Monday, August 21, 2006

The Way We Want The World

Often disagreements about the world are really disagreements about the way we want the world to be. Consider the following questions:

  • Morality: Is morality absolute? What should our morality be?

  • Origins: Were we created by God? How and when?

  • Afterlife: Is there a heaven and a hell?

  • Supernatural: Is there a hidden supernatural world that can affect our lives?

These are difficult questions, and yet many people confidently assert affirmative answers to these questions. Why can people make these assertions so confidently. It is not due to physical evidence or logical necessity. Neither of these lead to these conclusions, at least not definatively. I think the reason people have these strong beliefs is that they want the world to be a certain way and so believe it is that way. They want things to be always right or wrong, and so assume morality must be absolute. They want their lives to have a personal cause and so choose to believe they were created by God. They want hope for heaven after death and hell to punish evildoers. They want to affect the world through prayer and so believe they can via influencing the supernatural.

Letting our hopes and desires swing our beliefs about the world is a strong form of bias and so is likely to lead to false conclusions. If we want to discover truth, then we need to step outside of our wants and judge the world based purely on the evidence. Yet humans have a natural tendency to bias their beliefs based on their wants. I acknowledge that is hard to eliminate this bias in questions about the world that affect our well-being, yet truth seekers must seek to be unbiased.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Is there a Supernatural Explanation?

I can understand naturalism and its process of explanation. However, many people are unhappy with it and seek supernatural explanations of events. But what is a supernatural explanation? When should one believe in one? Does it really explain anything?

Consider the case of a person with late-stage cancer. He is prayed over and then he recovers and his cancer goes into remission. Is that a supernatural or a natural healing? What does supernatural healing mean?

First one could define natural healing. This could be the body's immune system managing to isolate and kill the cancer cells, or a medical procedure where an instrument is used to remove the tumor or some other physically describable process. A supernatural healing, by definition, cannot be only this. During some stage of the healing there must be something that happens that does not follow the normal laws of physics. At some instant some molecules realign in a way that they never could under normal conditions requiring a force beyond anything in the known universe. For this reason we call it supernatural.

While many people believe in supernatural explanations, I presume most would agree that almost all events (>99.999%) are natural. That is, given an event, our presumption should be that it is natural unless there is strong reason to suspect it is not. So what is a good reason to suspect a supernatural explanation? Back to the late-state cancer example. Most people with late-stage cancer die because of it. Occasionally some people's bodies unexpectedly manage to recover for some natural cause like the immune system winning. Now many people with late stage cancer are earnestly prayed for, but despite this most of them die (otherwise it wouldn't be such a deadly killer). Sometimes someone with late stage cancer is prayed for and then he recovers. Being prayed for and then being healed is a very unlikely event and so one might say it is evidence of a supernatural healing. But this ignores all the negative cases of people being prayed for and not being healed. If there are occasional unexpected natural recoveries, then one would expect that sometimes these would occur after someone is prayed for, especially if they are prayed for for a long time. So positive answers to prayers aren't good reason to believe in supernatural explanations, if there are many negative answers to prayers that go unnoticed.

Perhaps evidence for the supernatural is when an individual has great healing power. If so then we ought to take Benny Hinn seriously; at least his followers would point to his many great healing miracles (see his web page for examples). Others would be more sceptical suspecting that there are many people who aren't healed and wonder if the healings don't have natural explanations despite the claims. Well, then one could point to Jesus; he surely had many great miracles. But here we only have the testimony of his followers and they are unlikely to record failed miracle attempts, and in the one case where this is hinted at, (Mark 6:5-6 "He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith."), the explanation given was lack of faith. That is a convenient explanation for any healer when he fails to heal. Unfortunately we don't have any measure for what percent of people were healed or how effective the healings were. Without those negative data we can't declare the healings that worked as evidence for the supernatural.

Then what about miracles that can't have natural explanations. Many religions have examples of these. But the high likelihood of events having natural explanations should cause one to have great suspicion of these events and consider possible natural explanations like the stories were embelished by the followers or recorders. I think David Hume's argument is that the latter is much more probable than the events actually happening as told.

