Problem with faith, in a nutshell

So, here's my problem with faith, in a nutshell. There is absolutely no means for validating a supernatural (hence why we call it faith). All we have access to is material. From all that we can determine, our feelings, choices, and beliefs all have a natural, material basis.

If we presume a supernatural exists that acts on our natural world, then this supernatural power must act on nature through some sort of natural<->supernatural communication channel. The problem with such a communication channel is that there is absolutely no way to validate the authenticity and proper translation of the messages/events. Again, this is a call to faith because the identities, actions, interpretations, and motives of the supernatural powers cannot be known. That is, there is no way to determine if the natural message to the supernatural has been properly delivered and interpreted, nor can we have any validation of if, when, why, or what supernatural-to-natural messages there are. Therefore, miracles (supernatural acts on the natural) either don't happen or if they do, we have no possible way of making sense of the event.

Therefore, since all we have access to is the material, then a belief in God will only raise more questions than it can ever possibly answer. Furthermore, such superstition will only serve to cloud ultimate, truthful discovery.

Why the need for a vulnerable God?

The Christmas season is a bit peculiar for atheists, especially de-converted ones like me. Choirs and the songs they sing are especially poignant. "O Holy Night" is beautiful and "Silent Night" is so wondrously simple. However, the religious pomp is no longer part of my life.

When I recollect the nativity story, it begins with a weary Mary who has traveled so far to Bethlehem, and a penniless Joseph who is panicking to get his wife somewhere where she can deliver a baby. There is no hospital, home, or quarters available, just a barn. Then there He is. Between runs from Herod and the life that is to follow, there is this moment where all has stopped and the universe looks on at God incarnate, this tiny, needy baby on a bed of straw. While "Hallelujah's" are part of the scene, it's really overwhelming peace that is iconized in the nativity.

Christianity is strong on symbols and the two biggies are the cross and the nativity. The cross is violent and the nativity is peace, but both exhibit a vulnerable God. It is this God-made-feebly-human characteristic that ironically makes the Christian God so attractive and able to yield strong convictions in followers. No wonder the broken hearted, lonely, and strung out reach out to Jesus. But what about us suburban upper middle-class kids? What is it really about the vulnerable-God story that hooks so many and can even make a formerly religious, now anti-religious atheist like me nostalgic?

Beyond the Firmament - Book Review

My first essay to read in College English was How to Read a Book similar to this one. The essay implored readers to really be active about the books they read --- writing comments and questions directly on the pages, making notes in agreement or disagreement, and re-read. I’ve never done that...until I read Gordon J. Glover’s Beyond the Firmament. The reason I scribbled so much is because I was able to treat the book like a conversation as if I knew the author and could go point by point and say where I agreed and disagreed. Perhaps not having the ear of the author kept me from doodling in books before. However, in this case I do have the ear of the author as he frequently comments on this blog and I can also converse with him on his blog.

As demonstrated on this blog and in his book, Gordon has a passion for science and God. He and I have a similar history of belief in creationism and Christian upbringing. In many instances through the book, I found myself nodding at the similar experiences and thoughts we’ve shared in our journeys. For example, Gordon asks, “No matter what “side” you find yourself on at the end of the day, there will be consequences. The question you need to ask yourself is this: what are the consequences of your beliefs and can you live with them?” Compare this to my Faith in... and Flight of the bumblebee posts.

When I accepted evolution, I turned atheist. When Gordon accepted evolution, he did not. What was the difference? Like all of us, we have a model of how the world (with or without God) works. With this model, we interact with the world and receive more information. Then we repeat, modifying our model, then getting more information, etc. When Gordon realized that evolution, as far as anybody can tell, is true, he dug deep. Instead of trying to dispute the evidence like many Christians do (well, okay, he tried for a bit and realized that was a dead end), he looked at how Christianity keeps screwing up with science --- how they keep losing the forest for the trees as our egocentricities get pummeled by science.

I appreciated Gordon’s efforts to keep the scientific and religious view separate. The term "Theistic Evolution" is an oxymoron. Supernatural beliefs should not guide evolutionary science. A person can simply be a theist and an evolutionist.

While I’m certainly not Gordon’s target audience, reading the book helped me clarify my own stance and begin to understand people who believe in both evolution and theism. It solidified my self perception that I am a materialist. I therefore took several issues with his casting of materialism as empty, meaningless, having no place in philosophy, and that the universe requires God’s sustenance. It also made me realize us materialists can have our cake and eat it too. Meaning must have a physical basis so philosophy and the religion-of-materialism can coexist with material science. Yes, that may corrupt material science or promote strange, detrimental philosophies, but they are not incompatible with natural sciences like philosophies that incorporate a supernatural. And why not merrily choose to have material science and materialist philosophies coexist? All we have to work with is what we know about the material world! (Other posts to follow on these issues).

So what are we to make of the Genesis account? Gordon argues that the creation story presented in Genesis was for the Hebrews who understood nature in terms of the creation myths of their near eastern contemporaries, not so much saying that God spoke this, that, and the other into existence and performed the first surgery to get a rib from Adam to create Eve, but that the simple message of creation was that God was behind it all --- not several gods, but just the one singular God to be worshipped. In this way, the Bible was culturally relevant at the time, but the timeless message remains intact keeping the Bible inerrant. Convenient.

Gordon provides the fundamentals of logic, cosmology, physics, geology, and evolution through accessible language, humor, and metaphor. He gently, clearly, and empathetically implores Christians to face the music with the facts presented in the natural sciences. This is a tall order. It’s not easy to get somebody to up-end their model of their world and the way their God operates. The reader is left with the realization that they have tough decisions to make, an understanding of what doesn’t work in responding to scientific knowledge, and a sympathetic author, but that’s it. In the end, the reader is not given any positive options other than to avoid evil materialism. There is no inkling of why God uses evolution and what that could possibly mean in terms of "God’s image", salvation, and God’s relationship to man. Gordon simply acknowledges that evolution raises extremely difficult questions for the theist, but if we can accept the three-in-one God, a virgin birth, and resurrection, then we should be able to simply accept evolution as God’s mode of creation, leaving his sovereignty intact.

