Friday, December 25, 2009

Books that I'm reading

In between body surfing in the Indian Ocean, jogging along the beach and spending time with family, I've also taken time out these holidays to throw myself into a couple of books. These are the ones that I'm presently working through:

Timothy Keller – The Reason for God

The founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan argues that both secularism and religious belief are on the rise in the world today. In order for proper dialogue to occur between believers and sceptics, both sides should take a new, fresh look at the concept of doubt. This book is divided into two parts: the first provides answers to common questions that sceptics have about Christianity, and the second outlines reasons for believing in the Christian message.

Patrick Glynn – God: The Evidence

An atheist turned Christian shares his story of how he found faith, and outlines three lines of evidence for the existence of God: (1) the apparent fine tuning of universal constants, (2) out of body experiences, and (3) the role that religion plays in mental and physical health.

Russel Blackford & Udo Sch√ľklenk – 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists

A collection of 50 essays from academics, writers and scientists who share their reasons why they don't believe in gods. Although most of the writers are from the industrialized West, which is common in a book of this sort, it's refreshing to also read contributions from Africa, South America and India.

Jacob Klapwijk - Purpose in the Living World

I haven't yet started this one, but I'm looking forward to it. This is the first time I've come across a book from a theistic evolutionist. The Professor Emeritus of the Department of Philosophy in Free University in Amsterdam provides a philosophical analysis of the relation of evolutionary biology to religion. Not only does he criticise creationism and intelligent design, but also reductive naturalism. He attempts to bridge the gap between the opposing poles of the evolution-creationism debate.

These books are inspiring my thinking and I am looking forward to writing up my thoughts in future blog posts.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Art of Soul

No philosopher can be an island. You can read a lot and think a lot by yourself, but you can only truly measure the value of ideas when you bounce them off other people. I've been extremely lucky this year to have people who have been willing to challenge my ideas and inspire my thinking. So if you have commented on this blog, sent me emails, or have met with me over cups of coffee sometime during 2009, I want to thank you. Your willingness to discuss ideas has been extremely valuable to me.

But most of all I want to thank a great group of friends from Art of Soul, a film and literature discussion group that Cori and I belong to. Meeting one evening a month, the group discusses
spiritual and philosophical aspects of popular films and books. I want to thank Barbara, Curtis and Melanie (the three founding members of the group), as well as Jacomien, Salomè, Futhi, Sylvia and others for fascinating discussions on topics ranging from violence, peace narratives, the Holocaust, atheism, the meaning of religious belief, and white South African guilt. Some of the ideas I've posted over the last year can be directly attributed to you guys, especially the posts Where is the virtue in martyrdom and Is a person moral if they simply obey the law.

So thank you for your willingness to share, but more importantly, thank you for your willingness to listen.

The Art of Soul crowd at Pappas in Duncan Yard, Pretoria

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Where is the virtue in martyrdom?

I've always been uncomfortable with the idea that it is virtuous to die for one's beliefs. I remember, as a young Christian, listening to stories of brave missionaries, often in totalitarian states, who were forced to renounce Christ or be killed, and then were martyred for choosing the latter. Even then I could not help thinking how silly these missionaries were, for surely one's life is more important than a few words.

In Jill Paton Walsh's fictional novel, Knowledge of Angels, set in medieval Europe, an atheist,
named Palinor, is marooned on a Christian island. Throughout the story he refuses to proclaim belief in God, to the point of being tortured and burnt at the stake by the island's inhabitants. I don't know if I would have done the same; if someone threatened to kill me if I didn't renounce my atheism, I would without hesitation proclaim belief in God. Because, again, I believe that one's life is more important than a couple of words, especially words said without conviction.

After all, what value can one add to the world if one is dead? The Christian who willingly dies for her beliefs renders her beliefs valueless, in a sense that she can no longer turn those beliefs into actual, positive change in the world. The missionary who renounces Jesus lives to see another day, and is granted with the opportunity to continue helping those around her who are in need.

The whole concept of martyrdom seems to be rooted in the idea that standing up for one's beliefs is more important than the value of human life. And this worries me because those who are prepared to die for their beliefs are often prepared to kill for them, too.

So I don't see any virtue in dying for what I believe. In order to add value to my own life and to the lives of those around me, I find it far better to live for my beliefs instead.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The difference between reason and faith?

I think there will always be some tension between faith and reason. Although both are a source of beliefs, they differ in the way beliefs are obtained.

I would define reason as believing in things that can be demonstrated through the five senses. Demonstration helps us to reach some agreement about what is 'true' and what is 'false' about the world around us. If any claim about human experience can be adequately demonstrated, then we are justified in placing some provisional confidence in that claim. Science, for example, uses reason a great deal to assist us in reaching defensible conclusions about how the universe works. In other words, reason provides us with justified (i.e., demonstrable) beliefs about the nature of existence.

I would define faith as believing in things for which we cannot demonstrate through the five senses. This is the opposite of reason. Thus, beliefs acquired through faith are not justified, in the sense that they cannot be adequately demonstrated. Thus, it is often difficult to test the validity of such beliefs. The validity of faith-based beliefs might not matter to an individual who uses faith simply as a source for finding meaning and purpose in life. But to someone like an atheist, who is concerned about adopting beliefs that are justified, faith is often regarded as an inadequate tool for determining what we should, and should not, believe about the world around us.

What do you think?

Monday, October 26, 2009

What does it mean to be an atheist?

The realm of the supernatural is a crowded place.

If someone asked you to look at the picture above and describe what you see, how would you answer? Well, you might point out the beauty of the trees, the dazzling sunlight, and the rich, soft grass. But if you were given a pencil and asked to add something metaphysical, how would you respond?

If you are a Christian, you will probably reply that in a metaphysical sense this picture is incomplete, as it does not include the presence of God, which is, it is claimed, all around us. If you had imagination, you would probably find a way to draw this in. But you are told not to worry about drawing God for now; just focus on supernatural creatures.

You might hesitate at this point, as you have probably never seen a demon or an angel before, so you base your sketches on Frank Peretti's books. After a few minutes you stand back and admire your drawings of demons and angels raging battle amongst the trees above.

Now imagine if representatives from all religions and faiths – present and past – were given a turn to draw their own supernatural creatures onto the same picture. Together with your demons and angels, a Muslim will add a djinn, a Hindu an Asuras, and a Chinese a shen. Soon the picture above will be completely covered with sketches of hundreds of creatures for which we have little evidence. As you probably expect, we will no longer be able to discern the trees, the sunlight or the grass, as these will be covered by layers of metaphysical confusion, jumbled colours of chaos and clutter.

