Sunday, January 30, 2011

Simulated Evolution

BoxCar 2D is a really compelling simulation of natural selection. It uses a genetic algorithm to "evolve" 2D cars that drive over a bumpy landscape. Cars that manage to get further along the track are more likely to "reproduce" and pass on their traits. Here are some of the cars my trial of the sim started out with:

Clearly, these initial models didn't get very far, but the one on the right (for example) might live on to reproduce, and combined with random mutations, the population gradually improved. When I watched closely, I could actually see certain advantageous traits spread through the population. For example, the green and orange spike sticking out of the left car below acted as a stabilizer to keep the car from toppling backwards. Later a small wheel appeared on the spike (see right car below), which greatly amplified the benefit.

There were certain bottlenecks – steep slopes, large ditches, etc. – that were difficult to overcome, but over time some body types managed to get past them. Eventually what I tended to get were quick, adaptable cars with fairly low centers of gravity and no pointy shards sticking out to slow them down. Here's one from Generation 50:

Of course, this simulation doesn't perfectly reflect all the nuance and complexity of natural selection in the wild. However, it does demonstrate the power of the concept. It's all well and good to say that the best-adapted creatures survive and reproduce, but to see it happen before one's eyes is uniquely exciting. Creationists seem to think that evolutionary origins are in some way repugnant or shameful, but if anything, to be part of such a remarkable process should be considered an honor.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Bible Study Resources

Since I'm currently reading Jesus, Interrupted, I thought this would be a good time to cover some of the resources I use for studying the Bible.

First there are the more general sites. Bible Gateway is pretty much the default site for looking up Bible passages in various translations, although the Bible Verse Finder tool offers even more options. Typing a single verse into lets one quickly view it in fifteen translations at once. I also like Blue Letter Bible quite a bit. It has a concordance built in if one searches either the KJV or NASB translation of the Bible. I use this whenever I want to know the precise meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word.

The author of JI, Bart Ehrman, suggests reading the Bible horizontally, comparing multiple passages to look for differences and discrepancies. There are a few tools online that can help aid in this with regard to the gospels. The Five Gospel Parallels page, created by a University of Toronto professor, is the best one I've found. With just a few clicks, one can line up all four gospels (plus other books) to focus on exactly how a particular story is told. is less useful for in-depth study, but works well as a quick way to compare which stories are present in which gospels.

The internet is truly a great thing, isn't it? Just a few decades ago people had to flip through massive books if they wanted to study the Bible, but now we can do in-depth research quickly and easily. If resources like these were around when the early church was deciding on the biblical canon, I bet the Bible would look very different than it does today.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

JI: What Christians Don't Know and Why

I'm a little concerned that this blog is focusing too much on creationism and evolution, so I'm changing things up a bit. When I purchased Why Evolution is True, I also picked up Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them) by Bart Ehrman (which I'll refer to as "JI"). I'm now reading both of these and will alternate writing about each of them here.

Early on, Ehrman presents two basic facts that go a long way toward explaining the "why we don't know about them" portion of the book's title. On pages 3–6, he says that modern Mainline Protestant seminaries include classes that use the historical-critical method, which focuses on the historical context of the Bible and the original intentions of its authors. From these classes they learn a significant amount of information about the various problems with the Bible: historical errors, authorship issues, contradictions, and the like. This was a pleasant surprise to me, since I had assumed that such an approach was taken primarily in secular universities.

However, on pages 12–14 Ehrman describes an interesting phenomenon: none of the pastors who learned this information – not even those who accept it – get around to actually sharing it with their congregants. Despite the knowledge they've gained, they simply preach from the "devotional" approach (e.g. how does passage X apply to your life) and ignore the historical-critical method. They generally don't even mention the critical approach in order to dismiss it – they just pretend it doesn't exist. I can personally attest to this; the pastors I've listened to seldom (if ever) mention any serious criticism of the Bible.

One possible explanation that Ehrman gives for this is very telling: he wonders if pastors are "afraid that historical information might destroy the faith of [the] congregation". This possibility is worrying to me. If pastors intentionally omit critical information to preserve the faith of their flock, it's only a small step from there for them to (for example) exaggerate or even fabricate miracle stories to add to that faith. They could easily rationalize this by saying that a few white lies are a small price to pay for keeping people out of an eternity in hell – and if Christianity was true, I'd be tempted to agree.

