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.