Sunday, March 16, 2014

About-Facebook

So I got "unfriended" today on Facebook. It was kind of an odd experience. I think what was particularly odd about it was that it was in the middle of a political discussion, and the person who unfriended me is someone that I find myself frequently in agreement with regarding political matters.

The place where we most certainly do not agree is in the area of religion. As I'm sure just about anyone knows, I'm a Christian. My former Facebook friend (FFF) is an agnostic, and a pretty hard-core one. Even though it was a political discussion going on with no perceptible religious undertones, my FFF took a moment to imply that my religion was a big part of the problem.

I'm having a hard time relating the story without simply copying and pasting the discussion here, but I think it's an important story nonetheless, because it largely defines the kind of person I am on a broader scale than just calling me a politically liberal Christian. See, my FFF implied that those people involved in the conversation that weren't liberals simply weren't worth the time having a political discussion with, and I disagreed. So he said he just had to unfriend me because he'd had enough of the "bullshit" that my religion was bringing on me.

I'm thinking that, given the context, he wasn't just talking about religion. Not really. After all, I'm even less of a preachy person outside of my blogging. I think the thing he had a problem with is the fact that so many of my Christian friends are (as Christians tend to be) very conservative. Yeah, he essentially said that he hates religion, but knowing him, (and I've known him IRL for over 20 years) I think the thing that really bothers him about Christianity is that so many Christians are conservative. If we all agreed with his political views and just happened to also believe in God, I'm sure he'd find Christians much more palatable. (Heck, he's put up with me just fine, so that's something, right?)

I know it's difficult to put up with people whose views you don't agree with, but this is where I know I also depart from his view, and this is the thing that, as I said, defines me as a person. I feel that shutting people out of my life because I disagree with them is just going to make the quality of my life (and maybe theirs) poorer. Just because I'm a Christian, I'm not going to forsake all my pagan, atheist, and agnostic friends. Just because I'm a Democrat doesn't mean I'm going to hate my Republican and Libertarian friends. Just because I love America doesn't mean I'm going to ignore anyone who lives outside of this country. I just believe that there's a fullness of life that you get from interacting with people whose viewpoints have the potential of broadening your own. If you only expend your time on people who have the same views as you, how will you ever learn anything new?

I guess I accept that my FFF may simply be dealing with anger issues (he also hinted at that) and just felt it was something he had to do for his sanity, but still, isn't there an easier way to deal with such things than cutting off your friends?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Bill Nye - Ken Ham debate

I don't know if I need to explain this as it seemed to be a pretty big media event, but Tuesday there was a creationism/evolution debate between Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") and Ken Ham (CEO of "Answers in Genesis"). As far as such debates usually go, this was a good one, and I felt that since it was a topic I like to cover on my blog from time to time, I'd give a sort of after-commentary here outlining what I think each debater did well as well as what they did poorly.

Interestingly, Bill Nye did extraordinarily well, considering that he is not a biologist, nor does he seem to know much of anything about the Bible. It seems to me that for debates like this, the evolution side would best be served by a debater who really knows their biology. I don't think that ended up being as big of a handicap for Nye as his lack of knowledge about the Bible in the end, as he made some arguments against the Bible that any reasonably-informed Christian could sweep aside as misinformation.

But I wanted to start with Ken Ham, both because he was the one who won the coin toss to speak first, and because I was far more impressed with his arguments than I think I ever have been with a creationist. As I think I've said before many times, creationists seem to often have a near-complete lack of knowledge of what evolution really means or how it works. Ham, however, seems to have a good grasp on the science, and doesn't make the mistake of outright denying evolution in any form. Rather, he points out what are really some near-obvious facts: Darwin spent a lot of time studying finch beaks in the Galapagos, and while there really is a striking amount of variation to be found there, the fact remains that with all that variation, they're all still finches. The point that Ham makes here is that while evolution definitely occurs, it's hard to show that animals evolve into entirely different kinds of animals. Yes, lions, tigers, pumas, and housecats all have a common ancestor, but they're still all cats.