On pages 20–22 Ehrman gives a second reason for the general lack of knowledge about Bible errors. Most people either read the Bible in patches (e.g. a few verses from James here, a chapter from Acts there) – or sequentially (e.g. Matthew from start to finish, then perhaps continuing with Mark). This latter method Ehrman calls the "vertical" approach. He contrasts this with the method that critical scholars use: the horizontal approach. With this method, multiple books of the Bible are compared side by side. By examining them in parallel, scholars can easily pinpoint errors and contradictions, as well as major differences in authors' approaches to essential Christian doctrines.

Essentially, there are two main ways Christians could potentially learn about the problems with the Bible: by going to church or by reading it on their own. But their pastors won't tell them about the problems, and their reading method isn't the best one for finding those problems. And of course, the small fraction of people who find out anyway usually want to continue believing, so they can always use the resources of apologetics to rationalize and explain away any issues they encounter. This combination of poor access to information and confirmation bias allows Christianity to thrive despite the clear problems with its holy book.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Genesis 1, Version 2.0

I've already posted on why I don't believe in theistic evolution. But here is an abbreviated version of what I would expect to find in Genesis 1 if it was truly a divinely inspired work.
"1 In the beginning, God created the universe. 2 And the universe was a mere speck in the void, but the Spirit of God surrounded it.
3 Then God said, "Let the universe expand." And when He said it, it became so. 4 And God said, "Let the dust of the universe slowly form stars to bring forth light, and planets also." And it was so. 5 From the planets God chose one and called it the earth. And He said, "Let the earth bring forth small living creatures," and again it was so.
6 And God said, "Let the creatures slowly change into many new and different beings. 7 Let the fish become amphibians, and let the amphibians become reptiles, and let the reptiles become birds and mammals, 8 and let there be plants and many other creatures also." And after a long time had passed, it was so. 9 Then God said, "Let mammals slowly bring forth humans that are in My image." And so it was that man arose upon the earth.
10 From men God chose one man and named him Adam, and to Adam He bestowed intelligence above all other men, 11 for it was to Adam alone that God would reveal Himself. 12 And God saw that all that He had made was very good."
It's worth noting that I, a weak-minded and fallible human being, wrote this in just a few minutes. I acknowledge that there may be several problems with this reworked passage – for example, it's too short, it vastly oversimplifies evolution and the formation of the universe, and some of these concepts likely didn't exist in the original Hebrew. However, I would still expect a God who has infinite knowledge, and can therefore come up with literally the best possible combination of words to describe these phenomena, to produce something significantly better than this.

Yet what we find instead is a text riddled with entirely unnecessary scientific errors. This points strongly to the conclusion that the Bible is not the inspired word of God.

Monday, January 24, 2011

WEIT: Radiometric Dating Works

Radiometric dating works by calculating the age of rocks using a radioisotope's half-life and the relative amounts of that radioisotope and its byproducts. The YECs claim that radiometric dating is unreliable due to either contamination or changes in the half-life.

On pages 24 and 25 of WEIT, Coyne utterly demolishes this claim. He starts off with three basics that provide more than enough evidence by themselves:
"Since the different radioisotopes in a rock decay in different ways, they wouldn't give consistent dates if decay rates changed. Moreover, the half-lives of isotopes don't change when scientists subject them to extreme temperatures and pressures in the laboratory. And when radiometric dates can be checked against dates from the historical record, as with the carbon-14 method, they invariably agree."
I especially like that second one: environmental conditions (e.g. the ones before or during the supposed flood) don't change the decay rates of radioactive isotopes used in these dating methods. It's hard to take the YEC argument seriously when all of the evidence points in the opposite direction. (And a technique called isochron dating limits any potential problems with the method even further.)

Then Coyne recounts an ingenious method for independently confirming the accuracy of radiometric dating. Certain corals were dated to 380 million years ago. Cornell University's John Wells took advantage of the fact that friction from the tides is gradually slowing the earth's rotation to confirm this date. We know from the rate of slowing that 380 million years ago, each year would have 396 days, each 22 hours long. Corals produce growth rings daily and annually, and Wells counted those rings to find that his corals had experienced about 400 21.9-hour days per year – remarkably close to what was predicted by radiometric dating.

