Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Houston – we have a problem

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Well, I knew I was taking too long to read TGD. I was unable to renew the book this week because someone else has reserved it. So, I’ve got to wait somewhere between 10 days (if the person never picks it up) and 4 weeks (they pick it up towards the end of their time and then the 3 weeks for their reservation).

I’m going to start looking for it at other area libraries as well, so I might have it sooner rather than later.

In the mean time, consider the comment section the place to recommend the next Atheist or anti-Catholic book that you’d like me to read and review.

What the “utilitarians” offer

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Dawkins is a scientist who is also an atheist and as most people who fit that description, they have an amazingly “utilitarian” view of humanity. They ask questions like “Isn’t OK to abort a fetus as long as its nervous system is less developed than a cow, since we kill those for food?”

But Dawkins is not alone, in fact, in these areas he’s a follower, not a leader. The leaders of the utilitarian bioethics movement, a movement led almost entirely by atheist scientists, are people like Peter Singer. I’d like you to read a recent article of his in the New York Times:

Just so there’s no confusion, this is the logical extreme of where the atheist scientists want to take us. If you’re suffering at all, your life isn’t worth living. Down Syndrome? None of you please, you’ll just suffer. Old and suffering? Please kill yourself. You’ll stop suffering and we’re really sick of paying the bills so please hurry up and pull the trigger.

And let me be clear: this is no exaggeration. For years I thought it was an exaggeration, but I’ve read enough now to know. Singer, the author of this article is not some random nutjob. Instead he’s considered one of the leading minds in the bioethics field and a highly esteemed professor at Princeton. From Wikipedia:

Peter Albert David Singer (born 6 July 1946) is an Australian philosopher. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), University of Melbourne. He specialises in applied ethics, approaching ethical issues from a secular preference utilitarian perspective.

He has served, on two occasions, as chair of philosophy at Monash University, where he founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1996, he ran unsuccessfully as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate. In 2004, he was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. He has been voted one of Australia’s ten most influential public intellectuals.[1] Singer serves on the Advisory Board of Incentives for Global Health, the NGO formed to develop the Health Impact Fund proposal.

If it weren’t so tragic, I’d find his cynical view of how people look at having children funny. People decide to have kids because what it’ll do for them. “What about ME!?!” And when they don’t, it’s only because the kid’s going to suffer, so we’d better not do it. So let’s just make ourselves extinct.

But his cynical view is just not accurate, or at least it’s not in my family. Just last night when I took my wife out to dinner we were talking about how hard on us it would be to have another kid. How we’re going to have to make sacrifices for the child. But we said, how wonderful it’ll be for that child to have life, to experience all that is beautiful and worth living for.

And even though it wasn’t said at the table, we both believe that a handicapped person is a person who can enjoy life and their life is still worth living, even if it includes pain and suffering. We believe that the human spirit can rise above suffering and pain and do wonderful things.

So this, fellow world citizen, is your choice. You can embrace life as a wonderful thing, even when it’s not “perfect”, like this guy did:

Or you can take the utilitarian atheist scientist view and ask yourself if we’d be better off going extinct as a species because we’re all here just suffering away and life really isn’t worth living. (Or at a minimum let’s get rid of those people, not even let them be conceived, that we’ve determined in advance that their lives won’t be worth living and when we make a “mistake” and they’re born anyway, let’s encourage them to kill themselves.)

Which do you chose?

(Hat Tip: Wesley J. Smith)

TGD – Chapter 8

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Chapter 8 was both every bit as bad as I feared and entirely more reasonable in certain sections that I hoped. It’s titled “What’s Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile?” Perhaps merely because the chapter title was sufficiently long it didn’t included the deserved extension “A case study in strawmen”.

After a quick introduction suggesting he’s not a confrontational person by nature (a laughable idea if there ever was one), he continues to his first section titled “Fundamentalism and the subversion of science”. Of all of the sections in the chapter this is the one I found most credible, particularly with an appropriately narrow definition of fundamentalist (one that I suspect Dawkins doesn’t subscribe to, but nevertheless an overly broad assertion is better than pure fallacy).

His point is that there are religious out there that are so steadfast in their beliefs that no amount of evidence can sway them from any part of it. He specifically references the creationists who believe the world to be on the order of 6,000 years old (Dawkins uses the over-used term “creationists”, which really means something more broad). I’m friends with people who hold these beliefs and I do occasionally challenge them on it. It does surprise me how steadfastly they hold to an idea that there’s no need for them as a Christian to hold on to and is so overwhelmingly disproven by science. While there are most definitely aspects of certain scientific conclusions that are worth questioning, that the earth is on the order of millions of years old instead of a few thousand, is beyond the pale. Dawkins is right to criticize them.

Here’s the thing: Many religious are not fundamentalist, myself included. Dawkins pretends to make the concession that not all religious are fundamentalists, but based on the reasoning he uses as the chapter continues, it’s clear that he views all religious as fundamentalists. If he’s going to hang his hat on the strawman of all religious think like the people who think the world is only 6,000 years old, he’s relying on something that is observably false. Many of us are open to evidence and do adjust our thoughts accordingly. What Dawkins is blind to is that his evidence/proofs of a lack of a God, as I’ve shown in my reviews to date, are not nearly as convincing as he thinks they are. That our conclusions based on the evidence are different from his does not indicate that our conclusions are not evidence based.

He shifts gears to a new group of extremists who he’s going to type-cast all religious into in his next section titled “The dark side of absolutism”. He speaks of the Muslim extremists who have committed numerous atrocities in the last 20 years, from 9-11 to the London bombings and beyond. No one will doubt how their extremist absolutism is trouble. But where he stretches too far, and he caries this idea into future sections, is that this is representative of all religions and Christianity in particular. He references the term “American Taliban” one of the most ridiculous ideas advanced by people like Dawkins. For the “American Taliban” all Dawkins can dig up is some over the top quotes from a few whack jobs who in no way properly reflect Christianity as a whole. More to the point, even these extremists are in practice non-violent. There is no example of a 9-11 that can be attributed to the “American Taliban”.

