Total Perspective: De Botton, Douglas Adams, and God

I’ve been thinking a little more about one of the points I was chewing over as I wrote yesterday’s thing about church for atheists – just how De Botton’s proposed London temple seems geared to produce some sort of nihilistically driven depression because it makes it clear that people are oh so insignificant in the scheme of the universe.

you are here
Image: Total perspective (arrow not to scale).

It’s a horrible narrative to find yourself part of… unless you’re prepared to buy into the idea that you’re totally at the heart of the universe. Which is, of course, what happened with Zaphod Beeblebrox when he confronted the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy story The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Total Perspective Vortex is a torture chamber that leaves most people in a nihilistic malaise, broken by the realisation of their own abject insignificance. It does this pretty much by presenting the same truth that De Botton proposes to celebrate…

“When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.””

That sort of perspective hurts…

“At that moment another dismal scream rent the air and Zaphod shuddered.

“What can do that to a guy?” he breathed.

“The Universe,” said Gargravarr simply, “the whole infinite Universe. The infinite suns, the infinite distances between them, and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.”

In the book, the guy who built it did so because his wife nagged him…

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

The vortex is a little chamber, with a single door, that contains the whole universe…

“At the far side of it stood a single upright steel box, just large enough for a man to stand in.
It was that simple. It connected to a small pile of components and instruments via a single thick wire.
“Is that it?” said Zaphod in surprise.
“That is it.”
Didn’t look too bad, thought Zaphod.
“And I get in there do I?” said Zaphod.
“You get in there,” said Gargravarr, “and I’m afraid you must do it now.”
“OK, OK,” said Zaphod.
He opened the door of the box and stepped in.
Inside the box he waited.
After five seconds there was a click, and the entire Universe was there in the box with him.”

Zaphod survives, without spoiling the story, because he enters it in a fake universe where he is the centre – so the perspective provided by the Vortex actually affirms that he is uniquely, and specially, the figure at the heart of the universe.

“It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy. Didn’t I tell you, baby, I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox!”

Here, as a reminder, is what De Botton is proposing… the Temple to Perspective.


Image Credit: The Guardian – for an interesting, more to scale version, check out this pic from artinfo.com

Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence… The temple features a single door for visitors who will enter as if it were an art installation. The roof will be open to the elements and there could be fossils and geologically interesting rocks in the concrete walls.

He thinks that’ll produce awe, not depression…

“The dominant feeling you should get will be awe – the same feeling you get when you tip your head back in Ely cathedral,” he said. “You should feel small but not in an intimidated way.”

I’d say Douglas Adams is closer to the truth. Unless you can find a way to provide yourself with value and significance, the universe is a very big place, and it’s going to blow your mind.

I reckon the Psalms, in the Bible, have a much better account for human perspective than Adams or De Botton. While the universe is really big, the Psalmist, in Psalm 8, points out that God is bigger. This both inspires awe, and gives value to humans…

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

But the story gets better. This is perspective – and it’s a perspective that gives value. This God isn’t just interested in humanity corporately – but in individuals… Here’s half of Psalm 139. We don’t get in the box and perceive the universe, the God who created the universe perceives us…

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

The story gets better again in Jesus… This is why Christians – not just the religious people who believe in a creator God – have the best narrative to tell and be part of… We become part of the story because God steps in, he doesn’t just know us, he loves us, and makes us his children by giving us his Spirit. It’s the complete opposite to De Botton’s temple. We’re not small and insignificant in the scheme of the universe – the God who created the universe gives himself to us… and dwells in us… here’s how Paul spells it out in Romans 8…

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

I’m not suggesting you should pick truth based on what the best story is – but this is the sort of perspective that is going to produce awe and a good and happy life, based on being valued by an infinite personal and relational entity, not a small and depressed life based on being a speck in the scheme of an infinite universe that doesn’t care if you expire tomorrow.

Hume, Penn Jillette, and faith v reason

I mentioned I’d been reading Hume the other day. He characterises “religious people” in a slightly well-poisoning way in the midst of his discussion in Dialogues on Natural Religion

“And here we may observe, continued he, turning himself towards DEMEA, a pretty curious circumstance in the history of the sciences. After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every principle derived merely from human research and inquiry… The Reformers embraced the same principles of reasoning, or rather declamation; and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith, were sure to be interlarded with some severe strokes of satire against natural reason.”