Nevertheless, say there is a well established event that can't have a natural cause and so we say its cause was supernatural. What are we gaining by calling it supernatural? Aren't we simply saying that we can't understand how the event could have happened given our model of the natural universe? Of course people like to anthropomorphize the spiritual world; fill it with human-like demons and angels, gods and goddesses, or a human-like God. People preach all kinds of things about the supernatural, but isn't this far more likely to be wild speculation than true knowledge. How could anyone know what the supernatural actually contains? Perhaps he feels it, senses it, has a vision of it; in my opinion all ways of "knowing" that are very suseptible to self delusion and fulfilling what one wants to believe. No matter what someone's character, it seems pretty easy to be deluded about something one does not have a direct method of sensing. So I think we are stuck being ignorant about the supernatural.

Here are my conclusions. First almost all events are natural, and so this should be our default assumption unless there are strong reasons to believe otherwise. But it is very hard specify reasons to believe something is supernatural. An event being improbable is insufficient to rule out natural explanations, as many natural events are improbable. Now even if one can show an event is supernatural, all that one is saying is that one cannot understand the event in terms of natural causes, and this is not really an explanation.

Friday, June 23, 2006

True Christianity is Not a Religion ... but Scientific Materialism Is

Many times I have heard the claim by evangelical Christians that "true Christianity" is not a religion but rather a "relationship with God." The argument goes something like this: "Religion is a human concept by which people try to reach to God through various rituals or good works. However the message we preach is that God did all the work himself and now wants a relationship with you. Since this salvation is God-dependent it is not a religion". Clearly a key goal of this argument is to distinguish "true Christianity" from the thousand and one other religions that have similar-sounding claims on individuals.

In other discussions, I hear the claim that Scientific Materialism is the "religion of this age." It is a religion because it is believed on faith and it largely affects one's interpretation of the world. The goal of this argument is to throw back on the naturalist the same criticism he makes of the person who believes in the supernatural: it is all a faith belief.

It is interesting how Christians are so happy to redifine the word "religion" in different ways in different contexts so that it applies exactly to their enemies. These two definitions are clearly inconsistent: if Scientific Materialism is a religion because it is dependent on faith in unproven assumptions, then surely "true Christianity" also is a religion. So why not just use a dictionary definition. Here are a couple from Webster's dictionary and Chamber's dictionary:

    Religion [Merriam-Websters]
    Etymology: Middle English religioun, from Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back
    1 a : the state of a religious (a nun in her 20th year of religion) b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
    2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
    3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
    4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

    Religion (noun) [Chambers]
    1: a belief in, or the worship of, a god or gods.
    2: a particular system of belief or worship, such as Christianity or Judaism.
    3: colloq anything to which one is totally devoted and which rules one's life • mountaineering is his religion.
    4: the monastic way of life.
    ETYMOLOGY: 12c: French, from Latin religio bond or obligation, etc, from ligare to bind.

So religion is a broad term. It clearly applies to "true Christianity" whatever relationship with God is implied. It is not required that religions believe that people work their way to heaven. Denying this is being deceitful, although I have seen worse forms of deceit in making converts.

Does religion apply to scientific materialism? By this I assume what is meant is a rejection of the supernatural. Surely this can include all kinds of beliefs, certainty, lack of certainty, devotion or lack of it, atheism or agnosticism or even deism -- basically just about anything. To call this a religion is again a misapplication of the word religion. In justifying the claim, Christians might point to a devoted camp of naturalists who act with religious zeal. I don't think it applies to these either, but even if it did, that does not mean people in general who reject the supernatural have a religion.

The term religion should be used honestly and it should clairify the issues. Unfortunately the way some Christians use it is often the opposite: it is both dishonest and it is used to muddy the issues in the debate with naturalists.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Reason, Faith and Truth Seeking

What is demanded of an honest truth seeker? Must he be rational? May he be a person of faith? I seek to understand these questions in this post. To answer them requires an analysis of what it means to be rational including having rational beliefs and acting rationally. Then I consider to what extent faith may be rational, and ask if it is compatible with truth seeking.

