10 Questions for Atheists

Over at http://bittersweetend.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/the-atheist-challenge/ thebiblereader has asked 10 questions for atheists to answer.

Rather than me repeat the questions here, it is probably best you go there to read them. I will post my responses as a reply to his blog as well as in this post. There are already a lot of responses there.

 

1)      That’s not true. No god does not mean no measurement for morality. Morality is consistent with evolution because as a group of individuals develop rules will have to develop increase the changes of the groups survival. Watch groups of animals in the wild and this becomes clear, it is not the anarchy those who believe this would have us believe. There is currently a lot of study in this area and some very interesting experiments and result are coming out of it.

2)      Again, this is also not true. Meaning is not placed on us from an external being based on whether or not we believe in him. Meaning is a much more personal thing and is a reasonable result in a species that has developed self-awareness.

3)      If New Atheism means the active opposition to religion on the understanding that it causes more harm than good and that accommodation of the religious is for the weak. Then no, I do not subscribe to that and nor do I support eugenics. I accept that there could be an extreme end of the spectrum that sees eugenics as not only acceptable but good. Just because that extreme might exist does not mean that atheism is rotten. Much the same as religious extremism does not in and of itself disprove religion.

4)      Transitional fossils exist and are documented. DNA evidence is however far more convincing and has enabled more accurate maps of how species have diverged and evolved. Gaps in the fossil record exist because not every species will leave fossils. For all the millions of animals that have existed, a tiny minority have survived to fossil form. DNA explains the relationships far better anyway.

5)      Yes. Even as a Christian the concept of Human Nature was never a problem for me. It is Human Nature to seek a greater purpose, for a long time that purpose was encapsulated in God. That doesn’t make him real.

6)      I won’t pretend to understand the beginning of the universe and how it came about. I consider it disingenuous for the religious who also don’t understand it to try and discredit it based on that simplistic misunderstanding. My challenge in response is that it is better to learn about something in order to better understand it, than it is to mock it out of fear for what it might do to our beliefs.

7)      Straw man alert! Atheists are not automatically immoral or self-destructing, this is an untruth believed by believers. I’ve been there before so I understand the mentality. Picking those countries as examples of a godless society are as helpful as picking Afghanistan and Iran as examples of a Godly Society. Picking an objectionable extreme to prove a point is never a good idea.

8)      I would image I would enter an initial state of panic. After that, I really don’t know. It is not something I worry about becoming true.

9)      Having already made the move from Christianity, having considered it right for many years. I would need absolute and undeniable proof. It would have to be a physical manifestation of God that could not be explained in any other way and it would have to happen more than once. Given some of the things I have already attributed to god in my Christian years, this proof would need to be something special.

10)   Basically, I was once a YEC and a better understanding of science made me realise how wrong I had been all those years. I tried to reconcile my Christianity with my new found acceptance of evolution but I failed. I now think that it is far more reasonable to say there is no god because that is what the evidence indicates.

 

 

On Women in the Church

This isn’t a post I expected to write just yet, but recent events have meant it’ll soon become a source of much conversation.

But first some history

I am old enough to remember when the Church of England voted to allow the ordination of women, about 20 years ago. There was a lot of media attention on the matter and at the time I was never convinced by the arguments against the ordination of women. As a young Christian man, my opinion was that the spiritual qualities of a minister and their abilities to lead a congregation in a biblical were far more important than their gender.

At the time I worked in a computer shop and one of our regular customers was a vicar. A few days after the vote to allow women to be ordained he brought his computer in and he’d set up his Windows to have the most ghastly colour scheme you could ever imagine. Pretty much everything was a different colour and they were all bright and clashed horridly. When a comment was made, his response was that he had attended the vote and during the pre vote debate, so much was said that he considered unpleasant that when he got home he was in a such an emotional state it was the only way he could distract himself long enough to wind down to sleep. He was involved in the organisation of the Women’s World Day of Prayer, so I don’t think it’s difficult to guess which side of the argument he was on.