This characterisation has become a bit of a meme. It treats all religious belief as outside of human reason, a case Hume attempted to make in his seminal ‘Of Miracles’ in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, Hume argues that because miracles don’t happen, because they are outside of nature, and are almost impossible to verify using a naturalistic framework (a somewhat circular approach to the supernatural), religious belief operates in the world of faith, not reason. He pushes a form of fideism. The belief that reason and faith are in conflict. He does this because he needs to maintain some veneer of being an orthodox Christian, because not being an orthodox Christian in 18th century Scotland is pretty difficult – fideism is a cop out, Hume probably didn’t hold to it – given that his entire academic program contradicted it, and it’s pretty sloppy arguing, on behalf of modern atheists to characterise faith in this way.

Fideism is dumb. Faith might be the belief in things unseen or hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), but it is also based on experience and observation, and not a little reason. That’s pretty consistently been the Christian approach to faith and knowledge since, well, forever. That’s why science was a product of Christians trying to read and understand God’s world better. Seriously. Google Francis Bacon. And it’s why atheistic naturalism’s sweeping claims are devoid of anything that looks like history or philosophy

It’d be great for the thinking, intellectually honest, atheists out there to break free of the group think shackles of this meme, and start admitting they don’t have a monopoly on reason.

But no. It continues. Enter Penn Jillette’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Penn’s a smart guy. He’s funny. He’s been reasonably nice about Christians in the past – while clearly disagreeing with people of faith. But this article perpetuates a false meme. To be fair, he’s answering an equally annoying meme from our side – the claim that atheism is a religion…

Here’s what he says…

Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share.

Faith is a hypothesis, as is atheism, about the question of God’s existence on the basis of evidence – like revelation, history, philosophy, and not a little bit of reasoning on the basis of our own existence.

It’s a positive hypothesis, while atheism is a negative hypothesis. There are plenty of less than good systems of religion built on varying types of faith – but faith itself should never be maintained contrary to actual evidence. It’s just that the evidence that naturalists put forward is so dissatisfying on anything but a purely material level, and in its modern form (possibly since Hume) it fails to consider any alternative frameworks and anything that has come before it. Hume was pretty good at characterising or ignoring the people who made good arguments against what he was saying, his whole project in Dialogues and Enquiry essentially ignores 1,700 years of Christian thought that is relevant to the natural theology exercise. Christians have something to say on how we read nature based on the Bible – and I’m not talking about accounts of human origins, but accounts of human nature, and the application of a Christian anthropology to the scientific endeavour had been serving us pretty well since Christians kicked the scientific process off because they believed God supplied a guarantee that the natural order would continue in the way that he created it to operate.

That is all.

The old atheism: why it’s more dangerous than the “new”

I don’t want to suggest Richard Dawkins and his other two horseman friends (following the very tragic demise of Christopher Hitchens) aren’t effective in their campaigns against religion, and for atheism… but I’ve been reading some David Hume (Dialogues on Natural Religion) for the Philosophy subject I’m taking at college this year, and he’s much more interesting and engaging, and therefore more dangerous, than today’s $2 shop atheists like Richard Dawkins. He makes some of the bilious rhetoric these modern guys employ seem very cheap indeed, not because the substance of his argument is all that different – in many ways Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins have all simply been developing Hume’s arguments in line with modern knowledge, but because he is all style. He’s just so winsome, and gentle, it’s like one of those kung-fu moves from the B-Grade movies out there, where you don’t know he’s actually started hitting you until it’s too late – unless, you are familiar with kung-fu.

I can’t help but make comparisons with Dawkins as I read Hume (By the by, Hume’s Dialogue, while it was said to undermine “natural theology” and the argument from design pretty much assumes the conclusions it then sets out to prove, by essentially ruling out divine revelation by looking for natural causes of both nature and religion, and then admitting that such revelation is probably necessary to know anything about the nature of God).

Hume is wrong because he essentially fails to engage with the question of who Jesus is – God made incarnate. God made subject to empirical observations. God made man – a man who was real, historically verifiable, and whose death and resurrection didn’t just legitimise his claim to be king – but all the stuff he said was written to point to him from beforehand – the Old Testament, and the testimonies that are written about him are the empirical evidence offered to support his claims. Written documentation of history – Hume was a history writer himself, so it’s surprising he’s so dismissive of history’s ability to contain and describe truth.

