Friday, 27 September 2013

Leave of absence

I will be away from civilisation for a few days, so any comments during this time will be caught up in the moderation queue.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

Evolution does not threaten fundamental theology

One common way employed by special creationists to evade the fact that the evidence for common descent and large-scale evolutionary change is beyond rational dispute is to play the heresy card, and assert that the fundamental principles of the Christian faith are threatened by evolution. Such an argument has marginal tactical advantages, as it immediately presses all the right emotional buttons, neatly shutting down the rational side of the brain that is needed to  critically evaluate why evolution threatens Christianity, and creating the right sort of  moral panic that allows many people to acquiesce to the usual excommunications that follow such artificial crises. Strategically, it's insane. If you explicitly link Christian orthodoxy to science denialism, you are simply ensuring that any scientifically literate, intellectually honest believer will take you at your word, and reject Christianity once they realise that evolution is a fact.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

How to detect expertise (or why cranks are not entitled to their opinions)

Discussion on evolution, creation and the ancient Near Eastern background of the creation narratives is often marked by uninformed opinion, almost always by special creationists, who invariably fail to respond substantively to the points advanced by evolutionary creationists, and offer opinions on highly technical areas in which they clearly have no professional expertise.

Earlier this year. philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes remarked on one of the points he makes to his students:
I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.” 
A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.
The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Christadelphians and Human Evolution - Fifty wasted years (Part 2)

Geologist and evangelical Christian Davis Young has expressed his frustration with the refusal of his faith community to even acknowledge the evidence for human evolution, let alone engage with it in any meaningful way:
“The modern evangelical church is extremely sensitive about open discussion of scientific issues that bear on Genesis 1-11. Enough Christians are so afraid of what might turn up in such discussions that anyone who does try to explore the issues is in ecclesiastical jeopardy. The prevailing atmosphere of fear tends to squelch attempts to deal with these issues. The issue of the origin of humankind is especially sensitive. It seems that the church is afraid to look into paleoanthropology. Where is the curiosity about the physical history of human beings? Among the multitude of evangelical commentaries on Genesis, hardly any of them addresses the problems of anthropology. Geology is often discussed. Some of the commentators have admitted the possibility of a local flood; others are not yet sure of the legitimacy of geological findings. But virtually all of the commentators assume the anthropological universality of the flood without any engagement whatsoever with the archeological and anthropological data relevant to the question of the flood’s impact on the human race. It’s as if the hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancient human sites around the world didn’t exist. [1]
David Young’s gloomy observation unfortunately is equally applicable in my faith community, the Christadelphians. Nearly 50 years ago, bro. Ralph Lovelock made a brave attempt to acknowledge the evidence for human evolution and synthesise it with a relatively conservative reading of Genesis. For his efforts, he was disfellowshipped. Unfortunately, in the forty-seven years since the arranging brothers in his ecclesia implored our community to solve these problems “unhindered by the rumours, mistrust, suspicion and hasty judgments that have been all too prevalent among us in recent times”, not only has there been no real effort to address the considerable fossil evidence for human evolution, any attempt to raise the issue is met with hysteria, bullying, privileging of ignorance over reason and at times the threat of disfellowship. If we want to avoid losing the next generation of educated believers and marginalise our community, then we need to take up the challenge which we’ve shamefully neglected for nearly half a century.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Christadelphians and Human Evolution - Fifty wasted years (Part 1)

