Tag Archives: religion and science

Chick on Evolution

Many Christians who criticize evolution are criticizing a caricature of evolution, presented by their preacher and not by a scientist. They don’t even understand the basics of the theory they claim to be debunking, and their efforts to disprove evolution illustrate this with painful clarity.

Recently, when I stopped for coffee, I found a Chick Tract about evolution. I knew what I would find inside, but I couldn’t help but read it out of curiosity.

It was filled with such a ridiculous presentation of evolutionary theory that I found it difficult to believe that anyone who wasn’t already convinced could be convinced through such a simplistic, silly presentation.

The most basic assumption anti-evolutionist Christians make about evolution is that it proposes a linear, step-by-step evolution from lower to higher creatures. They insist that evolution teaches that humans come from monkeys. This particular tract begins with just such a time line.

1041_04

1041_05

1041_06

1041_07

“If we come from monkeys,” creationists ask, “Why don’t we see any half-monkey, half-humans?” Indeed, if evolutionary theory supported such an idea, that would be a legitimate question. Yet any evolutionary biologist will tell you that the theory of evolution suggests no such thing. Instead, evolutionary theory postulates that primates come from a common ancestor. In other words, we had the same great9,393,393-grandparents, but our lines split somewhere along the way.

Another common tactic is to associate evolutionary theory with religion. That was the tract’s next step:

1041_08

I have never heard anyone refer to evolution as his or her “religion.” Further, very few people blindly trust their professors because any professor worth his or her keep wouldn’t expect it. Further, science doesn’t work that way. Science doesn’t seek blind faith like the tract’s mother illustrates. It discourages it, in fact.

What’s most amusing, though, is the illustration the mother is holding in the second panel. With its illustration of a cave man battling a dinosaur, it is more fitting for a creationist. After all, the creationist museum in Kentucky has a diorama that includes humans with dinosaurs. (Before the fall, T-Rex used those massive teeth for breaking open coconuts, as all creatures were vegetarians before the Fall.)

In most arguments, it’s a short step from “evolution says we’re all descended from monkeys” to “that means I’m equal to god.” It’s an illogical step, because God doesn’t come into the picture with evolution. That’s the point: it’s about observable, testable, measurable data. God isn’t easy to measure or convince to come into the lab for tests. That’s why evolutionary theory is agnostic, and why intelligent design is not science: both are claims that science cannot test.

Still, creationists somehow make the connection, and Chick does a finely amusing job of illustrating this:

1041_11

The answer to little Johnny’s question is, “Nothing, really.” And that’s not because there is no God and therefore Johnny can place himself on a pedestal. It’s because people willingly make gods (of other people, stones, abstract ideas) all by themselves, and with a little convincing and hocus pocus, individuals convince others to turn them into gods. Priests and televangelists do it all the time. Watch Benny Hinn’s performance: while he says he’s a conduit for the Holy Spirit, it’s clear there’s something else going on in that ego of his.

Yet this notion that evolution does away with morality is ridiculous. Most moral codes are very practical: they protect us from others “lying, cheating” and becoming mini-gods. It’s only an anything-goes situation if people are willing to live in chaos. Most people don’t care for chaos, so we curb our desires for the good of all, including ourselves. If we’re unable or unwilling to curb those desires, the state curbs them for us. (A very Hobbesian view, I realize.)

At this point, the tract takes an unexpected turn. It’s not the proselytizing that’s unexpected; it’s the theology that’s a bit odd.

1041_13

1041_17

This “special blood” theology is something very new to me. It sounds, quite honestly, very primitive. It suggests the notion of blood brothers: mix your blood with another person and it somehow makes you qualitatively different. It makes me think of the old notion that somehow your essence, the core of your being — be that good or evil — can be transmitted through your blood.

It also makes God quite literally a blood-thirsty being. But then again, Jack Chick’s tracts were never about creating an image of a god that any rational, compassionate person would like to have anything to do with.

1041_21

1041_22

Chick’s god is little more than a small child, focusing the sun’s beams on an ant, grimly smiling as the ant writhes in pain.

If I treated my daughter the way Chick’s god treats humans, I’d be very rightly locked up for child abuse.

