Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review: Good Without God

When I first heard about this book, my first thought was about the author, Greg Epstein. What in the world is a humanist chaplain? Greg Epstein is a humanist chaplain at Harvard University. That means he is a counselor. He performs weddings and leads out in other celebrations of life events. He does many of the things that a Christian pastor or Jewish Rabbi would do. But he does not believe in God.

Growing up, I remember hearing plenty of sermons about the complete depravity of man and how we couldn't be good without God. I've read articles in church publications that demonized the atheist with charges of nihilism. If morality comes from God, how could anybody be good without God?

I have gone to school with atheists and I work with atheists. They are moral people. They worry about the effects that humans have on the environment. They are honest and hard working. They worry about how to best raise their children. I know atheists who are good people. In fact statistics and data show that areas with a large number of non-religious people tend to have lower rates of murder, teen pregnancy, and divorce.

So if we can all agree that athiests are just as moral as believers, the next question is what is the basis of their morality. Greg Epstein places the basis of morality on human dignity. We are to treat each other with dignity. Life is too short to cause needless suffering. It is not based on the pursuit of pleasure, because atheists have seen the conclusion of that path and the conclusion is not one of dignity.

The last portion of the book discusses atheist alternatives for religious practices. He talks about celebration of life events. He talks about holidays. He talks about community and culture. He even talks about forms of prayer (think more along the lines of meditation.) He also talks about how humanists and atheists can make the world a better place. This portion confirmed my suspicion that the church, with all of its flaws, is really the organization that is best situated to solve earth's pressing problems. However humanists are working to organize together and solve problems in the community. He mentioned a couple of examples of organizations in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

There wasn't much in the book that I hadn't heard before and it was a fairly easy read. Overall, I highly recommend the book for believers and unbelievers, but especially for Christians. It provides a more accurate view of the beliefs of non christians than most sermons or religious publications.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Photo City

I found this article in the New York Times about the extension of Photosynth to a larger scale. Photosynth was started by a grad student at the University of Washington and then picked up and productized by Microsoft. It takes multiple photos of an object taken from many different directions and then merges them together to make a 3D image. There are limitations on the number of photos that can be used with Photosynth. Now Noah Snavely is trying to extend it so that it can handle thousands of pictures to recreate cities. So far they only have examples up for the University of Washington, downtown Seattle, and Cornell. But you can check it out here, on their photo city website.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Disc Golf

I got to play a round of disc golf for the first time this year. I didn't do so hot but I had a good time. It was nice to play another course beside Orchard Park. This afternoon I went out to Leveritch park in Vancouver to play with my brother. It was a nice enough course, but it was quite crowded. I ended up with a score well above par (Alejandro claims he was only +4. Of course it is a little easier when you are three and have no problem with just grabbing a disc, running to the basket, and dropping it in.)

I almost lost my second disc today. I lost the first one several months ago. Hole nine runs right beside a creek. My disc went sailing right in. I didn't feel like playing out the rest of the course with a missing disc (it was my driver.) So I took off my shoes and socks and jumped into the water. It was quite cold, but Alejandro had a good time watching and my feet were only slightly numb after the experience. Quite a few other people were losing discs in the creek as well so I guess that made me feel better.

The second to the last hole was challenging. It was only 150 feet to the basket, but you had to go up a fairly steep hill. Anyway, after the whole experience, I can tell that I really need to work on my drives some more, but at least I had a good time.

How do you judge theology

This is one segment from The Divine Conspiracy that I found to be food for thought. You can read my full review here. Although I didn't much care for the book, I thought this was one of the high points. Dallas Willard writes:
The acid test for any theology is this: Is the God presented one that can be loved, heart, soul, mind, and strength? If the thoughtful, honest answer is: "Not really," then we need to look elsewhere or deeper. It does not really matter how sophisticated intellectually or doctrinally our approach is. If it fails to set a lovable God -- a radiant, happy, friendly, accessible, and totally competent being before ordinary people, we have gone wrong. We should not keep going in the same direction, but turn around and take another road.

This of course assumes that God is love, which is a common Christian assumption. I am willing to make that assumption. Now so far, I haven't found a compelling or satisfying theology. I could come up with a concept of God that would fit all those requirements. However in addition, the concept of God should fit the evidence that we have and this is where things start to break down for me. I am intrigued by panentheism because it fits with my observations of this world. Also there are several books on my wish list that discuss the suffering of God, but I don't find the concept of a God who sits around and suffers with his creation to be very compelling. He would be a toothless God, but at least he would be a nice enough fellow.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A taxonomy of disbelief

In any group there is typically a wide range of belief. For example you can find Seventh Day Adventists who deny that Christ was God (actually that was the original historical position) to those who believe in the Inerrancy of scripture along with most of the other fundamentals. Same is true for Episcopalians, Methodists, etc. But it is even true for atheists. In one blog that I found recently, the author has a post on the different types of atheist belief. Atheism is more than the bombastic writings of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins or PZ Myer. I would say that many of the categories that he has listed are not mutually exclusive and it is definitely possible to be closely aligned to several. My main point is that very little in life is black and white including the boundary between belief and disbelief.

Book Review: The Divine Conspiracy

The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard is one of those books that has been on my reading list for awhile, but I had never gotten around to reading. Dr. Willard is a professor of philosophy at USC and also a conservative Christian. The book had been referenced by several other books that I had read recently so I finally decided that I couldn't put off reading it any longer.

The book was fairly inconsistent. There were portions that were beautifully written especially his second chapter on "Gospels of Sin Management." Then there were portions that sounded like the grumpy old man who is complaining about "kids these days." I tend to dislike arguments centered around the decay of society. Typically they rely on a romanticized, inaccurate view of the past.

The book can basically be divided into three sections. The first section is basically a diagnosis of the current situation of our society on earth. The second section is his remedy, which is basically a detailed look at the sermon of the mount in Matthew. Finally the last section goes into his own interpretation of the discipleship process and how to become a disciple of Christ and then how Christ will complete his divine conspiracy.

Although he is not a dynamic author, I think there is enough of value in this book that most Christians would feel that they had gained some valuable insight by reading this book. For those who are wanting to be convinced about the central tenets of Christianity this book is probably not for you.

Barriers to finding that important fossil

Carl Zimmer has an interesting post about the discovery of a large filter feeding fish. Filter feeding today is used by several species of shark and also more famously, whales. In the search for fossils there are many barriers to finding those important fossils that illustrate some aspect of evolution. It is very rare that fossils are formed and only a small area has actually been seached are two that we could name. Here is another barrier. The fossil was actually found, but its significance wasn't understood at the time and it was put into storage. Well Matt Friedman has been scouring museum collections and has plugged a 80 million year hole in the evolution of filter feeding fish with several specimans that had been gathering dust.