Yes, the supernatural realm is a very crowded place.

Many people ask me what it means to be an atheist. To give you some idea, imagine the crowded picture, and then imagine a person taking an eraser and slowly removing all the sketches of sprites, goblins, spirit guides, elves and finally the demons and angels. The eraser returns the picture back to what it originally was – a simple vista of trees.

Take a look at this simple vista, but now for what it is, without thought of any hidden supernatural gods, creatures or forces. The beauty of the trees, the dazzling sunlight, and the rich, soft grass – that is what it means to be an atheist.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is a person moral if they simply obey a law?

I've been pondering this question ever since The Mail & Guardian reported last month that the National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC), a religious body, announced that it wants to revisit South African laws legalising same-sex marriage and abortion. The NILC has strong political connections with the ruling party, hence all the publicity.

I don't want write about the NILC's intentions in this post (as others have responded here and here). Rather, I want to ask the question: will simply passing laws to govern moral behavior – which some fundamentalists want – make citizens more moral?

I don't think it will, for the following reasons:
  • Laws might govern your actions, but they generally can't govern your personal and hidden desires. If your desires are strong enough, you will find a way to break the law anyway.
  • Laws might encourage conformity and obedience, but they generally do not teach personal responsibility.
  • Laws might provide a set of rules by which to live by, but they generally do not teach why those rules are important.
  • Laws might externally govern conduct, but they do not develop an intrinsic morality within the individual which governs conduct without compulsion. Isn't it better for a person to refrain from doing something, not because is illegal, but because they don't want to do it?
  • Laws might be prohibitive in nature, using fear to persuade. Fear works well in the short term to impose control, but such a system risks losing its power if people lose their fear.

In other words, I believe laws or commandments (religious or otherwise) should not be used as the primary tool to ensure that individuals live morally. I believe that the best way to build a strong, ethical society is primarily through education, by fostering respect for oneself and others, finding joy in diversity, and encouraging responsibility towards society.

I'm not arguing that morality and law are totally separate entities; one only has to consider the law against murder to realise that laws do overlap with morality in some cases. What I'm trying to focus on is the purpose of making laws, which, in my view, is to maintain social order, to protect the freedoms and rights of individuals (hence, the decree against murder), and to arbitrate disagreements between parties. I don't think law is the right tool to use in order to foster moral behaviour.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A passage to think about

Okay, I never thought I would ever quote anything from Louis L’Amour, but below is a passage from The Walking Drum, an adventure story set in 12th century Europe. In this passage, the protagonist (the narrator of the story) stumbles across a group of students in Paris, sitting out in the open listening to a teacher. The protagonist’s comments kind of resonate with me (page 245):

Some glanced askance at me, sitting my fine Arabian horse but wearing battered armor, sword at my side, bow and arrows slung on my saddle. No doubt they wondered at such a man being interested in their discussion.
The lecturer, a thin man with a sour face, was expounding upon Bernard’s condemnation of Abelard for his application of reason to theology, and praising Bernard for his sentence against Abelard, who he called a heretic.
“Nonsense!” I said irritably. “Bernard was an old fool!”
Every head turned, and the teacher stared, aghast. “How dare you say such a thing?” he demanded.
“I dare say anything,” I replied more cheerfully, “because I have a fast horse.”
Several of the students laughed, and one shouted, “Well spoken, soldier!”
“Have you no reverence?” the teacher demanded.
“I have reverence for all who ask questions and seek honest answers.”
“A philosopher!” laughed a student.
“A wanderer in search of answers,” I said, then to the teacher, “You asked if I have reverence? I have reverence for truth, but I do not know what truth is. I suspect there are many truths, and therefore, I suspect all who claim to have the truth.”
Walking my horse a few steps closer, I added, “I have reverence for the inquirer, for the seeker. I have no reverence for those who accept any idea, mine included, without question.”
“You ride an infidel horse.”
“My horse has never committed herself, but judging by her attitude on a frosty morning, she is an unbeliever.”
There were subdued chuckles, and the teacher’s eyes narrowed. “You ridicule the Church,” he threatened.
“Who mentioned the Church? On the contrary, I have great respect for religion. My objection is to those who are against so many things and for so little.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Our marriage story

I apologise to everyone for not posting as often as I normally do. I'm the kind of person who needs a lot of quiet and plenty of time to think through and formulate ideas. I decided this year to start studying again; I'm busy working through a three year marketing diploma, and together with work this has reduced my usual 'thinking' time somewhat. I have many ideas for future posts, and I will definitely write them up in between work and preparing for exams. It will just take a bit longer than usual :-)

By the way, Cori, my wife, recently posted an article on her blog about our marriage story (she is Christian, and I'm an atheist). I like it because it provides a good overview of my own thinking when I started to loose my faith, and she also describes her struggles coming to terms with the shift in our relationship. I suggest you take a read of it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Overlooking Moriah

Later on God tested Abraham; he called, “Abraham!” And Abraham answered, “Yes, I am here!”
God replied: “Take Isaac, your only son, whom you love so much, and go to Moriah. I will show you a mountain there, and on that mountain offer him as a sacrifice to me.”
Early the next morning Abraham cut some wood for the sacrifice, loaded his donkey, and took two servants and Isaac with him.
On the third day he saw the place on the horizon.
“Stay with the donkey,” he said to the servants, “Isaac and I will go there and worship, and will later join up with you.”
Isaac carried the wood, while Abraham carried the knife and live coals for the fire.
As they walked, Isaac asked: “Father, I see you have coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”

“God will provide one”, replied Abraham.
When they arrived at the place which God told him about, Abraham built the alter and arranged wood on it. He tied up Isaac and placed him on the alter.
Then he picked up the knife to kill him . . .

. . . and said “No”. The knife dropped from Abraham’s hand.

