Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Another quote from The Language of Science and Faith:

Well, it turns out that if we change gravity by even a tiny fraction of a percent – enough so that you would be, say, one billionth of a gram heavier or lighter when you get on the bathroom scale – the universe becomes so different that there are no stars, galaxies or planets.  And no planets implies no life.

I used to be suspicious of the anthropic principle – that the universe is fine tuned for life.  I wonder if it’s because most of the people I heard invoke it were non-scientists looking to use science to prove faith, and I viewed it with the same distrust I viewed those who claimed scientists were abandoning the theory of evolution in droves.  Then I read Polkinghorne, and he discussed it.  Polkinghorne is a physicist so he should be in a position to know.  But still, he’s also a Christians so maybe he’s biased as well.

Then I read The God Delusion and Dawkins talked about it as a fundamental truth of the universe.  So there you go.  The universe is fine-tuned to support life.

Of course that doesn’t prove that there is a God – it certainly didn’t convince Dawkins – and we don’t want to fall into the trap of invoking God to fill in gaps in our knowledge.  But it does raise some interesting questions, and, if nothing else, it seems to say that a belief in a God who created an orderly universe is a reasonable position to hold.



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I’ve recently started reading The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton.  It’s a really fascinating attempt to present the Biblical Creation account from the point of view of an Ancient Hebrew, and the argument for why that’s how it should be read.  I’m not terribly far into it, but so far I really like what I’ve read.  I came across this thought in the first chapter, and I thought it was worth sharing.  Read it, ponder it, digest it, and let me know what you think.

Science moves forward as ideas are tested and new ones replace old ones.  So if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time.

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If you’re like me and you make a point to check Yahoo! News headlines on a daily basis, you probably ran across something about Stephen Hawking declaring heaven, the after-life, etc. as “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”   This is news because A) He’s probably the most famous scientist in the world, and whenever a scientist comments on religion the press jumps on it because people love conflict, and B)…hmm…I think ‘A’ pretty much covers it.

Here’s a link to the Stephen Hawking article.

And here’s a link to a response from prominent New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright.

Of course, Hawking’s comments are so short, that’s it’s hard to judge his conclusions.  But in Wright’s defense, scientists who speak about religion have a bad habit of attacking a fifth grade Sunday school class version of Christianity as if it’s the real thing (I’m looking at you Dawkins).

I apologize if anyone came here hoping for a YouTube video of Stephen Hawking and N. T. Wright literally punching each other in the face.  Rest assured, as soon as it goes up I’ll post it.

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Evangelical Atheism is the term I prefer for the New Atheism movement.  These are the guys like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens who actively attack religion in favor of atheism.  In their world there can be no coexistence.  Religion must be stomped out for the betterment of mankind.

Another good term for them is ‘fundamentalist’.

Or maybe ‘bigot’

This article actually does a good job of explaining what I’ve concluded.  Especially the sections titled ‘Too-Simple Atheism’, and ‘Dawkins’ Inverted Theism’.

What you should immediately notice if you ever read these guys or listen to their interviews is what exactly they are attacking and calling ‘religion’ or ‘Christianity’.  You should notice that it’s not theology or esteemed theologians.  It’s fundamentalist religion that they attack, and the way they treat it, you would believe that it stands for all religion.  They attack the dogmatic, close-minded, stick-to-your-beliefs-despite-all-evidence-to-the-contrary folks who tend to make the news in the name of Christianity.

But you know what?  Fundamentalist Christianity is generally pretty lousy.  It’s no wonder they can attack it and feel confident doing so.  A lot of fundamentalist Christianity is derived from poor reasoning and poor theology.  If the Evangelical Atheists had more than the apparent cursory knowledge of Christianity that they’ve demonstrated, they might still be atheists, but at least they could engage the faith on a more meaningful level.

Also, the idea that science has advanced to a point where faith and/or God are no longer necessary is just as ludicrous a statement as William Thomson’s, possibly apocryphal quote “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” at the end of the 19th century.  To make such a statement demonstrates a refusal to accept the natural limitations of science and a misunderstanding of the nature of God and what it is His existence is able to explain.

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I’ve been reading another book by John Polkinghorne lately titled Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions About God, Science, and Belief.  It’s an excellent book, written in a Q & A style using questions posted to a website and offering good summary answers of some of the more pressing questions involving faith and science and further reference material when needed.  I came across this passage the other day and found it interesting.

We do not need to believe that Homo sapiens, in all our five-fingered specificity, was decreed from all eternity, but we can certainly believe that the eventual emergence of self-conscious, God-conscious beings is no accident but rather the fulfillment of the Creator’s purpose.

