Thursday, June 28, 2007

Augustine on Christians spouting bad science

Wes Elsberry, as many of you know, is an elder statesman both at Panda's Thumb and at The National Center for Science Education (NCSE.) Over the years we have argued, early-on acrimoniously, about level playing fields and Popperian falsifiability. In addition, I have been a critic of the NCSE, primarily because I believe they misrepresent the Vatican's view on evolution—effectively (in my opinion) presenting the Vatican's acceptance of a theistic evolution as a general papal endorsement of the theory. Over time we have, I would say, at least learned to interact graciously.

This is just a big hat tip—in a post on his blog he has a full quote from St. Augustine, one that I've been searching for:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although _they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram: 1.19.39 translated by J.H. Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41. (Emphasis added)

He wasn't the greatest theologian of the first millennium for nothing.

The Drama of Redemption (Lesson 2, Part 1)

This is a new Sunday School series which will be largely based on R. C. Sproul’s audio series The Drama of Redemption, available from his website.

See the sidebar for links to other lessons.

§2. The Opening Act

We are shadowing R. C. Sproul's audio series, the Drama of Redemption. Our goal is to come away with a coherent view of the Old Testament as a story of redemption draped over the scaffolding of biblical covenants. We want to stop looking at the Old Testament as a collection of "chances" God gave the Jews, in which they failed every time, and in which at some point God decided "I'm not doing this any more, clearly it's not working" and so he sent Christ. The story is not haphazard—haphazard history is inconsistent with a sovereign God.

Last time we discussed the Covenant of Redemption. This covenant, inferred from scripture, was entered into before time and made among the three persons of the Trinity. It is the agreement that the Father would give a people to His son, the Son would redeem them, and the Spirit would sanctify them.

From this point forward, we will look at covenants between God and man.

Dramas, as plays, are broken into acts. The standard format for a drama is "a play in three acts." Interestingly, as we pointed out last time, biblical history is a drama in three acts:

  • Act 1: Creation (Two Chapters)
  • Act 2: The Fall of Man (One Chapter)
  • Act 3: Redemption (One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty Six Chapters)

Although the class is about redemption, we have to spend a bit of time in the first two acts. Because there, in creation, we find the first covenant made that included man. As we pointed out, man is a party in these covenants, but man did not participate in establishing the requirements or devising the blessings contained therein. All the covenants are unilaterally imposed by God. It's not even "take it or leave it," it's just "take it." Our only choice is between being a covenant keeper or a covenant breaker.

The Covenant of Creation

The Covenant of Creation was made in the Garden of Eden between God and Adam and Eve. And Adam, as we'll discuss later, actually represented all mankind. It includes laws and promises that God made to Adam and Eve before the fall. For example, He commands them to be fruitful and multiply. He tells them to work. One job for Adam was to name the animals, launching the birth of the science of biology. It's an important point: work is not a consequence of the fall. Unnecessarily difficult work (e.g., farming in the presence of thorns and thistles in a resisting ground) is part of the fall. But the task of farming preceded the fall. Work is not a curse. God worked and God rested and God is holy. Adam and Eve were created to work and to rest and to be holy.

As for the promises, God agreed to provide nurture and sustenance: of all these trees you may freely eat. He also promises eternal life and eternal fellowship. One simple condition: but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.

So to summarize, here is the Covenant of Creation:

  • Man is commanded to be fruitful and multiply, to work the Garden, and to refrain from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
  • In return, God promises many blessings, including providing all man's needs, face-to-face fellowship with himself, and eternal life.

Some theologians describe the pre-fall era as a probationary period, and man failed his probation. Some even go so far as to say that had man passed the probation, then he would have eaten from the Tree of Life—after which sin would have been impossible.

Personally I don't subscribe to this view. There is nothing about a "period" after which, had they obeyed, they would have been rewarded further. No, the command is to obey forever. Furthermore the only tree explicitly forbidden was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. There is no indication they were not allowed to eat from the Tree of Life.


Aside: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, at the center of the garden, appears several places in scripture. It is quite mysterious. All the more so given that (here we jump ahead) when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, we read a very odd passage:

Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" (Gen. 3:22)

How are we to interpret this? Surely the tree isn't magic—eternal life comes from God, not from the fruit of a tree. It cannot be that the fruit was "magic" although many commentators and bible notes treat this verse as such. My bible has a footnote that argues that man was (paraphrasing) graciously preserved from the pain of living eternally in a fallen world. That doesn't smell right to me, I think the explanation is elsewhere, and I think the answer might be before us on this very day.

