Thursday, July 28, 2011

Response to Arizona Atheist 

On Early Christians, Richard Carrier and Blind Faith 

Over the past four years, an atheist named Ken (aka "Arizona Atheist," "Gifted Writer," "Prime Truth," I forget what else) has been posting attacks on my book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism in various fora around the Internet (Richard Dawkin's website, Harvest House, Amazon, his own website, etc).  He has often goaded me to respond.  I have replied a bit sometimes, I think effectively enough, but less often or thoroughly than Ken and some seem to think appropriate. 

I was loath to say more: frankly, I didn't see the necessity.  Ken's criticism tends to meander -- his "rebuttal" of my book has now reached the size of a small book in itself.  I find his critiques amateurish and unpersuasive, and expected most other readers to feel the same. 

But atheists for whom I have some respect have drawn my or other peoples' attention to Ken's critique, challenging me (in effect or directly) to respond.  Also, to give him credit, Ken has revised and tried to improve his booklet.  He has toned down the aggregiously immature personal comments with which he peppered some earlier writings, and seems to have tried to improve the quality of his argument.  I have a bit of time this week, with my dissertation just sent in, and waiting for several chapters to arrive for our upcoming anthology.  So here I'll respond to Arizona Atheist's most recent critique of The Truth Behind the New Atheism

I'll focus mainly on the issue of faith and some of his responses to my first chapter, Have Christians Lost Their Minds?  In his response, Ken seems to rely largely on the atheist philosopher and historian, Richard Carrier, whose errors on Christian history and other topics I have exposed before.  The two also take on leading Christians thinkers in these pages, especially St. Luke, St. Paul, Justin Martyr, and Origen.  I am a great fan of all four, and am glad therefore for the chance to explore their real ideas, as opposed to the caricatures modern skeptics sometimes report of those ideas. 

I think the rebuttal will be enough, that it will become evident to most readers why I do not feel the need to read or respond to all of Ken's critique. 

What are we arguing about? 

Ken attempts to explain my argument in "Have Christians Lost Their Minds?"

"In this chapter Marshall attempts to prove to his readers that faith is 'not blind,' and that christians (sic) do have evidence for their faith." 

Unfortunately, the latter is NOT what I try to show in that chapter.  Proving that Christians have evidence for their faith is not something I would try to accomplish in such a short space!  Even in the five (soon six) books I've put together so far, I feel like I've only touched the fringes of a full argument for the truth of Christianity. 

Here's what I actually promise in the first sentence of the chapter (emphasis added, as below):

"If the modern world is confused about anything, it is the idea that Christianity demands 'blind faith.'"

So the question of whether Christianity provides good evidence is not the issue here, but whether it demands (in theory) that we believe without evidence.  This should also be clear on the following page:

"Much is at stake here for non-Christians as well.  I will argue that in its idea of 'faith,' the gospel defends us against simplistic and dehumanizing models of truth.  Christianity, I will argue, stands on the side of ordinary people against the intellectual imperialism of those who imprison the human spirit in credulous, tunnel-visioned scientism."

So one issue here is scientism, the idea that one finds truth only through science, as opposed to broader ways of knowing.  The chapter is mainly philosophical, in other words, not about the empirical search for evidence to support the Christian faith.  This is why, on the facing page, the first sub-head asks, "What Does the Bible Say About Faith?"  The theme of the chapters should also be clear from later subtitles: "Richard Swinburne: Can There Be Too Much Evidence?"  "Alister McGrath: Is Faith Supposed to be Blind?"  "Nicholas Wolterstorff and the Sin of Blind Faith."  "Do Ordinary Christians Believe for No Good Reason?"  "Pascal's Wager."  "What is Faith, and Why is it Useful?"

The men I name here are all leading Christian philosophers.  The questions I ask, are theoretical or theological.  "This is how Christians see faith."

It is a bad sign that AA mistates the point of the chapter from the get-go.  This is not a minor quibble, nor is it the last major misreading in his critique. 

Driving Miss Lazy

It is no great crime (admittedly) to misread David Marshall.  What is troubling about many Internet skeptics is their apparent inability to accurately and fairly read what great Christians thinkers say, and respond to plain words on the page, rather than to a series of straw men.  It might not be fair to call Ken lazy -- as one of my most diligent Internet critics, he appears to have worked long and hard on his rebuttals.  But his analysis does not go deep enough.  Like many such skeptics, again and again his criticisms suggest that he has not applied sufficient care to the first two phases of "read, mull over, and respond" that any serious critical encounter must pass through. 