But back to the comparisons…

I like how at times Hume, in contrast to Dawkins, will engage with some of the big theological questions that present themselves in the course of his argument (lets not forget how Dawkins chooses not to engage with where hard Christian thought is happening), here he is highlighting the dangers of trying to draw an analogy from the creation to the creator:

“But as all perfection is entirely relative, we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine Being, or to suppose that his perfections have any analogy or likeness to the perfections of a human creature. Wisdom, Thought, Design, Knowledge; these we justly ascribe to him; because these words are honourable among men, and we have no other language or other conceptions by which we can express our adoration of him.”

At that point he presents a much bigger picture of God than he seems to employ throughout the book, where his God, if he exists at all, is a neutered, deistic god, who has no influence on natural events, and potentially even less interest. It’s a bigger picture of god than some modern Christians are willing to conceive. God is so far beyond comparison to man that drawing analogies is largely futile… unless, of course, you have something that claims to be the word of God which essentially establishes a comparison between God and man (Gen 1:26-27) right off the bat…

Anyway, like I say, I’ve enjoyed reading Hume because he seems genuine in grappling with the issues he’s writing about – though you’re never really sure, at this point, how much legitimacy he’s giving to opinions other than his own when he writes, his Christian character, Demea, who promises to indoctrinate her children before they’re taught any “scientific” enquiry, is pretty much a caricature with very little of substance to contribute.

Where Dawkins is shrill, Hume is gentle. Where Dawkins is bombastic, Hume presents with doubt and not a little epistemic humility. Where Dawkins is brash and intolerant, Hume is empathetic and questioning. Where Dawkins is filled with smug certitude and self-righteousness, Hume is a little bit charming and self-effacing. Where Dawkins can’t see much good in any religious people, Hume was enamoured with the leading Christians of his time (he used to go to see Whitfield preach, not because he believed what Whitfield was saying, but “because he [Whitfield] does.” Where Dawkins seems to want the quick victory, Hume amassed a pretty comprehensive case against Christianity almost by stealth – with snippets in all sorts of publications that almost needed to be put together posthumously.

This article in the New Yorker comparing the atheists of old with the new atheists has a nice little para on Hume…

“Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.”

What’s particularly interesting to me, given my recent penchant for all things Ciceroesque, is how much Hume follows Cicero. Deliberately and unabashedly. While there’s a fair bit of overlap in philosophical approach and the questions both men asked, there’s a style comparison as well. It’s, I think, a testimony to the quality of the communication advice and approach to life that Cicero laid out for communicators (believe in your cause, live for it, speak eloquently and passionately, write often, etc). This too, is why I think Dawkins and his ilk, though they persuade some, will eventually fade away into insignificance – their “rhetorical triangle” is not particularly balanced, they’re heavy on the pathos, with not much logos, and not a whole lot of conduct worth imitating or being convinced by…

Ira Glass on Christians, the Christian story, and the quest for understanding

Ira Glass is a brilliant broadcaster/storyteller/journalist. He’s also an atheist. In this video, a conversation with a Christian guy named Jim Henderson, Ira Glass talks about how Christians are misrepresented in pop-culture. It’s nice.

It’s up there with Penn Jillette’s great testimony about a well-meaning Christian who approached him after a show.

Especially this clip…

Glass also talks about the “Christian pitch”… and his investigations of Christianity.

“Christianity is number one for a reason. It’s a great story… and it’s a reassuring story.”

He tells a cool story about how some prison evangelists framed the gospel for the prison kids they were working with… It’s worth a listen to hear an atheist trying to represent Christianity accurately.

Thanks to Cosmo on Facebook for the link to the video.

Things to click (and read)

Sometimes I need to clear the thirty tabs I have open in my browser and I can’t be bothered posting them separately. This is one of those times, and it reflects on me, not on the content of these links that you should read.

There’s a rumour that floats around the Internet every now and then that Facebook is responsible for one in five divorces these days as people rediscover old flames. This rumour is just that. A rumour. The Wall Street Journal kills it.

“The 1-in-5 number originated with an executive at an online divorce-service provider in the U.K. Mark Keenan, managing director of Divorce-Online, which allows Britons to file uncontested divorces at low cost, had just launched the company’s Facebook page and wondered what role Facebook has in precipitating divorces. After determining that the word “Facebook” appeared in 989 of the company’s 5,000 or so most recent divorce petitions, he had Divorce-Online issue a news release in December 2009 stating “Facebook is bad for your marriage.”