God called to Abraham, “why do you not make the sacrifice, Abraham. Have I not ordered you to do so?”
Abraham spoke up, “I cannot kill my only son, an innocent child. It is not right.”
“But Abraham,” God said, “I am the author of what is right and wrong. If I say that human sacrifice is right, then surely it is right simply because I declare it?”
“Forgive me,” replied Abraham, “but if you have no other reason for declaring something as being right or wrong, then your orders are devoid of any moral substance, because they are based on nothing more than whim.”
“Then what is your reason for not doing this act?” asked God.
“I choose not to kill him simply because I do not want to cause an innocent needless suffering. Isaac is another human being like me, and has the ability to feel pain. I do not want him to experience pain that I would not want to endure myself. How can I end a life when I value my own so highly?”
God did not reply, so Abraham continued: “Human sacrifice is an act that is destructive to society. If I do this act, I will be contributing to the destruction of my family and community.”
“But Abraham,” said God “I will punish you if you do not obey, and reward you if you do.”
Abraham said “if I act simply out of a fear of punishment or reward, then I am morally shallow. Is it not better to do something because I believe it to be right, not because I expect reward or fear punishment?”

There was silence, and Abraham braced for death.

Then God spoke up: “Well done, Abraham, you have passed the test. You have learnt an important lesson: no matter what I order you to do, you are still personally responsible for your own actions. Instead of blind obedience, you thought for yourself and evaluated the consequences of what you would do. You stood up to me, and chose a course of action because you believed it to be right, not because you wanted to please me. You have reached a higher level of moral maturity, and for that I reward you, my good and faithful servant.”

Saturday, August 01, 2009

My response on Beautiful Redemption

Heather, from the blog Beautiful Redemption, wrote the following post in response to my poem, The Potter and the Clay. I wrote the following comment in a response to her post (I see it's currently awaiting moderation, so it might take a little while before it appears):

Dear Heather

I just want to say thank you for visiting my blog, and for taking time to respond with your thoughts on what I’ve written. I always appreciate feedback.

For me, the poem was my own way of trying to describe the turning point in my life when I finally let go of faith in God. I know that, in your eyes, placing God as the clay and myself as the potter does seem like an extreme case of hubris, but in my view this is not the case. You compare me to Satan in your post, but I’m not like Satan in one important aspect. Even the Bible says that the demons believe that God exists (James 2:19), but they still rally against him. But I am not like them, simply because I don’t believe that God exists. That is the difference. For me, I don’t regard myself as being defiant in any way, simply because I no longer believe there is a anything to be defiant against.

You also quote Psalm 53:1. This verse misrepresents the position that most atheists (including me) hold. Ellie Arroway, the main character in Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, makes a distinction between being convinced that God doesn’t exist; and not being convinced that he does exist. I fall into the latter camp. I've never made the absolute claim that God doesn’t exist; rather, I’m simply unconvinced that he exists.

Thanks again for your thoughts.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

The danger of simplicity

In his contribution to Philosophers Without Gods, Georges Ray, Professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, argues that the most dangerous aspect of traditional religion is that it provides simplistic answers to societal problems that we face today. On page 264:

But too much of traditional religion seems to be based on dangerously simplistic conceptions of human life and its troubles, leading people to see conflicts not in terms of the complex conflicting interests and situations of the different parties, but rather as a war between "good" and "evil", "virtue" and "sin", good guys and bad guys . . . It’s the temptation to disregard the complexities in these and other domains that strikes me as one of the most frightening risks of standard religious thinking.

There is a danger that, instead of acknowledging the complexities of ethical problems that face in society, many religious groups often only provide – and sometimes try and force – ridged, uncompromising solutions. For example, religious groups often regard their idea of moral behaviour as being more important than the general well-being and health of people. Examples include the Catholic church's ban on contraception; the resistance against legalising prostitution; the lobbying for abstinence-only sex education; and the recent religious protest against calls to vaccinate young girls against cervical cancer.

I still often wonder if a two thousand year old manuscript is actually equipped to provide absolute answers to all the ethical dilemmas that we face today. Advances in technology have introduced new problems that the writers of the Bible could not have anticipated in their wildest dreams. Stem cell research, assisted suicide, cloning and abortion are examples of very tricky issues for which
there are no easy answers. Religion can certainly play a part in finding answers, but when it insists that it has some form of monopoly over morality and ethics, it hinders our ability to think of creative solutions.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An atheist on the bench?

South Africa's Judicial Services Commission (JSC) held interviews on Monday for the appointment of new judges to the country's various High Courts. One applicant caused a stir when he declared, during his interview, that he is an atheist. Torquil Paterson, a senior advocate from the Grahamstown Bar Council, informed the panel that he left the priesthood for the law because he concluded that there was no God.

It's not often that you hear of people openly admitting their unbelief, and I think it takes guts. But I would like to ask the question (also asked here): does it really matter if an atheist becomes a judge? Are there any disadvantages that you can think of by letting an atheist preside over cases in a court of law? Would it be a problem, for example, to let an unbeliever - who would be responsible for making far-reaching and highly influential decisions that might affect us all - sit on the highest court in the land, such as the Constitutional Court in South Africa or the Supreme Court in the United States?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Change from within

I agree with my friend, Cobus, who argues that the New Atheists grossly simplify reality by ignoring the fact that many theists are not fundamentalists. I've offered a similar critique of the New Atheists in an earlier post.

So it's no surprise that the New Atheist literature – that which I've read so far – is totally silent on the way in which Christian thinking has changed over the last five years or so. One only has to read a book by Brian McLaren, or sit in on discussions amongst those who consider themselves part of the emerging movement, to realise that there are many Christians who are actively rethinking traditional ideas around spirituality, homosexuality, creationism, hell, and the role of religion in politics and society. I am honoured to know some of these Christians as friends.

It seems to me as if traditional Christianity – the type that emphasises vengeful justice above love and acceptance; advocates patriarchy; and places the defence of 'Truth' over and above the well-being of people – is slowly on the way out. But the fundamentalist is misguided when she claims that secularism and atheism are fully to blame for this change. Rather, it seems to me as if transformation is being spurred on by Christians themselves.

And this point is lost on the New Atheists: they are misguided in thinking that they, as outsiders, are the only ones who can lead lasting change by simply telling people how to think. Positive, sustainable transformation in any social system can only occur if it starts within itself. I believe Christianity is changing from within, and changing for the better.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My response to two arguments against homosexuality

In a comment to a previous blog post, Laughing Boy provided two reasons why secular society should reject homosexuality. First, that homosexuality is unnatural (as is doesn't allow for procreation); and second, that homosexuality is dangerous to society, because sexually transmitted diseases (SDTs) reduce the life-span of those involved in homosexual partnerships.

This got me thinking, and below is my response to these two arguments:

Homosexuality is unnatural
This argument wrongly assumes that if something is natural, then it is always beneficial or desirable. When it comes to human behavior, nature does not have to be prescriptive. If humans obeyed the 'natural order', we would have never been able to halt cancer with 'unnatural' chemotherapy, correct bad eyesight with 'unnatural' laser treatments, or develop 'unnatural' legal systems that discourage humans from using the type of violence we observe in the animal world. As humans, we owe much of our comfort and health to the 'unnatural'.