The Sunday after the vote, the leadership of the Church of England church I attended stated that they considered that the Church had lost something of its essence as a result of the positive vote. I never really understood what was meant by the comment and I never felt confident enough to ask. I was a little surprised though because the church did seem to support women in leadership. There was at least one female Lay Reader and women did preach on occasion as well. There was certainly nothing obvious about the language and the leadership of the church that indicated opposition to women in leadership.

After we got married, my wife and I were briefly involved in a church plant that this same church was involved in. The team put together was mostly women and the church actively supported the church plant and the members of the team.

When we relocated, we started attending a Baptist Church. One active church member, who we worked with in the youth ministry, was anti women in leadership. She was anti to the point where she would not attend a service when a woman was preaching. This included the occasions my wife would preach.

How do you support and work with a person on a close level and yet, due to their gender, don’t consider them worthy of your ear when they preach? The contradiction led to a couple of unhelpful conversations but, again, the reasons for the non-support of the female preacher never made any sense to me.

And so to now

Now we’re heading for the first anniversary of our latest move, gosh how the time flies! We’re at another Baptist church and we’re friends with the minister and his wife, and a handful of others too.

The church has its challenges, it has a far more conservative congregation, mainly due to its older demographic. The church forbids the women to preach, it’s in the constitution. The current minister does not support this rule, but he can’t change it without the support of the majority of the congregation. So my wife will not be preaching at this church any time soon, though she has already started leading worship on occasion and organised a worship group; two things that appear to be appreciated.

So why bring this subject up now?

Well, at the weekend one of the less old members of the congregation approached my wife and asked if they could meet up at some point to have a conversation because he suspected that they didn’t agree on women in leadership and he wanted to have an honest discussion before there was a chance of a misunderstanding.

I’m disappointed that this gentleman is closer to my own age than the traditional older members of the congregation, but I do admire his desire to head off a confrontation and hope that the result will be positive. However, I don’t really see either changing their minds so the result can really only be a return to the uncomfortable friendship previously described at our former church.

This makes me sad, but there is not a lot I can do about it, my wife is a big girl and she doesn’t need me to protect her from this sort of situation, however it is something she could do without. I guess we’ll have to see what transpires and deal with it from there.

Final thoughts

There is a paradox about not allowing women to lead and preach that has always bothered me. Churches (and people) that don’t support women behind the pulpit seem happy with women leading the children’s groups. If what the woman has to say is so unbiblical then why the hell allow her to talk to impressionable children but not to adults who can apparently think for themselves? If a woman is not worthy of expounding the gospel to adults then why the hell is she teaching the children?

I don’t get it.

What Does Being Unequally Yoked Actually Mean?

Over the weekend my wife and I had a brief discussion about the meaning of being unequally yoked. The conversation came about because she had been reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where in Chapter 2 he explicitly states “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.” (NIV)

The unambiguous message in the text is that it is not a valid excuse to leave your spouse just because they leave the faith. Yet, as I read about on the subject, it is clear that there are many marriages where one spouse leaving the faith while the other does not often creates a situation where divorce is inevitable. I think that is sad and it leaves me with the conclusion that my wife and I are in the minority.

What’s this got to do with Yoking?

Well, later on in Corinthians is another unambiguous instruction “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?  What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?” (NIV)

The first sentence is clear; do not be yoked with unbelievers. Here is that same sentence in other versions:

  • Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. (NLT)
  • Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers (KJV)
  • Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers (ASV)
  • Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (ESV)

I think the word ‘unequally’ dramatically changes the meaning of that sentence. Without it, the instruction is clear, don’t mix with the heathen; with it, is the implication that it is possible for a Christian to be equally yoked with an unbeliever. (I’ll skip over the question of whether unbeliever means atheist or just not a Christian but feel free to comment on that part if you wish to.)

