Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why I Rarely Post About Creationism

For the few regular readers that I have, you may or may not have noticed that lately I very rarely post about creationism. The main reason for this is because the debate is well and truly over and it has been for a long, long time. Creationists (I include ID as a sub-category of creationism) should know this, and I'd wager that most professional creationists do realise it. People like Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, Creation Science Evangelism, The Discovery Institute, Institute for Creation Research and any others you can think of are actively putting out information that they must know is false. They are after all the deceitful demagogues that I mentioned in my 'Two Types of Creationist' post back in 2010.

If on the odd chance they are really just willfully ignorant and delusional, what can we do about that? We can't go around locking them up or sending them into looney bins can we? The scientific battle is over, but the social war will never end. I hate to be so pessimistic, but I fear that as long as humanity is rife with shit-heads like the aforementioned creationist groups whose main goal is to undermine science with a religious agenda we will never stamp out the pestilence that is creationism.

We will never get rid of magical thinking, faulty reasoning and conspiratorial tendencies. These mis-firings of our thinking faculties are hard wired into humanity.

This is not to say that we do nothing, I still make efforts in my personal life to combat creationism. A few of the Christians that I know (that number dwindles by the year too) are still creationists. I don't try and force them to accept evolution, but I do try and convey to them how serious the evidence for evolution really is, within the context of an amicable conversation. I have a few books and online resources that I try to pass along to them, but they're rarely, if ever interested. There seems to be comfort in delusion. They're more content thinking wrong-headed beliefs are true than actually learning something new.

If there is some 'miracle' cure for the plague of creationism, I'd love to know about it but until then, I think I'll just carry on as I have been, pessimistic about the intellectual honesty of humankind, and continuing to learn new things myself every day.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sucker For Punishment - Christian Books

It hasn't been that long since I endured 'The Reason for God', and I have somehow managed to agree to read 'Jesus and the Eyewitnesses' by Richard Bauckham. It's like 550 pages long and I heard it was a difficult read so I guess that makes me a sucker for punishment. My university library has a copy, so I'll probably read it slowly between now and the end of the first semester. I guess the good thing about me doing this kind of thing is that no one can accuse me of only reading one side of the debate.

How about I make it official. I'm going to try and make an effort to read at least two scholarly Christian books a year. I actually finished reading Timothy Keller in December, so my tally this year is 0.

In other book news, I'm currently reading 'The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity' by the late Hyam Maccoby. I don't agree with everything in the book but he brings up some analyses of the New Testament texts that I haven't seen before and draws some novel and thought provoking conclusions. Since Maccoby is a Jewish Talmudic scholar the book is quite notably pro-Judaism but it makes for fresh reading.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Religious Apathy

Here in New Zealand it seems to me that there is a substantial portion of the population that just doesn't really care about religious issues at all. Perhaps it's just the people who I associate with, but I suspect it is somewhat representative of the population at large.

 Out of the approximately 100-300 people I interact with socially on a regular-infrequent basis the topic of religion only comes up in conversations with an extreme minority of them (less than 10%). Out of those few, less than half of them are religious (and half of those that are religious are my own family members). A large number of my friends that I grew up going to church with have either stopped going altogether, or still go, but no longer believe. Approximately (very rough guess) 10-30% of those from the aforementioned social group nominally belong to some religion. For example it might list 'Christian' on their facebook info, but that's about the extent of their outwards religiosity. As far as I can tell, the remainder of the group either is nominally irreligious, believes in a 'higher power' or just don't seem to give a damn.

Just to clarify, if any of you are reading this post, I'm not trying to criticise your beliefs or lack thereof, just pointing out what I think is an interesting piece of sociological data.

The reason I'm so fascinated in these issues is because I used to be so religious, and I find the phenomena of religious belief intriguing. For those on whom religion has had a negligible effect it may all seem like hocus pocus and make-believe, or just something that's a part of life that doesn't need to be questioned. No real over-arching point to this, but hopefully it has given you something to think about.

First Causality

The notion of having a cause for the universe that is outside of the universe is nonsensical. Causality is dependent on the existence of time and space, which don’t exist outside of the universe. So the best way to describe this hypothetical first cause would be ‘non-existent’.

