse when they finally marry.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything wrong with abstinence per se, even though some might argue that it encourages teenagers to marry at a young age. If a teenager decides to abstain, that’s fantastic, and her or his decision should be respected. But, as a general solution to societal problems related to sexual activity, I think the goal of abstinence is unattainable: like it or not, there are many teenagers who are going to experiment sexually, even if you teach them to wait until marriage. It is more important, therefore, to teach them how to experiment responsibly.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Does religion improve a nation's well-being? (Part 3)

Idealising the past

I was a huge Michael W. Smith fan when growing up. In the 1990s, Smith was a popular Christian pop artist, and I loved his music! One of my favourite songs was the fast paced Breakdown, from his 1995 album, I‘ll Lead You Home. Singing to background snippets of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, Smith brings across a message of social and moral decay in secular United States:

See the powder on the glass
See the pillow on the street
See the charter of a modern love
With no obligations...or promises to meet

Hear the fear of disease
Hear the baby never born
Hear a people crying out
“Somebody save us - oh, please somebody save us
From what we're headed for - from what we're headed for

In this song, Smith, like many Christians, believes that society has decayed because it has abandoned its Christian roots:

Wasn't it long ago
Wasn't it on a New England coast
Wasn't it the standard - people praying to
The Son and the Father and the Holy Ghost

Powerful words, but does Smith’s message – that Western society has fallen into moral chaos because it has abandoned Christianity – have any merit? As I wrote in part 1 and part 2 of this series, an argument can be made that religion doesn’t guarantee, or result in, a healthy or prosperous society. On page 303 of Sense and Goodness without God, Richard Carrier tackles the nostalgic belief that society was somehow better yesterday than it is today, and he and argues that Western society, despite that fact that isn’t perfect, is in a much better moral shape than just a few hundred years ago. Think of the following facts:

  • Never before have millions of people given freely to international aid, without regard for borders or religious affiliation. We now even give aid to our enemies.
  • The right to education, free speech, protest, universal suffrage – and in some countries, the right to basic services – are benefits that we enjoy in modern Western society.
  • Woman and minorities now have full political rights.
  • Crime in the USA has decreased substantially since the early 1990’s.
  • Formal slavery has been eradicated, and forms of racism are loathed by most individuals.
  • Most people now have compassion for the plight of animals.
  • In the past, children were once legally beaten and often exploited. They are also now legally protected.

Does Carrier have a point here, that Smith and others have idealised the past? In a moral sense, are we truly better off than our forefathers?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

When mystery is used as a bridge

On a earlier blog post, a reader made the following comment in response to my claim that God’s existence is not obvious:

Open your eyes, look around you. Look at your wife, look at a South African sunset, look at a baby being born, look at the stars! It takes MUCH more faith, in my opinion, to believe that there is NO God!

This argument sounds extremely convincing, but after much thinking I’ve realised – and I could be wrong here – a possible problem with this kind of reasoning. It is possible that God is the cause of all phenomena in nature, but the problem is that we have no idea of HOW God makes all these things possible. God is the cause and the link, many claim, but they fail to provide evidence for this link.

Think of the following equation:


C (a sunset, the universe, etc) is a result of A (God), but no clear idea is given of the kind of mechanism that links A and C together. In other words, B (the how) is unknown. I would think that, until B is provided, a theist can’t confirm that God is responsible for elements in nature, let alone claim that these are evidence of his existence.

This also applies to claims of miraculous healing, such as disappearing tumours, for example. Although most miracle claims are anecdotal, there are a few individuals who maintain that they have some sort of evidence from X-rays and medical scans.

You see, many attribute miracle healings to the supernatural, but they provide no idea of how the supernatural could have caused the healing, Again, the link (i.e., the B) is missing. In order for a theist to convince me that God healed them, not only do they have convincingly show that something unexplainable did indeed happen, but more importantly they have to show a clear causal link between the miracle experience and the God of the Bible. Without this link, I can’t be convinced that a healing, or any other phenomenon, was or is a result of the supernatural. In other words, although I won’t dispute the fact that miracle healings can happen, I doubt the claimed cause of these experiences.

Getting back to the blog comment above: we already have perfectly natural explanations for the phenomena the reader listed. Yes, a South African sunset is extremely beautiful, but I know this isn’t a result of a divine creator, but of sunlight reflecting off dust particles; God didn’t create a newly born baby, its parents did; and we know the stars came into being as a result of gravity and nuclear fusion. We have perfectly understandable natural explanations for all the phenomena in the above comment; we already have a fair understanding of how A,B and C all link together.

And what of the few phenomena in nature where we might not have a clear natural explanation either? Well, as an atheist, I’m very content to say “I don’t know”, until further evidence is in.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bumper stickers 4 Jesus revisited

Last year I posted my reaction to a “Real men follow Jesus” bumper sticker that I saw on the back of a combie. As it turns out, my post came to the attention of the church group responsible for the distribution of these stickers in the Gauteng area. One of organisers promptly emailed me. He has allowed me to post up his email below, and I've also included my response.

----- Original Message -----

From: ----
To: Kevin Parry
Sent: Thursday, March 20, 2008 11:59 AM

Hi there

Hope i am with right person now

We are the poeple that started the real men follow Jesus stickers.I can assure u that total unbelievers have changed their lives because of this. It is intended to help poeple to reach their own and full potential. Its not just a sticker but it is backed with a hole proses of restoration.

