Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Abraham in an Alternate Universe

In the original story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac, God praises Abraham's faith and willingness to do whatever he says, regardless of the end result. This "alternate universe" version represents how the tale would have gone if God were truly loving and just, demanding reasonable skepticism rather than faith.

One day, God appeared to Abraham and said, "Take your only son, Isaac, into the mountains and sacrifice him as a burnt offering to Me."

Abraham was distraught. I love my son, he thought, but I have to obey God. Besides, I'm sure He knows what He's doing. So he reluctantly but dutifully chopped wood for a burnt offering and took Isaac up to the peak of a nearby mountain.

"Where's the lamb that we're using for the sacrifice?" asked Isaac.

Abraham forced a smile. "Don't worry. God will provide one."

Abraham tied Isaac up with rope, ignoring the confused and desperate shouts of protest. He laid his child down on the flat boulder that he would be using as an altar and surrounded him with firewood. God, please don't make me do this, Abraham prayed.

"Father, what's going on?" cried Isaac. "Are you really going to kill me?"

"Believe me, my son, this is not my wish," said Abraham. "But God's commands are always righteous and just." He swallowed hard. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. He prayed one last time, but heard nothing in response. Abraham raised the gleaming knife high into the air, and...

...just as he was about to bring it down and slice into his beloved son's soft flesh, God appeared to him as a ball of blinding light encompassed by a whirlwind.

"What. Are. You. DOING?"

"My Lord! I... I was only carrying out the instructions you gave me!" said Abraham, shaking but relieved.

"You would really do anything I say, even if it means killing your own son? What on earth is wrong with you?"

The Deity's voice reverberated throughout Abraham's entire body. "I didn't want to. It was so terrible I could hardly bear it. But Lord, I know that your commands are always good. I was hoping that you would change your mind, but if you bid me to kill my son, then that's what is right, and that's what I must do!"

"You fool!" roared God. "Is your faith so blind that you would do anything I say, no matter how obviously immoral?"

Abraham's mouth opened and closed like a fish drowning in air.

"I gave you a brain, and I expect you to use it! Don't just follow every instruction I give like some mindless drone. Why should you assume that I'm some ultimate standard of righteousness just because I'm powerful and have treated you relatively well?"

"B–But you said you would always c–care for and protect me if I had fai—" stuttered Abraham.

"And give me one good reason you should take me at my word regardless of the circumstances."

"Well I..." Abraham started, but after a few thoughtful minutes his mind was still blank.

"I thought so," said God. "And besides, let's assume for the sake of argument that I am the ultimate standard of goodness. What if it wasn't me who commanded you to kill your son? What if you were actually talking to a demon in disguise? Or what if you were hallucinating?"

"I... guess that never occurred to me."

"Well, in the future I expect you to be skeptical of your God. Ask questions, think for yourself, and if the consequences of your commands are clearly out of step with your moral compass, for My sake, say no."

Then the light faded away, the whirlwind dissipated, and Abraham realized by the look on his son's face that he had some serious explaining to do.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Creationists Should Drop the Issue

Just fill in the quote marks around
"museum" using your imagination.
As a child of about ten, I enthusiastically embraced young earth creationism because at the time I thought it gave me concrete support for what I believed. A few years ago I became curious about what evolution supporters had to say about various issues, and I was blown away at how much sense it all made. It took a long time for me to eventually deconvert from Christianity, but the evolution/creation issue was one of the major factors that caused me to start questioning my faith.

Here's the deal: creationism is obviously wrong, and that should be enough reason to stop promoting it. But for creationists themselves, who can't see the evidence staring them right in the face, there's a more pragmatic reason not to try and press this issue. Nearly all creationists in the West are also fundamentalist Christians, and thus presumably consider saving souls to be more important than promoting what they think is the correct view of our origins. Evangelism is paramount; creationism is an important but still peripheral side issue.

I think that such creationists are doing more harm than good, even from their own perspective. There are many others like me, former creationists whose discovery of the real science behind our origins led us to wonder what else we had been lied to about. Unfortunately much of my evidence is anecdotal—I've heard and read a great many stories about people like these—but based on one informal poll, "science-based reasoning" was the number-one factor that led to people to leave the faith.

By promoting creationism as the only valid interpretation of the Bible and demonizing evolution as "atheistic," creationists are creating what many (especially theistic evolutionists) see as a false dichotomy. This leads people who reject creationism to reject their religion wholesale rather than adopting a more liberal form of it. Personally, I have my own reasons for finding theistic evolution unsatisfactory, but who knows? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe millions of people are marching straight into hell because they switched quickly from conservative Christianity to atheism, with creationists unwittingly holding open the gates.

