Tuesday, September 21, 2010

End-Times Paradoxes and Loopholes

Fred Clark, author of the Slacktivist blog, has another well-written post regarding the paradox of End-Times believers.  In his effort to blog through the Tribulation Force novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Clark explores the themes and logical conclusions of the popular religious authors' works.  This time he touches on a topic that's all too familiar from my early life as a "Pre-Trib."

According to Christian Fundamentalist canon, the end of the world will be marked by two key events--The Rapture, when believers will be air-lifted to begin their heavenly change of residence, and the Tribulation, seven years of misery and suffering for the poor non-Christians left behind, the period when the Anti-Christ unites the world under One World Government.  At the end of the seven years of War, Famine, Plague, and Death (the four horsemen of the Apocalypse) comes Armageddon, when God's army wipes out the United Earth Army, and the planet is swept clean of any nasty, sinful humans.

All of those points are vaguely hinted, discussed, and flirted with in the Bible, but not in any clear-cut fashion, such that Christians have argued over the details for generations.  If you believe the Rapture occurs before the Tribulation, then you are Pre-Trib, as I was raised to believe.  If you believe the Rapture occurs after the Tribulation but before Armageddon, then you are a Post-Trib.  Then there's Mid-Trib, where saints are raptured at the Tribulation's mid-point. Some believe the Rapture of the Saints will occur throughout the Tribulation as Christians enter into whatever is the proper mind state to qualify to be airlifted away from the seven years of hellacious conditions on Earth.  Christians of different persuasion bash each other on the head with their favorite Bible verses supporting their position all the time--arguments that I myself used to happily engage in--and the lack of consensus causes others to call themselves Pan-Tribs, meaning they'll take whatever pans out.

LaHaye's stance in the Tribulation Force novels is a modified Pre-Trib--namely, the Rapture occurs, but the Tribulation doesn't officially start until after Israel signs a peace treaty with the Anti-Christ.  That leaves an indeterminate period of weeks or months, a post-rapture limbo in which God and the Four Horsemen are patiently waiting until certain humans do certain things. 

And as Clark notes, the idea that Israel will sign a peace treaty that leaves them in a weaker position are practically nil, as the Middle East peace process over the last several decades has shown.  In the novels, Israel does exactly that, but the plot point of the Tribulation with all the death and disease and stuff requires people in the novel to do and say things that people in the real world never would. 

Not only does that make these bad novels, as Clark has amply demonstrated over the last many months as he blogs his way through the books, but it also points out a giant real-world conundrum--LaHaye's real-world organizations have been pouring millions of dollars for decades to make this paradox happen.  In an effort to "Support Israel" conservative organizations such as Concerned Women for America have been working to ensure that Israel never signs any peace treaty.  Israel has to remain strong and united and independent so that Armageddon can have a flash point--in which Israel gets destroyed for not accepting Jesus as their Messiah.

Growing up, I was always fascinated with End-Times studies in the same manner that people are interested in disaster movies--it's fun to watch the destruction of the familiar while secure in the knowledge that none of the pain and suffering will actually happen to you.  One key principle that was hammered into us over and over was "Watch."  Be ready for the Rapture, because it will come at a time when you least expect it.  But here's another paradox--the more we study the End Times prophecies, the more we will be prepared for it.  Hal Lindsey's best-selling books spelled out all the details (as he interpreted them from the Bible) warning us of Communism and the Mark of the Beast and the dangers of the One World Government.  Thus, the more Christians are forewarned about the coming events, the less likely those events will come about.  As Clark writes:
The Left Behind series offers a depiction of what the authors insist is a guaranteed prediction. But for that prediction to come to pass as depicted -- for their prophecies to come true -- the vast majority of people in the post-Rapture world would have to be ignorant of what they're predicting. The popularity of the books thus suggests that those prediction won't and can't come true.

And yet another paradox:
Premillennial pessimism and fatalism are ascendant in American evangelicalism. This is a view that, explicitly, teaches that heroism is for suckers and any attempt to change the world is futile. And yet these premillennial believers are more politically active than previous generations of evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The only explanation I can offer for this is that their convoluted theology confuses them even more than it confuses me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cooking and human evolution

I recently enjoyed Point of Inquiry's podcast, hosted by Chris Mooney, who interviewed Richard Wrangham, Harvard anthropologist, discussing his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The subject was fascinating and worth taking a closer look.

Wrangham holds that learning to cook revolutionized hominid evolution. Currently a chimp's diet consist of fruits and leaves, but they are far tougher and less nutritious than the grocery store counterparts we humans eat. As a result, chimps spend six to eight hours a day just chewing their food, compared to less than an hour a day for humans. Cooking food, however, makes tough food softer and easier to digest, letting early hominids extract more calories from what they ate, thus paving the way to more complex brain development. Plus hominids can spend less time eating and more time doing more productive activities, leading to better communication, tool-making, and exploration. Very interesting stuff.

Another aspect that surprised me was Wrangham's belief that learning to cook may have been the precursor of human marriage. As we know, lifelong monogamy is very rare in the animal kingdom and almost unheard of within primates. So how did humans pick up the habit of picking one partner and sticking with him or her? The theory goes: cooking requires patience but also leaves one vulnerable; after all, if you spend an hour sitting in front of a fire waiting for your food to be cooked, then it's easier for a stronger fellow to swipe your food. So women may have entered into a bargain with men--the men use their superior strength to hunt and gather food and they bring it back to the woman who will tend the fire and cook dinner. The man gets more nutritious food in exchange for protecting the woman while she's cooking. They both win, and would naturally want to continue the exchange over time, since they need to eat every day.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why Choose Creationism?