Ken grossly misreads what great Christian thinkers say about faith , and also continues to badly misread my argument, much of the time.  Since this is such a dominant, debilitating, pattern, the rest of this post will mainly quote Ken, citing Christians, and show how he misreads us.  First, just one more on me:

"Marshall . . . goes through and quotes what a handful of christians, the bible, and other theologians have said about the definition of faith and that Dawkins must be wrong simply because no theists agree with Dawkin's definition." 

But I don't say "no" theists agree with Dawkins' definition.  In fact, I point out that in my survey of 76 Christians in conservative churches, one person did agree with that definition.  I assume he or she was a theist.  So, probably, did some of the tens of thousands in Michael Shermer's survey, which I also cite. 

Note also how different the procedure Ken describes looks, depending on whether you accurately understand my goal for the chapter, or accept Ken's misconstrual of it.  Skeptics might reasonably see citing the Bible and theologians as a poor way to show that there is evidence for Christianity.  But it's an excellent way to show what Christians think about the relationship between faith and reason, which is my actual goal. 

Misreading Origen 

Marshall also quotes a few early christian apologists as to their views on faith . . . . 'Origen . . . argued that there was good evidence (in archeology, history, miracles and prophecy) that the Christian faith was, in fact, reasonable.'  

It's odd, but Marshall doesn't even provide a direct quote for Origen so how can we truly know what Marshall is saying about him is accurate?

Uh . . . By reading him?   I have read Origen some, and found these arguments in his writings, especially Contra Celsus.  I take my readers for mature adults, and assume most have access to the Internet and libraries.  I do not need to "prove" it: were I to make such things up, Dr. Paul Griffiths, Warren Chair of Catholic Thought at Duke Divinity School, whose blurb appears on the back cover of the book, would no doubt have caught such errors, and boxed my ears. 

However, I do have a direct quote and it presents a much different view than Marshall claims.  Origen said, 'We admit that we teach those men to believe without reasons.'

Now the sad thing, here, is that rather than read Origen for himself, Ken's footnote shows that he is citing Richard Carrier's Not the Impossible Faith.  Rather than box his ears, here is where I am liable to become "patronizing," and Ken, angry.  Lesson number one for those who would pretend to the status of intellectual: READ THE DARN ORIGINALS

What happens when we read Origen here in context? 

Origen is debating the anti-Christian writer, Celsus.  In chapter nine of Contra Celsus, Celsus is quoted as offering the following complaint:

He next proceeds to recommend, that in adopting opinions we should follow reason and a rational guide, since he who assents to opinions without following this course is very liable to be deceived . . . he asserts that certain persons who do not wish either to give or receive a reason for their belief, keep repeating, 'Do not examine, but believe!' and, 'Your faith will save you!'

Origen responds in part as follows:

To which we have to answer, that if it were possible for all to leave the business of life, and devote themselves to philosophy, no other method ought to be adopted by any one, but this alone. For in the Christian system also it will be found that there is, not to speak at all arrogantly, AT LEAST AS MUCH OF INVESTIGATION INTO ARTICLES OF BELIEF, and of explanation of dark sayings . . . as is the case with other systems.

Did Richard Carrier forget to cite that part?  I have not read this one of his books, and am relying on Ken, here, so will remain agnostic.  But having read others of his writings, I would not be shocked.
The three chapters in which this conversation occurs are only a few short paragraphs long.  If he didn't want to read the whole book (it's worth reading), Ken should at least have read these paragraphs.

Origen is responding to Celsus' criticism here, that Christians take things on faith. His answer is four-fold:

(1) Christians who have the time and ability DO investigate "articles of belief" (still true);

(2) But most people don't have time or intellect to do that well (also still true);

(3) Isn't it better that they believe on insufficient grounds, and have their characters reformed for the good? (which also remains a reasonable consideration);

(4) Anyway, Celsus, most people in your Greek schools also believe without doing all the research, so what are you complaining about? (Also still true of skeptical schools -- as Ken makes quite evident in his mis-reading of Origen!)

Origen is being extremely reasonable, here.  If skeptics misunderstand his argument, so much the worse for them, since modern skeptics could benefit from this good sense.  (Which is, by, the way, in sync with an insightful comment by Aristotle, in Politics, about how we learn not only from direct empirical investigation, but also, reasonably, by authority of the "old, wise, and skillful.")

Both Ken and the uneducated Christians Origen referred to believe based on what other people say, rather than on first-hand investigation.  The difference is, Origen seems to have cited his opponent more fairly than Dr. Carrier (or Ken, if the error is his) takes the trouble to do.

