Book Review: The Language of God

When I was a believer, I would have been scandalized by someone like Francis Collins. A Christian… who’s okay with evolution?? Burn the heretic! I now know that the truth doesn’t have lines so clearly drawn, and that’s where The Language of God comes into play. Collins, a geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project, attempts to serve as a bridge between science and faith, showing both believers and atheists there is merit to the other side. Does he succeed as a peacemaker? Is the long war finally over?

Let’s get the niceties out of the way first – and yes, there are positive things to say about Francis Collins! Overall, The Language of God is a very readable text. Collins brings in complicated subjects like cosmology and genetics and makes them understandable to the layperson. Even if a reader disagrees with the conclusions Collins draws from certain arguments, it won’t be because they didn’t know what he was talking about.

Collins lives up to his scientific credentials by acknowledging the consensus about the age of the earth and evolution by natural selection. He denies any scientific “conspiracy” suppressing creationism by pointing out that, if anything, scientists are invigorated by new ideas that challenge the existing paradigm, and these ideas succeed or fail on their own merits, not from science’s “atheistic bias”.

Collins takes his fellow believers to task for being dismissive or ignorant of modern science. Astutely, he points out that young people who discover the evidence for evolution after only learning creationism will be led to question other teachings – including the foundations of their Christian faith. He goes back as far as Augustine to show that a literal creationist view of Genesis is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Christianity.

So where does Collins’ faith enter the picture? The Language of God is bookended by the idea of moral law. Collins does not believe naturalism can explain a “higher standard” of human behavior, noting that altruism “cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves.” I’ll let Dawkins debate Collins on this point, but I do think that Collins doesn’t give enough credence to the advantages of altruism on the population level. Surely Collins would acknowledge that humanity flourishes when we all work together – his Human Genome Project would certainly not have been successful without his team setting aside their own individual objectives for a common goal. While Collins believes that the evolutionary impetus leads to tribalism instead of altruism, he must acknowledge that the innumerable denominations of Christianity indicate that religion suffers the same difficulty.

Collins also disagrees with claims that mankind created God as a form of “wish fulfillment”, as he doesn’t think the harsh and strictly just God of the Bible is the type that people would create from whole cloth. But aren’t the vindication of the faithful and an eternity of heavenly bliss exactly why people find Christianity so appealing? More broadly, Collins contradicts himself in a matter of paragraphs by proposing that a universal human longing for God points to an object of that longing. Somehow, Collins doesn’t think the idea of a God “fulfilling” some universal “wish” is an example of “wish fulfillment.” Which came first: the longing or the longed-for?

Collins encounters the same pitfalls as other apologists when addressing the issue of human suffering. He recounts the harrowing ordeal of his daughter’s sexual assault and his own struggle to reconcile his faith with this very personal evil. Collins proposes two reasons why God may have allowed this horrible event to occur. For himself, he believes he now understands that he cannot protect his children from all pain and suffering, and he must entrust them to God. For his daughter, he notes that this experience has allowed her to be a source of counsel and comfort for other women who are dealing with the same issues.

I’m glad Collins and his daughter have found ways to cope with their trauma, but are outsiders going to find these solutions satisfactory? For Collins’ daughter, if the only purpose of suffering is to be able to help future sufferers, wouldn’t it be great if there was some all-powerful being with the ability to end the cycle of suffering permanently? And how is Collins comforted by the idea of his daughter being protected by the same God who fail to prevent the original assault? How many second chances would you give a babysitter who let your child be harmed under their care? Collins precedes his explanation with so many “if” statements he almost seems to be losing confidence himself:

Consider this: if the most important decision we are to make on this earth is a decision about belief, and if the most important relationship we are to develop on this earth is a relationship with God, and if our existence as spiritual creatures is not limited to what we can know and observe during our earthly lifetime, then human sufferings take on a wholly new context.

Emphasis mine, but that’s a lot of conditions for your grand rationalization of human suffering! You’d better be damn sure your God is real, because if our existence is limited to our earthly lifetime, and if our most important relationships are with our loved ones and not with God, you may have wasted your life devoting yourself to a cosmic teddy bear.