He continues building his case against the “American Taliban” in his next section titled “Faith and homosexuality”, again completely overlooking the difference between condemning an act as immoral and taking the law into ones own hands and rising to violence. He quotes some more fringe characters like Fred Phelps (and again I submit that when someone is referencing people that are uniformly ostracized by Christians as an example of what the religion teaches, it shows how desperate they are to make an unjustified connection).

But all of this is just a lead up to what he clearly sees as the linchpin of his “proof” that extremist Muslims and mainstream Christians come from the same fiber. The next section is titled “Faith and the sanctity of human life”. After a couple pages of trying to create a moral framework for why abortion should be permitted (which basically boils down to as long as a fetus has a less developed nervous system than a cow, it’s OK to kill them), he gets down to the real reason he delves into abortion: abortion clinic bombings.

See, for him, this is the proof that the “American Taliban” is every bit as bad as the Muslim Taliban. It’s his one example (and remember my thoughts earlier about Galileo and only having one example) that proves his point. In fact, when one looks at Christianity as a whole, it proves just the opposite, as I’ll demonstrate.

There were admittedly a string of Christian sourced violence in the late 80’s and early 90’s against abortion clinics and they resulted in a handful of deaths. It’s a tragic episode and one that doesn’t reflect well on Christians. However, here’s the key point: it stopped. The Christian leaders throughout America put the pressure on anti-abortion groups to stop the violence and it worked. Until George Tiller was murdered last year, an event that was again roundly criticized by Christian leaders, there had been a full decade without a single notable event and that was after another half decade where violence was on the decline. Not that the protests had stopped, far from it. But the resorting to violence had been effectively stopped.

So I ask you, what speaks more of us Christians? That there was a short period where over-passionate individuals went beyond their Christian calling and resorted to violence, or that Christians as a whole, despite finding abortion abhorrent, refused to allow the violence to continue? Compare that to what is happening with the complete lack of condemnation found in the Muslim community for the Islamic Extremists. There’s just no comparison. There is no “American Taliban”.

After a short section titled “The Great Beethoven Fallacy” which is about a false Internet rumor about Beethoven’s family and why by today’s standards he would have been aborted (OMG! A false Internet rumor! It must be the only one!), he wraps up the chapter with one final topic regarding absolutism/fundamentalism. The last section is titled “How ‘moderation’ in faith fosters fanaticism”. I had hoped that the section might give some good guidance as to ways more moderate religions unwittingly endorse fanaticism. As someone who’d prefer to not see my religious name pulled down in the mud by fundamentalists it would be valuable for me to know how to prevent that association from happening and additionally prevent myself from encouraging any fundamentalist activities. Instead the section was mostly about Muslim extremists and how fellow Muslims aren’t doing anything to stop it. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t claim to have a defense for Muslims.

Overall the chapter was a failed attempt to show how extremists/fundamentalists are really par for the course in religion. He fails entirely to make his point. As a Catholic, I can say with confidence we are not fundamentalists and we never endorse violence. To give Dawkins some credit, he has occasionally specifically pointed our how some charge he is going to make (for example the inconsistency of the death penalty/abortion) doesn’t apply to Catholics. Nevertheless, despite making these occasional concessions, he never seems to appreciate the consequence of those concessions. It means that not all religious are fundamentalists. If fundamentalists were all he had a problem with, I’d concede the point. But it’s not. He takes his points that come from extremist and fundamentalist examples and applies it to all religions and all religious people.

I will give Dawkins this. While philosophically against Christian fundamentalists, I’ve perhaps not frequently enough condemned their falsehoods. I’m a naturally confrontational person and so a strive to force myself to limit my confrontations. Unlike the Muslim situation where actual violence results from insufficient condemnation, it didn’t seem as necessary to condemn those who take a fundamentalist view of the Bible, particularly in a public setting. However, if Dawkins and others are going to try and put that millstone around my neck, I think it’s important that all Catholics be stronger about distancing themselves from that sort of viewpoint.

On to Chapter 9…

TGD – Proper understanding of the Bible

Friday, June 4th, 2010

I’ve been trying to decide how to further rebut the views of Dawkins regarding the Bible. Taking a reference by reference approach is madness. It only takes one sentence to say something outlandish and it can take many pages to properly rebut it. But at the same time, something needs to be said.

What I decided what to give a big picture view of how to read and understand the Bible. Please understand that I’m no theologian (by the way, as a quick aside, Dawkins repeated references to all theologians treating the Bible as if it’s all symbolic is as garbage as the rest of his analysis of scripture) so forgive any oversimplifications I’m sure to make. My hope is to give a “big picture” view, which, as all such attempts do, will overlook some of the nuances.

The first key thing to note about the Bible is that is not “a book” it’s two collections of books, both collections containing dozens of books. It should be read not as one cohesive book but as the writings of numerous people all of whom share in common the inspiration of God in their writing. At a minimum this means we need to be looking for different writing styles. Some of them are writing as a historian, some are writing more like story-tellers where the specific facts are not as important the storyline (which in no way compromises the historicity of the events) and uses more metaphorical language amongst the historical facts. Some are writing poetry, some are writing prose. Some are writing laws, some are writing words of encouragement. Some are writing warnings, some are writing good tidings. If one doesn’t understand the intent of each author, one risks massively missing the point.

The second key is that the Bible as a collection is a story of the journey of God’s people. It shows our failings and our successes. It shows our joys and our mourning. It shows our strengths and our weaknesses. In no way should one ever assume that because a holy person did it in scripture that God desired it and the actions were just. If anything it’s quite the opposite. The Bible is a story of a people who want to be close to God but fail at every step. And at every step, God forgives and asks us to get back up and earnestly try again. There are times there are consequences for our actions and sometimes God’s mercy is greater than at others.