So from their own point of view, creationists should probably stop pushing so hard. And from mine? It's true that I find their alternate narrative irritatingly immune to reality and hate to see people taken in by it. However, I do appreciate them helping to create a fast track from fundamentalism to unbelief, allowing millions to neatly avoid the vague and wishy-washy quagmire that is liberal religion. Even if creationists refuse to drop the issue, though, I think it will slowly fade away whether they like it or not. Although public opinion is moving at a snail's pace, science is gradually prevailing.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Misogyny in the Bible

The way in which the Bible advocates treating women is often nothing short of horrendous. I will examine just a few examples of this treatment here. Let us start with the laws of the Old Testament:
"When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife..."
At this point I'd like you to stop and think about what words should come after this in a just and rational society. I would expect something like "you shall by no means do so, and if attempt to, you shall be severely punished." Instead we find:
"...then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her." (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)
Some context is useful here: in the previous chapter (v. 13-14) God commanded the Israelites to kill all of the men of the enemy nations. This woman's father, brothers, and male friends would all have been dead. Then she is forced to become the wife of one of the men who killed them. Then, as if this would not already be a living nightmare, she is raped. Yes, the Bible allows the rape of female captives—and it definitely is rape. And just to head off any objections from apologists, I'll lay out here why we know this to be the case:
  1. The man is clearly having sex with the woman. The phrase "go in to" is a common Old Testament euphemism for sex, and the precise phrase "because you have humbled her" is used sexually just one chapter later (v. 28-29).
  2. "Anah," the Hebrew verb translated here as "humbled," is used in its sexual connotation eleven other times in the Bible. All eleven refer to a sex act that degrades the woman, and at least six refer to rape in particular.
  3. There is no reason that consensual sex would have degraded or humbled the woman, so it had to have been non-consensual.
  4. Most importantly, no woman in her right mind would willingly have sex with a man who has just aided in killing her family and forced her to be his wife.
Here's an issue that's relatively minor, yet is still indefensible because it's both harmful and completely unnecessary:
"Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the children of Israel, saying: 'If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled. 'But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her customary impurity, and she shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days." (Leviticus 12:1-5)
Why this discrimination? What is it about giving birth to a baby girl that makes one twice as unclean as giving birth to a baby boy? This arbitrary distinction in the law has absolutely no upside, and would probably have made the Israelites more resentful towards baby girls. This is a suspiciously human law—one that seems far more likely to originate from an ancient tribe with primitive ideas about gender than an infinitely enlightened God.

There are many other instances of inequality and misogyny in the OT, but I want to keep this to a reasonable length. Let's move on to the NT:
"Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything." (Ephesians 5:22-24)
Do Christians ever stop to think about why this should be? Certainly women are no less intelligent. While they may be physically weaker on average, this shouldn't have any impact on a social relationship. And while there is an analogy presented in this verse, it only clarifies the woman's role rather than giving a reason for it. To be blunt, there simply is no good reason. (In case this verse wasn't clear enough, its command is repeated in Colossians 3:18 and 1 Peter 3:1.) And finally:
"Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church." (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
"Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression." (1 Timothy 2:11-14)
So in summary: women are to be silent in church, they are to learn in silence, they are to be submissive, and they are not to teach or have authority over men.

Why is this? What exactly is shameful about women speaking in church? What is it about women that makes them poor teachers? I wonder why many Christians who think women shouldn't have authority in the church also think it is perfectly fine for women to be mayors, senators, governors, or even president? Surely the office of president is filled with far more problems than a position of authority in the church. If they're going to treat women as second-class citizens, they ought to at least be consistent—especially since the Bible itself portrays female rulers as a bad thing in Isaiah 3:12.

Look at the bizarre non-sequitur rationalization Paul gives in 1 Timothy. Women should be silent and should not teach because Eve came after Adam and was deceived? Paul seems to think that because Eve was deceived, all women are naturally gullible. This is a clear example of the genetic fallacy: drawing a conclusion based entirely on someone's origin. It should make no difference where women came from; they should be judged based on their own merits.

Again, this is just a sample of the misogyny in the Bible—there's plenty more. Of course, apologists try to downplay these instances in any way they can, but if we use their same standard of acrobatic reinterpretation, we can also excuse the rampant anti-woman sentiment in the Quran. With enough leeway, anything can be made to say the opposite of what it originally meant. If we treat the text with any degree of honesty, the image we get is not of a loving God, but of bigoted men who used religion to subjugate women.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Two Rational Thought Sites

Two of my friends from Rational Thought @UCSD, Jon Whitmore and Michael Caton, have some very insightful atheist websites that I'd like to plug.