‘Unequally’ has a bearing on the sentences that follow. One meaning implies that all unbelievers are wicked and nasty; the other that it is only the wicked and nasty unbelievers that should be avoided; unbelievers that are not wicked and nasty are okay. For me, it’s the latter that makes more sense because how on earth would it be possible to evangelise if Christians can’t mix with unbelievers? However, the insinuation that all non-believers are wicked and nasty is deeply unhelpful; even if it is not a correct interpretation, there are many Christians who believe it and there are many Churches where that message is preached.

It is highly unfortunate that a single word can make such a difference to this sentence and that it is missing in some modern translations. It is precisely this sort of thing that creates difficulty for the biblical literalist.

I had always been of the impression that the being yoked means marriage, but the context of this instruction does not implicitly state marriage and so I now think it means more than just marriage. More than that, I think it reads more appropriately as referring to a business type relationship. This item at Grace Central (http://www.gracecentered.com/unequally_yoked.htm) seems to agree, though it is not a completely thorough analysis. I do find the explanation of the original Greek very interesting, especially as it does seem to support my current position on the matter.

While there certainly does seem to be guidance towards avoiding marriage with a non-Christian, I think it’s a major stretch to assume that a marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian comes under the banner of being unequally yoked.

So What does it Actually Mean?

Well it doesn’t mean have no association with non-Christians whatsoever, despite the unfortunate language in some versions.

My thoughts are that it advises against close or dependent partnerships (not specifically or necessarily marriage) with those who would take advantage of you or have vastly different motives. This would seem to be good advice for anyone regardless of the religiosity of either partner.

Confusing Teens with De-evolving snakes

Recently we have hosted the Teen group from our church for their weekly bible study on a Sunday evening. I don’t sit in on it, though my wife has chosen to do so to assist the youth leaders.

After the most recent one my wife informed me that one of the Teens had asked a question linking evolution to the Fall in the Garden of Eden. The basic premise was that evidence showed that snakes evolved from a legged animal, this is visible when you examine the skeleton. Its more obvious on some species than others.

The understanding was that snakes had de-evolved (devolved?) and this was part of the cruse put on snakes in the Garden of Eden.

The first major flaw here is that there is no thing as de-evolved. Species evolve from one to another in a constant meandering sequence of generations. Losing limbs is not de-evolving or evolution in reverse, or whatever spin anyone wishes to put on it. A species will evolve to fill a niche and if you have a glut of lizard type animals and no snakes, its pretty likely that a snake will evolve from at least one of the lizard groups. There are circumstances where a snake has an advantage over a lizard.

I can’t recall where the Teen got the information from but I think it was from a Christian source. Well it would have to be to draw the Serpent in Eden link.

My wife didn’t offer an explanation, but I gave her the one above anyway and asked if she’d considered brining me in to answer that question. She didn’t because it was apparently a side comment in a bigger discussion and the subject didn’t stay on the snake for longer than it took to make the comment and acknowledge it. I asked if I should have a conversation with the Teen in question in case there was an issue with evolution. Again, this was seen as not really required.

My wife has very little interest in discussion evolution and certainly not to the depth that I like to. This is not because she disagrees with it, on the contrary, she has always accepted it without question. She just doesn’t have the same (obsessive?) interest that I do. That’s fine.

I do have a concern about the Teen in question though. Are they like the Teen me who struggles to balance evolution with faith and so is teetering on the brink of Creationism? Or are they like my Teen pre-wife, okay with the concept of evolution and will nod at discussions like this but never really take it any further?

I hope it’s the latter because my Creationist experiences do make me concerned that comments like this will confuse Teens and they could eventually default to a position of biblical authority over science. Knowing there are active Creationists in the church only adds to that concern.

I just hope I am wrong.

Zebra Stripes

Earlier this year the BBC reported on a study that some scientists did regarding Zebra stripes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/16944753).

The experiment is fascinating and a great example of how to do good science.

