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Posts Tagged ‘creationism’

I run across arguments on Twitter frequently on the subject of whether atheism is a religion.

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People claiming that it is often have a desire to remove the teaching of evolution from public schools on the grounds that such instruction constitutes establishment of religion–taking a valid argument about separation of religion and state and twisting it to its opposite–or at least to insert the teaching of creationism. But let’s test the claim here.

First, we must consider what religion means. This is a difficult subject to define, since the beliefs in question deal with things that are often outside the logical or factual, but here’s my attempt:

Religion: a set of beliefs and practices dealing with questions of ultimate meaning, often including the supernatural, that approaches said questions through narrative means.

Notice that I didn’t say “necessarily including the supernatural.” Some branches of Taoism and Buddhism, for example, see no need to deal in matters beyond the natural world. But the essential characteristic is using narrative means to answer questions.

Now let’s address the question of whether an atheist is a religious person. There are three possible positions to hold regarding divine beings: atheism, agnosticism, or theism. A theist asserts the existence of one or more gods, regardless of the particular variations in belief about those gods. Atheism, by contrast, asserts the positive statement that no god exists. The third category, agnostic, states that there isn’t sufficient evidence to give a certain answer to the question of the existence of any god, whether yes or no.

Two of those categories, then, are beliefs–atheism and theism–while agnosticism is a lack of belief. So is atheism a religion?

Curiously, not even all theists are religious, at least according to my definition. A theist may believe that some divine being exists without finding meaning in stories of the gods and without engaging in any relevant practices. But do atheists engage in religious belief or activity?

Some do, though they may be doing it as a parody or a social event. But essentially, atheism, while a belief, is a rejection of religious methodology. Its arguments aren’t based on narratives, and it makes no specific rituals obligatory. Thus atheism is a philosophy or a political ideology, but it is not fundamentally a religion.

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The second law of thermodynamics states that the order of an isolated system never increases, but rather that disorder increases to a maximum state of entropy and stays there.

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This can be illustrated by leaving a child alone and responsible for a room. The contents will reach a maximum state of disorder and not change until some outside force impels correction.

The claim is made that the second law invalidates the theory of evolution by natural selection. After all, isn’t evolution an increase in order?

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Well, that’s not actually what Darwin’s idea says. In fact, evolution by natural selection is the theory that some offspring are better adapted to a given environment than others, and those better adapted youngins live longer and have more youngins of their own. That adaptation isn’t necessarily more advanced. Viruses, for example, are probably derived from more complex organisms.

But certainly, multicellular life is more complex than single cells, and the vast diversity of species is more complex than a handful of creatures. So how is it possible for an increase in complexity or in order to occur without miraculous intervention?

Look again at the second law. There’s a key point that creationists ignore:

An isolated system.

The Earth is not an isolated system. We have energy added to the system continually from the Sun. Now someday, several billion years from the present, the Sun will reach its maximum state of entropy, having converted all of its available fuel, but that day has not arrived yet. As long as we receive sunlight, order can increase here.

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As a non-Christian who was raised by fundamentalist parents and sent to religious schools–creationist, among other things–I look at the debate among Christians over evolution with nostalgic amusement. David Michael McFarlane, a student at Union Theological Seminary, recently wrote an article in The Huffington Post, asking whether Christians could give up creationism. He says that his faith doesn’t need a literal creation event some 6,000 years ago.

But fundamentalists insist that such an event is necessary. First, the text describes it, so it must have happened. But more importantly, without a Fall, there’s no need for a redeeming Christ. I’m sitting off on the sidelines nodding my head and saying, you finally figured it out, under my breath (not always), but there it is.

So let’s work with the premise that Christ is necessary. Let’s say that humans exist in a fallen state and have to be extracted from that.

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Let’s even say that until the life and death of Christ some 2,000 years ago, there was no way to elevate humans. Can’t we allow for the possibility that human beings were insufficiently developed before that point? Does it matter how they became that way–either by dropping down or simply by never having risen up? Christians preach that human beings aren’t worthy on their own. Nothing about accepting the science of evolution has to challenge that.

Of course, this would mean understanding that the Biblical stories are just that–stories. That is not meant to reduce the Bible in value. In fact, I regard stories as our most basic way of understanding the world. As I said, on this matter, I’m an outsider looking in, so it’s just a suggestion.

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Tuesday evening (14 May 2013), I attended a forum on faith and science. The panel and discussion leader were all creationists, and I won’t go into the debates that we had on scientific questions. What interests me for the moment was the question of whether the events described in the Bible (or in any other religious text) have to be historically true to make a claim on our belief. Now I am a philosophical pagan, so the doctrines of Christianity are to me a matter of abstract speculation, but if the fundamentalist version of that religion is true, I ignore it at my peril. (I’ll discuss Pascal’s wager later.)

To summarize, the literalist claim of Christianity is that human beings fell into sin–call it an ontological transformation, one category into another–and require a savior to be restored. The demand of this doctrine is that the two events were real not just in the narrative of the book, but also in history.

This strikes me as an unfortunate choice in its limitation of perspective. Consider the following from Aristotle’s Poetics:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is- for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered.

Let’s look at the Bible in these terms. Are human beings sinful? That depends on the definition of sin, but certainly, we can say that all of us have moral failings. Are we able to correct our condition on our own? I say yes, but it’s a valid interpretation of human nature to say no. Can belief in a story change our nature? Yes. The evidence of that is abundant.

Now there is a problem here in that our knowledge of the human condition is based on what we have observed, and history is one kind of observation. This takes us back to the debate over the necessity to assert that the events of the Fall and of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection are events that occurred outside of the books describing them.

The “sinful” nature of human beings can be observed continually. But the claim that one being became human and was sacrificed for us is an assertion about an event that if true, if unique. It is precisely a miracle, something that stands outside of the chain of cause and effect. Thus it does not qualify as data. Data is the plural of datum, one observation. Multiple observations are necessary to draw an inference. History is the accounting of events. We derive bigger ideas by looking at how one event makes another occur. The claim about Jesus is that his life is one event that affects everything.

Thus we are left with the question of whether one event is sufficient to change the way we are. My answer is yes, but in the sense that any story is sufficient. People who convert to Christianity and change their lives do so because they hear the story. But the same is true about many stories. Americans tell each other the stories of our Founders or of the Civil War, and these stories shape the way we understand our country today. The Tea Party in particular looks back to an idealized version of those Founders. (Note that I’m not saying anything is wrong about something being idealized.)

We have historical documents that demonstrate the existence of those people. But how many people review those documents and use the methods of history to verify the story? In fact, the typical reaction is to hear the narrative and to be absorbed (or not) into its world.

My point here is that the power of the story is what matters in narrative theology. Questions of the scientific or historical validity of a belief are of a different kind. It is necessary to keep clear which field of enquiry we’re operating in.

I started this with a mention of Pascal’s wager. The idea there is that a person has the choice to be a Christian or not. Pascal claimed that someone choosing to be a Christian loses nothing if he is wrong in that belief, while an atheist loses everything if he is wrong. The problem here is that Islam was known to Europeans at the time Pascal made his wager. That religion makes the same exclusive claim. My answer is that the wager itself is invalid. We have many choices about the nature of our lives. Will we be good or evil? Will we find fulfillment or not? Will we succeed at a purpose or not? To say that there is only one answer to all those questions–especially since so many stories provide meaning, stories that can contradict each other–is limiting to possibility. And possibility and the stories that we tell about it is the essence of life.

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