And the fact that nature is not prescriptive is also evident in human relationships: procreation, for many couples, is not the primary reason why they marry; they think outside the biological box and decide not to have children. Also, many heterosexual couples marry, despite the fact that they can't have children due to medical reasons. These couples choose not to adhere to the 'natural order'. Does it follow then that they should be banned from marrying in the first place?

And this whole argument is plagued by the question: how do we decide what is natural? One can easily argue that homosexuality is perfectly natural, because, by definition, humans are a part of nature, and thus everything we do must be natural. One can also argue that animals never sign marriage contracts, so marriage in itself is unnatural, and thus should be banned. Without a proper definition of 'natural', one can appeal to nature to argue against (or for) any kind of behavior.

Homosexuality is dangerous
HIV/AIDS and other STDs might be the cause of many deaths within the homosexual community, but does this make homosexuality dangerous? I would argue that it's not homosexuality that is the problem, but the sexual habits of homosexuals in general. Safe, responsible sex is an option that can significantly reduce the chances of contracting HIV/AIDS and other STDs. If all homosexual and heterosexual couples practiced safer sex, the harm to society would be reduced.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A love based on fear and guilt?

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by an evangelist, and it did me a lot of good. But not in the way some of you might think. The evangelist was Peter Pollock, who in the 1960s played cricket for South Africa, but later started his own ministry.

I know Pollock meant well, but his talk was the typical conservative Christian narrative that I grew up with: the focus on hell and the devil; the belief that humans are by nature greedy and sinful; the degrading of reason and human achievement; and the claim that one cannot be truly happy without Jesus.

The talk got me thinking about evangelists in general. I'm convinced that they are successful because they manipulate (often unintentionally) two powerful emotions: shame and fear. The evangelist's technique is to make us feel shameful for simply being human, and this is often followed up by a reminder of hell, with the hope that if guilt won't motivate the audience to make a decision to follow Jesus, fear will.

Soon after leaving the faith, I used to respond to evangelists with trepidation, and later with anger. But this time, surprisingly, I did not experience any of these emotions. Instead, while I listened to Pollock, I felt a renewed sense of certainty as well as a great deal of relief. Certainty that I had definitely made the right decision to leave this brand of Christianity behind, and relief that this decision freed me from the burdens of conformity and servitude, which fundamentalism requires.

The talk did me a lot of good because it made me realise something extremely important: that evangelists no longer have any power over me, the power to instill fear or even to rouse anger. I think this is because, after six years of being non-religious, I no longer fear hell or any concept of god; and I no longer feel any guilt or shame for being human. Without these prerequisites, there is nothing within me that the evangelist can latch onto.

But more importantly, I believe that love enhances human dignity. What kind of love is the evangelist advocating if he or she has to manipulate and scare people into heaven? If this is God's love – a love motivated by shame, guilt and fear – then I'm not interested.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Genesis 2

The following piece was written by Bruce Murphy at Humanist Dad. I think it captures quite well the metaphysical naturalist's argument that scientific knowledge has slowly pushed God (in terms of being an explanation for things that we observe) into the fringes of the unknown.

In the beginning, we knew nothing so the answer was always, God.

Then, we began to ask questions. We prayed but God never replied. So, again we said, the answer is God.

It came to pass one day when a person had a question and, instead of asking God, they decided to conduct a test. The answer, strangely, was not God.

It came to pass that more people asked more questions and did not ask God for the answer. They created tests and experiments and found more answers that did not end with God.

Soon, God no longer made mountains or made babies. God did not cause the stars to shine or apples to fall. More questions and more experiments meant that God was no longer the only answer. It seemed that God was never the answer.

It is here where Science was born, and God, became god.

I think this represents a view that science and religion are somehow 'opposite' to each other, as if advances in one decreases the strength of the other. This works from the premise that religion is dependent on God being the explanation for natural phenomena. But do theists share this premise? Does one's faith in God depend, in some way, on the perceived role of God in the natural world? Or can one still have faith, even if God no longer seems to be involved in the day-to-day running of the universe?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Homosexual marriage: I would like to know your thoughts

Sweden has become the latest country to legalise homosexual marriage. This makes seven countries in total that have extended marital rights to same sex couples. The more I think about this issue, the more I wonder why it manages to cause so much controversy.

I can understand why certain religious groups are against it, but I still struggle to understand why these groups would want to impose their own view of marriage on the rest of society. South Africa legalised homosexual marriage in December 2006, and there was much debate in the media while the Constitutional Court was working towards this decision. The most common dissenting argument I heard was that marriage is ordained by God in Genesis to be only between a man and a woman. I understand this argument, but it doesn't work because, as I argued in a previous blog post, society does not consist solely of Christians; there are many citizens who do not believe in, or abide by, the Bible, and thus we should not expect them to live by biblical teachings. This seems obvious; after all, as a Christian you are not expected to live by the commands of another religion, such as Islam, for example.

I would like to ask a question, directed towards those who are against the legalisation of same sex marriage. Why are you so concerned about this? I mean, by legalising homosexual marriage, nobody is stopping heterosexuals from marrying each other; in South Africa, heterosexual Christians can still marry when they like, who they like, and in the manner of their choosing. If two men (or two women) want the state to legally recognise their commitment to one other, how does this harm you in any way? I would like to understand more of your thinking around this issue.

Survival of the fittest (or most ethical)?

"Life is flight, and the strongest wins. All civilization does is hide the blood and cover up the hate with pretty words!"
"Your civilization, perhaps. Ours hides nothing. It is all plain . . . We follow one law, only one, the law of human evolution."
"The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!"
"Yes; and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical. You see, we have neither prey nor enemy, on Anarres. We only have one another. There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness."

- Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed, pg 185

I've always enjoyed well written science fiction that explores issues of philosophy, religion, and what it means to be human. Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed is a novel about two civilisations: the planet of Urras, a society based on democracy and capitalism, and the planet Anarres, a society that functions successfully without laws or government. The quoted passage above, a debate between two people from each of these worlds, tackles the creationist argument that the theory of evolution teaches that "might makes right" and that the only correct way to behave as human beings is to trample on the weak.