I guess the difference between Gordon and me is that my faith and model of the world were not so independent. I could never (and still can’t) build a God that makes sense when evolution is part of the mix, but materialism gives it to me. Christians’ accepting of evolution should cause a lot of discussion to be dealt with immediately and without reverting to the "all will be revealed someday" excuse for not getting to the meat of tough issues. Hopefully that’s coming in the next book!

The name of God

I believe in God, Her name is Mother Nature.

Flip a coin


Is there randomness in nature?

Perform this simple experiment. Flip a coin. Will the result be heads or tails? Who knows? The result is entirely random, right?

No. You placed the coin on your thumb with the head or tail face showing. The flick of your thumb caused the coin to twirl at a set rate and fly through the air at a particular arc. The wind was just so and its bombardment with airborne particles just so that it landed on the ground on a particular edge. The velocity from the fall caused it to roll for a bit before winding down to reveal the face that will always provide these same exact results given all of the same physical conditions should you repeat this experiment forever.

So, here’s the deal. Either the universe is just an unfolding from the Big Bang (or the moment of creation) with some guises of randomness like our coin-flipping example, or randomness must be built into the system.

If randomness is not built into the system, then if a particular god knows and controls everything, then theists would have to admit their god and universe was predeterminist. For Christians, this is Calvinism. Calvinists ameliorate discomfort of living in a predetermined universe by simply presuming that they are part of the group that is saved. Now one can ask, “If everything is predetermined, what does it matter if I believe in God and follow him or not?” Well, basically, if you continue to serve God, you continue to assure yourself that you are part of the saved group.

But can’t God use randomness? Well, it depends on your theology. If God is omniscient and all powerful, no. If God knows everything, then there is no randomness. If God employs randomness, then he is not in control and is not all powerful.

For the atheist, these are much more mute points and academic. For all intents and purposes, we humans have evolved and interpret life as if it contained randomness. Consider any coin toss. We are not aware of the predetermined outcome set by the thumb flick and all the physical factors acting on the coin. We operate as if randomness existed even if it doesn’t. I don’t see how a theist can operate that way.

Now, I’d like to discuss the Calvinism debate through the lens of quantum physics, but I’d also like to discuss this question: Can evolution and meaning occur without randomness?

Why choose this book? Review

Read Montague's Why choose this book? combines topics such as computational neuroscience, reinforcement learning, mind/brain, brain imaging, physics, evolution, perception, and a range of behaviors including addiction, trust, and regret to begin to describe how organisms assign value to available choices and make decisions. For it’s breadth, it is a very accessible read. I found what took me time getting through the book was continually pausing to consider the implications of what was just presented. He substantiates his writing with many references for further study.

Montague makes a materialist statement on page 222: “...But the unsettling point, and perhaps the one not to write home about, derives from the unnerving message about meaning at the heart of my book: All meaning is physical.” He also presents Stephen Hawking’s quote from A Brief History of Time: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Montague never answers this question, but argues that for the brain to have evolved to become a valuation machine, then it must be composed of (and have a history of) submachines which also encode value.

He does not touch on spirituality or mention God, but by this assessment, a theist could say that “God is in the details” and I am curious to hear what the theists say about this statement. Can it lead to anything other than predetermined Calvinism? Alternatively, the concept of “value” for the atheist materialist may not be so difficult from an evolutionary perspective when value is simply a measure of success of the survivors surviving. The difficulty for the materialist to provide evidence against God is that documenting all the values that go into a decision from the sub-atomic to brain level is impossible. Oh well, it still makes for interesting modeling work and conversation!

If I were God: Alternative flood plan


When asking "Will my dog go to heaven?", Russ assured me that God had Noah save two of every creature, therefore animals were important to God and worthy of salvation. He then brought up the subject of all the kids and pre-born children living inside the wombs of their wicked mothers who were drowned at the flood.

Tsunamis and other natural events kill innocents. Many Christians do not see these as acts of God, per se. A lot of natural phenomenon are just operating, well, naturally, in this world created by God and corrupted by evil. Whatever.

This does not apply with Noah's flood, however. That was God deliberately stepping in and cleaning up the riff raff, killing unborn children and wiping out all the other animals in the process. Perhaps my dog won't be saved if God was so callous with the thousands of other dogs that were not selected to be on Noah's boat....

Now, a seemingly more fair obliteration would have been to have the flood waters put Noah and family on one continent and all evil-doers on another. Then, through natural means also brought on by their own sinfulness, all the evil-doers would become sterile and die off. Same effect, but no terrified drowning. Anyway, that's what I'd do as a God of love. It would also help my people's case for fighting Darwinists later from having to explain diversification of life forms in just 4000 years, but that's just me.

Will my dog go to heaven?

Christianity requires that to be saved, one must accept Jesus as his/her saviour.

In my upbringing, the salvation of those who never heard the word of Christ such as aborted fetuses, people born before Jesus’ time, and remote tribes; or individuals mentally incapable of making such a commitment were/will be judged differently. Fine. All will be revealed, right? But what about animals?

Other animals have thinking abilities and can make choices, though not nearly as adequately as we humans. Still, we speak of them as having personalities and I would say they have souls. (See In dog's image for more details).

Isaiah 11:6-9 indicate that animals will be in heaven. (See this heavenly picture). Perhaps those verses are metaphorical. Still, I want to know, will my dog go to heaven?