Because today we partake of the Lord's Supper, and we use exactly the same language. We talk of eternal life in this meal that we will share. I believe the explanation for the Tree of Life in the garden is that it was a sacramental tree. It was a seal that signified eternal life—just like the bread we'll soon partake of. The tree of life was the seal—and for covenant breakers to eat of it, after they became covenant breakers, would have been profane. Likewise, eating the bread in an unworthy manner is profane.


Though the pact with Adam and Eve is not explicitly called a covenant in the opening chapters of Genesis, it is elsewhere:

Like Adam, they have broken the covenant— they were unfaithful to me there. (Hos. 6:7)

And this frightful reference:

20 "This is what the LORD says: 'If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, 21then my covenant with David my servant—and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me—can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne. (Jer 33:20-21)

compares the covenant with David to God's covenant with the day and the night and the statues of heaven and earth which God laid down at creation. In addition, we have the comparison of the representative headship of Christ and Adam in Romans.

[To be continued…]

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Race Day!

I have tickets to Sunday's NASCAR race at Loudon, NH. For those of you who think NASCAR is just watching cars go 'round and 'round: you simply don't get it! And no explanation will suffice. Like the gospel, it will always be foolishness to the unenlightened.

Nice weather. Cold drinks††. Forty-three 800HP cars. Flyovers by fighter jets. Crashes. Controversies. What's not to like?

Let's hope Dale Earnhardt Jr. has an early engine failure (sorry Becky). Not because I don't like him, but because if he retires early a lot of his fans (about half the people in attendance will be Jr. fans) pack up and go, giving the rest of us much more room.

Actually, I'm waiting for the tickets I bought on eBay to arrive. Is that a legitimate concern to pray about?

†† But not beer. Strangely enough, at Loudon you may bring beer into the track but they don't sell it. Must be an insurance thing. But lugging a cooler is a pain. So the cold drink will probably be high quality H2O. Well—I could bring one or two in my backpack (that's legal). It's good to be a Bapterian.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Shame on Uncommon Descent

Uncommon Descent is again proving to be a major embarrassment. Or, more accurately, it has not yet ceased its never ending pursuit of making a fool of itself. The state of affairs is so bad that I really don't know how other members of the ID community refrain from publically distancing themselves from the site's absurdity. It would be amusing if it were not for the fact that, by extension and association, Christianity is impugned in the process.

Let's review the recent travesties.

Without bothering to link (it's simply so pervasive that it cannot be missed) the "Dembski's Cat" paradox is out in full force. This is where "materialism," placed in a box, is both the greatest threat to mankind and, simultaneously, dead or near death. The box is opened at the start of each post—and the direction of the post depends on the observed collapse into one of two eigenstates—"powerful and evil" materialism or "stone cold dead at the hands of the design inference" materialism.

But let's get more specific.

On June 16th, Dembski posted on the mainstream science's difficulty in light of a "growing number of non-religious ID proponents." Personally I suspect that the "growing number" claim is a small numbers argument. The total number of credible non-religious ID proponents is in the single digits—and so it is plausible that the rate in which they trickle in exceeds the rate in which they die off or defect. At any rate, Dembski's new example, worthy of a post, is something called ICON-RIDS, which sounds like a whole group of atheist or agnostic IDers—and Dembski provides a link to their blog. (Funny aside: on their June 25 post, the ICON-RIDS blog thanks Dembski for his link, then flames him for, in other posts, vilifying atheists, arguing that Bill can't have it both ways.)

Just how impressive is this ICON-RIDS organization? And who are these non religious ID scientists? It appears to be the brainchild of just two people, E. J. Klone and, primarily, William Brookfield.

Brookfield, on his Institute of Transparadigmic Science website describes himself as a member of The Institute for Noetic Sciences, a nonprofit organization that conducts and sponsors "leading edge research into the potentials and powers of consciousness." His credentials as an ID scientist seem to be that he published an ICSID (ID's self-refereed play journal that hasn't "published" for two years) article entitled In Search of a Cosmic Super-Law The Supreme "Second law" of Devolution. He also informs us, on his science website, that "Penny and I are living together!", and provides this helpful link.

E. J. Klone's scientific credentials are even more elusive. He introduces himself here.

For more depressing information on the "ID scientist" Brookfield, including his dabbling in "Pleasureism," look here.


