Monday, February 23, 2009

Freethought Quote for the Day

"I opposed organized religion in the same sense that I oppose the wheelchair industry. Not because I want to see cripples on the side of the road, but because I want all human beings walk on their own two feet."

~ Anonymous

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Two Problems with Biblical Literalism

Fred Clark who writes the slactivist blog, complains about Biblical literalists. Clark is an admitted Christian, but there are two problems he has with people who believe in Young-Earth Creationism:

The first is that it is not just false, but demonstrably false, and is thus often the place where the collapse begins for soon-to-be-former Christians raised to believe in the fundamentalist house of cards. . . If every item isn't true -- or isn't blindly accepted as true -- then they insist that it all must be false. Thus if it is not true that the world was created in six, 24-hour days about 6,800 years ago, then it is not true that Jesus loves you. Or that you should love others as Jesus has loved you. Or that your sins are forgiven. Or that you are anything but alone and godforsaken when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Clark describes a particular kind of fundamentalist who eventually learns that the neatly compartmentalized tight beliefs that he grew up with are not even close to being truth. Then the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction, Clark complains:

They become as strident and binary in their unbelief as their failed mentors at Bob Jones were in their belief. Yet even their rebellion tends to remain shaped by that world and its narrowly imagined options.

I personally didn't go through this "anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist" stage he describes, or if I did it lasted about ten minutes. Those that I know that no longer are biblical literalists aren't this angry, cynical creature Clark speaks of, either.

But I do recognize this character from popular movies and television. For example, Character is a person of deep faith. Character undergoes personal crisis. Character rejects his faith and seethes at God, himself, and anyone else who believes in God. Inevitably, if the story goes on long enough, Character softens (often thanks to the kindness of another) and begins to believe again, but with a more mature, less strident faith, and all is well with the world.

Clark says his scenario is not hypothetical and is not rare. It's not my experience, however.

His second complaint against Biblical literalists seems to be that they don't seek the poetic metaphors behind, say, the first eleven chapters of Genesis but instead treat it as a neutral history text:

The accounts of creation seemed, for them, to have nothing to say about divine intent or divine affection, but only about divine technique. The story of Noah seemed to be nothing more than a complicated word problem involving the measuring of livestock capacity in cubits. The story of Adam giving names to all the animals seemed, to them, to be a reason not to learn about biodiversity. And I probably don't need to tell you how they seemed to regard that bit about the Tree of Knowledge.

Of course, one could simply argue: That's because that's what they were raised to believe. Biblical literalism is, to me, an invevitablity of dogmatic faith, a method to assert, "My god can beat up your god." If I'm going to, say, explain the substitutionary death of Jesus using the Bible, it helps my case to refer to the Bible passage as an accurate account, just as it would help me demonstrate that Lincoln was the U.S. President during the Civil War by referring to newspaper reports. But if only some passages of my Bible are accepted as literal, then the inevitable question becomes, "Which ones?" We could argue back and forth about which passages are literal and which are metaphorical forever. The only way I can end the argument is by declaring the entire book to be a literal account, thus leaving my opponent no wiggle-room.

Of course, once I've made that claim, then I'm forced to defend that the Earth was covered in a world-wide flood, donkeys can talk, and a man walked on water. If scientific evidence disputes me, then I either reject the science or invoke a miracle to cover myself.

I've no doubt that Clark is frustrated by this behavior--most rational thinking adults are, whether they believe in God or not. What I don't understand is why he doesn't understand where it came from.

For them, the creation accounts* and the story of Noah in the early chapters of Genesis have nothing to say about the inherent goodness of creation or about the obligation of stewardship. For them these chapters exist solely as some kind of divine amicus brief in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District -- as polemic arguments, that is, in a 20th-century American political dispute that has little to do with either science or theology.

Despite my difficulty in understanding how exiling Adam and Eve for seeking knowledge or committing watery genocide are examples of God's "inherent goodness," Clark doesn't seem to see the trap he's laying for himself. If Noah's Ark is a cosmic metaphor--meaning it didn't really happen, everybody knows that!--then perhaps that means the crucifixion of Jesus didn't really happen either. Everybody knows that people don't rise from the dead! Maybe there isn't even a God, either--there certainly isn't much evidence, is there? If the reported miracles of God are reduced to poetic story-telling, then we can no longer claim that God exists because of the existence of miracles, can we?