Belief is often posed as a binary option: Do you believe this claim, yes or no? That is: Are you certain the claim is true or certain it is false? But clearly these are not the only options. One can be unsure, and actually one's level of uncertainty could be anywhere in the range between certainty that it is false to certainty that it is true. Hence the question that should really be posed is: What is your level of belief in this claim?

Given then that we have belief levels about all sorts of things, how are rational beliefs distinguished from irrational ones? I assume what we mean by a rational belief is one that carefully considers all the evidence and produces an optimal prediction of the truth or falsehood of a claim given this evidence. Given uncertainties, the pridiction will be a probability (or a range of probabilities) of the truth of the claim. A useful example is that of weather prediction. One can be certain of the weather at the moment by looking outside. But it is harder to know what the weather tomorrow will be. So, for example, a rational belief might consider the season and recent weather etc. and conclude there is a 75% chance of rain tomorrow. To pose the question: do you believe it will it rain or not tomorrow creates creates a false dichotomy, as being certain it will rain or not without very strong evidence is irrational. Of course sometimes it may be difficult to determine what the evidence supports, or two people may have different sets of evidence available to them and so may rationally have two different levels of belief.

An irrational belief is one that ignores the evidence so does not optimally predict the truth or falsehood of a claim. Again this is not an all-or-nothing description. There are levels of irrationality depending on how much or little one considers the evidence.

I conclude that truth seeking is the process of building rational beliefs about the world, and includes the search for evidence as well as the analysis of it.

Now the rationality of actions, unlike beliefs, must be judged based on the goals of the individual. A rational action is one which, given the circumstances, best achieves the goals of the person. This says nothing about whether the action is good or bad, only how effective it is at achieving its goal given current knowledge, capabilities and constraints. Actions result from a complicated mix of beliefs, goals and values.

Now an interesting question is: can it be rational to be irrational? Let me put it another way: Can one rationally choose to have irrational beliefs? This is not possible for someone whose primary goal is to know the truth, and for most other cases, too, false beliefs lead to suboptimal choices and hence it is much better to have rational beliefs. But here is an example where I think irrational beliefs can lead to a better outcome and hence would be rational to hold. One can choose to believe with certainty that one's team will win the competition even though it is predicted to be an even match. Here the irrational belief in winning can help inspire one to play better and increase the chance of winning, and hence better achieves one's goal to win than would a purely factual analysis.

Now what about faith; is it rational or irrational? The first problem is that faith is a nebulous term with many meanings. Here I will consider a couple aspects of faith and their potential for being rational. Sometimes faith is considered an action. One might choose to follow Christ, or follow the church teachings. Is this rational? It depends what one's goal is in doing this. Some reasons might be: to escape persecution, to live a better or happier life, to get to heaven and avoid hell. If having faith best achieves these goals, then it is rational, if not then it is irrational (to some level).

Another aspect of faith is belief. Are the beliefs involved in faith rational in that they are most likely true given the evidence? First it is clear that the evidences for the chief faith claims are weak. This I conclude for a number of reasons including: (1) if the evidences were strong it would not be called faith (2) in general the claims aren't scientifically testable and so lack the type of evidence used by science, (3) the evidences are strongly disputed by many people, and (4) because I have looked at many of the evidences myself and concluded they are weak. However a common factor for many faiths is that, despite the evidences for their chief claims being weak, their followers are encouraged to be certain that their beliefs are true and act as if there were no chance that they could be mistaken. A host of techniques are used to build faith including encouraging active involvement in worship and prayer and bible reading and at the same time warning of the dangers of doubt and falling away. These emotional actions may sway people, but the problem is that the raw evidences are rarely critically examined and the claims evaluated on these. And having certainty despite weak evidence is a clear case of irrational belief. Hence this type of faith is irrational.

I have concluded that a truth seeker ought to seek evidences for claims and rationally assess their truth. Also, in so far as faith fosters irrational beliefs and unsupported absolute certainty, a truth seeker will be going astray by holding onto it. Faith beliefs are for those seeking other goals besides truth such as assurance and comfort. But there remain rational reasons for faith actions, such as following Christ's teachings to be a better person.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Losing My Faith

As long as I can remember, I have wanted to understand how the world around me works. My faith was an important part of that; it was not just for my comfort or pleasure (although it brought these), but more importantly it enabled me to understand the unseen parts of this world and the next. The Bible revealed much that I could not obtain elsewhere. I believed the Christian message about my sin, God's forgiveness and gaining salvation through Jesus. I read my Bible daily, went to church and fellowship and small-group meetings. I was strongly involved in evangelism and sought to bring my friends and others into a right understanding of God and the world and their need for forgiveness so they could gain salvation too.