But Uncommon Descent is not done. They've had a productive two weeks. In this post entitled "Teaching ID = A crime against humanity", Dembski comes to the defense of a jailed Lutheran pastor. In his lead-in Dembski writes:

Last week I reported on the Council of Europe denouncing ID as a threat to democracy (go here). I also asked how long it would be before advocating ID in Europe would be regarded as a hate-crime. We may have to wait no longer:

He then links to this article describing the incarceration of Johannes Lerle. The implication of Dembski's title and intro is that Lerle is in legal trouble for advocating ID. And who is this freedom fighter, this ID martyr?

A garden variety anti-Semitic holocaust denier who was jailed for that offense. (It is illegal, in Germany, to deny the holocaust.) He asserts that inadequate killing technology and the forensic evidence refute the claim that millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis. More on this charming man on this blog and also here. Lerle is also staunchly anti-abortion, which seems to be sufficient reason for some to overlook his holocaust denial.

Shame on Uncommon Descent for making itself so easy to mock. Shame on them for putting some of us in a position that we link to atheist websites to provide the accurate information about the lunatic fringe claims they are making.


Clarification: On his website, Brookfield characterized his contribution to ISCID entitled "In Search of a Cosmic Super-Law The Supreme 'Second law' of Devolution" as a paper. In fact, it appears to be an ISCID forum posting. Truly I cannot grasp whether Dembski welcoming Brookfield into the ID fold when Brookfield misrepresents himself as having an ISCID paper in what is effectively Dembski's private journal (he is the "Executive Director" of ISCID) is good, bad, or simply par for the course. There are no precedents from which we can draw a baseline for this sort of thing.

European Christianity

There is the old "joke" about the armed rebels who burst into a church in some Christian-unfriendly nation. Brandishing their Kalashnikovs, they warn that all unbelievers have thirty seconds to leave the premises. After the building empties out, they announce to the small minority that remained to face death rather than to renounce their faith, "Well, now that the pretenders are gone, let's get down to some serious worship!"

Maybe, just maybe, something like that—a vigorous and healthy culling of the visible church, is what is happening in Europe. Perhaps it's not, as we have assumed, that European Christianity is dying. Perhaps, instead, we are witnessing only the welcome demise of the bloated, pseudo-Christian state church. And while the cathedrals are now little more than museums, there is, in Europe, a vital core of believers who, unlike the cultural Christians of the state churches of their parents and grandparents, are adherents of a true, saving faith.

Such is the premise of this Foreign Policy article by Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University.

Jenkins writes, concerning the European Church:

In fact, the rapid decline in the continent's church attendance over the past 40 years may have done Europe a favor. It has freed churches of trying to operate as national entities that attempt to serve all members of society. Today, no church stands a realistic chance of incorporating everyone. Smaller, more focused bodies, however, can be more passionate, enthusiastic, and rigorously committed to personal holiness. To use a scientific analogy, when a star collapses, it becomes a white dwarf—smaller in size than it once was, but burning much more intensely. Across Europe, white-dwarf faith communities are growing within the remnants of the old mass church.

It's enough to rekindle the optimism of this postmillennialist.

Hat Tip: In The Agora

Evangelical Feminism

A consensus top-five pick of Christian bloggers is Rebecca of Rebecca Writes, who hails from the Maple Leaf State. She not only writes better than the rest of us, she represents Christianity better than most Christian bloggers. Without hesitation I commend to you her blog in general and specifically her review of Wayne Grudem's book, Evangelical Feminism.

Dawkins is a second rate atheist and I challenge you to prove otherwise

This picks up with a short discussion I had on Ed Brayton's blog.

An important question among atheists is whether or not Richard Dawkins is good or bad for the atheist cause. Said cause seems to be, at least on paper, the complete normalization of atheism. That is, to make it acceptable at all levels to be an atheist. Atheists, you see, like many other groups (including, sadly, Christians) like to whine that they are the sole remaining group for which it is socially acceptable to discriminate. Like all the other groups (including, sadly, Christians) they find evidence for their claim in the fact that only a microscopic percentage of their membership's portrayals in pop culture is "favorable." This is possibly true: there are so many groups claiming victimhood status (including, sadly, Christians) that each one, by mathematical expectation, would turn out to be the good guy only rarely.

Another proof that atheists are especially disadvantaged is that no atheist has been elected president. Supporting evidence for discrimination is that many Christians claim, when asked, they would never vote for an atheist. There is silence, as far as I can tell, on the question of whether or not an atheist's refusal to vote for an overtly religious Christian would constitute the same level of bigotry. (My guess is that many atheists would honestly think that it is different: they wouldn't vote for a Jesus freak, but it is not because he is religious, but because he must be stupid.) Personally, I see no bigotry here—people voting for someone with whom they generally agree is the way it works.