Advertisements
Tagged , ,

Collins and the Mind

Sam Harris, author of the excellent The End of Faith, has an op-ed in the New York Times about Obama’s selection of Dr. Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health.

Collins is famous for his work leading the Human Genome project as well as his stance that there exists “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between science and Christianity. While he is not a proponent of Intelligent Design, Dr. Collins believes both Genesis and Darwin. Harris explained it thus:

What follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that Dr. Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”

Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?” (Source)

Harris is concerned about this blending of religion and science. He writes that when Collins is

challenged with alternative accounts of these phenomena — or with evidence that suggests that God might be unloving, illogical, inconsistent or, indeed, absent — Dr. Collins will say that God stands outside of Nature, and thus science cannot address the question of his existence at all.

Similarly, Dr. Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence, to his perfectly moral character and to his desire to have fellowship with every member of our species. But when our moral intuitions recoil at the casual destruction of innocents by, say, a tidal wave or earthquake, Dr. Collins assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and that God’s will is a mystery.

In short, Harris is worried about the fact that, when it comes to the moral dimension of the universe, Collins ceases being a scientist and becomes a theologian. Certainly the statement “God’s will is a mystery” is not something that can be tested scientifically, Harris rightly points out.

But Harris is up to more, though. He rightly points out that this view of creation — evolution to one point, divine spark-of-morality injection at another — recreates an age-old problem: the mind-body problem.

1-phineas-gage-skullJust how is the mind/soul connected to the body? Where does one end and the other begin? Things we’ve traditionally thought of as part of the mind/soul (such as personality) are oddly susceptible to influence through physical media. The most famous example is Phineas Gage, a railway who, through a series of unfortunate events, had a railroad stake placed in his skull. He survived, but was never the same. He changed. Instead of the kind, fun-loving Gage, he became a foul-mouthed, short-tempered jerk. His personality changed through violent manipulation of his brain. It kind of indicates that personality is not an aspect of the soul.

Contemporary examples abound. As a teacher, I see it every day: Ritalin. Over-medicate a child on Ritalin and you’ll get a somber, introverted, sleepy individual; get it just right, and you’ll get a “normal” person; under-medicate and you’ll get someone almost bouncing off the walls. When I was in school, this would have all been chalked up to “personality.”

This is exactly what Harris has in mind when he writes,

Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Dr. Collins sees morality as an element of the soul; Harris points out that this is untestable and amounts to a re-introduction of the mind/body problem into contemporary science. It’s an insightful point, and Harris builds to this point very effectively.

It’s a tricky issue. Religious beliefs are often bedrock beliefs: they inform and shape other beliefs. Would we want a Christian Scientist in the role, someone who believes that all ailments are spiritual, figments of an unenlightened imagination?

But will Collins’ religious beliefs affect his scientific reasoning? I’m not convinced, like Harris, that it will. It didn’t when he was director of the Human Genome Project. Then again, Sam Harris is a long-tailed atheist in a Christian rocking chair country: he’s more than a little skittish, and often justifiably so.

Source: Gary Stern, at Blogging Religiously.

Tagged , , , ,

1600 and All That

It’s rare that we read something that makes us say “ah!” I’m not quite talking about epiphanies, but something very similar. Take the following passage from Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason:

It is a truism to say that people of faith have created almost everything of value in our world, because nearly every person who has ever swung a hammer or trimmed a sail has been a devout member of one or another religious culture. There has been simply no one else to do the job. We can also say that every human achievement prior to the twentieth century was accomplished by men and women who were perfectly ignorant of the molecular basis of life. Does this suggest that a nineteenth-century view of biology would have been worth maintaining? There is no telling what our world would be like had someone great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600.

A kick to the head when I first read that.

Simply put, there is no difference between the Earth today and the Earth when Shakespeare was was writing Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing, or As You Like It (all possibly written around 1600, give or take a few). Granted, we’ve depleted many resources since then, but the no new elements have been created (except a few radioactive ones in the lab).

More tellingly, nothing has changed about the physiology of humans. Our brains haven’t become more efficient; our general intelligence hasn’t really increased; our bodies haven’t become necessarily more adept at anything. Granted, we do live longer and are stronger, but that’s due to improved living conditions, which has been brought about by improved technology — the whole point of this.

