Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two Approaches to Ignorance

Science and religion have one peculiar similarity: they both thrive on ignorance. Neither one could function without it. If we knew everything, there would be nothing for science to test, and there would be no gap for religion to fill with God. But does this mean that science and religion aren't so different after all? Surely ignorance can't be a good thing in either case. Do they, perhaps, share a common fault?

No. What matters is how science and religion respond to this lack of knowledge.

Religion revels in ignorance. Without a sense of the unknown, there's nowhere for God to hide. Whenever someone responds to a tough question—like why 17,000 children starve to death every day—with "God works in mysterious ways," they are invoking ignorance as an impenetrable defense of their beliefs. Any unusual phenomenon that science has yet to fully explain—like eclipses and epilepsy in the past, or abiogenesis at present—is taken by the religious to be evidence of God. Believers use ignorance as both shield and sword: it lets them hide from the hard questions of religion and baselessly attack the hard questions of science. (This is why Bill O'Reilly seemed so irritated when he was informed that the tides can, in fact, be explained: he had lost his only means of assault.)

B–but the moon never miscommunicates with the ocean!
Science views ignorance as a challenge. The unknown is valued for what it represents: potential knowledge. When a field is in its infancy, the scientists in that field are brimming with excitement, because there's so much uncharted territory to explore. For example, we're making extraordinary strides in genetics, having gone from mapping the human genome in 13 years with $3 billion a decade ago to doing it in 8 days and $10,000 today. Yet the study of epigenetics is just beginning, and we're still far from mapping all the other important systems. What will we eventually discover? How it will affect our understanding of everything from evolution to neuroscience? What applications will it have for improving our lives in the future? When these questions are answered, we will overcome a fraction of our ignorance and reap the true rewards of science.

While it's true that ignorance is essential in both science and religion, its relationship to those two realms could hardly be more different. I think it may be best to summarize with an analogy. If science and religion were racehorses, ignorance would be the ground they have to cover before reaching the distant finish line: a full understanding of our universe. But while science gallops determinedly toward victory, religion wallows in the dirt, believing that it has already won.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Little Things Add Up

A lot of terrible things have been either caused or perpetuated by religion: war, slavery, intolerance, rape, ignorance, murder. But it's easy to get so caught up in the big things that we miss the little ones. For example, how much time will the average believer spend in church throughout their lifetime? Let's find out.

Let's assume that a moderately strong Christian goes to church once a week for two hours, and fifty times a year (accounting for illness or vacations). If they're a lifelong believer in a first-world country, they might go for about 80 years, including Sunday school. That makes:
2 hours a week x 50 weeks a year x 80 years = 8,000 hours
That's quite a sum, but how much is it in practical terms? To think of it from a real-life standpoint, let's spread those hours out into 16-waking-hour days:
8,000 hours / 16 hours a day = 500 days
So what do we end up with? A total of 1 year, 4 months and 2 weeks. That's the amount of time that a churchgoer squanders in their lifetime. Sitting restlessly in the pews, listening to a half-coherent sermon. Standing with arms lifted on high, singing a song that will never reach its intended listener.

Dear Lacey, Jasmine and Jaimie: I'm so sorry.
Just think of the things we can do with that time.

With all the time we've avoided wasting—more than 16 precious months—we could:
  • Learn an instrument
  • Research the history and psychology of religion
  • Make new friends
  • Read dozens of books
  • Write a book
  • Serve thousands of meals at a local soup kitchen
  • Train for a marathon
  • Learn to cook
  • Master critical thinking skills
The possibilities are endless. We can decide to use this time to improve ourselves, or even to go out into the world and help our fellow human beings. No matter what we choose to do, though, we will be enjoying our lives as we see fit. When we think of it in these terms, it's easy to see that when religion robs us of the little things, like those two hours every Sunday morning, they really do add up.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Dual Perspective

I dislike my religious upbringing for a number of reasons. It terrified me with the threat of being tortured forever in a place that does not exist. It caused me to take life less seriously, since Jesus would probably be coming back soon to whisk me off into heaven anyway. It stifled my acceptance of "sinful" lifestyles, my respect for science and my sense of awe toward the universe.

Clearly all of this was created for me, me, me!
The one nice thing about being raised as an evangelical Christian is that I know evangelical Christianity. It gives me a perspective that I would never have known had I grown up in a nonreligious household. I can often tell when someone misquotes a verse or twists the meaning of a Bible story to make it fit their viewpoint. I can also use the Bible against Christians themselves. For example, if one of them decides to hold a grudge against me, I can say, "Let not the sun go down on your anger." Or if someone tries to tell me that hell isn't so bad because it's merely the absence of God, I can reference Jesus' parable in which a rich man being scorched by the flames of hell begs for a few drops of water to cool his tongue.