I know intellectually that this isn’t the case, but for some reason it’s hard to stop thinking of physical bodies when I read in Genesis about humankind being made “in the image of God”.  I don’t know if it’s just a normal first impression to think physical when we hear the term image since that’s what so many images are, or if it’s from years of culture depicting God as a bearded old man, but for some reason, this really caught me off guard when I read it.  Like I said, I know intellectually that what ‘image of God’ refers to is our consciousness – our capacity for thought, feelings, and choices, but if you’re going to take evolution as the explanation for how we became what we are (if not who we are), then it could have been another branch that ultimately spawned the free-thinking species.  Is it important for God’s plan that we have ten fingers and ten toes?  That we don’t have wings or a tail?  That we’re warm-blooded and have skin and hair instead of fur, feathers, or scales?   Of course even the casual partaker of science fiction has no trouble picturing different creatures with the self awareness of humans.  That’s the point of stories about aliens and flying saucers.  What struck me was that with a few minor changes throughout history, we might have been completely different.

I liked this passage, not because it answered some fundamental question I’ve wrestled with, but because it sent my mind down a path it had never been on before.  Good books do that.

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My wife and I watched The Invention of Lying last night.  It’s a better than decent comedy about a man named Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) who discovers the ability to lie in a world where everyone always tells the truth.  At one point in the film, Mark uses his ability to lie to comfort his mother as she dies by telling her about the wonderful, happy place that waits for her in the great beyond.  Some people happen to overhear and religion is born.  Word of the happy afterlife spreads (up until this point everyone believed that eternal nothingness is all that waited for them), and it leads up to probably the funniest and most clever scene in the movie where the world watches as Mark emerges from his apartment with his version of the Ten Commandments taped to two pizza boxes.

But isn’t religion sacred?   How dare they make-fun of something held so dearly by millions of people all over the world?   Is it ever okay to make fun of religion?

I say yes.  But, that’s a yes with some reservations.  There is a fine line between meaningful satire that brilliantly exposes the way people have misused and perverted beliefs and ideas, and mockery that’s nothing more than meanness for the sake of a laugh.

Jon Stewart, of course, is a master of satire.  On The Daily Show, he skewers the news organizations, politicians, and other world leaders, not by mocking the basic ideals of the government or media, but by pointing out their hypocrisy.  That’s when religious satire is at it’s best and most useful as well.  Not when it’s  mocking the system or beliefs as a whole, but when it is used to point out how people have screwed it all up.  Mocking the beliefs as a whole (ie. Making fun of Jesus, God, etc. The actual sacred parts), is akin to making fun of the fat kid or the kid wearing glasses.  It’s being a bully and, in some cases, a bigot.  But using satire to point out how being a gung-ho supporter of war is inconsistent with Jesus’s teaching of turn the other cheek is thought provoking.

Now, let me pause here for a minute to point out that I understand completely that the place I’ve drawn my line is entirely my choosing.  A nonbeliever would have no problem with the mocking of Jesus as the son of God because he sees that claim as false and sees any satire pointing that out as thought-provoking.  I get that.  But I still see a difference between mocking the inconsistencies of believers and mocking them for believing.  The former seems to have the purpose of forcing them to examine why they do what they do, and the later seems to attack who they are.

The Invention of Lying has both types of satire, the kind that crosses my line and the kind that doesn’t.  On one level, the movie presents religion as a lie necessary only to make people act good and feel better about dying.  But, in the pizza box scene, we have Mark delivering his ten rules, and the people asking questions like “How many bad things do we have to do before we’re sent to the bad place.”.   It’s a brilliant scene showing how once this religion exists the people immediately focus on the rules and regulations.

The movie Dogma frequently leaps back and forth over this line.  Perversions and misuses of religion are deftly belittled with the introduction of Buddy Jesus, and the main plot mocking the whole of legalism as two fallen angels try to sneak back into heaven through a forgiveness door.

The Simpsons used to do this incredibly well.  I always think of the episode where Homer is forced into becoming a missionary for a cult.  As he’s getting on the plane he says “I can’t be a missionary.  I don’t even believe in Jebus.”   Then, as the plane is flying off we see him at the window crying out in his moment of fear “Save me Jebus!”  That’s genius in how it attacks a common aspect of humanity, that we turn to God in our times of fear, but forget him in times of joy, but it doesn’t mock the faith itself.  On the other end of the spectrum is South Park which generally seems to just mock the faith of Christianity as a whole (As well as every other religion.  South Park seems to relish in stomping the line of good taste into oblivion as they march over it).   That’s not to say South Park isn’t clever and funny a lot of the time, but they can’t touch The Simpsons when it’s firing on all cylinders.  I think a lot of that has to do with how much more intelligence and wit it takes to do satire within the bounds of good taste.