Not only is such an argument an example of the naturalistic fallacy, but as the quote above clearly shows, the fittest are not necessarily those who are the most violent or domineering. As far as I understand, those organisms that are the strongest (or fittest), in the context of evolutionary theory, are those who are the most successful in passing along their genes to the next generation. And what better environment to successfully bear children than in a stable, peaceful society based on a common code of ethics.

Unexplainable doesn't mean supernatural

When I mention or write about the fact that I doubt miracle accounts, some people respond by sharing a personal story of how they, or someone they know, was miraculously healed from cancer, paralysis, or some other debilitating ailment. They then often end by asking: "Kevin, how do you explain that?", as if my possible lack of an explanation somehow strengthens their case for a supernatural answer. And I admit that when it comes to some of the personal, sincere stories I have heard about miraculous healings, I have no concrete explanations to offer. But does this fact strengthen the case for the supernatural? I don't think it does.

As explained in this video, someone who argues that something has a supernatural cause because it can't be explained is basically saying: "I don't have an explanation, therefore I have an explanation". Not only is this is contradictory, but this argument also uses human ignorance to strengthen the case for the supernatural. And this can't work, because any unexplainable event can have a myriad of possible, imagined causes, and each of these can be equally valid if we only appeal to ignorance. I can just as well argue that our inability to explain a miraculous healing lends support to the claim that it was caused by invisible aliens from Betelgeuse. Thus, at face value, an unexplainable event – such as a miraculous healing – should not be considered a supernatural event. Rather, we should label an unexplainable event as an unexplainable event; no more, no less.

There are some who claim to have evidence of miraculous healings, either as video footage, medical reports, or X-rays. But even if these sources are sound, they can't be used as evidence for God or the supernatural, but only as evidence that something unexplained happened. Because such evidence can only eliminate known natural explanations.

I think that in order for us to raise the status of a miraculous healing from 'unexplainable' to the more substantial 'supernatural', the person making the miracle claim will need take an additional step to eliminate unknown explanations, natural or otherwise. This can be done by providing evidence of a causal link between a specific supernatural entity and the event in question. This is more difficult, I think, because a person will first have to show evidence that the supernatural entity exists in the first place, and then provide some explanation of how this invisible entity is able to manipulate flesh and bone.

So, as an atheist, I might not be able to explain instances of miraculous healing, but this doesn't mean that such events have a supernatural cause.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I am the greatest threat to democracy

On Wednesday South Africans go the polls in what some have called the most important general elections since 1994. Many are worried about the recent abuses of power by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), and there has been much talk that the ANC is now posing a threat to our young democracy.

But the ANC does not pose any threat at all; we should not be worried about our politicians. Rather, we should be worried about our citizens. It is you, me and every other South African who are the threat, because we are the ones who now, through the ballot box, have an opportunity to either keep the ANC as is, or to restrain their power. But of all South Africans, there are three groups who pose the greatest danger.

The first group are those who complain that the ANC has never provided them with water, electricity or housing. They sit around in squalor, bitterly upset over the ruling party, but not brave enough to vote against it. When asked if they will vote in next week's election, they reply: "We are very upset, so we will not vote at all." With this flawed thinking they sit around, waiting for government to take their problems away.

The second group stand around braais on Saturday afternoons and complain that South Africa is "going to the dogs" and will end up just like Zimbabwe or "the rest of Africa". When asked if they will vote, they reply: "I'm not going to vote because all politicians are corrupt. Anyway, I belong to a minority group, so my vote won't make any difference". They sit around, waiting for someone to blame.

Then there are the 'lazy citizens' who do vote when elections come around, but do nothing to strengthen democracy in the interim. They refrain from taking any part, however small, in civil society. When things go wrong, they are normally the ones who plead: "but I did not vote for the ruling party", as if this absolves them from personal responsibility. I admit that I fall into this group. It's a scary thought to think that because of my own laziness, I am the one who poses the greatest risk to our democracy.

I think personal responsibility is what is lacking in the groups I describe above. Many South Africans seem to yield themselves to other people or to circumstance, either by waiting for someone to make their lives better, instead of making a start themselves; or by complaining about problems without taking any effort to contribute to solutions. By voting, a person takes the first step to lifting herself out of powerlessness.

But even for those who choose not to vote, we will all be responsible for the results of next week's election. If we give any party too much power, and if this power eventually leads to a form of tyranny, then we have only ourselves to blame.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Replacing your cross of gold

Over the last weekend I found myself reflecting on Easter. As an outsider to the Christian faith, I've always been interested in the imagery that Christians revere, especially at this time of year. One thing that has continuously perplexed me is the adoption of the cross as the primary symbol that identifies Christianity. Almost every church is adorned by the image of the cross in some way, either hung above the pulpit or attached to the steeple. The cross appears in most Christian material, from books and pictures to clothes and coffee mugs.

But what does the cross mean to me, as a non-Christian? Knowledge of Angels, a fictional novel by Jill Paton Walsh, is about a young child who has been brought up by wolves in the wild, and her subsequent discovery by a highly religious, medieval society. In one point in the book, the young child is introduced to a church for the first time, and is horrified by the image of the suffering Christ on the wall. Without the filters of religious upbringing, she sees the cross for what it really is: misery, violence and death. This sight shocks her, as it seems far more barbaric that anything she would have experienced among animals.

Fundamentalist Christianity in particular seems to have an unhealthy fixation over Christ's death, of the pain, the violence and the blood. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, for example, is one of the most violent movies I have ever seen.

Not only does it symbolise suffering and pain, but doesn't the cross also symbolise the victory of evil over good, of God's brief defeat in the hands of Satan? I'm perplexed because, from what I understand, the main turning point in the Christian story is not the cross, but the empty tomb, when misery was replaced by joy, and defeat by victory.

Should Christianity then not replace the symbol of despair with the symbol of hope, the symbol of evil with the symbol of good? If Christianity has anything positive to say, should you not instead wear around your neck an image of the empty tomb, rather than that of the cross?

Friday, April 10, 2009

A letter to a new ex-Christian

Dear ex-Christian

I just want to thank you for writing to me and letting me know about your recent decision to leave Christianity. I can understand how difficult it was for you.

What I want to say – and as an ex-Christian this is something that took me a while to realise – is that you should never be ashamed of the decision you have taken. I can't stress this enough! Despite what some Christians might claim, the reason for your journey away from faith was not to embrace sin, but to achieve integrity.

What has integrity got to do with changing your beliefs? Well, I once heard the following definition of integrity:

What you think, do, and say is the same thing.

