Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jacob and Genetics

For Christians who think Genesis' creation story is other than myth, science poses a great threat. But rather than arguing that they are taking the Bible too seriously, I'm going to take the opposite approach. If creationists really want to stand up for the Bible, they need to be less selective in the sciences that they deny. We should have a controversy over genetics, too.

Genesis 30:25-43 is the story of the negotiations over Jacob's wages. Laban had little when Jacob began to live with him, but now he's rich. They both recognize the role played by Jacob in producing the wealth, but Laban's wealth is still his to give.

Laban: If now it pleases you, stay with me; I have divined that the LORD has blessed me on your account. Name me your wages, and I will give it.

Jacob: You shall not give me anything. If you will do this one thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flock: let me pass through your entire flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted sheep and every black one among the lambs and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and such shall be my wages. So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come concerning my wages. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, will be considered stolen.

(Don't let the precision of the NASB distract from the humor. This is the feigned courtesy of two guys who are trying to swindle each other.)

Next Jacob separates the flocks with the white ones in Laban's flock, and the rest in his flock. But Jacob is still working for Laban and hence has the ability to bolster his own flock without actually breaking any rules. What he does is show the white sheep striped rods while they are mating. Sure enough, the sheep who were shown stripes give birth to striped lambs, and Jacob claims them. Also, he wasn't content to just get random sheep; he wanted the best.

Genesis 30:41-42 “Moreover, whenever the stronger of the flock were mating, Jacob would place the rods in the sight of the flock in the gutters, so that they might mate by the rods; but when the flock was feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban's and the stronger Jacob's.”

And so Jacob the deceiver wins this round due to his brilliant scheme.

However, what is to be made of this story due to genetic theory? To apply creationist reasoning to it, we can't rely on the conclusions of geneticists because they are atheistic scientists who assume that God doesn't create new genes. (Also, it's called genetic theory. That's means scientists don't really know if it's true or not.) Every time you see a genetics chart of the alleles of the parents and the potential offspring, think to yourself “naturalistic presuppositions.”

For whatever reason, here Christians are willing to bend the clear meaning of the Bible so that it can be consistent with reality. So how can the striped offspring be explained? You guessed it, Goddidit.

But look back at the story. Where are we told that God intervened to make the plan work? Jacob conned Esau into giving away his birthright without a miracle – Esau was exhausted and a fool. Jacob conned Issac out of Esau's blessing without a miracle – Rebekah helped him, he used goat skins to fake hairiness(!), he wore Esau's clothes to smell right, and mostly he took advantage of Issac's poor eyesight and senility. Laban conned Jacob into sleeping with Leah the night Jacob thought he was marrying Rachel, although the Bible's a bit short on details regarding the logistics of how this one was pulled off. Just like all the other tricks, Jacob's plan via striped rods worked. Jacob was crafty, and “so the feebler were Laban's and the stronger Jacob's.” The Bible doesn't attribute the result directly to God, but to Jacob.

Now, when it comes to believing in miracles, there's believing because you saw, believing because of hard evidence, believing because you know someone who saw, etc. Toward the bottom of the scale of good reasons to believe in a miracle is just because some ancient document says so. Now this miracle – this is several steps below that. This is claiming a miracle happened when the Bible doesn't even suggest that one happened. It's believing in a miracle just to fill in a plot hole in a story ancient people told each other, a plot hole that would have been a perfectly logical mistake for pre-scientific writer.

And yet people still believe Genesis is a reliable source of scientific knowledge. Despite being shown that the story doesn't make any sense without suspending your knowledge of how reality works. It reminds me of a country song:

That's My Story – Colin Raye

I came in as the sun came up.
She glared at me over her coffee cup.
She said, "Where you been?"
So I thought real hard and said,
"I fell asleep in that hammock in the yard."
She said, "You don't know it boy, but you just blew it."
And I said, "Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it."

"That's my story.
Oh, that's my story.
Well, I ain't got a witness, and I can't prove it,
but that's my story and I'm stickin' to it."