So why do people have a problem with any form of religious satire?  Part of it has to do with our dislike of being doubted.  When someone attacks something we hold true it’s our first instinct to get defensive and fight back; not to think about what they are saying and see if they have a point.  Part of it also has to do with a lack of understanding.  A lot of people just don’t get it, and that goes for all satire.   I read this article from The Onion every once in a while to my science classes.  It’s hilarious, and I think it’s perfect for highlighting the importance of using logic and reason to form conclusions by pointing out how ridiculous science would be everything was decided arbitrarily by the individual scientist.  Rarely do my students think it is as funny as I do.  Most of the time it’s because they are thinking of the article in too concrete of a manner and failing to see the implications of forming arbitrary opinions in any subject;  they usually just think that the specific guy in the article is an idiot for doing those specific things.

I like to think it’s because their sense of humor is not as sophisticated as mine.

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There’s a scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 where the main character, Yossarian, is pretending to be a dying soldier so that a family can pretend he’s their son and brother, who died before they arrived, and say goodbye to him.  It’s a pathetic scene, and you really get a feel for the how pitiful, heartbroken, and sort of confused the family is as they try to desperately deal with their loss.   Heller’s masterful juxtaposition of humor and grief only seems to deepen the emotions that come with both.  The parents keep calling Yossarian by their dead son’s name while the brother continually corrects them long after Yossarian has stopped, and the mother leaves him with her final motherly advice to wear something warm in the afterlife.

But it’s the father’s parting words that stick with me.

Towards the end of this scene the father makes a statement that sums up his feelings, and seems to me, to sum up the feelings of all those who wonder how a good God can allow so much suffering on his world.  In a book filled with laugh-out-loud moments, the punch of poignancy lands that much harder.

The father continued solemnly with his head lowered.  “When you talk to the man upstairs,” he said, “I want you to tell Him something for me.  Tell Him it ain’t right for people to die when they’re young.  I mean it.  Tell Him if they got to die at all, they got to die when they’re old.  I want you to tell Him that.  I don’t think He knows it ain’t right, because He’s supposed to be good and it’s been going on for a long, long time.  Okay?”

I’ve never struggled much with this question, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that.  The first is that I’ve never directly experienced the sort of suffering that makes you question everything you believe in.  I’ve been blessed with a wonderful life, and so I’ll admit up front that any ideas I have about God and suffering  are drawn from purely intellectual means and not from experience.  I have, however, seen suffering.  I’ve been to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Belize.  I’ve seen an orphanage in Honduras for handicapped children whose parents didn’t want them.  If you think an orphanage in the United States is a bad place, you need to see one in a developing country.  I’ve seen a refugee camp in the middle of Managua, Nicaragua that looked like every tent was made from big, black trash bags and they stretched as far as the eye could see.  I’ve been to places in Belize where running water and electricity were intermittent at best and some places where they were nonexistent.  So I don’t come to this totally ignorant of what some people in the world have to endure to survive.

The second is that I believe very strongly in free-will and random chance.  While the freedom of humanity to make it’s own choices is never explicitly granted in the Bible it’s implied in every story from Genesis through Revelation.  Why did God put those two trees in the Garden of Eden and then tell Adam and Eve not to eat from them?  He wasn’t trying to tease them, and he didn’t have to include them.  He wanted to give them a decision to make.  He wanted them to have a choice.  Why did Jesus and the Apostles do all of that preaching and teaching in the New Testament?  Why did Paul write letters to churches urging them to change their ways?   It’s because people had choices to make.   This existence of free-will is necessary for the world to also include things like love and joy, or for that matter hate and pain.  You can’t have one without the other.  If we didn’t have free-will, we would all be just going through the preordained motions of either a manipulative God, or, for the atheist who takes a stance of determinism, causal natural forces.  Nobody really likes either of those ideas (or lives as if they believe them), or we wouldn’t get angry when someone committed murder because, really, it wasn’t their fault.  They didn’t make the choice to kill that person they were destined to do it because God, or the collisions of atoms, made them.

It’s my belief that pain and suffering are mostly the consequences of humanity having choices and that freedom to choose for ourselves is the greatest gift of a good God.  We always say, how can a good God allow so much suffering, and it’s true that an all-powerful God could stop that suffering at any moment, and certainly when we are the ones suffering we want him to.  But if stopping all of the suffering in the world meant doing away with free-will, we’ve lost something much greater.

I also believe that some pain and suffering comes from the existence of randomness in the universe.  Sometimes bad things just happen.  God isn’t in direct control of every little thing that occurs.  He doesn’t care if I roll double sixes twice in a row in Monopoly.  Or if he does care and he did control it directly, I could never tell the difference between his act and random chance anyway.

I acknowledge that these reasons for the existence of suffering aren’t very helpful if you are actually suffering.  I would never show up at a funeral and tell a grieving widow “Hey, at least you still have free-will, right?”, or I wouldn’t go up to someone screaming out “Why, God? Why?”  and say, “Don’t blame God.  It was just random chance that your puppy happened to be standing where that meteorite was going to land.”.  These aren’t comforting words, but they are how I’ve dealt with the question in my own mind.

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