Friday, April 17, 2009

The Role of Evolution in my Deconversion

Perhaps the most common reason people reject Christianity is evolution, and I am no exception. However, the way it influenced me was very different from the usual way that learning Genesis is not historically reliable leads to learning the rest is not historically reliable either. For me, the primary effect was sociological – it changed my social standing within [evangelical] Christianity and this caused me to see how Christians think about the rest of their faith as well.

It's hardly a revolutionary observation to notice that if Christians thought about Christianity with the same critical thinking they use when approaching the evidence for any other religion, then most of them would stop believing. But as a bare claim, this is something anyone could say about anything. An argument that can refute anything refutes nothing. (See Romans 1:22.)

The fact that Christians believe in Yahweh but not the other deities of antiquity is, in and of itself, no more reason to suspect Christians are wrong than the bare fact that scientifically minded people usually believe in the theory of relativity but not in UFOs. What is needed are the particulars of how the “problems” with and evidence for every other religion are similar to the “mysteries” inside one's own religion that are just accepted. It is only with these particulars that either side can justify the comparison.

Once I became a theistic evolutionist (TE), my Christianity became one of the positions to which young-earth creationists (YEC) apply critical thinking. And consequently, claims about the consistency of evolution and Christianity were both essential to my faith and rejected by most Christians. To understand their position was to view my faith as an outsider.

While the emotional fallout of this situation should not be dismissed, it was also a fundamentally intellectual struggle that could not be wished, tolerated, or loved away. First, a lot of the theological arguments against TE make sense. Second, most of these arguments have a twin argument which is against Christianity as a whole. Most seriously, the arguments against Christianity as a whole are equal to or stronger than the arguments against TE. But these claims are only as strong as my examples:

The Ten Commandments

While supposedly the entire Bible is God-breathed in some sense, with a few parts, more is claimed. Perhaps most dramatically, with the ten commandments, God didn't just work through the historical process of the recording of events. These words were written with by the finger of God. In the Exodus version, right after the specifics of the commandment about the Sabbath, God's finger wrote in 20:11, “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. ”

However, Deuteronomy 5 disagrees regard precisely what God's finger wrote. In that version, the fourth commandment is followed in verse 15 by “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.”

Even ignoring the question of the degree of similarity and differences, which version did God's finger write? I don't typically hear the phrase “written by God in stone” and think of it as something quite so flexible. As is so often the case, there is an enormous difference between having actual reasons to think that God's finger wrote something, and having a book that claims God helped write it. To outsiders, it can be a bit strange that this isn't thought of more often, but we don't know that God really wrote the ten commandments just because the Bible tells us so. In fact, the Bible itself accidentally testifies that God's finger probably didn't write some or all of the ten commandments.

This is a sticky enough of a question that I was not willing to charge ahead and draw deep theological conclusions out of a trouble text. Another way of saying this is that what the Bible says is so unclear, that even if it is true, trusting what one thinks it says would be unwise.


Luke traces Jesus' genealogies all the way back to Adam. My half-answer was that I still believed in a literal Adam and a literal Fall about which all we know is myth. The reason this only halfway works is that I accepted science's dating of early civilizations that are older than the Bible suggests Adam to be by means of genealogies. However, before I was willing to trust the minute details of biblical genealogies, there were some major issues that had to be dealt with that are internal to the Bible.

First off, Luke and Matthew's genealogies clash. Before giving a rehearsed answer of one being Mary's and the other being Joseph's, look them up. “Jacob the father of Joseph” is clear in Matthew 1:16, and everyone agrees with this. Luke 3:23-24 says “[Jesus] was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, ...” This communicates with great clarity that Heli was Joseph's father.

The best inerrantist answer I've seen to this is that the repetitions of “the son” are not present in the original – they are incorrectly added words in English to smooth out the grammar. The literal translation is then “[Jesus] was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, of Heli, of Matthat ...” where the implication is “Jesus son of Heli, Jesus son of Matthat, ...” And then the way this is consistent with Matthew is that this is merely a list of Jesus' ancestors without implications of their relationships to each other, and thus Heli could be Mary's father.

