Monday, November 22, 2010


I just wanted to write a post to let you know that I'm going to take a break from blogging for the next few weeks. I've been unhappy with the quality of the posts lately and I feel like I need to take time off to try and refocus. So I'm probably not going to post anything for awhile. I hope you'll be patient with me.

In the meantime, if you're looking for something to do, you could always check out the Desert Bus for Hope. It is a rather cool and entertaining charity fundraiser.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Maps and Knowledge

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about maps and about how difficult it is to make a map that's entirely accurate. I realize that the post is a bit different from what I normally write.

I wrote that post because I find that map making is a helpful analogy. The process of making a map is similar to the more general process of gathering and organizing knowledge about the world.

As I mentioned last week, any attempt to make the perfect map is ultimately doomed to failure. You can't make a map that's a perfect representation of, for example, the California coastline. Even the best maps are plagued with flaws and subtle distortions.

A similar thing happens when we form an understanding of the world. We study, we make observations, we put the pieces together and we accumulate knowledge. Then we take that knowledge and bring it together to form a coherent picture of the world we live in.

As we do this we run into the same problem we have with maps. The idea we have about the world in our head is never the same as the world itself.

The world is complex, intricate and full of detail. We can't possibly fit all of that information into our heads, just like we can't fit all the detail and complexity of the earth onto a globe or a piece of paper.

Maps are a helpful tool. They help us to navigate the world we live in, but we must never confuse the map with the world. We must never confuse our understanding of a thing with the thing itself. If we do, then we will inevitably deceive ourselves.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TGD: Chapter Five - The Evolution of Religion

Chapter Five is entitled, "The Roots of Religion," and in it Dawkins discusses why people hold religious beliefs and why such beliefs are so widespread.

He describes the problem in the first section of the chapter. He says that since we are the products of evolution, we need to consider why natural selection seemingly favored religious belief. It isn't an easy question to answer because religious practices and beliefs seem so inefficient and natural selection usually punishes inefficiency.

So Dawkins asks the question, since religion has such a high cost in terms of time, energy and resources what evolutionary benefit does it offer?

This is a good question. Consider Christianity as an example. Christians are called to follow the example of a man who failed to pass on his genes to the next generation. To the extent that Christians follow Jesus' example, it would seem that we are becoming less fit, in the Darwinian sense.

It is tempting to offer a religious explanation for this dilemma. One might argue that God blesses and encourages religious behavior, thus allowing religious people to continue to multiply despite their self-sacrificing behavior.

This explanation has two problems. First of all, I'm not sure that God shows his followers special favor. Instead, I would argue that God is working to bless the whole world.

Second, there are so many different religious beliefs and practices. Even if we claim that one group survives because God has favor on them, then why does a group with a contradictory set of beliefs and practices survive as well? Is God simultaneously working to support both groups?

Clearly there isn't a simple, religious explanation that works in this case.

Having said all that, I'm looking forward to this chapter. Dawkins is, first and foremost, an evolutionary biologist and in this chapter he's making an evolutionary argument. Since it's his area of expertise Dawkins is able to make a compelling case.

In the first section, Dawkins just goes over possible explanations for why human beings seem to have evolved with religious beliefs.

The first explanation comes from the theory of group selection. The idea is that religious behaviors that hurt an individual's chance of survival might help the group's chance of survival.

The second explanation is that religious behavior might not benefit our genes. Dawkins writes, "An animal's behavior tends to maximize the survival of the genes 'for' that behavior, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it." It is possible that religious behaviors may not have evolved to benefit us, but to benefit someone or something else.

For the third explanation, Dawkins suggests that religious ideas themselves might behave in a gene like fashion. He argues that the religions themselves may have "evolved" in order to ensure the survival of the religious ideas, in much the same way that animals evolve to ensure the survival of their genes.

I look forward to reading a more detailed account of what Dawkins believes is the cause of religion.

Monday, November 8, 2010

No Answer

I hate not knowing the answer. I know because I've been dealing with that feeling this whole week. I've come across some very good questions, and I've been trying to come up with some answers, so far unsuccessfully.

Why can't I come up with the answer? I don't know, but I can think of a few possibilities, none of which I like very much.

First of all, I might be in over my head. There might be an answer to the question. There might be a very good answer even. I'm just not smart enough to figure it out.

I don't like this possibility much. I'm a proud man, and I like to think of myself as the kind of person who knows all the answers. Especially when it comes to mental challenges, I'm reluctant to admit that I need someone else's help.

What's more, these questions don't seem all that difficult. It's not like we're dealing with nuclear physics or anything. These seem like the kind of questions I should be able to answer, but I'm just not able to.

The other possibility is that these questions might not have an answer. I like that possibility even less. I am aware that in the real world not every question has a definite answer, but saying that there is no answer feels like a cop out.

Besides these are important questions that deserve serious consideration. If I say that there just isn't an answer it feels like I've admitted defeat.

Some people can be happy not having the answer to the questions life throws at us. Unfortunately I am not one of those people, at least, not by nature. I need to feel like I know the answers.

With time I could probably learn to live with uncertainty, and indeed I may have to, but for now it's really bugging me.

Hopefully I'll be able to find some answers soon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On Maps and Map Making

Today I'm going to take a break from my usual topics of conversation to talk about maps. It might seem like an odd digression, but it isn't entirely unrelated. I hope you'll bear with me.

I enjoy looking at maps from a few hundred years ago. It's interesting to see what people back then thought the world looked like. It's cool to see early maps of America that are weirdly stretched and where some parts are disproportionately large.

It is easy to tell, just by looking, that these maps are far from accurate. What's not as obvious is that even modern maps have their inaccuracies.

As an example, whenever I look at a globe or a map of the world I always look for the San Francisco bay. Since I grew up near there I have a pretty good idea of the shape of the bay.

But on world maps, the San Francisco bay always looks oddly misshapen. On that scale all the detailed features of the bay are reduced to one small scribble. Most of the time the North bay is completely missing.

It usually isn't as obvious, but even smaller, more close up maps have this problem. They can't record every minute feature of a river or coastline perfectly. On some level, the shapes they draw are always an approximation.

Still, it's more than just a lack of precision that keeps maps from being accurate. Most maps are flat. Since the earth's surface is curved, the maps have to stretch and distort the terrain to make it fit on a flat surface. As a result, on most maps Greenland looks like it's as big as Australia when in fact it's a lot smaller.

Globes do a lot better because they're curved, but they're still not perfect. You see, not only is the earth not flat, but it's not a perfect sphere either. It has odd imperfections, including a slight bulge around the equator. Most globes are spherical, so they distort the earth's features to make them fit on a perfect sphere.

Even with all of their flaws and imperfections, maps are very useful tools. Maps take a large and confusing world, reduce it and simplify it enough that we can better understand it. Maps help us to find our way. Even a bad map can help a person trying to explore an area he's never been to before.

But it's important to note, and crucial to remember, that no matter how good it is a map is no substitute for the real thing. There always are, and always will be, subtle details that our maps fail to capture. If we think that the world out there has to look exactly like our map, then we are only setting ourselves up for confusion and disappointment.

Friday, October 29, 2010

TGD: The Story So Far...

At the end of chapter four, Dawkins takes some time to summarize his argument against the existence of God. I think I'm going to do something similar.

Unlike Dawkins, I haven't been advancing one single argument. Instead I've been responding to various points that Dawkins has been making. However, in the process I have been advancing a kind of counter-argument. I think it's time to tie the pieces together and take a look at the argument I've been making (At the beginning of each point, I'll place a link to a previous post where I discuss the issue in detail).

Here is a quick summary of my argument for the existence of God:

First of all, based on the cosmological argument, we know that our universe was created by an external force. We don't know if this first cause is an abstract force or an eternal, divine being, but we know that the cause for the physical universe does not lie inside the physical universe.

Second, we know that our universe is special, because it is able to support intelligent life. This most likely did not happen by chance. From this we can infer that whatever created our universe did so intentionally, with the purpose of one day making intelligent life. From this we can infer that the cause of our universe is both intelligent, and able to make decisions.

Third, Dawkins' argument that such intelligent beings are ruled out by their improbability doesn't apply in this case. Dawkins' argument addresses the improbability of intelligent beings appearing spontaneously within the physical universe. As I said in step one, the cause of our physical universe exists outside the physical universe.

Fourth, when we take a second look at Dawkins' argument, we see that he is merely making the claim that the cause of the physical universe should be simple. This claim is merely a matter of preference or, to be more precise, faith*. There is no reason to believe that the cause of the physical universe actually is simple. Instead, it seems more likely that the cause of our physical universe is complex, for the reason given in step two.

