Thursday, March 25, 2010

Did Scientists discover a new hominid species

Carl Zimmer has been writing about the latest discovery in human evolution. You can read about the details here. Scientists have sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of a 40,000 year old finger that was found in Siberia. Basically what they discovered was that the genetic differences were to great for the finger to belong to our species. But it was also significantly different from Neanderthal DNA as well. Some researchers were quick to point out that there haven't been many genetic studies on Neanderthals so we don't know just how diverse there mitochondrial DNA is. We will have to wait for more testing before this can be settled.

In the mean time, this story reminded me of one of the Creationist arguments about Neanderthals. The typical claim is that the Neanderthals are Homo Sapiens but have some sort of disease like Rickets. Unfortunately in the face of genetic evidence, that argument no longer works. The differences between Neanderthal and Human are too great.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book Review: The Case for God

Karen Armstrong is a prolific writer and I have read several of her books. The latest book is "The Case for God". I found it an enjoyable read, but it hit on very similar themes as many of her other books. In fact I joked on my facebook page that a more accurate title would be "A History of God" But she already wrote that book about 15 years ago.

The book discusses several different view points of God through out history, starting with shamanism and polytheism, to monotheism, rationalism, and the death of God. I already knew that our modern obsession with rationality and literal interpretation of texts was not shared throughout history. And I even had some inkling of the importance of ritual in human belief. However the one thing I learned was some of the history of the word "belief." Today it usually means some passive acceptance of a set of facts. It actually has similar roots to the word "love" and it used to imply action. This is one aspect that emergent type churches are focusing on. Believing (in the modern sense) in God is much less important than acting out love and compassion on earth.

She finally gets around to making her case for god in the epilogue. Her God is not the traditional God of Christianity, but is more mystery and compassion. I think she is correct that much of how we talk about God both inside and outside the church is idolatrous. She seems to view God as being a corrective for certainty. There is so much in this world that we do not understand and sometimes we can get carried away by our successes. She hypothesizes that the "new atheists" are so loud and certain, because they are mostly biologists and biology really hasn't hit the limits of what is knowable yet, unlike physics. It is an interesting idea and I know there are studies that say that physicists tend to be more religious than biologists.

If you haven't read any Karen Armstrong, this would be as good a book as any to start with and I think everybody should read at least one of her books. If you have already read any of her books, there probably won't be much to surprise you in this one.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Does your Pastor believe in God?

Don't be too surprised if he or she doesn't. I originally saw this on Pharyngula. The Washington Post has a paper and commentary by Daniel Dennett from Tufts University about pastors who are atheists. He wanted to concentrate on pastors who were currently working as pastors. The paper is a study of the responses of five people so no broader conclusions can be made (except that it was fairly easy for him to find five volunteers.)

I found the paper interesting because many of the responses aligned with how I justified my work as a Sabbath School teacher (it is just like Sunday School only on Saturday.) Also their survival strategies mirrored mine. People already assume that I am conservative. So anything I say is interpreted in a much more conservative fashion. In addition to that, I am able to speak in a metaphorical fashion, so that if you take me literally it sounds like more traditional Christian belief. While I have not been to seminary, I have an understanding of Biblical Scholarship that has happened in the last couple of hundred years. Once you understand how the Bible came to be, it is hard to take it literally or authoritatively.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading the paper.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nothing in biology makes sense ...

except in the light of evolution. This was the title of article that was published by Theodosius Dobzhansky in the 1970s. Dr. Dobzhansky is one of the leading American Biologists of the early 20th century. He was also a Christian of the Russian Orthodox variety. I have been aware of the quote for awhile, but I was prompted by this post on learning about the joys of science after leaving fundamentalist Adventism to look up the actual quote. The paper is considered a classic so it is fairly easy to find. I have included a link to a copy on the NOVA evolution site.

It is an interesting essay. He starts the article with a story about a sheik who was trying to ban the teaching of the Copernican theory in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. He used this episode as an example of the scientific meaning of a theory (hint: it isn't some wild speculation without evidence.) He then goes on to give descriptions of several compelling lines of evidence.

My favorite quote from the article is:
Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.

This matches my experience in biology. When I took biology in high school, my feeling was that it was just a bunch of facts that had to memorized. I learn best when I can see how the bits of knowledge are connected. I found the whole excerise to be quite boring. Once I understood evolution, the pieces started to fall together. If you want specific examples, I would highly recommend "Your Inner Fish" by Neil Shubin. He talks about the gill structures that are present in human embryos as well as why human males frequently suffer from hernias. (Have you ever wondered why you had to do the "cough test" at the doctor?) Now I find biology to be one of the most fascinating sciences and the majority of science book wish list is books about biology.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Accreditation and Academic Freedom

So I periodically check to see what is going on at the educatetruth site. I noticed something interesting today. According to their twitter feed on the right they had posted an article about WASC threatening to pull La Sierra's accreditation. The post itself was gone, but they did have a retraction notice. They decided to remove the post because they did not want to create problems for Larry Blackmer, the VP of Education for the North American Division. He had said some stuff and I guess he got some blowback once educate truth had posted his remarks. It was not removed because they had gotten some fundamental fact wrong (like what happened with Carlos Cerna's Biology paper awhile back.)