This is quite strained, but I accepted the explanation for quite a while. However, notice that it means that Luke failed to communicate clearly. You must twist the text to even get to the point where Heli could be Mary's father. What we know with certainty is that Luke didn't tell us that Heli is Mary's father. Telling us that Heli is related to Jesus because he's Mary's father is, in fact, precisely the sort of thing that genealogies are supposed to communicate. If you just read Luke and trust it to be reliable, you will conclude that Heli is Joseph's father. Perhaps the genealogies in Genesis are the same, and they need to be viewed with a grain of salt – meaning science.

Also, in several places Matthew's genealogy skips generations that appear in the OT. He doesn't tell us why, but presumably, his reason for doing this is to turn it into a clever 14-14-14 pattern. He also fails to make to 14-14-14 pattern work by only coming up with 14+14+13=41 names. If you double-count one name it works out. But there is a commonly accepted term for counting something twice: a mistake. I just don't see why I should take the OT genealogies more seriously than the NT writers took them.

Furthermore, the Bible is consistently quite bad at getting numbers right. Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday, and yet Matthew 12:40 says Jesus was dead for three days and three nights. I'm very curious about which three nights these might have been. While I'm sure Matthew knew how to count, the point is that to think the numbers in the Bible are mathematically accurate is, at best, to misunderstand the Bible. To argue against evolution based on the genealogies is to assume their mathematical accuracy.

Evolution leads to the Holocaust

Suppose for the sake of argument that it does. God told Moses to slaughter the Midianites, including the male children. (The soldiers were commanded to save the girls “for themselves.”) What would become of society if everyone believed in a ideology that condones genocide?

The ease with which Christians see the depravity of the Holocaust is the ease with which I see the depravity of the Bible.

Problem of Pain

Not accepting YEC certainly makes the problem of pain more difficult. Instead of physical death being something that followed the curse of sin, it's present as part of the original creation. But if you believe in hell as I did, this objection is bizarre. The majority of humanity is supposedly going to be tortured for eternity because God didn't call them. And yet if God's plan involves animals living finite and painful lives this is supposed to be something that indicts God as cruel and unloving.

What's going on is very simple. When God's the sadistic keeper of a medieval torture chamber filled with heretics and it's part of my theology, it's just something that I'm supposed to struggle with until I can train myself to realize that it's what justice really means – if I don't accept the answer, then my sin is causing me to have a warped understanding of what a loving God is really like. But think of the bunnies! Look at them! A loving God wouldn't design a system where mean coyotes eat cute little bunny rabbits. If your theology says that God created lots of bunnies to die for no reason better than lunch, that means you are calling God evil. Is seems as though the YEC God is one of the founding members of PETA.

Of course, that's not to say the problem of animal pain is trivial. But it seems more like a concern for a universalist, an annihilationist, or at least someone who thinks God was genuinely surprised by Adam's rebellion and the necessity for hell. Otherwise, it's like a vegan wanting to venerate Stalin for being so loving but first stopping to ponder the moral implications of his occasional steak.

There is actually is a way that an evolutionary story of life can fit with the YEC doctrine of the physical death of animals being due to sin. Maybe God created the first bacterium to live forever. But before he had a chance to split, it rebelled and ate of the forbidden lactose. And then animals inherited its sin, for which they are personally (animally?) responsible, and that's why animals deserved to die for billions of years. I may not have evidence showing it actually happened, but you don't have evidence saying it didn't happen. It also may not make a lot of sense to one's mind, but maybe it's just the kind of thing that should be accepted by faith and believed in one's heart. (By the way, Pascal's wager calls for the baptizing of your pets.)

Why did God take so long?