I got that deer-in-the-headlight look.
She read my face like the cover of a book
and said, "Don't expect me to believe all that static,
'cause just last week I threw that hammock in the attic."
My skin got so thin so you could see right through it,
and I stuttered, "Well that's my story and I'm stickin' t-t-to it."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Why I am an Atheist

The biggest reason I am an atheist is that I grew up evangelical and later rejected evangelical Christianity – that is the subject of the rest of my blog and will be overlooked here. But evangelical Christianity rejected doesn't imply atheism; in my case, non-Christian theist to deist to agnostic to atheist took from April until October. Here, I will cover my reasons for being an atheist rather than an otherwise undecided non-Christian.

Atheism: What it Means

I need to first clarify what I mean by “atheist.” I don't believe in a God of any kind, or even see the existence of one as plausible, therefore I am an atheist. I don't claim to know for certain, and I can't prove God doesn't exist. I'm not an atheist in an absolute certainty sort of way, which is what some people still use it to mean.

Oftentimes, the definition of a word has a subliminal effect on how we think. Take the word “discipline,” for instance. It can be a verb meaning to punish misbehavior, or it can be an adjective describing one who behaves with great self-control. The subtle implication inside English is the idea that discipline leads to discipline. When we call someone “highly disciplined” this is a claim about their present level of self-control, not about the amount of punishment needed to become like that, but when this is said in English, this implication hides just under the surface regardless of if the implication was desired by the speaker. If this were false, this would be a problem in the English language. (Generally speaking, I agree with the idea subliminally reinforced by this homonym.)

An unfortunate misconception is caused by the word “atheist” meaning one who is absolutely certain there is no God. The problem is that it forces together the concepts of a particular position and absolute certainty. This causes a concept of unjustifiable arrogance to be automatically associated with the idea that God does not exist. A word is needed that merely describes the position and does not contain an implication of certainty. That word is atheism. The word's evolution into not carrying the implication of certainty is a needed linguistic change, but the change is only partially complete, and hence my embracing of the label is at the possible expense of misunderstanding.

Similarly, I am a capitalist. I'm not an expert at economics, I can't refute every socialistic argument ever put forward, and I might be wrong. But I'm still a capitalist, and this is not in tension with my lack of omniscience. I wouldn't want to call myself agnostic on matters of economics just because I might be wrong. I think capitalism works, I think God doesn't exist, I'm certain of neither, and I'm ashamed of neither. Therefore, I am a capitalist and an atheist. Only if the existence of God or the effectiveness of socialism starts seeming plausible to me will I call myself agnostic with regard to either.

One other misunderstanding of atheism is that it necessarily starts with the position that the cosmos is all there is. Some atheists do, but I do not. If I were to map out core presuppositions, conclusions just above those, the next level of conclusions above those, and so on, atheism would be very near the top. That is to say, very little that I believe rests on atheism – atheism rests on those other things that I believe. In particular, atheism is the conclusion that comes from the absence of reasons to believe in God. Richard Dawkins beautifully expressed this idea of atheism as a denial of others' claims, rather than as a positive position:

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Why God's Existence Requires Defense

The one positive statement I will make that defends my atheism is that there are no good reasons to believe in God. I use absolute language not out of arrogance, but so as to have a target for theists (and agnostics) to shoot at. Agnostics have more wiggle room because it's perfectly fine if they feel the pull of several arguments for God's existence but don't think it's quite sufficient to believe. Think of my absolute statement as denying myself wiggle room so as to have an actual position that could be falsified by a fellow mortal.

I don't start with the existence/non-existence of God as a presupposition, and you shouldn't either. If there's an elephant in the living room you shouldn't have to believe in it on faith – if the elephant isn't obvious, it's not there. If it's not there, you shouldn't have to just disbelieve in it because it's too preposterous of a possibility to be worthy of consideration – if it's not there, you should be able to look and see that it's not there. How much more should this be the case with an omnipresent God, especially if he wants us to know him?

However, plenty of Christians do think God is obvious. Paul was among them, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” If I succeed in refuting the arguments for God based on creation, I have not only rebutted positive arguments, but I will also have shown biblical reasoning to be flawed.