Ham furthermore makes an important distinction between what he calls "observational" science and "historical" science. Observational science is science where you do experiments and make real-time observations of phenomena, while historical science is where you take what you know about natural phenomena and extrapolate that knowledge into the unobservable past. Since the past is unobservable, then historical science consists largely of guesswork, and standard evolutionary scientists have suggested that all life comes from a single, large family tree, while Ham is suggesting that we should think of all of life as being comprised of a sort of "family orchard" where different classes or "kinds" of animals all branch from a single ancestor that is completely unrelated to any other "kind". He points out that this model fits in just as well with biology as we know it today, but happens to also fit with the Biblical account of creation.

Also, a minor, but vital point that Ham makes is that there are plenty of young-earth creationist scientists that are doing just as much for innovation and technology as any atheist scientist. One of his chief examples is that of the inventor of the MRI, which revolutionized modern medicine, and yet that scientist/inventor believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

Bill Nye, however, had plenty of interesting things to say, many of which were seemingly pretty devastating to Ham's position. Nye had a lot to say about the fossil record, which consistently progresses from simple animals to more complex organisms, showing evidence that the modern species that we know must have had simpler biological ancestors. Also, he points out that if all the animals in the world at one time were kept on Noah's ark, which landed after the flood in the Middle East, then there should be fossil remains of Australian animals like kangaroos in the Middle East, but no such fossils have ever been found.

Actually, Noah's ark was a big point of contention for Nye. Mathematically he showed that if the ark had had only a few thousand "kinds" of animals that led to the millions of species that exist today, that would imply evolution that operated at a rate of 11 new species daily for the last 4,000 years. Evolution like that would be hard to miss!

One of Nye's last points was that the standard model of evolution has actually at times predicted archaeological finds, and one of the things that is considered the hallmark of a scientific theory is that it has predictive ability. Nye suggested that Ham's model does not have predictive ability, a challenge that Ham never addressed.

As for weaknesses (apart from the fact that neither debater seemed to me to successfully rebut any claims made by the other), Ham at one point made the claim that science is being forced into a naturalistic mindset, and it needs to be opened to other possibilities. While I agree that alternative theories like creationism need to be considered, I can't say that I'm convinced that there is a value to non-naturalistic science. Nye repeatedly attacked the validity of the Bible by using the "telephone game" metaphor, which implies that the Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation, etc., when in fact each new version of the Bible that is published makes use of better textual evidence than previous ones, and is usually a translation directly from what are considered the best ancient texts.

In the end, I think both men really knew their stuff well, and presented their own arguments excellently, but like so many debates before, I don't think either of them was at all swayed by the opposing argument, and I bet both men considered themselves the winner. I found it entertaining, but I'm not sure that anything really useful was accomplished on either side.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Moral relativism is driving me batty

Perhaps this is a topic better suited for my other blog, but I think as it doesn't pertain to a specific scripture but rather a number of different Biblical topics, it would be better to discuss here. It's very common when people are arguing against the Bible that they bring up one or more topic of contrast between common understandings in Biblical times and modern understandings. Often, it's a matter of morality, such as "Why does the Bible allow slavery?" or "Why does marriage in Biblical times seem to treat women as just slightly above livestock?" While those are good questions well worth asking, sometimes there are questions of a scientific nature that seem nearly as pressing, such as "Why does the Bible seem to indicate that the earth is only a few thousand years old?" or "Why does the Bible consider bats to be birds?"

A friend of mine posted a link recently on Facebook to an article about church-sanctioned prostitution in medieval England. The article made me think about the way morality changes from age to age, and how "traditional values" are a questionable concept, especially faced with stories like this. The article says that while prostitution wasn't quite considered a good thing, it was figured that it was better that men solicit prostitutes than practice masturbation or sodomy. While I think most conservative Christians today would consider masturbation less serious than prostitution (sodomy would depend on exactly what you meant by the term, which tends to be fluid in meaning), it only goes to show that even among Christians, ideas of what is moral and immoral is fluid from age to age and culture to culture.

Really this fact shouldn't come as a surprise to most people. Of course morality is fluid. I think we conveniently forget this, not only as Christians, but as Biblical skeptics. In respect to the former, I think that it is right for non-Christians to suggest that it is questionable for Christians to (as it is often phrased) "impose iron-age morality on modern society." Really, I think most Christians see the wisdom in this to some point; we don't stone people to death for committing adultery anymore, do we? And I think we're all glad that such a barbaric practice is out of style. I know I want nothing to do with it.