This elegant independent confirmation leaves me in awe of the ingenuity of scientists. These are not people who blindly follow the principles that have already been set up. They perform countless experiments that could potentially falsify the existing paradigms. But in most cases, this one included, these tests add new support for what we already know. This is in stark contrast to young earthers, who cling to whatever scraps of supposed evidence they can find and come up with wild, unsupported hypotheses to keep believing what they want to believe.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

News of the Resurrection

There are a huge number of contradictions in the gospels, primarily because they are four parallel accounts of the same basic story. The concentration of clashing details is especially high in the resurrection accounts. One of these is centered on the following question: What did the women visiting Jesus' tomb do when they found that he had been resurrected? Here's what Matthew 28:8 says:
"So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring the disciples his word."
So the women immediately ran to the disciples to tell them the good news of Jesus' resurrection. Luke 24:9 says basically the same thing:
"Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest."
Okay. Now look at what Mark 16:8 says:
"So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."
Here the women flee from the tomb and say nothing! This is a very clear contradiction, and not one that I think can be plausibly reconciled.

Apologetics Press writer Eric Lyons makes an attempt. He claims that "for a time" the women said nothing, as portrayed in Mark, but "later that day" they went to tell the disciples, as in Matthew and Luke. But neither Matthew nor Luke give any indication that the women waited to tell them. In fact, Matthew indicates precisely the opposite: the women "went out quickly ... and ran to bring" the news. There is simply no room here for the women to have hesitated.

Lyons also mentions that Mark 16:10 has Mary Magdelene going to tell the disciples. However, this does not solve the problem, for three reasons. First, Mark mentions only Mary giving the news, while Matthew and Luke have all the women doing so – another contradiction. Second, Lyons ignores the consensus among biblical scholars that Mark 16:9-20 is a later addition and not part of the original gospel. Third and (in my opinion) most importantly, verse 10 does not magically make verse 8 go away. For "they said nothing to anyone" to make any sense at all, a significant amount of time must have passed before any of the women gave the news – in direct contradiction with Matthew.

As I said, I don't think this contradiction can be plausibly reconciled. But even if it can, there are hundreds of other contradictions in the Bible, many of which would be even harder to resolve than this one.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Expectations Influence Perception

One major principle behind many of our psychological errors and biases is that expectations influence perception. That is, if we expect a given event to happen, we are more likely to perceive that event happening, whether it has really happened or not.

Take the placebo effect, for example. If an individual expects a pill (or other sham treatment) to relieve their headache, their headache will probably dissipate even if it contains no active ingredients. In general, the greater the expectation, the greater the perceived effect, and the effect disappears when the subjects are informed of the placebo. It's hard to overstate the power of this phenomenon. It works with everything from arthritis to bipolar disorder. A review of studies on cough medicine concluded that a staggering 85% of their effectiveness stemmed from the placebo effect, and only 15% was related to the medicine itself.

The effect also changes based on the nature of the placebo given: two sugar pills are better than one, big pills are better than small ones, more expensive pills are better than cheaper ones, brand name pills are better than generic ones, and saline injections are better than sugar pills. The effect also responds to cultural factors: red pills work better as stimulants while blue pills work better as depressants, because red is considered an "energetic" color while blue is thought of as "calm."

Pareidolia is the tendency to find significance in meaningless data. Our brains evolved to detect patterns such as animal calls and faces. But the cost of not identifying these patterns is far greater than the cost of accidentally finding patterns where there are none. For example, it's better to run away from a non-existent predator than not run away from a real one. (Pareidolia that results in perceiving living creatures is sometimes called hyperactive agent detection.)

The clustering illusion is a subset of this phenomenon: people who looked at a string of randomly generated Xs and Os thought it looked non-random. They found "streaks" of Xs and Os in the string – patterns in meaningless data. Pareidolia is also the reason we see clouds that look like bicycles or elephants, and find images of Jesus or Mary in pieces of burnt toast. Weperceive these patterns because we unconsciously expect to find patterns – not just because we deal with them every day (although that's important too), but also because this behavior is hard-wired into us.