Back to Dawkins. The question becomes: are his tactics too divisive in that they only serve to strengthen the opposition, or are they just what is needed? Are they, as many have noted, having the beneficial effect of eroding the special treatment afforded the religious? (An ancillary effect of victimhood status is the claim that rival groups get special privilege.)

One manifestation of atheism's martyrdom complex is that they fantasize that the world treats the religious with kid gloves. What planet, you may be tempted to ask, are they living on? On Ed's blog, one commenter (science avenger) tried to convince me. Of the pro-Dawkins camp he explained the anti-Dawkins sentiment this way:

From what I have seen and read of Dawkins (and that is quite a bit), my opinion is that he is interpreted the way he is (irascible and such) simply by discussing religion as we might any other subject around people used to religion being treated with kid gloves, if not given an outright pass entirely from straightforward critical scrutiny.

He then reiterates the victimhood claim:

I'd still wager Dembski's scotch that Dawkins is serving the role most oppressed segments of society have needed in history: a very loud, direct voice, calling bullshit on what has gone on for too long.

And later:

Just watch the evening news and watch how religious topics and people are treated. When was the last time you saw a sportcaster ask a boxer why he thanked the supreme creator of the universe for beating the shit out of his fellow man. Or just watch the movies. How many times have you seen the atheist scientist be the hero? No, it's always the tolerant pious that get that role.

There we have it: the clear implication that atheists are among the most oppressed segments of society, in the same league as blacks in the antebellum south. When I asked them who these people are who are "used to religion being treated with kid gloves" (I've never met them) he wrote:

The average person walking down the street who expect, among other things, that when people perform religious ceremonies, you are supposed to treat them reverently, even if you don't buy any of it.

I, for one, have never expected anyone to treat my religious ceremonies (such as they are, I'm a Baptist) reverently. The most I ask is that you allow me to have them without fear of persecution. And in the US, thankfully, I have no fear of persecution.

Let me get to the point of this post. The pro-Dawkins camp in the in-house atheism debate argues that Dawkins is a trailblazer.

I dispute that. (And yes, I have read The God Delusion.) There is nothing novel at all about Dawkins's message. His argument is not intellectual (more about that anon.) And his writing is not good. He repeatedly gives the impression that he doesn't have complete command over his subject—a writing mortal sin. On top of that he is often boring. Sam Harris, at least, was not boring. I much prefer the irrascible Dawkins to the boring Dawkins.

In the thread on Brayton's blog I contrasted Dawkins to Bertrand Russell. Now Russell was a first class atheist. He criticized Christianity from within. That is, he accepted, for the sake of argument, the basis of Christianity and then tried to show its internal inconsistencies. For example, in Why I am Not A Christian, Russell wrote:

"I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospel narrative…He certainly thought that his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at the time. There are a great many texts that prove…He believed that his coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of his earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of his moral teaching."

This is a serious question that deserved a serious response—and in that sense was threatening to Christianity. If Bertrand Russell, on this point and others, cannot be answered (he can and has) then something is seriously wrong.

Dawkins's argument, on the other hand, boiled down to its essence, is: "You have to be stupid to be a theist." His is not an intellectual argument of substance. He simply preaches to the choir.

Dawkins is to Russell as Maya Angelou is to Shakespeare.

Science Avenger, responding to my claim that Dawkins offers no challenge whatsoever to Christianity, wrote:

And from what I've seen of his arguments, Dawkins has a lot that Christians need worry about, if they ever get around to caring about such things.

Which leads me to my challenge: What new insight has Dawkins provided that would have Christianity thinking: hmm, good point. I need to think about that. I say there is none. Unlike Russell (and others) there is nothing that Dawkins has written that is even a potential problem for Christianity.

What say you?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Did I just hear that?

Strange happenings while watching the NASCAR race on TNT yesterday. Kyle Petty, driver of the number 45, was TNT's in-race commentator. During the warm-up lap TNT made his mic live—and caught him praying over the radio to his crew-hardcore evangelical style prayer. That was cool and came as no surprise—the Petty family is known for their faith—they will not even participate in the Busch series (NASCAR's second tier national circuit) because of its sponsorship (Anheuser Busch.)

The TNT announcers remained respectfully silent during Kyle's prayer. After the amen, they asked their questions.

Fast forward a couple laps and Kyle Petty is caught up in a wreck. TNT again makes his mic live. And what do we hear, loud and clear? Kyle Petty screaming: What the f**k was that?

TNT apologized for the language.