This is a really good question. It doesn't make much sense for God to create billions of years of existence for the cosmos when the center of his attention is alive for only thousands of years. But similarly, why did God created billions of light years and billions of stars most of which no person will ever see? As a theistic evolution, I thought it was weird that creationists ask only the first. While I appreciate the consistency of asking neither, I now ask both.

Similarly, why did God wait so long after the Fall to send Jesus? Why make so many animals die as pointless sacrifices? Why spent so much time between Abraham and Jesus with only the Jews and a scattering of Gentiles having a real chance to know him? Christians' reaction to this is fairly predictable. God has a plan. We don't always understand it, but it's quite presumptuous for us to think we could have done better than him. This is precisely how I hope creationist readers react to these questions. Here's the kicker: why not give theistic evolutionists/old earth creationists the same leniency? Maybe God made the universe old for a similar “reason” – it's part of his plan that we can't understand.

Paul's use of Genesis

When talking about the Fall, Paul says that death entered the world through one man's sin. While this isn't clear at all, especially because Adam didn't physically die on the day he ate the fruit, I'll suppose for the sake of argument that we know that Paul is talking about not just spiritual death and not just about human death, but physical death and animal death as well.

But since when have the NT authors been a valid source concerning what the OT actually says? When God makes a promise to Abraham's seed, is seed singular or plural? If singular, I would like to know the verse of Genesis that helped you reach this conclusion. If plural, then Paul was not only wrong about what the OT says, but this faulty understanding was his basis for a theological argument about the promise to the Jews being transferred to Christians.

So maybe Paul was a young-earth creationist, Paul was wrong, and Paul tangentially communicated these false ideas in the process of communicating true theological ideas about Jesus' death. And we're still supposed to believe these theological truths even after learning the debunking of the argument for these theological truths. The ease with which YECists see the weakness in this position is the ease with which I look at Galatians 3 and see that it is false.

Blurring the Line Between Man and Animals

Another problem is that evolution blurs the line between man and animals. And it certainly does. This means “human” is not a yes/no question, but rather a question of degree. There are ways around this like believing that in a certain moment in time, God gave an animal that looked like an ape-man a soul, but this isn't as clean of an answer as the one provided by creationism.

Consider embryonic development. The same problem appears. We have a smooth transition between non-human sperm and egg to a fully human baby. This cannot be evaded by just “believing” God creates a soul at conception. Theistic evolutionists believe that God created the first human soul at some point in the evolution process, and YECists don't let them get away with this equally evidence-free claim. Here, the problem is even worse. At least with evolution, you could go back 40,000 years and look at a child and say it is human while the parents were animals – while the line may be arbitrary, at least the line can't be blurred further by looking at the generation between the child and the parents. But with embryonic development, it's a fully smooth transition. YECists easily see that a mostly smooth transition from animal to human suggests that talk of a soul or being created in the image of God doesn't make sense. With the same ease, I see that embryonic development shows the concept of a soul to be nonsensical.


In Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, on page 276 he writes “The fundamental difference between a biblical view of creation and theistic evolution lies here: the driving force … is randomness.” This is tangential, but this is a common misconception about evolution. Evolution is like the weather – it's a process involving randomness. Due to the randomness of weather I can only guess within ten or twenty degrees what the temperature will be in a week. But I could guess the average temperature for 2010 within a degree or two (and without knowing about global warming.) Due to random effects averaging out, a process that looks chaotic on a small scale is often one that behaves predictably on a larger scale. Evolution says that changes are the predictable long-term result.

But theologically speaking, the misunderstanding doesn't change the implications. In theistic evolution, God's guidance of evolution looks precisely the way it would look if it looked like he stopped caring billions of years ago.