Misreading Justin Martyr

Justin fairs little better: 

As for Justin Martyr, Marshall neglected to quote the following from the twenty-third chapter of his First Apology . . .

Ken then cites a long passage from Justin Martyr that, while popular among some critics of Christianity, is not very relevant to the topic.  This is a famous passage in which Justin Martyr proposes what neo-pagan "scholars" Freke and Gandry call the theory of "diabolical mimicry:" that the devil planted fake stories (myths) about an incarnation, to pre-empt the real incarnation.  It's a silly theory, but Justin's critics often seem to quote-mine it without reading Justin for themselves and gaining the many valuable insights Justin offers elsewhere, as I argued in part 3 of this earlier post.   And that's a pity. 

Only the last few lines that Ken quotes seem relevant to the issue I'm talking about in this chapter -- and they supports my claim, and undermine those of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Arizona Atheist:

Justin Martyr: " . . . they have caused to be fabricated the scandalous reports against us of infamous and impious actions, of which there is neither witness nor proof -- we shall bring foward the following proof." 

Arizona Atheist: But what 'proof' is he referring to?  Nothing but the bible.  Throughout his Apology the only 'proof' he cites is scripture.  Justin Martyr's argument summed up is not one of inquiry and evidence, but one of blind faith that the scriptures are true, and that's what he used as 'evidence,' when he never checked the reliability of such writings to begin with.  According to Richard Carrier:

"You can read Justin's two apologies back to front and never once find any other methodological principle or source of his faith [other than the scripture]."

That's curious, because I find another methodological principle (or, rather, empirical method) in the very second chapter of the Apology, which I cited, and which Ken objects to, and in the chapter that follows it. 

Here's the bit I cited:

"Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honor and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions." 

What is he talking about?  What methodology is he pushing, here?  Read the Bible, close your eyes, and believe?  Not at all:

"For we have come, not to flatter you by this writing, nor please you by our address, but to beg that you pass judgement, after an accurate and searching investigation, not flattered by prejudice or by a desire of pleasing superstitious men, nor induced by irrational impulse or evil rumors which have long been prevalent, to give a decision which will prove to be against yourselves.  For as for us, we reckon that no evil can be done us, unless we be convicted as evil-doers or be proved to be wicked men; and you, you can kill, but not hurt us."

The inquiry requested in this great passage is judicial and historical.  The question is whether Christians are "evil men," whether they in fact commit the crimes they are accused of.  (Much like the claim that a certain Norwegian mass-murderer really was a "fundamentalist Christian," as often alleged.) 

"Do the investigation!"  Justin is saying.  His address is to the emperor (chapter 1), and he is asking for a JUDICIAL review, not a Bible study.  In fact, he has not even mentioned the Bible, yet. 

In the next chapter, he makes the nature of the inquiry, and of Christian reason, even clearer:

"We demand that the charges against the Christians be investigated, and that, if these be substantiated, they be punished as they deserve . . . But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumor, to wrong blameless men, and indeed rather yourselves, who think fit to direct affairs, not by judgement, but by passion."

I could go on with such quotes: Justin repeats himself at length, to make his demands clear in these first chapters.  He wants rumors about crimes allegedly committed by Christians investigated, feeling confident that investigations will clear them.  He appeals also to philosophy, which he opposes (along with piety) to "violence and tyranny." 

In the following chapter, Justin appeals specifically to Socrates, whom Cynics, Stoics, and Peripatetics alike often took as an example of true philosophy and nobility.  Reason (Logos) prevailed among the Greeks, and took form among the Barbarians, in the person of Jesus, by which we repudiate the immoral acts imputed to the gods, he argues. 

So in the first five chapters of the book, Justin in fact appeals not once to the authority of the Bible, but to three independent sources of knowledge: judicial review (historical investigation), philosophical reason, and moral understanding of which Greeks are also assumed to be aware.  Carrier is dead wrong, and leads readers like Ken off a cliff, here. 

Justin does cite Scripture, beginning I think in chapter 15, not because he thinks it will automatically be seen an authority for pagans, but to explain and demonstrate the wisdom of Christian teachings.  In chapter 15, he quotes Jesus on chastity, then makes an empirical claim that can (again) ONLY be proven by sociological investigation, which he recommends:

"And many, both men and women, who have been Christ' disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men.  For what shall I say, too, of the countless multitude of those who have reformed intemperate habits, and learned these things."