As soon as I think of a problem with Christianity, I know just how Christians are likely to respond. It's almost as though there's a past version of myself residing in my brain with whom I can debate points back and forth. When I hear someone argue for atheism or against Christianity I sometimes cringe involuntarily—not because they're wrong, but because I know how negatively I would have responded only a few short years ago. I can actually feel the outrage and revulsion that a fundamentalist would feel at the arguments I make, even as I make them.

This is the reason that it's not surprising to me that atheists have been shown to know more about religion—including Christianity—than the average Christian. Many of us grew up with this faith and only rejected it after looking at it more closely than most Christians ever do. I know how Christians feel because I once felt that way myself; I know how they respond to criticism because I, too, once responded that way. If Christians don't want their religion to continue its slow slide into obsolescence, they had better be careful to rein in their flock—otherwise they'll be unleashing hordes of people who can beat them at their own game.

Friday, August 26, 2011

r/Atheism

Reddit's teapot
Reddit has rapidly grown to become one of the most popular sites on the internet. It's part news aggregator, part forum, and its most prominent feature is the user voting system, which makes interesting content and funny or insightful comments more visible. The site is divided into subforums called "subreddits," each devoted to a different topic—and with over 160,000 readers, r/Atheism is the internet's largest atheist forum.

With its massive population size comes r/Atheism's greatest strengths: there are always new jokes, news stories and anecdotes being posted, and the most popular ones often have hundreds of comments. And because of the voting system, the good content and comments (usually) rise to the top. With such a large and unfiltered group, one might expect a lot of dumb or ignorant people—and there are a few—but overall the discussions are intelligent and entertaining.

The biggest problem r/Atheism has is that too many of its top-rated submissions are on the shallow side: comics, Facebook conversations and the like. And of course, with so many like-minded people gathered in one place, it risks becoming an echo chamber that shuns opposing views. But the subreddit is at its best when raising awareness about some injustice or violation of church-state separation. For example, today someone posted about a teacher at his daughter's public school putting bracelets on students promoting an evangelism event, and redditors were full of supportive advice. When Damon Fowler was kicked out of his home for his atheism and activism, r/Atheism helped spread the story and contribute to his college scholarship. Its massive influence has even led to awesome stuff like a Q&A with Richard Dawkins.

It's true that r/Atheism tends to promote more fluff than I'd like. But there are always some interesting threads on the front page, and it offers a sense of community that no other place on the net can provide. Other related subreddits include r/AtheistHavens (for those who've been disowned for their unbelief), r/AtheistGems (a list of useful atheism-related resources) and r/Skeptic (which covers a wide range of superstition and pseudoscience). If nothing else, reddit is the ideal place for getting newly deconverted atheists to realize that they're definitely not alone.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Self-Help and Skepticism

Well, at least one guy got rich.
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill is one of the most popular self-help books of all time. It's also extremely well-reviewed on Amazon. My dad practically begged me to read it, and I thought, how bad could it be? So I did.

...Or rather, I got up to chapter 5. I can only handle so much bullshit.

Hill is a compelling writer, and he used plenty of interesting examples and anecdotes to supplement his points. But to illustrate what I'm talking about, let me give a particularly egregious example of the nonsense I encountered:
"The emotions of faith, love, and sex are the most powerful of all the major positive emotions. When the three are blended, they have the effect of "coloring" the vibration of thought in a way that it instantly reaches the subconscious mind, where it is changed into its spiritual equivalent, the only form that induces a response from the Infinite Intelligence." (p. 51)
What does it mean to color the vibration of thought? How, precisely, does the Infinite Intelligence respond to this unholy amalgam of raw feeling? It's as if Hill tried to cram as many meaningless buzzwords as he could into a single short paragraph.