But when it comes to the Biblical skeptics, I think there is a similar problem going on. How can we think it makes sense to impose 21st-century morals on iron-age nomads? Doesn't it go both ways? Don't criticize an ancient culture for not classifying bats according to your modern taxonomy rules when all they really needed was a guideline for which winged animals they could and could not eat. Furthermore, why would you impose your 21st-century morality on anyone when most likely people in the 22nd century will look back on your morals as abhorrent? We're far from an enlightened utopia that has done away with racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence, and science has tended to show that the things we think to be true and good today will be proven to be twisted and harmful to us tomorrow.

In the end, what I think I'm really saying is that everyone should be willing to question their assumptions of morality and reality. Not just their own, but the morals and world-views of people they assume to be wrong. You don't have to change your mind, just keep it open, you know?

Monday, December 09, 2013

Writer's block party

It's funny, and I don't know in which sense of the word I mean "funny", but when I was in college, I took a number of creative writing courses, and something that haunts me to this day about them is that I had a large portion of my classmates tell me that I was the best writer in the class. It haunts me because, well, while I do recognize that I wrote a handful of really good short stories in the mid-'90s as I was taking these classes, I've really never written much of anything else since then, at least fiction-wise.

Yeah, I've been blogging, and some of it is probably pretty good, but when you think about being a "writer", don't you tend to think about someone who writes stuff that's more than just a handful of self-published random musings? What I'm saying is that I've always wished I could be a novelist, because it somehow always seemed like writing a novel is something a "real writer" would do. But even back in college when I was getting all this praise dumped on me, it always got to me that however good my writing might be, I'd never written a piece longer than about ten pages. Really, that's only a proper short story because unlike terms like "novel" or "novella", there's no minimum guideline for what qualifies as a "short story".

It's a kind of writer's block for me: I can think of stories, but generally only very, very short ones, and sometimes not even that. Where do stories come from, anyway? It boggles me that there are writers out there with dozens of novels to their names, people who just seem to be a wellspring of ideas that are worth committing to paper and distributing to thousands of readers. How do they do it?

I can barely get a blog post out.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Is blogging an ethical act?

From Goosing the Antithesis:

Alison really hit the nail on the head when she told me the real issue was that people actually believe in the act of belief itself. Indeed, the Christians have been positioning themselves as being part of the "belief-based" side and that they support religion against atheism, instead of their regular exclusivism. Because of this, a most vital debate that should be taking place right now, and which people like Dawkins and Harris are starting, is "is belief an ethical act?" (and by ethical we mean: as a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc, as opposed to personal judgments)

That is the real issue that should concern all of us, atheists and religious alike.
Francois Tremblay's writing is very interesting to me, because despite the fact that I rarely agree with his conclusions, he is indeed very adept at cutting to the heart of an issue. The problem with this issue, however, is that he seems to be making some assumptions that I don't completely agree with.

Actually, almost more than the assumptions, the thing that I have issue with is the definitions of the words used in the question. If "ethical" is taken to mean "...a social rule or judgment, group norm..." then the default answer is "Yes!" and really can hardly be anything else. As most if not all societies throughout the world are composed of a religious majority, the answer becomes a default. It seems to me that Tremblay (being an atheist) must either be sarcastic or far more lax in his wording than his usual writing in the above piece.

So I'll make some assumptions of my own to try and simplify the issue just a bit. The easy assumption is, from the larger context, that by "belief" we mean here "religion", that is, faith in a higher power of some sort. That being the case, however (or even if not) I question the use of the word "act", as belief, while something that oftentimes leads to action, is not really an action in itself.

Restating the question as "Is belief ethical?" still leaves us with items to sort out, though. Actually, it may be the reason that Tremblay phrased the question in that manner; are we asking if belief leads to ethical behavior, or if belief itself is ethical? Furthermore, are those two issues at all separable? Most religions come with a code of ethics built in, but such ethical codes may have difficult wrinkles in them that seem to be flaws: The God of Israel forbade human sacrifice, but ordered Abraham to kill his son. What happens when a supposedly moral God (who demands obedience as part and parcel of His moral code) orders a person to do something apparently immoral?

