Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thoughts On "Expelled"

I saw Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed this past week and, since several friends have asked what I thought of the movie, I decided I would weigh in briefly.

This is a controversial film, no doubt. It's aim is to expose the blatant bias that exists within the academic and scientific communities against the very idea that someone would suggest there is evidence of design in the universe in general, or in the realm of biological life in particular. Those who have even expressed openness to these ideas have paid a heavy price by being ostracized, denied tenure, and even fired from their jobs for doing so.

Obviously I agree with the claims of ID and have tried to defend them many times here. It is also undeniable that the scientific community has, in some specific cases, mistreated those who subscribe to this notion. There is not a single assertion in the movie that I think is false or even exaggerated. But for me there are two issues at play here:

First, is ID scientifically supportable and worthy of being given a place at the table? This is the $64,000 question. Unfortunately, Expelled does not offer much evidence to make this case. The movie does show animation about the inner workings of the cell but the scenes that do so lack explanation and are therefore not of much help to the average viewer who is not familiar with what he/she is being shown. I wish the viewer had been given more supporting details about the information content in DNA, or about specified and irreducible complexity, to show the incredible evidence for intelligent design. I say this only because I can't imagine a more effective medium than the big screen for educating those who are unfamiliar with, and uninformed about, the claims of ID. Having said that however, the thing we must remember is that this was not the goal of the movie. Rather, Expelled was meant to expose and rebel against anti-ID bias. This brings us to the second topic.

Second, does Expelled succeed in elevating the acceptability of ID in the minds of the scientific community or the public it was meant to inform? The movie's main premise is to expose bias. If it has succeeded in that effort, one would hope there would be public demand for more consideration of ID and that the scientific community would be compelled to move toward a more open exchange of ideas with ID proponents. Though I hate to say this, I think the movie will fail in that regard. Here's why:

Because of the first issue (above), the probability that those who were unfamiliar with the claims of ID will be better informed after having seen it, is low. I think the lack of explanatory evidence will render this a classic case of preaching to the converted. Because of this deficiency, I can't see there being a groundswell of word-of-mouth advertising that would encourage the unfamiliar to go see it.

Also, though both are logically and historically accurate, the film does two things that I believe will undermine its purpose. It links Darwinism to eugenics and it likens the censorship of ID proponents to the construction of the Berlin Wall and the intransigence of communism.

Again, both of these are valid. But that fact does little to assuage the fact that it is human nature to resist such a comparison. Those who despise ID and are a part of the scientific establishment that practices these tactics will only dig their heals in deeper. That is the sad outcome to which I think the movie will lead.

The value of ID rests not in its ability to score political points, but in the overwhelming inference it brings to divine action by the power of the supporting scientific evidence. We who defend ID are constantly appealing to scientists to "just evaluate the evidence" and not dismiss it because of its implications. Unfortunately, Expelled does very little to bring that evidence to the public's attention in a way that cannot be ignored. Where, for instance, was an interview with Antony Flew -- the world's former leading atheistic philosopher -- who was drawn to belief in God by the strength of the evidence he saw in ID?

Yes, I enjoyed seeing Richard Dawkins in a "gotcha" moment. Yes, it was entertaining to see him offer that life originated "on the backs of crystals" or by the direct action of a super-intelligent alien civilization. Yes, I know that the crystalization explanation is absurd and that the alien zoo explanation is not only an appeal to an infinite regress but that it also sounds strangely similar to the Biblical narrative of a divine Author of life.

I get that. And I liked the movie.

But we, as apologists must also remember that our goal is not to win arguments, but to win people to Christ. No, I don't think the movie should have been couched as an evangelistic tool. But the implications of ID are too important to resort to the use of clever oneupmanship to reveal them. I wish Expelled had been more focused on the superiority of the scientific evidence and a composed defense of those who seek only to consider that evidence through free academic inquiry. Doing so in a non-confrontational way would have put the scientific establishment more on the defensive by making ID a reasoned and reasonable alternative explanation while at the same time demonstrating that we who defend it do so "... with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against [our] good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."