Confirmation bias is another area where this principle comes into play: people tend to favor information that agrees with their existing beliefs. For example, suppose one believes that marijuana should be legalized. If one reads about one country that legalized it with negative results and another that did so with positive results, one will tend to ignore the former and focus on the latter. (The opposite would be true if one believes it shouldn't be legalized.) Because we believe that our existing viewpoints are correct, we expect to find information that confirms them, and thus that is largely what we perceive.

This bias is an especially important one because it can affect us at multiple stages. We will tend to gather information, interpret it, and even recall it, according to our expectations. Each step represents another opportunity to create an inaccurate, warped perception of the information we learn and use each day.

The fact that what we expect to see influences what we actually see has profound consequences for Christians and other religious people. For example, if a Christian expects to encounter demon possession, they're likely to perceive someone with a mental illness as possessed. And someone who believes in demon possession might perceive themselves as possessed and then act as such (remember the cultural aspect of the placebo effect mentioned above). This is especially true if there are people surrounding them who validate their behavior. A case like this is particularly powerful, because the expectations, perceptions and actions of two parties build on each other in a positive feedback loop. As another example, Christians often interpret their prayers as having been answered by God, even when the results could easily have come about by chance. They'll also tend to ignore cases where prayers aren't answered (more on how cognitive bias relates to prayer in a later post).

This is my basic model for how these ideas are often reinforced:
Culture → Expectations  Perceptions  Actions  Culture
Our culture and upbringing influence our expectations about the world. Those expectations influence our perceptions, which in turn determine in large part how we act. Those actions, finally, build upon our existing culture. Christians brought up thinking prayer works expect it to work, perceive it to work, and act by continuing to pray and telling others that it works. Those actions strengthen existing Christian beliefs about prayer, and the cycle begins again. It happens in every religion. In this respect, as in many others, Christianity is not special.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Creationism and Blind Faith

In an earlier post I talked about possible definitions of religious faith. I mentioned that it makes no sense to believe something regardless of (or in spite of) the evidence. This is so self-evident that I shouldn't even need to mention it. However, the examples below will show that this form of belief is prevalent in creationist circles.

One infamous case comes from Richard Dawkins' article on creationist Kurt Wise. He's a fairly prominent guy in the YEC community, having helped develop the creationist pseudoscience of baraminology (the study of "created kinds") and served as a consultant for AiG's creation museum. Here's what he has to say about his faith:
"...if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand."
Wise isn't a stupid man in terms of raw intelligence – he has a PhD from Harvard, after all. So why does he believe in YEC if it isn't true? This comment tells us the answer: due to his blind faith, he would believe in YEC no matter what set of evidence we had.

Todd Wood is another great example. Like Wise, he also has a PhD and did work in baraminology. In a 2009 blog post, he wrote:
"Evolution is not a theory in crisis. ... There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. ... It works, and it works well.
... It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand God's creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. ... Please don't idolize your own ability to reason. Faith is enough. If God said it, that should settle it."
To Wood it doesn't matter that evolution really, really looks like it's true. The Bible has to be true, and therefore anything that contradicts it is false. It has been so thoroughly cemented in his mind that no barrage of evidence can dislodge it. Notice how his use of the word "faith" makes it both distinct from and opposed to reason. This is the very definition of blind faith. But surely these are just individuals with unusual ideas. This can't be the norm for creationists, can it?

How I wish it wasn't. But this viewpoint can be found buried within the Institute for Creation Research's list of tenets:
"The creation record is factual, historical, and perspicuous; thus all theories of origins or development that involve evolution in any form are false. ...people are finite and scientific data concerning origins are always circumstantial and incomplete..."
Keep in mind that the ICR claims to be a center for scientific research. Scientists should never let dogma get in the way of the facts, yet here the ICR is setting Genesis on a pedestal as infallible. They're not stating it as bluntly as Wise and Wood, but the implication is that even if the scientific data points to evolution, their faith takes precedence. ("Biblical, Accurate, Certain" is also proclaimed proudly at the top of each page. They really seem like a lost cause.)

