If I Believed in God

November 6, 2008

(I’ve been quiet on the blog front for a while now, mainly because I have an insane number of essays to write for college. On top of that, I’ve been continuously ill for going on two weeks now – I’m coughing my lungs up as a I type. There’s plenty I want to write on, but unfortunately it will have to wait for a while.)

Theists frequently assume that belief in God will inevitably lead to belief in a particular religion. (Very often it’s their religion.) why they assume this is beyond me, since believing in God as a philosophical proposition certainly does not automatically lead one to believe that, say, Jesus Christ died and came back to life. I’ve had many people attempt to convert me in my time, and they frequently begin with one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God as laid out by Aquinas (the ‘five ways’), or some modern variation thereof. What they fail to realise is that convincing me or any other atheist of the existnce of an unmoved mover or an uncaused cause is not the same thing as convincing us that the Bible is true or that a whole host of associated supernatural entities exist. With that in mind, I give you a brief, hypothetical look at how belief in God would change my opinion on other, related matters.

If I believed in God:

I would not believe in the divinity of Jesus, Mohammad, Noah, or any other figure from a sacred text. There is no reason to assume that because some sort of god exists, the various stories and myths found within any particular holy book must therefore be true.

I would still accept the theory of evolution, unless the argument which convinced me of the existence of God was based upon said theory being flawed or otherwise completely unable to explain the diversity of life. (Note that such an argument would have to do two things for this scenario to come about: convince me that God exists and convince me that evolution does not occur; the latter does not necessarily imply the former.)

I would still accept that the universe is billions of years old and that the Earth most likely came to be through entirely naturalistic forces, unless the argument which lead me to believe in God was based upon the age of the universe or the Earth being wrong. (This one carries the same warning as above.)

I would still not believe in the soul or that humanity is inherently ‘unique’, unless the argument which convinced me of God’s existence was based upon proving that this is the case.

I would still not believe in any sort of afterlife.

I would still believe that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are concepts created entirely by humans, and that they are inherently subjective.

I would probably not ascribe to God some of the traditional ‘divine attributes’ (personhood, perfect goodness, simplicity etc.) popularised by Aquinas and others, although this of course would depend on the kind of argument that would convince me of God’s existence in the first place.

I would almost certainly need some sort of scientific backing for a belief in God. In other words, I am more likely to be swayed by a teleological or cosmological type argument than an ontological one.

I would still not hold my beliefs (religious or otherwise) dogmatically, and would be perfectly willing to revise my belief in God if I discovered new evidence that contradicted it.

In short, my life really wouldn’t change all that much.


Theistic Evolutionism – Questions

October 18, 2008

A few days ago I wrote about what I see as some of the fundamental similarities between holocaust denial and Creationism, without mentioning the one area in which they differ completely: the Bible. Although White Nationalists and others who hold strongly racist views can be astoundingly dogmatic at times, they don’t claim to have in their possession the revealed truth of God. (Actually, some of them do, claiming that either Norse pagan religions or Christianity are explicitly racist in nature. I’m ignoring them because they’re just too crazy to consider.)

I bring this up not to address an oversight on my part, but to ask a few questions of so-called ‘theistic evolutionists’ – theists who have the good sense to accept evolution and not pretend that every word of the Bible or Qur’an must be literally true. Feel free to reply if you’re a theistic creationist yourself or if you used to be one.

  1. How do you reconcile those parts of Scripture which appear to require a literal interpretation of the entirety of Scripture? (I’m being a bit vague here, I know, but I’m simply echoing a question that I’ve seen posed by Creationists both on WordPress blogs and elsewhere.)
  2. Does accepting evolution make you less likely to believe in God because of some sort of teleological argument? If so, does that ‘weaken’ your faith (interpret as you wish) or do you think that God reveals his existence via some other aspect of the Universe?
  3. Can you imagine a hypothetical situation where some sort of scientific discovery leads you to becoming an atheist? Or is your belief in God (as opposed to your religious views about Scripture) entirely separate from scientific knowledge?

While I’m at it, I also have a question for Creationists, one that has recently been posed in the comments section of this blog:

  • If your belief in a young Earth and your rejection of evolution are based on Scripture, why does it matter whether the scientific evidence agrees with you? Why bother to make these pathetic attempts at undermining established science? (I’m not going to pander to you and pretend that the body of Creationist ‘work’ is anything other than pathetic.)

What Do I Do Next?