In other words, I wish Ben Stein would have been able to title his movie: Compelled.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Listen To The Earth"

Every year, my family vacations at an east coast resort in Delaware. Two houses down from us on our daily walk to the beach a red Dodge van is parked in the driveway. The back of the van is covered in bumper stickers, one of which I was reminded of this week. It says, "Listen To The Earth."

I have addressed the issue of bumper sticker politics briefly elsewhere but, as we "celebrated" Earth Day this past week, that bumper sticker leaped into my brain and I wondered, just how does one go about "listening" to the Earth?

As I have discussed before, I believe we are duty-bound to be good stewards of our environment, but that is a far cry from the political agenda behind the Earth Day movement. I was going to comment on those ideas but, once again, my friend Rick Gerhardt not only beat me to it, but summarized the problem far more concisely and eloquently than I ever could have. Rick has advanced degrees in biology and works as an avian ecologist. In other words, Rick is not only much smarter than me, but he is well-versed in subject areas that directly effect environmentalist ideas.

Please check out Rick's two recent posts here and here. But if you don't have time, let me offer a Cliff's Notes summary of Rick's take on the basic issues Christians should consider as they approach the subject of environmentalism:
First, environmentalism as we know it today has largely been co-opted by those with a neo-pagan or pantheistic worldview. This is easily seen around Earth Day, whose most vocal participants openly honor “Mother Earth” or worship Gaia, the earth goddess. Thus, for Christians to join the existing environmental movement would involve closely aligning themselves with people whose religion and worldview are diametrically opposed to their own.

Similarly, the environmental movement in America has been twisted for political means, to the point that unbiased, reasonable discussions of environmental issues have become all but impossible.

Third, the modern environmental movement has a distinctly pro-death (anti-human) aspect to it. For many in this movement, the biggest problem facing the planet is human beings.
That's it in a nutshell. And from that Rick draws the following conclusion:
... these amoral and anti-Christian elements makes it reasonable for Christians to avoid such alignment, it does not absolve them (us) of the responsibility of either personal or corporate environmental stewardship. If anything, it requires us both to stiffen our resolve to be the very best creation caretakers that we can be and to better understand why good stewardship makes more sense from within a Judeo-Christian worldview than from a pantheistic or atheistic perspective.
As usual, there is a lot of wisdom in his words. Though he would never be so self-serving as to suggest this himself, let me say that if you are encouraged by someone to "listen to the earth," you might want to click back here and listen to Rick instead.

Good stuff ...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

An Unexamined Faith

As a follow-on to my post of a few days ago, USA Today provides an article that addresses, Those Touched Most Deeply By 9/11, A Turning Point In Faith. The story provides a short but telling insight into the way many approach issues of faith in our culture. The gist of the piece is that the tragedy of 9/11 had a significant impact -- in both directions -- on the faith of those who were personally affected by the terrorist attacks.

The "violence and pain" of the worst terrorists attack in history brought out not only the dangers of religious fanaticism, but the problem that all religions must face in addressing the problem of evil in our world. As the article notes,
Many whose lives were changed that day are still coming to terms spiritually with 9/11. Some have taken comfort from their faith; others have found it lacking. Some have a stronger faith, a different faith or no faith at all.
I admit that this is nowhere near a "scientific study" of the issues surrounding how people consider their faith (or lack of it), but I do believe the anecdotal evidence in this story reveals a lot about how many approach the topic. A few examples ...

The Jewish rabbi says he was "almost overwhelmed" by the devastation he seeing the incredible devotion of the rescue workers "... was one of the most affirming moments of my life," he says now. "I felt this was something I was worthy of doing."

Similarly, the wife of a trader who was killed in the attacks, Jennifer Sands " ... pray[ed] for her husband's safe return.