There were two significant events and a few lines of thought that lead to a crumbling of this faith. The first event was a discussion over dinner with two people I had met from the International Church of Christ: a sect of Christianity that thinks it is the true church. We were discussing our faiths. Tim, the more experienced of the two, was a strong believer and active in his church and spreading the faith. There was a lot I had in common with him, and to some extent I saw myself in him. But we had some disagreements. He took some passages in the New Testament about making disciples as implying we had to be actively evangelizing every day, otherwise our faith was void. We discussed it in length and I tried to show Tim that his belief was ludicrous. But he was absolutely convinced that his interpretation was correct and that those of us who disagreed were wrong and going to hell. And that is how our discussion ended, with no progress. As I thought back over our discussion I was amazed that someone who seemed so reasonable and strong in faith was so confident in a belief that was so obviously false. The disturbing question it raised for me was this: might I be like Tim, confident in beliefs that if I were more objective I would see were clearly false? I concluded that confidence in a belief is not good evidence that it is true. Rather such confidence, where evidence is weak such as in spiritual things and knowing God's will and as often showed by Christian leaders, is most likely a mask for ignorance.

The second event was actually a semester long course on creation and evolution that I taught to the youth at a Southern Baptist church I attended. I wanted it to be as fair a presentation of all the evidence and views involved, so I did a lot of research into the creation-evolution debate. Whether evolution is true or not, I didn’t know. What surprised me, though, were the arguments used by Christian organizations to counter evolution. Arguments like: the decay of the earth’s magnetic field indicates that the earth can’t be older than 10 thousand years old. This and a number of the other arguments (which I had learned when I was young) had long since been shown to be false, and yet they were still being printed without disclaimers and included in curricula for students. How could Christians, who were claiming to be spreading the truth, be using falsehoods to achieve this goal? Perhaps what was more important than truth of the message, was simply convincing people of the message. This, of course, is not restricted to the creation-evolution debate. There are many beliefs Christians seek to convince others of; but are Christians scrupulous to use only truthful arguments for these? I began to wonder if that were so. As I thought back over various evangelism efforts I was familiar with, I realized indeed making converts was the goal, and the truth of the message or the arguments did not matter. Even the Biblical authors are guilty of this. There are numerous times in the New Testament where anyone who disagrees with and disbelieves the author is labeled an evildoer and described in horrible language (for example Romans 1:18-32). Clearly there are many morally good unbelievers who reject the gospel message (I'm not saying they are perfect), but it is convenient and rhetorically powerful to ignore this fact. This is another example of truth being discarded for the sake of making converts. Should I really have faith in a message that is so casual about truth?

Ask a Christian why he believes, and he will have a reason, especially if he is involved in evangelism. But are these reasons for faith really reasons for the truth of the belief? Of course I can’t evaluate all the reasons here, but the surprising thing is that most of the reasons most people give aren’t actually reasons for the truth of the message. For example, people believe because they were healed from something when they prayed, or because faith gives them great joy and hope and peace, or because they at last feel forgiveness, or because they want to go to heaven in the afterlife, and so forth. But none of these speak to the truth of the belief. One can be miraculously healed without the gospel message being true (see my post: What do miracles prove?), one can gain great joy, hope, peace and forgiveness simply through having a belief, without the belief being true, and one can be confident that one is going to heaven without that being true. What I found as I thought more carefully, listen to sermons, read apologetics books and read the arguments in the Bible, was that despite finding many “reasons” for faith, there are very few reasons or evidence for the truth of the gospel message. But I only want to believe a message if it is true.