These “if” states pop up throughout the book, and they only serve to undermine Collins’ credibility. When addressing the fine-tuning argument, Collins claims that if an intelligent Creator set off the Big Bang, then the unlikely fine-tuning of the universe falls into place. Collins also notes that miracles are not an issue for the theist scientist, because if a being exists outside of nature, then there’s no conflict in positing that this being could make miracles happen.

By making these claims, Collins has now provided an explanation for literally any phenomenon one wants to explore. But Collins has already shown a more naturalistic bent than many Christians, so as a scientist, where does he draw the line? When does he stop looking for naturalistic explanations and accept that “God did it”? Collins never addresses this.

Moreover, Collins’ rationale can be used to support more than just Christianity. If Allah is the one true god, and if Muhammad is his prophet, then of course Muhammad could split the moon in two! How does Collins sort through the supernatural claims of other religions to arrive at Christianity? This is never addressed either.

Even Collins’ stance on theistic evolution (or as he rebrands it, “BioLogos”) fails when held up to scrutiny. Collins is clearly familiar with the “god of the gaps” fallacy as he applies it to intelligent design, but he vehemently denies that theistic evolution falls into the same trap. He weasels his way out by claiming that his ideas are “not intended as a scientific theory” and questions like “How did the universe get here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” are not answerable by science. However, the first question is absolutely the domain of science, and the second is not answered by theistic evolution anyway, so where does that leave Collins? If “BioLogos” is not a scientific theory, perhaps he should not spend an entire book using science to defend his views.

While I obviously have my issues with a lot of Collins’ writing, I must emphasize that I haven’t addressed the hefty chunk of The Language of God where Collins, as a scientist, simply explains the evidence for various ideas that may be controversial to Christians but not to scientists. I think The Language of God could be a good book to give that anti-science family member to show that science and God don’t necessarily conflict. However, because of its various apologetic issues, I hope this book would not be the last word on the subject, but that it would ultimately serve as a springboard into further inquiry.

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So You Think You Know Easter

 

      1. Why was Jesus’ particular tomb chosen?
        • It belonged to Joseph of Arimathea
        • It happened to be close by
      2. Was the tomb sealed when the women arrived?
        • Yes
        • No
      3. Who did the women meet at the tomb?
        • One man
        • Two men
        • One angel
        • Two angels
      4. Did the women fetch the disciples before or after encountering the men/angels?
        • Before
        • After
        • Trick question – they fled in terror and told nobody
      5. Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples after his resurrection?
        • On a mountain
        • Indoors/seated at a table
        • In Jerusalem (location unknown)
      6. Where did Jesus ascend into heaven?
        • Jerusalem
        • Bethany

References:

  1. Matthew 27:60, John 19:42
  2. Matthew 28:1-2 (Yes), Mark 16:3-4 (No), Luke 24:2 (No), John 20:1 (No)
  3. Mark 16:5 (One man), Luke 24:4 (Two men), Matthew 24:2-3 (One angel), John 20:12 (Two angels)
  4. John 20 (Before), Matthew 28 (After), Luke 24 (After), Mark 16 (Trick question – remember, verses 9-20 are a later addition!)
  5. Matthew 28:16 (On a mountain), John 20:19 (Indoors), Mark 16:14 (Seated at a table), Luke 24:33-36 (In Jerusalem)
  6. Acts 1:4-9 (Jerusalem), Luke 24:50-53 (Bethany)

Christian Music Retrospective, aka Abstinence is the New Sex

Welcome to part 2 of a ?-part series where I make peace with the Christian songs that prevented me from discovering Nirvana until 2002.

Superchick, “Barlow Girl”

We met these sisters Barlow’s their last name
Ordinary girls they don’t live in the fast lane
They don’t rate with the guys that score
Cause they don’t flaunt what the boys want more

Christian teenagers have it rough. When you’re being told your natural hormones are simultaneously a gift from God and a gateway for Satan, sometimes your trendy Ex-Masturbator T-shirt just isn’t enough to stem the tide. Thankfully, groups like Superchick are there to remind you that abstinence is, like, totally cool and stuff.