But let's leave that aside. Hill's larger objective is to help us make money, and we can easily forgive a few lapses into gibberish if he can accomplish that. Here is his magical formula for success:
  1. Think of the specific sum of money you want.
  2. Think of what you will give in exchange for this money.
  3. Think of a date by which you intend to have this money.
  4. Come up with a plan to get it and begin to carry it out immediately.
  5. Write down steps 1–4.
  6. Read the statement from step 5 twice a day, and at the same time "see and feel and believe yourself already in possession of the money."
The poorly-kept secret of
The Secret: it doesn't work.
The first five steps seem pretty sensible. It's the sixth one that encapsulates much of the book's premise, and many of its flaws. Hill seems to wholeheartedly endorse a rudimentary version of what's now called the Law of Attraction—the idea that if you think of something hard enough, want something badly enough, the universe will give it to you. (Nowadays its most prominent proponent is Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret.) He repeatedly insists that we can "transmute our thoughts into their physical equivalent." At first I thought he was just being poetic, but by the ninth or tenth rendition any poetry had long since worn away.

On several occasions Hill tells his readers that if they follow his program, the accumulation of wealth will be easy:
  • "When you begin to think and grow rich, you will observe that riches begin with a state of mind, with definiteness of purpose, with little or no hard work." (p. 13)
  • "You can put [the book's principles] to work for your own enduring benefit. You will find it easy, not hard, to do." (p. 16)
  • "The steps call for no 'hard labor.' They call for no sacrifice...no great amount of education." (p. 28)
This is a lie, and one made all the more obvious by the fact that Hill contradicts himself multiple times. Step two of his master plan explicitly calls for the sacrifice that he so flatly denies on page 28, and some of his anecdotes involve people putting forth extraordinary effort before reaching their goals.

Speaking of anecdotes, this is another major flaw in Hill's reasoning: his dataset is hopelessly skewed. He claims that his plan will work for everyone, yet in support of this he offers his interviews with successful people: Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and a host of other famous icons. Even if we assume that they followed Hill's methods to the letter, this is not sufficient evidence. For every such triumph, there could be ten thousand failures, and neither Hill nor the reader would be any the wiser.

The implications of one of Hill's examples could even be seen as dangerous. He tells the story of Edwin C. Barnes, who devoted himself utterly to the goal of becoming a business associate of Thomas Edison. He left absolutely everything behind to do so:
"He left himself no possible way of retreat. He had to win or perish! That is all there is to the Barnes story of success!" (p. 24)
Yes, Barnes was successful. But how easily Hill forgets the "or perish" he slipped in. What happens if others try to emulate this strategy? Maybe they won't be so lucky. To praise such a reckless course of action based on one man's triumph, without even attempting to find the overall success rate, is utterly irresponsible.

While I may have missed a few gems in the rough, a quick look through the rest of the book suggests that it doesn't get any better. There are plenty more references to the "Infinite Intelligence"—I assume that Hill thought it lent an air of authority and mystique, as opposed to the preachiness of "God"—and the book's eleventh chapter covers "The Mystery of Sex Transmutation." I kid you not.

And the author is
aptly named, to boot. 
After tossing Think and Grow Rich aside, I began reading another self-help book entitled 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute. Like Rich, 59 Seconds boldly claims to be able to easily and markedly improve a person's life.

Unlike Rich, 59 Seconds is based on 263 scientific papers.

Within the first few pages, 59 Seconds tears Rich to shreds. As it turns out, the visualizations that Hill suggests in his sixth step may potentially be harmful for acheiving one's goals. Experiments found that visualizing positive outcomes can have "the unfortunate side effect of leaving you unprepared for the difficulties that crop up on the rocky road to success, thus increasing your chances of faltering at the first hurdle rather than persisting in the face of failure." The book goes on to criticize the general carelessness of self-help books, and to explain how to foster motivation and creativity, relieve stress, and actually be happy (it doesn't require money, as Hill so often suggests)—all with the help of real science.

To summarize: some of Rich is nonsensical, some is counterproductive, and the useful parts—in a nutshell, resourcefulness and determination are vital to success—aren't particularly insightful. Hill's thinly disguised appeals to God only highlight his disregard for rigor and empirical study. I hope that this book isn't representative of the self-help genre as a whole, but I strongly suspect that it is. If only people read more books like 59 Seconds, they might start to really improve themselves.

Update: Luke Muehlhauser has a short but useful list of scientific self-help books.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

WEIT and JI Indexes

Now that I've finished both Why Evolution is True and Jesus, Interrupted, I thought it might be useful to create indexes for the two of them.

I'll start with WEIT. I was surprised to see that nearly half of my coverage came from the intro and first two chapters of the book. It seems that early on I was in the habit of making shorter, more in-depth posts about individual subjects. However, since the latter chapters were less about the evidence for evolution and more about its workings, I sped through them at a rate of a chapter per post.
My coverage of JI began with a focus on specific contradictions in the Bible, which is what I was expecting from the book given its subtitle. Later on, though, Ehrman began to focus more on forgeries and general disagreements in tone, as well as the fierce competition within the early church.
I learned a lot from both of these books. Alternating between them was an interesting experience as well. While it did take me a bit longer to get back into the mindset of one book after having previously covered the other, it was also nice to have a continuous change of pace, a balance between science and history.

