Monday, August 27, 2007

The Outsiders

As the new NFL season begins, I reflect back on the events that have transpired since the end of the season last year, and since 2001, When the Falcons selected Michael Vick with the first pick in that years draft. Certainly, he appeared to have talents that no other NFL quarterback had ever had. Speed, elusiveness, and a cannon for an arm that torched college secondaries. I have been a Vick opponent for several years now, my objections reaching their height when Vick flipped the bird to home fans at the Georgia Dome. Indeed, I suggested on the Falcons message boards that we trade him after the Green Bay playoff win, and was roasted with angry responses.

There are two ways of looking at this situation. On one hand, Vick clearly has touched a nerve with the American public not only for his unprofessional behavior on and off the field (the water bottle incident at the airport, the flipped birds, giving up late in games) but also in his personal life. Turning puppies who have been domesticated and could become loving members of families into savage monsters which must be destroyed because they represent a threat to society seems to be a particularly heinous act, one which has been committed continuously over the years since 2001, when Vick received his first paycheck.

To my knowledge, Vick has never made any public profession of faith. He has made numerous public professions of a glitzy, gangster-stylized, live-for-the-money/glory lifestyle, and promoted this view towards our nations youth. Yet God views both Michal Vick and I, and everyone else in the same way. We are all flawed by sin. We all have our own individual issues, yet He loves us all the same. Does this mean that I forgive and forget? Yes and no. Vick's private sin has become very public, yet how many of us struggle with gossip? With infidelity of the heart? With pride? King David committed murder and adultery over Bathsheba, yet he was able to repent of that and became a man after God's own heart. He had to live with the consequences of his actions, however, and Israel was at war with its enemies for his entire life.

If I were Michael Vick (a sobering thought), I would make the following statement to the media:

"To the American public, the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons, and their fans: I sincerely and humbly apologize for my actions. All allegations regarding the matters at Bad News Kennels and myself are true. I am canceling my acceptance of the plea deal offered to me by way of my lawyers, and instead this morning will plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy, and justice, of the judge. After serving whatever time is sentenced for me to serve, I will not seek any employment in professional football, but will instead seek to work at an animal shelter, under supervision, in hopes of redeeming myself and my actions. I was wrong not only in hurting and killing these creatures which were placed in my care, but also in dedicating my life to a pursuit of worthless image. Not now, but after such things have come to pass, I would humbly ask your forgiveness."

Eating humble pie is a hard thing to do. For some, it may be much harder than scoring touchdowns in the NFL. I am not holding my breath.

armchair coach
amateur historian

Friday, August 10, 2007

In Defense of Faith

On Debating Religion (1994) by Richard Dawkins

[ Richard Dawkins, well-known for his books on evolution, took part in a debate with the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, on the existence of God at the Edinburgh science festival last Easter. [Easter '92 ed.] The science correspondent of The Observer reported that the "withering" Richard Dawkins clearly believed the "God should be spoken of in the same way as Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy". He [the correspondent] overheard a gloomy cleric comment on the debate: "That was easy to sum up. Lions 10, Christians nil". ]

[My responses will be in red italics, enclosed within brackets]

Religious people split into three main groups when faced with science. I shall label them the "know-nothings", the "know-alls", and the "no-contests". I suspect that Dr John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, probably belongs to the third of these groups, so I shall begin with them. [What you mean is that YOU categorize them into three groups, based on on your interpretation of their answers. Do not phrase your statements so as to speak for others. Please continue.]

The "no-contests" are rightly reconciled to the fact that religion cannot compete with science on its own ground. They think there is no contest between science and religion, because they are simply about different things. the biblical account of the origin of the universe (the origin of life, the diversity of species, the origin of man) -- all those things are now known to be untrue. [Known? Ah, you were there with a camcorder then. No? Why what faith you have to place your beliefs in something you have not seen, nor can you repeat scientifically through experimentation, limiting your variables and repeating your results with the same outcome. You cannot repeat the origins of human life, therefore, do not insult my intelligence by concluding that I accept such things merely because they are accepted by others who regard themselves as "intellectual." I chide my 7th grade science fair students for such thinking. I remain skeptical, not of natural selection, but of some specific parts of the theory of evolution, where faith in unproven conclusions comes into play.]

The "no-contests" have no trouble with this: they regard it as naive in the extreme, almost bad taste to ask of a biblical story, is it true? True, they say, true? Of course it isn't true in any crude literal sense. Science and religion are not competing for the same territory. They are about different things. They are equally true, but in their different ways. [True science is limited by the 5 senses; religion includes the spirit of living things and other forms of subjective truth. I am not of the belief that truth can only be found objectively. More on that later.]