My last line of reasoning is probably the most important for me, and one that I have considered on and off for a number of years. Christianity depends on divine authority for its message which it proclaims with with no uncertainty. The natural question this poses is: How can one know if a message is from God? The common answer is: Find it in the Bible. But that just pushes the question back one step: How do we know the Bible is a divine message to us? That’s a hard question, and it compels a similarly difficult question: How did the original writers or prophets know that their message was from God? Say one of the prophets heard a voice; How is he to know if it is from God? Or maybe he saw an angel; Does that mean that what he heard was from God? Who knows what spiritual things exist outside our experience; if one of them appears and claims to be from God, why should we believe it? How can one we sure that it is speaking the truth or that it is trying to deceive the prophet? (The simple tests sometimes proposed assume these creatures are idiots -- one must assume they are at least as smart and knowledgeable as any human and so could easily deceive any human.) In addition, how can anyone who hears the prophet know that he got his message from God? One might say, well if he does signs and wonders then one should believe. But if there are powers out there, then it could be any power doing the signs and wonders. Another answer is: One knows through spiritual insight. That is to say, one feels it is from God so it is from God, or equivalently one feels it is true so it is true. That is a statement of ultimate subjectivity and not surprisingly there is a plethora of contradictory feelings as to what is from God. Luckily the scientific approach has moved us beyond that dead end of pure subjectivity. Another answer is: Listen to what Jesus said. But if Jesus was a human, he would have similar difficulties as we in determining what the divine message was – just like we can’t know for sure, he wouldn’t know for sure. Doing great works and rising from the dead aren’t a demonstration that he was right in his message. So we are stuck, unable to be sure of anything about the spiritual world that lies outside our realm of experience. Nevertheless there are religions that claim to know all about the spiritual world without a shadow of a doubt. It seems clear to me that there is a lot of bluffing and deception going on.

The conclusion that I have drawn is that while Christianity claims to speak the truth with divine inspiration, the evidence for this is completely lacking. None of the reasons or evidences I have seen proposed actually justify it. Moreover, the confidence in which the message is stated actually counts against its likelihood, since the speakers refuse to accept the inherent uncertainty in any such pronouncement. Indeed there is plenty of evidence of Christianity from the begining being more concerned about making and keeping converts than preserving the truth. My goal is to find the truth, and if I am to be honest in that search I have to move on from my faith in infallible claims of divine pronouncements.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Choosing Hell

When confronted with the problem of why a loving God would send people to eternal torture in hell, some (perhaps the more squeamish) Christians who want to believe in both hell and God's love have a way out. Here it is. People themselves choose where they want to go. Either they choose to be with God or to reject God. If they choose to love God, then they get to be with him in heaven. If they reject God, then he withdraws himself from them including all that he is such as love, goodness, peace etc. What is left is hell, and so they are getting what they chose. Who would say that it is unfair when someone hates all things good, that these should be taken away from him?

Here's the problem with this reasoning. It assumes that loving the Christian-defined God is the same as loving all things good. But surely it is possible for someone to pursue truth, goodness, humility, caring, love of others, and the rest of the virtues, but without believing in the Christian God. Moreover, that person could have carefully considered all the evidence, and honestly concluded that the supernatural claims of the Christian revelation are false. It would actually be dishonest for him to believe, when he sees the sum of evidence pointing against belief. Or perhaps that person looked carefully at the actions of the Christian God including his ordering the slaughter of the Cananite children and his bloody masacres in the book of Revelation and concluded the Christian God is not good or caring towards the majority of humans (see: Is God Good?). Who would blame him for not choosing to love and worship the Christian God? But has he chosen heaven or hell? Christian dogma would have him going to hell, and yet he is much closer to knowing goodness than many Christians.

If choosing to think for oneself and to search for and follow the evidence wherever it leads is equivalent to choosing hell, what choice do I have? If I am to be honest in my pursuit of truth I'll have to risk it.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Doctrine as Fact?

I find it curious that many Christians respond to my questions about faith by informing me of Christian doctrines and stating them as fact. For example, saying "God loves you", or "God sent his son to die for your sins," and so on. But the question I have is not what Christian doctrines are, I know those better than most, but whether or not they are true.