I also already have my next two books lined up: Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation and Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. The former is very short and easy read, so I'll finish that before starting on the latter.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

JI: Reconstructing Faith

The final chapter of Jesus, Interrupted asks the question, "Is faith possible despite the undeniable problems with the Bible?" In answering this, Ehrman takes a largely conciliatory stance toward Christianity—one that I for the most part disagree with, for a few reasons.

Ehrman starts out by saying that he can sympathize with those Christians who say that despite its various contradictions, forgeries and differing opinions, the Bible is still an inspired, divine book. In fact, this was Ehrman's own belief for many years: he became a liberal Christian before losing his faith entirely due to the problem of evil. He thinks that acknowledging the Bible's problems can lead to "a more intelligent and thoughtful faith."

It's certainly true that such a view would be more in line with reality than the demonstrably false view that the Bible is unified and error-free. But I think that the liberal Christian merely trades one kind of absurdity for another. Such people are forced to believe that an all-knowing, all-powerful ├╝berbeing who wants desperately for us to know and understand him... is a flat-out terrible communicator. If the Christian God exists, there is no question that he could have done a better job of getting his message across than he has with the Bible. Even if he didn't want to warp the free will of the biblical writers and translators by guiding their hands, he could simply have changed the copies after they were made. Is this is too demanding? When we're talking about a God who can perform any task effortlessly, I think not.

Ehrman also suggests that the Bible may still be useful to Christians as something they can apply to their daily lives (while taking into account its historical context). He says that for a long time the claims of Christianity "resonated with me extremely well." In particular, he admired the message behind Jesus' selfless sacrifice and found encouragement in the eventual triumph of life over death.

There are two problems with this. One of these Ehrman acknowledges himself: much of the Christian message is reprehensible, from the mass killings of innocents in the Old Testament, to the denigration of women and homosexuals, to the idea of eternal punishment for the "crime" of unbelief. If liberal Christians are going to live by the Bible, they had better be very careful about which parts they choose. The second problem is that Ehrman never acknowledges that other belief systems may be superior. If we're only following the Bible for its message, why not look into Jainism, Buddhism or some form of humanism? Better yet, why not take the best elements from great thinkers and schools of thought across all of history? Once we decide to start cherry-picking, we might as well be thorough about it.

Ehrman goes on to emphasize the importance of the historical-critical method. In order to understand the Bible, it's imperative that we understand the culture and worldview of the authors. As an example, he mentions Jesus' ascension into heaven and his predicted return, coming down from the clouds. This makes perfect sense for writers of the time, who thought that heaven was literally a place above the sky, but no sense for educated modern readers who know that the vastness of space envelops the earth in all directions.

Or maybe this is how it works?
In his conclusion, Ehrman explains that studying the Bible is important whether it's true or not: it's vitally important within human history, it's revered among over 2 billion Christians worldwide, and it's massively misunderstood. And on this point, I completely agree. What's more, I believe that if all Christians took his advice, carefully and open-mindedly studying the Bible's errors and contentious history, Christianity as we know it would quickly vanish.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Murder in the Bible

Killings are rampant in the Old Testament, and I'd like to spend a bit of time focusing on some of the more contemptible examples, including a few of the many involving kids. Here are two examples of God killing innocent children in the OT:
"And it came to pass at midnight that the LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock. So Pharaoh rose in the night, he, all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead." (Exodus 12:29-30)
"But of the cities of these peoples which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the LORD your God has commanded you." (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)
Here God personally kills thousands of children, and commands the Israelites to completely destroy six entire nations (children included). If God absolutely has to kill people, why not kill only those people who could actually take responsibility for their actions?

The standard Christian response is that God was "saving" the children from growing up in an evil society. There are two problems with this. First, remember that God is omnipotent and omniscient—he can supposedly do anything. Are we really expected to believe that the best way he can come up with to save these innocents is to massacre them? Second, this is in complete contradiction with another Christian idea: that God highly values free will and wishes for humans to freely choose him. By killing those children, God would have ensured that they had no choice whatsoever.