A favourite and thoroughly meaningless phrase is "religious dimension". You meet this in statements such as "science is all very well as far as it goes, but it leaves out the religious dimension". [The phrase "thoroughly meaningless" is dependent on the speaker, and their viewpoint.]

The "know-nothings", or fundamentalists, are in one way more honest. They are true to history. They recognize that until recently one of religion's main functions was scientific: the explanation of existence, of the universe, of life. Historically, most religions have had or even been a cosmology and a biology. I suspect that today if you asked people to justify their belief in God, the dominant reason would be scientific. Most people, I believe, think that you need a God to explain the existence of the world, and especially the existence of life. They are wrong, but our education system is such that many people don't know it. [To know nothing, in latin; a sciencia. Do fundamentalists *really* know nothing, or are you simply name-calling? Keep your arguements to the point at hand- name calling is fit for moronic television shows like Jerry Springer. Thank you for qualifying your statement that it is your belief that people need God to prove the existance of the world, and life.]

They are also true to history because you can't escape the scientific implications of religion. A universe with a God would like quite different from a universe without one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look different. [How?] So the most basic claims of religion are scientific. Religion is a scientific theory. [A historical presumption, which is unproven opinion. By attributing the origin of all religion and religious beliefs to supernatural folk tales, it is premised on the idea that no supernatural occurances whatsoever in the history of all mankind have their origin from God, or the spiritual realm. That has not been established, and it begs the question.]

I am sometimes accused of arrogant intolerance in my treatment of creationists. Of course arrogance is an unpleasant characteristic, and I should hate to be thought arrogant in a general way. But there are limits! To get some idea of what it is like being a professional student of evolution, asked to have a serious debate with creationists, the following comparison is a fair one. Imagine yourself a classical scholar who has spent a lifetime studying Roman history in all its rich detail. Now somebody comes along, with a degree in marine engineering or mediaeval musicology, and tries to argue that the Romans never existed. Wouldn't you find it hard to suppress your impatience? And mightn't it look a bit like arrogance? [Your point is well taken. However, your comparison is not. Romans surely existed, but the mechanism of creation itself of all life on earth can only be speculated and theorized about, not proven. Additionally, if I got into an argument with a student in my class, does that make the student automatically wrong? No. I should hope you would be given the same opportunity should you desire to debate theology.]

My third group, the "know-alls" (I unkindly name them that because I find their position patronising), think religion is good for people, perhaps good for society. Perhaps good because it consoles them in death or bereavement, perhaps because it provides a moral code. [You do not differentiate among different organised religious organisations and also people simply having faith. Is there no difference between the Taliban and the Mennonites? Such labeling is not good. Shall we blame all whites for the lynchings of the past, or any for that matter?]

Whether or not the actual beliefs of the religion are true doesn't matter. [To you.] Maybe there isn't a God; we educated people know there is precious little evidence for one, let alone for ideas such as the Virgin birth or the Resurrection. but the uneducated masses need a God to keep them out of mischief or to comfort them in bereavement. The little matter of God's probably non-existence can be brushed to one side in the interest of greater social good. I need say not more about the "know-alls" because they wouldn't claim to have anything to contribute to scientific truth. [If you had told we, the educated masses, that man would set foot on the moon, or fly through the air, or replace a severed limb with surgical techniques when Newton or Bacon or Hume were alive, they would have the same contempt for you that you appear to have for those with faith. And if I may be so bold, it sounds to me (and this is a personal opinion,) that you are prideful of your intellect. You cannot be wrong. I wonder if those scientists in the 17th century thought the same? Additionally, you state God's non existance as a matter of fact, in your fourth sentence. Frankly, I consider this question to be more important than all science, all social good combined. For if He does indeed exist, (and I grant you credit for qualifying this with your second sentence in this paragraph "maybe,") does this not put those who place faith in your arguments in peril? Finally, you contradict yourself. You state maybe there isn't a God, but then state that there is not. So which is it?]

*Is God a Superstring?*

I shall now return to the "no-contests". The argument they mount is certainly worth serious examination, but I think that we shall find it has little more merit than those of the other groups.

God is not an old man with a white beard in the sky. Right then, what is God? And now come the weasel words. these are very variable. "God is not out there, he is in all of us." God is the ground of all being." "God is the essence of life." "God is the universe." "Don't you believe in the universe?" "Of course I believe in the universe." "Then you believe in God." "God is love, don't you believe in love?" "Right, then you believe in God?" [I accede that pure science itself cannot prove or contend with mystical or metaphysical experience. It (faith) is, for the most part, subjective.]