Through the Bible we learn of God’s master plan to bring knowledge of Him to everyone in the world. He starts with just a few and then grows it into a larger group and eventually brings that message to the whole world through Christ. By the very nature of the plan, God’s treatment of people changes over time. His rules for the Jewish people were different than they are for us today. At first He treats us like children but over time He continues to let us grow in our understanding of Him, and consequently the rules we’re bound by, over the course of salvation history.

The final key is to make sure you put individual passages, chapters and books in the appropriate context of the whole work. The book of Ecclesiastes, which without the context of the rest of scripture would seem to suggest that our time on earth is a horrible, purposeless, useless and terrifying prospect, has quite a different meaning when it’s put in the context of scripture as a whole. One needs to ask oneself how to rectify seemingly contradictory statements (instead of just throwing up ones hands and saying “gotcha!”). Trust me, Dawkins explanation that effectively nobody has read scripture and if they did they’d reject it, is just stupid. Tons of theologians, clergy and lay people have read all of scripture and are fully aware of all these “gotchas”. But still they believe. Why? Because they understood it in the proper context. Ecclesiates becomes a book about how God is where we should put our trust, not the physical world around us. It’s trying to show just how meaningless our lives are if all we focus on is this short life. “Men come and go, but earth abides,” as it says. The meta-point is to put your emphasis somewhere else; put your trust in God.

For what it is worth, there’s plenty a fundamentalist who makes the mistake Dawkins makes. He latches on to certain scripture passages and fails to see the big picture. He reads “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not by works, lest any man should boast.” and concludes that a follower of Christ is not obligated to do anything but believe. No works are necessary. It completely ignores the context of the rest of scripture including quotes like “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels: And then will he render to every man according to his works.” While the mistake comes from a person of faith instead of an atheist, the fundamental mistake is the same.

The Dawkins solution to the above conundrum is to say “Gotcha!” and the fundamentalist solution is to pick and chose their favorite passages, but the proper response is to understand the larger context that while faith is of critical importance, it’s meaningless to have faith if we don’t act on it.

My final rebuttal to Dawkins is to make it clear just how little of the Bible he’s picking on. When one talks to those who attack the Bible, they find that the same few examples get brought up over and over and then they ignore all the rest. It’s like the pounding of the drum about Galilleo. Even though there’s much to rebut about the claims of the scientific atheist, the bigger question is “Is that all you’ve got? Over 2000 years of the Church ‘running the world’, all you have is one guy from nearly 400 years ago?” So while Dawkins is picking on 3 or 4 stories, he’s completely ignoring page after page that condemns rape and murder and all the things he claims the Bible supports based on these few stories. Taken in context it’s obvious that the point of those stories is not what Dawkins claims they are. Stated more fully, the rest of scripture helps us to understand those stories because we know by the rest of scripture that the these things are wrong. If Abraham murdering his son would be wrong based on scripture, we’re left trying to understand why God asked it of Abraham and we find the answer in it being a test.

The Bible is the word of God and our morality of today can very easily be sourced back to the principles laid out in the Bible. While our understanding of the principles in scripture have matured as time has gone on, it’s all there. In fact, so much of what has changed over the centuries is BECAUSE of spending more time getting to understand scripture and what God has told us. The ideals of equality are a perfect example of that. The failure’s of God’s people are not because it’s not clearly laid out, it’s because, as is the case with so much of salvation history, we’re slow to get the message no matter how clearly God tells us.

Don’t fall for Dawkins deception.

TGD – Chapter 7

Monday, May 31st, 2010

As much as I have disagreed with Dawkins conclusions up until Chapter 7, I’ve found most of it to be a reasonable read. He’s been working through reasonable points, addressing relevant rebuttals, making at least some of the necessary concessions. All in all I’ve been impressed, particularly chapters 3-6.

But in Chapter 7 Dawkins loses all of his built up credibility and goes off the deep end.

For a man who’s clearly as intelligent as he is, he’s remarkably blinded by his rage against religion and how it compromises his intellect and his integrity. While he was discussing topics about advancing atheistic thoughts, as was the majority case for chapters 3-6, he was rational and reasonable. But in Chapter 7 he returns to picking on the religious and frankly falls into a rage filled tirade that is neither rational nor reasonable.

He starts off the chapter with two sections on scripture, one on the old testament and one on the new testament. These two sections are either the results of massive ignorance on his part or a purposeful desire to be deceptive. Frankly, either scenario is a discredit to him. Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse when one is writing a book on the subject.

His point is that no one actually follows the moral lessons of the bible because it teaches lessons that everyone from the religious to the atheist finds abhorrent. He then cherry picks passages, both taking them massively out of context and making entirely the opposite conclusion on the lesson to be learned from those passages. At first I had intended to rebut all of them but he chose to use a shotgun approach and the work to rebut all of them is more than I care to invest. Instead I’ll pick on just one: Abraham and Isaac.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the value of obedience, even when it seems abhorrent to do so. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his cherished and only son to see how loyal Abraham is to God. When Abraham makes it clear that he’ll follow through on the command, God tells him to stop and tells Abraham it was a test that he passed.

But the key point as far as discrediting Dawkins is that sacrificing a son is fully understood to be an abhorrent thing in the scripture. I would go so far to say that this act was chosen for the story specifically BECAUSE it was abhorrent. So while Dawkins is off claiming the Bible says it’s OK to sacrifice one’s son, that exact story shows how the Bible says nothing of the sort. In fact, it reinforces the opposite.

The whole section is full of these kinds of deceptions that to the scripturally uneducated may sound plausible when they are in fact utter deceptive refuge. From confusing stating what happened with moral approval of the events to purposely misstating the point of the lessons, Dawkins shows himself to be amazingly in error. To show an example from the new testament:

Dawkins suggests that Christianity is anti-family based on the passage that states, “If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and siters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Now ask yourself, is Christianity anti-family? Of course not. Just by a casual observation of Christianity it’s clear that it is very pro-family. Instead of Dawkins being willing to admit that this is not the case and asking a Christian what to make of a passage like this (of which the point is that love for God must be above everything, not that we aren’t to love our families), he just continues on a rage infested tirade of deceptiveness.