Later God promises to make Israel's enemies eat themselves and even their own children:
"I will feed those who oppress you with their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with sweet wine. All flesh shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob." (Isaiah 49:26)
"And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his friend in the siege and in the desperation with which their enemies and those who seek their lives shall drive them to despair." (Jeremiah 19:9)
Perhaps this is meant as poetic metaphor. Perhaps not. Either way, trying to reconcile this vicious, bloodthirsty being with the loving God of the New Testament is an exercise in futility. And here is yet another example of killing children:
"He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, "Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!" When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. The two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys." (2 Kings 2:23-24, NRSV)
Christians say two things to try and soften the blow of this passage. The first claim is that these were not children, but young adults. This is simply incorrect. The Hebrew words used to describe these children are "na'ar" and "yeled," both of which mean "child" or "boy." While they were occasionally used to refer to young men, in this instance "na'ar" is accompanied by "qatan," meaning "small" or "young," thus ruling out any such interpretation in this case. This translation is accurate.

The second claim is that to "go up" was to die, and to mock someone's baldness was a particularly cruel insult. This may well be true—the question is, why should it matter? I don't care how shocking their ridicule was. Having 42 young children mauled by bears is a vile and ruthless way to respond. I'll end with this passage, one of the worst in the entire Bible:
"If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, 'Let us go and serve other gods,' which you have not known...you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. And you shall stone him with stones until he dies, because he sought to entice you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Deuteronomy 13:6-10)
First I'd like to point out that this command is not merely theoretical. It was essentially carried out in Exodus 32: following the creation of the golden calf, God forced the Levites to kill 3,000 of their own friends and family members.

I'd like you to imagine that you and your dearest loved one were Israelite relatives living at this time. Imagine that they came to you and suggested that you worship some other god. You would then gather up a crowd of people, and together you would stone them. Stoning is a slow and torturous way to die. They would be bloodied, screaming, begging you to stop, and you would continue to pelt them with stones until they were a crimson heap on the ground, their agony giving way to sweet death.

This is the true face of the God of the Old Testament. He does not merely decree gratuitous, barbaric punishments. He also causes even more needless suffering by forcing those who love and care about the offender to carry out those brutal judgments. Christians, if you find yourself trying to explain this away, imagine how you would react if you read this passage in the Quran, with "the LORD your God" replaced with "Allah." You would find it absolutely despicable, and this in itself would probably be all you needed to reject Islam completely. Truly, the best word I can find to describe the God depicted in this passage is monstrous.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

WEIT: The Meaning of Life

At last we've arrived at the final chapter of Why Evolution Is True, and it's a short but sweet one. Coyne devotes these last few pages to a discussion on evolutionary theory's impact on society, and some of the common misconceptions that often arise from it.

We have plenty of evidence for evolution, plenty of fulfilled predictions, and no pieces of evidence (e.g. Precambrian rabbits) that would have disconfirmed it. Scientists disagree on minor points, like the importance of genetic drift or the precise cause of the Cambrian explosion, but there's no controversy on the big ones. So why is it that people find evolution so hard to accept? Most of the opposition comes from religion. Creationists create fear of evolution by claiming that it robs us of purpose, causes us to behave "like animals," and sanctions the killing of those who are weaker than us.

None of this is true. Evolution is a description of how life changes over time; it says nothing about whether such change is good or bad. It tells us how things are, not how they should be. It's not somehow "wrong" to defy natural selection by caring for the weak—that would be like saying that it's wrong to defy gravity by jumping or firing rockets into space.

Burn the heretics of our holy prophet Newton!
The idea that support for evolution would make us behave "like animals" is a non-starter. Animals exhibit an endless variety of behaviors, many of them altruistic. Perhaps creationists think that evolution would cause us to act like rhesus monkeys, who will starve themselves before allowing one of their companions to experience an electric shock?

Of course, it's true that humans have behaviors that are hard-wired as a result of natural selection: that's the realm of evolutionary psychology. Coyne criticizes this field for venturing too far into speculation, but he suggests eating, sleeping, sex, parenting and the favoring of relatives as uncontroversially inherited instincts. Another such instinct, the relative promiscuity of men compared to women, might seem to validate creationist concerns. But this behavior exists whether we accept evolution or not—and humans have higher mental faculties to override these urges and societies that can shame the cheaters.

What about purpose, then? How can we go on living without the notion that we were created by a loving God? Simple: we make our own meaning. We can love our friends and family, enjoy art, food and sport, and revel in the wonders of our universe. While evolution says nothing about meaning, it does grant us a vast appreciation for the extraordinary journey our species has taken to get to this point.