When Jim Sands didn't come back on 9/11, it shattered her faith. "My anger was not at the terrorists. I hadn't been praying to Osama bin Laden, I prayed to God. He could have stopped it. I felt very alone — rejected and abandoned."

But she still believed in God. "I realized, 'I can't be angry at someone who doesn't exist!' " Curiosity over that paradox led her to study the Bible for the first time, and to a new evangelical Christian faith.

Then 12 years-old, a now 19 year-old young man, whose mother was killed in the attacks ...
... realized his mother was not coming back. His midnight prayer changed from asking that she be found to asking God to care for him in her absence. He says he was not angry or bitter: "I knew God does things for a reason, not just when and how we want them. Things don't happen on our time, they happen on God's time ... Now a freshman at Virginia Union University in Richmond. He's made the dean's list and founded a gospel choir. He quotes St. Paul: " 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.' I was happy to see the unseen; that's when my faith came into play."
Another mother, whose son was killed in the attacks had an opposite reaction:
"I was not a religious person to begin with," she says, "but whatever faith was left to me, I lost when they took my son away" ... She refuses to be a hypocrite and worship a God who would tolerate 9/11.

Likewise, another woman whose husband was killed ...

... stopped talking to God ... she still wants to believe in God, but "something has shifted, and even my limited spirituality seems to have been squashed among the debris" ... She describes feeling "like a spurned friend" -- her relationship with God another casualty of 9/11 ... and believes that "Organized religion has caused most of the problems we're having today."

Pardon all the quotes above but here's the point that jumped out at me when I read this article: Every one of those named in the story who rejected God in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks did so for emotional reasons. They could not accept a God who would allow such a thing to occur. In contrast, every one of those named in the story whose faith was renewed or grew in the aftermath of the attacks attributed it to a thoughtful analysis of the issues that led them to a reasoned conclusion about the way the world is.

I think this is significant -- especially in light of the commonly accepted notion that the faithful are unthinking and that their conclusions consist of nothing more than an indefensible "blind faith" in the undetectable existence of a heart warming fairy tale. At least in this story, the evidence suggests that the exact opposite is true!

Part of the reason I write here is that I reject the notion that a real, Biblically-based faith is "blind." Though there are many who are deeply engaged in such a faith, it is not the kind of faith I believe we are called to practice. As far as I know, there is not a single example of such a faith anywhere in the Bible.

[For the presuppositionalists out there who would challenge me on this let me say that I understand. There is no doubt that some who cannot defend their faith intellectually no doubt possess a faith that is stronger than mine. Presuppositionalism has merit. But I think it is a false dichotomy to assert that the arguments between presuppositionalism and evidentialism are mutually exclusive. Though I won't discuss it here, I don't see any contradiction in appealing to both. My claim is two-fold: 1) that presuppositionalism is not superior to evidentialism and, 2) that evidence is a requirement for unbelievers and those who are emotionally antagonistic to the idea of God's existence -- i.e. for evangelism.]

I would challenge unbelievers to examine the evidence and arguments of the faithful as the are applied to the human condition. And, though I pray that no one ever has to experience the pain that those in this story have had to endure, I would challenge believers to learn from the thoughtful responses of those whose faith has been so severely tested. I challenge us all to a reasoned and reasonable consideration of these issues before the towers in our personal worlds come crashing down on us.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mysterious Ways

Do miracles happen?

The presuppositions of your worldview determine the answer you give to that question. A naturalist rules them out a priori (prior to consideration) because the materialistic world he or she demands will not allow for any kind of non-material cause for anything.

The theist believes that even though miracles are, by definition, rare -- that fact does not preclude their possibility. We should examine the evidence and decide if there is a natural explanation for the event in question. We should not presume that anything we observe is a miracle just because it seems unlikely to have occurred otherwise. But on the other hand, the theist is open to such possibility.

Because the naturalist does not accept the existence of the supernatural, it follows that supernatural intervention in the physical world is not possible. The theist disagrees. But supernatural intervention should not always be defined as miraculous. On the theistic view, God acts in the world through his sovereign control of all that happens. In cases where direct intervention is not necessary, the theist can also see that "God's hand" was involved in human events. As someone put it, "a miracle is only a coincidence when God chooses to remain anonymous."