That is, does he have an eternal soul? If he does, what happens to that soul when he dies? If he goes to heaven, what will be the form of his spirit? What will be the form of mine? Will our spirits be equal in terms of what we continue to experience and learn? If he has been deemed to have chased too many cats and scared away too many proselytizers at my door that could have otherwise saved me, will he go to hell? Will he be in limbo?

Are these not ridiculous questions?

Yes and no. I suppose it depends on who you ask. What we are really asking is what it means to be alive and human and how that is different from the rest of the natural and living world. To atheists these are ridiculous questions. When my dog dies, just like it was before he was born, his spirit will cease to exist. It's the way it is with all of us. Fine. Next topic.

All theologies are constructed from perceptions of the natural and living world. Unsurprisingly, many theologies are human-centric. Judeo-Christian theologies are built around the human condition, first delineating what it means to be alive and human apart from the rest of the natural and living world and from there, God’s role toward humanity and the remainder of the living and natural world can also be defined.

Well, that’s the goal anyway. Given other living creatures, is there a theology out there that is justifiable in any way?

Let’s consider the question of other animals’ salvation. Let’s say that my dog goes to heaven and that I don’t. How is that in any way fair? I’d have been much better off being a dog or to have never existed. Let’s say he goes to hell. How is that in any way fair to him? What did he do wrong? Let’s say he just stays in limbo. You might as well send him to hell unless there are frisbees in limbo. Oh, but wait, then that would be heaven.

You can probably also see where this slippery slope is leading. If my dog has an eternal soul, then so do other critters including rats, snakes, bugs, and even each of the trillion E-coli bacterium that leave my gut and get flushed down the toilet every day. Think of the massive genocide I’m performing with each SWOOSH! The way out of this conundrum is to simply believe that my dog’s soul is not eternal.

Okay, so let’s just say that when he’s gone he’s gone. That also opens up a can of worms. First of all, we can ask “Why is he even here?” What’s the meaning of life for my dog? Why would God create him for some blip in time and then let him disappear? Is it to test me in some way? Is he just a gift from God? I suppose Genesis 1:26 can be interpreted that way, but it still seems pretty unfair. A little too human-centric for my tastes, literally, if animals are also here so that we can eat them as promoted in this link by Answers in Genesis.

Now, the “E” word, evolution, does not muck up this muddiness really any further. There was a moment when pre-humans transcended from having a temporal soul to an eternal soul. If you want to believe in a literal, hand-crafted-from-dirt Adam and Eve, it’s this same moment that discriminates us from the other animals. What is peculiar is that it seems that the moment we realized our mortality is the same moment we became immortal. It was at this moment that we also realized there was a God that we chose evil which severed the relationship. Hence, the need for salvation.

Huh? Theists, help me out here.

Accepting faith: A theory on why many believe in Jesus (and not in Leprechauns)

I've taken the definition of faith from Wiktionary as "Mental acceptance of and confidence in a claim as truth without proof supporting the claim." Faith should therefore come with a lot of cognitive dissonance. However, in the lives of believers, this faith is what they hold onto when the pieces don't fit. It's completely counterintuitive and frustratingly irrational to non-believers.

Our vocal atheist commentor, Psiloiordinary, keeps begging the theists to explain what on earth is wrong with Leprechaunism. If you believe in Leprechauns and spot one, just keep your eye on him and let him lead you to his pot of gold. Easy peasy. Why not have faith in Leprechauns?

Psiloiordinary, like most atheists, including myself with examples such as my Fire-breathing gods post, have attempted to use the rational argument for other gods to challenge the theists. The Richard Dawkins quote, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." (From the essay, "The Great Convergence" p. 150, of the book "The Devil's Chaplain") whimsically tries to do the same thing. However, to the Christian, we're talking apples and oranges with these other religions.

Here's what Christianity says, "You are alive and I am the God of Life (Jeremiah 1:5). I made the world (Genesis 1:1). All that you see is an expression of Me. I Am (Exodus 3:13-15). Believe this and have eternal life, but expect to be persecuted for your beliefs (Matthew 5). Ah, but don't worry, those that persecute you will get theirs in the end (Deuteronomy 30:1-10, Matthew 25:46, etc.). Keep believing and you'll get the prize (Revelation 22:12-14)."

What do we all want? We want to live. We want love. We want justice. We want to know why things are the way they are. Leprechaunism potentially gets you a nice pot o' gold, but you know that even if you spot that little green dwarf, he's going to try and dupe you.

On the other hand, Christianity purports explanations for the origin of life, a purpose for one's life, and even an eternal life. It says God is love and proclaims that we can love more purely as believers. It says justice will be served. It says that behind life's wonderful, mundane, random, and terrible things, there is a God who will reveal all things in time. The only catch is that we have to have faith, but with all of these proclamations, and with the threats if we don't have faith, is believing really that hard?

Christianity has enough answers embedded in it while promising what we want to hear. Am I alive? Check. Is the world too big for my head to deal with so I can deduce that there is a God? Check. Do I feel love? Check. Did that non-Christian (I know by the Darwin Fish on his car) just cut me off? Check. Such continual affirmations provide proof of God's existence and validate the chosen path. What's more, Christianity acknowledges that faith is difficult. It's like HDL fat. It may sound like a bad thing, but really you want to have it! Not only when we are told that faith is par for the course can cognitive dissonance dissipate, but there is also the prediction that one can be persecuted for these beliefs. By generally keeping things prophetic, Christianity outlines expectations so that believers can look for "signs" and find them. In this way, faith not only eliminates cognitive dissonance, but when believers imagine a life without faith, then that, ironically, provides them cognitive dissonance!

Is atheism non-belief or disbelief?

The post Fire-breathing gods has several dead-beaten horses and fuel for several posts. Here's one post from the fuel.

I gave a quote from Richard Dawkins, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." (From the essay, "The Great Convergence" p. 150, of the book "The Devil's Chaplain").

