"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Friday, August 31, 2007

Dawkins and McGrath

As Alex is busy with his studies and I'm busy debating the merits of drinking urine, I thought I'd post this video of Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath debating the existence and nature of God:


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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Making me a theist

What would it take to convince me of God's existence?

Ebonmuse – for those of you who don't know – is one of the more informed bloggers on the subject of atheism and religion: his knowledge of both certainly outstrips mine*.

(*I realise this is damning with faint praise)

Through this recent post I stumbled across his 'Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists', which got me thinking about the level of evidence needed for me to change my mind on the subject. Ironically, given that Ebonmuse's atheism seems far more solid than my own (which often borders on a lazy agnosticism), it looks as though I'd actually require more evidence than he would.

For example, in the first category of evidence (things that would convert him on the spot) he lists:

Verified, specific prophecies that couldn't have been contrived.
If the Bible, for example, said, "On the first day of the first month in the year two thousand and ten, the pillars of the earth will shake and a great part of the New World will be lost to the sea," and then January 1, 2010 comes and a tremendous earthquake sends California to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, I would become a believer.

I wouldn't.

If an individual could consistently predict – with significant accuracy – future events, then it would certainly prove that prophecy was possible, but it would leave completely open the reason why: It could be a divine being with knowledge of the future, or some yet undiscovered law of physics, or aliens, etc. Just because someone claims that X is the reason they can see the future is no evidence that it really is X.

He also suggests:

Scientific knowledge in holy books that wasn't available at the time.
If the Bible (or any other religious text) contained some piece of knowledge that the people of the time couldn't possibly have known but that is now known to be true, that would be highly convincing to me. A passage about the atomic theory of matter or the heliocentric solar system would be interesting, but not conclusive, since the Greeks, for example, proposed those ideas long ago independent of any claim to divine revelation. A mention of the theory of evolution would have been impressive. A reference to the germ theory of disease, or the laws of electromagnetics, would have been compelling. But what would be indisputable proof would be an elucidation of a truly modern theory of physics, such as relativity or quantum mechanics - not just something that the people of the time couldn't possibly have known of, but something so counter-intuitive that the odds against guessing at it correctly would be staggering.

This would certainly be impressive – but far from conclusive (or near conclusive) evidence of the divine.

The only valid response to detailed scientific knowledge in a ancient religious text would be a) scepticism and b) curiosity. The most reasonable explanation would be that it's a hoax and that the details were added at a later date – when it was more readily available. Ruling out this possibility would bring us no closer to explaining how such knowledge was present, but leave a mystery with numerous possible answers: a divine being, time-travel, aliens, etc. Just as with prophecy, on its own a reference to information about the universe far ahead of its time does not logically lead to a specific explanation.

The same objection can be made to his third suggestion:

Miraculous occurrences, especially if brought about through prayer.
If cities condemned as sinful by preachers tended to explode in flames for no apparent reason, if glowing auras of holy light sometimes appeared around believers to protect them from harm, or if atheists and only atheists were regularly struck by lightning, this would be compelling proof. But it wouldn't have to be so dramatic; even minor but objectively verifiable miracles would do, especially if they could be invoked by prayer. If a hospital did a double-blind study to determine if intercessory prayer helps the sick, and it was discovered that only the patients prayed for by members of a certain religion experienced a dramatic, statistically significant increase in recovery rate, and this result could be repeated and confirmed, I would convert. This one shouldn't be so hard, especially for the Christians - after all, Jesus told them that they would be able to work miracles through prayer!

If prayer works then all it proves is that prayer works – the how and why remain unexplained, the only rational response is to suspend judgement until further evidence has been acquired. The same goes for any miraculous event.


Aliens who believed in the exact same religion.
And one more, though this one is just a bit off the wall. If humanity was to contact an extraterrestrial civilization, and if said extraterrestrials had a religion that was exactly like some religion on Earth, I would become a believer. (Though it would raise some interesting theological problems for Christians. Does Jesus have to travel to every planet in the universe individually, dying and being resurrected on each one?)

...though compelling is similarly open to scepticism: evolutionary 'forced moves', extraterrestrial influence, etc.

Any one of these raises fascinating questions about the universe and the current theories we have about it, but would fail to convince me of the divine. If all were true – if we lived in a universe in which prophecies came true, religious texts presented knowledge of the universe far beyond their time, miracles happened regularly and we'd encountered aliens who believed in the same God – then what we'd have is a large amount of circumstantial evidence which made a powerful argument for the existence of the divine yet failed to provide direct evidence of it.

So what would convince me?


Any direct manifestation of the divine.
I'm not that hard to convert; I'll be happy to believe in God if he tells me to in person, as long as he does it in such a way that I could be sure that it was not a hallucination (for example, in the presence of multiple reliable witnesses, none of which are in a highly emotional or otherwise altered state). Where are the voices speaking out of burning bushes, or out of thin air when people get baptised? In Old Testament times, Moses saw God so often that he knew him on a first-name basis. Why doesn't this happen any more today?

Although as well as ruling out the possibility of hallucination, God would also have to convince me that I hadn't gone insane – which, given He's the most powerful being in the universe shouldn't be too difficult.

That's all I'd need.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Angry Sky

It seems as though we haven't had a drop of rain here in central Minnesota since the middle of June. That all changed this last week. We've found ourselves in the midst of a "storm belt". Four out of the last five days have produced severe weather that has been surging through our area. The photo above is of a storm that just missed us last night. It dumped so much hail onto the town just north of us that they had to call out the plows to clear the streets!

This photo is from my brother-in-law who lives about an hour south of us. The same storm was still dropping large hail and producing 70 mph winds by the time it reached them.

It's hard for me to express how much I look forward to these summer storms. There is this strange combination of awesome beauty and the ominous threat of potential tornadic activity. (which I also MUST see before I die. (hopefully not as I die))

It seems we are all drawn to the fantastic. We'd all love to see a "miracle" — something that just blows you away. I find myself ever drawn to this sense of awe. I love to be in the presence of great power. I like to feel small. I long to stand before something much greater than myself. I guess that's why I love the mountains as much as I do. It's also why I love gazing off into the universe on a moonless night. (note to self: buy a telescope.) And I think it's also why I enjoy watching such an awful manifestation of power go angrily growling past my neighborhood.

These storms have the potential to destroy my home and kill my cherished trees. (let alone myself along with my family!) Still I eagerly await their arrival. Each summer that goes by without at least one severe storm feels like a waste of a perfectly good season.

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