Fifth, a being of such supernatural power and intelligence would theoretically be able to perform miracles. If such miracles occurred, we would expect to find evidence of them. In fact, there are many accounts of miracles throughout history, from ancient times up until the present day. There are even some (relatively) recent accounts of miracles that were witnessed by thousands of people.

Sixth, Dawkins argues that human perceptions are flawed. That every account of a miracle is the result of either some kind of deception, or it was invented in the mind of the person experiencing it. Given the very high number of people who claim to have experienced miracles, it is likely that at least some of them are genuine. Since Dawkins is arguing that miracles never happen, if even one of those accounts represents a genuine miracle, it is enough to refute Dawkins' argument.

The above argument makes the case that there is an intelligent being who created the universe and works miracles. I've avoided using the term God, but clearly the being described matches God's description on several counts.

Of course, I don't believe in just any God; I believe in the Christian God. My belief in the Christian God is partly a result of my own, unique experiences and partly a result of my belief that the New Testament contains a fairly reliable account of a miracle-working Rabbi who lived in the first century.

That is (more or less) the argument I've been advancing throughout the first four chapters. Starting with chapter five though, the book takes a different direction. Dawkins spends less time arguing against God's existence, and more time arguing about how religion is a bad influence.

By the same token, for the remainder of this series I will spend less time arguing for God's existence, and more time focusing on the role of faith. This should be interesting, because in this area I agree with Dawkins on more than a few points. So it should make for some interesting posts as I read the book and discuss the nature of religion and the role it should play both in our private and public lives.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the posts to come.

* Ultimately any belief about the origin of the universe must be a matter of faith. Science can only tell us so much about the early universe. At some point, something happened that no one can really explain. This is a point that Dawkins doesn't quite seem to grasp.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I have a confession to make. When I write posts for this blog I don't always have the purest motives. Often times my goals are selfish, prideful, or short-sighted.

Sometimes my main purpose in writing a post is to prove that I'm right, or to demonstrate how smart I am. I tell myself that I'm doing it to correct a common misconception or to educate my readers. I tell myself that I'm doing it because I want to serve others, but sometimes I think my real motivation is to stroke my own ego.

For that I apologize, and I hope you'll be able to forgive me.

Part of the problem is that I really believe in what I'm doing. I believe that the things I am writing are important. I believe that I am doing what is right.

But righteousness can easily be corrupted, and turn into self-righteousness. All it takes is a slight shift in perspective. We stop paying attention to the good that we are trying to do and instead we focus on our own efforts. Suddenly our goal is no longer to do good, but to be seen doing good, to have people recognize and acknowledge that we are doing good.

Now I must stop and think. I know that the things I write about are good and true (even if the writing itself is corrupt and motivated by pride). Do I need other people to recognize that? Do I need other people to agree with me so I can feel validated?

This is a real pitfall in evangelism, or in any other attempt to persuade people. We want people to see our point of view. We want other people to be convinced, to change their minds and see things from our point of view.

In one sense this is natural and good. If we are right, then it is only natural that we would want other people to see things our way. But it is easy for us to wish to persuade others, not because we think we are right, but because we want them to affirm us in our beliefs.

This is not an easy thing to sort out. It can be hard to draw a clean line in between pure and impure motivations, but it must be done. If not, we run the risk of letting our selfish motives corrupt our good deeds and steer us away from our good intentions.

Friday, October 22, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - Simplicity and the Nineteenth Century

At last we reach the end of chapter four. The final section is entitled, "An Interlude at Cambridge," and in it Dawkins describes a conference he participated in. The conference was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, an organization which he has little fondness for. The Templeton Foundation awards a prize to individuals who, "Make an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension." Unsurprisingly, Dawkins was the only atheist speaker at this conference.

At this conference gave a version of his argument against God's existence, which I discussed earlier. Naturally his argument was not readily accepted by the other speakers. He describes a few of their main objections.

The major argument revolved on whether or not God is simple. The crux of Dawkins' argument is that God is incredibly complex. The people whom Dawkins was debating with argued that God is actually simple.

The people arguing that God is actually simple probably have a different understanding of God's nature and a different definition of the word simple. These differences of opinion are inevitable when people with different world views talk to each other about what they believe. These differences provide a real challenge for anyone who tries to talk someone out of their world view.

Besides claiming that God is actually simple, the other major response Dawkins received for his argument is that it is very "Nineteenth Century". If Dawkins' opponents explained what they meant by calling his argument "Nineteenth Century", Dawkins doesn't give it. He does, however, share his own opinion about what they meant by it.

According to Dawkins, saying that his argument is "Nineteenth Century" is simply a coded way of saying that Dawkins is being rude by making a direct attack on religion like that.

I have my own opinion about what they might have meant by the phrase "Nineteenth Century". The Nineteenth Century was the height of modernism and Dawkins' world view is very modernist. In particular, his belief that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible is a distinctly modern idea.

This idea has, for the most part, fallen out of favor. The only people clinging to the belief that science and religion are incompatible are religious fundamentalists and men like Dawkins.

Having said that, this is an important conversation to have. I think most people understand that science and religion can coexist, but most people haven't given too much thought to how that compromise works in practice. Reading Dawkins' book has forced me to reevaluate my beliefs about how science and faith interact.

So I'm glad that Dawkins is making this argument. My only regret is that he didn't work harder to understand the people he was arguing with. I think he could have gained some valuable insights into how religious people view the world. So far what I've read from Dawkins indicates that he doesn't really grasp what makes a religious person's mind ticks.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Three Phrases that (Don't) Mean the Same Thing

I spend a lot of time in this blog writing about the Kingdom of God. As I've mentioned before, the Kingdom of God is a central concept in Christian thought. Unfortunately, most Christians don't spend a lot of time thinking about the Kingdom of God.

Most Christians, at least in America, assume that the phrase "Kingdom of God" simply refers to people who are Christian and/or the place where Christians will go when they die.

Evangelicals spend a lot of time talking about whether or not someone is "saved", "truly Christian", or less commonly, "in the Kingdom". They tend to use the terms interchangeably, as though they meant the same thing. I believe that the reality is more complex than most Christians realize.

First, let us consider what we mean when we say that someone is a Christian. Most people would agree that a Christian is someone who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he was crucified, that he was raised again, and that, through his death, he made peace between God and man.

That's the gist of it. Some people would define it a little differently, but at the end of the day Christianity is a belief system. Whether or not someone is a Christian is based on what they believe.

I've talked before about how religion relates to the Kingdom of God. I agree that religious beliefs do matter; that believing in Jesus and his work on the cross is an important piece of the puzzle. I just don't think it's the whole picture.

There is so much more to God's Kingdom than simply having the right beliefs. If we want to see God's Kingdom come, we must also concern ourselves with love, justice, mercy and forgiveness. There are many misguided Christians out there who actively work against God's Kingdom. At the same time many people who aren't Christian are, without being aware of it, actually helping to build God's Kingdom.

Next, I want to think about what we mean when we say that someone is "saved". Most Evangelicals use this term to refer to the final judgement. A person who is "saved" will not be condemned, but instead they will receive eternal life.

This idea is also related to the Kingdom of God, although in a different way. This question is concerned with who will inherit God's Kingdom.

In the present age, there are many people working to build God's Kingdom, but the work is far from finished. Most of the time our world can be a terribly cruel and unjust place. We try to make things better, but the task is so daunting that it can often seem overwhelming.

The Bible looks forward to a time when God's Kingdom will be fully established; when love, justice, mercy and forgiveness will be the rule rather than the exception; when everyone will be able to experience peace and joy in God's Holy presence.

The question is, who will inherit this Kingdom? Once the work is finished, who will be allowed in, to enjoy the blessings of the Kingdom? This is a difficult question, and not one that I am comfortable answering. It is not my place to say who will be let in and who will be kept out. That is for God to decide.

I feel confident saying that people who are Christian, and who are working to build God's Kingdom, will enter into God's Kingdom as long as they remain faithful till the end. Beyond that, I do not know. I suspect that God may decide to expand the guest list quite a bit, and I think that there will be more than a few surprises when the time comes.

So in the end I can't be certain what will happen, or who will be in or out, but I trust that God will judge fairly. I believe he will show mercy to everyone who asks him, and that he will be found by everyone who seeks him.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Late Post

Hi everyone, I'm sorry about the delay but I had a busy day today. I've got a post in the works, but it's getting late so I'm going to finish it up tomorrow. Thank you all for your patience.

