Sedalia, MI makes Christians look bad

Posted on August 31st, 2009 — permalink

[T-Shirt Image]

You’ve probably seen this if you follow the science blogosphere at all. The Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, MI has done a forced recall on T-shirts made for their band. Why? Because the T-shirt riffed on the classic “primate turning into human” motif used as a symbol for evolution.

Parents got all upset about this— the shirt didn’t even promote evolution, it just referred to it. I can’t help but wonder if parents in similarly backward and ignorant communities might object to iconography of Greek mythology on shirts related to sports teams named appropriately? Or, are they smart enough there to recognize that just because somebody used a very recognizable image, it doesn’t mean that it’s true? Asserting that the Greek gods are real is, of course, anathema to a strict interpretation of Fundamentalist Christianity, just like evolution.

And, of course, there’s also the fact that evolution is real. That there was such an uproar that the school had to repossess the shirts really just makes Christians in America look backward, ignorant, and in denial of reality. It gives fuel to the fire of those who would argue that being religious is inconsistent with accepting modern science— for, assuredly, religion is the reason why many Americans refuse to accept modern science. Those who are small-minded and knee-jerk in their reactions to things that challenge their interpretation of their religion go nuts when a school “associates itself” with Evolution. And, in so doing, it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to remind the world that religion doesn’t necessarily lead to bad science. It’s just extreme wingnut religion that does.

The principal of the school repossessed the shirts claiming that the law required the school to remain neutral on the subject of religion. This is, of course, complete bullshit, because the shirt didn’t say anything about religion at all. There is a difference between saying anything about religion, and doing something that might offend some religious sensibilities. This argument he makes is essentially the “politically correct” argument. Yes, usually one associates “politically correct oversensitivity” with political forces on the left, but the truth is that this behavior can come from either side of the political spectrum; it’s just a matter of which sensibilities they are oversensitive to.

Rejection of Evolution is just as obsolete a religious concept as is the geocentric Solar System. That something like half of the USA doesn’t agree with this doesn’t make it any less true. If we’re going to object to iconography associated with Evolution, we really ought also to reject to any iconography that suggests the planets orbit the Sun.


My message to creationist Christians about faith and science

Posted on August 10th, 2009 — permalink

You can still accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, while accepting all of the wonderful things that modern science has taught us about our Universe.

I know there are many Christians out there who believe in Biblical inerrancy— that it is the literal word of God, and that each and every word must be literally true. What I want to convince you is that you can take a broader view without losing what is essential about being Christian. You need not abandon your faith in order to accept Evolution or the Big Bang, but you will need to think about it in certain ways.

The wonder and beauty of our Universe is amazing. And, by this, I’m not just referring to the tremendously beautiful images we’ve seen come out of astronomy. Rather, I’m referring to the beauty that is inherent in what all fields of science have discovered. The fact that we can understand how natural processes work, that we can make predictions about them and learn about things that happened millions of years ago, is astonishing. Science is a creative human endeavor, the greatest works of which are on par with Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Indeed, that there are harmonies intrinsically pleasing in music is in fact the result of one of the observations of science— that mathematics is the language that seems to describe the mechanisms of the natural world. Musical pitches come in resonances as a result of the mathematics of wave mechanics. Similarly, the fundamental things about our world that we know to be true are beautiful when understood. That protons, neutrons, and electrons can combine together in ways not just to produce the fascinating and complicated things that we call atoms, but can on larger scales produce elephants and trees and waterfalls, is mind-boggling. What’s even more amazing is that we can understand how all of this works through science, and through science we can come to more deeply appreciate the beauty of our Universe.

There are some things science has taught us that make clear that all of the Bible cannot be read as literal history. Humans as a species evolved from earlier species, as did all other species present on Earth today. The Universe is billions of years old, several times older than the 4.5 billion years that is the age of our Solar System. Evolution and the Big Bang are two of the main things that creationists object to. Yet, they are lynch pins of their scientific fields, biology and astronomy respectively, without which much of the rest of the field doesn’t make sense. Everyday experience— be it modern medicine, or the unmanned spacecraft we’ve sent through the Solar System— indicates that these fields are on to something, for we’ve been able to use them to great effect.  It just doesn’t make sense to throw out these lynchpins, and then, by necessity, much of the rest of those fields.