Nearly 50 years ago, Ralph Lovelock, a British Christadelphian gave a series of addresses on "The Origin of Man" in which he argued that:
a race of man-like creatures existed prior to the coming of Adam. These creatures were man-like in everything except that they had no knowledge of God, and consequently no relationship with Him. Adam was formed, in a way not described, from these creatures and became representative of them. God gave Adam special qualities (powers of leadership and longevity) and a revelation. Adam sinned and was expelled from the garden to die. He made known his way of life to the surrounding man-like creatures and they thereby became men. Adam’s descendants and the man-like creatures were able to intermarry, and from these sources the world was populated (that is, through Adam’s direct descendants, through the direct descendants of the man-like creatures, and through intermarriage between the two.) [1]
The controversy sparked by his thesis was considerable, and unfortunately resulted in his disfellowship two years later in 1966. To their credit, the arranging brothers of his ecclesia recognized that the scientific questions surrounding the origin of man were real, and needed to be examined rationally:
We wish to make it perfectly clear that we are not closing our eyes to the problems that confront us when the theories of modern scholarship are compared with the understanding and interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis commonly accepted among us, although we we would emphasize that there is by no means complete agreement among scientists themselves concerning the ideas they advance, and a so-called fact of one generation may sometimes become merely the fancy of the next.
At the same time, we are strongly of the opinion that the problems that undoubtedly exist should be frankly admitted by us as a community, for we do naught but dishonour to the word of God by pretending that these problems are not there. Our Brotherhood bears a responsibility to those in search of Scripture truth, and especially to those of tender years, to turn its attention to the solving of these difficulties in an atmosphere of calm, sincere, conscientious study, unhindered by the rumours, mistrust, suspicion and hasty judgments that have been all too prevalent among us in recent times. [2]
 Forty-seven years have passed since the Watford arranging brothers penned these words, but unfortunately our Brotherhood has let down those of tender years who are confronted with an avalanche of evidence for human evolution from a fossil record that is considerably larger than it was in the early 1960s when bro. Lovelock formulated his views. Rather, our community has retreated into a defensive fundamentalism, where even old earth creationists and advocates of a local flood are regarded with deep suspicion. This denial of reality will erode the faith of those who are honest enough to accept the scientific evidence and take in good faith any assertion that the 'purity of the faith' is contingent on rejecting evolution. Once again, science denialism creates unbelief.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

How to turn Christians into atheists? It's as easy as Y.E.C. (Part 2)

John Pople, author of the anti-evolution polemic [1]  at the Christadelphian Facebook site which is the subject of this two-part series, has previously argued that God has created the universe with the appearance of age [2-3], an argument popularised by 19th century biologist John Gosse, and rejected by his fellow believers as one which made God to be a deceptive creator. This track record of fundamentalist exegesis and science denialism show that Pople’s arguments on this subject need to be subjected to more than the usual degree of scrutiny.

Pople claims:
The difficulties with Theistic Evolution, are more scriptural than scientific (although the scientific problems are non-trivial, but this is a religious forum). The alterations that are required to be made to the early chapters of Genesis, and the parts of the NT that hang thereon, are so considerable to be basically tantamount to a rejection, rather than interpretation, in my view.
Unfortunately, Pople has already poisoned the well by implying that evolutionary creationists (I do not use the term theistic evolution [4] as it is not an accurate description of my position) are altering the early chapters of Genesis. Rather, I am arguing that the fundamentalist, literal interpretation that Pople advocates is internally inconsistent, ignores the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis, and leads to a flawed reading of Romans. Furthermore, his reading of the Pauline corpus owes more to Augustine’s flawed reading of Romans 5v12 than to sound exegesis.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Living on the Edge - The Real Richard Dawkins

The New Atheists are often guilty of the same intellectual crimes carried out by the special creationists they rightly condemn - making sweeping statements in areas about which they are abysmally informed. When you hear a biologist or cosmologist blithely dismissing the historicity of the Bible or alleging that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, odds are they have no idea what they're taking about, and can be safely ignored. From the forthcoming Living on the Edge book:

The Real Richard Dawkins

Whilst Dawkins is a well respected and highly qualified biologist, and a genuine expert in his particular field, his status in the broader scientific community should not be exaggerated; he is not a ‘genius’, nor is he considered particularly influential in the scientific community. In a 40 year career, he has published on average less than one academic paper per year; of these papers, only eight (out of 35), appear in the highest ranking journals ('Nature', 'Science', and the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, Biological Sciences').