Here is a discrepancy I would like to clarify. Repeatedly, Dawkins and other atheists argue that atheism is simply non-belief. Therefore, the onus is for theists to substantiate their beliefs and atheists can just wait (assumingly forever) for this to happen. Dawkins, though, is all about "reason and science". See http://RichardDawkins.net for what Dawkins is about. Is atheism, especially the kind that Dawkins employs, casual non-belief or disbelief?

By using non-belief, one can be guarded. It's not so confrontational, but it's also a bit more secure and for such an ardent atheist like Dawkins, it's an agnostic stance. It says, "If you show me the evidence, I'll accept your beliefs". I have to believe that in Dawkins' quote, outlined above, he is asking, or assuming, that (mono)theists should make an atheistic stance about these other gods and not an agnostic stance. If they made an atheistic stance---that they really disbelieve these other proposed gods---then these theists would surely see their own errors in their own stance. However, when Dawkins and other theists use the agnostic stance that atheism is simply non-belief, in this day and age when religion is all around us, it is off the mark.

Now, of course, Richard Dawkins needs to carefully measure everything he speaks and writes and try not to preach to his choir of atheists if he really wants to convert theists or have his words twisted. He also needs to be careful to not offend theists if he really wants to convert them. I'm playing the same game without near the celebrity.

However, I will say this. Atheism, in this day and age when religion is all around us, is not simple non-belief. Ignorance is non-belief. Atheism is a conscious decision to disregard the gods and theology proposed in different religions. It's disbelief. It's making a stand and saying, "Your theistic belief system is bunk, and here is why I think so." The irony is that such a stance is the creation of another belief system which can turn itself into a religion.

Flight of the bumble bee



In my younger days, I remember hearing a sermon about the miracle of the flight of the bumble bee. The story went that according to science, the bumble bee should not be able to fly. It's body weight, flapping frequency, and wing span did not add up to an aerodynamic critter. It was physically impossible. Googling around, it sounds like this is still being preached. Obviously the bumble bee flies. Does God propel this bulbous bug from flower to flower so that gardens grow? How cute God operates to create His aesthetic!

If you look at the video, you'll see that it's the way that the bumble bee flaps its wings that it's able to generate vortex swirls to give it lift. These details were first presented in 1972 by Torkel Weis-Fogh in the paper Energetics of Hovering Flight in Hummingbirds and in Drosophila, and the implication was that several flying insects employ this flutter. Why bumble bee flight still persists as an urban legend is hard to tell, but some people like my childhood pastor seem to relish the idea of scientists not being able to solve everything.

When science cannot provide the answers, especially when scientists are baffled by what everyone can plainly see, the implication is that man's devices are puny in the grand scheme. Therefore, there must be a God behind the observation. It empowers believers to romanticize their stories and beliefs...for a moment.

But what happens when the scientist provides a natural explanation? The hand of God is no longer hand-carrying these bees from flower to flower. They're just doing what bees do to survive, unknowingly pollinating more food for themselves. As I said in my Faith in... post, you have to be prepared for the fallout if you are someday proved wrong.

Looking at our physiology, there are still thousands of basic questions scientists cannot answer. What induces a child to start breathing the second it is born? How do neurons in the embryo navigate the spaghetti of other neurons to find the appropriate target cells to form synapses with? If we're just a bunch of molecules that make up cells, what leads to these molecules feeling pleasure or pain? Science can't explain these miracles...yet.

My faith was built on the romantic notion that the complexities of life were too complicated to have evolved and required a creator. Science proved that notion wrong.

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Now, for another "Flight of the Bumble Bee" that defies science....

Fire-breathing gods


I once had the opportunity to summit the Villarica volcano in Chile and peer into its mouth. The mountain felt alive, expelling pulses of hot air like it was breathing out of its fiery gut. It evoked such mystery and splendor! Who was this massive soul who breathed fire? It was easy to understand how the Incas could build a theology around such a real, natural phenomenon operating on a much grander plane than us piddly humans. For all anybody could tell, the mountain had obviously been there forever and always would be with its searing heart.

From the post "Why does faith = redemption?", theists and atheists seem to agree that our respective belief systems are built on underlying assumptions. Given an initial framework, life becomes a cycle of world view -> behavior -> world's response -> adapting our world view -> adapting our behavior, etc. Sounds like evolution to me! It also offers a simplistic explanation for the creation of any belief system.

One of the classic Richard Dawkins quotes is, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." Why is it so easy for religious folk of a particular faith to see the splinter in the eye of other religions, but not the log in their own? (And here’s a bone for the theists) What trees are in the atheist’s eyes?

I would say that it is due to history and culture. Any belief system, even atheism, is subject to seeing what we want to see. Because assumptions are all tied together, starting with some basis, reinforcing and expanding it is rather straightforward. Opposing it takes a whole lot of work. Indeed, human nature seems to direct us to become "set in our ways". We become self-protective and defensive when we see a threat to our cultures and ideologies. The young earth creationist, for example, recognizing the threat of evolution to his assumptions is likely to turn a blind ear and give the knee-jerk response that all the information necessary to understand creation is in the Bible.

What brings us to blows or at least not to see eye to eye (with all that wood we’ve go in there!) is the subjective nature of the argument. Given the same embodiment of our opponent, the same genetic make-up, thinking ability, family, and history, would we not have the ideology and behavior of our opponent?

Hemmingway and sports

In a comment to the topic Paley's moral compass, Cliff Martin said, "Here is my challenge to you if you wish to contend that [everyone's] world-view should be driven by reason alone. I have always thought that Earnest Hemmingway showed us where that leads. Atheistic rationalism > Existentialism > Disillusionment > Despair > Suicide."

What Cliff seems to be asking is how atheists employing the rational argument can avoid being blinded by science. If everything is rationalized, how can you ever let loose? If you keep whittling it down, you find we're just a clump of molecules interacting with other molecules in the world and this thing called Life is going to end. These molecules that make up our body will not be under any transcendental control that we are able to impose on them while we're living. No more creativity. No more emotion. We'll simply rot.

