Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Don’t Know Much About History…

Having engaged in numerous conversations with myriad Christians, I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of them “don’t know much about history.” And so, with this post, I will set them straight on two major issues: the history of the United States, and the history of Christianity. Many Christians have the false impression that the United States somehow was founded upon Christianity, and is thus a Christian nation. That’s completely incorrect. Additionally, many Christians have the false impression that religion—specifically their own—has always been a force of good in the world. That, too, is entirely incorrect. Once again, in this post, I will frequently reference David MillsAtheist Universe. Whenever I quote Mills, it will be from that volume.

Let’s not waste any time. The definitive proof that the United States was never founded upon Christianity comes in the form of the Treaty of Tripoli (full text available Here). Here is a quote from the treaty: “…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” Is that explicit enough? It was composed (by American diplomat Joel Barlow) under the presidency of George Washington. It was unanimously approved by the Senate, and signed by John Adams. Of course, it isn’t surprising that our Founding Fathers would approve such language. Most of them were deists, not practicing Christians.

But what about the Pledge of Allegiance, and its reference to God? What about our money, which reads, “In God We Trust”? Clearly, we must be a theistic nation, right? Perhaps we are now, but it was a recent change. Certainly, it doesn’t reflect the vision of the Founding Fathers.

The first version of the Pledge of Allegiance appeared in 1892 in Youth’s Companion, a children’s magazine. It read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Now, personally, I always hated saying the Pledge of Allegiance, even before I was an atheist. But, that version doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the current incarnation. The words “under God” didn’t appear until 1954, after a campaign by the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus. In an effort to draw a clear distinction between the atheist USSR and the God-fearing USA, Congress acted to add the words. Thus, they were added for expressly theistic purposes (and expressly anti-atheist purposes), following a campaign by Catholics.

What about the whole money thing? “In God We Trust” has no relationship whatsoever with the Founding Fathers or their intentions. According to the Wikipedia, “The motto In God We Trust was placed on United States coins largely because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the American Civil War. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country, urging that the United States recognize God on United States coins.” Its first actual appearance came in 1864 (on the two-cent coin). Continuing from Wikipedia, “The motto has been in continuous use on the one-cent coin since 1909 and on the ten-cent dime since 1916. It also has appeared on all gold coins and silver dollar coins, half-dollar coins, and quarter-dollar coins struck since July 1, 1908.”

This is really the same as the Pledge of Allegiance, only several decades earlier. It bears no relationship to the deistic character of our Founding Fathers. Rather, it only speaks to the religiosity of American citizens, both in the mid-1800s and mid-1900s. This country might have a religious history, but it certainly wasn’t founded upon Christianity. Indeed, the Founding Fathers went out of their way to say it wasn’t.

Now, let’s talk about the revisionist history that religion (specifically Christianity) has always been a force for good in the world. If you want a good overview of religion-inspired horrors, read this. That should convince any skeptics that religion is indeed a pernicious, frightening influence. But for those wanting more, I’ll be happy to oblige.

David Mills covers this topic extensively in his book. Here are a few salient passages:

“For 1500 years, the Christian Church systematically operated torture chambers throughout Europe. Torture was the rule; not the exception. Next to the Bible, the most influential and venerated book in Christian history was the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), which was a step-by-step tutorial in how to torture ‘witches’ and ‘sorcerers.’ Each year, the Christian Church in Europe tortured to death tens of thousands of people, including children as young as two years of age. The only restriction was that the instruments of torment had to be blessed by a priest before their initial use.”

“The Church angrily denounced the introduction of medicines, antibiotics, anesthesia, surgery, blood transfusions, birth control, transplants, in vitro fertilization and most forms of pain killers. Supposedly, these scientific tools interfered with nature and were therefore against God’s will.”

But pre-renaissance man lived during a period when superstition overshadowed rational thought, and when those who proposed scientific explanations were often tortured to death by religious authorities. Galileo narrowly escaped a death sentence imposed by the Catholic Church for his telescopic observation that Jupiter's moons orbited Jupiter instead of Earth, birthplace of Jesus and presumed orbital hub of the universe.

As I said, I think many of our Christian friends have bought into revisionist history. I’ll bet some of these facts seem downright foreign to them. And that’s unfortunate, because democracy depends upon its citizens being educated and engaged. Recently, on The Atheist Jew’s blog, I saw a picture of a woman holding up a sign that said, “I don’t accept fundamental tenets of science, AND I VOTE.” Chances are, she also rejects the fundamental tenets of history, especially those that don’t suit her theological preferences. And she votes.

