John Dickson from CPX recently posted a diagram illustrating, as he put it, why it’s dumb to say that religions are ‘atheists’ about each other, and that Atheists “just deny one god more” (as has been said repeatedly by Hitchens, Dawkins, Krauss, FitzSimons, et al., and many online warriors since).
I was involved in the ensuing conversation, and it seems the point needs more elaboration for some.
Today saw the release of the 2016 census results by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Much of the coverage was focused on the increased proportion of respondents ticking “no religion” as their preferred option, with commentators either lamenting or cackling with glee, as their personal proclivities dictated. However, more thoughtful observers noted the actual options of the census question on religion lacked the nuance that the real religious landscape displays.
The inimitable James Garth stepped up to the challenge of “improving” the question to reflect a broader range of options. ABS, please take note.
James Garth improves the ABS census question on religious affiliation.
There are the easy, trivia quiz answers: it’s the first part of the Christian Bible, it’s a collection of 39 books, it forms the Jewish scriptures, etc. But any real understanding of the Old Testament has to be linked to the question of where it came from.
Unlike many other sacred writings, the OT was not written by an enlightened holy man as a single piece of prophetic output. It has history. It has scars and scuff marks. It’s complicated.
Peter Enns has written a post with some great insights into where the OT comes from and how we need to think about this collection of books.
The central points are:
It’s not a single work but an incredibly diverse collection
The various books were “composed” centuries before they were written down
Most importantly, it is impossible to make sense of the text without understanding the history and culture and context of the people who wrote it.
One of the effects of the current political landscape in the USA has been to highlight the diverse attitudes and stances that exist within the various churches in the country.
Depending on your news sources, you may not fully appreciate that there is a vast range of positions within Christendom on issues of politics, social justice, ethics, and the relationship between a believer’s duties as a citizen of the state and as a follower of Jesus. Even with agreement on certain beliefs, there may still be a diversity of opinion on how exactly those beliefs should play out in the world and in our daily lives.
Here’s a perspective that hasn’t had much play in the media, courtesy of Trinity’s Portico. Enjoy!
It’s the Olympics! That quadrennial celebration of outstanding athleticism, government corruption, hastily-erected construction projects that will never be used again, and staggering public debt for the host city. Hooray!
All those issues aside, I’m noticing another fascinating aspect of the Olympics. It’s a great snapshot of where media culture is around the world.
This is particularly useful in an age of social media, which by its very nature encourages us to overwhelmingly live within our own little echo chambers of like-minded people. It’s easy to miss the fact that other people have different baseline assumptions and biases when you don’t intersect with those people at all in the news that you consume and the social interactions that you engage in.
Since it’s Easter, I’ve been having a few discussions around the resurrection of Jesus (see Luke 24 for one account). One of the discussions involved my interlocutor arguing that the resurrection would require complete suspension of the laws of physics, and thus must be discounted. His idea was that the best explanation was “mass delusions and a series of hallucinations”.
I think it’s important to distinguish in what capacity we make different statements. As individual human beings we tend to be multifaceted; within specific disciplines, we must narrow our range of possibilities. Science, for instance, explores natural phenomena within the known universe. History explores multiple strands of evidence (some scientific, some not) to investigate and understand events in the human past. Psychology tries to unravel the curious workings of the human mind. Each of these is limited in scope, but powerful within its field. Continue reading →
A few days ago a pair of Dutch comedians, Sacha Harland and Alexander Spoor, decided to perform the sort of lame prank that is guaranteed to pull internet views. They wrapped a Bible with a cover reading “Holy Quran” and then read excerpts to random people in the streets to get a reaction.
The Age newspaper had an article on it, Patheos had a post about it on The Friendly Atheist, it’s been featured far and wide. It has over a million views on Youtube.
The creators explained the experiment thus:
“Muslims have been accused of following a faith that has no place in our Western culture. What about Christianity? A religion that has influenced our culture greatly.”
Ellis is a world-renowned authority on cosmology, particularly the large-scale structure of the universe and the Big Bang. The interview deals particularly with some recent over-reaching claims by physicists such as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, but also touches on the philosophy, free will, and the nature of scientific inquiry. The interview is conducted by John Horgan.
Society changes, but the Bible doesn’t. So how can the Bible have anything relevant to say that can guide our lives in this 21st century, interconnected, post-modern world? And if we just reinterpret it to suit our changing social context, what is the point?