I plead of all who don’t know scripture well to not take ANYTHING Dawkins says about scripture, particularly in this chapter as representative of what Jews and Christians make of scripture. Instead ask one of us who know. Feel free to leave a question in the comment box if need be, but whatever you do, don’t take his HIGHLY biased view of scripture as at all reflective of what scripture actually says. What he says is just garbage. He’s both completely wrong about what scripture says and then mistakenly assumes that means we don’t follow the bible (since it in his opinion says things it clearly doesn’t).

Don’t take his bait. Ask someone who knows.

Moving on, the third section of the chapter is titled “Love Thy Neighbor” and it starts off with a few more ridiculous scriptural examples that I think shows that Dawkins just couldn’t stop when he wrapped up his sections on the topic. But then he calms down a bit and gets to some more interesting points.

He starts off talking about religion being a divisive force but then makes a few concessions about a fair number of religious conflicts really not being about religion but about politics. He sites the example of the long lasting conflicts in Ireland. It’s an important concession, although based on future statements in the chapter I don’t think he fully absorbs the point himself.

What he goes on to say is that religion allows us to label one another and that’s one significant problem with it. He talks about how religious schools do that in particular and points to this. He admits that labeling would probably happen anyway, but still sees it as problematic. Then he goes on to talk about pressure to marry within the religion and how this furthers it.

There is some truth to his point about labels, but as he said, we’d just find different labels (and in fact we do as one can see how the “red state vs. blue state” thing works out in the US). Nevertheless, I wanted to spend a second and suggest why it is still a wise thing for people to marry within their faith. Marriage requires two people who are on the same page about so many things. Interfaith marriages, and to be clear, I mean truly interfaith, where both people believe and live by different religious convictions and not just too people who are more secular than religious but happen to come from different religious backgrounds, are without a doubt some of the most stressed marriages. I would always suggest to someone of faith that they marry within their faith, not because I’m trying to win some identity and loyalty war, but because I want people to enter into marriages where neither of them are put in a position where they must violate either their religious tenets or the vows of their marriage, which is what a true interfaith marriage will almost always require.

Having built up this crumbling foundation of “the religious don’t even follow the bible”, he continues on to his next section, titled “The Moral Zeitgeist”. His point is that morality, since based on the foundation he laid he can safely show it doesn’t come from religion, comes from society’s general consensus of the era. His proof of this is two-fold: First, that atheists share a common set of beliefs about what is moral (basically a re-statement of what he said in the previous chapter (and my rebuttal)). Second how morality has changed over time.

He talks about how things have changed. How we’ve gone from a world with slavery to a world where women can vote and are treated as equals. He spends a fair amount of time showing examples of this, but since we all agree that things have changed, I feel no need to elaborate on those examples. He is of course right that there have been many changes, but his conclusions are wrong. Despite his futile claims in the chapter that voices of the religious like Martin Luther King were no more important than “non-religious” voices like Jackie Robinson, he’s entirely wrong. Both the slavery freedom movement and the black equality movement in the 50’s and 60’s were faith driven movements and history bears this out. The woman’s right movement is a bit more nebulous, but their appeals to equality derive entirely from the Christian ideal of equality of everyone “slave or free, jew or gentile, man or woman.”

He wraps up the chapter with a section titled “What About Hitler and Stalin? Weren’t they Atheists?” and it’s a defense of the charges I made in my Chapter 6 review of the evils done by atheists, particularly in the 20th century.

His defense is that one has to not only determine whether they were atheists but also whether they were motivated by their atheism, which is true enough (in fact I wish were more willing to make the same analysis/conclusion in regards to supposedly religious evils). But oddly, he then goes on to admit that Stalin was both an atheist and also motivated by his hatred for religion, so I’m not quite sure why the above premise helps his cause.

He spends far more time on Hitler and toys with the idea that Hitler was really Catholic and pulls out some collaborating quotes. Then he backs away from it, knowing the absurdity of it. He’s used this technique a number of times now, where he suggests an idea, puts out some quotes to justify it and then backs away from it saying something like “nobody knows for sure” or “I’m not saying this was necessarily the case” and it’s as tiring as it is wasteful of his reader’s time. How about not advancing a point you’re freely going to admit can’t be justified later?

But I think it points to a bigger issue, Dawkins ability to use quotes to be deceptive. When he can drag out quotes that seem to support an idea that even he won’t support, that sound as convincing as they do, shouldn’t that make you question all the rest of his quotes?

The key point to make however is that Hitler was most definitely motivated by a popular scientific motive of the era: Eugenics. No matter how much Dawkins can try and wiggle around it and toy with the idea that Hitler was Catholic, the fact is that his largest horror was motivated by the idea of racial purity, an entirely scientific ideal of the early 20th century that was a corrupt out-growth of Darwinistic thought, that entities like the Catholic Church condemned from the get-go. I encourage anyone who wants to know more about Hitler, eugenics, WWII and the Catholic Church read “Hitler, the War, and the Pope” by Ronald J. Rychlak. It’s meticulously footnoted, backing up all of his footnotes (quite unlike TGD, by the way) and very informative. After reading it you’ll have a much better understanding of the relationship of Hilter and the Catholic Church and you’ll realize how much Dawkins is “toying” with an utterly absurd idea.

I fear for what Chapter 8 will be like as it is titled “What’s So Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile?” There’s no doubt he is hostile. I just hope his explanation isn’t as ignorant and deceptive as Chapter 7.

TGD – Chapter 6

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Chapter 5 is titled “The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?” and is about whether or not morality is affected by a belief in God.