Modern physicists sometimes wax a bit mystical when they contemplate questions such as why the big bang happened when it did, why the laws of physics are these laws and not those laws, why the universe exists at all, and so on. Sometimes physicists may resort to saying that there is an inner core of mystery that we don't understand, and perhaps never can; and they may then say that perhaps this inner core of mystery is another name for God. Or in Stephen Hawkings's words, if we understand these things, we shall perhaps "know the mind of God."

The trouble is that God in this sophisticated, physicist's sense bears no resemblance to the God of the Bible or any other religion. If a physicist says God is another name for Planck's constant, or God is a superstring, we should take it as a picturesque metaphorical way of saying that the nature of superstrings or the value of Planck's constant is a profound mystery. It has obviously not the smallest connection with a being capable of forgiving sins, a being who might listen to prayers, who cares about whether or not the Sabbath begins at 5pm or 6pm, whether you wear a veil or have a bit of arm showing; and no connection whatever with a being capable of imposing a death penalty on His son to expiate the sins of the world before and after he was born. [I agree with you on this one. However, you show your naivety here, theologically. Man looks at the outer appearance, God judges the heart. Question: Can you bring yourself to the point of considering just how little we know about the universe and ourselves? If we do know little, what are we missing? Just a thought.]

*The Fabulous Bible*

The same is true of attempts to identify the big bang of modern cosmology with the myth of Genesis. There is only an utterly trivial resemblance between the sophisticated conceptions of modern physics, and the creation myths of the Babylonians and the Jews that we have inherited. [And the ancient Babylonians and Jews had the epistomology and phylogeny and scientific understanding to be able to convey these events accurately without even the simple tools of a written language, or advanced mathematics to be able to describe them. You presume too much.]

What do the "no-contests" say about those parts of scripture and religious teaching that once-upon-a-time would have been unquestioned religious and scientific truths; the creation of the world the creation of life, the various miracles of the Old and New Testaments,, survival after death, the Virgin Birth? These stories have become, in the hands of the "no-contests", little more than moral fables, the equivalent of Aesop of Hans Anderson. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is irritating that they almost never admit this is what they are doing. [And you can prove that every event did not happen as related? I certainly can't prove that they did. And to be honest with you, this is what irritates me- your continuous lumping together of ideas and events that should be handled and argued separately. I concede, verily, that in many of my own arguments, I am placing the burden of proof on you. However, this does not exempt you from making verifiable, logical, and reasonable arguments.]

For instance, I recently heard the previous Chief Rabbi, Sir Immanuel Jacobovits, talking about the evils of racism. Racism is evil, and it deserves a better argument against it that the one he gave. Adam and Eve, he argued, were the ancestors of all human kind. Therefore, all human kind belongs to one race, the human race. [Sir, here I must protest. You do not even know the definition of the word "racism." What you refer to is bigotry, and there IS a difference. Know what your are talking about before you refer to it, lest you be found lacking!]

What are we going to make of an argument like that? The Chief Rabbi is an educated man, he obviously doesn't believe in Adam and Eve, so what exactly did he think he was saying? [Obviously? I see no such statement.]

He must have been using Adam and Eve as a fable, just as one might use the story of Jack the Giantkiller or Cinderella to illustrate some laudable moral homily.

I have the impression that clergymen are so used to treating the biblical stories as fables that they have forgotten the difference between fact and fiction. It's like the people who, when somebody dies on The Archers, write letters of condolence to the others. [Well, I certainly cannot find fault with any impression you may have of clergymen. Perhaps, ( and this is just my own thought) if you had spent more time *listening* (I mean here as a counselor would, to try to understand tham and perceive what not only what they are saying but what is behind what they are saying) to clergy that you do not prefer to hear, instead of dismissing them outright, you might have a different impression than the one you have.]

*Inheriting Religion*

As a Darwinian, something strikes me when I look at religion. Religion shows a pattern of heredity which I think is similar to genetic heredity. The vast majority of people have an allegiance to one particular religion. there are hundreds of different religious sects, and every religious person is loyal to just one of those.

Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity.

This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.

Truths about the cosmos are true all around the universe. They don't differ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Poland, or Norway. Yet, we are apparently prepared to accept that the religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography.

If you ask people why they are convinced of the truth of their religion, they don't appeal to heredity. Put like that it sounds too obviously stupid. Nor do they appeal to evidence. There isn't any, and nowadays the better educated admit it. No, they appeal to faith. Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. The worst thing is that the rest of us are supposed to respect it: to treat it with kid gloves. [I see your point here, and it is well taken. To question faith is a good thing. "Why do I believe?" The answer is always subjective, because science does not apply well to matters regarding spirituality. Put on it's head, I turn the question back to you: Is absence of evidence evidence of absence? If a civil war battle occured outside my house in 1863, and I went out to look for bullets, guns, pieces of leather, but found none, should I then say, "No battle took place here?"]