However, just because the Bible cannot all be literally true does not mean that it cannot be true. Before the wedding of a good friend of mine, the Episcopal minister told a parable about Biblical literalism. He said that, suppose after they’ve been married a few years, Mike gets home from work before Margo, and is tremendously moved watching a very beautiful sunset. When Margo comes home, Mike wants to convey this to her. Does he say, “because cross-section for scattering of light is higher at shorter wavelengths, a greater fraction of longer wavelength light was transmitted through the atmosphere, allowing a preferentially red hue to reach the clouds overhead”? No… that doesn’t really convey how he was moved by the sunset. Rather he says, “The sky was on fire!” Does he literally mean that there was a runaway exothermic process of Oxygen combining with other molecules in the sky above? No! And, yet, the latter statement better conveys what he is really trying to say than does the factually true statement.

Jesus himself taught in parables. Humans frequently learn and pass on understanding through stories, and we frequently are able to internalize and relate to lessons when they are taught in the form of stories. As such, there is truth in many of the Bible stories that we know from modern science cannot be literally true. If you think about it, the Bible becomes more interesting, and indeed worthy of greater thought, if you realize that the divinely inspired Word of God need not be a mere dictation of historical events, but rather are stories that we are meant to think about and learn from, and to bring new things to as we come to understand more about our Universe.

You can find some prominent science bloggers who will assert that it is not consistent both to fully accept modern science, and to hold religious faith. They are wrong. Science addresses the mechanisms of the natural world. It is true that in the past, when we didn’t understand the natural world as we do today, we used religion to explain how some things happened. Today, however, science has proven to be the process whereby we can understand how the world works. But science does not provide meaning. This is why I am asking you, if you are a creationist, to please consider that your faith can remain an important part of your life, even if you cast away the need to deny things that humanity knows to be true as a result of the efforts of modern science.

Did God create the Universe in seven 24-hour days? No. Did God create humans in their current form from nothing? No. But neither of these need reduce in any way the role of God the Creator, once we understand that God is ineffable, that God is something that works and exists in a way that humans cannot fully understand. It appears that we can fully understand the workings of nature. We don’t, but every year we know more. Personally, I think it greatly reduces the role of God as Creator to say that his role was simply to will things into existence. That’s such a mechanistic feat. To consider that to be what is meant by God’s Creation undermines the mystery of God. It makes God no more than a video game programmer, who wills into existence the worlds of games by tapping away on a computer keyboard for a while, and then lets them go on their way.

I have to admit that I don’t fully understand myself what I believe to be God’s role as Creator— but then again, why should humans expect to fully understand any aspect of God? God’s Creation is something that is ongoing. It’s not God reaching in and pushing things about here and there, making things happen like a software programmer debugging his code. Rather, God’s Will is a desire for the Universe, a way that would seek to have things become better. Science has given us a view of the Universe that experimentally works, and that view does not include a supernatural entity coming in and deliberately making conscious and directed changes. On the other hand, it’s very clear that there are natural conscious entities making changes all the time— us. And, when those changes are for the better, might they not, at least sometimes, be divinely inspired— whatever that really means? To me, the miracle of God’s Creation is both just the possibility and potential inherent in the Universe that may come to pass as a result of natural means, and the actions of conscious beings when they seek to make the world a better and more beautiful place. Whether God is the “condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever” (to quote Terry Eagleton), or whether it is an integral property of conscious thinking beings, I don’t know, but I do know that God is more than a dude with a flowing white beard who makes stuff sometimes.

In summary, the Universe is an amazing and inspiring place. There is so much elegant beauty in the scientific truths known as Evolution and the Big Bang. There is so much wonder in our world and in our Universe, that it is sad to reject those on the basis of a particular reading of the Bible. You can fully accept God the Father and Jesus the Savior without having to reject these things humans have come to learn about the natural world. I’m asking you to take a broader view of Christianity, to be able to understand the Bible as holding truths that need not always be simplistic literal accounting of events. To seek to further understand the Universe is a wonderful calling. It is not necessary then to hide the light of that understanding under a bushel when it requires us to think more deeply about our faith!