Friday, October 15, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - The Multiverse, Big Crunches, Black Holes and other Strangeness

Today I want to talk a little bit more about the anthropic principle and the question of why our universe is fit for life. It's an interesting question and it's not one that can be answered easily without appealing to God.

The simplest and most straightforward way to address this problem is to claim that our universe couldn't possibly have been any different from the way it is now. This argument is often made by theoretical physicists trying to put together a unified theory that can explain the entire universe. Once we finally have this theory, they argue, we will see that the universe has to be the way it is.

Surprisingly, Dawkins considers this argument unsatisfying. Even if there truly is only one way that the universe could have been, we can still wonder why that one way is so well set up for the eventual evolution of life.

Dawkins gets around this objection by arguing that there may be multiple universes with different physical laws, some of which allow intelligent life to develop. He argues that, as unlikely as this may seem, it is still more likely than the existence of God. This based on the dubious argument he made earlier that it is extremely unlikely that God exists.

I don't think Dawkins' argument here holds water.

People who oppose intelligent design theory rightfully point out that the God hypothesis doesn't actually address the problem. Simply saying, "God did it," might be a valid explanation, but it doesn't help us understand our universe any better. In the same way, "There are billions of alternate universes," might be a valid explanation, but it doesn't actually tell us anything about our universe.

Since neither hypothesis makes for a good scientific theory, the only thing we can argue about is which idea is simpler or more likely. The end result is that we end up arguing about what words like "Simple" really mean. From one perspective, a single universe-designing entity seems relatively simple. From another perspective such an entity is prohibitively complex; even more complex than a billion or more alternate universes. At the end of the day, the argument is almost purely subjective.

In this section Dawkins presents a couple of different variations on the multiverse hypothesis. I want to take a bit of time to comment on each of these.

Another form the hypothesis takes is the serial universe model. The idea here is that our universe is destined to collapse in a "big crunch" and when it does a new big bang will occur and a new universe will form. If we assume that this process has been going on for a long enough period of time, then there have might have been a billion universes already and we're living in one that happened to be fit for life.

The big problem with this theory is that not every universe is guaranteed to collapse. In fact, the most recent evidence indicates that our universe is destined to continue expanding indefinitely, so this theory has fallen out of favor.

Another theory that Dawkins brings up is that every time a black hole is formed a new universe is created inside the black hole. The theory is that the universe inside the black hole might "inherit" similar properties to the parent universe. This system creates a lot of universes where black holes can form and, as a side affect, quite a few universes where stars can form and life can evolve.

I don't know much about this theory, so I don't know how all the details are supposed to work out. What happens to he "baby universe" when the black hole evaporates? Or what happens if the parent universe collapses? Dawkins likes this theory because of its superficial resemblance to the theory of evolution, but it seems to me that this theory creates more problems than it solves.

Finally, in both of the above theories, you can't actually observe or interact with these hypothetical alternate universes. In one case the alternate universe exist either before the "big bang" or after a future "big crunch". In another case, the alternate universes hide behind the event horizon of a black hole.

This is important, because if we could interact with these other universes, they wouldn't really be alternate universes at all. They would just be another part of our universe.

This is the final clue that a multiverse hypothesis doesn't really solve the problem. If we suppose that there is more than one universe out there, then we need to consider the laws that govern their creation and existence, just as we do for objects in the universe. Ultimately we will need a new set of laws to explain objects in the multiverse. How likely is it that those laws will be any simpler, any less contrived, than the laws that govern our universe?

In the end, we'll just be asking the exact same questions about the laws of the multiverse that we now ask about the laws of the universe. Where do we go from there? Hopefully, scientists will have more sense than to propose a multi-multiverse.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Missing Piece

Awhile back I wrote a post about homosexuality. Near the top of the post I wrote that I'm not convinced that homosexual activity actually is a sin. Today I'd like to write a little bit more about why that is.

First of all, I want to reaffirm that, even if I was sure that it was sinful, I would still have some concerns about how the church approaches the issue. We live in a world where LGBT individuals are frequently abused and in some cases this leads to tragic results.

The church should always be an institution that stands up against such abuse, no matter who the victims are. Sadly, all too often it is the church that is responsible for the abuse. Even when the church isn't explicitly involved, often times Christian teachings are used as an excuse to justify the abuse. This is tragic and the church ought to take a stand against it.

Still, the reason why I'm not convinced it's a sin don't just stem from concern about the affect this belief has on the larger culture. The main reason why I remain unconvinced is because I don't have enough information. I don't have enough information about the relevant parts of scripture to be certain that homosexuality is a sin but, more importantly, I don't have enough information about the behavior itself.

Most sins have obviously harmful repercussions. Sins like murder, adultery, and theft all have consequences for the victims as well as the people who practice them. Other sins don't have any obvious external repercussions, but they still hurt the people who practice them.

If homosexual activity is a sin, it pretty clearly falls into the latter category. It doesn't harm other people in any way (except, obviously, in cases of rape, but that's a separate issue). If it is a sin, it's because it has some kind of detrimental affect on the people who engage in it.

If that is the case, I have no way of knowing, or understanding, what that affect might be. Since I don't experience the temptation myself, it's hard for me to judge whether or not it is a sinful act. I'm missing the most crucial piece of evidence: the affect that homosexual activity has on the people who engage in it.

Without that piece of information I don't feel comfortable passing judgement on people. The way I see it whatever they do, and whatever they experience as a result, is between them, their partner, and God. It is not my place to stand in judgment over them.

On the other hand, the mistreatment of homosexuals at the hands of Christians determined to carry out what they believe the Bible teaches is something I can see. That kind of sin has obvious consequences. While it is still not my place to pass judgment, I have a duty to point out that this behavior is highly destructive. I have an obligation to speak out against it, and to protect anyone who may be harmed by it. This is a responsibility that all Christians share.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - Deep Inside of a Parallel Universe

First I'd like to apologize for being late with this post. I was a little busy last week and didn't get around to writing a God Delusion post. Anyway, as promised I'm now going to talk about the anthropic principle and how it works as an argument.

As I mentioned last time, the next two sections of chapter four both deal with the anthropic principle. The first section talks about how the anthropic principle applies to the planet earth.

We now know that not all planets are able to support life. In fact there are a number of factors that make our planet and our solar system especially suited for the evolution of complex life. At first this might seem like an odd coincidence, except that if our planet didn't have just the right conditions then we wouldn't be here to talk about it. We'd be on some other planet that is well suited for the evolution of complex life having the same discussion.

Dawkins uses the argument to address the problem of how life appeared on earth in the first place. He argues that even if we discover that it is extremely unlikely that life could have emerged from nonliving matter, say one in a billion, then life still would have appeared because there are almost probably more than a billion habitable planets in the universe.

Here the argument works very well, because we know that there are billions of galaxies containing billions of stars. Of course, we still don't know all of the probabilities. We don't know how likely it is that a given star has an earth-like planet with all the right conditions to support life. We don't know how likely it is that life emerged from nonliving organic compounds. So we can't be certain that life emerging from nonliving organic matter on an earth-like planet is a sure thing, but it does seem reasonable*.

In the next section Dawkins talks about how the anthropic principle applies to the universe as a whole. He mentions the fact that, from the standpoint of contemporary physics, several of the fundamental constants of the universe seem to be "just right" for life, much like our planet and our solar system.

Obviously the same trick won't work here. After all, we can see that the universe is large and it contains a vast quantity of stars, any one of which could contain a life-friendly planetary system. Our universe, on the other hand, is the only one we've got. If this universe wasn't fit for life, then we wouldn't exist. There isn't any other universe for us to evolve in.

Unless we hypothesize, as Mr. Dawkins does, that there are many different universes each with different fundamental constants. Then we could use the same argument to show that the fact that our universe is fit for life is unremarkable.

The fact that Mr. Dawkins is credulous enough to think that a multiverse theory is plausible, after all the incredulity he's shown towards religious beliefs, is shocking. What evidence could anyone provide, either experimentally or observationally, to prove that these alternate universes exist? They aren't a part of our universe at all and they may not be connected with our universe in any way. They are as undetectable as Russell's Celestial Teapot, the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Back in Chapter Two, in the section on Monotheism, Dawkins wrote this to describe the Abrahamic God, "He not only created the universe; he is a personal God, dwelling within it, or perhaps outside it (whatever that may mean)." Notice the incredulity Dawkins shows at the idea that anything could exist "outside" the universe. But where do these alternate universes exist? Certainly they must be "outside" our universe(whatever that may mean). Interestingly the same idea, which seemed absurd coming from a theologian, suddenly seems completely reasonable coming from a theoretical physicist.