If a slaughterman doesn't comply with the law in respect of cruelty to animals, he is rightly prosecuted and punished. but if he complains that his cruel practices are necessitated by religious faith, we back off apologetically and allow him to get on with it. Any other position that someone takes up can expect to be defended with reasoned argument. Faith is allowed not to justify itself by argument. Faith must be respected; and if you don't respect it, you are accused of violating human rights. [Have you considered that the faith of Secular Humanism now trumps the faith of the corporate community at every high school football game in America- in such situations, consider- who is violating whom?]

Even those with no faith have been brainwashed into respecting the faith of others. When so-called Muslim community leaders go on the radio and advocate the killing of Salman Rushdie, they are clearly committing incitement to murder--a crime for which they would ordinarily be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned. But are they arrested? They are not, because our secular society "respects" their faith, and sympathises with the deep "hurt" and "insult" to it. [This is political correctness, not respect for faith. A Muslim is allowed to place a display for Ramadan in the school library for the purposes of "inclusiveness and diversity." What happens when someone wants to put up a Christmas display? You already know the answer. "We don't want to OFFEND anyone."]

Well I don't. I will respect your views if you can justify them. but if you justify your views only by saying you have faith in them, I shall not respect them. [I don't care whether you respect my views. I question your logic.]


I want to end by returning to science. It is often said, mainly by the "no-contests", that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic.

At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal's wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?

The trouble with the agnostic argument is that it can be applied to anything. There is an infinite number of hypothetical beliefs we could hold which we can't positively disprove. On the whole, people don't believe in most of them, such as fairies, unicorns, dragons, Father Christmas, and so on. But on the whole they do believe in a creator God, together with whatever particular baggage goes with the religion of their parents. [Therefore, since we cannot disprove God, and we cannot prove God (with our 5 senses, objectively,) we should all be purely atheistic. There was a family once, who owned a dog. They moved thousands of miles away to the other side of the continent. This family loved their dog, and the dog loved his family. How can this dog travel over a thousand miles to rejoin his family without knowing where to go? The answer is, there is a spiritual component to life, I believe, and it is this spiritual component that can connect with God. The fact is that the dog and his family were reunited. I personally find that faith in only objective truth to be lacking, that other forms of truth are valid.]

I suspect the reason is that most people, though not belonging to the "know-nothing" party, nevertheless have a residue of feeling that Darwinian evolution isn't quite big enough to explain everything about life. All I can say as a biologist is that the feeling disappears progressively the more you read about and study what is known about life and evolution.

I want to add one thing more. The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism. Complex, statistically improbable things are by their nature more difficult to explain than simple, statistically probable things. [If we cannot understand them, they are not true? This is the argument you are making. I cannot see the curvature of the Earth, therefore the Earth is flat. I call this another word- foolishness!]

The great beauty of Darwin's theory of evolution is that it explains how complex, difficult to understand things could have arisen step by plausible step, from simple, easy to understand beginnings. We start our explanation from almost infinitely simple beginnings: pure hydrogen and a huge amount of energy. Our scientific, Darwinian explanations carry us through a series of well-understood gradual steps to all the spectacular beauty and complexity of life.

The alternative hypothesis, that it was all started by a supernatural creator, is not only superfluous, it is also highly improbable. It falls foul of the very argument that was originally put forward in its favour. This is because any God worthy of the name must have been a being of colossal intelligence, a supermind, an entity of extremely low probability--a very improbable being indeed. [As improbable as a dog finding his family thousands of miles away?]

Even if the postulation of such an entity explained anything (and we [You mean, "I"] don't need it to), it still wouldn't help because it raises a bigger mystery than it solves.

Science offers us an explanation of how complexity (the difficult) arose out of simplicity (the easy). The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything, for it simply postulates what we are trying to explain. It postulates the difficult to explain, and leaves it at that. We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very, very improbable indeed. [Therefore, if you will forgive me, science is your faith, and mankind is your God, for he then is the highest created being in existence. Let's call it like it is.]

[Consequently, science by itself is a limited resource for originating an entire world view. God is Spirit, and those who seek Him must seek Him in spirit and in truth. Ignoring the spiritual aspect of man does not make it magically dissappear, nor does it refute it's existence. I do agree with Mr. Dawkins on one point: when one studies science alone in the absence of spiritual insight (faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God), it does indeed cause a "draining" of what faith one has. I believe this is spiritually derived from the enemy of mankind. May God protect us, and let us ever be humble to His truth.

True science is not prideful, elevating itself in its own view of intellectualism. It does not demand the non-existence of God due to "statistical improbabilities." Rather, it embraces truth, and humbles itself before the Author of all truth and life.]

This was a lecture by Richard Dawkins extracted from The Nullifidian (Dec 94)