Heat is work and work’s a curse or I Was a Teenage Physicist

Ken again

Andrew Brown went to the lecture on God and evolution by Ken Miller, the one which robhu mentioned in the comments last time. Brown was impressed by Miller. I commented using the same arguments as my previous posting.

The wonderful thing about standards is

In other news, top geneticist Francis Collins has started his own Christian apologetics site, Biologos.org. Collins is a theistic evolutionist. He’s got answers for those awkward creationist questions (mentioned last time) on evolution and the Fall and death before the Fall. Not just one answer, in fact, but several, which could all equally well be true, because as far as I can see there’s no possible way to chose between them on the basis of evidence (except possibly on the evidence of a strong inner conviction, I suppose). Still, several answers are better than one, right?

Atheists can be wrong too

The usual suspects in atheist blogland are having fun with Biologos: here’s Jerry Coyne, P. Z. Myers, and P. Z. Myers. The latter P. Z. Myers refers to a post at Evaluating Christianity. Myers says this article at Biologos is making the argument that evolution is impossible because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a (badly mistaken) argument that is popular among creationists.

This is unfair to Collins, who knows the creationist argument is wrong. Collins is actually making a God of the Gaps argument. The low entropy condition of the early universe is an unsolved problem in physics, as Sean Carroll explains in Scientific American (Carroll commented at Evaluating Christianity confirming this). Unsolved problems in physics are fertile ground for Christians looking for something for God to do.

I hope Myers will issue a correction, because I think it’s important to get stuff like this right.

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Religion and cartography or I Was a Teenage Theistic Evolutionist

Following on from his review of two books by theistic evolutionists, Jerry Coyne recently wrote an article criticising the US National Academy of Sciences for saying that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Richard Hoppe at Panda’s Thumb disagrees with Coyne, but P Z Myers supports him. Atheist fight!

Is evolution compatible with Christianity? Well, yes and no. I was a Christian who believed in evolution. This means not having good answers to some stuff Christians might care about: was the Fall a real event, and if not, where does original sin come from? Did physical death really enter the world through sin? If, as Christians usually argue as part of their theodicy on natural disasters, creation itself was corrupted in the Fall (whatever the Fall was), how exactly does that work? If you’re a Christian who accepts evolution, you don’t need atheists to ask these awkward questions, your creationist brothers (and sisters) will do a much better job of it.

But that doesn’t show incompatibility. If you keep running into these problems and have to keep adding ad hoc patches to your theory, you should consider discarding it, but there are things I don’t have good answers to as an atheist, and that hasn’t stopped me being one.

I was a student of science who was a Christian. That seems to be where the real problem lies. Theistic evolutionists tend to say stuff like “Evolution could have been the way God did it” or “Maybe God nudges electrons from time to time”. They might make a wider point about “other ways of knowing”. At some point, someone is probably going to say “well, Science cannot prove your wife loves you, but you believe that, don’t you?”

The Less Wrong crowd recently discussed whether their community is and should be welcoming to theists. Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted is a good post which deserves reading on its own merits, but I was particularly interested in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s comment about compartmentalising rationality.

If Wednesday [the child of Mormons mentioned in the article] can partition, that puts an upper bound on her ability as a rationalist; it means she doesn’t get on a deep level why the rules are what they are. She doesn’t get, say, that the laws regarding evidence are not social customs that can be different from one place to another, but, rather, manifestations of the principle that you have to walk through a city in order to draw an accurate map of it.

Sam Harris mocks this compartmentalisation in his satirical response to Coyne’s critics (the paragraphs following “Finally, Kenneth Miller, arrives” are the key ones). Science is one manifestation of the principle that you draw a map by walking the streets, not by sitting in your room and thinking hard about it. There are other legitimate forms of cartography, such as the one you apply when you conclude that someone loves you (assuming you’re not actually a stalker). Perhaps, like the Tube map, they’re not doing quite the same precise measurement as you’d expect from science, but they make useful maps.

