Sunday, 2 December 2012

Dear creationist

First of all, please note carefully that I am addressing you in the singular, Bodie Hodge, in answer to your “Dear atheists...” open letter over at Answers in Genesis. I am not assuming that all creationists are the same. I was one for four or five years, after all. Admittedly I was a teenager at the time and I think I was mostly doing it as a theologically-approvable gesture of independence from my theistic-evolutionist parents. Still, creationism got me into the habit of questioning what I read, without which I would not be an atheist today. Though, come to think about it, you’re not likely to find that a positive thing.
Are you tired of all the evil associated with the philosophy of atheism—Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and so on? After all, most murderers, tyrants, and rapists are not biblical Christians, and most have rejected the God of the Bible. Even if they claim to believe in the God of the Bible, they are not really living like a true Christ follower (who strives to follow God’s Word), are they?
“Tired” is not quite the word, but yes, I disapprove of evil regardless of what philosophy it’s associated with. You might want to check your facts regarding Hitler, though. Here’s a couple of questions about Hitler, for you to guess the answer to. First, what motto did the Nazis emboss on their belt buckles? There’s an example just to the right (do you speak German)? Second, which of the following two phrases does Hitler use (vastly) more in Mein Kampf to refer to his fantasy “Aryan race” –
  1. “The Master-Race”, or
  2. “The highest” (or “true”) “image of God”?
I’ll let you research those on your own time. I see you’ve nicely dodged the trap you could have set for yourself there, by specifying “biblical Christians”. “Biblical Christians”, in the sense of people who believe that the entire Bible is literal and inerrant, have existed for certainly less than three and I think less than two centuries. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the idea that the Gospels are inerrant goes way back. But not the whole Bible. That is to say, there have been “biblical Christians” for a shorter time than we’ve had the separation of Church and State, so no “biblical” church has ever had the opportunity to tyrannize nations in the name of God. It’s not all that impressive that they haven’t taken an opportunity they’ve never had, is what I’m driving at.
As for the murderers and rapists, well, I can’t help noting that violent crime correlates positively with Biblical religiousness in the United States today. Not that that proves any particular causal connection – you might hypothesize that the correlation is due to Satan attacking God’s elect, I might hypothesize that crime and religiousness correlate with each other because they both correlate negatively with education, just for example. Still, the idea that “biblical Christians” murder and rape less than other people (which is the important question, isn’t it?) is not supported by this evidence. If you have better studies showing otherwise, go ahead and produce them. Don’t expect me to believe it on just your say-so.
No, I suppose they’re not “living like a true Christ-follower”. But since you get to define “true Christ-follower” according to your own ideas of Christ, don’t hold your breath waiting for me to be impressed. I have a lot of Marxist friends who would swear black and blue that Stalin was not a “true” Socialist. I’m guessing that doesn’t impress you, for the same reason.
Do you feel conflicted about the fact that atheism has no basis in morality (i.e., no absolute right and wrong; no good, no bad?) If someone stabs you in the back, treats you like nothing, steals from you, or lies to you, it doesn’t ultimately matter in an atheistic worldview where everything and everyone are just chemical reactions doing what chemicals do. And further, knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview (since people are just animals) must be disheartening.
Hmmm... nope, I don’t feel conflicted by that at all. What difference does it make, exactly, whether right and wrong are “absolute” or not? What answer does that provide to the perennial question “Why should I do right instead of wrong?” Oh, I think I know what you’re getting at. If I tell someone “You shouldn’t steal,” and they ask “Why not?” and I say “Because it hurts people,” and they ask “Why shouldn’t I hurt people?” – you’re imagining that I’m stuck at this point, whereas you can say “Because God says so.” Well, what if they then ask “Why should I do what God says?” It’s just as reasonable a question. As a matter of fact I do have an answer: “Because then they won’t trust you.” I think you can derive the basics of morality from first principles (plus a little information theory and – gasp! – Darwinian evolution), and I’ve already done a big long blog post arguing just that.
Yes, I am an animal. Yes, I am a very complicated assortment of chemical reactions. Knowing that doesn’t change the fact that I have subjective experiences – that I feel pleasure and pain; that I can experience joy and suffering. Thinking of myself as a supernatural being created by miracle doesn’t explain that at all. But Darwinian evolution explains exactly why I feel pleasure and pain; my ancestors became ancestors by embracing some experiences and avoiding others. Moreover, Darwinian evolution predicts that I must be the offspring of something very like myself, from which it is a reasonable conclusion that other people also experience joy and suffering – which, again, doesn’t follow at all from the creation hypothesis.