I think it would be appropriate to bring this series to a close with the quote from Richard Dawkins that begins this chapter:
"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

JI: How Christianity Evolved (Part 2)

Yesterday I summarized how Jesus came to be viewed as the Messiah, and how early Christians became increasingly anti-Jewish despite Jesus' Jewish heritage and beliefs. Below I'll follow along with Ehrman as he explains the origins of Jesus' divinity, the triune nature of God, and the afterlife.

While it's now one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith, Jesus was not originally considered to be God. As evidenced by verses like Acts 2:22, 2:36 and 13:32-33, the earliest Christians thought he was a mere man whom God granted the status of Messiah at the resurrection. Later Jesus was thought to gain this title at his baptism (Mark 1:9-11), and then at his birth (Luke 1:30-35). Finally in John we see the fully developed view of Jesus' eternal existence as God himself (John 1:1-14).

Ehrman says that this increasingly deified view of Jesus developed independently in different places. Based on details like the "we" in John 21:24-25, John may have been written by a Jewish community, who rationalized the rejection of friends and relatives by assuming they had special access to the truth of Jesus' divinity. Others began believing that Jesus was divine based on his "cosmic judge" position as the Son of Man, while still more drew this conclusion from the fact that both Jesus and the OT God used the title of "Lord." And among former pagans, who were used to demigods born of a god and a human (e.g. Heracles), perceiving Jesus as God would have been easy.

The Trinity doctrine developed to solve the problem of how Christianity could continue as a monotheistic religion. The Ebionites decided that Jesus was not God, the Marcionites concluded that the OT God and the God of Jesus were two distinct entities, and the Gnostics thought Jesus was one of many divine beings. However, the two most popular doctrines were modalism, where God is one being who expresses himself in three roles, and Arianism, where God is one "substance" with three distinct persons. Even after Arianism won out, some insisted that the Son's position must be inferior to the Father's. But in 325, the modern view of Father, Son and Spirit as equal persons of the divine substance (problematic as it may be) was established.

Neither Jews nor the earliest Christians believed in immortal souls, heaven or hell. The OT prophets simply believed that God would inflict earthly punishment on those who sinned against him. The apocalypticists, such as Daniel, Jesus and Paul, believed God would come to judge the world and set up a new kingdom on earth, in which those who were dead would be physically resurrected. But when Jesus didn't come back as expected, people had to resolve their cognitive dissonance by reinterpreting this view. This is especially evident in 2 Peter, whose author desperately tries to explain that "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years." Eventually the judgment was reworked so that it came, as Ehrman puts it, "not at the end of the age but at the end of one's life," when one is sent to either heaven or hell.

The fact that Christian doctrines changed significantly over time does not in itself mean that they're false. But I agree with Ehrman when he says that their formation process looks distinctly human: it's full of fierce disagreements, political struggles and flimsy rationalizations. I would never expect such chaos and illogic if God, the perfect communicator, were truly in control.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

JI: How Christianity Evolved (Part 1)

It would surprise many Christians to learn that the beliefs of the very early church were totally different than those of modern times. If a Baptist preacher could go back in time and interview Christians from around 50 CE, he would find their views on the afterlife or Jesus' relationship to God and Judaism to be not just unusual, but completely heretical. In the seventh chapter of JI, Ehrman covers how Christian doctrines developed to become what they are today.

The first issue is that of how Jesus came to be seen as the Messiah. Ehrman points out that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a powerful king that would rise up to destroy their enemies or a cosmic judge of the world, based on the authority of Old Testament prophecy like Psalm 2:1-9 and Daniel 7:11-14. But Jesus could hardly have failed more spectacularly to fit this mold: he was a little-known, harmless itinerant preacher who was effortlessly crushed by the Roman Empire.

Uh, yeah, we're pretty sure you're not our guy.
We're gonna go ahead and wait.
So how did Christians come to view Jesus as the Messiah? After they became convinced that he had risen from the dead, their view that he was the Anointed One was cemented. All that was left was to reinterpret the OT. They explained away the "king" prophecies as spiritual, decided that any OT bits that happened to vaguely fit Jesus' life were prophecies, completely fabricated details of his life to fit other prophecies, and presto! Instant Messiah.

Another trend in the early church was the rise of anti-Semitism. Given that Jesus and his disciples were Jews, and that Jesus preached that people should repent according to Jewish law before the imminent apocalypse, this seems bizarrely inconsistent. However, as time passed, Christians reinterpreted Jesus' message, became frustrated with Jewish refusal to accept him as Messiah, and even began blaming them for his death. John's gospel calls Jews the "children of the Devil" (John 8:37-44), the bishop Melito repeatedly accused them of murdering Jesus, and Justin Martyr wrote that circumcision was meant to set Jews apart as worthy of persecution. This marked the first time that Jews were singled out as a persecuted minority—and it led to many others throughout history.