He is not found at all in ISI Highly Cited (an index of the most influential scholars in science).[1] His books are all popular works, none of them academic publications except for ‘The Oxford Book of Modern Science writing’ in 2008. However, even in this case he only served as editor; he did not contribute any articles.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

How to turn Christians into atheists? It's as easy as Y.E.C. (Part 1)

Yet another attempt to rebut evolution has broken out on the main Christadelphian Facebook page, and like all previous attempts it is based on appeals to consequence, misrepresentations of the theological position of evolutionary creationists, conflation of literal readings of Genesis with the original meaning and poor exegesis. 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology - Part 1

“For too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions.” – N.T. Wright (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision p. 21)

In order to properly understand Genesis 1, we need to read it through ancient Near Eastern eyes, rather than see it as some kind of pre-realised rebuttal of evolution. Down that path lies the lunacy of YEC and loss of faith. One of the best guides to reading Genesis 1 as the ancient Hebrews would have seen it is OT scholar John Walton's "Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology". For those who as yet do not own the book, here's a summary of the cosmological cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. This is the world we need to enter in order to understand what Genesis 1 would have meant. Only then can we contextualise it and ask 21st century questions. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Evolutionary Creationism - a guide for the perplexed

I describe myself as an evolutionary creationist because it neatly described my position as a Christian who regards evolution as the mechanism behind the creation of the diversity of life we see on this planet. This raises the question of exactly how a natural process can be regarded as a creative act. Representative of this line of thinking is the assertion that creation is an intentional action, while evolution, being a natural process, is fundamentally incompatible.

This is a surprisingly poor argument. The Bible repeatedly refers to God sending the rain and making the sun to shine, rise and set, yet special creationists are willing to accept that these actions can have natural explanations. It is special pleading to argue that the creation of life on this Earth is off-limits to natural explanation. Psalm 148:8 refers to 'stormy winds fulfilling His word'; while this is poetry, and needs to be read as such, the implication that natural events can be employed to effect Divine outcomes is not inconsistent with the idea that natural processes and intentional actions are not mutually exclusive.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Living on the Edge - an update

While evolution denialism is a major problem in our community, it is ultimately a symptom of poor critical thinking skills, coupled with a fundamentalist attitude to the Bible alien to the first generation of Christadelphians. This is why the forthcoming "Living on the Edge" book by Jonathan Burke, a book which specifically targets the underlying issues responsible for a fundamentalist approach to the Bible is likely to be a game changer in our community. What's even better is the response:

Definitely good news. The Facebook page is here.

Friday, 13 September 2013

A Christadelphian attempt to philosophise evolution away.

Christadelphian attacks on evolution are almost always based on recycled special creationist mendacity from the usual suspects from Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International or the Discovery Institute. A relatively new approach has been to try to wrestle the problem into the philosophical domain and thus render evolution ineffectual. As Samuel Johnson is claimed to have said, when rebutting Bishop Berkeley's thesis on the non-existence of matter, "I refute it thus." Attempts to rebut evolution with philosophical legerdemain are doomed to fail simply because reality has a bad habit of not going away when cloaked with philosophical rhetoric.

There's a new Christadelphian entry into the evolution-creation battle, which is "really only interested in philosophical appraisal of the ideas of creation, evolution and intelligent design." Such an approach does not bode well for the rigour of arguments advanced, something which is evidenced by this post:

Living on the Edge - Jacques Berlinerblau: atheist critic of New Atheism

I have to be blunt when I say that I am less than impressed with the New Atheists, as their ignorance of religion is palpable, and embarrassing. Turns out that even other atheists are embarrassed by the New Atheists. The latest excerpt from Living on the Edge follows:

One of the most sustained and detailed criticisms of New Atheism has come from atheist Biblical scholar Jacques Berlinerblau, who argues that secular people cannot treat religion with indifference, and should not treat it with outspoken disrespect.[1]

Berlinerblau notes that most non-religious people are highly ignorant of religion in general, and of the Bible in particular, which is one of the reasons why their attacks on Christianity are so ineffective.