Are you tired of the fact that atheism (which is based in materialism, a popular worldview today) has no basis for logic and reasoning? Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist? Are you bothered by the fact that atheism cannot account for uniformity in nature (the basis by which we can do real science)? Why would everything explode from nothing and, by pure chance, form beautiful laws like E = mc2 or F = MA?
“Tired” of it? No, I disagree with it. I don’t think it’s a fact at all. I presume you’re getting this from C. S. Lewis? From The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism, to be precise? What they call the “argument from reason”? At least, his version is much less daft than this idea that truth has to be a “thing” that “exists” independently, like a rock or an elephant, or else nothing is true. No, this is how it works: some possible propositions are true, and some are false. If you want to wangle an abstract noun out of that and call it “truth”, go ahead. I’ll probably follow you, in fact, because I have an object-oriented mind just like you and abstractions are a handy way of grasping patterns in the world. But don’t go kidding yourself that that means “truth” has to exist somewhere as a thing.
Sorry. C. S. Lewis, as I was saying. No, I don’t agree with him either. What do we do when we reason? I will do an Imponderable post on this in the future, which I expect will be quite long-winded, so here’s a very, very short version. There are actually quite a few different processes that our minds use to calculate the answers to questions. Which is bigger, an elephant or a mouse? You’ll have answered that straight out of your general knowledge library. Which is bigger, a hippopotamus or a sports car? This time, I expect you had to conjure up mental images of the two and set them beside each other to make a comparison. It appears that our brains use every possible method for answering a question, and run them against each other. When several agree, we have a winner. Conscious reasoning consists of extending that process, breaking down problems into their components, solving each part, and checking for consistency. Something would have to be going wrong in a very unlikely fashion for all those different processes to consistently reach the same wrong answer.
Can atheism account for uniformity in nature? Well, we’re working on it. My attempt is here. What about you? Can God “account for” uniformity in nature? “Because God wanted things this way” is no explanation of anything; you then have to ask “Why did God want things this way?” To which I’m guessing your answer is “We can never know.” To which my answer is: “Precisely.” If you don’t know, it doesn’t count as an explanation.
Do you feel like you need a weekend to recoup, even though a weekend is really meaningless in an atheistic worldview – since animals, like bees, don’t take a day of rest or have a weekend? So why should atheists? Why borrow a workweek and weekend that comes from the pages of Scriptures, which are despised by atheists? Weeks and weekends come from God creating in six literal days and resting for a literal day; and then the Lord Jesus resurrected on the first day of the week (Sunday). And why look forward to time off for a holiday (i.e., holy day), when nothing is holy in an atheistic worldview?
Yes, I need to rest sometimes. This is perfectly understandable on the hypothesis that I am an animal. Animals need rest and food so they don’t run out of energy, ultimately because they are physical systems subject to the laws of thermodynamics. The hypothesis that I am an immortal soul created by divine fiat makes no such prediction.
I’m afraid you are mistaken as to facts, in your history of the working week. You’re referring to the Sabbath. This does indeed come to us via the Hebrew Bible, but that is not its origin. Shabattu is (I gather) Babylonian for “fourteenth”. The Babylonians kept the shabattu festival on the fourteenth day of the month, so around the middle there. Later they also celebrated the middle of each shabattu cycle, but still called it shabattu. Later still, the seven-day cycle was decoupled from the month to run on its own. Shabattu became shabbat in Hebrew, and that’s where we get the word Sabbath from.
The Romans also had a seven-day cycle, though it wasn’t part of the official calendar and nobody got off work on any day of it. It was based on the seven astrological planets – the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, though the seven-day cycle put them in a staggered order (Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn). The Germanic people of northern Europe also picked it up, changing some of the names to fit their own gods. Mars became Tyr or Tiw, the god of justice. Mercury was Odin or Wotan (in England, Woden), the god of magic. Jupiter, god of thunder, naturally was Thor or Thunor. And the beautiful goddess Venus became Frigg or Frige, the queen of heaven. Sun, Moon, Tiw, Woden, Thunor, Frige, Saturn – does that list of heathen gods strike you as familiar in any particular?
Though unofficial, there were a lot of superstitions attached to the Roman seven-day cycle. Saturn’s day, which happened to coincide with the Jewish Sabbath, was the unluckiest day to do anything. One of the selling points of early Christianity was that it adopted the lucky Sun’s day as its Sabbath instead. The “weekend” of course is much later, dating from the labour movements of the late nineteenth century, when unions agitated for two days off each week so that both their Jewish and Christian members could keep the Sabbath. Though oddly it was Henry Ford, no friend to unions or Jews, who finally instated it as a business practice; he knew his workers were also his customers, and it suited him fine if they had two days off in a row during which they could drive away for holidays in their Model T Fords.