Finally we come to the statement of beliefs of Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International. The lists are identical because because AIG and CMI started as one organization and split in 2006. At the very end, they state:
"By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information."
That's right. They're literally defining the evidence for evolution out of existence. Someone who accepts this statement of faith would likely be so deeply and fundamentally biased that they could never be convinced their position was wrong.

There's a common theme in all of these faith statements: humans are fallible, but the Bible isn't since it's God's word, therefore we can ignore all evidence that doesn't fit with the Bible. They're right about one thing: we are fallible. However, their delusion rests in the idea that faith is somehow exempt from this fallibility. The assumption that the Bible is God's word is far more tenuous than that piles of verifiable, objective scientific evidence are correct. This fact should ring clear as a bell in their heads, but due to their frankly awe-inspiring level of bias, they wave it away without a thought.

As Dawkins said in his article, there seems to be "no sensible limit to what the human mind is capable of believing, against any amount of contrary evidence." That's why this brand of faith is so dangerous: bad ideas that can't be rooted out are just that much more likely to spread.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

WEIT: Continental Drift

On page 16 of WEIT, Coyne mentions continental drift and the problems it poses for young earth creationism. We know from evidence such as geographical fossil distribution (see image below) that the continents were once together. We know from GPS satellites that the continents are moving at 2–4 inches per year. And plate tectonics, which posits many millions of years of drift, already explains the observed evidence. It can even make accurate predictions. For example, oil companies use plate tectonics to figure out where to drill.

Coyne doesn't mention the proposed YEC explanation for continental drift, runaway subduction, but I don't really blame him; the whole concept is a mess. Basically, the YECs think that around the time of the flood, entire continents moved thousands of miles across the earth at about 4 miles per hour – roughly the average person's walking speed. They provide no mechanism for this phenomenon, and the heat released by billions of tons of land moving that fast would be enough to boil away the world's oceans. If YECs want to use the catch-all, unfalsifiable "God did it" as the explanation for these problems, that still leaves the problem of why God would want to move the continents around in the first place.

The real problem with runaway subduction is that it takes the Bible as a given and then tries to reconcile it with our observations, no matter how absurd the result. Objectively speaking, it makes far more sense to start with the observable evidence and then find the simplest and best explanation for that evidence – precisely as traditional plate tectonics already does.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Way of the Master

Back at my Christian high school, we would occasionally watch videos on evangelism from The Way of the Master in computer class (don't ask me what it had to do with computers). The videos featured Ray Comfort and former Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron trying to convert people to Christianity. Even as a Christian I found them boring and repetitive. Thinking back on them now, they just seem ridiculous. I'll use the video below as an example.

We're treated to a variation on the faulty watchmaker analogy at the 2:25 mark, and the evangelism routine begins at 3:05. The first step Comfort takes is to ask, "Do you consider yourself a good person?" Naturally, almost everyone does. He then asks a series of questions designed to cast doubt on this assumption.
  • "Have you ever told a lie?" Yes. "What does that make you?" A liar.
  • "Ever stolen anything?" Yes. "What does that make you?" A thief.
  • "Ever taken God's name in vain?" Yes. "The Bible says that's blasphemy."
  • "Ever looked at someone lustfully?" Yes. "Then Jesus said you've committed adultery in your heart."
Comfort ends this part of the routine (4:05) by saying, "By your own admission you're a lying, thieving, blasphemous adulterer at heart, and you'll have to face God on Judgment Day." Now, first notice that they didn't admit to blasphemy or adultery at all. He simply told them that's what they were guilty of. Second, Comfort is manipulating words here to score cheap emotional points. Having told a lie doesn't make you a liar; any reasonable person would say that a liar is someone who lies often enough for it to become a prominent character trait. If we defined "liar" to include everyone who has ever lied, it would lose all meaning.

Next he asks whether they'd go to heaven or hell based on the Ten Commandments. Notice that all this has happened without the subjects ever agreeing that the Bible is authoritative or accurate. Comfort dodges this by saying (4:50): "If I didn't believe in the law of gravity, would it change reality?" It's not hard to see where the metaphor is flawed: the evidence for gravity is obvious, but Comfort has provided no evidence for the truth of the Bible. The rest of the video is the standard gospel message. The end (6:50) cuts off the subjects' final response – a sure sign that it didn't end well, since if it had, they would have shown it.