Mr. Keenan acknowledges that his company’s clients aren’t necessarily representative of all divorces, and he adds that his firm never claimed that Facebook actually causes 20% of divorces. “It was a very unscientific survey,” Mr. Keenan says.

Elsewhere, Clayboy (a newie for me) has two must read posts about the new atheists – the first about the conformity of “free thinker” thinking, as demonstrated by a magazine called The Freethinker, the second about whether Christians can value atheism.

“I might even ponder whether the award for secularist of the year (apparently a “prestigious” one – who knew?) reflects this. The winner is not Salman Taseer, the nominee who was assassinated for opposing the Pakistan blasphemy laws mainly aimed at Christians, but Dutch Euro MP Sophie in ’t Veld who, er …, bravely organised a protest against the Pope.

I am somewhat underwhelmed in my admiration for such a courageous achievement advancing the cause of rational civilisation.”

Slate says the lack of looting in Japan is down to the Yakuza. Which is pretty cool.

“Organized crime. Police aren’t the only ones on patrol since the earthquake hit. Members of the Yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicate, have also been enforcing order. All three major crime groups—the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Sumiyoshi-kai, and the Inagawa-kai—have “compiled squads to patrol the streets of their turf and keep an eye out to make sure looting and robbery doesn’t occur,” writes Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, in an e-mail message. “The Sumiyoshi-kai claims to have shipped over 40 tons of [humanitarian aid] supplies nationwide and I believe that’s a conservative estimate.” One group has even opened its Tokyo offices to displaced Japanese and foreigners who were stranded after the first tremors disabled public transportation. “As one Sumiyoshi-kai boss put it to me over the phone,” says Adelstein, ” ‘In times of crisis, there are not Yakuza and civilians or foreigners. There are only human beings and we should help each other.’ ” Even during times of peace, the Yakuza enforce order, says Adelstein. They make their money off extortion, prostitution, and drug trafficking. But they consider theft grounds for expulsion.”

Elsewhere, I’ve been taking part in an increasingly lengthy discussion about gay marriage on the solapanel.

Five Senses Coffee offers a great diagnosis guide for figuring out what is wrong with your espresso. Well worth a read if you think your coffee could be better.

First Things has a good list for engaging with people in the online world. Especially for responding to people you don’t know who disagree with you.

“The manner of your answer will affect your inquirer more than its content. You are often, as far as you can tell, trying only to encourage him to hear the answer, to open a crack in his defenses that might over time open into a door. Hope and pray that you are only one—perhaps the first, but perhaps not—in a series of encounters that will bring him to see the truth. You do not need to win the argument to change his life.”

You should be reading Things Findo Thinks – I haven’t linked to it for a while, but Findo seems much more interested in engaging the nu-atheists than I presently am, so if you want your fix of fallacy busting, head there. Try this post about arguments from authority on for size. It’ll help you avoid bad arguments about your arguments.

It’s iPad 2 week this week. And luckily my wife is going to let me buy one. Unlike this guy in the states, who allegedly had to return his iPad because his wife said no. At least that was the reason he gave on the post-it note that went to the store, that was passed on to Apple Corporate, who may or may not have sent back the iPad with a note reading “Apple says yes”… brilliant if true.

Hitchens teaches a liberal minister the true meaning of the word Christian

I’ve said before that Christopher Hitchens’ treatment of Christianity is a little shoddy. He is guilty of creating a straw man Christianity out of the very worst of “Christian” behaviour and setting it on fire in beautifully vitriolic prose. He is, I think, the most dangerous of the nu-atheists because he is so articulate and personable. He’s more appealing than Dawkins, I think, because he demonstrates a sense of humour.

Here, in this article, he is interviewed by a Unitarian minister, Marilyn Sewell, who wants to know if he doesn’t like Liberal Christians as much as he doesn’t like fundamentalists…

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian…

Read my full take on this, and some more interesting bits from the interview, over at Venntheology.

An astronomical problem with Dawkin’s thinking

Richard Dawkins is not an idiot. But sooner or later the blinkers through which he tries to ram his view of the world are going to become obvious to everybody. That process started a little with this guest post on the ever popular BoingBoing.