So we see that Dawkins is not really a true skeptic. He is a selective skeptic. He is highly skeptical of religious ideas and beliefs, but much less skeptical of scientific-sounding ideas. Even when those ideas have the same amount of evidence, in fact even when it's the exact same idea, the sciencey sounding one is deemed "plausible" while its religious equivalent is considered preposterous.

I have some more thoughts I would like to share on this topic, but I'll save them for next week. I've also discovered, after reviewing chapter four, that I still have one more section to cover. So I hope you're enjoying my coverage of chapter four, because it's going to continue for a couple more weeks.

* Advocates of intelligent design theory disagree. They argue that the appearance of life from non-living matter is so improbable that it is basically impossible. I personally disagree, but I'm not an expert on the subject. If you want to learn more I found a website that provides a rebuttal to the intelligent design argument.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Living in Darkness

I try not to write about politics too much on this blog, but from what I've written it should be pretty clear that I lean pretty far to the left (at least, by American standards). I am one of the few liberal, evangelical Christians. Indeed we're so rare that most people consider the phrase "liberal evangelical" to be a contradiction in terms.

I am often frustrated by the prominence of the religious right in America, and the affect they have on how Christianity is perceived. When I found out that Barack Obama was going to run for President, I thought it would be a great thing. I knew that he was Christian, and deeply religious. If he were elected, I told myself, more people would see that there are Christians who care about poverty, the environment, healthcare, and other important issues that the religious right neglects.

What I didn't expect is that almost two years into his Presidency, 18% of the country would believe that he is actually a Muslim, and an even larger number would be unsure of the President's beliefs.

I've read several articles that try to understand how so many people could be so thoroughly mistaken about the President's beliefs. I'm sure a lot of people are simply misinformed. Conservative media and the religious right have put a lot of energy into spreading the lie that Obama is a Muslim.

I am convinced that this isn't simply a matter of ignorance and misinformation. I'm sure that most of the people who claim that Obama is a Muslim have heard him talk about his Christian faith. I'm sure that plenty of them remember the controversy over his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. They're not ignorant about Obama's professed beliefs. They believe that he is lying about his religious beliefs in order to deceive the American public.

A year ago I wrote about this exact issue. I wrote that it is wrong to accuse people of lying about their religious beliefs. I stand by my original conviction, although I am worried that I didn't phrase my objection strongly enough.

The Apostle John wrote, "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness." When Christians band together to slander our president, a fellow Christian and a brother in Christ, they are surely living in darkness.

The religious right shouldn't be using these kinds of tactics to smear Obama. They should be able to talk about the problems they have with Obama's policies without bringing his religious views into the picture. The fact that they feel the need to resort to these tactics reveals a lot about how many people within the religious right view their faith.

They don't view Christianity as a religion available to anyone, regardless of their culture, politics, ethnicity or nation of origin. Instead they treat Christianity as an exclusive club, where only people with the right credentials are allowed to join, where people all share the same beliefs and opinions.

This kind of exclusive mentality is dangerous. When we have this attitude toward others, it reveals that we don't understand the power of God's forgiveness. Exclusiveness and hatred of fellow believers is also toxic to the faith. It divides Christians against each other and drives people away from Christianity.

Personally, I would love it if more Christians understood the importance of social justice, and became more liberal as a result, but I understand that not every Christian shares my views. I only ask other believers to extend their liberal brothers and sisters the same courtesy.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Compassion at its Limits

Today I'm going to talk about something that my wife and I have been going through recently. I want to share our experience as well as some of the questions it has raised for us. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on these issues.

About a year ago, my wife and I decided to take someone into our home. She is an older woman who attends our weekly Bible study. She was kicked out of the house she had been living in and had no place else to go. We decided to take her in at least until she could get back on her feet.

Since that time we've made ourselves available to her. We've looked into more affordable housing options, programs to help people get back on their feet, and programs to help elderly and disabled people find work. For the most part she ignored our help, and when she did follow up it was only after we had both insisted that she make the call.

We have also tried to support her in other ways, especially by talking with her and praying for her. It has been good, but far from adequate. This woman has suffered from abuse, and she probably needs to see a professional. Unfortunately, she has been reluctant to speak with a therapist about her situation.

Recently, my wife and I both decided that we weren't willing to let this woman stay with us any longer. We have tried everything we could think of to help this woman turn her life around. Unfortunately it seems clear to both of us that the kind of help she needs isn't something we are able to give.

However, the process of arriving at that decision raised a number of interesting questions for us.

1) What is our responsibility toward people in need? How do we help people who are unable to help themselves? What about people who are merely unwilling to help themselves? How do we ensure that everyone is being cared for and everyone is being treated fairly?

2) What do we do when we've reached the limits of compassion? How do we react when we're doing everything we can to help, but things still aren't getting any better? Do we continue caring for others even when we know that it won't make a difference?

3) How do we decide that we've done all we can? When and where do we draw the line, and say that we're not going to continue helping the person? How do we determine if our attempts to "help" are doing more harm than good?

These are just some of the questions we've been thinking about as my wife and I have come to this decision. We've talked about these issues write a bit, but I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on these issues. Please share them with me in the comments.

Friday, September 24, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - The Anthropic Principle and Faith

The next two sections of chapter four both deal with different versions of the anthropic principle. Simply put, the anthropic principle states that any universe (or world) in which intelligent life exists must have the right conditions to allow intelligent life to exist. Therefore the fact that our world and our universe have the right conditions for intelligent life is unremarkable.

On the one hand, it is hard to argue against the anthropic principle, because it is self evidently true (ie it is a tautology). Obviously if the conditions on the earth or in the universe were different, such that intelligent life could not exist, then there wouldn't be any scientists to study it. From this, we can safely conclude that no scientists will ever be able to demonstrate that it is impossible for intelligent life to exist in our universe.

So, in a sense, it is completely unremarkable that our planet and our universe are "just right" for us. Indeed, they could not possibly be anything else. Of course, it is only unremarkable that our universe allows intelligent life to form if intelligent life itself is unremarkable. I do not believe that to be true. Instead I think our existence is very remarkable.

Now, the funny thing about the anthropic principle is that there are a couple of different versions of it. Different people use this principle to make different conclusions. Some people use it to argue for the existence of God, while others use it to argue for the existence of multiple universes.

Dawkins uses the anthropic principle to support the idea that there must be a complete scientific explanation for the emergence of intelligent life. He interprets the anthropic principle as, "Intelligent life exists, therefore there must be a scientific explanation for how intelligent life came to exist." This is only true if we assume that the origin of intelligent life has a scientific explanation.

Dawkins holds the assumption, along with many scientists, that anything that exists (or has existed) has a scientific explanation for its existence. This belief is not based on evidence, or at least not direct evidence. It is a kind of faith, although it is rarely acknowledged as such.

All too often this faith gets a free pass. People who believe in God, or in the resurrection of Jesus, are often ridiculed for believing in something that can't be proven. On the other hand, people who believe that everything that exists has a scientific explanation rarely face ridicule, even though their own beliefs are just as unprovable.

Many scientists, including Dawkins, operate under the assumption that there is ultimately a scientific explanation for everything. The problem (at least in Dawkins' case) is that they seem to think that their own beliefs are indisputably true. That simply isn't the case. There is no guarantee that every problem that scientists attempt to solve has a scientific solution. The scientists believe that a solution exists but until they find it, they can't be sure.

Before I finish this post I want to make something clear. I don't have a problem with scientists who believe that what they're studying has a scientific explanation. In fact, I think it's a good thing. Science wouldn't advance if scientists didn't believe in what they were doing. I just want to point out that the scientist's belief is an act of faith, in much the same way that a religious person's belief in God is an act of faith.

Next week I'll take a closer look at these final sections of chapter four. I'll talk more about how well the anthropic principle works on the planetary and universal scale.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Science and Faith: Explanation vs. Justification

Since I've been reviewing The God Delusion I have been thinking quite a lot about the role of science and religion and how the two relate. It isn't always easy to separate scientific and religious truth claims. There isn't a simple bright line that neatly divides the two fields. Still, it is important to understand what divides the two fields, and how to reasonably draw a line between them.

The best way to do that is to look at the goals of science and religion. Although at times they both tackle the same subjects, both fields have very different goals. Simply put, the goal of science is to provide an explanation, and the goal of religion is to provide a justification.