Carrier cannot have read the Apology carefully.  He was apparently looking for something, and found what he was looking for by shutting his own eyes to the empirical facts, and believing.  I could go on, and there is much more of interest to say about Justin's methodology.  But this is enough to make my point: Justin clearly did not believe in "taking things on faith" in Dawkins' sense of "believing without evidence."  That definition, from Justin's point of view, would have been nonsense, but almost decribes, unfortunately, the procedure Arizona Atheist appears to have followed here. 

Misquoting Jesus

Ken then attempts to show that my argument that the Bible supports reasoned faith is "selective," and flies in the face of "much evidence."  He tries to make this case by citing four NT passages that I supposedly overlook, and claiming that I "misrepresent" "some" passages, of which he names Isaiah 1: 18.  He also attempts to rebut my argument that Doubting Thomas actually involves an appeal to reason, not "blind faith." 

I'll deal with the "new" passages Ken cites as positive evidence for his views.   If those don't help him (and they won't), I see no need to read any further.

(a) 1 Timothy 6:3-4: "If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and the constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain."

Ken does not explain why this passage is supposed to support the contention that faith, for Christians, should be blind.  Paul (if it is Paul, there is controversy about who wrote this letter) seems to be preaching against loud-mouths, sophists ("quarrels about words") and con men.  He is not saying that faith should not appeal to rational support.  Earlier in the letter Paul warns against an unhealthy interest in "myths and endless genealogies," which hardly suggests that his target here is rigorous empirical investigation. 

But granted, there is some possible ambiguity in this passage.  The next two passages Ken cites, however, completely undermines his "read" of Paul:

(b) 1 Corinthians 15:11 Paul says, "...this is what we preach, and this is what you believed."

How remarkable that Ken would cite this passage!

Is Paul saying, "Just close your eyes and believe that Jesus rose from the dead?" Not at all! He is making a bold historical and empirical argument for the resurrection, here. Paul preached that something dramatic had happened.  Jesus had appeared to Peter. He then appeared to the Twelve. Then to more than 500 "brethren" in one shot, most of whom were still alive. Then he appeared to James, the apostles, and finally to himself.

"If Christ has not been raised," Paul continues, "our preaching is in vain, and your faith is also in vain."

Plus that would make us a bunch of miserable liars, he adds, wasting and risking our lives preaching what we would not in fact have witnessed.

Nothing further from "blind faith" could be found than this passage. It remains, in fact, a strong piece of historical evidence for the resurrection, cited in every serious debate on the topic.  (NT Wright's discussion of the passage in Resurrection of the Son of God, for instance, spans some 48 pages!) 

(c) 2 Corinthians 5:7: "We live by faith, not by sight."

Never trust a seven word phrase snatched out of context. Paul here is talking about life after death, about which indeed we have to trust God -- who has shown Himself worthy of that trust, as Paul recognizes and explains many times, including in the dramatic conclusion of Paul's previous letter to the Corinthians, already cited.

Read the story of how the Corinthian church started, in Acts 18, and one finds that Paul was "reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Gentiles."

That doesn't sound like the church began in an appeal to blind faith, either.

How did Paul reason with Gentiles?  A model is given in Acts 17, where Paul explains Christian faith to Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.  This would take us a bit afield, but I suspect that Paul's argument may have been based on the Stoic argument for God given in Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, ascribed to Balbus.  It is very much a rational, evidence-based piece of reasoning.  Paul also engages in evidence-based argument from Natural Law when he preaches to pagans in Acts 14, and echoes these arguments in Romans 1-2. 

(d) "Luke 1:18-20 tells how Zechariah asked god (sic): 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man an my wife is well along in years." Because he questioned god, he was punished by being made a mute.'"

How is this passage supposed to undermine my case? The man was talking with an angel! Isn't the appearance of an angel a palpable form of evidence -- the very sort of visual, palpable evidence skeptics often demand?

Zechariah was punished (mildly) for disbelieving not without evidence, but with evidence. And the punishment itself was a further form of confirming evidence, as was his later cure. Ken is flailing, here.

(e) "Romans 1:17 it is said that 'The righteous will live by faith.'"

Yes, of course! But the issue here is what Christians mean by "faith."

And what does Paul mean? Happily, he gives some indications (yet again) in the very next verses . . . also some words that careless skeptics might well take to heart:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which is known about God IS EVIDENT  within them; for GOD HAS MADE IT EVIDENT to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been CLEARLY SEEN, BEING UNDERSTOOD THROUGH WHAT HAS BEEEN MADE, so that they are without excuse . . . Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools."


In each case, Ken simply misreads what he wants to deconstruct. In most cases, he baldly, palpably, grossly misreads. (Or perhaps, in some cases, not read at all, but relied on unreliable sources.) He gets my arguments completely wrong: far worse, he twists the plain words of Justin, Origen, St. Paul, and St. Luke.