They don’t date they won’t date
They wanna see how they’re gonna grow up
Who they’re gonna be
But in the meantime they might feel unloved
When all the girls around them are hooking up

As an official representative of Boys, I can confirm that dating leads inevitably to the mortal sins of mixtapes and Non-Committal Make-Outs (aka NCMO – thanks, Christian college!).

All the boys in the band want a valentine from a Barlow Girl
Boys think they’re the bomb
Cause they remind them of their mom

Freudian vibes aside, if I were using the Mom Standard to rank women, then I’d be ensuring any potential dating partner has her casserole game on point.

No girl should feel she has to trade
Her body for love or be an old maid
And yes there are guys who are willing to wait
Ask a Barlow girl on her wedding day

Credit where credit’s due, it’s not the worst idea to remind teenagers that high school relationships don’t really matter in the long run (CW dramas notwithstanding), but the issue is always presented as if there’s no happy medium between chastity and promiscuity. Why do millions of Christian teens think their only options are complete suppression of their sexuality and wanton indulgence of it? It’s this kind of thinking that leads to abstinence-only education, and the shortcomings thereof.

Maybe instead of deceiving them, we try giving teenagers the information they need to make wise choices regarding sex. If they decide on their own that it’s not worth the risk, good for them! But if they decide to have safe sex with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend, should they be threatened with the same hellfire as a mass murderer?

See also: Rebecca St. James, “Wait”

4Him, “Can’t Get Past the Evidence”

You broke into this world of mine
Stole my heart, you robbed me blind
While I wasn’t looking at all,
Without a warning or a sign,
It seems You caught me by surprise
Now I know the reason why Love is the alibi

As an erstwhile apologist, I appreciate it when Christians argue from evidence, not from gut feelings or “faith.” Even if their evidence is faulty, at least they’re coming at the God question from a logical foundation. So when the extremely 90’s-named 4Him declares that they “can’t get past the evidence,” they must be talking about something solid, something that will put those know-it-all atheists in their place, right? Let’s find out!

This particular song takes the novel angle of describing God with criminal metaphors. In this scenario, I’m not sure what love is supposed to be an alibi for. “No, you see I couldn’t have been at the scene of the burglary, I was in Todd’s heart the whole time!”

And I can’t get past the evidence,
I can’t get past the proof,
I can’t get past the evidence
It’s impossible to do
I can’t get past the evidence
And I can’t deny the truth
I can’t get past the evidence of you

The chorus makes it clear: mountains of evidence point to the existence of God. Will 4Him give us any examples? I sure hope so!

We look for pieces on the way
To fix the puzzle of this place
Is there an equation to life?
But in the midst of every day
There’s a clue there is a trace
A remnant of love remains
I’m ready to rest my case

You see, science thinks it knows everything with its fancy “experimentation” and “figuring stuff out,” but can it explain LUUUVV?? (Insert mic drop here.)

Beyond the shadow of a doubt
I see the light
I’m a victim of a love I can’t deny
I’ll be the first to testify,
That I can’t get past the evidence of You

More on love here, but also another crime comparison. If one is a “victim” of love, does that make love a crime? Are my parents love criminals? If God is love, and love is crime, then is God crime itself? The math checks out.

And I can’t get past the evidence,
I can’t get past the proof,
I can’t get past the evidence
It’s impossible to do
I can’t get past the evidence
And I can’t deny the truth
I can’t get past the evidence of you

I’ll say this: while I don’t think the existence of a concept of love is evidence in God’s favor, it’s probably a more interesting subject for a song than, say, the cosmological argument. That said, if William Lane Craig ever dropped an album, I’d Spotify that in a heartbeat.

Book Review: There Is a God

Christians love themselves a good “get.” Whenever a notorious celebrity or outspoken atheist converts to the faith, from Alice Cooper to Jeffery Dahmer, believers point to them as examples of the life-changing power of Christ. Antony Flew is one such name that I’ve seen dropped multiple times in Christian apologetic texts, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Flew was a well-known atheist writer and debater for decades, but his 2007 book There Is a God claims that all it took to become a theist was obeying the Platonic maxim to “follow the argument wherever it leads.” So what arguments were responsible for Flew’s famous change of heart?