I tend to error too much on rationality, trying to see all sides, that I remain frozen with inaction. Movies and jokes that I would have once found hilarious I see now as juvenile or just plain stupid.

Why do we play sports? The rationalist looks at a sport and sees people running a ball down the field and trying to keep others from doing the same. To what goal? It's nonsense and temporal. What is inside the game that transcends its futility?

What is the atheistic rationalist to do to find the world beautiful, mysterious, and enjoyable when it is temporal and seemingly futile? Is the theist too scared to confront the realization of mortality?

Why does faith = redemption?

If I am correctly interpreting my Christian commentors, their faith is a trust in God that is separate from theology. By that I mean "theology" is what someone knows about God (which is obviously subjective). On the other hand, faith is a trust that God is in control, has a plan, is living through the person, and will reveal all things (throughout eternity), when really parts of the theology appear incongruent, incompatible, or haven't yet been pieced together.

By its nature, then, faith should be uncomfortable. This cognitive dissonance pushes the theologian to question, challenge, and find out more about God. Ironically, the more the theologian pushes and seeks, the more complex the deity must become to take into account the newfound complexities of the natural world, including animal behavior. (This is not unlike the recursion of most scientific discoveries that only provoke more questions). It seems the dutiful natural scientist-theist, while making an ever-more complex image of God will perpetually require more and more faith.

For me, a young earth creationist-turned evolutionist, evolution was just too incongruent with any theology I could imagine so it broke my faith. (Perhaps baby steps could have worked, but how you do baby steps on evolution with a YEC, I don't know). Nevertheless, I have to ask, "Why faith?"

In my previous post, it was (somewhat) established that God was not necessary for morality and then my question "What good is God?" was answered as "for redemption."

Why is it that humans, the only rational animals on the planet, the ones that took of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the ones created in the omniscient God's image, what was it about that rationality that separated us from God and why is irrationality the only way to redeem that relationship?

Paley's moral compass

As a follow-up to the Ecclesiastes book review post, it seems the construct for morality for Christians (or other religions) falls into Paley's watchmaker analogy. This is heard in Christianity as "But for the grace of God, there too go I". Christianity is rife with demeaning humanity as amoral and evil with the single exception of accepting Jesus as one's savior to both forgive transgressions and begin to live a more moral life as Jesus lives through him or her.

If this is true, then the Christian who believes in evolution has drawn a dangerous line. Obviously, behavior as well as physiology is under evolutionary pressures, but the religious moralist presumes high levels of morality can only be attained via divine providence. This is a dangerous line because behavior has a natural basis. As behavioral studies begin to show more genetic, cultural, and environmental forces at play, moral codes will also start to be teased out, and the Christian evolutionist will have to continually adjust his or her concept of the natural/supernatural boundary. (Check out this site for examples of biological altruism). The young earth creationist does not have this problem. They simply consider evolution bogus.

In short, this is another form of Intelligent Design, accepting the physiological components of evolution, but disregarding the behavioral as too complex to be completely natural.

I see two alternatives. 1) God is not necessary for morality or 2) God still uses evolution as His primary tool for mucking with the natural world.

Option 1 is easily accepted by atheists, but hard to swallow for the theist because it starts to beg the question "What good is God?"

Option 2 is something that I will be addressing in future posts as I read and become more familiar with proponents of this theory, including Richard Colling's Random Designer.

Ecclesiastes book review

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. (Eccl 9:11 ESV)
Ecclesiastes is a difficult book. I found this sermon by Brian Morgan interesting. Here is a quote from it.
By stating that all of life is hebel (meaningless), Qohelet (the author) is not suggesting that all life is “meaningless or insignificant, but that everything is beyond human apprehension and comprehension.” Every time a tragedy occurs, our immediate reaction is to attach “meaning” to the event, as if we know how this finite moment in time will work out in the grand scheme of things. We have a very terrible time living in the tension of “unknowing.” We want rock bottom clarity. And when the event is extremely complex and baffling, we just babble on and on, hoping to land on some thought bordering on significance. But Qohelet explains that when we insist on multiplying our words to bring definition to what we do not know, all we succeed in doing is creating more “smoke” (hebel - “vanity,” “a puff of wind”), adding more contradiction and confusion. “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (6:11 NIV).
In summary, Ecclesiastes seems to state that fortuitous things and shit just happen. We are supposed to plug on, sowing seeds and reaping at appropriate times, but in the end, earthly endeavors don't amount to much. What is important is to simply obey God's commandments and trust that all will be revealed someday.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:13-14 ESV)
In the end, Ecclesiastes poetically implores us to have blind faith admitting that on the surface of it, life seems pretty random but if we continue to have faith, we will eventually attain reward of an eternal life with meaning. It pushes fear of God's judgment should we not have blind faith. The beautiful writing of Ecclesiastes sugar coats this bitter pill.

Instead, I'll accept the Darwinian view that yes, life is random. Rewards (offspring) do not always go to the swiftest because being swift might come at other expenses (like not being charming or stupid -- either way, the result is not getting the babes). But bad things also happen to good people. It's called dumb luck, and that happens too. I don't have to trust that all will be revealed someday when my little human mind has had a few million years of hand-held tutoring by the Creator to finally be capable of understanding the answer to my question "What the fuck?"

First benefit of atheism

If there is no supernatural God, then there is no supernatural devil either! No devil, no hell!

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_ZJDTR2rU8iA/RvCzeaHl4pI/AAAAAAAAAAY/mB02g1lQoOM/s320/flaminghead.gif

In dog's image

I have a dog who loves life. This was not always the case. He almost seemed wild when my wife and I picked him up from the pound. He abhorred any transition. He spooked easily and did not trust me at all. In fact he bit me within the first hour of having him when he felt threatened by me even though all I was trying to do was get him inside the house from the blizzard outside.