September 27, 2008

I’ve covered a few Creationist myths by now, but I’m a bit stuck as to what to do next. The fossil record and the Cambrian explosion are two topics I haven’t dealt with yet (they’re coming, possibly by tomorrow morning), and I’d like to go a bit deeper into Flood Geology (it gets more ridiculous the more you read – mind-bogglingly so, in some cases). But what else is there out there? Feel free to comment and vote for your favourite myth that needs debunking.

For the time being, I’d like to point out that what I’m doing here isn’t real scientific debate. For a start, that would require that all parties involved have at least a passing familiarity with the topic being discussed, and since Creationists tend to have a mid-high school level of science education (if even that), this certainly doesn’t count as real debate. It’s more like debunking urban myths or conspiracy theories: interpretation of the evidence doesn’t play a big part in it, since the offenders generally rely on ‘evidence’ that’s wrong, inflated or entirely made up in the first place. This is the work of Snopes, not scientists.

For some debunking in video form, I suggest this YouTube channel. Here’s a particularly good example from there of why Kent Hovind is a moron:


Ben Stein: Champion For Justice

September 27, 2008

Ben Stein is a champion for justice, working tirelessly to weaken the iron grip of the evil liberal colleges on the collective intellect of the USA.

At least, that’s what the AFA would have us believe. The latest from their action alert newsletter:

Ben Blows the Horn on Censorship!

Dear ____,

When I saw this movie I wanted to jump up and down in joy. Ben Stein shows the Evolution Only crowd for what they are. This is the best expose’ of the educational bureaucrats ever. See how the leftwing liberals have captured higher education and will not allow any view but theirs to be discussed. See how they punish those who don’t think like they think. Ben Stein embarrases them intellectually. The liberals would like to ban this movie. They can’t do that, so they did the next best thing–they simply ignored it when it was shown in the theaters. The media critics also ignored it. The movie shows how they refuse to allow any discussion concerning creation. It shows how the liberal educators deal with their peers who do not agree with their Evolution Only stance.

Please watch this movie, then share it with others. I wish it could be shown in every classroom and every church in America.

In a controversial new satirical documentary, author, former presidential speechwriter,
economist, lawyer and actor Ben Stein travels the world, looking to some of the best
scientific minds of our generation for the answer to the biggest question facing
all Americans today:

Are we still free to disagree about the meaning of life?
Or has the whole issue already been decided…
while most of us weren’t looking?

I haven’t seen Expelled yet, although I’ve read enough about it (and seen enough individual clips) to think that it’s probably as stupid as everybody keeps saying. This e-mail is worse.

I have no idea why this jackass thinks us ‘liberals’ ignored Expelled – there’s an entire website devoted to cataloguing its flaws, and it has receieved many (overwhelmingly negative) reviews. If the movie hasn’t set the academic world on fire, it’s probably because it sucks.

The entire point of the e-mail is that this turd is coming out on DVD, which means that I will almost certainly end up watching it if the local video place decides to stock it. (Bringing it to the counter is going to be the most embarrassing experience of my life.) Expect a full review as soon as that happens, assuming it doesn’t leave me a shrieking, mindless wreck.

Information in the Genome: The Debunking

September 26, 2008

Yesterday I posted a brief challenge to Creationists: define what you mean when you say that no known mechanism can add information to the genome. Nobody has accommodated me by taking up the challenge, so I’ll just get straight to the interesting part. (I know I didn’t allow much time, but I’m bored and have several hours to waste use productively until my next lecture.)

The information ‘problem’ is a relatively recent Creationist claim, and is a good indicator of the trend away from easily-debunked myths about the fossil record or radiometric dating and towards more complex (to them) myths about the genome or cellular biology. You’ve probably heard it a dozen times before: “Information can’t be added to the genome”. But what does this actually mean? There are a seemingly endless number of variations based on what ‘information’ and ‘genome’ are defined as (Creationists seem peculiarly unable to agree on basic terminology), so I’ll just go through the most common ones and debunk them all.

1) Genetic material cannot be added to the genome. This one often shows up when a Creationist is pressed to define what they mean by ‘information’, what which point they fall back on the simplest definiton Wikipedia can think of: actual DNA base-pairs. The ‘letters’ of the DNA ‘language’ (as I’m sure no Creationists reading this need to be told!) are A, G, C and T, which stand for Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymin respectively. RNA, DNA’s more simplistic cousin, replaces thymine with U, or Uracil. Each letter has a complimentary letter on the other side of the famous ‘double helix’ – A with T and G with C. They can only form hydrogen bonds in this way; you cannot, for example, have A joined to C. These are ‘base pairs’, and they are directly analagous to the 1s and 0s of computer binary information.