In each case, the passages he thinks prove that Christians affirm blind faith, when read in context, show just the opposite. Origen was practical, but thought that for those who had time to study it, there was excellent evidence for the Christian faith.  Justin argued from judicial inquiry, history, and Greek philosophy.  Paul made use of a wide variety of evidence and rational arguments to make his case for the truth of the Gospel. 

But that, I think, will be enough for one day.  I can hardly find a single passage that Ken has read accurately. 

Such misreadings seem especially common among evangelical atheists on the Internet. They seem to share some preconceived notion about Christianity that they want to affirm. Seeing themselves as intellectually superior due to their reliance on "science" and lack of belief in "god" (the grammatically-incorrect lower case is de rigeur), and following lazy writers like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers who think true skepticism means adopting a bold pose, they rush into fields of which they know little, like Red Guard city slickers sent down to the countryside and trying to plant rice for the first time. They assume that their superior assumptions about life will make up the difference, or that people won't check the originals for themselves. Maybe the Internet has made them lazy. Maybe they've grown used to quote-mining, not really reading, books.  Even when they do read, their hostility and lack of practice in pondering contrary arguments, determines what they will and will not see, and what colors of mud will be splattered on their faces, when the carriage passes. 

Professing to be wise, they become fools. 

How did Paul know?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mount Rainier in July

Yesterday I went for a thirteen-mile hike into an area on the western slopes of Mount Rainier that I hadn't visited for more than thirty years.  Why did I wait so long?

Mystery flowers.
You begin by driving three miles up the Westside Road from Longview, near the park's western entrance.  You park just before crossing a bridge, and hike about 2 1/2 miles to the trailhead.  (The sign implies it is almost 5 miles, but I hiked it back in 40 minutes, so the sign must be wrong.)  This is no hardship, since there are spectacular waterfalls, mysterious areas in the riverbed of tall denuded trees, numerous flower beds, and views of the mountains, along the way.  
Most black bears in
Washington State are
jet black, but some are
cinnamon-colored, like
this one across the Puyallup

Another 1.6 miles and I came to the campsite where the three of us camped our last night on a 40 mile jaunt around the western side of the Wonderland Trail, when I was in high school.  My sister's boyfriend in college had taken me along as a favor to her, so I did my best to keep up on 12-16 mile treks each day.  The other two guys kept up a Sound of Music theme along the way that fit in wonderfully -- "Doe, a deer, a female deer!" (I saw one yesterday, too, along with the crimson-colored black bear-- see left and below); "Climb every mountain! Ford every stream!" (the Wonderland Trail climbs every ridge -- up 3000 feet, down 3000 feet) "The hills are alive with the Sound of Music" -- and so they were. 

After sitting on a log on our old site and snacking up on peanut butter cookies and nostalgia, I began a steaper ascent.  A few hundred yards up the trail, a fairly large cinnamon-phase black bear was looking for eats, meager as it appeared (alder leaves?  grass?  roots?) on the far bank of the little river.  It's been a long, hard winter, with lots of snow left on higher slopes, and he no doubt needs to do a lot of eating to catch up.  I saw him before he saw me, and took four photos.  He was ambling across the creek roughly in my direction, and I was holding still for a good picture, when he apparently caught wind of me, and ran up the far bank into the trees.  So he didn't get a cheap meal, and I didn't get a cheap photograph.  Fair trade, I guess. 

Soon afterwards, the trail led into snow.  In some places it was bare, but under the trees, I lost the trail entirely.  Only two other sets of footprints had tresspassed the while, one up, the other down.  Suddenly I heard rocks falling, as if some animal just ahead of me were running off quickly.  A little further up the hill, I found the trail again, then, to my surprise, two park rangers, young women who had climbed up another trail, and were the first hikers this year to attain Emerald Ridge -- and I, a few minutes late, came third, a trajedy that has befallen greater explorers as well. 

But there was nothing tragic about the scenes along the way, which as you can see were truly magestic. I hadn't seen the crest of Mount Rainier all day, or even any of its glaciers, but I was enjoying every minute of the hike, anyway -- a respite from writing and from computers.   

The last slopes leading to the Ridge were again covered with deep snow, with a definite flow visible in the debris on top, like little glaciers, but without the crevices.  Then there was some bare slope, a copse of trees, some light blue flox (one of my favorite wild flowers) and a few anonymous but hardy yellow flowers dotted on the slope.  The clouds parted enough for glaciers high above to show their twisted masses, and higher slopes of the mountain, to make themselves manifest, covered I think at about 10-12000 feet by more fresh snow! 