However, the same issue of randomness appears when thinking through the implications of actuarial science. If you know the rate at which heart attacks occur, and you know the size of the population, you can make a very good guess about how many people in the population will have heart attacks. For a more precise prediction, you don't pray to learn the will of God. You learn more about the population, like their age distribution. Actuarial science requires thinking about death in terms of the naturalistic cause and effect that comes from supposing death is left up to chance. And it works. This means that the way in which God takes away life looks precisely the way it would look if it looked like God doesn't care. There are less fatalist ways of saying this, but it's no different than the spin creationists universally give to evolution. Personally, I find the threat actuarial science and statistics pose to believing God still cares about death to be far more severe than the threat evolution poses to believing God cared while creating.

YECists show the proper approach to theistic evolution – skepticism toward the meaningfulness of talking about a creator who is indistinguishable from no creator at all. With the same ease, I apply this same skepticism to Christianity and see that the reasoning behind actuarial science supports the conclusion that God doesn't exist or doesn't care.

Problems in the Local Flood

Most old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists believe that Noah's flood was a local flood (a myth is the alternative.) The Bible talks about the whole world as a hyperbole in many places, so perhaps here as well. To this position, YECists have an excellent response. Why didn't Noah just migrate several hundred miles? Why not just have the birds fly a few hundred miles away? Noah had a hundred years to kill, so I don't suppose finding the time to pack would have been too burdensome.

I really like this objection. It's an excellent reason to not believe in the local flood. What I like so much about it is the underlying assumption that if a plan is completely illogical, then an omniscient God probably didn't come up with it. This assumption comes as naturally as the basic rules of logic – unless one's own beliefs are under the microscope.

So here's my question: Why didn't God just smite everyone and skip the whole flood thing entirely? This would have saved so much trouble for everyone. Noah could have preached about coming judgment for years and he could have shown he believed his own message by making provisions for surviving on his own. I would be interested in hearing if there are any reasons to send a flood at all that don't also defend the idea of having Noah build an ark for a local flood. Maybe there are reasons, but I could throw in an extra miracle or two if they are needed for the practicality of my smiting proposal.

With the local flood, YECists show the proper way of thinking about dramatic claims about what God did. If the story has God commanding a lot of pointless milling about, this should count strongly against its chance of being true. By applying the same skepticism to the global flood that creationists apply to the local flood, I reject the story of Noah even without the scientific and biblical cases against it.

Reconciling the Bible with evolution is really quite easy compared to reconciling the Bible with the Bible and other realities in the here and now. Creationists' ability to see the problems in my answers to comparably easy questions helped me see how contrived both our answers were to the hard questions.

Failing The Insider Test

Small step at a time, I moved my theology a bit while staying inside what I thought was inside. I would wait a bit, and my idea of “inside” would be stretched with me. After moving a moderate distance, I thought that where I came from was inside while the painful truth is that where I came from thought I was outside. This placed me in a curious position: YEC was still inside to me, YEC viewed me as an outsider, I was seeking to fully understand different positions within my idea of orthodoxy, and therefore the logically inevitable result was viewing my faith as an outsider.

I don't remember if anyone ever told me that I would reject Christianity if I used the same skepticism toward it that I use toward every other religion. If so, I don't remember it because it made no impact on my thinking. But eventually, I found myself looking at creationists and seeing that if they were to apply the same critical thinking to their own beliefs that they apply to mine, they would stop being Christians. Conversely, if I thought about my own faith the way other Christians thought about my faith, I would stop being a Christian.

While I thought my way out of many aspects of faith, here I simply got lucky. The desire and ability to think critically about my own beliefs was a very small part of the final step out. Thinking critically about my own beliefs was forced upon me as an unintended consequence of other decisions that were much easier to make. Perhaps this is the difference between me and Christians smarter than I am.

While many of the arguments against Christianity work just fine as academic arguments, I doubt this can be written so that readers will feel the weight of the argument as I did. It took the grind of over two years of not only trying to fit evolution in with Christianity, but trying to fit evolution in with the Christian community to see the blatant inconsistencies on both sides. It's not a matter of people being dogmatic or whatever negative adjective you want to throw in. It's simply the predictable clash of incompatible beliefs – or rather, different Christianities.