Recall the original point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, before it developed into a cod-religion for annoying Christians with, like the worship of Invisible Pink Unicorn (PBUHHH). The FSM’s inventor used it to point out that if you’re going to say your god created the universe because you sat your room and had a strong inner conviction about it, on your own argument, the FSM revealed to me as a Pastafarian is as legitimate as the creator your conviction revealed to you. This point is not lessened if you say your god sometimes happens to do stuff in a way which isn’t directly incompatible with known science.

Perhaps theism isn’t incompatible with evolution, but it is incompatible with good cartography.

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Book: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

Irregular Apocalypse

The other Red Ken has a new book out. The Night Sessions is set in a future where the USA and UK have pretty much abandoned religion as a bad job. In the book’s alternate history, the War on Terror became the Faith Wars, which culminated in tactical nuclear exchanges as part of a tank battle in the Valley of Megiddo (ya, rly). The US/UK won a Pyrrhic victory, and the people of those countries decided that it wasn’t just the neo-cons who were to blame, but religion. Thus began what the churches referred to as the Great Rejection. Christians were persecuted, Muslims sent to filtration camps. The book opens in 2037. In the independent republic of Scotland, religion is now ignored as part of a policy of official “non-cognisance”. Then a Roman Catholic priest is murdered by a bomb, and the Edinburgh police (some of whom were in the “God Squads” which put down protests by Christians about the closing of churches and church schools) have to investigate.

No More Mr Nice Guy

MacLeod’s future Edinburgh seemed a bit like Iain M. Banks’s Culture, writ small. The religious people are the ones who have, prior to the opening of the book, learned the hard way that you “don’t fuck with the Culture”. The coppers are aided by sarcastic demilitarised combat robots, who attained consciousness on the battlefield as the result of getting better and better at modelling other combatants’ minds. There are the polybdsmfurrygoths in their silent nightclub (which used to be a church, naturally). The Great Rejection seems like unrealistic atheist wish-fulfilment.

God Told Me To Do It

Still, MacLeod has fun with his setting. The American fundies have buggered off to New Zealand and set up a creationist theme park, where one of the protagonists, John Campbell works. In the prologue, we meet him on a flight to Edinburgh, where he introduces a fellow passenger to the delights of presuppositionalism. If you doubt that people like Campbell exist in real life, check out what this guy thinks of people who allow evidence to modify their beliefs: I don’t know MacLeod’s own religious experiences, but he’s done his research. There are jokes you probably need some acquaintance with Christianity to get.

MacLeod isn’t silly enough to portray the religious characters unsympathetically. Campbell turns out to be a sensitive soul, rejected by one sect after another for increasingly hilarious reasons, who can’t quite understand why people find his theology hard to get on with. Grace Mazvabo, an Christian academic who studies the history of her religion, is well drawn.

The first part of the story is a sort of police procedural with lots of satisfying SF stuff about the kit the coppers have access to. Other reviewers say that MacLeod deliberately avoided making DI Adam Ferguson a hard-drinking future-Rebus, which is fair enough, but he and the other police seem a bit thin, somehow (the one exception being the, ahem, undercover agent who spends a lot of time around the polybdsmfurrygoths).

In fact, my main criticism of the book is that everything’s too thin. I wanted to know more about the world, and more about the characters. Maybe I’ve read too much Neal Stephenson, but I found the book too short. Still, it’s a mark of how much fun I had with it that I wanted more. Worth a read.

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Evangelism training or I Was a Teenage Evangelical

Even the atheists agree: William Craig thrashed Christopher Hitchens in their recent debate. In The West Wing, we see Bartlet preparing for a debate as real politicians do, by practising against someone playing his opposition, presumably having studied the other guy first. Craig is formidable, but his arguments don’t change, so it’s odd that his opponents apparently don’t take advantage of knowing what he’s going to say. Transcripts and audio of his previous debates are available, and his arguments are also in his book, Reasonable Faith. Chris Hallquist responded convincingly to the arguments in Reasonable Faith: a review like that should be a starting point for anyone debating with Craig.