What do I mean by that? Well, first of all, an explanation is a descriptive model. The goal of an explanation is to provide an understanding of what is happening in a given situation. If our understanding is very good, we should even be able to predict what will happen in certain situations.

Scientific explanations also tend to be reductionist in nature. They explain complex phenomena in relatively simple terms. For explanations, the goal is always to make things as simple as possible, so they can be more easily understood. If the explanation is more complex than the thing you're trying to explain, then it's not a very good explanation.

Justification, on the other hand, works differently. Instead of trying to understand the universe in terms of simpler things like particles and forces, a justification seeks to understand how the universe relates to more complex things, typically God. A justification is able to explain, not just how the universe operates, but how it came to exist, why it is the way it is, and what purpose it has.

Unsurprisingly, most atheists don't think the universe needs any justification. The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russel once said, "The universe is just there." To put it another way, the atheist position is that the universe is self justifying. I have my issues with this, which I've been over many times before. For now I will just conclude with one of my favorite xkcd quotes, "If the question of what it all means doesn't mean anything, then why do I keep coming back to it?"

In any case, I hope this helps you to understand the difference between scientific and religious theories. It may also shed light on many of the conflicts between science and religion. I think it's also helpful for anyone who wants to try to separate out scientific ideas from religious ones. This is useful for anyone who struggles to see how scientific and religious ideas can operate together without one trampling all over the other.

Friday, September 17, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - In Which I Agree With Richard Dawkins Wholeheartedly

The next two sections of Dawkins' book, Irreducible Complexity and The Worship of Gaps, are mostly devoted to explaining the theory of evolution and pointing out the flaws in the so-called theory of intelligent design. As you may have gathered from what I've written so far, I don't have any problems with evolution and I'm not a big fan of intelligent design. As such, I don't have much to write about these sections.

His basic argument is that the success of evolution and the failure of intelligent design should make us suspicious of any attempt to explain the universe in terms of design. I've already discussed the problems with that argument last week and the week before, so I'm not going to do that again. Instead, I'll take the opportunity to point out some of the things Dawkins and I can agree on.

First and foremost, we can agree that the Intelligent Design theory isn't science. It doesn't provide any useful explanations or make any testable predictions. It doesn't give scientists a framework to help them organize their findings or suggest new areas of research.

This is because intelligent design isn't trying to be science. The theory wasn't created by scientists interested in discovering how the natural world works. It was created by religious people interested in controlling what textbooks said about how the natural world works.

It is unfortunate, for many reasons, that so many Christians are so heavily invested in controlling science education in the United States. The most obvious reason is that a large number of people are actively trying to sabotage science education. Every success the movement wins makes our children more ignorant about the biological sciences.

The second problem is that this kind of polarization has a chilling effect on scientific research. Researchers normally seek out problems and potential challenges to a theory. They do this so that they can conduct further research and see if the problem or challenge can be resolved. When you have a group like the ID movement latching on to such problem areas as "proof" that evolution doesn't work it makes it difficult for researchers to do their job.

The last problem I'm going to talk about is one that Dawkins isn't concerned with. The biggest problem I have with the intelligent design movement is that it directly harms Christianity's reputation. It creates the false impression that Christianity and evolution are mutually incompatible, an impression that Dawkins seems to think is correct.

Moreover, it creates the impression, among educated people, that Christians are either backwards, uneducated, or simply unconcerned with the truth. This creates an obvious credibility problem for Christians everywhere.

There, I've now written an entire post about something Dawkins and I agree on. I apologize if your pet pig sprouts wings and flies away, but I'm afraid it couldn't be helped.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Science and the Miraculous

About a month ago I talked about miracles. I explained that miracles don't have to be big, flashy displays that defy the laws of science. As I explained a miracle is anything that reveals God's character to us.

This is why many bizarre phenomena, such as ball lightning, that defy scientific explanation aren't considered miraculous. They don't reveal anything about God's character.

Of course, there are some miracles that illustrate God's character as well as his power over nature. Things that seem impossible, or at least very improbable. Many people struggle to believe in Christianity because of the accounts miracles in scripture. They aren't sure how to reconcile a belief in supernatural miracles with a scientific worldview.

It is a problem. If we believe that scientific knowledge provides a complete and accurate understanding of the universe, then we have to concede that these kinds of miracles are impossible. Of course, our present scientific understanding is far from complete. More to the point, I don't believe that the scientific method can ever give us a complete understanding of the universe in which we live.

First and foremost, scientists can only study phenomena and events that are repeatable. Repeatable, in this case, meaning that the events can be reproduced in some sort of predictable fashion. If there are any events or phenomena that cannot be reproduced in this fashion, then science is unable to explain them. Supernatural miracles fall into this category, because God causes them when and where he choses. Since we cannot reproduce the event, we are unable to study it scientifically.

Some people might argue that, if supernatural miracles do occur, we should see more evidence of them. Specifically, one might argue that if such miracles were commonplace, then it would be difficult for scientists to produce such elegant theories that explain so much about our universe.

This only shows us that such miracles are rare, and that God prefers to work through natural laws, rather than against them. The only way we can conclude that supernatural miracles never occur is if we assume that the laws of nature are absolutely true at all times. We can accept scientific knowledge without coming to this conclusion.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - When All You Have is a Hammer

I have a confession to make. I think Dawkins is probably quite a bit smarter than I am. I know he is much more well educated than I am. So why don't I defer to his superior intellect and expertise?

The simple answer is that I do, when it comes to evolutionary biology. The man knows a lot more than I do about that subject, having studied it for most of his adult life, and I trust his opinions in that field.

The problem is that even when he's discussing radically different fields of knowledge, he still thinks like an evolutionary biologist. He has this strange idea that the understanding he's gained in his field, the knowledge and information he's acquired through many long hours of studying, can be just as easily applied in any other discipline.

Or at least, I assume that's what's going on. It's the only way I can explain the content of this next section. He writes that the theory of natural selection should make us suspicious of any sort of design hypothesis. He says that it should raise our awareness to the fact that there may be other possible explanations whenever a design explanation seems necessary.

The problem with this approach is that it fails to consider how other scientific disciplines differ from biology. A biologist can rely on the laws of physics and chemistry to explain how DNA and RNA works, how mutations happen, how environments change, and how creatures survive and reproduce, all of which goes into explaining how complex life evolved.

A physicist or cosmologist trying to come up with an explanation for the origin of the universe doesn't have that advantage. As I discussed last week, such discussions really fall outside the realm of pure science and into philosophy and metaphysics.

Still, let us suppose for a moment that the complex and wonderful universe we find ourselves isn't the result of design, but instead is the result of some kind of emergent complexity. Emergent complexity happens when a simple initial state, governed by simple rules, is able to produce complex, interesting results.

As an example, let us look at Conway's Game of Life. The rules to the Game of Life are very simple, and given certain initial conditions it can produce complex, interesting results. It is a tool meant to illustrate the power of emergent complexity.

If we assume that the universe works like a more sophisticated version of the Game of Life, then we have to consider the fact that the rules for the Game of Life weren't arbitrarily selected. Those rules were chosen specifically to allow for emergent complexity. Additionally, not every initial state in the Game of Life produces emergent complexity. Most of them fizzle out or fall into a stable, repeating pattern after a few generations.

If anything, the Game of Life illustrates the problem of trying to use emergent complexity to explain the universe's origins without appealing to some cosmic designer. Emergent complexity only works under very specific conditions. It's extremely unlikely that those conditions would come about by pure chance.

So emergent complexity, as an explanation, doesn't eliminate the need for a designer. It just gives the designer a new job description.

Coming back to the point I made earlier, the reason Dawkins doesn't see this flaw is because he studies evolutionary biology. He's used to studying emergent complexity. He doesn't give much thought to the conditions that make emergent complexity possible.

He takes those conditions for granted. The conditions that make life possible in the universe, and specifically on earth, aren't of much interest to biologists. The laws that govern the formation of complex matter, that govern the formation of stars and planets, that describe the orbit of a planet around a star, all fall outside of Dawkins' area of expertise.

As a biologist, he takes it for granted that our universe, and the earth, are able to support life, as well he should. However, as someone seeking to understand the nature of the universe, he needs to think about these issues. Otherwise he might miss out on the answer to one of mankind's most important questions, "Does God exist and if so what is he like?"

If Dawkins is going to convince people that God doesn't exist, he's going to have to learn to take this question a little more seriously.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God

Hello everyone, I'm sorry this post is so late. I've had a rough week. Anyway, I'm back on track now and with any luck I should have my next post about The God Delusion up later today.