I would not allow this to judge u I would rather like to see u regain your relationship with Christ .I dont know but maybe its because of your relationship with your own dad that u cant trust God, maybe you got hurt in church. I know we can help u and i believe that sticker didnt offend you but the Holy Spirit is drawing u in with love

Pls contact me if u need to talk or just ignore me But remember you not an ex christian.


I now have a better understanding of the motivation behind the stickers, and that no offence was intended. My response is below, and I only now see how long it is! If the organiser who wrote to me is reading this post, I apologise for my rambling :-)

----- Original Message -----

From: Kevin
To: -----
Sent: Friday, March 21, 2008 11:52 AM
Subject: Re: bumper sticker

Dear -----

Yes, you have contacted the right person :-)

I first want to say thank you for emailing me, and sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate any feedback regarding what I write on my blog. And I also want to congratulate you on a successful campaign with regards to the "Real men follow Jesus" bumper stickers. Over the last year or so I've noticed more and more cars (in the Pretoria area especially) with this sticker, and I can say to you that people are starting to notice. So in terms of marketing (I'm a marketer myself) you are doing a good job in getting your message out there.

If the bumper stickers have changed lives for the better, and allowed people to reach their full potential as human beings, then I have no problem with your campaign. In fact, I encourage any work that aims to improve the lives of individuals in a positive way. What I was trying to get across in my blog post (and I must apologise if the post seemed somewhat hostile) is that there is a danger that the bumper sticker might convey the wrong message in the minds of some individuals. The message "Real men follow Jesus" seems to implicitly imply that if you don't follow Jesus, then you are not a 'real man'; that without Jesus you cannot become a fully functional male figure in society.

I guess all this hinges around the definition of what it means to be a 'real man', and many people have their own definitions. But I would think that if a specific male honours his wife, loves his family, is honest, and full of integrity, then I would think many people would consider him to be a 'real man'. I've met Hindu and Muslim men who far outstrip me in terms of honesty and integrity, and I know of agnostic and atheist men who love their families and honour the relationship they have with their wives. They are living positive lives, but they are doing it without Jesus.

What I'm saying is that Jesus, and religion in general, is not an absolute prerequisite for being an upright and moral man (or person) who makes positive contributions to society. I'm not saying that the concept of Jesus is necessarily bad; I know if many people who have become better people because of Christianity. But there are also people out there who are upright and moral without Jesus, and live fulfilling lives without religion. A man can be a 'real man' without Jesus.

I hope I haven't misinterpreted your sticker or your email in any way, and forgive me if I have done so.

By the way, do you mind if I post your email (and my response) up on my blog? It will provide 'the other side' of the story regarding the bumper sticker. I won't include your name or email address. If you don't want me to post up your email, I will refrain from doing so. It's no problem at all.

All the best, and keep well. And I wish you luck with your campaign.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Is the very existence of apologetics a sign of weakness?

Imagine if I doubted my wife’s existence.

Imagine if I experienced sleepless nights filled with anxious uncertainty, wondering if the person lying next to me in bed was real. It would be quite strange if I did. Imagine if I one day called myself an a-Cori-ist, and wrote a book called The Cori Delusion. It is at this point that Cori would probably punch my arm and demand that I stop being such a fool.

My point is this: there are few who doubt my wife’s existence. I’ve never had to use apologetic-like arguments to convince anyone that my wife is in fact real.

Of course, someone on the other side of the world might reasonably doubt that my wife exists, because they have never seen or met her. But think of something much larger than my wife: say, the moon. Most people around the world, barring the few solipsists, would not even think twice about doubting the existence of earth's natural satellite. After all, there are no lunar apologists out there trying to convince us that there is indeed a large rock revolving around our planet. My wife’s existence is quite obvious to those who know her; the moon even more so.

Now, imagine something much larger than my wife or the moon, something so large that it exists everywhere in the universe. This thing is not simply an object, but a sentient being of immense proportions. Not only is it all-powerful, but this eternal being was the creator of the universe. This being is also intricately involved in human affairs, and its ultimate desire is to have a relationship with every single human being. Shouldn’t the existence of this being be more obvious than the existence of my wife, or the moon? One would expect so. But as it turns out, the existence of this being – called ‘God’ by the multitudes – is not that evident to many people.

I thought about this the other day: why do apologists spend so much time compiling complex arguments and printing hundreds of books that argue for the existence of God? Well, apologists make money from people’s doubt, and the very fact that they are in business is because there are many individuals out there who are uncertain about God’s existence. But why all the uncertainty? The only answer that I can think of is that God’s existence is not that obvious, a fact that seems inconsistent with the claim that God is great, omnipresent, and personal. Maybe the very existence of the field of apologetics, the branch of theology that aims to defend theistic beliefs on intellectual grounds, is an implicit admission of this weakness: that we do not observe what we would expect to observe if God – the one portrayed by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, at least – exists as generally described. Shouldn’t God’s existence be obvious? If it was, there would be no need for apologetics.

What do you think?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Carl Sagan - The Dragon in My Garage

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick." And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I'd rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they're never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.


Written by Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World (page 160)