Any wonder we have George W. Bush as our leader? With the way history has a tendency to be rewritten by these folks, I’m sure Bush is confident he’ll go down as a tremendous leader, rather than what he is—the worst president in at least 100 years.

But, then again, that doesn’t matter to him. He don’t know much about history.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Crushing Creationism (and Young Earthism)

In this post, I will dismantle the pseudoscience of creationism and the fiction of a young earth. To do so, I will rely heavily on David Mills’ Atheist Universe, which is a tremendous book that I heartily recommend. Mills makes strong, convincing arguments for atheism in the book, and to top it off, he’s proven himself to be an extremely friendly and interesting guy through subsequent email conversations. Whenever I quote Mills, it represents a quote from Atheist Universe. Forgive me if this post doesn’t have much “flow”; I’m going to cover a few arguments, one-by-one.

One of creationism’s most oft-repeated arguments is that evolution does not work because “half an eye” or “half a wing” would provide no selective benefit. Essentially, these creationists argue that, until the whole structure is present, there is no selective benefit; thus, the structure must have arisen all at once in final form, by design. This argument essentially represents Michael Behe’s notion of “Irreducible Complexity.” Let’s allow Behe to define his notion:

“By irreducible complexity I mean a single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced gradually by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, since any precursor to an irreducibly complex system is by definition nonfunctional.”
Source: Here.

The analogy Behe often uses is a mousetrap. A mousetrap has 1. A platform to serve as the base; 2. A hammer to trap the mouse; 3. A spring that is connected to the base that will hold the hammer in place, 4. A catch to release the hammer when set; 5. A bar, connected to the catch, to hold back the hammer when the trap is set. Behe argues that each part of the mousetrap works with all the other parts and that each part absolutely is necessary for the trap to function. He correctly states that if, for example, the hammer was taken out, the mousetrap would effectively cease working. So, he argues, a mousetrap is an irreducibly complex system that must have been designed, since it could not have been created through succession with modification--any precursors, he says, would be worthless.

Behe takes that argument and applies it to various biological structures, making the same design inference.

Before getting into the biology of things, let’s refute the mousetrap analogy itself. What Behe fails to realize is that functions can change over the course of time. “Mouse catching” could have been the fourth function, in a line of several. Say the base came into existence first. It could have been selected for as an effective paperweight. Then say the hammer and spring mutated into existence. Combining all three now, we find ourselves with something that can clip several pieces of paper together. And so it continues until the function of mouse catching comes to be. A selective advantage is a selective advantage; nature takes what it can get. Behe’s desire to see purpose in the world leads him to misunderstand the processes of evolution.

Now, let’s talk about biology. One of the structures often called “irreducibly complex” is the human eye. The fact that creationists choose the human eye is actually rather amusing, since it’s very easy to trace its evolutionary history by looking at nature as it exists today. Indeed, we don’t even have to appeal to the “changing functions” notion espoused in the previous paragraph.

David Mills writes, “Within nature, we find eyes in all stages of development. We find life forms with: (1) no eyes at all, (2) eyes that sense only the presence or absence of light, (3) eyes that focus light extremely poorly, such as the mole’s, (4) eyes that cannot see more than a few feet, (5) eyes that cannot see color, such as most dog breeds, (6) eyes that are humanlike, and (7) eyes that are far superior to human eyes, such as the bald eagle’s. Within nature, we find a smooth and unbroken continuum of visual capabilities among the various animal species.”

Each stage builds upon the previous one, representing a slight selective advantage over the previous stage. 46% of an eye is better than 39% of one.

Mills also uncovers a fundamental misconception among creationists: The human eye isn’t “finished,” as Behe implies with the mousetrap analogy. As was mentioned, the bald eagle has far better eyes than we have. Mills adds, “The terms ‘fully developed’ and ‘partially developed’ are relative. Bald eagles may pity human beings for their ‘partially developed’ eyesight and wonder how Natural Selection perpetuated such ‘unfinished’ organs.”

The other thing about which creationists often complain is the alleged lack of “transitional” fossils. This, of course, represents creationists ignoring science, rather than actually posing a serious argument.

Let’s hear more from David Mills:

“The fossil record unequivocally attests macro-evolutionary transition. The lobe-finned fish, which lived in water but had lungs and leg-like fins, was an intermediate between fish and amphibians. Amphibians themselves provided a macro-evolutionary transition from aquatic to land-dwelling reptilian life. Cynodonts bridged the gap between reptiles and mammals, possessing combined traits of both.