Sigh. The NASCAR forums are all abuzz—mostly agreeing that it was hilarious that one minute Petty was praying and the next minute he was lobbing the F-bomb. Indeed, in spite of myself I had to laugh. In truth, I don't what to make of it. Christians should behave differently—but Christians also get caught up in the emotion of the moment. And while the bible warns us to guard our language, I don't think it singles out swearing for special treatment. (It singles out swearing as in "taking oaths" for special treatment, but not as in cursing.) In other words, offensive language can be constructed even if one uses only the most proper of the King's English.

And, as I have written before, the Christian preoccupation with the phrase Oh My God is unfounded. Yes, it may be a silly utterance. Yes I understand that we should not take the Lord's name in vain. Prove to me, however, that OMG is an example of such. R. C. Sproul once wrote about going to a lunch with a group of Christians and when the waitress asked if anyone wanted to see the wine list the lady hosting the group pompously scolded her that "we are Christians, we don't drink alcohol." From memory, Sproul wrote something along the lines that he wanted nothing more, at that moment, that to order a scotch. I kind of feel the same way about OMG. I am tempted to say it in front of people whom I have heard characterizing it as taking the Lord's name in vain just to start an argument.

Kyle Petty should, of course, apologize. Maybe he already has.

Once again: Atheism is not a religion

I've blogged about this before. I'm moved to do so again because the silly argument has reared its ugly head once again over at Uncommon Descent where, in between relentless plugs for her books, Denyse O'Leary rants about materialism religion.

Religion is not a synonym for a philosophy or a world view. Religion has something more. It presupposes at least two components that atheism lacks: a set of absolute moral laws and the acknowledgement of the supernatural.

Now, contrary to popular Christian belief, not all moral decisions are absolute. There most certainly are situational ethics in Christianity. Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa. Even the most fundamentalist Christian denominations take the position that you should not work on a Sunday unless, um, you have to. Much of the Mosaic law reads like precedent setting, situational specific, case law: if your neighbor's goat does A, then you may respond with B.

Of course, some of the ethics are not situational, but absolute. These are the apodictic laws. Apodictic laws are universally binding principles that tend to use the familiar "you shall" and "you shall not" form:

3"You shall have no other gods before Me. 4"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. (Ex. 20:3-4)

Clearly these are not conditional laws, but rather universal absolutes. There is no condition that, if it is met (or if it fails to be met) would allow a person to have another god before God. Under all circumstances, we shall have no other gods before God.

Atheism has no equivalent of apodictic law, and hence cannot be a religion. All laws to the atheist are casuistic. Atheists are, more or less, moral people. They have a sense of right or wrong. They are misguided as to the source of their own morality: they attribute it, in a just-so fashion that represents the worst of evolutionary speculation, to an adaptation. That mistake permits them to walk right up to the threshold of affirming that anything is a moral absolute without crossing over. Is human sacrifice absolutely wrong? The Christian says yes. The atheist says yes—but—who are we to criticize the Aztecs?

And of course the atheists deny the supernatural. It completely boggles my mind that anyone would want to call the utter denial of all things supernatural a religion. A philosophy? Of course. A philosophy that is attempting to impose itself? Perhaps—most philosophies do. A philosophy that is a threat to Christianity? Impossible. A religion? Never.

Of course, the reason that so many Christians want to neuter the word religion by having it include atheism is transparent. It is the favorite pastime of the modern evangelical: political activism and expediency. As one commenter on O'Leary's post wrote:

Atheism is a religion, and as such The government has no right passing a law teaching only the atheistic view of origins! The first admendment clearly states as such.

That's it in a nutshell. Logic doesn't matter. Definitions don't matter. Reason doesn't matter. If defining atheism as religion offers a political advantage: then go for it, and may absolutes be damned.

It’s been a while…

I've been insanely busy with work and travel.

Been meaning to comment on this news report: President of Large Southern Baptist Congregation Split Over Politics.

Folded into the Rev. Frank Page's wallet is a yellow scrap of paper with the date and time he is to speak with yet another Republican candidate for the White House.

He already has visited one GOP front-runner over breakfast at a country club and met another at the headquarters of a car dealership in his home state.

The angst seems to be over the question of how much overt political activity is seemly. How many contenders should be granted an audiance, and which ones?

I would suggest that for guidance pastors turn to scripture. Given ample opportunity to inject themselves into politics, Jesus and the apostles refrained. So what political leader should next in Frank Pages's daytimer? How about none at all? How about—here's a novel thought—concentrating on the preaching of the gospel?