Enough of the elementary biology: does this version of the information argument carry any weight? It does not: gene duplication (and in some particularly dramatic examples, whole genome duplication) is a process that commonly adds large amounts of genetic material to the genome. There are others as well, but you get the idea.

(b) Gene duplication just copies the same information again, rather than adding new information. This sub-myth stops making sense when you apply a little though to it; if a duplication increases the amount of raw genetic data in the genome, subsequent mutations of that new data will lead to an increase in both new information and more varied information. As we’ll see in a minute, though, this isn’t even necessary.

2) Mutations don’t add information, they destroy it. This one is a bit of a word game, because it plays on the fact that mutations are ‘mistakes’ in the genetic copying process. It is never clear what Creationists mean when they say that mutations ‘destroy information’ – presumably they don’t mean that the actual DNA base pairs always disappear, so they must be working off some other definition of ‘information’. As far as I can work out, they’re usually talking about the phenotype rather than the genotype, and falling back on the Creationist myth that mutations are always harmful. Of course, this is not the case – benifical mutations, while quite rare, have been found to occur with enough frequency to allow natural selection to take place.

(b) A mutation only adds information if it conveys a benefit to the organism. Again, this sub-myth is tied to the idea that mutations are always harmful. It’s also a brilliant example of the ‘moving goalpost’.

3) Mutations don’t add information. This one is even more vague, but it’s by far the most common version of the myth (even if the word ‘mutation’ isn’t actually used). Here, most Creationists are unknowingly invoking Information Theory (or Shannon-Weaver Information Theory), a field of mathematics that can be applied to many different situations. According to this theory, the ‘random noise’ of mutation actually helps to increase genetic information. Any reduction in redundancy (genetic material that does nothing, of which there is an enormous amount) is an increase in information. This is why I said earlier that duplication is not necessary for an increase in information: because the genome of any organism is huge, there is ample room for mutation to create new genes.

(b) There is no ‘junk’ DNA. This sub-myth attemps to negate the above defence by claiming that there is no ‘junk’ DNA, and that any mutation of existing genetic material will most likely lead to a negative effect on the organism (it is true that harmful mutations are more common than beneficial ones). Since genetic information supposedly cannot be added to the genome (as per Myth #1), the genome must be a more-or-less static entity, with only minimal variation allowed. It’s wrong, obviously: while some non-coding DNA does seem to have a purpose, very large sections of an organism’s genome can be cut out or reversed without any noticeable effect on the organism. (Incidentally, the idea of the genome as static and mostly unchanging is very appealing to those who believe in the special creation of the Bible or Qur’an. This type of thing is a good red flag to look out for when someone claims to reject evolution on purely scientific grounds; the religious bias is always lurking somewhere in the background.)

(c) Mutations just corrupt the genetic template. Vaguness-ahoy! This one plays off of the idea that there’s an original or ‘ideal’ form of the genome, and that any variation on this is corruption (and as we all know, corruption is a bad thing). Usually there are some appeals made to Adam as having this mytsterious ideal genome – if someone goes this far into the waters of fundie-hood, you can safely begin to ignore them. In reality, there is no such thing as an ‘ideal’ genome, for any organism. (The Human Genome Project took examples of those sections of the human genome which vary from many different individuals, since taking it from any one individual would have lead to a database that didn’t represent the diversity of humanity. Too bad they didn’t have any of Adam’s cells lying around!)

(c) Richard Dawkins couldn’t give an example of a process that adds information to the genome. This one is pretty irrelevant, but I thought I’d toss it in here anyway since it’s so common. According to Dawkins, he invited a camera crew into his home to give an interview on what he thought was to be a documentary on the interaction between science and religion. When he was asked about genetic information (with the question phrased in a way that made it sound as if it was lifted directly from Creationist literature) he realised what was happening and, in accordance with his rule about not debating Creationists, decided to cut the interview short there and then. While the cameras were off, the film crew supposedly begged him to continue (they had come a long way) and he relented. when the documentary was aired, he was appalled but not surprised to discover that it had been edited in such a way as to make his long pause (when he says he was deliberating over whether to answer) look like an inability to come up with a reply, followed by a quote, taken out of context, that made him seem as if he was trying to dodge the question.