That's it.  A short and sweet argument against the existence of gods, or at least the idea of a transcendent creator god that is a first cause outside the universe.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Critical Thinking and Statistics

I discovered as I was enrolling for my university courses for 2012 in December last year that I was missing a prerequisite course (statistics) for one of my first semester classes (ecology). I decided to enroll in summer school (I live in the southern hemisphere remember), and to make the most of it I took a philosophy course in critical thinking as well. I wasn't really thinking of the applications of these two disciplines when I enrolled in them, but once I started attending lectures I realised that these two areas of study are perhaps two of the most important things anyone can have a solid grounding in.

I'm not sure about highschools everywhere, but when I was in highschool, there was no philosophy (let alone logic or critical thinking) taught at all and statistics was an elective class one could opt to take in 6th form (age 16-17). I am almost certain that if everybody had at least some grounding in critical thinking and statistics as teenagers, society as a whole would be a more intelligent place. People would be better equipped to deflect bad arguments and to not be duped by deceptive statistics used frequently in marketing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why the Christian God would be Stupid if He Existed - Part 2: Special Revelation

I’ve brought this issue up in several venues before but I thought it really deserved its own post. Special revelation, i.e. a god giving its message to specific individuals to relay on to others is an imbecilic system and I’ll try to explain why I think so.

The Weakest Link

The weakest link of a chain is where it is going to break first, so let’s imagine the conveying of God’s message as a chain. At the very least, a special revelation chain has to have 3 links, God, the receiver of the message, and then the rest of the population. In that circumstance the populace first has to have faith in the conveyor before they can have faith in the message being conveyed. This is not an ideal situation, as obviously the messenger is the weakest link of the chain, whether interpreting the message from the deity incorrectly, relaying it incorrectly, or something not being believed by others. This is a faulty chain and a god that would use such a chain should be considered stupid in my books. However, this is not the chain that we supposedly have (given the assumption that the Bible is actually God’s message).

The special revelation chain that we would actually have would be something like this (for the New Testament Gospels).
God/Jesus->First Century Followers->Converts->[insert several decades and who knows how many other transmissions]->Anonymous Gospel Authors->Scribes (who altered the texts)->Translators (for those of us who don’t read Greek)->Us

The number of weak links in this chain is stunning, and many of them have already been broken in the texts, as we have numerous contradictions between gospels and sometimes within the same gospel, perhaps due to interpolations. Any god who would use such a system, where one must place faith in the transmission process before one can have faith in the message and then believe the true religion must be a moron. This is one reason why I think the better explanation is that no such God exists.

Faith in Humans

As I mentioned, in order to have faith in the religion, you must first have faith in the people who transmitted it to you. In some circumstances I am willing to put faith (trust) in other human beings, if they have been shown to have a track record of trustworthiness. For example, a Scientist who has a history of being innovative and ahead of his time, who has later been confirmed to be correct many times over would deserve considerably more faith in their judgment than a John Doe off the street with no credentials.

Surely if a God was dead-set on transmitting his one true religion via special revelation through many people he would at least make sure that the people had an air of trustworthiness around them? Unfortunately for the Christian, that isn’t the case with the Bible. The overwhelming majority of which is anonymously authored. The only books from the Old Testament of moderately ‘certain’ authorship are a few of the prophets (the first part of Isaiah for example). All of the ‘history’ and myth, and law found in the Old Testament is completely anonymous (No, Moses did not write any of it). The New Testament is arguably worse off than the Old, as a substantial portion of that which isn’t anonymous is forged. Half of the letters claimed in Paul’s name are forgeries (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians) and some of the ones we’re pretty sure were written by him have anonymous interpolations added into them by scribes. 1 & 2 Peter are forgeries; Jude is a forgery and so on. I am not about to go placing my faith in anonymous writers 1900-1800 years ago nor am I going to place my faith in writers who lied about they were. Hell, I’m not even going to place faith in the single identified author of the New Testament (Paul) because I have absolutely no reason to trust him on anything. An Intelligent god surely would have accounted for this, which is why I cannot avoid the conclusion that if the Christian God existed, he would be an idiot.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Review of 'The Reason for God' - Part 5

Chapter 13: “The Reality of the Resurrection”

At the start of the chapter Keller mentions that he studied religion and philosophy in college, which means he can’t have been ignorant of moral philosophy. That leads me to conclude he either ignores it, or is intentionally presenting an uncharitable interpretation of opposing views. I am no doubt guilty of the same thing (though not intentionally), perhaps even in this strange review of his book. The best explanation of his seeming ignorant of moral philosophy is probably due to the Christian-tinted glasses that he undoubtedly wears.