Anyhoo, Hallquist’s review of Craig’s book brought back some memories of my time in evangelicalism, specifically about how I was taught to do evangelism. (Reminder: Evangelicalism is a particular subset of Christianity, emphasising the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for personal repentance and faith; people who believe in evangelicalism are evangelicals. Evangelism is the process of making converts; people who try to make converts are evangelists. Clear? Then off we go.)

When I tap on the dashboard, I want you to recite “Two Ways to Live” as quickly and as safely as possible

Sometimes non-Christians are disturbed to learn that evangelicals commonly receive training in evangelism, as if such training were somehow cheating. But there’s nothing inherently sinister about wanting to be better at evangelism, especially if you value the sort of propositional consistency I’ve mentioned previously: evangelicals who evangelise are anticipating-as-if there’s a Hell, rather than merely speaking-as-if they believe it (I’ve previously mentioned an evangelical evangelist who definitely anticipates-as-if there’s a Hell).

The training provided to a typical church-goer doesn’t cover spanking ill-prepared atheists in formal debates, but rather the every-day evangelism which is the responsibility of every Christian. It might start off with overcoming the British reticence about religion to get Christians to casually mention to friends and colleagues what they do on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The church itself would put on fun events (film screenings, dinner parties, Ceroc nights) to which you could bring non-Christian friends, and there’d be a “short talk about Jesus” in the middle. Once people know you’re a Christian, you might get to talk to them about it, so the training goes on to having conversations about Christianity with non-Christians, maybe learning some sort of salvation schema like Two Ways to Live and some answers to common questions.

What kicked off memories of this was Hallquist’s review of Chapter 1 of Craig’s book. I remember being told to try to move the conversation away from issues like theodicy or the reliability of the Bible, to personal issues of sin and repentance. If you watch the BBC documentary on Deborah Drapper, you’ll see her doing this several times, using Ray Comfort’s Are you a good person? script. If you’d like to see Christopher Hitchens win for a change, you can also listen to an unfortunate Christian trying the script on him.

Bad faith

The advice to move the argument to personal issues reflects the common evangelical belief that philosophical debates and requests for evidence are a smokescreen: the non-Christian knows there’s a God really but just doesn’t want to worship him. One Biblical source for this belief is this passage in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where Paul says that God’s nature is clear from creation, so that people who don’t worship him have no excuse (verse 20).

Hallquist quotes Craig:

[W]hen a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. — William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, my hyperlink

Craig advises Christians to ask objectors “If I answered that objection, would you then really be ready to become a Christian?” This is something like the rationalist technique of getting to the core of disagreements by asking “Is that your true rejection?” (see also The Least Convenient Possible World). However, Craig departs from the rationalist use of this technique in that he seems to argue it cannot legitimately be applied in reverse (“If I substantiated that objection, would you be ready to leave Christianity?”). He also takes the stance that non-Christians are culpably arguing in bad faith.

Hallquist’s review does a better job of arguing against Craig than I can, so you should read that if you come across assertions that Christianity is evidenced by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, or indeed, if you should happen to get into a debate with William Lane Craig. Rather, as is traditional, let’s end by drawing out some practical applications, and then go in peace.

Evangelism training

  • One of the less memorable new phrases invented by Neal Stephenson in Anathem is Hypotrochian Transquaestiation, which means “to change the subject in such a way as to assert, implicitly, that a controversial point has already been settled one way or the other”. Watch out for this, for example, in the switch from discussion of the existence of God to whether you are a good person.
  • Cognitive biases exist, and seeking a person’s true rejection is a useful technique if the debate seems to be going nowhere. However, it cuts both ways, so…
  • Beware of your conversational role. If you’ve accepted a passive role as potential buyer and the evangelist’s active role as sales-person, there are thoughts which won’t occur to you (like the seeking the evangelist’s true rejection).
  • If you’re aiming for dialogue rather than the buyer role, it’s probably not worth discussing things with someone who sees every argument you raise as evidence of your culpable self-deception. Craig’s position on an atheist’s motivations together with his experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit serve as a fully general counterargument to anything the atheist says (but note that knowing Craig is in possession of this argument doesn’t itself invalidate his specific arguments). If you find yourself in conversation with an evangelical evangelist, it is worth asking whether they agree with Craig.
    • One exception where it would be worth arguing is if there are people watching, as in a public debate, online, or if you found yourself at one of those evangelistic dinner parties.
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O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

In another place, I’m told that in my postings here I seem more interested in annoying Christians than in genuine dialogue (if you happen to know where the other place is, don’t harass the management there, comment here instead: this post is not calling in an air strike from the United Atheist Alliance).