Integrity means being consistent in these (and many other) areas of our lives. It is a state in which an individual can become a whole person, instead of consisting of many different, fractured parts. As individuals, we can never be perfectly consistent or whole, but we can always work towards it, and being mostly whole is a step towards good psychological health.

Many Christians, who I look up to and respect, live with incredible integrity; they exhibit consistency in how they act, and in what they think and say. But during my own faith struggle I eventually reached a point where I could no longer sustain the inconsistencies between what I believed and what I observed in the world around me, causing a chasm to develop between what I thought, what I said, and how I acted. For a while I pretended to be Christian, but pretending to believe when I no longer did seemed dishonest, somehow. So in the end I decided to strive towards consistency, and for me that meant leaving my faith behind – not only in thought, but also in word and in deed.

Christian friends and family who look down on you because of your decision should instead hold you in high esteem, because you are searching for consistency in your own life. Is this not a good value to aim for? Many noble Christians have strived for integrity and have succeeded within the boundaries of their faith. But what if achieving integrity means changing one's core beliefs? If a loving God really exists, I would think he would value integrity and honesty above mere obedience. Well, that's the kind of God I would hope for :-)

Just know that there are others out there who have also reached a point of letting go of faith. You are not alone, and there is nothing wrong in rethinking what you believe. After all, you are becoming a whole person.

Keep well, and let me know how you do.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Was Moses the author of the Pentateuch?

As I've mentioned before on this blog, leaving conservative Christianity has allowed me to view many things in a new, refreshing light. One of these has been the Bible. When I was a Christian, I believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, historically accurate and perfect in every way.

How unexciting!

When I finally accepted that the Bible is a mishmash of different manuscripts from a myriad of unknown authors, pasted together over the centuries, changed and adapted over time to fit different political and religious ideologies, it suddenly became that much more interesting.

Letting go of inerrancy
has allowed me to discover facinating facts about the Bible. Some examples: the word Lucifer doesn't refer to Satan at all, but to the star Venus; the diversity of manuscripts continuously presents translational challenges for biblical scholars; and Matthew mistakenly believed that the virgin birth prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy about Jesus.

Another interesting fact that I've recently learnt, and which is probably old news to most Christians and biblical scholars, is that there is evidence that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. This runs counter to what I was taught as a Christian.

John Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist, presents a number of reasons to this effect (page 167). The more interesting ones are listed below:

  • Deuteronomy 34:6 tells where Moses was buried and states that "to this day no one knows the exact place of his burial." The words "to this day" implies that this line was written some time after his death.
  • Genesis 14:14 states that Abraham chased four kings to the city of Dan. This is interesting, as Dan was not the name of that city until the time of Samson (Judges 18:29), three centuries after Moses had died.
  • Genesis 36:31 mentions the names of kings in other lands "before there were any kings in Israel". There were no kings of Israel in the time of Moses (Saul would later be the first king). So, as the author, how would Moses know that Israel would one day have kings?
  • Exodus 16:35 states that the Israelites ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. Moses was dead before they eventually reached Canaan, so he could not have written this.
This makes the Pentateuch that much more interesting, because it opens the door to many fascinating questions. If Moses was not the author, who was? Was it a number of authors, or just one? If there were a number of authors, did each subtly bring into the text his own culture, ideologies, concerns and beliefs?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Do we give the supernatural power?

There have recently been a number of instances of mass hysteria in South African schools. In this episode, about 51 pupils in one school were admitted to hospital, behaving if they were "possessed by demons", and in Pretoria 25 pupils were treated for hysteria.

Every time something like this happens, there is much talk of Satanism and demon possession. This is understandable. Such events are incredibly scary and mysterious, and they seem to confirm the common belief that there is a supernatural realm, consisting of supernatural creatures and magical forces, that has influence and power over us. Some African cultures, for example, hold the belief that traditional medicines (called muti), prepared by witchdoctors, can be used to ward off evil, curse adversaries with bad luck, or assist in finding love.

As a skeptic, I've always been quite fascinated by episodes of mass hysteria, claims of demon possession, and stories of curses and spells. Two things have always interested me: (1) the fact that such episodes are generally experienced by specific people who share particular beliefs; and (2) that such episodes can be controlled by 'secular' interventions, such as medication and counselling.

Regarding the first point: I've spoken to a few of my black colleagues about the use of muti in their respective cultures, and one thing that has arisen in these conversations is the perception, among those I've spoken to, that muti isn't very effective on white people. One has to ask why this is the case. Most whites don't consider belief in muti as part of their culture, so could it be that muti only 'works' for those who believe in it?

The second point revolves around something like demon possession. In the past, demon possession was quite widespread, but now we know how to control epilepsy with medication. One has to ask: why are demons scared by few pills of Epilum? Could it be that possession is not caused by the supernatural, but by chemical problems in the brain?

I've often wondered if the supernatural does indeed have power over us. I think it does, but humans are the ones that give it power. In other words, the power that magic, demons, ghosts, and spells have over us doesn't stem from the supernatural itself, but from our belief in such things.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A non-religious marriage speech

I'm honoured to speak at this wedding of these two wonderful people. Before I toast the bride and groom, I want to address them and briefly remind them of the values that they have decided to live by in this partnership. I hope that they will cherish and celebrate these values for the rest of their lives together.

Emphasise love, not duty
Marriage is a partnership, not a hierarchy. Be careful not to fully mould your relationship according to the expectations of religion, your respective families, or society. Although these institutions can be a source of great help, how you define your roles or pursue happiness together should be decided by the two of you and nobody else.

Enjoy sex
The primary purpose of sex is not to have children, or to fulfil some obligation or duty, but simply to have fun. Experiment and explore with each other as much as you like; bring out and excite the passions that form the basis of erotic love.

Keep your promises

But the most important thing in your relationship, dare I say even more important than the concept of monogamy, is trust and honesty.

With regards to trust: protect the marital boundaries that you have negotiated as a couple, by keeping the promises and agreements that you have made to each other.

Remove the power of secrecy
You might find it difficult to be honest with each other. For example, as you live out your married life, it will often happen you will be attracted to other people, and you might even fall in love with someone else. Despite what most believe, being attracted to others outside your marriage is not a reflection of an unhealthy marriage, but rather a reflection of the fact that you are wonderfully human.

But what may be sign of an unhealthy marriage is if you don't tell each other about such feelings and emotions.
You will not achieve anything by keeping secrets from each other on issues that have the potential to affect your relationship. If you both strive towards the value of honesty in your marriage, you will remove the power of secrecy and be able to work through problems as a team.