But as far as resources and intelligence go, it is, at first blush, difficult to understand why we haven’t had “modern” technology for centuries.

What could have held the human race back? Only the human race itself.

How? Simple: unrelenting, unbending dogma.

Take away all the restrictions of dogma, all the assurances that slaughtering animals will somehow help us after death, all the certainty that initially unexplainable experiences (pestilences, plagues, diseases, seizures, and the like) can only be explained supernaturally, take away the fear that someone’s different thoughts pose an existential threat to us as individuals, and what do you have left? Free inquiry: the liberty to pursue questions to their end no matter how uncomfortable. It is this, above all, that leads to technological development.

Yet there is always a push against it — a reaction from the powers that be, because those powers understand that their authority is based on a presumption of never-changing Truth. Because eternal Truth and new, contrary evidence are in conflict, one or the other must be crushed. Usually it’s the new, contrary evidence.

Progress undermines Truth, and history is replete with examples:

The printing press was invented in fifteenth century, but Bibles in the vernacular were banned many decades afterward. Why?

Someone looked at nature and came up with an explanation for its diversity that differed from that which had been delivered in a book written in pre-scientific times; many people wanted (and still desire) to muzzle the theorist.

A gentleman provided reproducible, mathematical evidence that an earlier gentleman’s suggestion might in fact be correct: the motions of the planets might better be explained by placing the sun at the center of our planet’s rotation instead of the opposite. The gentleman was condemned as a heretic.

And “heresy” is a useful term here, for its Greek root means “choice.” Choice historically has been stifled in the name of salvation and homogeny between what individuals see and what those with metaphysical authority say must be say. In short, dogma, in its many forms, stifles choice, and in turn, stifles curiosity, and in turn, stifles progress. Without people constantly looking over their intellectual shoulders for centuries, we might have achieved a much greater technological development much earlier.

Really, the only thing that stopped us was ourselves. And that is perhaps the most tragic legacy I can imagine delivering to our progeny.

A sobering question is whether or not we’ve rid ourselves of this dogma. The simple answer is, “No.” And why?

Because dogma cannot change. Dogma cannot even admit the possiblity of change. Development — of any kind — depends on the ability and (more importantly, for humanity has the ability) the willigness to change our ideas when new evidence emerges. Dogma prevents this. Dogma says, “What is true is true, for all times.” Dogma instists on its own veracity and because Truth never changes, dogma never changes.

Could we have had the Internet in 1600? Certainly, but we didn’t give ourselves the necessary freedom.

Tagged ,

More on ID

Thud mentioned “the kind of ID that also rejects short-history ‘the world is 5000 years old’ creationism.” It’s been my sense lately that “ID” is an effort by more moderate believers to distance themselves from the more literal, fundamentalist reading of a six-thousand-year-old universe. Look at the

Catholic church’s official position: the Vatican holds that God created the universe, but it makes no claim as to how he did it. Very sensible, but too sensible for fundamentalists — who often are rabidly anti-Catholic as well.

The problem lies with the fact that creationists — and I mean the hard-core, 6k variety — take the issue very personally. I once stumbled onto a teen message board of a fundamentalist sect and jumped in on the question, “Do you believe in evolution?” I found that the kids’ initial reaction was always an emotional one. “I’m not descended from primal sludge!” was a common theme. While I fail to see how the origins of my species affect my personal worth and self-confidence, the thought of being able to trace the human race back to amoebas somehow offended their sense of personal dignity.

“Something that used to be sludge can’t possibly be a child of God,” they reason. “I am a child of God,” they continue, concluding with, “Therefore, I did not evolve from primordial soup.”

Not the most well-founded syllogism I’ve ever encountered, but these are emotions we’re dealing with, not reasonable, rational responses.

Accepting evolution is rejecting God. For them, it means rejecting the very bedrock of their lives: the Bible. It makes the Bible a liar, because the use of figurative language has largely escaped them as a possible interpretation. If “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1.5) can be interpreted figuratively, so can “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3.16). If the Bible got it wrong about biology, then what confidence can we have in it regarding salvation.

This black-and-white, either-or thinking permeates the fundamentalist world.

All we had to do was elect an evangelical president to see that.

Tagged ,