Much of the chapter is fairly conventional Christian apologetics, and as he is arguing straight out of the work of N.T. Wright it is unsurprising. I find the work of people like Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman and Robert M. Price far more interesting and compelling, but perhaps I am biased too. Regardless, Keller does not address works like these, and at times presents the skeptic position as saying “It (the resurrection) just couldn’t have happened.” Point me to a single serious skeptical source that says anything remotely along those lines. You can’t? That’s because that’s not what skeptics are saying. Keller is out of touch with his opponents, or perhaps he just isn’t interested in going after the best arguments and only interested in the low-hanging fruit and in burning straw men.

Chapter 14: “The Dance of God”

This chapter reads like one should expect of a book that finds itself successful in arguing its points in previous chapters. For someone like me who went into it trying to be as open-minded as possible, only to be insulted in the introduction and bored for much of the rest of it this chapter was dull. It does things like trying to explain the trinity and ties off some threads on other Christian doctrines. This chapter along with the epilogue which I won’t do an entry on really sum up the book for me. This is not a book for skeptics to convert them to Christianity even though it claims to be. This is probably a really great book for a doubting Christian who doesn’t know much about their own religion but wants to reassure themselves that they’ve picked the right belief. The arguments are incredibly superficial and the refutations are weak. He provides no evidence or reason to believe, and the only chapter that comes close to this is the one where he talks about ‘clues’ of god.


I give the book overall a 2/5. One star for effort and one star for what seems to me to be an honest attempt to reach skeptics. Keller’s biggest downfall in this book is that he doesn’t really address much in the way of real skepticism, doesn’t take on the best arguments, proclaims victory prematurely and obviously hasn’t put any effort into actually understanding the position of the people he is attempting to write for. What I’m trying to say is, the book is crap.

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Review of 'The Reason for God' - Part 4

Chapter 9: “The Knowledge of God”

Okay this chapter seals the deal; Keller must be ignorant of moral philosophy. He shows no working knowledge of ethical models like utilitarianism or desirism. He just goes on the incredibly weak assumption that because some people can’t explain why they hold certain values (such as human rights) that they’re objective values imprinted upon our subconscious. He also jumps from saying that there are debates about evolutionary mechanisms for morality to 'evolution can’t explain moral intuition'. I don’t want to say I’m done with the book just yet, but my patience is diminishing rapidly.

Chapter 10: “The Problem of Sin”

What a boring chapter. I really have nothing else to say about it. It reads like a chapter written for Christians who don’t understand the doctrine of sin. I feel I somewhat understand it (a few interpretations of it at least) and I’m not really interested in it and reject the concept. Yawn.

Chapter 11: “Religion and the Gospel”

This chapter immediately builds on the previous one, and delves straight into an allusion to the pop-Christianity idea that Christianity is not a religion. Get real. This chapter is effectively a sermon. If one doesn’t accept the conclusion of the previous chapter, one will likely finish the chapter as I did: uninterested. Even if Christianity was true, I don’t feel like I need saving, so it doesn’t appeal to me. There is no argumentation in here, just sermonising.

Chapter 12: “The (True) Story of the Cross"

I feel like I’m letting down anyone reading this, as with the last two chapters I found it simply boring. I don’t really have much to say about it either. The chapter title got me interested, but it didn’t pan out the way I thought it was going to. It ended up being another sermon.
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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review of 'The Reason for God' - Part 3

Chapter 6: “Science has disproved Christianity”

Most of this chapter is non-contentious and doesn’t really need much said about it. It’s basically just a discussion of the conflict model of science vs. Religion, which I agree is not an accurate description of reality. This is not because I think religion and science coalesce, but because like many popular level criticisms of religion, it is too simplistic, and too black and white. The reality of the situation is much more complicated than some atheist writers would lead you to believe.