In this blog, when I’m writing about religion, I try for a mix of serious discussion posts and cheerleading for atheism (“give me a D, give me an A, give me a W” etc. etc). The last couple of posts are examples of a serious discussion post. Comparing EvangelicalGod with Cthulhu and the Bishops Gone Wild series are examples of cheerleading. The recent stuff on C.S. Lewis is a mixture of the two.

What’s the value of the cheerleading? It’s light relief from the serious stuff, seeing other people doing the “theists do the funniest things” stuff gives others permission to doubt, and it’s cathartic for me when I’ve just read about some bishop saying something stupid.

I don’t believe that someone’s religious opinions are morally worthy of more respect than, say, their politics (another reason for the cheerleading is to promote this idea: would people be bothered if I were laying into Gordon Brown?) However, religion is currently a more sensitive subject than politics and this is not going to change overnight. As a matter of tactics, I don’t want to annoy people so much that they don’t bother reading the serious stuff, and as a matter of empathy, I don’t want to actually upset people.

So, I’m interested in what the people reading this think of my postings on religion. Here’s a poll about it (if you’re not an LJ user, you’ll need to login in with OpenID or create an account to fill it in). Let me know what you think:

[ LJ Poll 1380432 ]

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Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Richard Carrier vs William Lane Craig

Richard Carrier recently debated with William Lane Craig. That’s them in the picture, you see (I’ll leave it to you to decide which one’s which). The topic was the Resurrection of Jesus. You can listen here, though the audio is a bit crappy, or watch the debate on Youtube.

Carrier doesn’t think he did very well. He correctly says that he was a lot less organised than Craig and couldn’t keep up with all the things he’d need to rebut. As I’ve previously noted, Craig has a lot of arguments and a very polished delivery.

<lj-cut text=”Summary of the arguments”>Craig’s main points are that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea; Jesus’s tomb was empty; the tomb was discovered empty by women; Mark’s story is simple and lacks theological embellishment (unlike Matthew’s, presumably?); and finally that the earliest Jewish response, that the disciples stole the body, recorded in Matthew, pre-supposes the empty tomb. He backs these points up with references to NT scholars and historians.

Carrier’s response takes issue with Craig’s evidence. He attacks both the NT gospels and Paul’s letters. He notes that Paul says Jesus was raised and appeared to people (1 Cor 15), not specifically that Jesus’s tomb was empty. Appearances can be hallucinations. Looking at Acts and Paul’s letters, it seems the early Christians did have visions. Paul himself says his gospel came from God, not men. Carrier is not saying the early Christians were mentally ill, but rather, that hallucinations in the sane are common in some people, who may even find them comforting (Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World also makes the point that hallucinations are more common than we think and don’t mean that the person experiencing them is crazy). We know these hallucinations have a role in other religions, so why not Christianity? So far, fair enough.

Carrier then argued that that gospel accounts were full of myths, that is, stories told to express a point rather than being historical narrative. He outlined a theory that the release of Barabbas was an allegory for the scapegoat ceremony on Yom Kippur. This has been noted by scholars and also by Christian believers. Though the Christians would argue that just because something is an allegory doesn’t mean it didn’t also happen, Carrier claims that the gospels are chock full of these sorts of things, and so we cannot tell what they record as history.

Craig says in his comments prior to the debate that for the purpose of debating the Resurrection, it doesn’t matter whether the gospels are completely reliable (Craig thinks they are, but wisely doesn’t attempt to defend inerrancy in debate), because we accept that historical sources may contain errors and truths. But Carrier’s argument is that the gospels are chock-full of symbolic tales, so it’s unlikely that any given account is historical: the gospels are not just a mixture of history and myth, but mostly myth.