“On a separate branch of the evolutionary tree, Archaeopteryx, part reptile and part bird, is the perfect example of macro-evolution in action. Archaeopteryx was first unearthed in Bavaria in 1860. When paleontologists later realized what they had discovered, creationists became so distraught that they accused the paleontologists of gluing bird feathers on a reptile fossil. After several additional fossils of Archaeopteryx were recovered, creationists refrained from embarrassing themselves again.”

It’s also interesting that creationists often assert that microevolution is possible but macroevolution is impossible, but they refrain from explaining exactly why that would be so. I have yet to hear a single creationist explain precisely why macroevolution wouldn’t naturally arise from microevolution (as it does). The probable answer is that creationists aren’t fond of macroevolution, and so baselessly allege it to be impossible. Like a dog chewing on a bone, creationists desperately cling to the idea that creatures must stay within their “kind.” By the way, has anybody ever gotten a straight answer from a creationist about where, precisely, “kind” fits into the Linnaean Classification?

Continuing with this discussion of fossils, let’s move on to what, in all likelihood, is the deathblow to creationists: the geologic column. The geologic column is arranged as such, moving from the lowest level (oldest) to the highest level (most recent): single-celled creatures, multi-celled creatures, soft-bodied creatures, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, apes, Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens. Not so coincidentally, this perfectly reflects the evolutionary timeline.

We don’t see Homo sapiens alongside Australopithecus. We don’t see dinosaurs alongside apes. Rather, we see precisely the progression (largely from simple to complex) that evolution predicts. Forget, for a moment, about dating techniques. Forget, for a moment, about all the other arguments. The proof is in the geologic column, which provides a visual timeline of life’s progression. And the notion that Noah’s Flood precisely arranged all these creatures is laughable.

Speaking of Noah’s Flood, let’s talk for a moment about some ancient civilizations. Sadly, they were all rather stupid. Indeed, they didn’t even notice that they were in the middle of Armageddon. David Mills writes, “The Tigris-Euphrates Valley Civilization (in the Middle East), the Nile Valley Civilization (in Egypt), and the Aegean Civilization (in Greece) maintained uninterrupted written historical records extending before, throughout, and following the year 2348 BC [when the flood was alleged to have occurred]. Their written chains of history were unbroken by the flood. Peoples of these vast civilizations failed to notice their own ‘destruction.’”

But the historicity of the Bible is a topic for another day.

There’s one more thing I’d like to discuss: Pangaea. I remember learning about Pangaea in elementary school, and being amazed that the continents all used to be fused together. I was further amazed by the fact that the continents were drifting, even as I sat there. However, it was only after reading Atheist Universe that I connected continental drift with the age of the Earth. Quite literally, continental drift renders a young earth impossible. For all the drifting that has taken place to occur, many, many years are required.

Mills writes, “If our planet is only 6000 years old, how could Earth’s plate-tectonic activity separate North America from Europe, and South America from Africa, with spreading rates of only 4 inches per year? The separation of these continents took at least 200 million years.”

Are the creationists prepared to deny continental drift, as well? I think the creationists spent whatever “capital” they might have had when they chose to yell “Na-Na!” at the geologic column.

By the way, things didn’t start with Pangaea. According to the Wikipedia: Pangaea was not the first super continent. From the evidence available, scientists reconstruct that a predecessor, termed Pannotia, formed about 600 million years ago, before dividing again some 60 million years later. Another, Rodinia, apparently formed approximately one billion years ago and divided 750 million years ago.

But then, we’d better stop all this talk. The creationists’ “Na-Na!” is getting louder and louder. In all seriousness, please do consider purchasing Atheist Universe. The book taught me a lot, and what I already knew it made me look at in a different way than I ever had. Indeed, it's one of the most enlightening books I've ever enjoyed.


An addendum, with information from Religious Tolerance.

Results of a Gallup Organization poll from 1991:

College graduates: 70.5% evolutionist; 25% creationist.

No high school diploma: 27.6% evolutionist; 65% creationist.

I must say, it’s not a huge surprise. Education equals acceptance of evolution, period.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

From An Ex-Christian: A Case Against Christianity

Here are an ex-Christian’s top objections to Christianity:

The Resurrection is scientifically impossible. When Jesus died on the cross, he suffered brain death. Brain death is defined as, "Irreversible brain damage and loss of brain function, as evidenced by cessation of breathing and other vital reflexes, unresponsiveness to stimuli, absence of muscle activity and a flat electroencephalogram for a specific length of time." The key word in all that is "irreversible." Jesus could not have risen from the dead after dozens of hours, because Jesus could not have recovered from brain death. Certainly, no alleged witnesses attested to a brain-dead zombie roaming the streets.