My YEC and inerrantist Christianity failed the insider test because the arguments against it are so solid that any perspective save for closing one's eyes is sufficient to see it. My TE Christianity failed the insider test because even the very idea of an insider test failed the insider test. To define “inside” as bigger than “me” was to include people who don't agree on everything. To be willing to have candid conversations with other Christians who believed a bit differently and to honestly seek to understand where they were coming from was to look at many of my own beliefs and critically think through if I had reasons for believing them or not. Sociological circumstances turned this into looking at all of my beliefs with skepticism.

Few faiths, if any, can survive under the scrutiny that everyone applies to everyone else's faith. Truth has nothing to fear from inspection and Christianity should be terrified. My mortally wounded faith staggered on for a while, but my fate had been sealed. I had escaped.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The New Testament's Most Dramatic Miracle

According to Matthew 27:52-53, right after Jesus died, “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” I know poking fun at this story is like dissing Paris Hilton. It's just so easy that it's almost dishonorable. Almost.

Besides that fact that people are being raised from the dead, this is a very strange story. Why did they come out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection? Did they find little scrolls in their coffins with messages like “Hey, I apologize if this sounds a bit contrived, but when Jesus yelled, I just felt like someone needed to rise from the dead. I don't actually want you seen in public until Sunday. I apologize for the inconvenience. Signed, Yahweh.”

While I don't understand the motivation behind the newly raised saints' behavior, I'm sure Jesus appreciated the way they didn't steal his thunder by showing up first. If they had rushed the whole process of, you know, trying out their legs again, exploring the countryside anew,
telling people they aren't dead, they could have really screwed things up. Imagine what would have happened had they not hung out in their graves for three (meaning two) days. With so many resurrected people running around appearing to many people, by the time we get to Easter morning Jesus would appear to people and they'd be like “Yeah, you used to be dead and now you're not. We know. You aren't the first and if you ask me, I really don't think you'll be the last.” I can just imagine ten of the disciples insisting that Jesus is dead, while Thomas is like “Until I see his corpse with my own eyes, and smell his rotting flesh with my own nose, I will believe that he has been raised from the dead just like everyone else!”

It could have been especially bothersome if only one of the newly raised saints, call him Brian, didn't quite understand what was going on. Suppose Brian came into the Jerusalem on Good Friday. People would naturally conclude that he was the first. They might even assume that because he's first, he must have been the one responsible for all the other resurrections. In reply, someone might still claim that it was really Jesus who raised Brian. “Jesus? Jesus couldn't have done it. He was dead!” You got to admit, as far as the soundness of air-tight alibis go, this one is pretty near the top. Before you knew it, there would be a whole new sect of Judaism venerating the life of Brian and all because of a hapless resurrectees misunderstanding of what a newly raised corpse is supposed to do with oneself.

In a little closer to all seriousness, I'd bet Matthew wanted to write “and coming out of the tombs they entered the holy city.” But the more he thought about it, the more it took away from Jesus' Resurrection, so he just had to add some sort of qualifier to keep Jesus at the head of the story. These do not look like the words of someone accurately recording what actually happened. It can be astounding just how much easier it is to explain how it is that we have a story about a miraculous event than it is to explain the miraculous event itself.

But true or not, I'm rather disappointed that these two little verses are all we get to hear about this amazing event. As Thomas Paine wrote:

“Had it been true, it would have filled up whole chapters of those books, and been the chosen theme and general chorus of all the writers; but instead of this, little and trivial things, and mere prattling conversations of, he said this, and he said that, are often tediously detailed, while this, most important of all, had it been true, is passed off in a slovenly manner by a single dash of the pen, and that by one writer only, and not so much as hinted at by the rest.