Flew is a philosopher by trade, and he understandably views the God question through this lens. However, when it comes to other fields of study, Flew behaves like a child who hasn’t learned to share; he demands these other fields respect the domain of philosophy while simultaneously using philosophy to encroach on those fields.

Early in the book, Flew sets ground rules for scientists who wish to engage in philosophy, declaring that “a scientist who speaks as a philosopher will have to furnish a philosophical case.” This is a fine sentiment on its own, but Flew doesn’t seem to understand when it is appropriate to speak as a scientist and not a philosopher. For instance, Flew does not believe that origin of life questions can be answered by life science:

How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and “coded chemistry”? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.

This error in categorization leads Flew to to believe we have a “reason for doubting that it is possible to account for existent life-forms in purely materialistic terms”. He goes on to quote a number of scientists who acknowledge (honestly) that we don’t know how life arose on this planet, and concludes that the “only satisfactory explanation” is an intelligent designer. Sometime, despite being a neophyte theist, Flew has already mastered the “science doesn’t know, therefore God” cliché.

Flew employs the same cliché when discussing the idea of the multiverse. Once again, Flew points to the lack of scientific consensus on this issue as support for theism. However, his critique that multiverse theory “explains everything and yet nothing” rings hollow when “God did it” theory has the same shortcoming.

This isn’t the only time Flew demonstrates a knack for classic apologetic mistakes. He masterfully assaults the strawman of the scientist with the atheistic bias, decrying the “dogmatic atheism” of scientists trying to “preserve the non-theistic status quo.” Flew’s collaborator, Roy Abraham Varghese, ups the rhetoric in the book’s first appendix by claiming that “a deliberate refusal to ‘look’ is responsible for atheism of any variety.” Has Varghese never encountered atheists like myself who have searched for God and found nothing?

Flew is happy to quote-mine scientists when they support his views, but he has some basic misunderstandings on key scientific questions. He has bought wholesale into the “monkeys with typewriters will never randomly produce Shakespeare” argument against evolution, ignoring the point that natural selection is not as random as he thinks.

Additionally, several of Flew’s arguments boil down to “laws require a Lawgiver,” a circular argument that cannot be used as evidence for said Lawgiver. Flew frequently uses loaded language to point towards a creator god he has yet to demonstrate. He asks, “Who wrote the laws of the nature?” as if we already know there is a “who” to write them. He claims that “if you accept the fact that there are laws,” you must then ask the question, “What agent (or agents) brings this about?” Once again, when did we establish that there is, in fact, an agent who brings anything about?

Flew then makes a leap in quoting Swinburne to assert a “personal God with the traditional properties” must be said Lawgiver. This is worth noting, because it’s one of the few places in the book where Flew comes off as anything other than a deist. Flew never publicly declared himself a Christian, so if you are a Christian reading this book looking for a dramatic conversion story, you will be disappointed in that regard. Flew does admit that “the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected,” but he outsources the heavy apologetic lifting to N.T. Wright in the second appendix.

I finished There Is a God with a base level of respect for Antony Flew. He has, if nothing else, walked the walk while risking his livelihood and academic reputation. I’ve made the same journey, albeit in the opposite direction, and while I disagree with Flew’s conclusions, I admire his intellectual honesty more than I do, for instance, Sean McDowell, the apologist son of an apologist who appears to simply be following in the family business. That said, I believe Flew’s lofty credentials do not counterbalance the faulty arguments and misinterpreted evidence that ultimately lead to his change of heart.

 

Are Atheists Trying to Have It Both Ways?

This week’s post was inspired by a point that’s come up several times in our Atheist Christian Book Club. In discussions about the historicity of the Bible, the Christian contingent has raised an objection that goes something like this:

Atheists are trying to have it both ways! If the gospels say the same thing, it’s because they’re plagiarizing! But if they don’t say the same thing, it’s because they’re embellishing!