This chapter is a long and detailed one—not surprising given that this is Ehrman's particular area of expertise—so I'll stop here for now. Tomorrow I'll cover how the views of a divine Jesus, the Trinity, and the afterlife developed.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

LY5: Why Creationism Isn't Taught

Like one of my previous posts, this one is inspired by the subreddit r/ExplainLikeImFive, which attempts to give useful explanations to complex issues on a grade-school level. What's surprising is that these explanations are fun to give, and well-written ones are fun to read even if you're already familiar with the topic. Some people might find them condescending, but personally I think they're endearing and often astonishingly accessible.

To most non-creationists it's pretty clear why creationism has no place in public schools, but here are the reasons, explained like you're five.

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There are two basic reasons why creationism isn't taught in public schools.

The first reason is that creationism is a religious belief. It says that the universe and all life on earth was created by God. But in America, one of our guiding concepts is separation of church and state, meaning that the government is not allowed to endorse religion—including in public schools, which are run by the government. Some creationists decided that they wanted to make their ideas look like they weren't religious, so they came up with intelligent design (ID).

ID says that the universe and all life on earth was created by some very powerful being, but doesn't speculate on what that being might be. But here's the problem: most of the major ID supporters are Christians who are trying to use it to promote Christianity. It's basically just religious creationism in disguise, which is exactly what a judge ruled in an important 2005 court case. But what if ID weren't being pushed for that reason? Then it wouldn't necessarily be religious, so could we teach it in schools?

That brings us to our second reason: even leaving the issue of religion aside, creationism (including ID) can't be taught because it isn't scientific. A scientific theory needs to be testable. It needs to make specific predictions about what we should expect to see if it were true, and it needs to be capable of being proven wrong if we don't see those things.

But without some details about this intelligent being—its traits and behavior—we have no way of predicting what kind of impact it would make on the world. And let's say we do make up a prediction: maybe a designer would create the best possible life forms. If this is proven wrong (say, by poor design), ID supporters can just say that maybe the designer behaved some other way instead. The "best" solution that supporters have come up with is probably specified complexity, but that's not saying much: it's a vague, deeply flawed attempt at telling apart designed and undesigned objects that has never actually been useful in practice.

So there we have it: creationism isn't taught because it's both religious and unscientific. Many people naively think that we should be "teach both sides" in the interest of "fairness," but that would be no more "fair" to students than teaching astrology in an astronomy class. Of course, the creationist movement could be mentioned as a historical footnote in a course on world religions or American politics, but that's a different matter. As far as the science classroom goes, it's been rejected twice over, and rightly so.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

WEIT: The Naked Ape

This is why the "no transitional fossils"
canard just makes me laugh.
Coyne begins WEIT's penultimate chapter by expressing the cultural and religious importance of human evolution. Even many religious people and institutions that otherwise except evolution (the Catholic church, for example) still reject the notion that humans could have evolved from other primates. Incredibly, John Scopes was convicted of the crime of teaching such facts less than a century ago, in 1925. Because of the potential public outcry, Darwin barely mentioned the issue in the Origin, and another scientist reburied the bones of a Homo erectus specimen for 30 years.

Thankfully, though, we have a decent understanding of our lineage today. Our evidence includes things like homology and genetic data, but fossils are the focus of Coyne's chapter. Here's what we should expect if humans evolved:
"Around five to seven million years ago [based on molecular evidence], we expect to find fossil ancestors having traits shared by chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, but with some human features too. As the fossils become more and more recent, we should see brains getting relatively larger, canine teeth becoming smaller, the tooth row becoming less rectangular and more curved, and the posture becoming more erect. And this is exactly what we see."
To summarize (and ignore over a dozen other important finds): First comes the 6 to 7 million year old Sahelanthropus tchadensis, possibly our last common ancestor with chimps, which has a long skull and small brain like apes, but a flat face, small teeth and brow ridges like later species in our lineage. Then there's Australopithecus afarensis, of which Lucy is one. We know they were bipedal because their femurs angle inward from the hips, making upright walking far more efficient. They may even be responsible for the 3.6 million year old Laetoli footprints.