I’ve often heard from atheists that “claims made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. And while it’s become an annoying refrain in the religious/secular conversation, there is a certain logic to it.
But here’s the thing: atheism, by definition, cannot have evidence. Atheism is a positive claim about the non-existence of God (or gods). And there cannot be positive evidence that proves the non-existence of a spiritual being.
My wife and I were recently asked to give a seminar at the University of Melbourne on the question of alien life. As an astrophysicist and a biologist, we presented what science can currently say about the possibilities of life beyond Earth, and also each gave our perspectives on how we personally think about the subject.
I’ve distilled the main points of the talk into essay form, check it out here:
“My first tip, then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents … popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, ‘Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!'”
…and offers a vital comment on the status of Young-Earth Creationism within the broader Christian Church:
“Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have done a disservice to atheism by talking as though 6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction. But mainstream Christianities for decades have dismissed 6-Day Creationism as a misguided (if well-intentioned) project. Major conservative institutions like Sydney’s Moore Theological College, which produces more full time ministers than any college in the country, have taught for years that Genesis 1 was never intended to be read concretely, let alone scientifically. This isn’t Christians retreating before the troubling advances of science. From the earliest centuries many of the greats of Judaism (e.g., Philo and Maimonides) and Christianity (e.g., Clement, Ambrose, and Augustine) taught that the ‘six days’ of Genesis are a literary device, not a marker of time.”
I recently had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth Redman present on the historical reliability of the Gospels. Redman used her experience as a journalist to highlight the conventions which are used in reporting historical events, and also discussed ways in which conventions have changed since Biblical times. An essay based on her talk is available here:
I found her discussion of ancient biographical techniques to be particularly helpful. She discussed four conventions that were popular in Roman times:
The Gospels are written in the genre of Greco-Roman biography . When compared to cases in other surviving biographies where the same writer tells the same story differently in different accounts, a set of deliberate compositional devices become evident … These compositional devices include:
– Compression, where an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than they actually occurred in – Transferral, where one person did or said something, but the author attributes the words or deeds to the person who caused them to do or say it – Spotlighting, where an author focuses on one person in a scene but doesn’t mention others who were also involved – Displacement, where an author knowingly removes an event from its original context and transplants it in another.
These conventions help explain the differences between the four accounts of the resurrection. For example, the writers offer different lists of women who visited the empty tomb. Luke lists Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and “the others”, while John only mentions Mary Magdalene. This appears to be an example of the spotlighting device – multiple women went to Jesus’ empty tomb to anoint his body with spices, but John only highlights Mary, knowingly. The angels receive similar treatment. Matthew mentions one angel, Mark shows a young man in a white robe, Luke lists two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning and John has two angels. This spotlighting of one angel in two of the gospels doesn’t prevent there from being another angel alongside him.
Redman also gave some great perspective on how audience expectations, the importance of witnesses, and the cultural norm of oral tradition would have shaped the narrative structure. It’s a great read, and I recommend you check out the original article.
Often, when someone experiences a personal setback, the “encouragement” given to them by well-meaning Christians is: “Don’t worry, God has a plan for your life,” or, “It’s all part of God’s special plan for you.”
God certainly has a deep desire for you to be reconciled to him, but usually when people talk about “God’s plan for my life” they mean that there are very specific, very human milestones that God has laid out for them to reach and achieve during their time on this Earth. And I don’t think that idea is Biblically grounded.
This is the third in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the second in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the first in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?
Over at the Maverick Philosopher‘s blog, there’s a great new post inspired by Blaise Pascal. It’s short, so I’ve reproduced it in its entireity, go here for the original.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):
“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.” (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)
“What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man.” That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don’t think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such. The very notion of wretchedness is religious. If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature. If, and only if.
Man’s wretchedness is ‘structural’: man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we “must have fallen from some better state.” That is not obvious. But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.
How do we know that? From thousands of years of collective experience.
The essential element of Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus. Last week I participated in a study of Mark 7, and was reminded just how personal Jesus’ interactions with people were during his ministry on Earth.
There are three major segments to Mark 7, and at first glance they don’t seem to have too much in common (at least, they didn’t to me). I strongly encourage you to read the whole chapter yourself (use BibleGateway if you don’t have a Bible handy), but I’ll give a brief overview of each section:
There’s a fantastic article at The Weekly Standard about Thomas Nagel. Nagel may not be as much of a household name as Dawkins, but he is probably America’s most prominent philosopher and a serious intellectual heavyweight. But his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, was roundly attacked by the self-proclaimed “brights” of atheism. In short, Nagel thinks that the worldview of philosophical materialism is wrong, despite being a very useful presupposition of science. For voicing these thoughts, Nagel has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists.