Indeed, dead people suffer from a number of negative symptoms. According to MSN Encarta, “Although brain cells may survive for no more than 5 minutes after somatic death, those of the heart can survive for about 15 minutes and those of the kidney for about 30 minutes.” Jesus was dead for roughly 62 hours. Again, in that state, Jesus certainly would not be in any condition to roam. One of my major objections to Christianity, then, is that The Resurrection story is scientifically impossible. Brain death, by definition, is irreversible; thus, upon suffering it, Jesus could not recover.

At this point, many Christians will cite “miracles” to explain The Resurrection. That’s inappropriate. One may not substantiate Unsubstantiated Assertion A by appealing to Unsubstantiated Phenomenon B. In other words, one may not cite something that’s doubtful in order to explain something that’s doubtful. My classic analogy is this: One may not cite “Unicorn Jockeys” in order to prove the legitimacy of “Unicorns.” To use one thing to substantiate another thing, a person first must demonstrate that one of the two entities is indeed legitimate. Certainly, The Resurrection is doubtful. Certainly, the concept of a “miracle” is doubtful. Thus, one may not be used to substantiate the other.

Another top objection of mine relates to Genesis, and the Bible’s overall take on the “creation” of the universe, Earth and human life. The scientific consensus is that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, give or take 200 million years. The age of the Earth is estimated to be 4.55 billion years. This immediately contradicts with Genesis, which asserts, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” More than 9 billion years separate them. However, Genesis does not get any better.

Genesis’ creation account lists 10 major events in the following order. (1) a beginning; (2) a primitive earth in darkness and enshrouded in heavy gases and water; (3) light; (4) an expanse or atmosphere; (5) large areas of dry land; (6) land plants; (7) sun, moon, and stars discernible in the expanse, and seasons beginning; (8) sea monsters and flying creatures; (9) wild and tame beasts and mammals; (10) man. That’s completely wrong.

“The real order is: (1) a beginning; (2) light; (3) sun and stars; (4) primitive earth, moon, and atmosphere; (5) dry land; (6) sea creatures; (7) some land plants; (8) land creatures and more plants and sea creatures; (9) flying creatures (insects) and more plants and land and sea creatures; (10) mammals, and more land and sea animals, insects, and plants; (11) the first birds, (12) fruiting plants (which is what Genesis talks about) and more land, sea, and flying creatures; (13) man and more of the various animals and plants.
Source: Here

Interpreting the word “day” to mean “one billion years,” for instance, does not help at all. The timeline in Genesis is fundamentally incorrect.

With respect to evolution, the Bible’s account of “special creation” is entirely incompatible with science. Universal Common Descent is accepted by about 95% of scientists overall, and more than 99% of scientists who actually work in fields relevant to life origins, such as biology.

“Of the scientists and engineers in the United States, only about 5% are creationists, according to a 1991 Gallup poll (Robinson 1995, Witham 1997). However, this number includes those working in fields not related to life origins (such as computer scientists, mechanical engineers, etc.). Taking into account only those working in the relevant fields of earth and life sciences, there are about 480,000 scientists, but only about 700 believe in "creation-science" or consider it a valid theory (Robinson 1995). This means that less than 0.15 percent of relevant scientists believe in creationism. And that is just in the United States, which has more creationists than any other industrialized country. In other countries, the number of relevant scientists who accept creationism drops to less than one tenth of 1 percent.”
Source: Here

Truly, there is no debate raging in the scientific community. The debate has ended, just as the debate has ended about whether the universe is geocentric or heliocentric. However, based upon a recent survey that demonstrated some 20% of adult Americans believe in the geocentric universe model, we can conclude that a fictitious debate about settled scientific issues indeed does rage on among those not educated in the relevant fields.

Acceptance of evolution does not necessarily go along with rejection of the Christian religion. However, acceptance of evolution, as well as acceptance of other settled science, does necessarily require rejection of Genesis. Genesis and science are wholly incompatible, from Genesis’ substantially incorrect natural timeline to Genesis’ omission of Universal Common Descent to explain the appearance of humans.

Recognizing the utter scientific impossibility of The Resurrection, however, does seem necessarily to include rejection of the Christian religion. If one accepts science, one rejects The Resurrection. If one rejects The Resurrection, how can one possibly accept Christianity? If any leap of faith among Christians absolutely is required, it surely is the tremendous leap of faith that Jesus rose from the dead after 62 hours as a corpse. However, that's a leap of faith one who accepts science may not take.

Some will cite Yahweh and say, “With God, all is possible.” In response, I shall reply, “What about Zeus?” Faith in one, lacking hard evidence, equals faith in the other, lacking hard evidence.