In my original post about the Kingdom of God, I talked about five different ways of thinking about the subject. So far I have talked about how the Kingdom of God relates to politics, religion, society and morality. Today I'm going to talk about the role of the Holy Spirit. I'd also like to tie these ideas together.

Let me begin by quickly recapping what we've discussed so far.

In the sphere of politics, Jesus taught us to change the world through love and service, rather than through force. In the area of religion, we see that Jesus' teachings allowed his followers to enjoy fellowship outside their traditional religious divides. In the area of society, Jesus gave us a vision of radical social and economic equality. Finally, in the area of morality, Jesus taught about the centrality and importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

If I were to choose one word to summarize everything that we've gone over so far, it would be impractical. It is impractical to try to govern people through love and service. It is impractical to expect deeply religious people to embrace people from other religions. It is impractical to ask people to give away their possessions to feed the poor. It is impractical to set up a moral system that insists that even the most wretchedly immoral people should be forgiven.

So far all we have is a collection of high ideals and noble ambitions. We have a beautiful vision, but we have no way to turn that vision into a reality.

This is where the Holy Spirit enters the picture. The Holy Spirit is God's presence with us and around us, helping us to make God's Kingdom a reality.

Without the Holy Spirit, what you have is a Kingdom without a King. There is no source of power; no punishment or threat of coercion; no way to force people to do what they should. This is because God's Kingdom is not built using traditional means. Instead it is the power of the Holy Spirit which forms the Kingdom of God. A power that loves us, guides us, and shows us the way, instead of using force to make us act against our will.

It is the power of the Spirit that inspires people to love and serve, rather than ruling through fear. It is the Holy Spirit that convinces us of the truth of Jesus' death and resurrection, as well as showing us what that means in our lives. It is the Holy Spirit that inspires us to give generously, allowing us to build a more just society. Finally, it is the Holy Spirit that transforms us so that we follow the moral example and teachings of Jesus.

This is the crucial work of the Holy Spirit. It prepares and enables us to live in God's Kingdom and to make God's Kingdom a reality here on earth.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - The Probability of the Necessity of the Impossibility of God’s Existence

Today we begin chapter four and, at long last, we finally come to Dawkins' main argument against the existence of God.

He begins by sharing an old argument that may be familiar to some of you. It is the argument that the probability of life originating on earth is no greater than the odds that a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard would, by sheer luck, put together a working Boeing 747. Dawkins makes the point that, however unlikely it is that life first appeared on earth without divine intervention, it is even more unlikely that such a divine being would exist in order to intervene in the first place. In his words, God is the ultimate Boeing 747.

The problem with the argument is that there is a big difference between God and living creatures. Simple organisms are made up of tiny pieces that can be taken apart and put together. In this sense theories of how the first life form emerged are similar to explanations of how a jet airplane might be put together out of a random collection of parts.

This argument only works as an argument against God's existence if we assume that God is made up of tiny pieces that were, at some point in time, randomly assembled. This is very different from the traditional Christian view that God consists of one substance and has always existed.

Comparing the existence of God to the emergence of life is a poor analogy. It is more appropriate to compare the existence of God to the existence of the universe itself. To that end, let us talk about the existence of the universe.

We don't know how the universe came to exist, but we can safely say that there are three possibilities.

First of all, the universe may have always existed. As I've already mentioned, what we know from science makes this unlikely, if not impossible. According to the big bang theory, the universe has a discrete beginning in time. Also, if the universe were eternally old, then the entropy of the universe would have maxed out a long time ago.

Second, the universe may have created itself. The universe may have simply blinked into existence without any assistance from an outside force. It seems absurd to me that anything should be able to create itself, let alone a universe which has no mental faculties or decision making abilities, but some people consider it a possibility.

Finally, the universe may have been created by something else. Whether that something else is God or a prior universe or some kind of universe factory. Of course, whatever created the universe will need a similar account of it's own existence. It either has always existed, created itself, or was created by something else. (This leads to a potential infinite regress, which also seems absurd.)

Given the possibilities, I think that the most likely one, by far, is the claim that the universe was created by something else. Furthermore I consider it most likely that that something else, unlike the universe, does not suffer from entropy and is therefore able to exist eternally.

I realize that some people, like Dawkins, consider the existence of a creator God absurd, but is it any less absurd than the claim that the universe created itself, or that our universe was created by something that was created by something that was created by something, going back forever?

In any case, probabilistic arguments rooted in science can't weigh in on the issue. Scientific arguments have no place in this debate. Scientifically speaking, each of these ideas is impossible. It is impossible for something to create itself, it is impossible for something to exist forever, and it is impossible that the universe was created by something else, that was created by something else, ad infinitum. Each of these things is impossible, and yet one of them must have occurred.

Dawkins claims that the existence of God is extremely unlikely. Even if that's the case, I would argue that it isn't any less likely than the alternatives. Besides, Dawkins' whole argument that God's existence is extremely unlikely hinges on the assumption that God is similar to an amoeba.

If there is any similarity between God and an amoeba, it is that they both exist. Aside from that, they don't have very much in common.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Growing Up and Getting a Job

I'd like to take a moment to comment on an article I read recently on the New York Times. This article, like many I've read before, tries very hard to answer the question on their readers' minds. What the hell is wrong with young people these days?

They phrase it more politely than that of course, but it's pretty clear what they're driving at. They want to know why young people won't settle down, finish school, find a job, get married, and have kids. I've read dozens of articles in major newspapers with this exact same question, this exact same complaint.

I'm going to focus on the issue of finding a job, because that's the issue I happen to be the most familiar with (and also one of the most common complaints). I also think that most of the other issues are tied in with that one.

This article is actually slightly encouraging in that it acknowledges that the economy is doing poorly, and expecting young people to just go out there and find a job right away isn't exactly realistic. This realization comes a little late in my opinion. Even when the economy was doing well, there was always a real shortage of entry level jobs.

I graduated with a computer science degree in 2005. I was surprised at how little help I received with finding a job. No one pointed me in the direction of companies looking for interns or entry level programmers. Nobody gave me any advice on how to design my resume or interview well. I went online looking for advice, but I found most of it to be either obvious, unhelpful or contradictory.

I applied for several companies that I never heard back from. The one interview I did get didn't go anywhere. Since then I've been applying for programming jobs off and on without any success.

I signed up with a temp agency and managed to get a few different job placements. None of them were amazing jobs, but I would have been glad to stay with them if they had hired me full time. None of them did.

While I was a temp I worked at a lot of different places for a variety of different bosses. Some of them were okay, but some of them were downright capricious. I remember being told by one company that the person I was working for was an impossible man with unrealistic expectations. I wasn't the first person who had been let go with little to no reason, and the HR person was getting frustrated trying to find someone who could satisfy him.

Most of the time I would work hard and finish an assignment much earlier than was expected. My reward for finishing my responsibilities in a timely manner was a swift return to the unemployment line.

At which point I would come home and read another article about how young people are just too lazy to find a job.

As the economic meltdown continues, we're going to have to learn how to solve these problems. If we're ever going to return to full employment, companies are going to have to suck it up and start hiring inexperienced workers. They can't rely on some other company to train their workforce for them.

At the same time, middle aged men and women are going to have to get over their naked hatred of lazy twenty-somethings. They'll have to learn how to put aside their prejudice and understand that, properly employed, we can be valuable and productive members of society. They just need someone pointing them in the direction of a job that needs doing.

I don't think we're going to solve any of these problems anytime soon. I expect this financial crisis will continue for quite awhile. In the meantime I expect that the older generation's disdain for the younger generation will continue unabated. Of course, this disdain is only reinforcing the economic crisis that hurts all of us, but I don't think the older generation has quite figured that out yet.

Here's to hoping they figure it out before unemployment hits 25%.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Miracles and Signs

Most of the time, when people use the word "miracle" they're talking about an event that is clearly impossible. Something that violates the laws of physics. Something that defies everything we know about the world works.

Sometimes the term is used differently. Sometimes the word is used to describe an event that is entirely possible, even expected, that still manages to evoke a sense of awe and wonder in us. As an example, people often refer to the miracle of childbirth, even though giving birth to a child is the natural result of pregnancy.

The reason we have this second usage is because miracles don't merely refer to unlikely or impossible occurrences. It refers to events that reveal God to us. It refers to events that demonstrate God's power as well as his character.

Sometimes these events are called signs. That term is helpful because that's what these events are. They are signs that point us to God. They show us who God is and what he is like.

