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Thursday, April 24, 2008

on intelligent design: first thoughts

The movie Expelled, released last week and featuring Ben Stein, is garnering a lot of attention for the intelligent design (ID) movement. At the core of ID seems to be the hypothesis known as irreducible complexity. Michael Behe -- professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a leading intelligent design advocate -- says that biological features such as the blood clotting cascade, the light sensitivity of photoreceptors in the eye, and the bacterial flagellum are examples of complex systems containing individual parts that could not function in isolation of each other.

Behe argues that the existence of irreducibly complex systems is evidence of fine-tuning by an outside agent, an "intelligent designer," who apparently is dissatisfied with the monotony of earth's life forms, and feels compelled to make inexplicable tweaks in obscure places. This designer might be a supernatural being, or it might be a space alien; the intelligent design hypothesis makes no claims about the nature of the designer.

Is intelligent design good science? Is it good theology? Based on my understanding to this point, I would have to answer no on both counts.

By setting up their hypothesis as a competitor to darwinian evolution, Behe and other ID advocates are trying to blur the line that marks the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Science is the study of the workings of the physical world. Science gives us explanations of natural phenomena. There are many areas of knowledge that are outside the scope of science: ethics, art, philosophy, and, of course, theology, to name a few. There's simply no way to squeeze God into the box of scientific inquiry.

What happens if we try to reduce the creator of the universe to a scientific hypothesis? We end up with the "god of the gaps." God is only useful when we need to explain something that we don't fully understand at the moment.

This is bad science because it can discourage further research. If we believe that increased human knowledge would decrease the power of God, we may turn a blind eye to the research into the evolution of the eye. It's bad science also because it accepts a non-conclusion as a conclusion. Merely because something is not understood scientifically does not automatically place it in the realm of external intelligent agents. There is a wide gulf between "We haven't found a natural explanation," and "We can't find a natural explanation." There is also a wide gulf between "We haven't found a natural explanation," and "An unknown intelligent being has been tinkering with life forms again." (And that's not even considering the fact that many of the "irreducibly complex systems" have been explained through natural processes, specifically through the process of exaptation. That's an issue for a separate post, which probably needs to be written by someone more able than I.)

ID is bad theology, too, as the implication of a god in the gaps theology is that God can only be seen in those things that can't be explained otherwise. So the birth of a baby, for example, could not be considered a miracle, because we understand the physical processes by which offspring are produced. But bacterial rotors... those are truly divine in origin! If intelligent design proponents took their own claims at face value, they would be followers of one strange cult.

They certainly wouldn't be followers of one Jesus of Nazareth, who said to a doubting Thomas, "You believe because you have seen my wounds," but did not add, "Blessed are those who understand the irreducible complexity of the blood clotting cascade." (Hey, that gives me an idea for my next Bible translations update...)

Anyway, thus far I've not been impressed with the intelligent design movement. Its major proponents seem to be trying to blend science with religion in a novel way, but the result is that they are making a mess of both.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

evangelism in the new testament

Martin LaBar of the Sun and Shield blog has posted a chart with examples of personal evangelism in the New Testament, along with a blog post of commentary on the chart.

Among the things Martin notes are: there is no set pattern, all the conversations are with strangers, and none of the conversations begin with a warning about sin, or with talk about God's love.

One thing that he doesn't note, but stuck out to me was that in the majority of these cases, the other person initiated or invited the conversation. Nicodemas came to Jesus; the Ethiopian eunuch asked for guidance; Cornelius sent for Peter because of a vision; the jailer asked Paul and Silas how he could be saved.

Does anything else strike you about these examples of evangelism? What about other examples from the New Testament?

To the thief on the cross, Jesus presented the good news in the most succinct version possible, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." This was preceded by perhaps the most succinct "sinner's prayer" possible, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

To Zacchaeus, Jesus took a very passive approach to evangelism, simply inviting himself to dinner and letting Zacchaeus do all the talking. Jesus didn't even mention the word salvation until after Zacchaeus had committed to turning his life around.

Despite the fact that Jesus often waited for people to come to him before he tried to evangelize (and despite the fact that he was Jesus), he was not always successful. The rich young man went away grieving, unable to commit to what Jesus asked of him.

Jesus had a chance to share the gospel with Pilate, too, but couldn't get a better response than a noncommittal "What is truth?"

