Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, May 4, 2007

Fairy Tales

The other day I wrote that my daughter no longer believes in the Easter Bunny, and this week she finally got around to admitting that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy aren't real, either. I guess I'll have to keep an eye on her the next few days to make sure she doesn't go on a murderous rampage.

Man, after reading that and a few other of Jack Chick's tracts, it's scary to think there's somebody so demented to come up with that stuff, and even scarier to think of the number of people who buy his products.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Moral Absolutism vs. Relativism

Reading a recent entry on Pharyngula, I came across a quote from Kirk Cameron that struck me (not because it was Kirk Cameron saying it, but because the topic is a typical view), "Atheism has become very popular in universities--where it's taught that we evolved from animals and that there are no moral absolutes. So we shouldn't be surprised when there are school shootings." Well, the school shooting part's a complete non-sequitir. But I do want to take a look at the moral absolute parts in a bit more detail. There seems to be a sense among many Christians in this country that morals are absolute, and moral relativism is a bad, bad thing.

Now, I'll admit right up front that philosophy isn't my area of expertise, so perhaps my Wikipedia informed definitions of moral absolutism and moral relativism is leading me astray, but it certainly seems to me that most of our morals are relative, and not absolute. Even for Christians, when you look at the 10 commandments, the ones that deal with how to treat other people can all be looked at on a relative basis.

Honor your father and your mother.
What about if your parents tell you to worship Ganesh? What if your parents snap, and go on a murderous rampage - should you try to stop them, or honor their wishes and let them kill more people?
You shall not kill [sometimes translated as murder].
Is it okay to kill someone in self defense? Execute a convicted murderer? Kill people in war? Shoot a person on a murderous rampage?
You shall not commit adultery.
Well - from the Christian perspective, there's not much to argue with in this one, but what about cultures where it's okay for spouses to have sex outside marriage, as long as neither spouse has a problem with it?
You shall not steal.
Is it wrong to steal food to feed your starving children? Is it bad to steal a gun from a murderer so that he can't shoot anybody else?
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Is it okay to lie to a murderer so that he can't find his next victim?
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.
Well, this doesn't exactly cover directly dealing with other people. It's just good advice not to be jealous.

I guess Christians could still argue that certain actions besides those listed above are inherently good or bad, but the Christian basis for good or bad a lot of times simply boils down to "God said so," but this doesn't say that the actions themselves are inherently good or bad. For a popular example, look at eating kosher foods. Before Jesus, it was apparently immoral to eat non-Kosher foods, but now, because of the New Covenant, non-Kosher foods (like shrimp) are on the menu. So, there was nothing inherent in the action that was moral or immoral, just whether or not God said it was okay. To insist on moral relativism absolutism, when it seems that even God himself can change his mind, seems like a pretty strong stance to take.

A lot of Christians in this country today argue that morals are absolute, but it seems to me that the morality of an action really must be determined in context, and that most people usually do judge actions that way. To insist on complete moral absolutism seems a bit silly.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Intelligent Design Event in Dallas

I was a little late in hearing about this, and then it took me a little while to blog about it, but I recently learned that there's going to be an Intelligent Design event not too far from me at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Not too surprisingly, the anthropology, geology, and biology departments at the university weren't too happy about it, and all sent letters to the school administrators expressing their dismay. The administrators responded with their own statement, part of which said, "Although SMU makes its facilities available as a community service, and in support of the free marketplace of ideas, providing facilities for those programs does not imply SMU's endorsement of the presenters' views."

For now, I'll just take that statement at face value, and assume that SMU would also lend its facilities to the KKK, holocaust deniers, or flat-earthers. After all, it's in the interest of the "free marketplace of ideas," right? What I'd rather focus on in this entry is the response by William Dembski. For anyone who's followed Intelligent Design (ID) at all, Dembski's name should be very familiar - he's one of the main ID "theorists," a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, and has become infamous for his use of information theory to try to support intelligent design.

Part of Dembski's response was, "Doesn’t the 'M' in SMU refer to 'Methodist' and aren't Methodists believers in God? Is SMU's anthropology department committed to hiring anti-God faculty?" Okay, I know that for most, ID really is religiously motivated, and I've heard that proponents had been slipping more recently, but isn't the standard line still supposed to be that ID is a purely scientific concept (oops, I mean, "theory"), and that the identity/intentions of "the designer" are irrelevant to detecting design. I mean, haven't people (like Dembski himself) even said that the designer could be sufficiently advanced aliens? Nice to see that they're finally dropping the facade and just coming right out and saying that it's religious. I'd be willing to bet, though, that all those believers in theistic evolution would be a little upset at being called "anti-God."