“It is an easy thing to tell a lie, but it is difficult to support the lie after it is told. The writer of the book of Matthew should have told us who the saints were that came to life again, and went into the city, and what became of them afterward, and who it was that saw them – for he is not hardy enough to say he saw them himself; whether they came out naked, and all in natural buff, he-saints and she-saints; or whether they came full dressed, and where they got their dresses; whether they went to their former habitations, and reclaimed their wives, their husbands, and their property, and how they were received; whether they entered ejectments for the recovery of their possessions, or brought actions of crim. con. against the rival interlopers; whether they remained on earth, and followed their former occupation of preaching or working; or whether they died again, or went back to their graves alive, and buried themselves.

“Strange, indeed, that an army of saints should return to life, and nobody know who they were, nor who it was that saw them, and that not a word more should be said upon the subject, nor these saints have anything to tell us! Had it been the prophets who (as we are told) had formerly prophesied of these things, they must have had a great deal to say. They could have told us everything and we should have had posthumous prophecies, with notes and commentaries upon the first, a little better at least than we have now. Had it been Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Samuel and David, not an unconverted Jew had remained in all Jerusalem. Had it been John the Baptist, and the saints of the time then present, everybody would have known them, and they would have out-preached and out-famed all the other apostles. But, instead of this, these saints were made to pop up, like Jonah's gourd in the night, for no purpose at all but to wither in the morning.”

Even if you think that miracles happen all the time, this story still fails to maintain a shred of reasonableness. Left unexplained are why the risen saints waited until Sunday, why Matthew tells us so little about them, why no other Gospel writer mentions it, and why we have no secular record of them. It doesn't explain why Peter didn't point out one of the newly Resurrected saints on Pentecost or use the resurrections many of them had seen as evidence for the resurrection that they didn't see. I would have thought that he would have understood the audience appeal of a dead guy walking around.

But there is an extraordinarily simple theory that explains all of this. It didn't happen. Things like this should be taken into consideration when deciding if Matthew's more famous tale of a resurrection deserves to be taken seriously.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Human Irrationality

The theology blog Parchment and Pen had a recent post about human irrationality. It begins with one of Paul's most quoted lines: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them."

My slightly edited reply follows:

Here's what you are saying about nontheists: you know you will suffer for eternity for choosing wrong, and yet you do so anyway, because you are just that retarded. While truth and offensiveness can coincide, it shuts off chances for dialogue.

This is vastly more extreme than an atheist who responds to any anecdotal evidence with "you are superstitious and deluded" and to any rational argument with "you are simply justifying your delusions." While I think there is some merit to the truth value of these claims, it's completely patronizing and the extent to which I'm forced to fall back on argumentative tactics like these is the extent to which I don't have anything worth saying. And which is more insulting: you're so dumb that you think your imaginary friend is real, or you're so wicked that you deserve eternal torment and so dumb that you know it's coming and yet do nothing to try to stop it?

Two Hitchens don't make a right, but this perspective is needed when deciding just how fiercely the new atheists' tone should be denounced, and if at all. And this isn't even an objection to the people in the church, but only to the words in the Bible itself.


I find it to be strange just how often Christians make arguments that either our reason cannot be trusted, or that people aren't nearly as reasonable as we think. It's not that these claims are false. The problem is that even if true, I don't see how it helps the case for Christianity at all. This is an argument that belongs on the agnostic side of either an agnostic v. atheist or an agnostic v. theist debate. If agnostics are "right", then either God exists and has not revealed himself, or atheists hold the right position for bad reasons.

Just as it debunks the foundation under any argument against Christianity, it debunks the foundation under any reason to believe. If people are a lot dumber than we think, that makes it easier for a relationship with God to be something that's just in your head. It makes it easier for answers to prayer to simply be bad estimations of probability and selective memory of the "hits." It becomes even easier to understand the birth and growth of Christianity - if people are just that irrational, skeptics don't even need a theory to explain the sincere belief of the Gospel writers and Paul.