Everyone loves a flashy sign, an extravagant miracle that displays Gods power and majesty. Unfortunately the smaller, less visible signs are often overlooked. We don't always recognize or appreciate the smaller ways in which God reveals himself to us.

Partly this is because those smaller signs are so often lost in the noise and confusion that the world generates. However, I think a large part of the reason why this happens is because we learn to take those little signs for granted.

As wonderful as it can be to experience a truly incredible miracle, we must be careful not to lose sight of the less spectacular, but far more commonplace miracles. We should be mindful of all the little ways that God makes his goodness, his righteousness and his majesty known to us through everyday occurrences. If we can learn to do this we will never lack a reminder of who God is and what he has done for us.

Friday, August 27, 2010

TGD: The Miracle of Belief

Back in chapter two I talked about how Dawkins uses an appeal to ridicule to advance his argument. I suspect this appeal is effective for a lot of people because they share his assumption that religious beliefs are silly, especially any kind of belief in miracles.

In the preface Dawkins said that he hoped this book would convince even religious readers to become atheists. I can see it working in some cases. There are, after all, quite a few people who don't believe in miracles, but still cling to religious beliefs for any number of reasons. I can see such individuals deciding to become atheists after reading this book.

However, I don't think the book will have much of an impact on people who seriously believe in miracles. The only message that this book offers such people is captured perfectly by the title. The message is this, "If you believe in miracles, then you're delusional." I don't think that's an argument that most religious people will be able to accept, especially if they've experienced a miracle themselves.

On the other hand, for people who haven't experienced a miracle and who have no religious background, Dawkins' argument works fairly well. If you accept the basic premise, then you'll probably find the central argument of this book persuasive. I have done what I can to show that there is still good reason to believe that miracles do occur, but I realize that those arguments aren't entirely persuasive.

I know that in my case, I only started to believe because I had the good fortune to experience the power of God in a miraculous way. As such, I'm sympathetic to people who don't believe that miracles are possible at all. I was that way for a long time. For most people I suspect it's one of those things you have to see to believe.

I know I'm not likely to convince my more skeptical readers, but I hope that I can at least give them some understanding of where religious people are coming from. It's easy to read a book like The God Delusion and come away with the impression that religious people are all gullible or delusional or just stupid. Hopefully, by reading these posts you can gain a slightly broader perspective on what religious people are actually like.

Next week I'm going to get started on chapter four of The God Delusion. We finally get to take a look at Dawkins' argument against the existence of God. I hope you'll stick around.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is the "Food Court Gangster" a THQ Customer?

I'm doing something a little unusual with this post. I still plan to write about The God Delusion this week, but today I want to write about a recent Penny Arcade strip and the controversy it generated.

Recently, the video-game developer THQ decided to include some extra features that would only be available to first time buyers. They announced that they don't care about upsetting people who buy used games. The webcomic Penny Arcade made a hilarious comic and wrote a news-post commenting on the situation. (For those who don't follow the comic The "Food Court Gangster" is the name of the character in the comic who buys his games used).

In both the comic and the news-post, the author makes the point that THQ has no problem upsetting people who buy used games because those people aren't their customers. They are customers of Gamestop, a retail outlet that, in addition to selling new games, buys and sells a large volume of used games.

Now there's a lot of truth to this. Game publishers and developers don't make any money from the sale of used games. If that was all that they had said, I probably wouldn't have felt the need to comment, but in the news-post Tycho goes further than that. He writes that buying used games is equivalent to piracy. "From the the perspective of a developer," he writes, "They are almost certainly synonymous."

That statement is problematic for two reasons. One, because it equates the legal act of buying a used game with the illegal act of downloading that game from a file sharing network. Two, because it ignores the economic impact of buying and selling used games.

While it is true that the "Food Court Gangster" isn't a THQ customer, Gamestop is. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say that Gamestop is probably one of THQ's biggest customers. If Gamestop makes money buying and selling used games, that's money they can use to stay in business and buy more games. Remember, without the sale of new games, there is no used game market for them to make money on.

Additionally, the sale of used games has an indirect effect of selling more games. Let's say Bob is thinking about buying a game, but isn't sure that it's worth the $60 price tag. If Bob knows that he can resell the game later for five or ten bucks, he's more likely to go ahead and spend the money. Plus, the money Bob makes selling used games can be used to buy more new games.

Let's put it this way, suppose video game companies could stop Gamestop from selling used games altogether. How many Gamestops would be able to stay in business after one of their primary revenue streams is cut off? Let's say that half of the Gamestops are able to stay in business. Would this be a good thing for the game industry?

I know that game developers and game publishers would like to make money on the sale of used games. The recording industry would like to make money on the sale of used CDs, and the publishing industry would like to make money on the sale of used books, but that's not the way copyright works.

If you own the copyright on a particular work you get to control who gets to make copies of that work. You don't get to control what a person does with their copy after it's been made. We might feel bad that Gamestop makes a lot of money on the sale of used games, but that doesn't make it wrong or illegal.

Going back to the original event that sparked the discussion, I don't think THQ's decision to make some content available only to first time buyers is so bad. However, I think game companies need to be careful. If they punish people who buy their games used too much, they might find out that those people are their customers after all.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Lost Art of Lament

What do we do when we've lost hope? How do we respond when the one person we thought we could count on lets us down? Where do we turn for comfort when we feel certain that God has abandoned us?

The answer is simple: we cry out. We cry out to God whether he is there or not. We cry out to God whether he is listening or not. We cry out to God whether he rescues us or not. Even though we feel certain that he's not there, that he isn't listening and that he most certainly is not going to rescue us, we cry out anyway.

This act of crying out to God is called lamenting and it is something of a lost art, especially in the evangelical church. Even though scripture is full of laments, most Christians are unwilling to share laments of their own. Many are skeptical of laments, even the ones that appear in scripture.

I can understand why. Laments are so often filled with difficult questions, either asked or unasked. Most people come to religion looking for answers. The last thing they want to encounter is more questions.

As a result, most churches don't spend a lot of time lamenting. This is unfortunate, because I think a good lament might be just the thing we need.

In the world we live in, not every question has an easy answer, and not every problem has a straightforward solution. In fact, I suspect that there are a few important questions that don't have any answer, and some problems that simply defy solution.

In any case, religion certainly can't provide all the answers or all the solutions, no matter how hard it tries. We need to be honest about that. And if we want to be honest about that, then we should learn how to lament properly. We need to learn how to ask the questions we don't have the answer to, instead of pretending we already have all the answers.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scott Pilgrim

I realize that I haven't been terribly consistent with my posting lately. This post and last week's post were both late, and I haven't done a post on The God Delusion in the past two weeks. I'm sorry about the delays. My life has been a little bit crazy lately. Hopefully I should be back on schedule next week with a post on Monday and another post on The God Delusion by next Friday. In the meantime, I hope you'll be patient with me.

Short Version: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the best movie to come out in a long time. If you have any interest in video games, offbeat romantic comedies, or highly original movies, you should go see it right now.

Longer version: This Friday I went with a group of friends to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. A few weeks prior I got the chance to borrow the graphic novels from a friend. I enjoyed the books, but I was skeptical that the movie would be able to condense the story enough while still preserving the spirit of the comics. In fact, the movie did an even better job than I had dared to hope.

The movie takes all the weirdness of Scott Pilgrim's world and puts it on the screen, without trying to rationalize it or explain it away. It adopts the conventions of comic books and video games in new and interesting ways. I feel like this movie is pointing the way forward for comic book and video game adaptations.

More importantly though, the movie has excellent writing and a great story. Beneath all the silliness and absurdity the movie has a surprising amount of depth. The fights may seem unrealistic, but the way the characters interact and grow and change is very authentic.

Scott Pilgrim is a great movie. It's also a movie that groks contemporary geek culture. I honestly didn't expect to see a movie like this for at least another five or ten years, if ever. I'm so used to mainstream culture demonizing gamers that I'm surprised that a movie like this, which celebrates gaming culture, got made.

Of course, getting a movie like that made is one thing. Getting it to be successful is something else entirely. Although it got great reviews (excluding a few people who decided to review the audience instead of the movie) the movie isn't doing that well in the box office.

I'm hopeful that the movie will end up being successful. Once word of mouth gets around, I expect a lot more people will come and see it, and in any case it's pretty much destined to become a cult classic. So I think that in the long run the film will definitely be a success.

Still, I would like to see the movie do well in the short term. For one ting, the people who made it deserve a solid return on investment. For another thing, I'd like to see how the reviewers who panned the film react when it becomes a much loved classic.