With that in mind, check out this story about postal worker Lisa Harrell of Albany, New York. While delivering the mail yesterday she saw a 1 year-old baby in an open second floor window of a family home. As she neared the house, the baby crawled out the window and fell into Lisa Harrell's arms. A few seconds earlier or later and Harrell would not have been there. Interestingly, Harrell was on a completely different route than she normally would be.

A miracle? Maybe not. I would certainly not be compelled to label this event as being miraculous.

A coincidence? Sure.

But was God's sovereign will at work? You decide. Only a presuppositional bias would prohibit that possibility. God's anonymity notwithstanding, I believe I know who was responsible for this "coincidence."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Nothing To Believe In

When it comes to spiritual issues, I am always amazed that people will accept and defend things that they would never, ever accept when addressing any other subject. People will convince themselves (and try to convince you) that the most illogical, nonsensical claims make perfect sense as long as they are attached to religion, spirituality, or questions surrounding ultimate meaning for our existence. Case in point: Nica Lalli, who has recently written a book entitled, Nothing: Something To Believe In. In a recent interview, Lalli proclaims that:
I am an atheist. I have never joined, or been part of, any religious group or organization. I was raised without religion, and without much understanding of what religion is. I have never had much of an identity religiously, and I stayed away from much thought or discussion on the matter. It is only recently that I have really explored the many options for religious beliefs and have decided that rather than saying, "No comment," I now call myself an atheist.
Though she admits that she has had little training in religious matters and that she really doesn't even understand what religion is, she seems to feel comfortable making judgments about religious ideas -- especially those attached to "organized religion." What Ms. Lalli fails to see is that, by calling herself an atheist, she is in no way laying claim to a neutral position. Contrary to the deliberately provocative title of her book, she is most definitely not believing in "nothing." Ms. Lalli is, by definition, making an explicitly religious claim.

The Dictionary definition of Religion is: "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

The universe either has a natural or supernatural cause. Those are the only options available to us. By claiming atheism, Ms. Lalli is putting forth the specific notion that God does not exist and that the cause, nature and purpose of the universe must therefore be (respectively) random, materialistic, and meaningless. These ideas have real-world consequences that infer a deterministic, meaningless existence that has no grounding for any moral code.

This is hardly a detached, neutral stance.

Ms. Lalli is also rather proud of the fact that she is leading her own children to not be committed to any belief system but rather to have them aspire to eternal skepticism ...
Most young children accept what their parents tell them as true, whether it is the existence of Santa Claus or Jesus Christ. It is important that children understand what their parents believe, but it is also important for children to know about all the options out there. This is tricky if a parent is a true believer of a religion and feels that her way is the only path. But how can children question openly when they are taught that there are absolute truths in belief? ... Part of being a good parent is allowing our children to become whatever and whoever they become.

In this offhanded attempt to equate belief in Jesus Christ with belief in Santa Claus, Ms. Lalli again demonstrates a thinly-veiled antagonism toward "organized religion" even as she attempts to sell her way of thinking as the philosophically superior high ground that seeks to judge nothing and no one. But just where is this "high ground" she occupies?

Ironically, it is in just the place she so wants to avoid -- the place where people make judgments about truth. When Ms. Lalli teaches her children to always question but never claim to know absolute truth she is really juxtaposing the practice of serious inquiry against any possibility of knowing absolute truth. But is that a legitimate contrast?

I would say that anyone serious about seeking the truth in this life should, by all means, continue to observe and ask questions. But doing so in no way prohibits the seeker from making the reasonably founded case that they have found it. The actual truth is out there somewhere. Jesus Christ claimed he was that Truth incarnate. He was either right or wrong. But those of us who believe he was right have legitimate reasons for seeing that Truth as the best explanation for the way the world is.