The idea is that atheists won’t give the Bible any credit. When the same story is repeated in multiple gospels, atheists ignore the corroboration, and when the story is recorded in only one gospel, atheists call out the lack of corroboration! I’m going to address these two points separately, as I believe they stem from different misunderstandings.

On the point that atheists dismiss multiple accounts as plagiarism, it’s important to emphasize the difference between corroboration and collaboration. When evaluating the historicity of an event, it’s important to not just have multiple sources, but multiple independent sources. We know the writers of the gospels were not independent; Matthew and Luke used Mark as one source (sometimes quoting Mark verbatim), and a predominant theory also has them using a second “Q” source as well. If Matthew and Luke are taking stories from Mark, you don’t have three sources – you have one source: Mark.

Ideally, we’re looking for corroboration without collaboration. You have corroboration when 4 accounts told from differing perspectives tell the same story; this is evidence that the story is legit. You have collaboration when 4 accounts remix, reuse, recycle, and generally crib off of each other. Collaboration in the gospels doesn’t by itself prove that the gospels are false, but it should be a red flag. If scripture is divinely inspired, why does God need to plagiarize himself?

One the idea that atheists dismiss unique accounts as embellishment, I see two separate situations where atheists may object. One is where accounts differ but can be harmonized, and the other is where accounts contradict and cannot be harmonized. Sometimes, harmonization is easy: if a story takes place in one gospel as an isolated incident and has no obvious connection to any other events (for instance, the blind man of Bethsaida in Mark 8), you can slot it into the overall narrative with no qualms.

Other times, harmonization may be technically possible, but doing so only raises more questions. The empty tomb is a classic example. Who did the women see on arriving: an angel (Matthew 28), two angels (John 20), a young man (Mark 16), or two men (Luke 24)? Reconciling these differences requires some mental gymnastics to understand what the gospel writers were trying to accomplish.

If there were only men at the tomb, whoever said there were angels is embellishing the narrative. If there were angels at the tomb, why say there were men instead? What is to be gained by diminishing one miraculous detail from an unabashedly miraculous story?

If there was one figure at the tomb, whoever said there were two is also guilty of embellishment. If there were in fact two, why say there was only one? How does reducing the number of figures help the narrative in any way?

Alternatively, if the gospel writers didn’t change these details, were they getting their information from competing oral traditions? If the original traditions were exaggerated, perhaps they’re not as reliable as apologists would have us believe. Once again, this should be a red flag. If scripture is divinely inspired, why is he inspiring such crummy writing?

Even if we were to set aside accounts that can technically be harmonized, we’re still left with contradictions. I shouldn’t have to say that contradictions are never evidence for the veracity of a story, and while some atheists like to bring out long lists of “contradictions” that are really nothing of the sort, I believe some are nigh impossible to reconcile.

  • Were Joseph and Mary originally from Bethlehem and relocated to Nazareth, as in Matthew? Or were they from Nazareth and went to Bethlehem for the census, as in Luke?
  • Did Simon Peter become Jesus’ disciple after being brought by his brother Andrew, as in John? Or was it after Jesus helped him catch fish, as in Luke?
  • After Jesus’ death, did the disciples stay in Jerusalem, as in Acts? Or did they proceed to Galilee, as in Matthew?

Overall, the biggest problem with the Christians’ objection is how easily it can be turned back around on their own arguments:

Christians are trying to have it both ways! If the gospels say the same thing, it’s because they’re trustworthy! But if they don’t say the same thing, it’s because they’re independent sources!

Similarity and dissimilarity are not both evidence for the same thing. If the gospels are independent sources, why are they copying each other? And if they are trustworthy, why are they so difficult to reconcile?

Day Two After The Fall

There was evening, and there was morning. It was the second day after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. The disgraced man and woman have left the garden, but the repercussion of their sin still remains.

Wolves, lions, bears, sharks, and tyrannosaurs convulse in pain. Their teeth are morphing from flat to sharp. Their intestines are spontaneously shrinking, and their stomaches have suddenly begun secreting more acidic enzymes to help digest their new diet.