So for example, I want to know: Does God actually love everyone? Just stating the doctrine that he does is not an answer, since how do you know that doctrine is true? Quoting a verse from the Bible ("For God so loved the world...") is a better start, but not a full answer either. There are two responses that still need to be addressed. First, is that statement compatible with other evidence we have both in the Bible and elsewhere? It is not hard to find some strong evidence against this in the Bible itself. God must have hated the Canaanites and their children as he ordered their massacre a number of times (see my post: Is God Good?). Can it be loving to take away everything someone has and then kill him, even if afterwards you might make it up to him in the afterlife? Surely that is not love. Then there is plenty of pointless suffering the the world that God could easily prevent if he really loved people (although this could lead to a long discussion).

The second response to the quote from the Bible that God loves people, is how did the author of the text know that and could he be mistaken? The author is stating his belief or opinion. Maybe he is wrong? To convince us he needs to argue his case and show us evidence. One reply to this is to say: No, it is God speaking authoritatively through the Biblical author and so he can't be wrong. But how do we know that? Because it is another Christian doctrine? That's not good enough as it needs stand on its own merits and evidence. Another reply is to say that the Gospel writer does give us evidence that God loves us: God sent Jesus to die for our sins and save us. That is progress, as now evidence is being considered rather than a doctrine being assumed. But how strong is the evidence? What is God saving us from? Presumeably from the punishment he has in store for us, but if he really loved us he could simply forgive us (see my post: God wants a relationship with you). Or maybe the love was expressed by a willing loss: a father losing his son to death is a terrible loss, and God willingly suffered a similar loss. But did he? Actually he got his son right back three days after he died. So what is the loss? The analogy breaks down here. Or maybe the love was Jesus' willingness to suffer for us. But consider an infinite being taking on a body for 30 years and suffering badly for a couple days at the end. That suffering is not much compared to the other suffering we see in the world. Many others were crucified, and many others suffered worse and longer drawn out tortures and death. That does not seem to be much of a sacrifice for an infinite being. So the evidence for love is kind of weak. Moreover, if God put us in this sinful world and in hopelessly sinful bodies, then surely he has a responsibility to help us get out of our fix?

My point is that I don't want to simply hear doctrines stated as if they were self-evidently true. Ask yourself, is it really true? Why do you believe it? What is the evidence on which you base your belief? (And authority is not evidence.) Does the evidence have holes or contradictions? Is there counter evidence? Also look out for self deception: are you believing it just because you want to or it makes you feel good or gives you hope?

Another response I hear is: "God's knowledge is higher than ours; we can't understand stand his love now, but we will after we die". But what I am trying to determine is if those claims about God are accurate or not. Just accepting them is an abdication of one's intelligence. Surely the key value of our intelligence is in guiding what we believe. If something may or may not be true, then before believing it one should at least make sure that it does not contain self-contradictions, and be aware of what evidence there is for and against it, and then make reasoned a choice to believe or not. Say I told you "Stalin really loved his people, we just can't understand his love", I think you would not suspend your judgement in rejecting that even though you can't undetstand Stalin's mind or fathom the reasons for all his actions. So our decisions of what to believe won't be perfect, but nevertheless we have no choice but to make judgements based on the limited information we have and our assessment of it.

We are stuck here on this planet with a host of religious and faith claims presented to us. We have to decide what to believe. Simply accepting doctrines will get us nowhere; which ones ought we to accept? If we arbitrarily choose some, then there is a very high chance we are falling into error. Rather, let's be guided by the evidence we can find and by our analysis of it.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Evolution of my Thoughts on Evolution

The creation / evolution debate is alive and well in the United States. My experience of it is illustrative of the current issues, so let me recount it.

I grew up in a protestant evangelical Christian household. My parents disliked evolution saying things like Darwin invented it to avoid the moral requirements of a creator. I had access to plenty of creation science literature which was filled with "evidence" against an old earth and evolution. When I started college I recall that my roommate asked me if I believed in a literal 7-day creation, and I said I did. During university days I learned some about cosmology and the Big Bang theory, and so I started seeking interpretations of the creation story which were compatible with an old Universe -- such as perhaps the days of creation were long periods of time. I still didn't consider evolution of humans as compatible with my faith.