Dawkins gets on his soapbox, or behind his pulpit, hoping to preach to a sea of sympathetic listeners. It is the internet, afterall. The playground for the New Atheists.

His target, in this post, was an astronomer named Martin Gaskell. Gaskell recently missed out on an academic position that he was more than qualified for. Essentially because he’s a Christian, who, while not holding a young earth creationist position himself – is sympathetic to those who do.

Here’s what Gaskell says in a pretty fantastic piece of writing on the overlap between astronomy and the Genesis creation account (and varying positions within the scientific fraternity).

“I have a lot of respect for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible, but I don’t believe it is the interpretation the Bible requires of itself, and it certainly clashes head-on with science. This viewpoint is something of an “American” view and has been much less common among Christians in Europe.”

Sounds moderate. Right? Some would say positively liberal (having just read Al Mohler’s Atheism Remixed I’d hazard a guess that that’s where Mohler would place him on the spectrum).

So Gaskell sued this college who didn’t give him the job, because the head of the interviewing panel was stupid enough to put the following in writing:

“If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin’s religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious…”

That’s a smoking gun. Here’s how Dawkins, in this ill-informed diatribe, approaches the Gaskell question:

Step 1. Make allusions to Gaskell’s position on Creation – tying him to the YEC position while admitting that he is not in that camp:

“My own position would be that if a young earth creationist (YEC, the barking mad kind who believe the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog) is “breathtakingly above the other candidates”, then the other candidates must be so bad that we should re-advertise and start afresh.

Martin Gaskell claims, however, that he is not a full-blooded YEC although he has “a lot of respect for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible”

Step 2. Compare people who hold a young earth position (which Gaskell does not) to eye doctors who believe babies are delivered by stork, and geologists who believe in a flat earth while promising to teach otherwise.

“Even if a doctor’s belief in the stork theory of reproduction is technically irrelevant to his competence as an eye surgeon, it tells you something about him. It is revealing. It is relevant in a general way to whether we would wish him to treat us or teach us. A patient could reasonably shrink from entrusting her eyes to a doctor whose beliefs (admittedly in the apparently unrelated field of obstetrics) are so cataclysmically disconnected from reality.”

Step 3. Suggest that people with religious beliefs are essentially unfit for any job in academia (though, to be fair, probably in the sciences).

“I don’t care whether his beliefs are based on religion or not, they affect his suitability for the job, and I am going to take them into account.” A law that encourages you to say, “If a candidate’s private beliefs are based on religion I shall ignore them, otherwise I shall take them into account”, is a bad law.”

See, there are a couple of problems here. It’s not uncommon for Dawkins to completely misrepresent Christian beliefs and essentially create strawman pictures of Christianity based on Fox News reports and televangelists. But the other problem is that Dawkins himself links to Gaskell’s own testimony about his own beliefs. A document that contains passages like this:

“Historico-Artistic Viewpoint” – emphasizes that we have to realize that the Genesis was addressed to people 3400 years ago in a form and in descriptive terms they would understand. Moses wouldn’t have got very far if God had quoted from a modern introductory astronomy text to him! (“Say, God, what’s a quark?”). A senior physicist, who had been chairman of a large physics department in the US (and who was, incidentally, not someone with a high view of the Bible), once said to me, “if we put what we now believe to be true about the origin of the universe into poetic language someone would have understood 3000 years ago, we would come up with something very much like Genesis 1 & 2”. The historico-artistic viewpoint would also emphasize that Genesis 1 is in the form of a poem. It has a very definite literary structure. Phrases and patterns of words repeat (e.g., phrases such as “Then God said…and it was so” or “…and God saw that it was good” or “and there were evening and morning…” But we must be careful to note that whether Genesis 1 is poetry or prose has nothing to do with whether it is an actual very literal description of what happened or whether it is allegorical or something. We must not make the distinction prose = fact; poetry = fiction. ”

And this:

“The “scientific” explanations offered by “creationists” are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations).
While discussing controversies and interpretations of Genesis I should mention something that has been much debated in recent years but is not an interpretation of Genesis: what is called “Intelligent Design”. This movement, which is often erroneously confused with young-earth creationism, is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence. This is really a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications), and there is no opinion on the interpretation of Genesis.”