Now, I don’t despise “Scripture” for being Scripture. I think all people have a certain degree of intelligence, and that’s likely to shine through even if they’re also saddled with a nonsensical worldview. I find many things to admire in the Bible, and the idea of taking a day off work every so often is one of them. That doesn’t mean I have to admire everything in the Bible, still less that I have to agree with it all. There’s a lot of things I don’t admire about Graeco-Roman civilization either (slavery springs to mind – come to think of it, slavery’s in the Bible too), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to rename all the days and months in the calendar.
For professing atheists, these questions can be overwhelming to make sense of within their worldview. And further, within an atheistic worldview, atheists must view themselves as God. Essentially, atheists are claiming to be God. Instead of saying there may not be a God, they say there is no God. To make such a statement, they must claim to be omniscient (which is an essential attribute of the God of the Bible) among other attributes of God as well. So, by saying there is no God, the atheist refutes his own position by addressing the question as though he or she were God!
I’m not overwhelmed by these questions, and I never met an atheist who was. I don’t view myself as God. First off, I don’t need to have absolute mathematical certainty before I can be confident in something; I don’t have absolute mathematical certainty that there isn’t someone waiting for me with a gun around the next corner, but I cheerfully bet my life dozens of times a day on it. I disbelieve in God with the same confidence that I disbelieve in unicorns – if you have solid evidence for either one, produce it and I’ll consider it. And I don’t need to be God to understand that information theory rules out an omniscient and eternal God, in the same way that mathematics rules out the possibility of knowing all the digits of π. An omniscient, eternal God would need to have infinite information content; information content is the negative base-2 logarithm of probability; therefore, the probability of an omniscient eternal God existing is precisely 0. (I’ve argued all that here.)
Do you feel conflicted about proselytizing the faith of atheism, since if atheism were true then who cares about proselytizing? Let’s face it, life seems tough enough as an atheist without having to deal with other major concerns like not having a basis to wear clothes, or no basis for marriage, no consistent reason to be clean (snails don’t wake up in the morning and clean themselves or follow other cleanliness guidelines based on Levitical laws), and no objective reason to believe in love.
No, I don’t. For one thing, I’m not proselytizing any faith. I think being in the habit of basing your beliefs on evidence is far more important than what those beliefs actually end up being; because you can talk about evidence, whereas without evidence every argument ultimately boils down to I’M RIGHT YOU’RE WRONG SHUT UP, which is not an attitude that helps people to trust each other. Not even if you add “It’s called ‘faith’” after the “shut up”.
I agree with you about clothes, as it happens. I still wear them in public, because (irrational though it is) it’s a fact that not wearing clothes in my culture makes people believe they can’t trust you, which is the most important thing most of the time. Though I will argue the point if asked, because I think we should keep our reasons for mistrusting one another to the minimum that actually do harm. I do know plenty of atheists who aren’t nudists; why not, you’d have to ask them.
I’m in an exclusive relationship with one partner. Why? Trust again. Humans form long-term pair bonds, it makes us happy. (That covers the “love” part as well, I think.) Some people live in multi-partner arrangements; they have to exercise self-control to suppress jealousy, just as people in single-partner relationships have to exercise self-control not to cheat. The latter seems to work better for most people, but that doesn’t mean the minority are doing something wrong, if it works for them. Trust is what matters. The system seems to have evolved because humans, with our big dependent brains and long childhoods, need to be cared for by more than one adult, and the solution natural selection found was to rope in the males to help out – to cut a much longer and more interesting story down to the most critical points.
As for cleanliness, natural selection provided us with an instinct to avoid things that caused disease, an instinct called “disgust”. A benevolent creator could just as easily have given us an impenetrable resistance to all forms of disease, but that’s not how natural selection rolls. As communicating, co-operating animals, we’ve figured out a multitude of different cultural ways to avoid disgusting one another – some lax and some strict, some explicit and some tacit. It’s only in the last century and a half that we’ve managed to bring the tools of science to bear on the problem. Natural selection got there far ahead of us. By the way, the scientist who made the great breakthrough, Louis Pasteur, is the scientist most often mentioned by Hitler in Mein Kampf; Hitler was terrified of contagion, and easily extended it to the bogus notion of “racial contagion”. Know how many mentions Darwin got? Zero.
Are you weary of looking for evidence that contradicts the Bible’s account of creation and finding none? Do the assumptions and inconsistencies of dating methods weigh on your conscience when they are misrepresented as fact? Where do you suppose those missing links have gone into hiding? Surely the atheist sees the folly and hopelessness of believing that everything came from nothing.