The rangers had set a good example by not trampling on the poor vegetation, hiking over snow when the trail was covered, and I tried to be conscientious as well.  But after a few more cookies and cherries, and some water, I lay back on the grass, with a faint sweet smell from the flowers, and watched the valley below. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

China purchases Hawaii!

Beijing, November 23, 2016 -- In a dramatic piece of post-election news, Premier Hua Wansui just announced that the People's Republic of China has purchased the State of Hawaii from the (formerly) United States of America.  Following a spectacular bidding war between China, India, Japan, and Jeff Bezos, the price for the small but famously beautiful state was believed to be in the range of $5.8-5.9 trillion New American Dollars, or about two thirds of the Chinese portion of the US debt.  In a prepared statement, Japanese Premier Ichiro Suzuki said, "I guess San Diego is still up for grabs?" 

The new region, to be designated the Jap-Haole-Hawaiian Autonomous Region (老外自治区), will be the People's Republic's largest acquisition since Taiwan surrendered peacefully following launch of the Fraternal Invasion Fleet last year. 

"Naturally we're disappointed," Bezos admitted to reporters outside his downtown headquarters in Seattle, South British Columbia.  "But I see it as a win-win deal, since the purchase was made on our site.  By the way, several other nice states are still available in our drop-down 'Great American sell-off' menu. Anyway, we can always station our carrier fleet at the Kindle Republic of Guam."

Some Americans expressed suspicion at the sale of five states so soon after the election, and the prospective sale of others.  "Have you noticed that they're all union states?"  Asked Senator Michael Moore, whose efforts to sell Miami to Raul Castro for sugar futures have been blocked.  "Wall Street started the debt and inflation 'crisis' just to undermine labor!"   

Questions have also been raised about China's need for more real estate.  China already owns two major tropical islands, Hainan and its new Taiwan properties.  The waters of Hainan are, however, considered too polluted for members of China's new Middle Classes for a honeymoon destination.  "And Taiwan just doesn't have the ambiance," one travel agent noted. 

While some say it is "too little, too late," the recent sell-off of US government assets, including not only real estate, but Liberty Bell, the Hollywood sign, the flag on the moon, and naming rights on Mount Trump (formerly Denali) National Park in Alaska, is expected to satisfy the World Bank that in the last days of the Obama administration, the DUSA is finally taking its financial obligations seriously. 

"Well, duh!"  Noted incoming Secretary For Making US Currency Worth Spit, Dave Ramsey.  "Better to lose a few states than all of them!  But if President Obama had followed my advise, like eight years ago . . . "

Thanksgiving will not be celebrated Thursday in the Jap-Haole-Hawaiian Autonomous Region, Premier Hua noted.  "Too many holidays -- time for Americans to work!"
He added, however, that natives could expect to be treated fairly, and participate fully in self-government, as they do in other outlying Chinese territories, such as Taiwan and Tibet.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Finding God in Panama: The life of Efrain Alphonse

In Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Yale scholar Lamin Sanneh tells a fascinating story about a missionary who brought the Gospel to Indians called the Valiente ("brave") in Panama:

"For the Valiente Indians of Panama the name for God is a great mystery.  When the missionary Efrain Alphonse tried to discover the name, he was taken to see an old medicine woman in the tropical forest of Bocas del Toro.  The woman then engaged in a seance, and, in a trancelike state, she pronounced the sacred name of God.  'These men," she declared, 'are talking about Ngobo, the God of heaven and earth.  Listen to them!' . . . Ngobo, falling from the lips of the old diviner, became equally the hallowed name for the God of the Scriptures of the Christians."  (Translating the Message, 196)

Sanneh recognized that by recovering the secret indigenous name for God, Alophonse was bringing the tribe's own most sacred but hidden truth to the people at large:

"When the missionary Efrain Alphonse plunged into the Panamanian forest to discover at the secret shrine of an old diviner the true name for God, he was at the same time lifting God to the level of everyday usage. He had consummated a genuine religious development.  At the time of his arrival, the shrine cult had moved out of daily life to the margins of settled living.  The number of people competent to speak authoritatively about it had dwindled, leaving only a frail diviner to guard its fragile memory in a shadowy grove.  The missionary entered the scene to rescue a suppressed religion, not, of course, in its entirety but in its positive tendencies.  It is as if he had picked up the dying torch in a relay race and ignited it with common applause."

