Sunday, May 27, 2012

Beginning, End, In Between

I am considering bringing Lausten North to an end. His name indicates a search that is occurring somewhere in the wisdom direction of the traditional Lakota wheel. For me, no search is ever over, but at some point, you have to call it. The beginning for me was a sense of having something to offer, but not being sure what that was. That led to questions about just what science is and just what religion is. That led to the history of the philosophy of science and how and where it first flourished and why it is still struggling and why what happened is not common knowledge. It led to walking away from church and finding more wonder and inspiration in the natural world than I expected. 

Along the way, I think I’ve asked good questions, hopefully not offered too much unsolicited advice and occasionally entertained. At this point, the path is a bit too windy. I’m thinking about straightening it out a bit, like a timeline. If you don’t hear from me, that’s where I am. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Irony of Faith

I listened to a debate about god between a Christian and an Atheist recently. Most of them are pretty difficult to listen to and I won’t bore you with the details. One or the other side will usually use an argumentative or condescending tone. The logic will be convoluted and minds are rarely changed in the end. Why do they do it? Both sides will say that the main reason is to get people thinking and hopefully they will come around later. This one was unusual in that the atheist debater, Jeremy Beahan, was very relaxed. By the end of it, he was responding with, “well, I already addressed that point” and sounded like he was sitting there playing games on his iPhone waiting for his turn.

It wasn’t that the Christian was that bad at debating. His arguments were pretty standard and he used a spectrum of classical and liberal arguments to make his point. One of them was that atheist governments have been perpetrators of some of the worst crimes in human history. He used Pol Pot as an example, and Stalin’s Russia, various Marxist regimes and of course, Hitler. Hitler is debatable, but Jeremy didn’t need to discuss that. What he said was, “Does anybody find it outrageous that somebody who believes in a holy book where men, women and children are killed and genocides actually happen would then have the audacity to bring up the example of Stalin and genocidal regimes to try to claim we don’t have morality?”

I had to think about that one for a minute. I know the Bible is full of such things. I have spent the last few years finding them and trying to find explanations for them. But I can still hear this argument against atheism and not find it outrageous like Jeremy suggests I should. Part of that is due to how they are ignored for the most part. When questions come up about them among Christians, they are quickly dismissed as “Old Testament”. Sure, there are a few who say God has the right to smite, but even those people say this in a dismissive way, skipping over the details of just how God directs individuals to kill and who gets killed.

For Jeremy, I think he has spent enough time focusing on these passages and so much less time around Christians recently, that he sees the argument for what it is. If you read one of these passages and you didn’t know it was about the God of the Bible, you would think it was pure evil. If there wasn’t an immediate explanation, some claim of needing to understand the full context, you would never consider this was a benevolent creator that people put their faith in.

This is one of the ironies of faith. “Faith” claims that you need to first accept God is good, then understand the full story to understand any part of it. The killing, whether by Moses or by some holy army in Revelations is all justified if you understand the full story. Except, there is no advanced book of theology that provides that full story. There is only the standard story of The Fall, Exodus, The Kings, separation from God and finally reconciliation through the blood of Christ. It doesn’t matter how you approach it, unjustifiable bad things happen in the Bible. It is only people who will tell you that if you don’t understand it, you have to study some more. And have faith.

The irony appears in other forms. When arguing a contentious element of Christianity, like homosexuality, a topic that is splitting churches all over the world, those who say it is a sin will start out saying that the Bible is very clear on this. If you read the New International Version, it clearly says “…that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God” and lists homosexuals among the wrongdoers. This seems like an attempt to use a logical argument, backed up by a source.

If you read the King James Version, it clearly says “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind”. If you dig deeper and ask which translation is better, you find that the best Greek translators don’t know what was meant by those words. Taking an even more objective view point, you can’t be sure that Paul of Tarsus is the actual author of some of the epistles. If some of his words are forgeries, how can we be sure if they are from God or even inspired by God?

At this point, the person of faith will throw up their hands. If they hadn’t identified you as a non-believer yet, they will draw your faith into question. What started out as a logical argument will return to one of belief. Although some details of the argument may have been won, statements like, “well, generally, looking at the full story of the Bible, it is clear that….” and you can fill in that blank with just about any stance. It doesn’t matter.

The irony is that this is valued. To stand up against logic and base your view on faith is considered an act of strength. That you had to pray, meditate and read theologians to arrive at the faith decision is considered time well spent. This is claimed to be part of the search for truth. The irony is that it is an end of searching. It is the final answer to the difficult questions that we all must live with. Continuing to ask why we are here, where did we come from and how best to treat our neighbors is considered a weakness.

If this were limited to creationism vs evolution or questions about the miracle of Fatima, I wouldn’t bother with it. But it has spilled over into the culture in general. I hear intelligent people saying, “They don’t really know about X, they say they do, there is exception Y or new evidence that suggests Z.” The misunderstanding of “them” is that “they” actually don’t say that they do know for certain. Saying that science can’t prove something to 100% accuracy is a misunderstanding of science. That is not what “they” are trying to do. “They” are the ones who are open minded and on a search for truth. They say they have evidence, they say their theory has been tested, but they are always asking questions and checking each other’s data. We will know when scientists believe they have all the answers when they stop asking questions, when they stop doing science.