I've mentioned before that evangelism is about appeal to emotion, but The Way of the Master's routine demonstrates that it's more specifically about building up guilt and then injecting a quick dose of fear. I don't think Comfort is being intentionally crafty; he's just found through trial and error that this is what works. It doesn't work every time – and it doesn't have to. But occasionally someone will picture themselves standing before a large, throned, bearded man and get a pang of terror in their gut, without first considering whether there's any evidence that it will happen. And that mental slip-up is all someone like Comfort needs to get a foot in the door.

Friday, January 14, 2011

WEIT: The Tree of Life

One basic piece of evidence for evolution is the the nested hierarchical organization of all organisms, in the form of the "tree of life" or "phylogenetic tree." Page 8 of WEIT has a wonderful diagram of this, listing the characteristics common to each level of the hierarchy. Primates have opposable thumbs, primates and other placental mammals have a placenta, placental mammals and other mammals have hair, mammals and other amniotes (birds and reptiles) have an amniotic egg, amniotes and other vertebrates have vertebrae, and so on. Below is a similar sort of abbreviated phylogenetic tree, though their common features aren't listed.

If God created all of these creatures, he could have made them with any set of characteristics he wanted: fish with placentas, reptiles with opposable thumbs, et cetera. But that's not what we see (and in fact, finding creatures like these would falsify evolution). Instead we find nested hierarchies of characteristics, exactly as we would expect if a common ancestor underwent gradual speciation.

Some creationists try to claim that the hierarchical structure is subjective (which shows it's a problem for them; otherwise they wouldn't object). In Figure 3 of the linked article, Woodmorappe tries to show that wheeled vehicles can form hierarchies, but he can only fit them this way though selective use of data. What about covered wagons, which were much like cars, but with no motor, windshield, horn or thick rubber tires? Many other wheeled vehicles break his delicately constructed mold: tricycles, trains, skateboards, conference bikes and monowheels, to name a few.

Coyne demolishes the claim of subjectivity in the phylogenetic tree with the fact that multiple scientists in the 1700s independently came up with nearly identical organizations. Not only that, but the tree of life established so long ago has been confirmed more recently using DNA evidence. This demonstrates the power of science: multiple sources provide independent confirmation of nested hierarchies and common descent.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Defining (and Dispensing with) Faith

"Faith" is a word that's tossed around a lot in religion. It's rarely defined, and when it is, the formal definition doesn't always match the colloquial one. First let's get straight what we're not talking about: "faith" can mean "trust" (as in "I have faith in you") or "belief system" (as in "the Christian faith"), and the similar-sounding "faithful" means "loyal" or "dependable" (as in "my faithful steed"). None of these definitions are relevant here. We're talking about faith as belief – the only question is what kind of belief.

It should be obvious that one should only believe a proposition X if there is sufficient evidence suggesting that X is true. I think it's helpful to think of belief in terms of a thermometer. The level of the liquid inside is the amount of evidence for a given position. Partway up the device is a notch marked "Rational Belief." If the evidence rises above that notch, the belief is rational. If it remains below that notch, the belief is irrational.

Based on this framework, here are two possible definitions of faith:
  1. Belief based on sufficient evidence
  2. Belief regardless of (and at times despite) evidence
The first of these is always justified, while the second is virtually never justified. (There are a few very basic exceptions. For example, I believe I'm not a brain in a vat, despite apparently having insufficient evidence to reach that conclusion. However, situations like this can often be resolved with Occam's razor: to believe I'm a brain in a vat would require unnecessary assumptions. In such cases, I would argue that Occam's razor constitutes its own unique form of evidence.)

What definition of faith do religious people adhere to? It depends on the believer, and I suspect that even within individuals the definition will subtly shift to whichever one is most advantageous in a given situation. If one asks about "blind faith," they'll flatly deny that the term applies to them. But when Christians say that "faith is a virtue," it's unlikely that they mean that "evidence-based belief is a virtue." When they use the term "unshakable faith," they probably don't mean "unshakable except in the face of sufficient evidence." And when Christians evangelize, they usually don't present evidence; instead they use the gospel message of sin and redemption as an appeal to emotion with faith at its core. Whether they realize it or not, they're advocating faith for its own sake, thereby encouraging people to believe irrationally.