‘In all but exceptional cases, today’s secularists are biblically illiterate. Truth be told, their repertoire of knowledge about religion in general leaves much to be desired.’ [2]

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Living on the Edge - Errors of Argument

Errors of argument are all too readily found in arguments made by people, irrespective of whether they are theists or non-theists. Needless to say, they erode the credibility of any argument. The theist who wishes to present a rational case for Christ needs to ensure that his argument is free from such errors. From the forthcoming book "Living on the Edge":

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

From the Dust - Conversations in Creation

Fundamentalists and the New Atheists are mirror images of each other in how they see the science-Bible debate. The former reject science because a literal reading of the creation narratives conflicts with it, while the latter reject Christianity because they know that reality contradicts a literal reading of Genesis which they think is the only possible way to read the Bible. Both sides are wrong in that they privilege a literal reading of the narratives above all others without ever justifying this hermeneutical option.

Films such as "From the Dust - Conversations in Creation" are useful if only to disabuse fundamentalists of the theistic and non-theistic variety of this belief. From the promotional page for the film:

The question of where we come from is a mystery man has explored throughout human history. Highway Media has partnered with The BioLogos Forum and director Ryan Pettey to create a documentary that seeks to reopen the dialogue between science and faith. With fresh insight from some of the great theological minds of our day, and a candid examination of the Biblical creation narrative, From the Dust creates an unflinching context in which to view this classic debate.
You can get the documentary here.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

How to avoid reading Genesis 1-2 like a fundamentalist

I've seen a number of people ask how those who accept an ancient earth and evolution read the creation narratives. I've recently answered that question, and given the perennial nature of this subject, posting it here would not go astray.

I've gone from YEC to OEC to a BioLogos / Evolutionary Creationist view of reconciling Bible and Science. The strong concordist idea that Genesis 1-2 literally describes a recent creation in six days is unsustainable for a number of reasons:

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Living on the Edge - Confirmation Bias

The book "Living on the Edge" by Jonathan Burke is due to be published in November 2013, but excerpts from the book are being published at the Facebook page. I'll be mirroring them here. 

Confirmation bias

‘It is more common to reject or ignore arguments when we disagree with the conclusion than when we agree with it. Psychologists have studied and documented this human tendency, which they refer to as confirmation bias.’[1]

Put simply, confirmation bias is our natural tendency to look for information which confirms what we already believe, and ignore or reject information which disagrees with or conflicts with our beliefs. When choosing between two sources of information, we tend to place greater confidence and value in the source which confirms what we already believe.

The 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon described this tendency in his book ‘The Advancement and Proficience of Learning Divine and Human’ (1605), noting that people are more strongly influenced by information which confirms (or affirms), their beliefs, than information which contradicts (or negates), them.

‘Besides, even in the absence of that eagerness and want of thought (which we have mentioned), it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than negatives, whereas it ought duly and regularly to be imnpartial; nay, in establishing any true axion the negative instance is the most powerful.’[2]

This is a dangerous tendency because it erodes our capacity to think critically, and to examine our own beliefs for error. One way to help guard against it is to seek out arguments by those who disagree with our position, reading their criticism and counter arguments.

Another way is to present our case to readers who are neutral or even biased against our case, to see how it withstands criticism by those who can look at it without our personal bias. This is a key strength of the peer review process.

[1] Govier, ‘A Practical Study of Argument’, p. 106 (2009).

[2] Bacon, ‘Advancement of Learning’, in Creighton (ed.), ‘Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum’, p. 321 (rev. ed. 1900).

Friday, 6 September 2013

Living on the Edge - Why Christians Should Value Skepticism

The book "Living on the Edge" by Jonathan Burke is due to be published in November 2013, but excerpts from the book are being published at the Facebook page. I'll be mirroring them here. 

All valid truth claims (statements represented as factually true), can and should be tested, especially if they are controversial, extraordinary, or make specific demands on others (such as requests for money or changes in personal behavior). Skepticism is a natural instinct we all have, which helps to protect us against false claims. Although people differ in their levels of personal skepticism, the vast majority of people have a reasonably similar degree of skepticism towards any claim requiring personal investment of their time or other resources, and the more extraordinary a claim is, the less likely it is to be believed.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Historical science and experimental science - refuting a YEC distortion of science

Ever heard Ken Ham infect the minds of school children with his all-purpose lie that he instructs them to chant whenever their teachers instruct them about the wonders of our ancient, evolving world?