The Secular Web Kiosk has a new article by Jon Jermey titled "Why Choose Creationism?" Jermey argues that Creationism is a symptom of a dying Christianity in the Western World. As church attendance in Christian churches decline, as more moderate Christians go on about their lives taking little thought for how their religion ought to impact their lives, then some have clung to Creationism as a last dying gasp for what Jermey calls "a belief badge."

A belief badge, according to Jermey, is like a Masonic handshake, a way of identifying others in an in-group, is easy to adopt with no strenuous effort required, and can be determined quickly to identify allies or enemies. Simply ask someone, "Do you believe God created the universe?" If the answer is yes, then the other person is a creationist, end of discussion. How the person answers the question has no bearing whatsoever on how he performs at his job or deals with his family. It offers no input to whether he pays his taxes or how much he gives to charity. It simply is an easy marker to identify if someone belongs to the right crowd.

Therefore, Jermey argues, secularists and scientists who have no truck with Creationism ought to ignore it completely, as whether a person espouses creationist ideals is irrelevant to the world at large.

I find myself sympathizing with Jermey's argument to a degree. When I was a die-hard creationist, I recall as a teenager reading a Batman comic book in which an evolutionary principle was casually mentioned off-hand. It was accepted as a given, a well-known fact, the way even most Christians accept heliocentrism with no threat to their faith, unlike Christians of several hundred years ago. When the Batman comic book told its story with the evolution principle behind the scenes, I recall being deeply disturbed. A frontal attack against creationism by an evolution advocate I could handle, as that was a large part of what I studied in my high school science class--why evolution is contrary to the Bible. But when rousing good stories were told with evolution latent, assumed in the background, I began to wonder--what does everyone else seem to know that I don't?

Which brings up the reason that I can't wholeheartedly agree with Jermey's call to ignore Creationism as some harmless badge belief--the impact on education. The Discovery Institute's Wedge Document clearly reveals that it is trying an end-run around the well-established scientific process by avoiding all the messy peer-reviewed research and field testing for Creationism, and just inject their beliefs directly into the science education classes. The stated notion is that if we ground kids in creationism and god belief, they'll be more open to Christianity--or a more committed version of the religion--at a later time. They'll grow up more moral, as the theory goes, and America will become a Christian nation through and through. Creationists assume that this will be far superior to what they see today, in which teachers don't lead kids in Christian prayers and laws that espouse Christian principles such as those denying homosexuals freedoms or those allowing abortions are struck down as unconstitutional.

That's why I don't feel that Creationism is a harmless belief to help Christians identify each other in secret prayer meetings. When Texas School Board members--most of whom have no experience in education--work to throw out reliable science and history textbooks because they are contrary to their cherished biblical beliefs, this affects the children of Texas and other states who purchase the same textbooks. Injecting Creationism into the classroom puts American children at a disadvantage to other more secular countries who hammer the facts into their kids from the beginning. When generations of American children enter the workforce knowing nothing about evolution other than it's all wrong, they will find themselves at a comparative disadvantage to the rest of the world. I would be hard pressed to argue that the United States must be the greatest country in all things, but I can't justify intentionally hobbling children in the name of a religious belief with little to no basis in reality.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Nice work if you can get it.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, one in five Australian children suffer from some kind of mental illness such as anxiety, depression, or eating disorders.  Naturally this affects societal health such that these kids suffer from higher rates of school absenteeism and drug abuse.

The Australian government, led by the avowed atheist Julia Gillard, has stepped up with increased funding to combat these issues.  The taxpayer bill stands at $437 million.  And how will this one-third increase help these kids succeed in school and life?  Will they provide trained counselors in schools to provide assistance for kids going through abuse or neglect?

No, the money will go to chaplains.
School chaplains come from organisations such as Scripture Union, which sees them as a means by which they can fulfil their organisational aim of making "God's Good News known to children [and] young people" so "they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ ... and become both committed church members".
Of course, this being publicly-funded education, the government knows that can't let these chaplains roam the halls passing out Bibles and tracts, leading kids in group hymns, or inviting the students back to their offices for a little one-on-one laying on of hands in prayer. "We know these chaplains aren't mental health experts," the government is saying, "so there are restrictions on exactly what they can do." For example:
  • Chaplains can't counsel students
  • They can't provide educational services
  • Nor can they provide medical services
  • And of course they can't proselytize.
So what are the chaplains, each pulling down an extra $20,000 for their trouble, supposed to do, exactly? No one really knows apparently, including the chaplains themselves:
As a report on the program reveals, many chaplains are unclear about their role. A majority admit they do deal with student mental health and depression issues, alcohol and drug use, physical/emotional abuse and neglect, and suicide and self-harming behaviours. What most don't do is refer to appropriate professionals when out of their depth.
So where can I sign up to sit in an office, listen quietly to kids complain about their lives, not say anything back to them, and not refer the ones that truly need help to competent professionals? I could get used to that sort of work.