Scientists are not sure exactly why the Zebra got its stripes. Although, from reading other commentary on the subject, it does seem to be more a case of other related animals lost their stripes because the common ancestor was apparently striped.

That aside, the Zebra stands out as being striped while all those around it are not. The standard idea is its camouflage related; in the tall grass of the African plain the striped zebra is harder to see in the tall grass and long shadows. Certainly I can testify to the effectiveness of this when, many years ago, I went on safari with a video camera stuck to my face and a B&W screen in the viewfinder. However, with the benefit of colour vision, the black and white zebra can be quite easy to see when all around is green or brown.

When you consider that most other hoofed herbivores on the savannah are some form of beige, its easy to see why they are that colour because it makes them very hard to spot. So the Zebra stands out as being different.

Aha! The creationist would say, proof that God created the world as it is. This is certainly the view that I would once of taken.

Well, the study referenced above took a different tack and tested the effect of the stripes on flies. Out in the African bush, where Zebras live alongside many forms of deer and antelope, flies are a major problem and it seems the study shows clearly that the Zebra stripes are an effective disincentive to the flies.

This would certainly be an advantage to the Zebras. Especially when you consider that when you see Zebras in the wild they are very rarely on their own. By that I mean, you don’t just see a heard of Zebra. You tend to see a large heard of another prey animal, typically one similarly sized to the Zebra, alongside the Zebras. Its as though the conspicuous Zebra if using the greater numbers of another species to give it some form of predator protection and the stripes serve to ward discourage flies so that they bother the host herd animals more than the Zebra itself.

Now, I am of course speculating there, but that’s how science is done. You speculate, devise a test and see how right or wrong you are. No doubt more study will be done on this and its certainly unclear how the fly repellent features of the stripes would be strong enough to be a positive selective criteria.

Maybe there is another source to the stripes and the fly bit is merely a coincidental benefit which is now proving to be a great advantage.

Either way, the study shows an example of great science and I for one hope that more study will be done and published in the coming years.

And on a personal note, this is the kind of science that I love to read about.

Oh Science, Why do you Change so much?

One of the barriers I had when it came to evaluating the claims of science with those of creationism was the issue of the changeability of scientific claims.

Creationism offered a reliable, solid and unchanging account of how the world began and is now. God made it the way it is and our inability to understand or explain certain things was a failing of science and proof of God’s created world.

For me, reading about new discoveries and how they would change the way scientists thought about some things was evidence that scientists couldn’t make up their minds and that science was a lost cause with little ability to properly explain. Couldn’t they just read the bible and see how constant everything is and how it was all created as it should be and as it is now?

Science changing in response to new knowledge or understanding was seen as a bad thing thing.

It took a very long time for me to appreciate that a change in understanding does not automatically mean that everything beforehand was wrong. A change in understanding or a new discovery does not invalidate what has gone before, it typically clarifies. A complete overturning of previous ideas is not especially common, and it gets rarer as more is known and understood.

Learning is not linear

For reasons I can’t fully explain, my expectation of scientific knowledge was that new discoveries should confirm what we already know (a created world) and that as scientific knowledge expands, so does the validation of that. The concept of science uncovering the unexpected and leading to tangential discoveries was alien and only served to illustrate to me that science was deceivable.

Failure is always an option

I was wrong of course, but realising that took an awfully long time and was a very gradual process. Scientists of course love to be proved wrong on a theory because being wrong is still a positive scientific result and means that the premise that was used for that test can be scratched off and something new tried. This is the point of the scientific method, test something, multiple times and if your expectation is wrong then you know more work is required to get the right answer. This is not a failure of science, quite the opposite in fact. It’s a validation that science does not care what you think, it merely acts according to the rules of the universe. The object of scientific testing is to find out those rules.

This is how we know that the planets orbit the sun and how to get spacecraft to the moon. It is how we know about fluid dynamics and a whole host of other things. The process of scientific testing could also be referred to as trial and error; test stuff and respond to the results, make a prediction and see if the test confirms or contradicts.