Eventually, my dog grew to trust me. Now he gets bright-eyed when I enter the room and he seeks my attention. He loves going to the park and fetching his Frisbee, making an extra effort to catch it in the air. When he is not at the park, he gets board. When strangers come to the door he barks to protect me. If I scold him, he feels remorseful, fearful, or guilty – whichever it is, he knows he has done something that I am not happy about. He apparently knows what might upset me because if I come home and he is acting somber or nervous, I am sure to find the trash has been gone through.

My dog seems pretty smart as dogs go, too. He can differentiate between his toys if I tell him to get his Frisbee vs. a particular stuffed toy, tennis ball, or stick. If I tell him to find his Frisbee, he seems to remember where he placed it. If I tell him a new toy is for the kids, he leaves it alone, but if I say it is for him, he’s all over it.

He shows he can recognize people as well. He only barks at strangers. He responds to the basic commands of “sit”, “heal”, “down”, “come”, “stay”, etc.

My dog likes to socialize as well. He likes to be around other dogs and play with them. Sometimes he is rather bossy with other dogs in order to establish a top-dog status right off the bat. If only people are around in the house, he will hang close to us.

My dog’s physiology is rather familiar. Like nearly all animals with a vertebra including reptiles, horses, whales, birds, humans, and bats, his skeletal forelimbs have a humerus followed by a radius and ulna leading to the carpals, metacarpals, and (typically) five phalanges. Like all mammals including the giraffe, he has seven cervical vertebrae in his neck. He has two hind legs descending from a pelvis. He has a heart that pumps blood. He has a liver that performs protein, carbohydrate, and fat metabolism. He has a digestive system starting with a mouth, tongue, and teeth, descending through an esophagus to a stomach and then to the digestive tract. He has two kidneys whose function is to remove toxic waste from the blood in the form of urine that gets stored in a bladder before it is expelled on a fire hydrant or car tire. He has genitals for urination and sexual reproduction. He has two lungs for breathing. If he gets cut, he bleeds. He has two eyes that even have eyelashes that differ from his regular fur. He has two ears and a nose. He also has a brain housed in his skull.

The reason my dog’s physiology is familiar is because it is like that of nearly all vertebrates and certainly like that of most mammals. Underneath all that fur is skin encapsulating the generic body plan of all vertebrates, especially mammals. This body plan goes much further than merely possessing all of these similar organs and tissues. It specifies the relative positions of them. The ears are on the side of the head. As advantageous as an eye might be to have in the back of the head or down some limb, the vertebrate’s eyes are always in the front of the head above the nose and mouth. Fingers are always at the end of the hand and not some place else. Organs and tissues are in relative position to each other. For example, the heart is encased in the rib-cage close to the lungs. Below the lungs are the liver and kidneys.

It is quite easy to imagine different, workable body plans where these same organs were simply rearranged. The skull could house the brain in the thoracic chest region and eyes could be on wrists. While this sounds monstrous, it would certainly be a valid design. The heart could easily replenish the brain with oxygen in the blood and the brain would be better protected by more tissues than simply just the cranium. Eyes on wrists could allow for a myriad of views and angles that would be advantageous for experience and survival. One such creature could simply rotate its arms in such a way as to see behind and in front at the same time and cover all sides easily.

It is also easy to imagine other vertebrate body plans with the addition of features. Extra limbs, fingers, and eyes seem rather obvious. Wings on land-crawling creatures is also easily imagined. These kinds of creatures are not seen, however. The flying horse, Pegasus, is the subject of fantasy and flying monkeys only appear in the Wizard of Oz.

My dog developed his brain, temperament, and body through his genetic makeup. He has a particular DNA makeup that is similar to many mammals, but unique enough to make him a dog. From the time he was conceived, he has had particular genes activated or deactivated. As his genes are turned on or off, his body makes proteins that culminate in making him a dog with particular markings and with his limbs and organs in their particular places. He became this way through the merging of a single sperm cell from his father and a single egg cell from his mother where he grew in her womb developing until the day he was born. He then nursed from his mother’s breast and he continued to grow and develop, like all animals, through adolescence and on into adulthood where, had he not been fixed, he could reproduce another dog with another unique set of DNA.

My physiology differs slightly from my dog’s, but with some nice advantages. I only use my hind legs for walking. This allows me to use my arms for other things while standing. My fingers and opposable thumbs are also a lot more useful than his paws for building things and typing on the computer and communicating to the world through this blog. Furthermore, I can also use my tongue for talking which he cannot do. Talking allows me to plan, design, collaborate, argue, and learn from other humans in a way my dog cannot. At best, he has various pitches of whining, barking, and growling that roughly state his interest, annoyance, boredom, hunger, or mood to me and other dogs. He can use his tail, of course, to indicate his enthusiasm and his eyes and ears might perk to show interest and excitement. These are often reflected in his posture and gait as well. While he can demonstrate these moods, he is a long shot from being able to communicate with me or other dogs in a way that results in collaborative planning and learning that I am able to do with other humans.

Yet, with all these similarities, anybody would say he has personality, dare I say “soul”?

Missing links

As I drive down the road, I have faith that the driver in the opposite lane will hold his course and pose me no threat. That's faith. I have no previous experience with him on the road. I'm just simply assuming that he knows the rules of the road, respects his life, and respects mine.

It takes faith to believe in creation or evolution. The ramifications of either decision are discussed in a previous post. The previous discussion of faith posed it as irrational. Assumptions are not necessarily irrational. While I might have faith that the driver in the other car will not do anything stupid, and while I might have faith in my car and my driving abilities to avoid disaster, it is perhaps more accurate to say that I "assume". I make such an assumption through knowledge and experience. I assume that the other driver wants to live, has passed a driver's test, has a modicum of experience on the road, and no ill will against me. With these assumptions, I forge ahead.