Change is good
Finally, there should be no absolute rules defining your marriage. As you both change as individuals, so your marriage should change also. In time, you will both feel the need to renegotiate your boundaries and adapt your roles. This is okay. Just remember to do it together.

With these values in mind, will everyone please stand and raise your glasses in a toast. . .

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 10)

Part 10: Layers in a trifle

After taking a break from my Evolution and Me series, I've decided to resume with this post by considering a trifle. The interesting thing about this desert is all those layers
they all tell a story. My mom, for example, might make a trifle as follows: first at the bottom of the bowl, add a layer of finger biscuits or sponge cake. Next add a layer of custard, then fruit, then jam, then mince. Finally, top it all off with some whipped cream (yum!)

Next time you sit down, ready to enjoy this desert, look at the various layers and ponder the question: which layer was placed down first? It only seems logical that the bottom most layer in the above example (i.e., the finger biscuits) was first, followed by every consecutive layer. The uppermost layer, the whipped cream in this case, is logically the youngest layer of the lot. If you understand this, then you understand what geologists call the Principle of Superposition: that any layer must be older than the one above it.

Long before Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species, geologists noticed that the Earth's rock is structured in much the same way, into distinct layers, or strata. And interestingly enough, most strata contain their own distinct fossils of living organisms now long extinct. But what is even more interesting is that these fossils, when taken as a whole, tell a very perplexing story.

Increase in complexity
One element of this story is that the very earliest layers contain the remains of simple creatures, and as you work your way up to the upper layers, fossil remains generally become more complex in structure. If you accept the Principle of Superposition, you would logically conclude that simple creatures were placed down first, followed by more complex creatures. One would have to ask why complex creatures are absent in the oldest layers.

Observed linkages?
But most interestingly, fossils do not appear randomly across various layers. They seem, in many instances, to follow a pattern that suggests that fossils between layers are linked in some way. We often observe that the characteristics of newer fossils seem to be modified forms of earlier fossils. How do we explain this?

If we look at these, and many other, patterns in the fossil record, one is left pondering why we observe what we observe. I believe that evolution is the best idea that we have come up with that can make adequate sense of these patterns.

In my next post, I will focus on some of these observed linkages, examples of what palaeontologists refer to as transitional fossils.

Next post: A long line of photographs
Return to the table of contents for 'Evolution and Me'

Sunday, March 08, 2009

With God, anything is permissible

I'm busy working through Philosophers Without Gods, a collection of essays by academic philosophers who happen to be atheists, who reflect on their lives and struggles as non-believers. I found the following point in one of the essays quite interesting, written by Edwin Curley, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. It revolves around the age old question of whether something is right because God commands it, or because it is right for its own sake. He critiques divine command theory on page 88:

If there is a God who is liable to command anything, and if our highest loyalty must be to this God, there is no act - save disobedience to God - that we can safely say is out of bounds, no act of a kind that simply must not be done, not even genocide, to use a crime I think most of us would shrink from committing, even if we believed God had commanded it. If this God exists and we must obey him unconditionally, then anything whatever might turn out to be permissible. This view is destructive of morality.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

This atheist's New Year's resolutions (part 2)

In an earlier post, I outlined three areas in which I in particular, and maybe atheists in general, can improve as we interact with theists. I continue with the following:

4. Finding a common cause
Is it possible that atheists and theists can find a common cause to fight for? The only reason why Christians can enjoy church services in countries like South Africa or the United States without being beaten or killed for their beliefs, and the only reason why atheists can live their lives without being stoned or executed for their perceived godlessness, is due to the fact that all of us living in these countries are protected by an important clause written within in our respective constitutions: the freedom of conscience. This clause guarantees that each individual can choose – for themselves – their own religious (or non-religious) beliefs, without fear of persecution.

It might seem odd that I, as an atheist, would go all out to encourage religious freedom in my country. But there are two sides to this coin: what protects the Christian in this case also protects the atheist; freedom of religion also implies freedom from religion. Of course, it is not often easy trying to balance these two sides in society, but freedom of conscience is general principle that should be nurturedand protected, if need beby theists and atheists alike.

5. Spirituality
One of the surprising things that I've learnt since I left Christianity is that religion and spirituality are not the same thing. Religion is a specific worldview concerning itself with the supernatural, and more specifically with a god. Spirituality, on the other hand, is more basic, as it involves struggling with questions related to finding meaning in life, and determining one's place in the greater scheme of things
irrespective of one's worldview.

I've changed my views regarding spirituality, and as I've explained here, although I'm no longer religious, I still acknowledge that I'm a 'spiritual' being, in a sense that I am able to search for my own individual place in this vast and ancient universe. And acknowledging my spirituality enables me to find some common ground with theists.

In the next post, I will cover the last three areas of possible improvement.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What does it mean to be a Christian?

William Cody Bateman left the following comment on my last blog post:

You cannot be an "ex-Christian" because, in order to [be] a "Christian" in the first place, you must have been "born of the Spirit."

I gave my heart to Jesus when I was a boy; recommitted my life to him when I was 14. I was involved in the church, evangelizing to others through drama and music. I believed Christianity was true, and that I was in a relationship with the creator of the universe. I earnestly sought God's will through prayer and the Bible, and I even had spiritual experiences. I tried my best to live a Christian life.

The argument that ex-Christians were not really Christians to begin with is problematic because it unwittingly removes any meaning from those attributes that we normally use to identify a person as being 'Christian'. All the characteristics in the above paragraph describe me before I left the faith. If these characteristics cannot be used to determine if someone is a Christian, then what can?

William argues that being 'born of the Spirit' makes one a Christian. But if I, as a Christian, was certain that I was 'born of the Spirit', but in fact was not (because I would later left the faith), then how can current Christians be so sure that they are in fact saved?

As I've written before on this blog, I think there are two reasons why some continuously advocate the "you were never a Christian to begin with" argument:
  • When a person regards Christianity as absolute truth, they cannot accept the possibility that they could be wrong. When they observe others leaving the faith, they naturally place the fault on the person who is leaving, instead of considering the possibility that Christianity itself could be at fault.
  • This argument acts as a type of psychological shield against a real fear: that if someone else can loose her faith, then it's possible that it can also happen to you too! To safeguard against this fear, all you need to do is believe that you are a true believer, who can never possibly backslide into unbelief, and that the ex-Christian was not really a Christian to begin with.
If you are someone who believes that I was never a Christian, I would like to ask two questions:
  • What makes a Christian a Christian; what are the criteria?
  • If I met all these criteria but you still believe I wasn't a Christian, then how can you be so sure that you are really a Christian yourself?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

1 Corinthians 7:13-14

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm a atheist who is happily married to a Christian. The fact that Cori and I are in a healthy cross-faith relationship has perplexed some, but interested most.