Anyway, I'm tempted to actually go see this conference, just to see what it's like (in a slowing down to see a car wreck kind of way), but two hours away is just a little too far to go. Plus the fact that they're actually charging for tickets, and there's no way I'd ever give any money to support these hucksters.

Addendum: I forgot to mention this originally, but I just wanted to make it clear. Even if you ignore that ID is religiously motivated and just look at it scientifically, it still has no real evidence to back it up, and shouldn't be taken seriously. Just go browse Talk Origins for some of the evidence for evolution, or better yet, just go read some science magazines.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Homosexuality & The Old Testament

On my main site, I've written twice before about people trying to use the Bible as a justification to ban gay marriage. I just came across a supposed open letter that covers it much more humorously than I ever could. The letter is addressed to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, in response to some statements she made on her radio program. To help make it easier to check the Biblical passages, I've made them links to the appropriate chapter in the New Internation Version.

(Apparently, I've been living in a cave. When I looked this up on Snopes to try to figure out who was the original author so I could either link to them or credit them, I found that this letter's been circulating since at least 2000. But whether or not this letter is real or was ever sent, the content is still good.)

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination…End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan,

Friday, December 8, 2006

Countering Some Creationist Arguments

I recently had an e-mail correspondence with a creationist, whch I mentioned in my latest update, which led me to post parts of it as a new essay on my main site, Confidence in Historical Knowledge. There were other parts of that e-mail correspondence that I thought were pretty good, but a little more controversial than my normal fare for my main site, and a little bit off topic from the rest of that essay, so I decided to post them here on my blog, with a few changes from the original e-mail.

One issue that's common is to conflate multiple topics, which really aren't all that related, such as the big bang and evolution of life. This is especially common among people who reject the science on religious grounds, since religious creation stories commonly account for the creation of the universe and everything in it (and since I live in the predominately Christian U.S., this usually means people looking at the creation story of Genesis). But these really are separate concepts in science. Look at it this way - the big bang occured somewhere around 14 billion years ago. Our species has been around for around 100,000 to 200,000 years. To put that in perspective (using the 200,000 year figure), humans have been around for 1.43e-5 the time since the big bang. (Note that I'm referring to when the big bang occurred, and not calling it the beginning of the universe. Big bang theory describes what happened after that moment, not how everything got there in the first place. Who knows, the universe could be thousands of times older than the time since the big bang, existing in some state that we don't know about.) The United States is 200 years old, so the U.S. has been around for 1e-3 the time of humans. In other words, the origin of humanity and the big bang are so far removed, that trying to equate the two is even worse (by 2 orders of magnitude) than trying to equate the origin of the U.S. with the origin of humanity. They should be treated as separate events.

Another point I want to address is directed at the Christians who reject science about the past because it conflicts with their interpretation of the Bible. I've even received an e-mail in response to other essays I've posted on my website, stating, "There is only one historical account of origins events and that is the Bible which claims that the only eye-witness to the events is God."

I will address this in two ways. First, the Bible is not the only proposed historical account of origins. Most religions have their own explanations. Just look at the appropriate Wikipedia page - there are dozens just on there.

The second thing I want to say on this, is even if you accept the Bible as being true, it is only one source of evidence, and still open to interpretation. The most famous example of this is Copernican astronomy, and in particular the conflict between the Catholic church and Galileo. Based on their observations, scientists put the sun at the center of the universe, and said that the earth orbitted it. The church, using numerous Biblical passages as support, said that the Earth was the center of the universe. (Neither party was right, but science was on its way to getting at the right answer, and was at least more accurate than the church.) Nearly all Christians today would say that the Catholic church was wrong, and were misinterpreting the Bible. That may be the case, but it shows the problem in relying on only one source of evidence.

As two other examples, look to the germ theory of disease, and slavery in the American south. The germ theory of disease - that disease are caused by infectious agents, was initially rejected by many, on the grounds that diseases were punishments sent by God, and of course they could find the passages to back up that claim. (See this post from The Panda's Thumb.)

During and prior to the U.S. Civil War, many southerners used the Bible as a justification for slavery. I won't say much on this, other than to direct readers to this page at, which quotes several prominent figures from that era, and has further links to the relevant scripture passages.

I bring up these examples not to show that the Bible is definitely wrong, but to show that people's interpretations of the Bible can be wrong. So, even if you do consider the Bible to be accurate, should you reject scientific theories based on your interpretation of the Bible, or should you incorporate scientific knowledge, to aid you in your interpretation of the Bible? What if Genesis was meant to be read allegorically, or figuratively?


Selling Out