Were you there?

Ham's lie is based on the nonsensical claim that 'historical science' is inferior to 'experimental science', one which highlights Ham's complete ignorance of the subject he criticises. The National Center for Science Education notes that:

The problem with these attempts to divide science neatly into two piles is that, as Sober observes, a given science, and even a given scientist, can switch between approaches in the quest to address a single question. Geologists can plumb the oldest rocks on earth for evidence of the first life, but they can also go to the lab and recreate the conditions of early earth to test predictions of hypothesis about events billions of years ago. And those results from a modern laboratory will send researchers back to the field to test predictions about historical events generated in the laboratory. 
Similarly, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are testing theories about the origin of the universe:
The LHC will recreate, on a microscale, conditions that existed during the first billionth of a second of the Big Bang. 
At the earliest moments of the Big Bang, the Universe consisted of a searingly hot soup of fundamental particles - quarks, leptons and the force carriers. As the Universe cooled to 1000 billion degrees, the quarks and gluons (carriers of the strong force) combined into composite particles like protons and neutrons. The LHC will collide lead nuclei so that they release their constituent quarks in a fleeting 'Little Bang'. This will take us back to the time before these particles formed, re-creating the conditions early in the evolution of the universe, when quarks and gluons were free to mix without combining. The debris detected will provide important information about this very early state of matter. 
Science and Technology Facilities Council (2008) "The Big Questions" page on "The Large Hadron Collider" website. Accessed September 18, 2008.
Which category of science does this belong to? Clearly, it is both historical science and experimental science. Other such historical claims can be evaluated using modern experiments. Another example of this approach can be found in the episode of Mythbusters in which claims about the destruction of the Hindenburg are tested using modern models of the combustible zeppelin. If a television show can accurately navigate these philosophical waters, it is entirely appropriate to expect a textbook to handle them responsibly as well.
The full article is here.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Beyond reasonable doubt - the fact of common descent

Evolution is used by biologists to refer to common descent and large-scale evolutionary change (the 'fact' of evolution) and the theoretical mechanisms proposed to explain these facts (evolution as 'theory'). Special creationists still peddle the claim that evolution is 'only a theory', but the fact is that for over 100 years, there has been no debate in scientific circles that evolution has occurred. As evolutionary biologist TR Gregory says:
In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin cited independent lines of evidence such as the biogeographical distribution of species, homology of structure, the occurrence of vestigial organs and atavisms, and the already well established process of extinction as all pointing to a conclusion that species have changed over time and are connected by descent from common ancestors. Through the force of Darwin’s argument and the mass of supporting data he presented, it was not long before the contemporary scientific community came to acknowledge the historical reality of evolutionary descent... 
Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma (1998) notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science.  [1] (Emphasis mine)

The firmament of Genesis 1 and divine accommodation

Robert Schadewald aptly noted that "scientific creationism, geocentrism, and flat-earthism are respectively the liberal, moderate and conservative branches of a tree that has often been called Bible-Science." [1] Young Earth creationists often claim that they are following the literal word of the Bible, but as Schadewald perceived with his usual acuity, they were somewhat liberal in their interpretation of what Biblical Literalism meant. Read literally, the Bible teaches not only geocentrism, but also a flat earth. In particular, it teaches that the firmament is a solid structure separating waters above from waters below. [2] Any YEC who claims to be taking the Bible literally is being dishonest if they do not accept the cosmological worldview of Genesis 1 in its entirety, including a solid firmament.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Living On The Edge - An upcoming book for Christadelphians with hard questions about their faith

It's easy to get frustrated and angry when you see poor quality apologetic material which not only fails to answer questions believers have about their faith, but actively assists in their deconversion. That's why I am pleased to advertise an upcoming book. Living On The Edge (due Nov 2013). From the Facebook site:
Today Christians in the Western world are typically living in a post-Christian society. Christian beliefs are met with skepticism, and people see little reason to believe. Christians are confronted with daily challenges to their faith, and often struggle to understand the relevance of Christianity to modern life
You can find the Facebook page here.