When we talk to others about our cross-faith relationship,
the 'do not be yoked with unbelievers' verse (2 Corinthians 6:14) is often raised in conversation. Cori and I are friends with another cross-faith couple in Pretoria, and while we were talking to them about this verse, they raised an interesting point:

What did the early Christians do about marriage?

Think about it. When the church first sparked into life, there would have been very few converts to begin with. If you were a recently converted woman in the early church, it would have been quite difficult for you to find a Christian husband, simply because there were few Christians to begin with. Did this mean you could not marry at all?

But what if you were already married, and you converted to this new religion but your partner did not? In the first few years of the church, most converts would have been adults, most of whom would have already been married to non-Christians.

I wonder if this is the reason for 1 Corinthians 7:13-14, a verse that Juno posted up on one of my earlier blog posts regarding this topic. It reads:

And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.
For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

Could it be that inter-faith relationships were the norm in the early church, and only later did it become the exception?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Church sex myths

My wife, Cori, has written an interesting post on her blog about sexual myths espoused by the church. Take a read and feel free to comment under her post.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

This atheist's New Year's resolutions (part 1)

A little late for resolutions, I know. But I was thinking the other day about my journey away from Christianity, my interactions with other Christians, and the pitfalls of the New Atheists, which I've written about here. I've observed major issues in the way atheists – me included – interact with theists, and the following seven points are as a result of a little introspection. I hope, at least in my own interactions, to improve in the following:

1. Polarisation
My major frustration of the current culture wars – especially in terms of atheism and theism – is that debates are highly polarised. The 'Us vs Them' mentality is a common element. I hope that I can, instead of engaging in verbal combat, aim to understand and to be understood. As an atheist, should I not enter in dialogue with open-minded Christians who will be willing to at least listen to my story? But maybe this implies a cost on my part: in order to initiate meaningful cross-faith dialogue, I must be willing to cast aside misunderstandings I might have regarding the Christian faith.

2. Bitterness and anger
Not all atheists are bitter or angry. But I know I was. I think ex-Christians have the right to feel hurt and disappointed; after all, it's not easy finding out that some of the stuff you were taught is simply not true. But to be bitter and angry for too long is a way of surrendering yourself to that which you are bitter about. As Carl McColman, in his blog, The Website of Unknowing, wrote in this post:

The atheist who is consumed with anger and hatred toward faith is, in a very real sense, in hell. Not a hell of divine punishment so much as a hell of his own making.

I glad to say I have made great strides in dealing with this anger over the last few years. I think that bitterness hinders one's ability to listen to others, and dealing with bitterness is an important step to really letting go.

3. Painting all Christians with one brush
This is one pitfall that I've fallen into all too many times: assuming that all Christians believe the same thing. I am grateful for the many Christian friends, especially those from the emerging conversation, who have challenged this false assumption of mine. Just because I grew up in a conservative Baptist church that taught Young Earth Creationism and emphasised the horror of hell doesn't mean that all other Christians did.

Click here for part 2

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

An atheist's response to Psalms 14:1

Came across this short video while browsing YouTube. Take a look and let me know what you think.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Living by the rule, rather than the exception

It is often said that atheists have the same amount of faith as Christians. This is a common argument, and my response to this claim is the following question: which of the two belief systems has the most amount of assumptions?

I think that both the Christian and atheist assume (probably by faith) that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves, and that there is some sort of natural order that we all experience. But the Christian is generally the one who believes in incredible events that defy the natural order, such as virgin births, people rising from the dead and parting seas. These events are incredibly alien to our everyday experience and current knowledge of how the world works; they are the 'outliers', the exception-rather-than-the-rule kind of phenomena.

As an atheist, I base my beliefs on the rule-rather-than-the-exception: balls thrown into the air generally fall down; people who die generally stay dead; water does not generally transform itself into wine. As an atheist, the natural order – or the natural world – is all I believe in. Christianity requires the additional element of the supernatural, which includes God, demons, angels, hell, heaven, the soul, etc, etc. It seems to have many more – and I believe, largely unsupported – beliefs.

What do you think?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 9)

Part 9: The unbelievability of change

Take a look at the diagram below and ask yourself the question: can something so small as a fertilized egg transform itself into something as incredibly large and complex as a fully functional human being? Well, of course – you might say – we have observed, within our lifetimes, people being born, growing up, and changing as they age.

But just for a moment, imagine that you have never observed birth or growth, and know nothing about how humans are conceived. Wouldn't the above diagram seem outlandishly incredible to you? You might scoff at it with incredulity, finding it unbelievable that such a small and simple object can transform itself into something so radically different.

I once scoffed at macroevolution for the same reason. It was difficult for me to imagine how birds evolved from dinosaurs, or how humans evolved from small, hairy mammals. But at the time I didn't consider an important fact: that in nature, small changes (micro-changes) often result in large changes (macro-changes) over a period of time.

Look again at the diagram above. It seems to represent an incredible macro-change (i.e., zygote to human), but this only seems incredible because the diagram doesn't show all the millions of tiny changes that take place in between. After conception, hundreds of cellular and genetic changes take place over a period of nine months to transform this little pack of cells into a human baby. And after birth thousands of changes occur to eventually transform the baby into an adult. In other words, the macro-change in the diagram is simply a result of a whole lot of micro-changes taking place over a period of time.

Richard Dawkins, in the preface of his book The Blind Watchmaker, argues that we battle to grasp macroevolution because our brains are built to deal with changes that occur in time-scales represented by days, months and years – not millions of years. Large macroevolutionary changes seem incredible, but if we consider thousands upon thousands of natural micro-changes guided by natural selection, then macroevolution doesn't seem that unbelievable at all. In fact, it seems perfectly logical.

I know, as Lui mentioned in an earlier post, that I have to do more than simply show that macroevolution is logical. So in the remaining posts I will argue that there are observable facts in nature that suggest that macroevolution has indeed occurred.

And I will start by exploring the layers of my mom's trifle . . .

Next post: Layers in a trifle
Return to the table of contents for 'Evolution and Me'