He starts out with a long tirade with quotes of all the Christians who’ve sent him and other atheists hate mail. He does this in a feeble attempt to show we’re all hypocrites, but again, it falls under the same category of problem so much of his writing has: finding a few idiots does not mean we’re all that way. I’ve seen just, if not more, viscous language in atheists attacks on Christians on various websites, particularly in the comment sections of Christian blogs (BTW, I’m thankful no one has resorted to that here, although perhaps the size of my readership (hi mom!) has something to do with that). Surely Dawkins wouldn’t suggest those idiots represent him?

After that off topic ramble, he settles down and gets to the point of how morality could be a result of natural selection. He makes some compelling points how certain aspects of morality can result in higher reproduction and survival rates and therefore can be easily explained by natural selection. He spends a fair amount of time on symbiotic species and how they both benefit from each other and applies that theory to humans.

From there he continues on to case studies about morality where simple scenarios are posed to people and they’re asked what is the more moral choice. The simple one is that we have a train roaring down the track and it’s going to kill 5 people who are stuck on it, but a person can change the switch so the train goes to a different track and only kill one person. The question, obviously, is universally answered that it’s OK if not imperative that the switch is made. But complications are added to the question where pushing someone in front of the train could save the five, and again the answer is uniformly the same that it’s not OK to do that. He then adds in a few other variants with the same conclusion. He never really closes the door on the point, but he appears to be saying that the fact that the answer is universally the same suggests natural selection.

But is that necessarily true? Maybe it’s true because God has placed that sense of right or wrong in us and he does no matter whether we believe in Him or not. Going further, Dawkins never explains from a Darwinist perspective it makes sense that we all universally agree that it’s not appropriate to throw one person in front of the train to save five. Surely that will work out better for our survival as a species, yes?

From there he goes on to discuss why people would be good if there was no God. I completely agree with him that atheists can and want to be good people although his method for proving this seem odd to me. He talks about a police strike where mayhem broke loose and that there was no indication that atheists did worse than religions. He additionally makes the stressed conclusion that because Republican states tend to be Christian and they show no better signs of lower crime rates (amongst other things ignoring the difference between morals and crime). It appears he says all this to back up his earlier conclusions that morality comes from natural selection.

Although he does touch on it for a short moment, he otherwise seems to miss the bigger point that it is the definition of what is moral that religion has the inside scoop on. Particularly his crime=immoral assumptions show his lack of understanding here. If society has made prostitution legal, does that make it moral? The same for slavery or bigotry or any number of other things that are legal in certain places (or have been). What religion does is give us a higher moral calling than solely the survival and improvement of the species. Natural selection gives us no “why” for morality and thus we’re left blowing in the wind trying to “reverse engineer” it from what is best for the survival and improvement of the species, a task littered with problems.

Which brings me to the final point I wish to address. At a number of points throughout the chapter he returns to his pot-shots of the evils done in the name of religion. There’s no doubt that there are a number of examples for him to pick from, but at this time my point is that the opposite point can be made as well. Eugenics was an ENTIRELY scientist generated evil. I use this one in particular because he admits it to be an evil. But there are others from scientific experimentation on people, which science has promoted in the past, to more modern issues like euthanasia that are currently being promoted despite their clear immorality.

Religion in no way has a monopoly on evil. In fact it’s quite the contrary. The greatest evils of the 19th and 20th century were done by atheists, including the slaughter of millions in numerous atheistic regimes. Most complaints against religious that rise to the level of wholesale slaughter have to go back at least 300 years and in many cases are far more dubious claims than the examples of late.

It bears repeating: Religion in no way has a monopoly on evil. In fact it’s quite to the contrary.

On to Chapter 7…

Blog colors – why green?

Friday, May 28th, 2010

For those who are relatively new to the site, you may have noticed the color changes in the last week from a white and gold colored theme to a green colored theme. For the astute Catholic reader it probably is somewhat obvious what the reason is, but I thought I’d elaborate for my non-Catholic readers.

The colors reflect the seasonal colors of the Church. In fact, if you had logged in last Sunday you would have seen that the colors were red for Pentecost. So you’ll see purple colors or red or white or green (like now) and even a couple days of pink and one day of black. They all follow the colors of what we call the liturgical year. In the upper right hand corner of the page you can see what day of the liturgical year it is today and based on that you can come to understand why the page is whatever color it is that day.

You can read more about the liturgical year here.

TGD – Chapter 5

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Chapter 5 is titled “The Roots of Religion”. In all honesty I was expecting it to be a bunch of accusations of ancient liars and why they chose to deceive all of mankind. In fact, that was not at all what it was about.

Instead Dawkins sets out to answer a very important question. He readily admits that the prevalence of religion creates a hurdle that the Darwinian atheist must overcome. Because religion is prevalent, it is incumbent on them to come up with a plausible natural selection reason why religion is so ubiquitous.

He freely admits that the argument that religion can be “selection neutral” won’t suffice because religion takes so much time and effort that for the time alone there must be some offsetting factor.

He starts out with a few half hearted examples of direct advantages of religion. He mentions some study results that suggest religion helps with stress and reduces stress related death. He also mentions the placebo affect, that being told the God may heal you could help from a placebo effect perspective. But in the end you can tell these are half hearted and Dawkins doesn’t want to admit there are any direct advantages to religion. That wouldn’t help his cause.

Instead he focuses on two other theories.

The first is the idea of “group selection” which is a derivative of natural selection. If a group of people can instill characteristics in their people that helps that group survive whereas other groups wither away, those characteristics will survive. He mentions things like loyalty and being willing to die to protect the group, something that doesn’t help the individual but would help the group as being possible examples. But again, he doesn’t put too much weight in this theory either. Even this sort of a concession seems to trouble Dawkins.

Instead he moves on to the theory he puts the most weight in, that genetic characteristics can be tied together. He didn’t use this example, but one would be if red hair and high sperm counts were genetically tied, red hair people would be genetically superior even though there was no specific natural selection advantage to their red hair.