Nope, nope, they’re not hiding, and nope. Actually, let me tell you a story about a geology class I took in my first year at university. Like I said earlier, I was a creationist in my teenage years. I initially signed up for geology thinking I was going to be the great scientist who proved Biblical creationism to everyone’s satisfaction! And for a while, I used to sit in class every day thinking up alternative, Flood-based explanations for the various things they were telling us about. It got more and more untenable as time went on. Then one day we went out on a field trip and looked at some sedimentary rock formations not far out of town. They were in thin layers, alternating between coal and a mudstone with marine foraminiferans (tiny fossils) in it. Coal – mudstone – coal – mudstone – coal – mudstone, it went. Look, said our instructor, this area was on the coast millions of years ago, and the sea levels were going up and down. Trees would grow here, then be covered over by the sea, then the sea would go down again and more trees would grow, over and over. That made sense – and try as I might, I could not wangle any single-catastrophic-event scenario out of what I was seeing before me with my own eyes. I did not become an atheist that day, that took a couple of years more. But that was when I admitted that creationism was false.
I must confess I don’t have a similar eye-witness story for radiometric dating; I did study carbon dating in depth for an assignment the following year, and found that what creation-scientists tell you about it is mostly already accounted for, the balance being pretty much all lies. I did learn the reason why potassium-argon dating sometimes gives a much later date than rubidium-strontium dating or uranium-thorium-lead dating (which are pretty much consistent with each other). You see, when rock solidifies from a melt and crystals form, the atoms inside are locked into the crystal and there they stay, and in most cases they stay locked there even when they’ve decayed to another kind of atom; so your dating methods tell you how long it’s been since the rock was last liquid. Argon, however, is a noble gas, and much harder to lock in. The rock might be solid, but as long as it’s hot enough the argon will still escape. So potassium-argon dating tells you how long it’s been since the rock was that hot. For volcanic rocks, which have cooled from a melt at the surface, it doesn’t make much of a difference; but plutonic rocks, which have solidified deep underground, might have stayed hot enough for millions of years after that for the argon to keep escaping.
Missing links, now. When I was a kid my Prehistoric Animals books always told me that they hadn’t yet found the transitional form between fish and early amphibians. And they hadn’t. Now, they have. It’s called Tiktaalik roseae. And the great thing is, this was no accidental discovery. The researchers looked at where the rocks were (and how old they were) that held the lobe-finned fish that were so very amphibian-like; then they looked at where, and how old, the rocks were that held the earliest amphibian fossils; then they went looking at rocks in the same area that were in-between in age, and there they found what they were looking for. They made a prediction on the basis of evolutionary theory, and it came out right. I do not have anywhere near the space to detail all the other transitional forms that have been found – the land whales and feathered dinosaurs, the one-shelled turtles and ape-people – but they’re there, and if you read through the literature honestly, you’ll find them.
As for “everything coming from nothing”, well, that’s another question. I have made strides in my understanding of quantum physics and cosmology, but I can’t pretend to know how the experts answer that question. I do know, though, that “nothing” is an extremely unlikely state – there’s only one possible arrangement of the universe that counts as “nothing” (as compared to, say, the trillions of trillions of trillions of possible arrangements that count as “gas clouds”). It is a physical law of the universe we know that energy does not appear from nowhere or disappear into nowhere. That doesn’t make it logically impossible, back before there was a universe for there to be laws of.
In fact, why would an atheist care to live one moment longer in a broken universe where one is merely rearranged pond scum and all you have to look forward to is . . . death, which can be around any corner? And in 467 trillion years, no one will care one iota about what you did or who you were or how and when you died – because death is the ultimate “hero” in an atheistic, evolutionary worldview. Of course, as a Christian I disagree, and I have a basis to see you as having value.
Thing is, in 467 trillion years, I won’t care either. For now, though, I’m enjoying life, and I’m feeling good about doing good for others. I hope to leave a good legacy for those who come after. It doesn’t matter that “after” won’t last 467 trillion years.
The rest of your letter is an altar call, which I decline to reproduce. I will say the following, however:
  • Authority is no basis for any statement, and sticking the word “ultimate” before it doesn’t change that.
  • Does my life have value to me? Yes. Does it have value to others? To some, for sure. What is the basis of this value? To me, happiness; to the others, mutual trust bolstered by empathy and reason. What do I need external validation for?
Anyway. I’ve got to go. I see there is no comment space on your website for me to answer you directly, and from my past dealings with professional creationists I think I know exactly why. Just thought you needed to know – since you claim to be all about truth and evidence – that you haven’t got me as well pegged as you thought you had.

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