We will see what happens. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Hardest Subject

Today I'm going to talk about something I've never talked about before despite the fact that it is a central aspect of the Christian religion. I'm going to talk about God's judgement. More to the point I'm going to talk about Hell, whether or not it exists, and who ends up there.

I've never talked about this subject before for two simple reasons. One, it's an incredibly sensitive topic for obvious reasons. Two, I don't have many strong convictions in this area. I have some strong opinions, but I'm not entirely sure of those opinions.

However, as long as I remain silent, most people will probably assume that I hold the traditional protestant view. Namely, that Hell is real and terrible and that anyone who doesn't confess their faith in Jesus during their life will spend eternity there. I may not be entirely sure that my beliefs are correct, but I strongly believe this view is wrong. If only for that reason, I should probably let you know what my beliefs concerning the final judgement actually are.

First of all, I have a hard time believing that every single adult* who isn't a Christian at the time of their death will be judged. Far too many people have lived and died having never even had an opportunity to become Christian. Many more people only know of Jesus through the message spread by crusaders and conquistadors, men whose actions contradict and pervert the message of Christ.

It seems far more reasonable to me to assume that they mercy God has shown through Jesus on the cross isn't meant only for Christians. I don't claim to know exactly how far God's mercy extends, but I am very uncomfortable putting limits on it. I am especially uncomfortably limiting it only to those people who hear about Jesus and believe in him while they are still alive.

As I write this, I know that many evangelicals who read this would probably cringe at this suggestion that God's mercy isn't reserved just for them. "If God's just going to let everyone into heaven anyway, then why bother evangelizing?" they would probably ask.

Simply put, I believe that being Christian is about more than merely reserving a seat in heaven. I think that following Jesus has something to do with participating in the Kingdom of God, which has begun and even now is growing silently and invisibly all around us, but I'll save that discussion for a future post.

Second, I have a hard time believing that God would send anyone to an actual, eternal Hell. I once had a discussion with a friend at church who said, bluntly, that the only reason anyone believes in Hell is because of Dante's inferno. This is an exaggeration, to be sure, but it's probably more true than we'd like to admit. I also think Pascal's notorious wager has something to do with why so many people continue to believe in Hell. For many people, fear of Hell is what convinced them to become Christian in the first place.

In addition, there are some deep philosophical reasons why many Christians believe in an eternal Hell. Most Christians believe in the immortality of the soul. In fact, most Christians assume that this belief is a core part of the Christian faith, even though the Bible doesn't make that claim.

Because they have this assumption, when they read about God punishing the wicked, they assume that the punishment must be eternal. They don't consider the possibility that the person's soul could die, even though this punishment is referred to as, "The second death." They ignore the obvious interpretation because of their belief in the immortality of the soul.

A great book to read if you're interested in learning more about alternative views about Hell is The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. It's written for a popular audience, which makes it an excellent antidote for The Inferno.

So, what do I believe concerning the final judgement? I believe that God is merciful and his judgments are just. I trust that God won't be harsh or unfair in his judgments. For that reason, I have hard time believing the traditional view. The traditional view may provide certainty, but if we really trust God then I think we can handle a little uncertainty.

* Most evangelicals believe that children under a certain age are exempt from judgment. This is called the "Age of accountability". There isn't much basis in scripture for this belief, but most people are uncomfortable with a theology that condemns infants to Hell just because they weren't baptized.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Science, Gambling, and the Odds

In the last three sections Dawkins deals with arguments for God's existence that, in my opinion, aren't terribly convincing. In this post I'll try to go over all three sections so we can be done with chapter three and move on to the heart of Dawkins' argument.

In the first of these three sections Dawkins writes about the "appeal to respected scientists". The gist of this argument is that many well respected scientists have believed in God, therefore you should as well.

The argument is a kind of appeal to authority, and not a very good one. Scientists aren't in a better position to know whether or not God exists than anyone else.

In any case, Dawkins points out that these days very few notable scientists are religious in the traditional sense. Quite a few are religious in the 'Einsteinian' sense, which Dawkins decided to lump in with atheism back in chapter one.

This argument seems more relevant to the question of whether or not religion and science are compatible, but I'm not going to bring up that subject again. For now let me just say that the belief, or lack thereof, of scientists has no bearing on the question of whether or not God exists.

In the next section Dawkins discuses Pascal's wager. This isn't an argument for God's existence so much as an argument for why you should believe he exists.

The wager works like this. If God doesn't exist then it doesn't matter one way or the other if you believe in him or not. On the other hand if God does exist then you'll be better off if you believe in him than if you don't. So you should believe in God, in case he does exist.

Dawkins points out to problems with the argument. First, the argument assumes that there is only one possible God that might exist. The argument doesn't deal with the possibility that you might choose the wrong God to believe in.

Second, Dawkins points out that deciding to believe something is not simply a matter of choice, at least, not for him. In order to believe something you need to have some evidence for it. Otherwise you're just paying lip service.

I hate to pile on old Pascal, but I have a few additional problems with the argument. First, it assumes you have a traditional view of heaven and hell, which is not a belief I'm committed to (and it's certainly not a belief I want to promote for the sake of a bad argument).

Finally, the wager only works if you assume that believing in God doesn't cost anything. If, on the other hand, believing in God is something that could potentially cost you your life or your freedom, then the argument doesn't work so well. The argument certainly doesn't convince us to obey Jesus when he tells us to give up everything we have and follow him.

The final argument that Dawkins brings up is one that I've never heard of before. The argument comes from a book called, "The Probability of God". In it, the author uses Bayesian methods to determine the odds that God exists.

I am fond of Bayes' theorem, but this argument doesn't sound like a very good one. Based on Dawkins' description it seems like the man took a very informal argument for God's existence, assigned numbers to various factors that make it more or less likely that God exists, and then used Bayes' theorem to come up with a final probability.

Since I'm not familiar with the argument, I have no way of knowing if Dawkins misrepresented it, but it didn't sound very convincing to me. If you're curious, you can always buy the book. If nothing else, you'll learn how to use Bayes' theorem, which is worthwhile enough.

In any case, we're now finished with chapter three. In a few weeks I will return with chapter four.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Morality Clubs and the Kingdom of God

As you may recall, awhile back I talked about the Kingdom of God; specifically, I talked about a few of the more commonly held views of what the Kingdom of God is. Since then I've talked about how the Kingdom of God relates to politics, religion, and society. Today I'm going to continue the series by talking about how the Kingdom of God relates to morality.

The view that the Kingdom of God is essentially an ethical system is very common. Many people believe that the Kingdom of God is just a moral code that people are obligated to follow. People who hold this view usually try to ensure that people obey the moral principles which they equate with the Kingdom of God.

In principle this is a nice idea, but in practice it often leads to the creation of "morality clubs"; groups whose sole purpose is to make sure that everyone (or at least, everyone in the group) follows the correct moral code. These groups are usually manipulative. They use shame and guilt to control people's behavior. They also lead people to become very judgmental towards each other and even towards themselves.

If you're familiar with the gospels, you will probably recognize that this is not how Jesus treated people. Jesus was kind and affectionate to even the worst of the worst. Strangely, he was the most critical of people who were working hard to be paragons of virtue. Jesus did not look favorably on the morality clubs that existed in his day.

Obviously, Jesus did present a set of morals in his teachings, but at the center of his teachings were several teachings on mercy and forgiveness. God's mercy and forgiveness, which Paul described as grace, lies at the heart of Jesus' ethical teachings. If we understand Jesus' teaching on this matter, we will see that it is the perfect antidote to morality clubs, both in our time and in Jesus' time.

According to this teaching, being completely wicked is not the worst thing a person can do. The most evil thing that we can do is be good and consider ourselves superior to the people who aren't as good as we are. According to Jesus, this judgmental attitude is always worse than the evil deeds done by the people we judge.

If we follow this teaching, if we put forgiveness first, then we lose the right to control or manipulate others. We cannot use guilt or shame to get people to behave the way they should. Instead, we are asked to freely extend forgiveness to everyone and trust God to do what is right.

If we follow this teaching, it will free us from these kinds of manipulative morality clubs. It will also free us from the deep injustices of our society. Of course, if we follow this teaching, we will also come to understand that no one follows it perfectly, and we don't have any way to force them to comply.

That lack of control is a problem for many people. That's why so many people prefer their morality club to the true kingdom of God. Such groups are safer and easier to control. But they aren't truly God's kingdom, and they never will be.