(Afterward: I’m going to be fairly strict moderating the comment thread of this post. I do not want atheists who feel the need to denigrate religion commenting here; this post is not for you. The goal of this post is not to argue in the debate about whether or not it’s OK to be both religious and scientific; I personally consider that issue settled, but will continue to address it in other posts. Rather, the target audience of this post is the religious, and in particular creationists, in an attempt in a small way to show how I see Christianity being able to accept the modern scientific world-view.)


Creationism is not like belief in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ

Posted on July 18th, 2009 — permalink

There are some out there who assert that a belief in God is not compatible with accepting science. Some try to put a finer point on it; they assert that belief in either the virgin birth of Christ, or the bodily resurrection of Christ, is not compatible with science. I want to argue that it is.

First, I do not mean to assert that I personally believe in either. I have addressed the latter (bodily resurrection) in a blog post several years ago that is currently offline as a result of a dead disk. I’ll dig up the text of that and repost it here at some point. Short form: my answer to “did the bodily resurrection physically happen?” is “probably not.” Believe it or not, I am not alone among Christians in thinking that. However, it is reasonable to hold that belief while accepting science, without any need for hypocracy. It’s not consistent with “philosophical materialism”, no, but that’s a question of philosophy, not of science.

Some say that the scientific world view is not consistent with miracles. The reason is that the hypothesis that supernatural intervention happens has not stood up to scrutiny. There is no scientific evidence for it, and in the centuries in which we’ve been doing science, if it was happening we would have seen the evidence for it. What’s more, many things that were previously believed to be the fiat of God have come to have naturalistic explanations (e.g. the ignition of the Sun, the origin of the human species). So, science would seem to rule out miracles.

In fact, it does not, and any scientist who is being careful enough, and precise enough in his language, will say that. Science certainly gives no reason to believe in supernatural intervention! And, it gives many reasons to believe that supernatural intervention is an obsolete concept. However, as with many things that we do not detect in a scientific experiment or an observational program, science doesn’t rule out miracles; it merely sets an upper limit on their frequency. In other words, miracles (in the form of supernatural intervention) must happen extremely infrequently and irregularly to be consistent with the body of scientific observations.

Consider creationism. Creationism makes factual claims about the creation of the Universe (created in 7 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, with a specific order of events) and about the origin of the human species (created in its current form by God). These factual claims are false; we know them to be false, because we have extensive scientific evidence that points to other explanations.  Creationism is wrong, and belief in creationism is not consistent with accepting modern science.

On the other hand, consider the bodily resurrection of Christ. Now, we know that biological organisms that have died and stayed dead for three days decay enough that they cannot be revived. (It may well be that one day we will revive some of the cryogenically frozen people we have right now, but I think we can all agree that Jesus was not cryogenically frozen.) However, the bodily resurrection of Christ is a singular event. To believe in it is to claim that once, one guy, was bodily resurrected. (Let’s leave Lazarus out of this for simplicity.) Believing in the bodily resurrection of Christ does not claim that this happens regularly. What’s more, this belief does not make any claims that contradict any scientific evidence we have. It says that once, there was a miracle, and something that cannot happen according to our understanding of biology, did happen.

Could this be disproved? Probably not. I seriously doubt that if we found the remains of Jesus that we would be able to convince ourselves to any reasonable probability that that is what they were. Likewise, with the virgin birth, if we were to somehow find the remains of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, perhaps we could do DNA comparisons to find out of in fact Jesus is carrying Joseph’s DNA. (Interesting theoloigcal aside: he’d better be if he’s of the house of David, but then again, I’m not writing about inconsistency in the Bible… inconsistency in the Bible is well established.) But, again, this has not been done, and indeed I would be very surprised if we were able to collect the samples (or, invent the time travel) that would allow us to do that test.