At this point, brain sizes begin growing steadily. Homo habilis, from about 2.5 mya, still have some apelike characteristics, but also have larger (though not human-sized) brains and have been found with carved stone tools that would be used for things like butchering. Homo erectus "still had a flattened, chinless face," but used even more complex tools, along with fire for cooking. Finally, just a couple of hundred thousand years ago, we have Homo neanderthalensis, distinct from but extremely similar to modern Homo sapiens. We most likely wiped out the Neanderthals either by outcompeting them or killing them.

While these fossils finds are more likely to come from close evolutionary cousins than our direct ancestors, they still tell us an enormous amount about our history. Anyone who looks honestly at the fossil evidence (let alone things like DNA and vestigial organs) would conclude, as modern science has, that we have a common ancestor with the other great apes. Coyne drives this home with one particularly amusing yet compelling point. Creationists who look at the evidence must classify all fossils as either apes or humans. If we really are a distinct creation of God, this ought to be a simple matter, but here's what happens when they try:

Via TalkOrigins
They can't even agree amongst themselves.

As a questioning creationist investigating the evidence for evolution, the image above blew my mind. Self-proclaimed creationist experts like the infamous Duane Gish confidently asserted that there are no human transitional fossils. Yet ironically, their classifications of various fossils follow a gradient from "apelike" to "humanlike" that beautifully confirms the evolutionary paradigm. Some individuals can't even decide whether a given fossil is ape or human, while others have changed their minds. Their willful blindness to the obvious conclusion is, frankly, fascinating.

Coyne goes on to address a few other interesting topics, including a thorough debunking of evolutionary racism: we diverged only about 80,000 years ago—not enough time for any major disparities to develop—and most differences between races are physical, the result of differing climates and sexual selection. Most of the rest isn't relevant to this blog, though, so instead I'll sign off with an informative chart of growth in hominid cranial capacity over time:

How anyone can group these into "ape" and "human"
with a straight face is beyond me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Parsimony, Explained Like You're Five

Reddit.com has a great new community called r/ExplainLikeImFive, where you can ask questions and get informative yet simple answers. This is useful not only for people who want to learn tough concepts without fear of judgment, but also for the explainers themselves: nothing tests the depth of your understanding on a topic like having to break it down so thoroughly that a 5-year-old gets it.

Recently someone asked for an explanation of Occam's razor. Below is my answer (and if it's not obvious how it pertains to this blog, just replace "monsters" with any instance of the supernatural).

*      *      *

You know those bumps you hear sometimes when you go to sleep at night? Let's try out a few ways of explaining them.

Maybe your parents are making those noises when they close a door or bump into a wall. Or maybe those noises are from the house settling. When the air gets cooler at night, the wooden beams in the ceiling contract, which causes them to make little bumping sounds.

Or maybe there are monsters lurking in your closet, rapping on the walls, letting you know they're waiting for the right time to strike.

Bump. Bump. Bump.
Sorry, didn't mean to scare you.

Anyway, the point is that the "parents" and "wooden beams" explanations are better than the "monsters" explanation because they're more parsimonious, which you can think of as a fancy word for simple. Really, though, it's more than that: parsimonious explanations need less assumptions, less complicated extra stuff added on to have everything make sense.

True, the wooden beam explanation is more "complicated" in the normal sense, and it's "simpler" in the normal sense to just say "monsters did it" and leave it at that. But it turns out the opposite is true when you really look closely.

You can do experiments to find out that wood really does expand when it gets colder. But what about those monsters? Your parents checked the closet for you before they turned out the lights, so how exactly did they get in there, anyway? Hmm. Maybe they're invisible, and your parents just didn't see them. But then the next night you can have them feel around in there, too. Well, maybe the monsters can make themselves solid or unsolid at will. Now you've finally made everything in your explanation fit. But look at what you've had to do: you've had to assume not just monsters, but two pretty unlikely things about those monsters. It turns out that this explanation was more complicated after all.

Occam's razor says that all else being equal—that is, if all the other conditions (e.g. whether your parents are home) stay the same, and if the explanations are equally good in all other ways—more parsimonious explanations are more likely to be right. And this makes perfect sense: every bit you add onto your explanation can only make the odds of it being true go down, not up—just like the odds of rolling three 6s in a row on a die is lower than the odds of rolling two 6s in a row.

This idea is useful in pretty much any case where you need to choose between explanations: science, history, and even everyday life. It's a cornerstone of rational thinking. You've probably used it many times without even realizing it, but now that you understand it, you can apply it even more often and more carefully, and get results that are more likely to lead you to the right answer.