So, me, being the curious sort, decided to find out exactly what they had posted. Thank goodness for Google Cache. The quotes were from a Q&A session at an education summit for teachers in the Lake Union Conference in Michigan. In it, Larry Blackmer is quoted as saying, "Now WASC at La Sierra has contacted La Sierra and said, “”We believe in academic freedom as an accreditation agency. And if the church is going to meddle in what goes on in the classroom, then we will pull your accreditation.”" Later on, he discusses the results of a loss of accreditation. "No federal financial aid to any of the students. None of the credits from La Sierra would transfer to any other university. They would not be accepted into the University of California system for graduate programs. Just minor things like that."

This is why educatetruth will ultimately lose. Either evolution will be taught on campus or La Sierra as a university will be destroyed financially. This is actually something that I expected. The same issue came up when I was at Walla Walla College. The school board had started to meddle and micromanage the professors in the Theology department. I suspect the church administration will say some soothing words. Some meaningless action will be proposed to appear like there is action and the whole thing will blow over.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

An example of why religion needs atheism

Today, I read an excellent article by Samir Selmanovic on Huffington Post. In it, he recapitulates an idea from his recent book.
Rabbi Or Rose tells me that rabbis of old have long taught that the highest form of human discourse is Makhloket, or disagreement. First we recognize our own limits, and then we proceed to clarify our positions as best we can. When we sustain the tension between us, each pulling our own way, we create emptiness between us. In this emptiness, Rabbis say, God creates. As it was in the beginning, so it is today. In the presence of one another, in the moment when our positions of clarity are matched with humility, the possibility of a truly new idea emerges, a solution, a way forward. Creation continues, and we all gain.

If people refuse to listen to those outside of their group, a statis is reached where no new ideas are generated. My life has been richer because of listening to others and taking seriously their ideas. I am not so sure about the involvement of God, but that is neither here nor there. Later in the article he gives some specific examples of how atheism is important.
Atheism at its best participates. It refuses to stay isolated until billions of people cease to be religious. Instead of simply dismissing religion, it engages with it constructively so that the world is better for it. Atheism at its best is an expression of faith in humanity, even faith in religious humanity, for however misguided we religious people might be, we are human, too. Atheism at its best asks us to enjoy our faith life, but with the understanding that our religions are "God-management systems," an attempt -- however honorable and perhaps necessary -- to manage a reality that is larger and more complex than our own religions. Atheism at its best is a guardian of secularization, a process of creating a common and safe space where our worldviews -- including religious ones -- can share their treasures and expose themselves to the entire world as their ethical community. Atheism at its best insists that religious people learn to live on Earth. Religion that does not work on Earth, they argue, does not work at all. Good point. To us religious people, atheists are not only precious neighbors but also strangers who see what we cannot see and ask questions that we don't know how to ask -- all the while acknowledging the good that religion brings. Atheists are God's whistleblowers.

I am currently reading Karen Armstrong's latest book, "The Case for God." In one chapter she writes about a religious tradition, where practioners reinforce the inadequacy of human language to describe god. Basically the practioner would start by listing off attributes of God. They would then list off the negative of the attribute. For example. God is love; God is omnipotent; God exists. This is followed by God is not love; He is not all powerful; He does not exist. The basic point is that if our God can be described by language he is not God but an idol.

Not everyone has the ability to do this sort of mental gymnastics. I know I couldn't. The God that I rejected would have been considered an idol. However all of us know somebody who has vastly different beliefs and conceptions of God and discussing them with that person can remind us that we don't have all the answers. We don't know very much about God at all (even his existence).

Monday, March 8, 2010

Origin of the Trinity

I found an interesting tidbit, while reading Karen Armstrong's book, "The Case for God". It almost sounds like she is saying that the doctrine of the trinity was actually something that originally came from the stoics. I know that incarnation of God's and the death and resurrection of a God are important elements in mythology. So much so that early Christian apologists accused Satan of planting these stories into pagan religions because he knew what was coming next and he wanted to discredit God and Christianity. But was the Trinity also an existing concept before Christ? Karen Armstrong writes:
Stoics also discovered that meditating on the immensity of the cosmos revealed the utter insignificance of human affairs, and that this gave them a saner perspective. They saw the whole of reality as animated by a fiery vaporous breath that Zeno called Logos ("Reason"), Pneuma ("Spirit") and God. Instead of railing against his fate, the philosopher must align his life to this Spirit and surrender his entire being to the inexorable world process. Thus he himself would become an embodiment of Logos.

Now when I read this, the first thing I thought was Gospel of John. After all John is obsessed with Logos ("In the beginning was the word (Logos) ..") and he also probably spends the most time of any Gospel discussing the Spirit. Most of the texts that support the Trinity come from John and there is evidence that some scribes added language to make the case stronger (See Bart Ehrman's book for more details.) Was the writer of John influenced by stoicism so that he used metaphors from the Greeks to describe Jesus? Are we correctly understanding what the author of John intended? Or has our interpretation been corrupted by our Western tradition, which has incorporated much from Greek thought? Or is Karen Armstrong overstating the similarity? Afterall she has put a huge amount of effort into finding the similarities between religions. Anyway it looks like it might be worth my while to find out exactly what the Stoics believed.