The first time I really worked through the issues was when I taught a one-semester course on evolution and creation to the teenager class at the church I went to. For that I did a lot of reading on the creation/evolution debate and I sought to present both sides of the argument. In addition to library material, I sent off for materials from the Institute for Creation Research. My findings are summarized below:
  • Evolution is not a finished theory yet; there are still plenty of holes and things are are not explained yet. But contrary to various creation science claims, that does not mean it is false, just incomplete.
  • The evidence for an old earth (~4 billion years old) is overwhelming. Claiming that it is only 6000 years old is like claiming that the sun revolves around the earth. How anyone who looks at the evidence can deny an old earth and actually teach their children that is beyond me.
  • What surprised me most was that creationists continued to use arguments against and old earth and against evolution that were known to be false. (Things like extrapolating the recent decay of the earth's magnetic field backwards and concluding that the earth can be at most 10,000 years old -- ignoring the fact that now there is plenty of evidence of the earth's magentic field flipping polarity multiple times). I was shocked that Christians who professed to be seeking the truth, and were commanded not to lie, would be so misleading and deceitful to children. Their arguments against evolution are filled with a multitude of misrepresentations. I suppose what matters to them is the end-product: that people's belief in the Bible is strengthened, even if it takes untruths to accomplish this.
Since that time I have continued to consider the evidence for evolution. The more I read, the stronger the case becomes that all of life is decended from a common ancestor. In particular the genetic evidence for this seems compelling.

So if the case for evolution is so strong, why are Christians (especially evangelical ones) so reluctant to accept it? Here are the reasons I see:
  • There is a strong focus on the Bible as the ultimate authority for one's faith. The bible is what sets evangelical Christian beliefs apart from other beliefs. This entails taking it as literally as possible, otherwise one can take all sorts of liberties with the text. For example, if Adam and Eve aren't our literal ancestors as Paul thought, then maybe his condemnation of homosexual activity is also mistaken. Without a strong literal interpretation it is much harder to split the world into good and bad, black and white.
  • Some basic theological teachings depend on a literal Adam and Eve as our ancestors. In particular the doctrine that Paul taught that sin entered the world through Adam's disobedience and is inherited by us. Then Jesus is the second Adam who brings forgiveness of our sins through his death and resurrection. If Adam wasn't a literal person or our literal ancestor (as evolution implies), then Paul was mistaken, and perhaps he was also mistaken about Jesus having a literal resurrection? If there isn't original sin, maybe people of other faiths aren't going to hell, and maybe Christians aren't going to heaven? A host of difficult questions ensues, and there isn't an unambiguous authority to answer them. Perhaps that is why the Catholic church isn't so worried about evolution, because it still maintains that the church has this unambiguous authority on matters of faith.
  • Evolution raises questions about what makes humans and animals different. In particular it casts doubt on humans have a non-physical spirit or soul that lasts after they die. This brings into doubt basic Christian doctrines on an afterlife.
So for Christians and the church what seems to matter most is authority, as this is crucial to maintaining their faith and its distinction from other faiths. For me what matters most is truth. I am not willing to sacrifice truth for authority or even for faith. For protestants who look to the Bible as the basis of their faith, accepting evolution entails developing a much more liberal faith. What exactly this is faith is I'm not sure, and I would like to consider this more.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Worship only God

The Bible demands that we worship God, and only God. The first and second commandments are:
  • You shall have no other gods before me.
  • You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Worshiping other gods is punishable by death. The kings who killed prophets of other gods are lauded for their zeal for the Lord. God punished by death those who failed to consult him or properly respect him.

Say it is true; God is the only one worthy of our worship and those who worship other gods are foolish. Does that mean it is right for God to demand our worship on pain of death? If someone foolishly worships a fake god, is that threatening to God? Why can't he just laugh at that man's foolishness? If someone wants to choose a different god, why not just let him? My only explanation for this defensiveness on God's part is that he feels threatened by people following other gods. But it is kind of surprising that an infinite God would feel threatened by mere mortals. That is the kind of behavior Imight expect from an autocrat fearful of possible usurpers.

I'm not sure what to conclude. If indeed God is not satisfied unless everyone worships him and he punishes those who don't, then the Christian God must be insecure and vindictive. How can I honestly worship someone like that?