A bee flies to its favorite flower, which now closes down upon it with brand new jaws. A rabbit eats its favorite berry, which now poisons it. All through out the animal kingdom, once-benign bacteria and viruses are now causing a previously-unknown phenomenon called “disease”.

The very Earth itself is changing. The surface cracks, and regions along the edges will now be subject to earthquakes. The water cycle, which previously only wrought gentle, sustaining rains, will now generate hurricanes and tornadoes.

These worldwide effects are all supposedly caused by one man and one woman eating the wrong fruit. This single sin is said to impact all of creation, and yet the Bible does not describe a mechanism for how sin would interact with the world to create these changes. We have a cause, and we have an effect, but we have no connection between them.

Moreover, the Bible does not indicate why these changes would even follow from the first sin. Why doesn’t the fall of man only affect man? Paul says in Romans that “creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it” (8:20), but why was creation as a whole subjected to any consequences? Did the wolves sin? Did the bee disobey? Did the rabbit offend God’s honor?

God set this system up. If the rule is that sin affects all of creation, that’s his rule. If “creation was subjected to futility,” God appears to be “him who subjected it.” We’re left with a Genesis account that appears nonsensical enough that you should doubt it, but casts doubt on God’s goodness even if you believe.

God the Delinquent Dad

The Bible frequently refers to God by using human titles: King of Kings, the Good Shepherd, and so forth. No title is more ubiquitous, however, than God the Father. According to the Bible, we are the children of a loving Heavenly Father, but how does God compare to a responsible human parent?

Sometimes parents need to discipline their children to train them in proper behavior and help them grow in moral character. However, the discipline must be proportional to the offense, and a disproportionate response crosses the line from discipline to child abuse. If your child calls their sibling a nasty name, do you give them a time out, or do you exile them from your house for the rest of their lives? Which one sounds more like what God does with us? No parent worth emulating would torture their child for the remainder of their earthly life, after the opportunity to grow has long passed, for a first offense.

Discipline can be seen as a temporary suffering for a greater good, and indeed most Christians view suffering as a whole in these terms. What if our pain is momentary, and God’s higher perspective allows him to see the good which will come out of it? Bringing in the father analogy, I’ve encountered multiple writers who compare it to a child getting a vaccine. They may scream and cry when the needle goes in, but as a parent, you know the fleeting pain is worth preventing a debilitating illness.

But what if you could accomplish the same goal with no pain at all? What if you were all-powerful, and instead of taking your child in for a shot, you could cast a ward over them to inoculate them from all disease? Why would you not take this option? At that point, if you still have your child vaccinated, you are actually the one introducing undue suffering into their life.

How then is God not a monster for allowing so much suffering in the world when he has the power to prevent all of it? It’s problematic enough to introduce unnecessary suffering into our finite lives on Earth, but what about our eternal fates? How many would be going to hell since the incomprehensibility of suffering has caused them to reject God? Why would God introduce an arbitrary impediment to belief?

“But God wants us to come to him freely! It’s not a free decision unless the option is there to choose otherwise!” Okay, how does God the Father handle this?

God is not a helicopter parent. We all hate parents like this, and so we may be glad God doesn’t obsessively try and control every aspect of our lives. That said, going all the way in the opposite direction is problematic as well! Good parents don’t let their children do whatever they want, especially when they want to do something that puts themselves at risk.

Think of it this way: you’re a parent, and you’ve dealt with enough helicopter parents over the years that you know you don’t want to be like them. However, your children still act foolishly on occasion, and one day you notice that your son has gotten his hands on your gun.

What do you do? You could say to yourself, “Well, I don’t want to take the gun away from him. That’s what one of those helicopter parents would do! My son should be free to make his own decisions, even if they’re mistakes.” Or, you could take the gun away! What would a good parent do?

According to the Bible, we are staring down the barrel of an eternity in hell, and God seems content to sit back and see how everything plays out. If, as a Christian, you want to say that God actually did do something about this by sending his Son to die for our sins, I would point to this as God’s ultimate failure as a father. A good father wouldn’t let things get so out of control that the only solution was for his own son to die.