Obviously only those involved know for sure what actually happened, and the possibility that Dawkins is lying can’t be ruled out. However, I find it hard to believe that he would be unable to answer a question like this, and Creationist deceit is not exactly unprecedented – the widespread use by them of ‘quote mining’ throughout the internet is evidence of that, as is the dubious methodology employed by the producers of Expelled. But, as I said earlier, whether Dawkins was able to answer the question or not is irrelevant, since the scientific evidence clearly and easily refutes this particular Creationist myth.

As usual, comment, criticism and suggestions are very welcome, particularly from those who know more about this than I do and feel that I missed something important due to ignorance of the subject,  or that I made a mistake.

Information In The Genome

September 25, 2008

It’s time to knock down another piece of Creationist silliness! This time it’s the claim that no mechanism exists by which information can be added to the genome.

Before I get started, though, I’m going to need a few Creationists to define what exactly they mean by ‘information’ (and ‘genome’, for that matter, since I don’t trust them to know what the scientific definition is). You can think of this as a bit of audience participation. I’ll refute the information claim by whatever definition(s) I’m given.

Atheists Can Be As Bad As Christians

September 24, 2008

As I said yesterday, I’ve recently started to study philosophy (among other things) at NUIM. The lecture this morning touched upon a subject that I’ve discussed at length with DTE (he of the guest posts) in the past.

Most people hold beliefs that they’re unwilling or reluctant to critically examine. Call them what you will – presuppositions, assumptions, cherished – but most people have them. I certainly do, although I like to find them and question them quite rigorously whenever I can. Theists are frequently charged with holding an undue amount of these beliefs, usually in regard to their entire religion. While I think this is generally true (there’s an odd but widespread phenomenom where intelligent people become completely irrational when their religion is criticised), it’s something that atheists certainly aren’t immune to.

I think that religious emotion, the things people feel when they pray or visit a church, are universal. How people express or trigger those emotions obviously varies widely, but I doubt many people would claim to have never experienced them. Just as ‘religious emotion’ doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with religion, so ‘religious thinking’ (credit to DTE for that one) doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with religion.

What do I mean by ‘religious thinking’? Consider what I’ve seen described as the ‘single issue wonk’. These are people who latch onto a particular issue, usually a political one, and defend it rabidly. Any criticism will incite a torrent of rage and counter-arguments, usually of the hysterical variety. Ardent Obama or McCain fans seem to fall into this category a lot, as do many so-called ‘values voters’ (pro-life or pro-choice proponents are particularly bad). When I say that these people think religiously, I mean that they hold beliefs about certain issues in a way very reminiscent of how religious people hold beliefs about their faith. Reason generally doesn’t have much to do with it, and they’re likely to defend their beliefs on emotional grounds.

When I first started to communicate with other atheists, I was overjoyed to find a community that appeared to treat nothing as sacred, where everything at all was open to question and close scrutiny. As time went on, I discovered that there were a numer of taboo subjects and opinions. I didn’t agree with most of these, but I was quite shocked at the harsh reaction to those who did. Atheists will claim that they’re capable of and willing to examine any belief, any proposition, as objectively as they possibly can, but this isn’t really true. Ironically, some atheists become religious about their atheism, reacting to the merest suggesting that they’re wrong with explosive animosity.

The reason why my philosophy lecture brought all of this to mind is that the lecturer suggested that we lay aside our presuppositions for the time being, in hopes of either returning to them on a firmer foundation or of abandoning them and changing ourselves entirely. That willingness to change is what differentiates those who think religiously from those who don’t; if an atheist is really as capable of objective consideration as he or she claims, they shouldn’t be afraid of abandoning their atheism and becoming a theist if it seems like a reasonable thing to do. Yet I’m convinced that many atheists would be appalled at the mere suggestion.

One reason could be that so many atheists are deconverts from various religions; they’ve already gone through a momentous change, and probably do not like the idea of doing it again. Another is that anyone who defines themselves partially or in whole by a belief is going to be very reluctant to give it up. (This is a bit of a problem, as both DTE and I think that atheism needs to become more community-oriented if it’s to spread and survive – more on that some other time.)

On the other side of the coin we have theists who either refuse outright to critically consider their beliefs or who concoct elaborate delusions to convince themselves that their beliefs are not irrational (Creationists, I’m looking at you). Which of the two is ‘worse’? Most atheists would say that the religious-religious is the worst for society, but that may simply be their own prejudices (unexamined and uncriticised) speaking again. Personally, I don’t think that one is any worse than the other; they’re both a threat to a democratic society.

(NOTE: Substitute ‘Christian’ in the title either for whatever religion you belong to or, if you’re an atheist, whatever religion you’d least likely to be compared to a member of.)