The Key Idea

Before I address the particulars, I wish to belabor what I think needs to be the general idea behind “how do you explain X without God” arguments. The same idea will apply to existence, design, meaning, morality, free will, and probably dozens of others. In my opinion, this one idea destroys nearly all arguments for God in a single blow. (This idea does not refute most arguments for Christianity in particular, such as evidential arguments for the Resurrection, etc.)

At face value, the argument from X rests on one claim, namely that atheists haven't figured X out, therefore they aren't looking at a big enough picture, therefore God. I can at least speak for myself in saying that for years I had this misconception. But this is wrong. For these argument to work, they also need to establish that theism doesn't suffer from the same weakness. Weaknesses in atheism are evidence for God only to the extent that theism doesn't have the same weaknesses. This point will come up over and over again, and I intend to repeat it au nausum as it is so often missed.

These arguments all rely for their rhetorical strength on the idea that it is somehow irreverent to try to understand God. I don't allow religion to impose a double standard on the discourse. Arguments for theism often consist of taking a bunch of things in the universe that we don't know, throwing them in a big box labeled “God”, and declaring inspection inside the box to be irreverent. Of course theists think the mysteries of life are not problems for their view! The problems are all hidden in a box that is not to be opened, because that would mean trying to understand God.

Pandora, be damned. I dare to peer inside the box.

Argument from Existence – Why is there something rather than nothing?

But why is there a God instead of nothing? If the existence of the universe demands a creator, why doesn’t the existence of a creator demand someone who created him? The only way to get around this conundrum is to assign to God some made-up property, like “necessary being,” “self-existent,” “not an effect, hence not needing a cause.” However, all these properties could just as easily apply to the universe as a whole. Perhaps this is a necessary universe, a self-existent universe, or the Big Bang was not an effect (there is no “before time”) and hence the Big Bang needs no cause.

Maybe God has one of these properties. But a need for one of them destroys the argument because a weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Design – Where did all this apparent design come from, if not a Designer?

So who designed the designer? A being capable of designing a world this intricate must be even more intricate than the world itself. To the degree that evolution is a good theory, atheism has a better answer than non-evolutionary theism. But even if the validity of evolution were nil, atheism would be on equal ground with theism regarding its ability to explain the existence of design. (Theistic evolution and atheistic evolution are on equal ground as well.)

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Meaning – How do our lives have meaning, if not in following God?

First off, the possibility that our lives have no meaning deserves serious consideration if the topic is truth, rather than what we would want to be true. The prevalence of extreme pain in the world gives a strong reason to think that some very harsh realities have to be faced. If the bitter truth is that our lives have no meaning then the argument fails.

In any case, how does God's existence have meaning? According to Christians at least, what we know of God's existence consists of seeking to be loved, seeking to love, and seeking his own glory. All of these are goals that mere mortals can seek for themselves without God. If meaning is to be found in the existence of the sort of God that Christians envision, then I too can create meaning in my life by living life.

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Furthermore, what is it about existence in heaven that is meaningful? The two perks are hedonistic (streets of gold, etc.) and relational (always being with the Lord/other Christians.) But this is not terribly different from seeking to create meaning in one's life through living life with other people and enjoying whatever time we have. How is being with the Lord meaningful while being with other people is not meaningful? If the problem is that a finite existence is not meaningful, then I am happy to be spared the experience of heaven, as it would then consist of an infinite sequence of meaningless existences.

Argument from Morality – How do we have a concept of “ought” (distinct from “want”) if not from God?

How does God have a concept of morality? If morality proceeds from what God wants, then from God's perspective, there is no right and wrong – only what he wants/conforms to his will. This takes away the possibility of genuine praise – he isn't any better than Satan in an objective sense, he's just on a different side. Also, if “good” equals God's whim, then if he had lied to us about his unchanging nature and ultimately decides to cast all believers into hell this would be every bit as “good” as what Christians think he's really doing. Surely, this idea of “good” has strayed so far from our intuitive concept of good, that our intuitive concept of good is not evidence for the reality of this counterintuitive concept of “good.”

If morality precedes what God wants, then I would like God to answer the Moral Argument: where did God get his concept of morality if not from another Higher God?