Now, I’ve got no significant bones to pick with those who hold to a less than literal, or a literal, view of Genesis 1-2:3. I thought that was the worst part of Mohler’s book (Atheism Remixed) – which was actually a pretty good primer on the debate and used arguments from Alister McGrath and Alvin Plantinga (amongst others) to show just how shoddy Dawkins is with regards to his treatment of Christian belief and with regards to philosophy (ie he begs the question of scientific naturalism because he’s bought into evolutionary theory as a unifying theory of everything1). But Dawkins wants anybody who has any religious belief excluded from jobs on that basis. And the beauty of the post on BoingBoing is that its readers call him out. And they are, based on past experience reading the comment threads, a pretty agnostic bunch.

Here are a couple of the comments.

“Oh, just come out and say it, you want to discriminate against a certain class of people even though there is no real objective logical reason to do so. You get an ick factor. Which is eminently stupid. Competence is by definition the ability to get the job done in a satisfactory or better than satisfactory manner. If the person is competent, but somehow throws you off personally because of cultural predilections, that’s frankly a problem and a weakness of your comfort level. Imagine a world where you could hire and fire based on that. I would certainly like to see what you’d have to say when someone refuses to hire an Atheist, because “it tells you something about him.””

And another…

” To not choose the right person for the job, when they have demonstrated in the past that they are fully capable and suitable for it, on the basis of the fact that you don’t like the way they think privately, is pure bigotry.

If he shows evidence that his beliefs are interfering with his work then by all means fire him, but thought is inherently private. Should you equally deny somebody a job in finance because they like to read Marxist literature? What about denying somebody a job as a bartender because they’re teetotal? Where do you draw the line when making that decision for other people?”

One that opens with a quote from Dawkins in the post:

“I suspect that most of my readers would discriminate against both these job candidates…”
If by “my readers” you mean the echo chamber at RichardDawkins.net that you’ve grown accustomed to, certainly.”

My favourite of the lot:

“I think what you are doing here, Richard, is similar to what you do when you criticize religious people in general: you pick prominent but basically ignorant religious people, demonstrate what idiots they are, and then say “well, these guys are prominent, so no doubt the best examples of their lot. Hence, any other example will be even more idiotic, and we therefore need not examine them.”

Here you say “look, we have a competent person who holds religious beliefs someone found objectionable” (for reasons unstated, at least by you). “Isn’t it basically okay that he was discriminated against on the basis of those beliefs, since all people who hold those beliefs are idiots or insane? … The fact is that you appear to know very little about religion (and certainly as a self-proclaimed “atheist” you are entitled to that state of ignorance, at least in regards to religions involving the worship of deities). So it’s hard to see how you’re qualified to even ask this question, because you’re not competent to discriminate accurately between religious people who are idiots or insane, and religious people who are neither.”

It seems that the jig is up. When the masses start picking up the critique of your interlocutors in the sphere of published debate, and they’re doing it in a forum that should cede you home ground advantage, your methods are in a bit of trouble.

1 On this note, I really don’t get how explaining the mechanics of something, explaining the question of how something works, does away with agency. It’s like finding a ball floating in the air towards a target and suggesting that because you understand everything about its motion it must not have been thrown. Or like listening to a piece of music and suggesting that understanding the underpinning musical theory, and the function of the instruments in an orchestra, does away with a composer. It’s philosophically untenable. Just dumb.

Fat Atheists, PZ Myers, Chuck Norris, and the Internet

I mentioned Conservapedia in that last post. And it’s hilarious. Have you read it? Apparently being an atheist makes you fat. It’s their “Article of the Month” at the moment – Atheism and Obesity,” basically the argument boils down to “atheists are fat. Y’all.” Actually. Most of the atheists I know are fat.

Here’s an excerpt…

“Two of the major risk factors for becoming obese according to the Mayo Clinic are poor dietary choices and inactivity, thus given the above cited Gallup research, it appears as if non-religious are more prone to becoming obese than very religious individuals.[8] The Bible declares that gluttony is a sin.[9] Furthermore, the Bible declares the physical body of Christians to be temples of the Holy Spirit.[10] Therefore, it is not surprising that many very religious Christians would leave healthy lives.