Because faith is such a slippery word, I suggest dispensing with it as a generic term. There is "irrational faith," and there is "rational belief." There is no third category. Making this clear will force religious people to find reasons for believing. They may find flawed reasons, and they may be heavily biased in favor of their current views, but at least they'll be thinking. They'll be attempting to work their way up the meter to rational belief. And that's a start.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

WEIT: Intelligent Design is Creationism

The introduction and first chapter of Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True (WEIT) were mostly review for me, but review is good for clarifying and summarizing what one already knows. Coyne explained the basic elements of evolutionary theory – natural selection, mutation, common descent, etc. – and went over some of the general predictions that the theory makes.

Coyne starts off the book with a description of the 2005 court case Kitzmiller v. Dover, which decided whether intelligent design (ID) could be taught in public schools. The judge in the case, John E. Jones III, was a Bush-appointed Republican and fervent Christian, so if he had any biases, they were likely in favor of ID, not against it. However, in the end he ruled against ID, saying that it was clearly a religiously-motivated offshoot of creationism, and that teaching it as science would violate the First Amendment.

The ID textbook Of Pandas and People was a key piece of evidence in the case. As it turns out, Pandas was originally an explicitly creationist text, but in later revisions the term "creationism" was often replaced with "intelligent design" with no other substantial changes. A graph of this is provided below. One particularly egregious example of this, where "creationists" is changed to "cdesign proponentsists" (a typo of "design proponents") can be found here.

This is far from the only evidence that ID is just rebranded creationism, however. Most of the major ID advocates—people like William Dembski, Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer—believe the "designer" is the God of Christianity. In 1998, the Discovery Institute (the primary ID organization) privately drafted their wedge document. Their Christian motivations are displayed right on the cover with an image of Michaelangelo's painting The Creation of Adam:

But their religious agenda is laid out even more clearly in the text itself. They sought to "build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians." They also intended to promote "the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God." And they proudly declare that "Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

With evidence like that, it's not surprising that the Discovery Institute was upset when the document was leaked. There can be no mistake: ID is a movement originating from Christian creationism, supported by Christians, seeking to advance Christianity. If it looks, swims, and quacks like a duck... well, you know the rest.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Alternate Religion Comparison

I've thought a lot of about how to make believers understand the biases they hold toward their own beliefs. The Outsider Test for Faith (OTF), presented by ex-pastor and atheist John Loftus, is a useful tool, but it's a bit too unwieldy to be used easily and regularly in conversation. But the following question that tackles the issue in a similar way:
"Would you react to this situation differently if we were talking about another religion?"
I've dubbed this question the "Alternate Religion Comparison" (ARC). It's hardly a new idea, but giving it a name makes it more salient and easily communicable to others. The ARC seems to apply in a remarkably wide variety of situations. In fact, I've already used one in an earlier post (see the second to last paragraph). I tend to use Islam as my example because it's a major religion, it has the same roots as Christianity, and it's often viewed negatively by Christians. Here's an example of a situation where the ARC could be useful:
Christian: My friend told me a story about a woman who was suffering from brain cancer. Her family prayed that she would be healed, and she was! Isn't God great?

Skeptic: Well, if the story is true, it's great that she got better. But would you accept that anecdote as evidence for Islam if the same thing happened to a Muslim?

Christian: Well, no...

Skeptic: Then why are you accepting it as evidence for your religion? Isn't that a double standard?
I don't think there's any convincing way the Christian could answer. I suppose they could answer "yes" to the first part of the question, but that's pretty unlikely. I would probably call their bluff with something to the effect of "Really? If a Muslim came to you and told you that story, you would consider Islam more likely?" Ultimately, if they're being honest, I think they'll have to admit that they would shrug off the story as fake or a natural phenomenon. And if that's true, they should do the same with the ones that favor their own religion.

I Visit a Megachurch

The church my family usually goes to, Horizon Christian Fellowship, is fairly large; I would guess its weekly attendance is roughly 2,000 or so. But yesterday, my mom and I went to The Rock Church, which is among the largest churches in America with its weekly attendance of about 12,000. Here's how it went.