First up is Jon's blog and resource site, Conversational Atheist. The purpose of the site is to teach atheists how to better engage religious arguments. The basic strategy he uses throughout the site is to continually give ground to believers on unimportant issues for the sake of argument, so he can take a stand on the more important issues. For example, in response to "Hitler was an atheist!":
"Hitler may not have been an atheist, but I am willing to go along with you on this because either way we have a point of agreement here! Commanding genocide is immoral – are you willing to condemn the God of the Old Testament for commanding genocide?
"We both agree, the God of the Bible is as immoral as Hitler and Stalin, right?
"Or perhaps you want to say that genocide is only 'sometimes' wrong?"
It's tempting to combat the theist on every incorrect point (Hitler criticized Christianity but still identified himself as Catholic). But these points often distract from the big ones, the real reasons people hold onto their beliefs. If we make those the points of contention, we're much more likely to make them rethink their position. Jon's website has pages for both general tactics and for articles on specific issues within Christianity and Islam. I especially like his "Word of Zeus" strategy, which uses a comparison to another religion to illustrate the problems with the one in question.

The second site is The Lucky Atheist, a blog that covers not just atheism, but skepticism in general. There are some very thorough and thought-provoking posts that clearly and cogently tackle subjects ranging from the possibility that theism could lead to greater happiness, to the problems bad critical thinking causes in my hometown of San Diego.

What I like about Michael's blog is that it often finds a unique angle or viewpoint to a story that I would never have thought of. It's nice to get different views rather than the continual echo chamber that makes up a large portion of the atheist community. And since he's in the field of medicine, he has the expertise to add his insightful commentary on topics like the fundamental flaws that pervade medical conspiracy theories.

On an unrelated note, I'll be on vacation from now until the end of the month—although I have a couple of posts scheduled during that time so things don't go completely dead. I'll be back in August!

Friday, July 8, 2011

JI: Out of Chaos, Canon

Chapter 6 of JI is entitled "How We Got the Bible," and that sums up its contents perfectly. Ehrman begins with a synopsis and defense of his previous work, Misquoting Jesus:
  • We only have copies of copies of the New Testament books
  • These copies have hundreds of thousands of minor errors
  • They also contain major errors and changes which affect our interpretations of Christian doctrines and the authors' intents (e.g. the Comma Johanneum and the Pericope Adulterae weren't part of the original text)
  • In some cases, we may never know what the text originally said
Based on this, he asks:
If God didn't properly preserve his words in the Bible, why should we think he inspired them in the first place?
From there, he moves on to a summary of the early church. He points out that, far from being handed down to us from on high, the New Testament is the result of doctrinal battles between several early sects. Here are Ehrman's descriptions of the main groups that made up the early Christian church:
  • Ebionites: The Old Testament laws are still in effect; God is strictly a single being; Jesus was human and not divine
  • Marcionites: The wrathful OT God and the merciful NT God are separate beings; Jesus was divine and only appeared to be human
  • Gnostics: Many divine beings exist; secret knowledge of oneself and the origin of the world is required for salvation; Jesus (human and temporarily inhabited by the divine Christ) came to impart this knowledge
  • Proto-Orthodox: God is a single being in three persons; Jesus was fully human and fully divine; his death brought salvation
Christians today see all but the latter of these sects as obviously wrong, but remember, no one had a trusty, authoritative New Testament to go by. Instead, each sect had dozens of books that they used to support their own views. And it's not as though the proto-orthodox sect was granted divine discernment about which books were inspired: they enthusiastically supported the Letter of Barnabus, the Apocalypse of Peter and 3 Corinthians, yet everyone recognizes them as forgeries today. These and other books that didn't make it into the NT are called New Testament apocrypha.

The process of establishing the official NT canon was long and painful. The first known attempt at a canon wasn't until around 170 CE (at best), the precise canon as we know it wasn't even suggested until 367, and it didn't become fully accepted until around 500. So what factors allowed the canon to form? Ehrman describes three tools that the proto-orthodox church used to stifle opposing views:
  • The clergy: The proto-orthodox were the only Christian group with a centralized power structure. Church deacons had near-total control the congregation, telling them precisely what beliefs were true and which were heretical.
  • The creed: Church leaders eventually settled on a single set of beliefs that had to be held by all congregants, written out in the form of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed.
  • The canon: The creeds were based on canonical holy books. Older books were given higher priority, as were books in widespread use. More importantly, they had to (claim to) be written by an apostle or an apostle's companion, and they had to conform to the proto-orthodox's existing views.
It was a bedrock assumption that the apostles held proto-orthodox views. If a book claiming to be by an apostle didn't hold these views, it was concluded to be a fake. Thus, while the canon was meant to be composed of authentic apostolic texts, the church's reasoning ensured that it would only reconfirm the beliefs they already held—a beautiful example of confirmation bias in action.