He demonstrates this point in a footnote when he complains that certain cynics look at the two different accounts of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2 and declare them a discrepancy. He compares this to Robert Burns describing love like both a rose and a melody--is that a discrepancy? Okay then, when the authors of Genesis wrote two accounts of the beginning of the world, they were only speaking poetically. Fine. This puts the Biblical account of our beginnings into the same category as just one more ancient creation myth. No problem. And the accounts of Moses and Joshua are just more ancient hero tales with no more or less relevance than stories about Hercules or Jason and the Argonauts. And Jesus is just one more demi-god resurrection myth who can no more answer my prayers than Dionysus or Superman.

I can live with that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Monkeys have a sense of morality

Researchers have uncovered evidence that monkeys and apes have a primitive sense of morality, namely, they can "make judgments about fairness, offer altruistic help and empathise when a fellow animal is ill or in difficulties. They even appear to have consciences and the ability to remember obligations."

This is similar to the research performed on dogs recently that uncovered the same results. When certain species have been trained to expect a reward for a particular action, they become less likely to perform the action when the reward is not offered or if another member receives a better reward.

The conclusion suggests that morality evolves from species with a strong social network, like dogs and primates (humans included), rather than a supernatural source. That is, unless God is deeply concerned about the behavior of gibbons and terriers and is trying to mold them to become children of God like he is reportedly doing with humans.

Furthermore, research like this closes the wide gap that some people have put in place between humans and other animals. Some people are offended by the idea that we are naked apes, or that apes are our close cousins. For one thing, it undercuts the notion of a literal Genesis reading that we are specially made by God for a particular purpose and destiny. It also is contrary to the command that humans are to have dominion over all other species--which is often interpreted to mean that we can exploit animals with no concern for their welfare. But if apes are our primate cousins, then it is just as immoral to exploit them as it would be to exploit our human cousins.

As the article explains, the notion that apes can tell right from wrong dates back to Charles Darwin, who suggested that when sexual reproduction forces animals to develop codes of behavior. Others have suggested that climate change or population pressure forces early humans to migrate to hostile, unknown areas, forcing them to enter into cooperative agreements when hunting or sharing food. Obviously if an alpha male violates the agreement by hoarding food for himself, then the entire community can suffer, which would lead them to enforce standards of behavior that all must follow for everyone's benefit.

I disagree with the article's conclusion:

Other studies have confirmed that the strength of a person's conscience depends partly on their genes. Several researchers have shown, for example, that the children of habitual criminals will often become criminals too - even when they have had no contact with their biological parents.

In my view, criminal behavior is too prone to influence from environmental factors to make this sort of suggestion.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bone Structure and Intelligent Design

I recently saw a video that brought up an interesting point.

Pneumatic bones, or bones that are hollow, are light but not very strong. On the flip side, solid bones are stronger, but much heavier. All birds have hollow bones, which only makes sense because they need a light frame to enable them to fly. However, their bodies are fragile and can't take much punishment. It's a logical trade-off.

Mammals, on the other hand, need stronger bones to hold up their weight against the surface, to run from or after other animals. Again, it only makes sense that mammals that don't need to fly should have heavy, dense bones.

However, there are a handful of exceptions in the animal kingdom. Ostriches, for example, never spend a minute of their lives in flight, and yet they have hollow bones, and in fact suffer from a higher incidence of bone fractures than other land animals of the same size and weight. Likewise, bats spend an inordinate amount of time in the air, and yet they have the added weight of solid bones like their land-based mammalian cousins.

So it seems that someone decided that if you are a bird, then you get hollow bones, whether you need them or not, and if you are a mammal, then you get solid bones, whether they help you or not. Why would that be the case?

The theory of evolution has an answer, and it's remarkably simple. Ostriches descended from birds of flight and thus inherited their hollow bones, to their disadvantage. Also, bats descended from mammals, and thus received solid bones and their extra weight.

Now it seems to me that if I were in charge of designing the animal kingdom, I wouldn't parcel out bone structure based on whether you were a bird or a mammal. I would divvy up hollow bones to flying creatures and solid bones to land-based creatures, regardless of their class.

Essentially, this is William Paley's watch argument in reverse: If you are tromping through a dense woods, and you come upon an ostrich corpse lying on the ground next to a bat corpse, what can you infer? Looking at the feathers, wings, and hollow bones of the ostrich, you might conclude that it is a flying bird. And looking at the hair, teats, and solid bones of the bat, you might conclude that it is a land-based mammal. And you would be dead wrong on both counts.

Yes, we could argue that our mythical Intelligent Designer must have had a good reason to create these two creatures with these handicaps--it's not a suboptimal design if you designed them that way on purpose. But it seems very strange to me that the Intelligent Designer would intentionally design something to appear as if it wasn't intelligently designed.

Monday, February 9, 2009

FreeThought Quote for the Day - February 9, 2009

"What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating that you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge. . . . If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God."

--Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Henry Holt, 2005), pp. 154-155.