Wednesday, June 30, 2010

So are Adventists Anti-Creedal or Creedal?

Once, a long time ago, Seventh Day Adventists were very suspicious of creeds. They believed in present truth and progressive revelation. This allowed for some movement and discussion about what it is we actually believed. It allowed for diversity of opinion among members.

In 1980 the General Conference decided to publish a list of "fundamental" beliefs. It is my understanding that it was originally conceived as documentation of the concensus views among members what were the beliefs of the church. Lately there seems to be more and more people attempting to marginalize voices in the church who dissent from the fundamental beliefs. It could be called small tent adventism. This has been combined with attempts to more precisely define the beliefs to allow for less room for interpretation and to shut down internal debate.

The latest evidence for this is the latest General Conference session (meets every five years to approve officers and changes to church operations, but mostly it is a huge cheerleading and networking type of event.) I've been concerned by the tone of some of Ted Wilson's (the new President) comments. Additionally they have decided to affirm the traditional understanding of origins that has been held by the church and request a committee to look at strengthening the wording of the 6th fundamental belief that is concerned with creation and origins. Spectrum Magazine has some good articles about this if you are interested in more details. I particularly liked this segment that discusses statemetns from Ben Clausen of the Geo Science Research Institute.

Quoting from the statement, Dr. Clausen said that "it is impossible," to teach students "scientifically rigorous exposure to and affirmation of our historic belief in a literal, recent six-day creation."

He added: "There are no available models."

"There are no available models." This is a striking admission from somebody who works in an Adventist Apologetics Organization. As a church, we can decide that the earth was created 6000 years ago. But not only is there no evidence for it, but that viewpoint is contradicted by the evidence. "There are no available models." There is no explanation that can adequately deal with the evidence while maintaining a young earth view.

This is a position that basically shuts down any outreach efforts to educated professionals. I once tried to explain the whole La Sierra controversy and young earth creationism to a coworker. Her immediate response was, "who would be stupid enough to believe that!!" I've had several lunch conversations with coworkers. Whenever the topic of creationism versus science is brought up, creationism is thouroughly ridiculed. I am told at church that I should invite my coworkers to church. But why would I invite them to a place that wants them to discard 15 to 20+ years of education in order to fit in?

Of course the people I feel the most sorry for are the professors who work for the church. These are the people who are trying to have this discussion while also maintain their jobs. But as Adventists move more toward making the foundamental beliefs a creed, discussion is becoming more difficult. Talk about a tight rope!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The New Atheists

I find it interesting that when people discuss the “New Atheists,” they seem to be of the opinion that this is some sort of new phenomenon. Usually the term is applied to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and others that have similar views. Some have even maintained that this is just a passing fad that will lose steam (example: David Bentley Hart.) Every time I heard such discussions, I have always wondered “but what about Bertrand Russell?” At that point I had only read one of his essays, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, otherwise known as college.

During my last trip to Powell’s, I found a compilation of essays by Russell, including “Why I am Not a Christian.” I will have a fuller review later, but I did want to say that the ideas expressed in his essays are very similar to the “New Atheists.” Religion hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years and many of those arguments are still valid today. Most of those articles could have just as easily been written by a Dawkins and I think the main difference between them is not tone or anything that they are actually saying. There are minor differences because Russell was a man of his time and didn’t have access to the latest scientific advancements and some of his predictions on societal directions have been proven inaccurate. However publishers are more willing to distribute such books and it is very easy to find numerous copies of Dawkin’s, Harris’s, or Dennett’s latest works and they have reached a wider audience.

So the New Atheists are not new by my definition and I don’t see them going away anytime soon. In fact every indication is that they are a growing movement.

Book Review: Atheist Delusions

I must admit that I had high hopes for this book by David Bentley Hart; however I found his argument to be mostly emotional. He was writing as a man who was offended and was lashing out. This aspect of his book can be found in an essay that we wrote for First Things. This essay has been thoroughly discussed on Pharyngula, Kevin Drum’s blog, and by Grad Student.

The other aspect of his book, mostly in the body of the work, is an overview of Christian history. He attempts to counter several narratives that are common today: The War Between Science and Religion, Christianity has a violent history, etc. However he seems to set up a straw man argument based on views of historians over a hundred years ago. He undercuts his own argument by stating up front that he is not a historian and what he is presenting is biased. But worse than that, even if everything was factual, I don’t think it supports his argument against atheists.

He attempts to minimize the involvement of the church in various atrocities. For example he tries to argue that Hypatia was not brutally murdered because Christians were intolerant of science, but because she caught up in the political undercurrents of a decaying society. Of course that doesn’t change that she was murdered by Christian monks. This episode is dramatized in a movie called Agora with Rachel Weisz, which may be less historically accurate then David Hart, however the trailers are quite chilling. The logical pretzels were quite contorted when he tried to minimize the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades were completely glossed over. His argument is that the church actually had a tempering role on the Inquisition and that it is the fault of secular powers.

The good news, is I was able to sell this book back to Powell’s and I was able to reinvest the money into a better book.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Review: Living with Darwin

It has taken awhile for me to write this review, mostly due to lack of time. Philip Kitcher’s book, contrary to the title, is mostly about the intersection between Creationism and science. His main thesis is that it is incorrect to call Creationism in its various forms pseudo science or non-science, because so many historical scientists were Creationists of one sort or another. He would prefer to classify it as dead science, because it has been widely recognized as being incorrect and has been discarded because it was contradicted by the evidence.

He divides Creationism into three basic groups and then devotes an entire chapter going back over the reasons that scientists decided that the particular theory was incorrect. Young earth creationism was discarded in the 1830s due to advances in the field of geology. This was later confirmed by the discovery of radiometric dating, so that we now know that the earth is over 4 billion years old. Next the view of special creation (typical view point of most old earth creationists) was discarded in the 1870s with the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” The last form of creationist is the non-adaptionist. An example of this would be most of the more “technical” writings of the Discovery Institute. Their belief is that natural selection is not a strong enough force to explain the diversity of life or complexity of certain structures. This view was discarded by scientists in the 1930s with the advent of the modern synthesis. To be quite honest, I see the last two viewpoints as being shades of the same.

In total he only devoted one chapter to the implications of “Living with Darwin” and I wish he would have spent more space discussing this. This is the discussion that those who are religious should be having. God, if he exists, created using an evolutionary process. Now what does that mean for us today. I think Philip is correct that most traditional notions of God are incompatible with the evidence we have. However he seems to be open to the existence of a god.

Overall the book is quite readable and I think that the most effective evidence-for-evolution book retraces the course of science and could be thought of a history of science book. In this type of book the arguments and counter arguments of scientists are presented and it is clear that the side that one had the most evidence on their side.