After a long explanation using moths that I thought could have been far more succinct (like my red hair example) he goes on to the hypothesis he backs which is that obedience is tied to religion and that obedience is a good trait for survival. He specifically mentions how obedience to one’s parents is a good thing (why do I suspect that he’ll be coming back to the parental obedience thing since he’s already played out the “we’re slaves to the religion of our parents” meme in earlier chapters?)

But again, he freely admits that he has no evidence of genetic linking of religion to obedience nor any scientific evidence that obedience, particularly to one’s parents, is a natural selection benefit. He also admits that he doesn’t feel compelled to actually know the specific answer of the genetic advantage whether it be direct, group, or associative. Merely the possibility that there is an answer is sufficient.

And I think that’s the thing that I find most strange, despite admiring his honesty. He’s spent a whole bunch of time criticizing what the religious person believes on faith, but then is seemingly oblivious to how many areas he has “faith” that an answer exists out there somewhere and he freely admits that he doesn’t have proof of it or even know what it is yet.

He seems to have this trend of wrapping of the chapter with some sort of an aside, ones I think Dawkins believes elaborates on his point. In this one he brings up the example of “Cargo Cults” which according to Dawkins are a group of small religions groups in the South Pacific who are very recent in time. His point seems threefold. One, that they’re idiots because they took the arrival of westerners as signs of an arriving diety. Two, that these religious groups have morphed their beliefs really quickly and any historicity of their claims of only 50 years ago are dubious. Three, that independently these groups have seemed to come up with similar themes to their religion.

Of course the fact that one religious group has done stupid things is no more proof of the existence or non existence of God nor the wisdom of any other religion than the fact that there have been a plethora of scientists who have advanced theories that have turned out turned out to be incorrect proves that God doesn’t exist. Nevertheless he somehow sees this as a significant data point for some reason beyond my grasp.

On to Chapter 6…

TGD – Chapter 4

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Chapter 4 is the first chapter where Dawkins changes his tactic from attacking religion to defending atheism, although one can’t exactly blame him for that considering the title of the book. It’s pretty obvious what the book is going to focus on.

The chapter is titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”, although I think that’s a bit of an overstatement. It would be more properly titled “A Perfectly Reasonable Alternative To God”. I say this because the theory he lays out is not one that excludes the possibility of God but merely shows that it’s possible that we exist without God.

He lays his groundwork in his first two sections of the chapter titled “The Ultimate Boeing 747″ and “Natural Selection as a consciousness-raiser”. The point is to say the atheist must have a solution to the problem of how complexity comes from simplicity without the help of a designer. He goes on to show how Darwin’s work gave us a pathway for that. Natural selection shows us how biological life can transition from simplicity to complexity without a designer. He spends quite a bit of time explaining the significance of this breakthrough.

He’s very much right that it does show us an example of how it’s possible that God doesn’t exist, but natural selection could be aided by a super-natural being, couldn’t it? At a minimum, natural selection requires that random mutations of genes create diversity. Isn’t it at least a possibility that the randomness is not so random as it would seem? This says nothing of God interfering with the process of who is able to continue their lives to the point where they successfully reproduce.

I bring this up because one of the mistakes of the scientist is to assume a natural process is without divine interference without exception. Which is fine as far as defining natural processes go. But finding that natural process that works seemingly without exception does not mean that God could not interfere with it nor that He hasn’t interfered with it in the past. Point being, finding a natural process for how something works does not prove that God could not interfere with it.

The third section is a bit longer. It’s titled “Irreducible complexity” and it’s about refuting specific examples sited by some as examples where natural selection wouldn’t work. (I’m assuming the reader understands the concept of “irreducible complexity” which basically means that there’s no way for natural selection to get from step A to step B.) But he spends most of the section picking on articles in the Watchtower magazine or pamphlets.

Watchtower is put out by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and is about as credible a source as most campaign literature about the opponent. The fact that Dawkins uses this as a valid point to rebut is laughable and seriously undermines his credibility. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a very small minority group, are roundly criticized for their wacky beliefs and shoddy logic by almost all Christian groups (it’s one of those rare things that almost all Protestants from Evangelicals to Episcopals, Catholics and Orthodox call all agree on. Flatly stated, you don’t use them as representative of anything but JW’s beliefs.

Which leads to Dawkins next section titled “The worship of gaps” where he tries to change the battlefield. He realizes that theists have turned the table on him with irreducible complexity. When it’s just “God vs. Science” (and please don’t forget that I flatly reject that premise; I’m stating it as Dawkins, not my own) Science has a bit of an upper hand because they get to poke 1,000 holes in God and every one blunted by theists does nothing to stop the other pokes. Irreducible complexity creates the opposite scenario where the theist can try to poke 1,000’s of holes and the scientist has to try and stop or plug everyone one of them.

So Dawkins attempts to change the playing field by stating that going for these gaps is a “fundamentally unscientific way to proceed”. He delves deeper into the ideas he brought up in the consciousness-raiser section that what natural selection does is not just show a solution to one example of complexity from simplicity, but also that it shows it’s possible for that to happen and therefore, even thought we may not know the method for other areas today, it is possible that we’ll find an answer for the simplicity to complexity problem sometime later.

While I agree with him that it does raise the possibility, possibility does not equate to proven, which is the leap he seems to make.

This is where I will further agree with him: He brings up examples of people who purposely make themselves ignorant because the “gaps” to allow for room for God. He’s right that there are people who are afraid what science may discover and it’ll close the gaps and squeeze out God. For those people, they purposely want ignorance and they fear science. He’s right that many of those people exist and he’s right that purposeful ignorance is never the right way to live, nor for the scientist to make progress.

But here’s where he’s got it wrong: Those people are not all religious people, they are a subset. There’s TONS of religious people who want to discover. Those people are interested in investigating what’s in the gaps as much as anyone, unlike those who’d like to leave the gaps alone and call that God. As I showed with biological natural selection, it’s both very possible that it’s the way things work and that it’s guided by God.