This is how humans live. We continually draw on our memories and assumptions, sometimes pleasantly surprised when we are not correct, and sometimes unpleasantly surprised. In either case, we alter our future assumptions and carve future responses.

So let's substitute "faith in God" or "faith in science" with "assumptions about God" and "assumptions about science".

When we talk about "assumptions about God" we can say generic things like "He has my best interest at heart" and "He has a master plan." If we talk about "assumptions about science", we have to admit scientists are not evil. They are not out to prove God does not exist. Perform this exercise. Go to Pubmed and type "[dp] 2007" for the search term. This selects biomedical articles for the year 2007. Look at the first item. Mine was "Vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) and intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) provide co-stimulation in positive selection along with survival of selected thymocytes." Look through the list and you'll get a sense about what scientists do. They deal with minutia, and they do it in a very systematic, empirical way.

Do scientists have faith? No, but they have assumptions. They assume previous results were accurate or inaccurate and they formulate hypotheses to test assumptions. That's what science is. It's not so much the acquisition of knowledge, but the challenge of assumptions.

Challenging an assumption does not have to be confrontational. The hypothesis can be set up as "Assuming X was true, then Y should follow. In this paper, we test Y...." If Y is true, then X is supported implicitly. If it is not, then X may be unsupported implicitly. The ramifications of the results are discussed in the "Discussion" section of most papers. Future research must then explain findings in terms of X and Y. This is science. Call it knowledge, but really it's the quest for a cohesive story. Certainly opinions come into play, but it is data and our interpretations of the data that really constitute the resulting knowledgebase and it is a work in progress.

The beauty about science is that it is testable. A finding can be debunked or supported as more advanced techniques to acquire and analyze data arise. Similarly, theories can be expanded or pigeon-holed. Some competing theories may coexist for some time before evidence either proves one right or can explain how they can be bridged by describing how both are correct under certain conditions.

Evolution is often criticized for its missing links, the lack of transient forms in the fossil record. (See this Scientific American article for common critiques and sensible responses).

What is uncomfortable for the Creationist is the notion that evolutionists can be comfortable without knowing everything. Indeed, there are many "holes" in evolution. We don't know how it all works. Sure there are genetic changes, but how many do you need for a system to be co-opted and take on a new function? What about epigenetic changes? "Fittest" really is ill-defined in "survival of the fittest".

Yet, time and time again, when biology assumes evolution, the pieces fit. In fact, you cannot find one study that refutes it. You can try and throw the complexity argument at it, and I'll hand it right back to you -- many genes that regulate cell division in my body are the same as those in plants. Pop quiz: How many cervical vertebrae does a giraffe have? Seven -- the same as all mammals including whales, pigs, and us primates. You want to know where a lot of our understanding about our own biology comes from? A number of other critters, especially mice. We can create drugs and cures for cancer because we share a same biology (i.e. common ancestor).

Creationists cite that this similarity illustrates a single creator. I especially like this link's mention that if we were dissimilar biochemically, then we couldn't eat our fellow creatures. Was that part of God's original plan?

When you start looking at evolution and see natural progressions, life starts making sense. If you assume a supernatural, you build assumptions riddled with holes because they are fleeting and untestable. What might be real and good for you might be killing somebody else. Don't talk to me about the splinters in evolution until you get the log out of religion.

Want to talk about the lack of finding a missing link? The biggest missing link is God. He's not there!

Where there's smoke: ID in Schools


Many Mapuche Indians of Chile live in or frequent thatched huts called rucas. (Image taken from http://www.cholchol.org). Mapuches are known for their strong resistance to Western culture and the fight to maintain their own. At the core of their culture is the ruca, where even if they do not live in the hut, Mapuches will likely have a hut next to their house where they tell stories, as much as possible in their native language, mapudungun. In the center of the dirt floor is a fire, and smoke is allowed to vent through a hole in the center of circular huts with a cone shaped roof, or out two vents as shown in the "A-frame" style.

Once while I was in Chile visiting a Mapuche family, I was sick with a cold. I was ushered out of the house and into the hut where I was told to breathe the smoke. This happened to me on another occasion when my allergies were flaring up.

It is not too crazy to think that smoke could be good for you. Obviously, fire was the source of warmth in the hut and the tool to cook food and kill off microbes in the water. So one could easily associate the smoke with all those healing things fire does and infer that the smoke itself was also a part of that.

But here's the issue: I've got scientific evidence that shows inhaling smoke over a campfire will exacerbate my illness. What is the responsible thing for me to do?

  1. I can politely tell them that I'm drowsy and I should leave.
  2. I can tell them I've got scientific evidence that goes against their beliefs.
Option number one is what an anthropologist (a scientist of culture) would do.

Option number two is difficult. Shouldn't I, in good conscience, for their health and the health of their children and their children's children, shouldn't I tell them to change their ways? As simple and basic as "don't breathe smoke" sounds to a Westerner, the gathering around the fire pit is central to the Mapuche. If you start telling them not to stand too close, you demean the mystique around fire.

I chose option 1. I was not about to get into it with a bunch of Mapuches.

For better or worse, Western culture -- MTV, gas guzzlers, medicine, this blog -- are accessible to the Mapuche. As they sit in their rucas, they also talk about what they saw on TV, and just like you and me sitting around a campfire, they squint their eyes and turn their heads when the smoke comes their way. Like all of us, they hold onto some traditions and incorporate others to make a new culture. This is a conscientious work in progress, performed formally and informally between groups of community leaders, families, and just kids. Many times there will not be agreement, but there is always discussion about what to hold dear balanced with what to assimilate.

I think it is naive of evolutionists to demand evolution to be taught in the classrooms without a debate on its ramifications. Yes, evolution is science and Intelligent Design (ID) is not, but you can't just tell a student "Your belief system is refuted by scientific evidence" and expect them to simply accept that.