That issue in turn leads to another, probably more important one. How do we effectively define ethics apart from belief? There are many people who feel that there is a need for a supernatural basis for ethics and that without such a basis, ethics is meaningless. This has never been proven to me in a satisfactory manner, and as many an atheist has pointed out in one way or another, taking such a position robs us of our ability to reason out the true nature of ethics. (If you can't say that God is at least possibly immoral, then how is it meaningful to say that God is moral?) It seems that ethics need to either be relative or anchored in something even more fundamental than a supreme being. If a theist wants to propose otherwise, they would need to explain why, rather than take it as a given, I think. However, at the same time, moral relativism is something that needs some explaining; as one person implied in the comments of the original post, if morality is relative, then you once again are not able to say that God (or anyone else) is immoral.

A further wrinkle that I don't believe came up in the comments is that there is perhaps an assumed false dichotomy. If the answer to the question is "No", does that mean that belief is immoral? What if the answer is that belief is amoral? Indeed, I have heard it claimed by devout Jews at times that belief in God is not a prerequisite for being a good Jew; the Torah contains laws that are mostly prohibitive, and among those remaining laws that are requirements, belief in God is not one of them, so even the religious can believe that belief itself is not an ethical issue. If belief is amoral, then what does that imply? Does it make the question more important, or less?

While Tremblay's post is truly meaty food for thought, I fear that the question he raises has no obvious answer in the end.

Monday, November 18, 2013

No one really believes in my blog

A long time ago, I was a guest blogger on the atheist blog Goosing the Antithesis. It was a pretty sharp blog, and I think it showed a degree of open-mindedness that they allowed me as a Christian to make an occasional post there. The blog however is no more; that is to say, while it's still there for anyone to read, there hasn't been a new post since January of 2009, and there clearly is no intention of changing this. Still, every once in a while I drop in there to peruse posts and reminisce a bit, and that final post by Francois Tremblay in particular has a lot of potential for encouraging thought, and I thought it might be interesting to address some of the issues it brings up.

...[N]o one really believes in God. How could you? It's impossible to even conceptualize the idea of God, and you can't believe in what you can't conceptualize. The person who says "I believe in God" believes in some image in his head which he believes is the image of God, but which cannot in any way have any relation to what God is actually supposed to be according to the theologians. They believe in a father in the sky, not an abstract absolute existing in Dimension X.
This is an interesting statement on many levels. One thing that makes it interesting to me is that you will find theists who demand the exact opposite is true. Maybe not in the fine details, but on the whole, there are a lot of theists who don't believe that any atheist can seriously, in full honesty, say that they don't believe in God, but rather are in some state of fancy theological denial. I just note this as interesting, though, as I do not share this belief. I'm willing to accept that any given atheist or theist is fully sincere in stating their disbelief or belief in God.

Yet Tremblay has what seems like a valid point to be made here, and many theists will agree there's something to it. There are qualities that God possesses that are in essence infinite, and infinity is not really something that the human mind can fully grasp in a meaningful way. Indeed, I think most of us will at times have a mental image in our heads of what God is like, and that that image by necessity must be lacking in comparison to God's true nature. So how can we believe in that which we cannot truly fathom?

I think the answer to that is to be found in the subtleties of the way religion is expressed in practice. I've had discussions with many people ever since I became a Christian about how both Judaism and Christianity forbid idolatry, and yet to an outsider might seem to be practicing it all the time. What church is there out there that is not at the very least adorned by a huge wooden cross which everyone faces while in worship if not ornate stained glass figures of famous historic saints? What synagogue fails to exhibit great fawning reverence for the Torah as a physical object? How is this not idolatry? Aren't we taking out inability to grasp the concept of God and refocusing our religious reverence on physical objects?

There's an important distinction to be made here, and it's the distinction between idolatry and iconism. Idolatry is taking a physical object like a statue and saying, "This is my God." Iconism is taking a physical object like a cross, or a picture, or a book and saying, "This is how I access my God."