The most interesting aspect of this drama is that Nagel is actually just voicing what every one of those critics believes. Or at least, he’s voicing the line of thought that is revealed by their actions. Because nobody actually lives as if materialism were true (unless they are certifiably insane). As the article puts it:
As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.
I received the following piece via email from the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.
I didn’t write it, but I think that it is a useful discussion of what the Catholic concept of “papal infallibility” actually entails.
Infallible?by Raymond Perrier
Infallible must be one of the most misunderstood terms in Catholic vocabulary. Reflecting on the Papacy of Benedict XVI we can remind ourselves what Papal infallibility is and most importantly what it is not.
So, in a previous post I talked about how Nature doesn’t have a voice, and that this makes it difficult to ask it questions. Today I want to talk about an alternative way of interpreting nature.
Francis Bacon talked about reading “both books” in order to gain insight about God. By this he meant that God is revealed in scripture, because the Bible is God’s Word to us, and God is also revealed in nature, because he is the Creator of the universe. It seems to me that asking questions of nature can be very similar to asking questions of Scripture, which in turn is very similar to asking questions of a novel. Let me explain:
Scientific research can be thought of as a process of asking questions of Nature. Perhaps it’s worth exploring that concept in a little more detail.
It is true that many scientific advances have started with a question. And the process of research can be considered a way of asking Nature questions. But the kind of questions that we can ask Nature are very specific.
First, the obvious: Nature doesn’t have a voice. Interviews are out. So we need to look for evidence instead.
The language that I’m using resembles a criminal investigation, and that’s deliberate. Scientific research is in fact very much like forensic work. We look for evidence, we analyse things that we observe, we try to find patterns and unravel processes. Forensics is all about mechanisms: how the crime was perpetrated. However, there’s usually an accompanying part of a criminal investigation, and that is the literal question-and-answer stuff. By interviewing a suspect, the investigator can try to unravel the question of motive. Forensics, for all its strengths, is powerless to address “why” questions. This, again, is like science.
A couple of good discussion pieces by Chris Mulherin that were published recently:
Christianity, science and rumours of divorce talks about the misunderstandings that lead to the perceived “conflict” between science and the Christian faith. In particular, he emphasises the distinction that Christianity is a worldview, whereas science is a methodology.
One of the biggest contributors to the idea that science and Christianity are somehow at odds is the idea that Young-Earth Creationism is the same thing as Christianity. We really need to clarify this point.
Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) describes a belief structure that has made a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 the core article of faith. This position seems difficult to reconcile with science. (Of course, a hermeneutically sound – and thus more truly literal – interpretation of Genesis 1 is wholly reconcilable with modern science).
But this YEC doctrine is not representative of Christianity, it’s a strange late-19th-century offshoot with little theological or biblical support. The implications of this unfortunate conflation of YEC with Christianity are covered well in a recent blog at the British Centre for Science Education. The following graphics may help to illustrate the relationship between YEC and Christianity, and are inspired by that blog post:
*note: I’m using the term “creationist” in this post to refer mostly to the YEC position. This term would not apply to someone who, for example, believes that God created the universe ex nihilo, but that Big Bang cosmology and evolution describe some of the processes of Creation.
Electron micrograph of H. pylori bacterium, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.
First, some clarification. We’ll start with what Intelligent Design is not:
Christian doctrine teaches that the universe, life, and human beings are created by God. That is, Creation was a deliberate act. Also, God is omniscient and omnipotent, and chose to exercise creation in a particular way. This is not the definition of Intelligent Design.
The teleological argument refers to a philosophical argument for the existence of God based on apparent design and purpose in the world around us. The universe and our place in it appear to be purposeful, and a purposeful creation suggests a purposeful Creator. Variations on this line of thinking can be traced back to before Plato, and it also features in the work of St Thomas Aquinas as one of his rational arguments for God’s existence. This is also not the definition of Intelligent Design.
I realise that statement will upset people, but those are the facts. The comic above, from the excellent xkcd, presents the issue particularly well. To do science at all, we must at the very least have faith in our rationality and the ability of our brains to discover truth. Faith in the regularity of the universe helps, too.