Science tells us that miracles really cannot be happening very often at all. But it sets an upper limit, it does not tell us that miracles never happened. The methodology of science requires us to omit miracles in our explanations; something we cannot explain through naturalistic means remains an open question, at least for the time being, to science. Science tells us that the creation story in Genesis is not history, but it does not tell us anything directly about the specific bodily resurrection of Christ or the specific virgin birth of Christ. Science does not have a mechanism for it, so if it happened, it was miraculous, and outside science as we understand it. Science gives no reason to believe in miracles, and indeed convinces us that they are not happening with any regularity at all. However, because we cannot absolutely rule them out, it is not inconsistent to believe that those specific miracles happened, while accepting the results and methodology of modern science.


On Science, Religion, and Compartmentalization

Posted on July 8th, 2009 — permalink

Sometimes in the debates about whether or not it’s OK to be religious if you’re a scientist or somebody who accepts science, some will say that those who are scientists but also religious “compartmentalize”.  The implication is usually negative, and sometimes is explicitly described as walling off your scientific good sense when considering religion, and walling off the doctrines of your faith when considering science.

Of course, such a simplistic picture is far from the truth.

The truth is, though, that physicists already compartmentalize, even within Physics! Consider fundamental physics. We have two extremely successful theories, which have stood up to every experimental test we’ve thrown at them: Quantum Mechanics (QM) and General Relativity (GR). Quantum Mechanics does a great job of describing the behavior of atoms, molecules, subatomic particles, solids, and so forth.  General Relativity does a great job of describing the behavior of gravitating systems, such as the orbit of the Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy, and the Universe. However, we know that they can’t both be right, because when you get into the regime where you need to consider both– a regime where densities are so high that you can’t ignore gravity even on small scales, and where you can’t ignore quantum mechanics when doing gravity– everything breaks down.

So what do we do?  We compartmentalize.  When dealing with gravity and the evolution of gravitational systems, we use GR, a continuous theory, and don’t worry about QM.  When dealing with the interactions of particles that require QM, we don’t include gravity in those interactions at all– at most, we may do QM on a curved spacetime background.  And, we admit that we just don’t know what happens where the two intersect.  There are some– such as string theorists– who are trying to work in the region where the two intersect, and, tellingly, there are other scientists who argue that what string theorists are doing isn’t really proper science.

Given that physicists compartmentalize themselves, it should be reasonable to suppose then that a degree of compartmentalization is not only necessary, but eminently reasonable and rational when dealing with science and religion.  I don’t mean “on Sunday, I believe God created humankind in its present form, and on other days I believe in evolution.”  That’s a pathological compartmentalization.  What I mean is that we know there are some things at which science excels describing, specifically the mechanisms of the natural world. And we know that there are some things addressed by religion, and by processes that cannot be described as scientific– specifically, the existence of God (there being no scientific reason to suppose God exists), human spirituality, morality in the context of a traditional belief system, and faith. Religion may hold no meaning or use for some, and that’s fine. But for people for whom it does hold meaning, there are clearly realms that religion can address which science cannot. Likewise, there are clearly realms that science addresses and which religion has tried to address, and where science has without exception proven to be superior.

So we compartmentalize. If we’re talking about the processes of the natural world, we look to science, because science has proven over the centuries to be the right “way of knowing” to understand those processes, make predictions about them, and harness them. If we’re talking about spirituality and faith, we look to religion, because the sorts of questions one asks there by and large aren’t even meaningful scientific questions. And, unsurprisingly, there may be areas of grey overlap, areas where we aren’t sure whether science or religion fully applies. As we understand these areas better, we may come to understand that something we once thought ineffable is in fact well within the domain of science. So we adapt, and adjust our compartments.

Just as it’s entirely possible to be a completely consistent physicist while using both GR and QM, it’s entirely possible to be a completely consistent rational person while accepting the roles of both science and faith in your life. The key is understanding where each applies, thinking creatively about how they overlap while understanding that it will be controversial and hard to decide, and being willing to adapt your understanding as the human race learns more.