The missionary who accomplished this remarkable revival was himself a remarkable man.  An African American, his father had worked on the Panama Canal.  Showing a Methodist missionary around as a boy, he was asked to come teach Indians who spoke no Spanish.  He ultimately supervised several schools and started churches.  He developed a written language for the Valientes, learned both their language and Greek, and translated the New Testament. 

What I've learned so far about this early 19th Century missionary is tantalizing, though I haven't been able to track down much more of the story so far. 

Sometimes even cultures where the idea of God seems absent at first glance, hold, as it were, memories of Him in the most sacred places in their tradition. 

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

PZ Myers is Right!

And about something important!  Epistemology. 

The fire-breathing biologist PZ Myers, who fancies himself to religion roughly what the Kraken is to Captain Jack Sparrow's ship, sometimes gets things right.  Occasionally, it's even something important. 

Here's the situation.  Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham is prepping a 9-year old on what questions to ask a lady at a science museum.  Moon rocks are on display, one calculated to be 3.75 billion years old.  The girl boldly saunters up to the counter, and poses the polite but strictly rhetorical and implicitly debunking question:

"Were you there?"

Ham ponders:

"Each time I give examples in my blog posts of children who have been influenced by AiG, the atheists go ballistic on their blogs. They hate to read of instances like this. They want to teach these children there is no God and they are just animals in this hopeless and meaningless struggle of this purposeless existence."

Myers admits that he is indeed angry, but mainly sad for the girl, "who is being manipulated and harmed by a delusion."  He thinks about what he would say to the girl, should she ask him, and pens the following  thoughtful letter, also as a rhetorical exercise.  I'll give it in full, adding some of my own thoughts for adult skeptics, in between.   

"Dear Emma;

"I read your account of seeing a 3.75 billion year old moon rock, and how you asked the person displaying it 'Were you there?, the question that Ken Ham taught you to ask scientists. I'm glad you were asking questions — that's what scientists are supposed to do — but I have to explain to you that that wasn't a very good question, and that Ken Ham is a poor teacher. There are better questions you could have asked.

"One serious problem with the "Were you there?" question is that it is not very sincere. You knew the answer already! You knew that woman had not been to the moon, and you definitely knew that she had not been around to see the rock forming 3.75 billion years ago. You knew the only answer she could give was no,' which is not very informative."

This is well-stated. Skeptics also love to ask questions.  The question that must be asked before any other, though, is "Why am I asking?"  Since The Truth Behind the New Atheism came out, I've had the chance to interacts with hundreds of atheists.  One thing that has surprised me is to see how often skeptics know all of the answers before asking the questions -- even when they've gotten those answers second-hand, from people who have never studied the issues in depth themselves.  (See, for example, my earlier blog, "Does Google Make Atheists?")  A sincere passion for truth is the prerequisite for finding it, for adults as well as children.

"Another problem is that if we can only trust what we have seen with our own two eyes in our short lives, then there's very little we can know at all. You probably know that there are penguins in Antarctica, and that the Civil War was fought in the 1860s, and that there are fish swimming deep in the ocean, and you also believe that Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago, but if I asked you 'Were you there?' about each of those facts, you'd also have to answer 'no' to each one. Does that mean they are all false?"

Myers here implicitly rebuts scientism, the notion that everything we can know must be proven by the scientific method.  I say, well done, and about time.   

Science itself is a social enterprise.  Every scientist depends for much of what he or she believes on peer input, journal articles, someone else manning the telescope in the middle of the night, and at least machines that deliver information that someone else built and maintains. 

In that sense, science is no different from history, so it is right that Myers mixes questions belonging to these two fields in his response. 

What we "see with our own eyes" is always very limitted, for a 9-year old, or for a 90-year old.  Science, like history, is therefore a collective enterprise: we rely on peer review, the literature, and mechanics, implicitly.  Of course each may be wrong, and in theory one could build all the instruments and do all the experiments oneself -- but in practice, that is never possible, and great scientific works (including Origin of Species) are works of trust in other human beings. 

History relies even more on human testimony, which is why sorting that testimony and figuring out when it is reliable and when less so, is such an important part of historical work. 

Furthermore, all empirical study depends on implicit trust that the mind and senses are are not just lying to us.  It is logically possible that they are.  It is possible we live in some computer simulation, or that the world of samsara is empty of ontological reality.  It makes sense to believe our minds and senses, but it is not a sense we can prove scientifically, since science, too, could be part of the delusion. 

"Of course not. You know those things because you have other kinds of evidence. There are photographs and movies of penguins and fish, there are documents from the time of the Civil War, as well as the fact that in many places you can still find old bullets and cannon balls buried in the ground from the time of the war, and you have a book, the Bible, that tells stories about Jesus. You have evidence other than that you personally witnessed something."