Despite the fact that the chapter doesn’t say anything starkly wrong in my opinion, I think Keller still fails to address the best skeptical arguments against religion from the scientific perspective so I walk away unsatisfied once again.

Chapter 7: “You Can’t Take The Bible Literally”

My mouth was hanging open for approximately two thirds of this chapter out of sheer surprise of what he was saying (in a bad way). I don’t really feel like trying to refute any of his points here, as this is supposed to be a book review not a refutation. Keller refers to the Da Vinci Code many times as examples of “biblical skepticism” and “historical revisionism”. I understand he is trying to write for the popular level, but seriously, no one interested in this subject takes the Da Vinci Code seriously anyway, stop wasting my time Keller!

I was especially gobsmacked at Keller’s attempt to gloss over cultural anachronisms in the Bible and moral horrors (such as slavery) by trying to say that they aren’t the key message, so you should first accept Christianity as true, and then try and figure those out later. It’s a package deal, If I disagree with biblical teachings, I’m not going to follow the Bible. Honestly, I almost feel like saying that even if Jesus were God, I wouldn’t be a Christian because of the content of the Bible.

He attempts the argument that Biblical slavery wasn’t as bad as the slavery of the middle ages. He tries to say that slaves weren’t actually owned by slave-masters back then, only their labour was, but ignores the passage in Exodus where it explicitly states that the slave is the property of his master. I find this is typical of Christian apologetics, it’s disingenuous. At least he makes some reference to views that skeptics actually hold, but his refutations of them are extremely vapid and effectively amount to “the evidence for this older, skeptical view of the Bible has been crumbling steadily for the past thirty years, even as it has been promoted by the popular media...” Weak man, weak.

Chapter 8: “The Clues of God”

This chapter was bad. His first argument relies on outdated science, he quotes Stephen Hawking from the 90’s saying that “almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.” This is problematic because the most up-to-date understanding of the Big Bang Theory is that it only shows us an inflationary event from a dense state, it does not reveal a singularity or a creation moment. Keller’s use of this argument shows that he has either not kept up to date, or is intentionally staying out-of-date because he can use it to support his case.

His second argument is the fine-tuning argument. This is dealt (in my opinion) a death-blow in Victor Stenger’s latest book ‘The Fallacy of Fine Tuning’. The fine tuning argument is built on many false premises two of which I’ll list here.
1) That the ‘constants’ are variable
2) That the constants are independent

Once those assumptions are removed, fine tuning falls flat.

His next argument is that because nature is regular, god must exist, because we can’t create a rational explanation for why nature should be regular. This weak argument encounters a fatal flaw when one points out that one cannot make a rational argument for why nature shouldn’t be regular either.
Then he goes to beauty, and says that’s a clue for god. I’m not convinced, beauty is subjective, it doesn’t actually exist and is entirely explicable under naturalism.
He finishes the chapter with what is essentially Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, which is built upon an argument of C.S. Lewis’ from Miracles. The argument basically says that if our brains are the result of natural evolution, we cannot trust them. I find that every person I’ve seen making this argument doesn’t really understand evolution or the scientific method.
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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review of 'The Reason for God' - Part 2

Chapter 4: “The Church is responsible for so much injustice”

This chapter boils down to one giant ‘no-true Scotsman’ fallacy in the end. Slave owners, crusaders and anyone motivated by Christianity to do wrong is not a real Christian, while true Christianity motivates abolitionists, the civil rights movement and peace according to Keller. Even if I was to grant Keller everything in the chapter, it would still have no bearing on the truth of Christianity. However I think Keller would do well to note that his scriptures contain morally questionable (read: horrific) content, like the blatant endorsement of slavery. I have no doubt that many, many people are inspired by Christianity to do good, but people are also inspired by poetry, music, film, art and literature, and this inspiration has no bearing on the truth or falsity of any subject in question.