The Silent Majority : It’s OK to be both scientific and religious

Posted on June 22nd, 2009 — permalink

Chris Mooney over at The Intersection has a post where he talks about The Silent Majority— the fact that there are a substantial number of people out there who have no trouble reconciling religion and science. The debate is dominated on one side by religious fundamentalists, who deny reality in their efforts to stay faithful to a literal (and, frankly, nonsensical) reading of the Bible. On the other side, that side which is loudest and most strident in the scientific blogosphere, are the militant atheists, the types who think that any form of religious faith whatosever is evidence of stupidity, ignorance, or childishness, and that any form of religious faith is incompatible with good scientific judgement.

However, the truth is, if you talk to the faculty of a science department at just about any college in the country, you’ll find that a substantial number of them (probably well less than half, but not a trivial amount) are regular churchgoers. I suspect you’d find that most are agnostic. You’d find that those who are atheists by and large don’t have a problem with their religious colleagues. There are people who have religious faith, but aren’t fundamentalists and thus that faith doesn’t have to interfere with their science. By the same token, they’re good and rigorous scientists, but they haven’t mistaken the metholdolgy and world-view of science for an all-encompasing perscription for how a rational person must order all of his thoughts.

There are a lot of people out there either with religious faith, or without faith but willing to admit the intellectual worthiness of those with faith, and who also have no problem with the fact of evolution, the overwhelming evidence for global warming, the face of the billions-of-years-old Unvierse, and all of the rest of the things that modern science has taught us. Chris Mooney is on the atheist side of this; I’m on the theist side of this.

Chris asks why the reasonable sorts who don’t feel the need to “hit the rails” and go to one extreme or the other of the debate, aren’t heard from more. Probably because of the Rush Limbaugh effect: those who have an extreme position that involves disdain for those who disagree are able to express it ever so much more entertainingly than those who see value in accomodation. Indeed, I made some posts about my own views on science and religion back when I was in, and when I did so I would receive many vicious attacks from the commenters there– those who are to the militant atheist bloggers as “dittoheads” are to Rush Limbaugh.

Whenever you are convinced that you are absolutely right about something– not pretty sure, not even very confident, but absolutely right– you should question yourself. If the vast majority of people who’ve thought deeply about it agree with you, there’s a very good chance that you really are right. For example, I am absolutely convinced that I am absolutely right in believing that evolution happened. The evidence is overwhelming, as the vast majority of people who have seriously looked at that evidence would agree. However, when it comes to the existence or non-existence of God, and to whether acceptance of science forces you to the latter conclusion, look around and acquire some humility– many people have thought a lot about this, and they aren’t all coming to agree that science must equal atheism. Perhaps it is compelling to you, and that’s fine… but if you think that therefore any thinking reasonable person would come to the same exact beliefs that you have come to, the weight of evidence indicates that you’re kidding yourself, just as assuredly as a fundamentalist theist of any stripe is kidding himself about the absolute and universal truth of his faith.


An atheist whose attitude on religion I appreciate

Posted on March 27th, 2009 — permalink

You gotta like Phil Plait.  He makes no apologies about being an atheist.  He’s honest about it, clear about it, and doesn’t squirm on his position.  On the other hand, unlike some other well-known atheist bloggers, he’s able to recognize that people who are religious are capable of being rational, reasonable, thinking people.

Here is a post of his where he expresses this.  And, by the way, I really like the video he’s embedded, and I agree with it fully.  Creationism is bad science– well, it’s not science at all, but it’s in conflict with science.  That much is bloody obvious.  But it’s also really clear to me that creationism is bad religion, that it’s bad for Christianity, for all of the reasons described by the video Phil embeds.  Check it out.

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I am one of those moderate Christians

Posted on March 7th, 2008 — permalink

Phil Plait calls out McCain for accepting the endorsement of a religious extremist, but, thankfully, unlike some atheist bloggers, he also reminds us that there are lots of moderate and reasonable religious people out there who may diagree with Phil about the details of religion, but are good folks for whom the extremists do not speak. He does, however, extort us moderate religious types to stand up and remind everybody that the extremists do not speak for us.