My vote is that evolution should be taught in the science classroom and ID should not, but we need philosophy courses devoted to discussing the ramifications of any origin of life theory. Faith, by definition, is irrational. You will never get students to accept evolution when they are irrational. In this case, the science teacher will fail not only in teaching evolution, but can also turn students away from science itself.

Put ID along with other creation myths and evolutionary theory in the schools and let them duke it out in a philosophy course.

Faith in...

One definition needs to be made clear. Faith. Wiktionary defines it as "Mental acceptance of and confidence in a claim as truth without proof supporting the claim."

It is often perceived that faith is a good thing. Why? And should I build an ideology around it?

The danger of building anything on faith is that you gotta be prepared for the fallout if you are proved false. Given such proof, you need to accept it and change, live a lie, or have such pronounced faith that the proof, as plausible as it may be, you take as still wrong.

Put into the evolution/creation debate, these are the three options for the believer:javascript:void(0)
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  1. Accept the proofs of evolution which mean either modifying your view of God, His plan, and the creation story.
  2. Choose to ignore these proofs, keeping your head in the sand, and going about your business.
  3. Believe that these evolutionary "proofs" are hogwash and going about your business.
Option number 1 is problematic. It means changing your religion at least partially and this may mean a complete ideological or cultural change including atheism. Option 1 requires the most work for the individual. It is the option I chose and its fallout are the subject of this blog.

Option 2 is the easiest and probably the path most people put themselves on. Joe Public is not so concerned about where we came from. He's probably not too concerned about God's master plan for him either. He's just meandering. If he hears something that makes sense, but it is out of line with what's for dinner, he's just going to go about his business. Simply said, he doesn't really care. If it was a priority, he would not live the lie. He couldn't.

Option 3 is the path most chosen by fundamentalists. Evolution is a challenge to their faith. If they defy it, they increase and validate their faith. This is especially true when they can show these "proofs" are not so "sound". (I put both of these words in quotes to indicate that 'proof' really is a bit squishy, but so are the anti-evolution arguments that indicate that they are not so 'sound').

But how do we interpret these options for the evolutionist? Doesn't it take faith to believe in evolution? If so, aren't the risks greater? If the risks are greater, should I just live the lie? Of course not. Atheists and pastors alike will tell you, "Don't live a lie". Atheists will tell you this simply because living a lie is stupid. Pastors would cite that the Laodecian who does not care and lives the lie will still be damned (Revelation 3:13-15).

So, you should choose Option 1 or 3 because option 2 is chickenshit and we all know it. Now, which option should we choose?

Let's summarize this into a little more binary terms of Best/Worst case scenario for the Creationist/Evolutionist. Worst means the creationist/evolutionist was wrong. Best means the creationist/evolutionist was right.

Worst case scenario-Evolutionist/Atheist: Finds he is wrong and burns in hell forever.
Best case scenario-Evolutionist/Atheist: Not living a lie, but life is random (and meaningless?)

Worst case scenario-Creationist: So what if evolution was right and there is no God. My convictions still helped me enjoy life, love my neighbor, yadda yadda....
Best case scenario-Creationist: You, my son, will have eternal happiness, love, and joy. (Obviously through acceptance of Christ's salvation....)

Hmmm....

This still does not paint a pretty picture for atheism. Let's compound the issue with some tough questions for evolution. "What good is half a wing?" "Where does original thought come from?" "Where does emotion come from?"

I will say that my atheism is largely built around this one thing -- evolution. If evolution does not have answers to these questions, why not let it go, or at very least come up with some balance of God and evolution?

Simple answer: I can't balance them and I'm not going to live a lie.

My world view built around evolution is sound. It's not always pretty, but it makes sense. The world built around a belief in God is inconsistent.

Mission statement and welcome

Hello. My name is Tom, and I'm a recovering young earther.

I grew up a young earth creationist. Along with this belief came a whole culture of religion where I was happy, had beautiful friends, and a world that had direction and meaning. I took up the study of evolution to challenge my faith and to adequately challenge evolutionists. What I found was that evolutionary theory made sense!

My world turned upside down.

For the fundamentalist, even though there is a degree of picking and choosing which parts of the bible really do apply, the creation story was not to be tampered with. Even if it wasn't a literal 6 day creation and the earth was a million years old, God still created us in His image, right? But evolution says that all creatures grew out of pond scum.

Which do I more likely want to believe?

  1. That I am a hand-crafted person by the creator of all the universe and that He has a master plan for me filled with love and meaning forever.
  2. I am the agglomeration of molecules that have occurred through random, naturally cooperative and competitive interactions and these molecules have been able to develop systems to form ever-more complex structures and to replicate themselves.
Option 1 sounds good. It has the answer already in place. You accept it, live it, and enjoy it. End of story. And you can bet people are going to want to protect that.

Option 2 sounds empty, hopeless, and meaningless.

Here is the dilemma. Can you believe in both evolution and God at the same time? Probably so for the non-fundamentalist. But the fundamentalist view is more binary. If evolution is true, then what does it mean to be created in God's image? Was there an Adam and Eve? If not, then what is original sin? If you do not have original sin, then who was Jesus?

This forum is not intended as a way of bridging evolution and fundamentalist Christian beliefs. No. It is to expose the issues and to have clear communication on the fears and frustrations with accepting each and to explain why they are diametrically opposed.

For me, I wanted to debunk evolution. When I could not ignore evolution, I found I could not substantiate a belief in God either. This left a hole. I had a whole culture that was upended. This blog will be my story, how I rationalize atheism, and what I hope will be a good discussion of how people can find the world makes a lot of sense when viewed through the eyes of evolution. Moreover, it is a forum to discuss the pursuit of life's meaning and purpose after shedding a belief in God.

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