Christianity is the world’s largest religion and it has seen tremendous growth over its 2000 year history.[11] In the last fifty years, Christianity has recently seen explosive growth outside the Western World.[12][13][14][15] In 2000, there were twice as many non-Western Christians as Western Christians.[16] In 2005, there were four times as many non-Western Christians as there were Western Christians.[17] Of course, a big reason for the explosive growth of Christianity outside the Western world was due to highly religious people propagating the Christian faith and there are now more non-Western missionaries than Western missionaries.[18] Besides non-Westerners often being less sedentary, non-Western diets are often healthier than the diets Westerners consume and there is significantly less obesity in those non-Western cultures.[19][20][21] Therefore, in recent history Christendom has seen a large influx of very religious people who live healthy lifestyles and have low levels of obesity. For example, the noted Evangelical preacher Rick Warren recently made a public commitment to lose 90 pounds.[22] Have you seen any of the prominent atheists make such a pledge?”

The article then goes on to feature pictures of fat atheists. Like PZ Myers.

Who is contrasted with the super-fit, and Christian, Chuck Norris.

Perhaps the best bit of the article is Chuck Norris’ warning for Christian parents about atheists and the Internet.

“Atheists are making a concerted effort to win the youth of America and the world. Hundreds of websites and blogs on the Internet seek to convince and convert adolescents, endeavoring to remove any residue of theism from their minds and hearts by packaging atheism as the choice of a new generation. While you think your kids are innocently surfing the Web, secular progressives are intentionally preying on their innocence and naivete.

What’s preposterous is that atheists are now advertising and soliciting on websites particularly created for teens.

YouTube, the most popular video site on the Net for young people, is one of their primary avenues for passing off their secularist propaganda.[35]”

Why do atheists read Christian blogs

For a while last week I thought about unsubscribing from the atheist blogs I read. They fill me with frustration. Especially the snarkiness that oft goes on in the comment thread. I even have a post drafted saying that I had made that a resolution for the year. But then I changed my mind. Bizarrely because I read this article on the Huffington Post about why atheists read articles by the religious…

“In my opinion, Atheists want to be well-informed. They want to know what others are saying, and then what they’re saying next. They wish to keep up with all that they’re contesting, not to change their minds. Others who I’ve spoken with speculate that some self-professed atheists may actually be agnostics who are seeking answers to address internal doubts.”

I think there’s a little in that. But I also think they like to gather together and hunt in packs because that’s what minorities do. And if atheists were in the ascendency I’m sure there’d be a bunch of Christian voices clamouring to shout them down.

Plus, the internet is an atheist playground. And they are the resident bullies. So it makes sense they go where the easy targets are and hang out in gangs elsewhere.

Defining Faith

My biggest problem with the New Atheists boils down to this:

That’s not faith. Here’s how Hebrews 11 defines faith:

1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

I would suggest, humble readers, that this definition of faith – belief in the unseen – is not the same as deliberately not seeing. Which is the way most atheists seem to frame it. Seeing something and denying it is not faith – which is a problem for some Christians, I’ll admit. But thought and faith are not in opposition – faith simply deals with that which we hope and do not see. I don’t have faith that a chair will hold me. I trust that it will. Because I have watched it, or experienced it, holding me. That’s where, I think, faith and trust are different.

If I had found any contradictory evidence (ala point 1 of the above definition), ie if I had seen it – then it would no longer be faith keeping me in a position (according to Hebrews 11) but stupidity. Taking something “on faith” does not mean not seeking to confirm the thing by investigation, or observation – and it does not mean holding a position contrary to logic, reason, or observation. This is where I think Atheists 2.0 have it most wrong. At least second most wrong. I think not believing in God is where they have it most wrong…

That is all.

Jesus is ___: Fill in the blank

In an advertising campaign reminiscent of Australia’s Jesus All About Life campaign – a church in the states is running a “Jesus is ____” website asking for people to submit their ideas about who Jesus is. A nice idea. Hijacked by atheists. So if you’re not an atheist, and you don’t think Jesus is a baseballer hitting at 0.216, then head on over and try to even out the numbers. This is the problem with user generated content in the day and age of pharyngulation. Atheists are aware of these campaigns and hit them pretty quickly. For giggles.

I like the campaign.

Here’s their blurb:

“What goes in the blank?

Everyone has an opinion of who Jesus is. That’s why this website exists: as a platform for people to express who Jesus is to them.

Jesus is a lot of things, but the answer is in the Bible. It says that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to earth on a mission to restore mankind to God. By living a perfect life, dying on a cross, and coming back to life, His mission was a success. We can know God because of Jesus.