There was a study done a while back that showed that there are now more studies that refute previous studies than ever before. The science of diet for example, changes often. You are out to eat with friends and someone wants low cholesterol and someone else wants low carbohydrates, a debate about food ensues and everyone agrees that “they” don’t know, that last year’s claims about wine or chocolate disagree with this year’s. Some state this as a weakness of science. It is not. The claims disagree because more was learned, the questions continued to be asked and new answers were found. It is those with faith that continue to argue that something that was under reported 2,000 years ago actually happened.

Science is accused of looking for finality, but then mocked when a theory is changed or expanded. Religion says it is the search for truth, but supplies pat answers and inserts a miracle when something can't be explained. Faith, by definition is an end to searching. It is an easy answer, but it is valued as if it is a decision that was difficult to arrive at and must be defended. Logic is used to defend faith, but when it fails, falls back on faith.

To download or listen to the deabate, go here, then look for "Is Christianity Rational".

Saturday, May 12, 2012


I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. 
-Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. He bridged the cultures between India and the West. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

We need everybody in on this

Another interesting talk at the Madison Freethought Festival 2012 was by Sean Faircloth. He is currently working with The Richard DawkinsFoundation for Reason and Science. Not surprisingly, he talked about science and said we should know our scientific heroes. He showed a slide of Francis Bacon, sometimes credited with sparking the rise of science in Europe. I talked to him about also including a Muslim scientist, for reasons I will explain in my follow-up email to him, included below.

In one of the museums I visited in my recent trip to Ireland, there was a timeline of our advances in science, going back to our use of fire or some such primitive beginning. What was unusual about this timeline is that it included Ibn Al-Rushd. Most timelines include Aristotle and other Greeks then leave a big gap. They might say something about their works being lost in the East for a while. The next thing that happens is Western Europe conquers Moorish Spain and the Greek works are suddenly found! Although unconfirmed, those works may have been lost for up to a century, and certainly the direct line of their teachings and even language was lost, but they were not just put in cold storage in Baghdad.

My letter to Sean:

I’m following up on our brief conversation about the heroes of early science that we had after your talk at the Madison WI Freethought Festival. You mentioned Francis Bacon and I suggested you also include a Muslim. This is not just a token nod to Islam but an important part of the history of how Europeans dealt with the scientific revolution in its early stages. Our ignorance of this history is directly related to the misunderstandings we are experiencing in the science vs. religion debate today.

If I had to pick one Islamic scientist to represent the rest, it would be Ibn Al-Haytham who wrote the Book of Optics in 1039 CE. This book is considered by many to be the first work to involve modern scientific methods like peer review, laboratory experimentation and documentation. Also important is the climate in which it came about. Al-Haytham is quoted as saying, "Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough” in his critique of Ptolemy, demonstrating the new idea of doubting the ancient texts handed down to them from the Greeks.

The culture that encouraged this line of thinking included “The House of Wisdom” started by the Caliph al-Hakim. Reading was encouraged by anyone from any race or stature and books were collected from all over the known world. There were religious reasons and motivations for this, but there were few religious restrictions on what could be explored. Much of the knowledge that was accumulated was passed on to the European scientists that we all know. Here is a quick list of some of that

This came to an end in the mid 13th century when the Mongols invaded from the East, destroying much of the works in Baghdad, and the Europeans took back Spain. Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) was already declining from within so exactly who destroyed information and how much of it was transferred to Europeans is not entirely clear to me. There is evidence that a very different attitude was taking hold and there was some fear of all this knowledge flooding in as indicated by the prohibition of philosophical and theological theses in the Condemnation of 1277 by the Bishop of Paris.

Although the ideas of copyrighting and citing sources were not yet known, it is not hard to imagine that hiding a connection of knowledge to an empire that had just been conquered was deliberate. Especially by an empire that had control of the education system and was under threat by internal and external forces. It was also just bad luck that Arabic was difficult to use in a printing press. Even if it was not deliberate, the result has been that it is the Renaissance in the West that has been credited with the rise of science when in truth it was a combined effort of the cultures of the three major monotheisms with significant input from the Far East.

Support from government, open minded attitudes, encouragement of learning for everyone and a spirit of cooperation started the scientific revolution. War, power struggles, hoarding of information and claims of cultural superiority have worked against it. These forces continue to be at odds today. Hopefully we can learn from the past.

Thanks for your time and work.

P.S. I’m still searching for good scholarly documentation of the above. There are plenty of web links but the books I have found tend to have religious agendas. There is no thesis here that God or Allah encouraged science, only that cultures who worshipped those gods can also be cultures that encourage science. This BBC documentary, by physicist Jim Al-Khalili does the best job of connecting the dots that I have found.