Neither side has an answer that results in the sort of transcendent morality that Christians claim to have. Either God has no morals, or the fact that God must have morals that don't come from himself shoots the argument from morality in the foot.

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Free Will – How do we have free will if not from God?

How do we know we have free will? As Dawkins recounted:

"'Tell me,' the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked a friend, 'why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went around the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?' His friend replied, 'Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going around the Earth.' Wittgenstein responded, 'Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?'"

Similarly, I ask what the world would look like if it looked like we had no free will. I freely admit that this wondering challenges my own thinking as much as it challenges theism.

(I'll overlook the quantum physics answer outside this comment. It proves the logical consistency of free will and atheism, but leaves the actual existence of free will unknown. While very interesting, it is not needed to refute the argument.)

I'm sure you see where my second objection is heading by now... How does God have free will? Apparently, the reason a godless universe would have no free will is because such a universe would always follow its natural laws. But God always follows his own nature – so what's the difference? If God has no free will, it makes no sense for him to have the capacity to give the gift of something he lacks. As Calvinists show, even if God has free will, there are many definitions of free will and concepts of Sovereignty where we still don't have it. I will spare you the final repetition of the key idea...


With all of these questions, much more can and should be said. Just because evolution and abiogenesis are not needed to answer the design argument doesn't mean they aren't worthy of study. What is the meaning of life? Is morality absolute? Do the words “free will” even mean anything? All of these are worthy of centuries of analysis by philosophers and scientists. Surely we can do better than “42.” But as arguments for God's existence, I find that little is required to refute them. If you dare to look inside the God-box, you will see that theism fails to answer the questions that justified the idea of God in the first place.

Sometimes humanity does learn things that were previously unknown. Due to evolution, we do have a pretty good idea about the origin of much of the design on the earth. Many theists are working hard to resist these answers so as to keep this treasured piece of ignorance inside the God-box. If part of the question is answered, theists will have to find a smaller box. I'm tired of downsizing my box. I've gotten rid of it entirely and placed what I don't know on a shelf in full display. I would like to think that I could have figured out Thor does not exist even if I lived in a time before scientific descriptions of thunder existed. I wish to do the same with what remains unknown. Therefore, I am an atheist.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Power of Prayer: Believing Too Much

One place where Christians engage in doublethink is through a love/hate relationship with the concept of believing that God will actually do something when they pray. On the one hand, believers are supposed to believe God does things. But on the other hand, it's nice to be able to write off God's no-shows as the product of kooky beliefs in a “vending machine” God. (This is often a euphemism for a God that is distinguishable from no God at all.)

Some Christians actually believe that if they pray for healing, God will answer with healing. A fairly extreme group supporting such faith in action is Unleavened Bread Ministries. They have a page full of cool stories of how God healed people.

The interesting thing about one of the families involved in this ministry, the Neumanns, is that the results of their faith are a matter of public record. Last spring their 11-year-old daughter became extremely sick. Her parent prayed for her instead of taking her to see a doctor. What follows might have been the work of Satan. It might be a continuing test of their faith. What I do know is that Madeline Neumann died from a treatable form of diabetes while her parents petitioned an all-powerful, all-loving God for her healing. Her parents think she died because they didn't have enough faith. I think she died because her parents had too much faith. Faith like this is a form of criminal negligence, or at least it should be.

A lawsuit is currently brewing to see if the parents are guilty of second-degree murder. The Neumanns defense is quite interesting. Their friends' website states, “Before I give my case and point, let me say this: If we are going to judge this family -- which we really have no right to do -- we need to understand completely what the Bible states about healing and prayer. In short, the Bible states that we should trust God for healing and use prayer to achieve that goal.”

Don't ask God why this happened. We know why. The Neumanns let their child die from a treatable condition because they completely, sincerely, and absolutely had faith in the love and power of their God. If God wanted her to live she would have lived, and if God didn't why should they seek to oppose God's will through medicine? We must understand how much sense this makes viewed through the lens of their religion. The problem was not that her parents didn't care. The problem was not that they acted irrationally, given their worldview. Madeline Neumann died because her parents are people of childlike faith and consequently acted like children. Any religion that sees childlike faith as a good thing or believes that God will reward childlike faith should not be surprised by outcomes like this. Moderate religion lacks the language to properly express what went wrong – a culture with a healthy disrespect for faith is needed to combat tragedies like this.