So the debate about the NT canon raged on and on, until finally it was settled... nearly five centuries after Jesus' death. This was a messy, human process during which church leaders were more concerned with tradition and conformity than truth. That this particular group emerged with this particular canon is a quirk of history based on factors that have nothing to do with God's guiding hand. Lastly, I'd like to point out that various fragments of the church disagree on the Old Testament canon even today. Why is it that God is so unable to communicate his message to those who earnestly seek him? Could it be because he was never there at all?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Endogenous Retroviruses

If I were asked to present the single line of evidence that best supports common descent, endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) would probably be my choice. They attest not only to evolution in general, but to human evolution specifically and even to the age of the earth—and they present a potential point of falsifiability.

Retroviruses reproduce by inserting their genetic code into a cell's DNA. In rare cases, they happen to do this to one of the host organism's germ line cells (which become sperm or egg cells). When that organism reproduces, the retrovirus' genetic code is passed down to future generations. The retrovirus is now an ERV, which then lies dormant in the genome, slowly accumulating mutations just as the rest of the DNA sequence does. ERVs are essentially genetic fossils, remnants buried not in the ground, but deep within every cell of the body.

We know ERVs are actual remnants of viruses—and not just because they look exactly like viruses, although that should be evidence enough. In 2006, a team of French scientists actually revived an ERV from the human genome, which they dubbed "Phoenix." When introduced to a cluster of human cells, Phoenix was able to infect them—which would of course be impossible if Phoenix wasn't a real virus that actually infected one of our distant ancestors.

Even if ERVs didn't demonstrate our common ancestry with other animals (I'll get to that in a minute), they'd still be completely incompatible with a 6,000 year old earth. They make up almost 8 percent of the human genome in the form of 98,000 fragments from 30,000 retroviruses—and everyone's ERVs are more or less the same, give or take a few mutations. For that many viruses to insert themselves into just the right sperm or egg cells and spread evenly throughout the entire population would take several orders of magnitude longer than the young-earth paradigm allows.

So why are ERVs important evidence for evolution? Simple: they're arranged in patterns called nested hierarchies, and there's no reason to expect to such patterns unless common descent is true. If an ERV shows up in one species, which later splits in two, it will show up in both "daughter" species. For example, in the graph below, some specific ERVs are found in gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and humans, because the virus infected the common ancestor of all five. Some ERVs are found in just the latter four, some in just the latter three, and so on. What's more, we find them in the exact same location in the genome of each species, meaning that the virus didn't happen to somehow infect them independently.

From Lebedev et al 2000. Time goes left to right.
Arrows represent ERV insertion at specific points in the genome,
which carry over to all subsequent species in that lineage.
At no point should we ever expect the same ERV in the same location in, say, humans and gibbons but not chimps—and we don't. The same goes for any two species that don't share a direct common ancestor, and the pattern holds each and every time. Let no one ever tell you that evolution is unfalsifiable; if the above examples turned to be true for some ERV, it would be completely unexplainable by common descent. However, the nested hierarchies we do find beautifully match the ones formed by other types of evidence.

So there we have it: ERVs point powerfully to an old earth, human evolution, and common descent in general. Naturally, creationists have tried to undermine this evidence, and as usual they fail miserably. I've already answered one objection (that they were never viruses at all), but these two blog posts by a graduate student specializing in ERVs offer a better response than I ever could. It saddens me that so many people—40% in America—believe in strict creationism, when most of them have never so much as glanced at the extraordinary evidence available.

Friday, July 1, 2011

May & June in Review

As I've done before, I'm creating an index of my posts from the past two months, both for my convenience and for that of anyone who may stop by. Here are my posts from May:
And from June:
My pace is certainly slowing down, but a little bit of burnout is to be expected. In any case, quality should be a higher priority than quantity, and I'm quite pleased as far as that's concerned. I'll probably be aiming for about three posts a week in the future, but I won't stress about it.

I noticed that in the past two months I've delved more into the particulars of Christianity, such as the Trinity, inerrancy, prophecy and its success as a meme. I also made a bit of headway into some of the common apologetic arguments with the Trilemma and Pascal's Wager, although they're not exactly the most well-respected ones in the bunch. In the next couple of months I hope to finish off my two book series on Why Evolution Is True and Jesus, Interrupted so I can start on something new.