So I’m doing that.

The sad fact is that the religious right has had an increasing influence over politics in recent years. Mind you, I’ve been aware of them for a long time. I grew up in Berkeley, CA, where people (including people in my church) were all upset about the Religious Right long before they were really an appreciable political force. But, today, the extreme religious types have contributed to what is, from my perspective, the ruining of the Republican party.

I voted for John McCain in the 2000 primary. I will not vote for him this year. Not unless he repudiates both the creationist political forces that have become de rigeur constitents for any Republican candidate, and not unless he repudiates the Bush/Cheney administration as a horrible thing. He will do neither. (Actually, even if he did, I still wouldn’t vote for him at this point, but I might think about him as a serious candidate.)

I am a Christian, but I don’t want to shove that down anybody’s throat. The church I grew up in was the United Church of Christ– the same denomination, incidentally, that Barak Obama belongs to. We had Nobel prize winning scientists in our congregation. We had ministers who liked to talk about Stephen Hawking. (We’ve also had openly homosexual worship leaders and ordained ministers.) We had no problems whatsoever with evolution or anything else coming out of science. We think it silly from a historical and text perspective to try to read the Bible as literal truth, never mind from a scientific perspective. And we are all very sad to see extremely loudmouthed jingoistic knee-jerk Biblical literalists out there defining what it is to be “Christian” in a lot of the popular press.

I sometimes fear that some Christians are creationists because they think they have to be in order to remain faithful to their religion. I occasionally have had students come up to me and express basically that after I’ve given talks about cosmology. I remember one student late last year who really wanted to believe the stuff I was talking about, because it was so cool, but wanted to be able to make it work with what she believed. My answer was that, well, you really can’t accept the scientific evidence for this cosmology stuff if you insist on believing that the world was created in seven literal days exactly as described in the first chapter of Genesis. But there are a lot of Christians out there with a very deep and thoughtful faith in both God and Jesus who have no problem with understanding that much of the Bible is composed of stories that say something about being human, and are not necessarily factual history. I continue to write science and religion things, despite the fact that when I do so (such as I did on when my blog was there for a time) atheists line up to jump on me for being soft-headed or contributing to the acceptance of the extremists. Part of the reason I do this is in hopes that I might reach out to one or two Christians out there who do not want to abandon their faith, and who may not have realized that they can accept modern science without doing so.


What is a fundamentalist atheist?

Posted on January 5th, 2008 — permalink

You think by now I’d have learned enough not to interact anywhere near PZ Myers, but, well, there’s something in a comment thread there that so pithily describes why I think the angry atheists are full of it that I can’t resist. When you use the term “fundamentalist atheist”, lots of those to whom the term applies get all upset and write out pedantic responses about why the term makes no more sense than does the term “Darwinist” or “gravitist.” Which I think is a bit sad, because of course we don’t mean the term literally, any more than there is any “gate” involved in the term “Plamegate.” It’s a reference.

So when PZ links to an ignorant article about why feminism and religion are incompatable– an article written by somebody who has clearly never listened to any of the legions of feminist (say) Christians out there talk about the subject, an article that’s nearly Godwinesque in it’s childish simplicity– it’s no surprise that some of the fundamentalist atheists come out of the woodwork for a “me too”. Generally, ignorant blog comments should be ignored, but one of them sums up so many of the tactics that I see the most angry of atheists use to argue why Religion Is Bad that I can’t resist quoting it. The comment by Kcanadensis:

Religious texts are “The Word”. I find it revolting when the religious cherry-pick from their holy text and claim that only parts of it are meant to be taken seriously. It’s all or none, IMO.

My thoughts on the matter I also posted to that comment thread:

But, then again, this crowd [i.e. the anti-religion atheists] is nearly as fond of quoting the Bible to say what “Christians absolutely must believe” as are fundamental Biblical literalists.

Ah, well, so much for an unspoken 2008 resolution to ignore the religion-hating atheists as any net troll rightfully should be ignored.