So maybe the reality of who Jesus is remains too big for the blank.”

And the promo video.

JESUS IS ___. from The City Church on Vimeo.

Research shows Christians are nicer than atheists

Yeah. Read it and weep those of you in the religion poisons everything mob. The results are in. In America anyway.

Forty percent of worship-attending Americans volunteer regularly to help the poor and elderly, compared with 15% of Americans who never attend services. Frequent-attenders are also more likely than the never-attenders to volunteer for school and youth programs (36% vs. 15%), a neighborhood or civic group (26% vs. 13%), and for health care (21% vs. 13%). The same is true for philanthropic giving; religious Americans give more money to secular causes than do secular Americans. And the list goes on, as it is true for good deeds such as helping someone find a job, donating blood, and spending time with someone who is feeling blue.

England’s Telegraph follows this USA Today story in breaking the news.

No doubt there’ll be a long queue of atheists lining up to debunk this theory on the internet. Because they’ve got so much spare time (since they’re not out and about, you know, helping people.

And the answer to the question of why this is the case isn’t “because we’re told to be good from the pulpit” – no, it’s good old peer pressure, in the form of community.

What is it about friends-at-church that fosters good citizenship? It could be that requests to get involved carry more moral weight when they come from someone you know through your congregation rather than work or your bowling team. Or perhaps religious congregations simply foster peer pressure to do good. At this point, we do not know the precise magic civic ingredient in religious friendships.

Not knowing exactly how religious friendships foster good neighborliness thus leaves open the possibility that the same sort of effect could be found in secular organizations. But they would probably have to resemble religious congregations — close-knit communities with shared morals and values. Currently, though, such groups are few and far between. (Communes might qualify, for example.)

Interesting. Thoughts?

Mail from strangers

So spam commenters are nice, but random strangers who email you are not. That’s what I’ve learned this week after I received this email from a random:

“How does it feel to be an utter and complete idiot who bases his entire life on ancient mythology with no basis in reality?”

It feels pretty good, Brad Johnson, from wherever you are. It feels pretty good.

Seriously. Feel free to email me using that email address up the top of the page – I’ll only reply in an insulting manner if you’re somebody like Brad Johnson who just wants to show me that you think you’re smarter than me.

Does the Bible Contradict itself?

One of the four horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse – Sam Harris – thinks so. He commissioned this beautiful infographic of “contradictions” in the Bible, which shows, once again, that the New Atheists read the Bible in much the same way as the Westboro Baptist Church. Which is the reason they are so angry about Christianity. When you read it like that mob the Bible is pretty awful. What they don’t do is interact with the other 99.9999999999999% of people who read the Bible with some idea of theology, and how the Bible works, and some basic interpretive skills. Things like recognising genre (for example, one of the “contradictions” is two verses in Proverbs that are deliberately contradictory and placed next to each other to highlight the difficulty of dealing with fools), recognising rhetorical purpose, or recognising literary techniques and difficulties that come from translating Hebrew idioms into English. This couplet from Genesis 8 is one of the “contradictions”…

“4 and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.”

Now, I’m no expert on flood physics and geography – but it seems to me that a boat might come to rest on a high mountain before the high mountain is visible, and it may take a little longer for the rest of the mountains to become visible. Which means that even at face value this doesn’t seem contradictory – but there may (and I haven’t looked into this at all) be something going on here with the numbers seven, ten, and seventeen. Seventeen in Hebrew is written as 10 7. So there’s a possibility that we might just have to allow for some literary artistry going on here… Seven is a pretty significant number for Hebrew thought (I’m not going to get all Augustine and start allegorising here) so this sort of verse would have flagged something for the original Hebrew audience.

I haven’t looked into that many of these contradictions. But the two I chose at random seem pretty easy to dismiss. You can get a bigger copy of the graphic (PDF) and go over it with a fine tooth comb if you’d like to. I can’t be bothered. Because I’m going to show this crowing atheist the same treatment I show the Westboro Baptists. I’m going to blog about his stupidity, and then I’m going to move on.

This infographic is from a site called “Project Reason” – unfortunately they don’t extend that reason past science and into literature. It’s sad. The Resurgence has a look at some of the other contradictions put forward, feel free to make note of any you find in the comments here.