Note that none of these bits of evidence is purely "scientific."  A photograph can be faked: one trusts the photos one has seen of Antartica, not because one can scientifically prove it was really taken near the South Pole, but because claiming fraud would involve uprooting trust in too broad a spectrum of society.  A paranoid person might make that claim anyway, if he thinks the government has good cause to lie about penguins.  The difference between sanity and insanity, as G. K. Chesterton long ago recognized, is faith, not reason: the insane may be perfectly lucid in their reasoning. 

The truth is, science can never be a bedrock epistemology.  Science assumes and requires more basic forms of knowing, including philosophical (including logical) and mathematical ways of knowing -- also a fundamental trust in the knowability of the universe -- which is not always as easy as it sounds.   

"This is important because we live in a big ol' beautiful world, far older than your 9 years, and there's so much to learn about it — far more than you'll ever be able to see for yourself. There's a gigantic universe beyond South Carolina, and while you probably won't ever visit a distant star or go inside a cell, there are instruments we can use to see farther and deeper than your eyes can go, and there are books that describe all kinds of wonders. Don't close yourself off to them simply because you weren't there."

Amen!   It is almost too easy, at this point, to turn Shakespeare loose on the Octopus of Atheism: "And there may be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, too, Dr. Myers."

"I'd like to teach you a different easy question, one that is far, far more useful than Ken Ham's silly 'Were you there?' The question you can always ask is, "How do you know that?'"

Ay, there's the rub. 

"Right away, you should be able to see the difference. You already knew the answer to the 'Were you there?' question, but you don't know the answer to the "How do you know that?" question. That means the person answering it will tell you something you don't know, and you will learn something new. And that is the coolest thing ever.

"You could have asked the lady at the exhibit, 'How do you know that moon rock is 3.75 billion years old?', and she would have explained it to you. Maybe you would disagree with her; maybe you'd think there's a better answer; maybe you'd still want to believe Ken Ham, who is not a scientist; but the important thing is that you'd have learned why she thought the rock was that old, and why scientists have said that it is that old, and how they worked out the age, even if they weren't there.

"And you'd be a little bit more knowledgeable today."

The asking of sincere questions is, indeed, an art.  Myers is assuming, of course, that one first finds someone worth asking.  As he has already indicated, there are many kinds of experts in the world.  I have elsewhere made the case that my grandmother, an uneducated, Pentacostal lady who had done little traveling, and didn't even have a driver's license, was someone one could go to and find out important things.  That willingness to learn is one of the special talents and beauties of childhood. 

PZ then explains radiometric dating, simply and well.  (Though not every 9-year-old could follow his explanation, I think.)  He then finishes up:

"I think you're off to a great start — being brave enough to ask older people to explain themselves is exactly what you need to do to learn more and more, and open up the whole new exciting world of science for yourself. But that means you have to ask good questions to get good answers so that you will learn more."

This is a kind and diplomatic suggestion.  (One of his fans on the Pharyngula site thought instead that mocking a nine-year old would be appropriate!)

Aristotle noted that aside from direct scientific investigation, one can also find things out by asking the "old, wise, and skillful."  Here Myers shows the sense to recognize this highly fallible, but irreplacable intermediate means of knowing. 

"Don't use Ken Ham's bad question, and most importantly, don't pay attention to Ken Ham's bad answers. There's a wealth of wonderful truths that reveal so much more about our universe out there, and you do not want to close your eyes to them. Maybe someday you could be a woman who does go to the moon and sees the rocks there, or a geologist who sees how rocks erode and form here on earth, or the biologist who observes life in exotic parts of the world…but you won't achieve any of those things if you limit your mind to the dogma of Answers in Genesis."

Most nine-year olds will naturally assume a "dogma" is something that gives birth to puppies.  And students of memetics recognize that in truth, they generally do. 

It would be interesting to trace the special role the Book of Genesis played in the founding of science.  An excellent book by a British historian (using the empirical methods of history, not science, true) has recently been published in the US: James Hannam's The Genesis of Science.  Good title, that, as he underlines a theme many other historians of science have talked about -- how Genesis dogma helped give birth to modern science.  (He also talks a bit about how proto-Genesis musings about the Creator helped birth ancient Greek science.) 

Oxford historian of science Dr. Allan Chapman recently sent me a delightful chapter on the same topic, to be included in a book I am now putting together, expected out early next year.  I'll tell you more about that book, later. 

Postscript: PZ has just come out for scientism.  Sigh.  Break open the first-aid kit; here we go again.