The chapter finishes out, minus one final section, with a couple sections that go beyond Dawkins area of scientific expertise to talk about what might be options for the equivalent of natural selection outside of biology. I want to give Dawkins a lot of credit for these two sections because he’s very fair in stating that these are just hypotheses and is quite clear in stating that there are no firm answers in these areas. He freely admits scientists don’t yet understand. It takes a noble man to admit the areas he doesn’t have an answer.

His point is that he doesn’t need one, at least not yet. The whole point of the buildup about the gaps and natural selection was that the gaps shouldn’t trouble the atheist, we know that it’s possible and that’s all we need to know. To admit that there are gaps is not to admit that there is a God. Dawkins is right about this. So while he throws out a couple ideas for the “Six Numbers”, something I didn’t know anything about until I read this chapter, he’s quite upfront that they’re just ideas.

But going back to a point I made in my earlier rebukes of whether science will ever answer to whether God exists, the trouble I have with the whole premise is that he’s asking everyone to suspend their belief in God for all eternity while infinite resources and infinite time are spent “filling the gaps”. Just the possibility that the gaps may all be filled some day is enough for him to declare “there is almost certainly no God.” And that’s what I most take exception to. Ignoring all of the evidence provided by miracles and the such, it’s possible that God doesn’t exist and a purely natural explanation will be found for everything. It’s also possible there’s certain areas where no answer can be found for how complexity came from simplicity. Why should his predisposition be given the benefit of the doubt?

Effectively the best answer he can give is that the religious attitude encourages us to worship the gaps and thus encourages ignorance. Ignoring that the number of religious who are inquisitive and desire answers makes his assertion patently and observably not true, it’s also no justification for why we should be predisposed to his viewpoint any more than statistics that show religious people are more charitable are scientific proof that God exists.

The final section is titled “An interlude at Cambridge” which is appropriately titled because one wonders why he puts it here or what point he’s trying to make other than pat himself on the back or defend his appearance at the conference (which he spends fully half the section on) which appears to have been organized by people who were biased towards faith. Since I know nothing of the conference, I didn’t get much from the section.

Overall, this was one of Dawkins most cohesive and rational chapters. He sets out to make a number of points and for the most part makes them, minus some overstating of the conclusions. From reading it I get the feeling that Dawkins would be far more convincing sticking to positive arguments for atheism than his rage-filled rants against believers that has been filled with stereotypes, bigotry and half-truths. Sadly, based on the table of contents we’re back to attacking faith in Chapter 5.

TGD – Dawkins scriptural claims

Monday, May 10th, 2010

As I mentioned in my Chapter 3 review, Dawkins spends one section tearing down the Bible and using half-truths and outright lies to do so. I waffled on whether to break it down because it’s a lot of work for something that anyone with even a smidgen of Biblical knowledge will realize is garbage. But because there are so many who don’t know and the section might seem compelling to them, I decided to do a rebuttal of all of his points:

1. “The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal.”

If by “historical evidence” he means “texts other than the Bible” then he’d have the following case: “A guy named Jesus lived about 2000 years ago and was executed by the Romans for riling up Jews in Palestine. Why he was executed is a bit unclear but it likely had something to do with Messianic claims.” That information would come from historians like Josephus who were merely documenting history. Add in what the Gospels say, which everyone should realize that while it might not carry divine status, it does carry at least some historical status, and it’s hard to make the argument that Jesus didn’t make any divine claims. But even without scripture, the evidence is far more compelling that Christ did make those claims than not.

2. “[The gospels]…All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.”

Most scholars agree the gospels were written between 30 and 60 years after Christ’s death (i.e. from 60 AD to 90 AD). It’s unclear if Dawkins is suggesting that “long after the death of Jesus” is 30-60 years. If so, I don’t see what’s so troublesome about that. Is he arguing that a World War 2 veteran who wrote about the battles he participated in, or in the case of Mark or Luke, a historian who interviewed WWII veterans and wrote about it, in the 70’s through the turn of the century would not be considered credible? If he’s saying the Gospels were written at some other time, he’s really going out on a limb, historically.

As for the Epistles, I’m not sure what that has to do with it. I’m sure John Kerry wrote many a political letter to his fellow politicians that referenced Vietnam that didn’t mention each and every detail of his time during the War. It’s one thing to write letters with specific points in mind, which is what Paul was doing when writing to various budding Christian communities, it’s an entirely different thing to write a memoir or a history. In fact, Luke specifically starts of his Gospel stating that the point was to bring together what had been written or communicated in many different forms (i.e. like the Epistles) into one history for “easy reference”. He begins his Gospel this way:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. (Luke 1:1-4)

3. “When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus’ death, nobody knew where he was born.”

What a ridiculous claim. Christ’s own mother was still alive, by most accounts, when the first Gospels were written. To suggest that no one had ever talked to her, much less the dozens of other relatives who would have known, is ridiculous.

4. “Johns’ gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem.”

After this quote, Dawkins quotes John 7:41-42, which says that some were unconvinced that Jesus was the Messiah because he was from Galilee. This is the first instance in this section of an error Dawkins makes repeatedly when referencing scripture when is to confuse a quote in scripture with the positive consent of the author. John is telling us what some people thought. No where in there does John indicate that what those people thought was accurate. More likely, John knew, having written his Gospel after the others, that the other Gospels had clearly established that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem, and so it would obvious to the reader that these people were wrong about Jesus. It was likely so obvious to him that this was the case he didn’t even feel the need to rebut the claims of these people.

5. “Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus.”

This is the same error as with the previous item. Matthew is entirely silent about where Mary and Joseph were from. After giving Christ’s genealogy, Matthew simply states, “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” and continues on with the story of how Mary conceived without having sex. There’s no mention of location. There’s no mention of moves or lack thereof. Nothing. So at best all Dawkins could say is “well, since there’s no mention, I’m going to assume they were there the whole time.” And it’s not a horrible assumption. Without any other evidence it would make sense. But it is an assumption and when other texts give us other ideas, it’s reasonable to suggest that it’s a false assumption.