Keller also tries to slander moral relativism by offering a very crude description of it he says “If everything is relative, there would have been no inventive for white people in the South to give up their power.” (referring to the end of the slave trade in the United States). Earlier in the chapter he effectively claims that Christianity invented the golden rule saying “to give up Christian standards would be to leave us with no basis for the criticism.” Either Tim Keller is ignorant of moral philosophy, or he is ignorant of moral philosophy, there is no way around it. To claim that without Christianity you cannot morally criticise the Crusades (as he was referring to in that quote) is incredibly pathetic.

Chapter 5: “How can a loving God send people to Hell?”

Firstly, this chapter is barely about Hell at all and the picture that Keller attempts to paint of Hell is one that people choose to go to and do not want to leave. I find this extremely puzzling, as one can find biblical support for annihilationism and for agonising eternal torture depending on how one interprets various passages, but Keller’s view seems incredibly weak. He bases this doctrine of his own invention (correct me if I’m wrong) on the fact that in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, “[the rich man] does not ask to get out of hell”.

Near the end of the chapter it becomes incredibly clear why this book is failing so miserably to actually address anything atheists and skeptics actually say. Keller says “Today many of the skeptics I talk to say, as I once did, they can’t believe in the God of the Bible, who punishes and judges people, because they “believe in a God of Love.”” There you have it, the elusive skeptics that Keller refers to in the book are at the very least Theists, or at the most, Christians who have doubts. If the rest of the book continues down this path, I envisage face-palms of epic proportions.
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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review of 'The Reason for God' - Part 1

I've decided to split this into several parts, as I ended up writing quite a bit.

Also, the way I wrote the review changed considerably over the course of reading it.

The Introduction

I started reading this book with the intention of being as open to the possibility of being wrong as possible, but the introduction really irritated me. It didn't feel to me like it was really introducing the book and there were a few things he says that got on my nerves which I have written here. Perhaps I'm being pedantic though, and if so I apologize.

Keller conflates relative morality with arbitrary morality and says this "If morality is relative, why isn't social justice as well?"

He tries to insult moral relativists by comparing them to "the morally upright".

"The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn't seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world."

Shows more bias here: "Liberals' individualism comes out in their views of abortion, sex, and marriage. Conservatives' individualism comes out in their deep distrust of the public sector and in their understanding of poverty as simply a failure of personal responsibility."
It seems like he is trying to paint liberals as shallow and superficial, while portraying conservatives as "deep" and showing "understanding". I hope this isn't indicative of the rest of the book.

Chapter 1: "There Can't Just Be One True Religion"

"Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true." Wrong. That's not what skepticism is at all, either Timothy Keller is an idiot, or he's never picked up a dictionary in his life (He'd still be an idiot in that case).

Furthermore, the crux of this chapter is arguing against something that skeptics DO NOT CLAIM. The fact that all religions cannot be true is something that skeptics acknowledge and use as ammunition against specific religious claims. The people who claim that all religions are true are spiritualists or new-agers or members of inclusive religious sects. Keller fails miserably in actually arguing against skepticism in this chapter.

Chapter 2: "How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?"

Keller simply parrots C.S. Lewis here and pays no attention to the actual arguments made by skeptics that he claims to be rebutting.
"C.S. Lewis described how he had originally rejected the idea of God because of the cruelty of life. Then he came to realize that evil was more problematic for his new atheism. In the end, he realized that suffering provided a better argument for God's existence than one against it."

Keller just accepts this and moves on. I'm not impressed. He spends most of the rest of the chapter talking about how Christianity can comfort those that suffer. I do not dispute that this may be the case, but it has absolutely no bearing on the truth of the religion, which is the reason I do not believe. Keller seems to assume people all disbelieve for emotional reasons.

Chapter 3: "Christianity is a Straitjacket"

Keller attempts to rebut multiple arguments in this chapter. The first is the idea of relative truth. I do not disagree with him that many contradictory statements can't all be true. He falls flat on his face once again though, because he isn't actually addressing the arguments of skeptics, but rather of spiritualists, new-agers or members of inclusive religious sects. He also goes after the idea of freedom saying "Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us." His justification for this is a quote from C.S. Lewis, so once again he is just parroting another apologist while not actually addressing skeptics. Unimpressive.
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