Paul tried to share his testimony with the governer Felix, but all Felix was interested in was a bribe. Later, Paul tried to evangelize King Agrippa (son of Herod Agrippa) who was not impressed:

Agrippa said to Paul, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?" Paul replied, "Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains."

If anything, I think these additional examples give us even less of a clear pattern. Any further thoughts?

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

the church of america

In a recent Townhall article, Michael Medved writes about the possibility (or impossibility) of an atheist president. (hat tip: Daylight Atheism)

Medved says:
Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the “Church of America” – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones.

Medved is not merely wrong, he is very confused about his faith.

I've written previously about my concerns with civic religion. It seems to me that nothing can be more destructive of genuine religion than to let it be co-opted by those in power.

For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?

Then there’s the significant matter of the Pledge of Allegiance. Would President Atheist pronounce the controversial words “under God”? If he did, he’d stand accused (rightly) of rank hypocrisy. And if he didn’t, he’d pointedly excuse himself from a daily ritual that overwhelming majorities of his fellow citizens consider meaningful.

Yes, these are the solemn duties of the head of the Church of America, according to Michael Medved. Because if the President doesn't know who to thank on Thanksgiving, or wants to revert to the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance (the words "under God" were not added until the 1950s), then the Church of America will collapse.

A non-Christian (like Joe Lieberman) could easily preside over state occasions because even though his faith differs significantly from that of the Christian majority, his obvious attachment to faith in God and Old Testament principles shows sympathy, not hostility, to the generalized value of faith.

This just underscores my objections to civic religion. There is nothing about Thanksgiving or the Pledge of Allegiance which is in any sense Christian. Patriotism is not a Christian value. Kingdoms rise and fall, and all that.

Thankfulness is good, but it is not exclusively Christian, or even religious. If an atheist president urged Americans just to be thankful, I don't see how anybody could object. After all, if Americans didn't know who to thank without explicit orders from their leaders, we'd have to call it the Cult of America.

Personally, I don't care what the President says on the fourth Thursday of November, or how he or she recites the Pledge of Allegiance. That's not the foundation of my faith -- or, for that matter, any part of my faith. Civic religion often amounts to no more than lip service -- inserting the word "God" into an otherwise secular observance or ritual. Civic religion is an insincere and shallow attempt by the state to force God into a box.

Medved considers the recent candidacies of Joe Lieberman, a Jew, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, but then adds:

There’s a difference between an atheist, however, and a Mormon or a Jew – despite the fact that the same U.S. population (about five million) claims membership in each of the three groups. For Mitt and Joe, their religious affiliation reflected their heritage and demonstrated their preference for a faith tradition differing from larger Christian denominations. But embrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn’t show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does.

Medved overstates the case here, I think. Granted, Sam Harris would have trouble connecting with voters in Pascagoula, Mississippi. But not all atheists are contemptuous of people of faith.

And let's face it -- though many recent Presidents (and Congressional leaders) have been very vocal about their Christianity, most of them have not lived up to the standards they proclaimed were they were elected. From Bill Clinton's affair with an intern, to George W. Bush's deceptions leading to the invasion of Iraq, our leaders haven't demonstrated Christian values while in office.

I don't think an atheist could do much worse. Chances are, the average atheist would be better: Maybe that's what Medved is really worried about.

Modern secularism rejects the notion that human beings feel a deep-seated, unquenchable craving for making connections with Godliness, in its various definitions and manifestations. For Osama bin Laden and other jihadist preachers, Islam understands that yearning but “infidel” America does not. Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism.

I think Medved does state some truth here: Osama bin Laden wants his followers to believe that Western society is godless and decadent. Medved misses the mark, though, in his claim that the proper response is "the citation of our religious traditions and commitments," especially when the only examples he can list involve secular traditions that have had the word "God" grafted in.

By replacing God with "God," civic religion maintains the appearance of godliness while emptying the words of meaning. The United States may be the most overtly religious nation in the Western world in the way we speak, but our actions tell a different story. The ever widening gap between rich and poor, the increasing number of families who can't afford needed medical care, the violence of our inner cities, the ongoing decimation of nature, all testify that this is not a nation under God. It is a nation of short-sighted, self-centered individuals who think invoking the name of "God" is enough. Osama bin Laden is not the only one who is not fooled.

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