In fact, going further, Matthew NEVER says the place is Bethlehem. All that is said is that Herod tells the Magi to look for the baby in Bethlehem. Then the Magi set out and a star leads them to the baby. For all we know, taking this text without any context of the rest of what scripture had to say, the star took them away from Bethlehem and the Magi found the baby in Galilee.

Obviously that’s just a stupid interpretation, but it’s exemplary of what happens if you try to read a text in a vacuum.

6. “Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ and therefore he had to go to ‘the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’. … David, if he existed, lived nearly 1000 years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier?”

For such a brilliant scientist, you’d think Dawkins logical skills would be stronger. Did he even consider the possibility that Joseph lived in Bethlehem as a child himself, that being of that family, he was raised there but then left the area later in life? Nowhere in scripture does it suggest that it had been 1000 years since Joseph’s descendants had lived there. If anything, it suggests the opposite, that the descendants of David lived in Bethlehem right up until the time of Christ. That Joseph personally lived in Bethlehem would make sense.

7. “There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the empire as a whole – but it happened too late; in AD 6, long after Herod’s death.”

Which would logically indicate that it was likely some other census that was being referenced to. One that was broader than a local one.

8. “Robert Gillhooly shows how all the essential features of the Jesus legend, including the star in the east, the virgin birth, the veneration of the baby by kings, the miracles, the execution, the resurrection and the ascension are borrowed – every last one of them – from other religions already in existence in the Mediterranean and Near East region.”

The key word here is “borrowed”. That’s Dawkins’ (and perhaps Gilhooly’s) assumption and means of deriding an event that he doesn’t like. I mean, just what is the line of reasoning here? Group A predicts something, group B later claims it happened, therefore, group B is lying? Or is it group A claims something happened, group B later claims a similar thing happened, therefore, group B is lying? Those logical chains just don’t make any sense so all he can do is say they were “borrowed” without any evidence that this is the case.

9. “Matthew traces Joseph’s descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations? Worse, there is almost no overlap in the names on the two lists!”

Which of course logically suggests that there was more than one genealogy that would trace back to David, something not too uncommon in relatively isolated communities. Or is the devastating claim that the number of generations is different? Doesn’t Dawkins have any cousins who are enough younger or older than he so as to be more close in age to his parents or his children? I know I do. One family can easily have 5 generations in 100 years and others can have as little as 3.

10. “The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalen.”

It’s the “more or less arbitrarily” that is Dawkins error in this instance. In fact, Dawkins shortly thereafter gives a pretty reasonable explanation of why at at least Thomas was excluded: it make claims that the Church couldn’t support about ferries and the such. It’s as if Dawkins has never been involved in the peer review process that scientists go through to get their works published. How do they determine if a work gets published? They read the work and then check that work against what is known and how defensible the claims are. Those that aren’t justifiable don’t get published. The same is true of the Gospels. The ones that seem to have sourced themselves well and are credible were kept as canonical. Those that weren’t, didn’t get approval. What again is wrong with that? If anything it shows that the Church was critical in nature and wasn’t going to fall for any ridiculous claim that someone made.

11. “Most of what the four canonical gospels share a derived from a common source, either Mark’s gospel or a lost work of which mark is the earliest extant descendant.”

I’ll ignore the fact that Dawkins is basically ignoring John’s gospel which is wholly different than the other 3 in how it is organized and what it focuses on. But again, what exactly is Dawkins claiming? That all three are restating what had been written before? Obviously what he’s trying to claim (as can be seen from the next item) is that they’re just blindly copying someone else s work and they have no idea what they’re talking about. But it’s just a stupid notion that because they all reference the same events in Christ’s life, perhaps using someone else’s work as a staring point for their own personal testimony, that it means they’re just copying what they have no knowledge of.

12. “Nobody knows who the four evangelists were, but they almost certainly never met Jesus personally.”

Of all of his claims this is the most ridiculous. John and Matthew were apostles. They lived with Jesus during his public ministry and were PERSONAL witnesses to the resurrection. Luke and Mark were both followers of Paul and are mentioned in Paul’s Epistles multiple times. While it is accurate that they never met Jesus personally, through Paul, who himself only knew Christ after his ascension, they would have most likely met most of the apostles who did personally know Jesus.

Perhaps Dawkins is trying to claim that everything is scripture is bunk and we can’t even trust the names on the books (“Matthew didn’t really write Matthew”) but that would again put him WAY outside the scholarly mainstream that he claims to respect so much. While there are passages and sections that scholars debate whether they personally come from the claimed author, generally it is believed that even those questionable passages came from close followers who rounded out those sections after the disciples death.

13. “It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never existed at all.”

I included this one as proof of just how much Dawkins is willing to deviate from scholarly accepted information when it suits him. Sure the vast majority of credible scholars suggest that Jesus indeed lived, but why let that stop Dawkins from throwing in a jab of what he’d prefer to be the case with the small caveat to give him some critical breathing room when questioned (“well I did say it wasn’t widely supported”).

14. “Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history.”

Again, more complete hogwash. As long as by “reputable” Dawkins limits that to mean “the ones I find reputable”, I guess it could be accurate. Nevertheless, there is much evidence to suggest that much of what is said in the Gospels is accurate and a fair number of confirming external documents for a number of scriptural claims. Additionally, there are very few external documents that contradict scripture, although there are some for a number of minor details. The vast majority of biblical scholars will tell you as much that the Gospels appear to reflect real events that happened in Palestine between about 6 BC and 35 AD (or thereabouts). Whether the divine claims are true is a religious question, but the basic histories are accurate.

And so ends Dawkins scriptural blunder-filled section…

It’s worth noting to conclude this post that I included just about every scriptural claim that Dawkins makes in the section. It’s not that he made 50 claims and I picked the 14 that were errant. Sadly, on the contrary just about EVERY one of his claims are at best ignorant or at worst purposely misleading.