The term "icon" is a very telling one in the computer age, too. It's my experience that there are very few people who understand Microsoft Excel, and in fact, when you talk about Excel as a full concept in code built from the ground up, there really is probably next to nobody who understands it. Despite this fact, all a computer user has to do to use Excel is click on its icon, and then they have full access to all of Excel's functions and features, even if they don't understand them. Clearly, the greater the depth of understanding a user has of Excel, the more they will likely get out of it, but even the most basic user can get something out of it.

Why does a Jew revere the Torah? Because he believes that it is through the words written on that Holy scroll that he will better come to understand the mind of God. Why does a Christian revere the cross? Because it reminds her of a physical act of sacrifice that God performed that gives her insight into the heart of God. We all know that full understanding is impossible, but that does not change the fact that we have access to God in a very real way. Because we are helpless to fully understand God, God has condescended to give us the tools we need to come closer to him in a very real way without that full understanding.

No, perhaps nobody really believes in God, but we believe in God's goodness. We trust in God's character. We follow God's will. We study God's word. And in the end, God believes in us, which is all that really matters.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The treachery of video games

When I was a kid, I used to have this space game on my home computer. It was really cool. This was before the age of the NES, and yet this game had 3D graphics and an awesome soundtrack. The funny thing about this game was that instead of being controlled in a simple up-down-left-right fashion by a joystick, the controls were all on a keyboard and the spacecraft moved like an airplane, pitching and rolling instead of moving in the standard way most of us probably expected of video game flying craft. You had to navigate through space and carefully synchronize the movement of your craft with rotating space stations that you had to dock with, all the while fighting off space pirates and dodging bits of space debris. It was a tough game, but for some reason, I liked it.

I think one of the main reasons that I liked it was that the game play was supposed to be a bit more open-ended than most games of its age. While the main idea of the game was to trade goods between one star system and another, you could beef up your ship with good weaponry and capture bounty for chasing down space pirates. You could equip your ship with an ore scoop and mine asteroids. If you wanted to, you could actually become a space pirate yourself and destroy other ships to take their cargo. I used to play around with the possibilities.

The thing that really made it easy to play around was that the game had a save feature, but it was of course optional. That is to say, if you ran a mission and it didn't turn out quite the way you wanted it to turn out, you could just reset the game and reload your last save. I think with a lot of games these days, that's almost something you take for granted, isn't it?

I never realized until just recently how strange the world of most video games is, at least in comparison to the world we live in. When you're playing some Legend of Zelda game, and Link dies, what are the consequences? Hyrule is lost? Princess Zelda is doomed? Ganondorf reigns triumphant forever? No, not at all. The consequence is this: "Would you like to try again? YES/NO"

Of course it's not a universal truth of video games, although I think it may nearly be so, but whereas reality as we know it has no consideration for whether you come out of your next adventure triumphant, reality as known in video games is looking for you to win. If you don't win, reality itself grinds to a halt and says, "Wait, it looks like we should try that again!" Time and space realign themselves to a place back before you made your big mistake and says, "Okay, take two!"

I started to wonder, does this warped view of the inevitability of success do something to the minds of people of my generation and younger? I've heard it said that young people today are disgruntled by the fact that they don't see much chance for success in their future, and maybe some of that is the economy that our forefathers messed up to some degree. Then again, maybe young people have had their brains wired to expect success to be handed to them. No, not fresh and steaming on a silver platter, but rather that if things don't go the way we want, there's a part of our brains that expects there has to be a way to go back and do it all over again until it turns out right.

Around the same time I had that space game that I talked about above, there was an unfortunate incident that happened to me. I was in my grandmother's garden one day, and I was foolishly playing with a knife. I'll spare you details, but I ended up in the hospital with forty stitches in my hand. I have a scar on the palm of my hand and nerve damage that will be with me for my whole life. No doubt there was a moment when I looked at the cut in my hand and would have been very happy for a chance to back up to the last save point, but life doesn't come with save points. "Would you like to try again? Too bad."

Maybe I'm overestimating the effect that video games might be having on our collective psychology, but I've started to notice something strange in me lately. The more my life seems to be messed up and in need of a magical restoration at the click of a button, the less I find myself interested in video games.