It’s the only way to learn and to assume that we already know the right answer without that imperial proof is arrogant.

Creationists are still making the same mistakes.

I read a small number of creationist blogs and every now and then I see a post that falls into the same traps as detailed above. I recognise the thinking there and I understand why they are thinking the way they do. I was there once and I get it.

I also understand why they are wrong.

I have on occasion made a comment to try and point them in the correct direction. The reply is usually predictable, because I have been there before as well, I know the standard responses.

I have tried to use this knowledge and my experience of having been there to add a considered and accurate correcting response. I know a single comments will never change the creationist mind, but hopefully my comment will help to sow the seeds of truth and eventually it will be counted as a contributing factor.

Sometimes my attempt at helpfulness has been responded too as if I was being argumentative, that’s a shame because that has never been my position. I know how that feels and it never works out well, (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/when-friends-are-unkind/).

Unloved by Christian Friends

My wife has an old friend (not the same friend talked about here: https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/how-we-lost-a-great-friend/). They lost touch many years ago but recently have re-established contact and both are looking forward to seeing each other again and catching up.

They have been friends for many years, long before my wife and I met. As these sorts of old friendships often go, they both got married, moved away, had a family, moved again and as life changes and evolves sometimes these old friendships suffer and fail to last. This is one such friendship.

Hidden in all those years, my wife’s friend has had to battle illness and depression. One of the casualties of that low period is that her marriage failed and she is now in a relationship with her counsellor. I don’t know all the details and its certainly not appropriate for me to speculate or even divulge more on the personal cost here.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, my wife and her old friend are back in touch and looking forward to spending a few hours with each other this week while the limey family are on holiday in the area.

Over the weekend, while discussing this week’s plans, my wife divulged that said friend and made a comment on Facebook about the support she had recently from friends over her very recent ill health and that it had revealed who her true friends were and how she’d been abandoned by her Christian ones.

My wife confessed to a tinge of guilt and wondered if she was one of the guilty Christians. So it was with great trepidation that she suggested a catch up this week and to much relief the response was warm.

The story of this friend goes beyond ill health and failed marriages. She and my wife were both committed Christians at the height of their friendship. Now her life has led her away from Christianity and her status as a Christian is in doubt.

Hearing about abandonment by Christians in this sort of scenario always makes me sad. This story especially struck a chord with me because I’ve read in the last month a couple of critical Atheist blog posts pointing fingers at Christians for using prayer as an excuse for doing nothing. The accusation being that Christians meet for prayer, feel good about it and then actually do nothing practical about the situation. While I am sure there are some who do this, I think it’s very unkind to tar all Christians with that brush, so reading those blog posts actually made me feel defensive about Christianity.

Then, off the back of those feelings my wife tells me about her old friend who feels abandoned by her Christian friends.

The story makes me feel sad and leaves me in a quandary. I know that there are many Christians who care greatly for those around them and go to great lengths to be supportive of those around me; often at personal cost. My wife is one of them. I won’t list all the stories of her saintliness; you’ll just have to believe me. I also know there are atheists who care so little for others they scoff at the idea of ‘holding them in their thoughts’; the non-believers equivalent of prayer.

So, is the recent comment by my wife’s old friend fair? What about the atheists pointing an accusing finger at those who pray but do nothing? I think they are both guilty of a bit of confirmation bias, that is, they have reached a conclusion and then highlighted the evidence that supports it.

That said, I can’t help but wonder if the proportion of Christians who do actually act to help others in practical ways is any different from the proportion of non-Christians. Is it unreasonable to expect there to be more Christians going out of their way to help those they know in need? If the effects of the Holy Spirit are real, would there be a greater number of Christians being supportive? I think these are reasonable questions and I think that it’s also reasonable to conclude that if Christian claims of God are true then an effect of that would be a measurable disparity between Christians and non-Christians who give practical help.

I wonder if such a study exists.