The Rock is a very large, newly-built facility, and the church building itself is an impressive state-of-the-art amphitheatre that seats 3,500 people. As we walked in there were tables set up on either side passing out flyers, like a kind of miniature convention. The flyers that I took, along with the sermon's "lesson plan," are pictured below. Interestingly, the bulletin flyer listed several former workers at Horizon (which is both our current church and my former high school) as Rock employees. I also saw an old math teacher of mine from Horizon in the parking lot. These things make me wonder if the Rock is growing at Horizon's expense, both in terms of staff and congregation.

The music during the "worship" portion was decent, and the atmospheric stage lighting made it reminiscent of a concert. Then the pastor, Miles McPherson, interviewed a city councilwoman, which was fairly dull and felt out of place for a church service. When the congregation prayed for the woman, he had them all reach out their hands toward her. I'm not sure why – do they think God's power comes down through them and shoots out through their arms at her?

McPherson is well-suited to being the pastor of a megachurch. He was charismatic, engaging, and had an informal speaking style that appeals to a broad audience. He moved around the stage frequently, and he had the audience parrot certain words back to him to keep them listening. The sermon was pretty light on meaningful content, but on the bright side the topic was community service. If there's one thing I would approve of as the subject of a sermon, that would be it, although the same things can be (and are) accomplished without the religious component.

The atmosphere of the place was a bit overwhelming. The lights, music and charismatic pastor create an environment ideal for manufacturing religious experiences. As I looked around at the massive crowds surrounding me, it struck me how easily this setup amplifies groupthink and the bandwagon effect. Putting so many like-minded people together in such a socially insulated environment reassures them that their beliefs must be true and makes them less likely to question the consensus viewpoint.

The service as a whole was very short at about 75 minutes, and incredibly the actual sermon was probably less than 25. I have a feeling that's part of the whole package; it needs to be short and snappy to get mass appeal. That combined with the freshly constructed, high-tech building and stylish atmosphere is making them quite successful (perhaps at the expense of smaller surrounding churches). As Christianity continues to adapt to the surrounding culture, I predict we'll see churches like these flourish as more traditional ones slowly fade away.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why Not Theistic Evolution?

I'll be spending a lot of time focusing on the evidence for evolution and against creationism, so it's worth explaining why I don't just accept theistic evolution (TE) as many Christians do. I'll leave aside my other objections to Christianity while answering this question.

TE takes some or all of the Genesis creation account to be allegorical. The problem is that there's simply no reason for an allegory here. The creation account itself doesn't teach us anything morally – certainly nothing that an omniscient God couldn't teach us using a more accurate account. (And while the Adam/Eve part of the story does offer a moral lesson, we'll see later that this portion is definitely meant to be historical.) Objections that the Bible isn't a science textbook are pointless; one expects accuracy from any text unless there is a legitimate reason to stray from the truth.

Some might say that the real science would only confuse people of that time and distract from the message. But first of all, I would expect an omniscient God to be able to express himself accurately without confusing people. And second, the creation account differs unnecessarily from reality on too many points. For example, in the creation story plants come before stars and birds before other land animals, when in fact the orders are reversed. There's simply no reason for them to be out of order; the accurate version would be neither distracting nor confusing. There's also no reason to make bizarre mentions of nonexistent phenomena such as "waters above the firmament." Clearly, the creation account is the way it is because the authors believed it to be literally true.

Another problem with TE is that biblical support for the creation story isn't limited to Genesis 1–3. For starters, it's quite obvious that the Bible intends Adam and his descendants to be real people. The Genesis 5 genealogy stretches from Adam to Noah, and Luke 3:23-38 traces Jesus' ancestry all the way back to Adam. Here are more verses that seem to take creation literally:
Incidentally, Noah's flood is also seen by later authors as historical:
Romans 5:12 above also states that death entered the world through Adam's sin. This is totally incompatible with evolution, which states that billions of creatures died before the first humans evolved. TE advocates' attempts to resolve this by suggesting that sin also caused death "retroactively" stretch credulity well past the breaking point.

As I've shown, the entire Bible treats the events of Genesis as if they actually happened. In my opinion, it does not leave TE open as a legitimate option, so my choice is between creationism and unguided evolution. Based a thorough examination of the evidence, I must choose the latter.