Carrier talks about a hypothetical world where Jesus appeared to lots of people in lots of places after his resurrection, with records of appearances in many countries. Carrier thinks that in that world he would have much greater chance of accepting that Jesus was raised, so the fact that we’re not in that world is better explained by atheism than Christianity. Craig initially refuses to address this, saying that the question of what God would do is a theological one, not a historical one. When pressed in the Q&A, Craig says that there are Christianities where it makes sense that Jesus didn’t appear all over the world: for example, one might be a universalist, that is, a Christian who believes nobody goes to hell. Of course, Craig’s not a universalist. He’s a Molinist, so he believes God knows what would have happened in every possible circumstance. If Jesus didn’t appear all over the world, Craig says it must be because doing so wouldn’t make more Christians. Craig seems fond of saying that having more evidence for God’s existence wouldn’t make more people become Christians: see, for example, this thread where robhu linked to an article of Craig’s. Yet Carrier seems to be saying he would believe in the resurrection in the hypothetical world, and a lot of ex-Christian atheists say they left the church when they realised there wasn’t enough evidence for their beliefs.

So much for Craig, what about Carrier? In Are You a Solar Deity?, Yvain cautions against theories which can be applied to anything (the specific example Yvain uses is related to religious myths, in fact). Some of Carrier’s examples of myth seem a bit of a stretch. He needs to do more work to show that the gospels are generally unreliable, more than he has time for in a debate, it seems. He’s written a book outlining his theories, but I don’t think he’s carried out a Spot the Fakes test. I’m not convinced the gospels are mostly myth.

On the other hand, the gospels do contain mythologised history based on Old Testament passages. Christians without a prior commitment to Biblical inerrancy recognise this, as do other readers. For example, scribb1e noticed when she read through the Old Testament. (If you’re an inerrantist, you can accommodate this evidence into your web of belief in other ways, for example by saying that the OT passages were foreshadowing). Craig concedes this for the sake of argument, but says we still extract history from unreliable sources. True, but historians don’t extract belief in miracles from other sources either, do they? The apologist is right to argue that the gospels should not be treated more strictly than other historical documents, but historians don’t believe that Vespasian cured the blind, either. Without the presumption that the source is totally reliable, they’re going to treat miracles as the unreliable part.

That steers things back into the territory of the Ehrman vs Craig debate I’ve mentioned previously. When you’ve watched enough of these debates, you realise there are standard openings, like in chess. If you’re an evangelist and someone says to you that historians don’t accept your religion’s miracle, you counter by accusing the historians of metaphysical naturalism and hence of begging the question. Your sensible sceptic will say that this has nothing to do with grand philosophical statements about how everything supervenes on the physical, and more about the way everyone, even Christians, agrees that miracles are pretty uncommon. You need a lot of evidence to back up a miraculous claim, and in the case of the Resurrection, if you really start with a low prior probability, there just isn’t enough evidence.

Notice that Craig never puts numbers into his equation when he’s beating Ehrman with it (not that this would have helped Ehrman, because he’s an arts graduate, poor soul). Craig doesn’t seem very sure what his prior would be. Barefoot Bum and I argued about this, because I’d not noticed Craig talks about it in two places in the Ehrman debate: at one point he says it’s “terribly low” but then, as the Bum notes, he later says “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” Craig’s argument seems to be that there’s sufficient evidence to believe in the Resurrection if you already believe that God is the sort of God who’d do something like raise Jesus from the dead. That seems fair enough, but as an evangelist, shouldn’t Craig be concerned with how people come to believe in that sort of God? Not by examining the evidence for the Resurrection, it seems.

Still, Craig duffed Carrier up. Let’s not lose heart: over at Evangelical Agnosticism they talk about the rare atheists who don’t get duffed up by Craig. Paul Draper did well, and is well worth a listen. Also, Craig’s debating with Christopher Hitchens on 4th April, which will be entertaining, if nothing else.

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