There are two key places where the Neumann differ radically from mainstream evangelicals. Most obviously, they blamed the result on a lack of faith – this mistake has nothing to due with the Bible. Most of the book of Job is about refuting the idea that tragedies should automatically be blamed on sin. Plenty of differing evangelical beliefs come from differing picking-and-choosing, but the Neumanns are wrong here even if the Bible is true.

But while as a matter of fact, the Neumanns differ wildly from mainstream evangelicals by forgoing medical treatment, biblically speaking, it is not obvious why they are wrong. A case can be made for an alternative view, but it is hard to argue biblically that the Neumanns are necessarily wrong. What was wrong with trusting God with their actions rather than trusting the effectiveness of modern medicine? The Bible tells Christians to put their faith in God with much greater clarity than it tells Christians not to trust him for other things. While “do not test the Lord” is an explicit command, it was not the Neumanns' goal to test God but only to trust that he would take care of them and to live in a way that is consistent with this belief. The fact that Madeline's death did not cause them to call God a failure should be proof enough that they were not testing God and were not presuming to know the will of God but only living by faith in the way that they thought they should.

Among evangelicals, some form of the following catch-phrase is quite popular: “Prayer should be our first resource, not our last resort.” This is a convicting line for people whose first reaction to an accident is to call 911 first, and pray second. This is wrong! This is a sign of our weak faith! Forgive us Lord! But does prayer work? Adult Christians have such a hard time having childlike faith because they aren't children, and that's a good thing. They've seen too many prayers unanswered and too many colds successfully soothed with NyQuil to not use medicine as a first resource.

More “mature” approaches to prayer are to pray primarily in ways where if it did nothing at all, one would never know the difference. “God, be with person X during event Y,” “God help event X happen, if that's your will,” or prayers whose explicit goal is to change the attitudes of the one who is praying. When faced with a “no” answer that is indistinguishable from no answer, one is to react as if that's how it's supposed to be. “Yes” is to be paraded about in glory of God. Are there more “yes” answers than would be expected at random? These questions are not supposed to be asked, because this would be testing God. This needs to be called what it is: fear of the possibility that prayer doesn't really do anything. If it is biblical, it merely means that this fear of the truth is present in the Bible and not just in Christians.

Doctrines of prayer seem designed so that if prayer did nothing at all, people would never know the difference. And so prayer continues to do nothing at all, while people continue to be convinced that it is changing the world. If people who think God works miracles all the time still don't see that nothing is happening, how much more should we doubt the reality of God's answers to “be with me when...” prayers?

Prayer's true power should not be underestimated. The true power of prayer is its ability to blind people to its impotency as they believe all the way to second-degree murder. This power needs to be opposed.

A Concession: Mark's Ending

The more you know the less you believe. Right? Well, not always... I now consider one of my past arguments to be incorrect. I don't see this as part of a trend, but regardless of who is right in the big picture, truth is better found when bad arguments are trimmed out.

In Which Resurrection Account?, I wrote: “In Mark, the women come to the tomb where a young man tells them Jesus is risen. They tell no one (Mark 16:8) – this detail clashes badly with all three other Gospel accounts.”

I do not know if I made an incorrect statement. But I made an incorrect argument and I see no way of fixing it.

Mark 16:8 “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” While Mark 16:8 is the end of what we have of the authentic Mark, it is not where Mark originally ended. So the question is how much can be inferred of the real ending of Mark from “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

The way this could be consistent with the other Gospels is that the time period during which they told no one is unclear. Perhaps they cowered in fear for an hour and then told the disciples. This possibility leave inerrancy issues regarding what was done immediately after leaving the tomb, but I don't think this undermines the general truthfulness of the accounts, and that is what I was attempting to accomplish.

Perhaps this point could still be defended by someone else. But I no longer stand behind this argument.