Ms. Lalli denounces that idea (that our faith has a valid foundation) as being wrong. In other words Ms. Lalli is claiming that it her view is the correct one. Do you see the irony? While claiming that no one can think their "path is the only one," she is promoting the notion that her meaningless belief in "nothing" is the right path.

Everybody believes what they believe because they think it is true. They (we) can not help that fact. Ms. Lalli's book is an attempt to make her case for her belief system. She is free to do so. But she must also realize that her claims to judgment-free neutrality are impossible to sustain. And that her call to disavow "organized religion" can only end in a kind of "disorganized religion" unable to account for an objective assessment of the way the world really is.

Atheism is not "nothing." "Nothing" is not what she really believes. And neither atheism nor "nothing" cut the mustard with regard to the origin, the meaning, or the destiny of this thing called life. I hope that Ms. Lalli and her children will continue their search with honesty and that they would one day see the Truth.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shalom

To be honest, it can get bit discouraging to constantly attempt to defend the Christian worldview here. In my efforts to stay up to date on what is going on in the world, I am constantly searching for news stories that touch on worldview issues. The result of that is that I am constantly mind-wrestling with negativity. It wears you down. That's the nature of the beast I guess.

And don't get me wrong, it is a passion of mine, I think it is vitally important, and I love to do it. But weeks like this one are particularly dispiriting:

In Britain, researchers have combined genetic materials to produce human-bovine hybrids. Why? Because they can. And apparently they see nothing Frankensteinian about it. Just doing research, you know -- maybe harvest some stem cells along the way -- and they justify it by claiming it may help cure disease. The manipulation of the very nature of humanness is apparently not an issue.

In Georgia, a group of 3rd graders hatched a plot to kill their teacher, this in retaliation for the teacher making a student stand on a chair. These kids had assigned students to cover the windows of the classroom, duct tape and gag the teacher, and supply knives to finish the job. How does a society produce a batch of 8 year-olds who can even conceive of such a thing?

In Oregon, Thomas Beatie (that would be a "he") announced that he is five months pregnant. Oprah had him on her show. And, without any exception I could find, the entire news media insists on referring to Beatie as a "pregnant man." Hello! His sex-change surgery notwithstanding, "Thomas" Beatie is, by definition, a woman. This is not debatable. Yet we live in a society that condones and patronizes those who demand not only that their "gender" is a matter of personal preference, but that those who would question the idea are nothing but old fashioned bigots. How did we get here?

Finally, today it is being reported that intelligence officials have uncovered substantial evidence of Al-Qaida's plans to bring a nuclear attack on the United States. Given the number of nuclear components once stored in the former Soviet Union, and the current corruption of the government there that yearns for the old totalitarianism, the materials needed to carry out such a plot cannot be too hard to obtain. And so we live under the constant possibility that the terrorist planning could well come to fruition.

All this is disgusting and demoralizing not so much for me, but for the state of the future world that my children will be forced to live in. Such a world is beyond my comprehension but I'm afraid that it will not be beyond my children's realization. All of it stems from the fact that ideas matter. Some ideas are wrong and destructive. And those seem to be the ideas whose stock is on the rise. It can all be very depressing ...

... and then came yesterday.

Yesterday, I visited an Advanced Biology class at the high school two of my sons attend. I wish I could name the school and the teacher of that class but, the world being the way it is, I am actually reluctant to do that in such a public forum without the permission of all involved. Suffice it to say that my visit there encourages me to be confident that there is hope in this culture.

Here is a teacher whose passion and dedication to the truth are glaringly evident not only in her approach to the material she teaches, but in the attitudes and competence of the students who have the privilege of being under her tutelage. These kids are well-versed in the details of biology, well-acquainted with the worldview issues that underly the technicalities of that field, and confident in articulating and defending why they think what they think. Though I know this is all too uncommon, it is encouraging to see that it is possible to raise up a generation of kids who will be leaders -- and thinkers -- and promoters -- of good ideas. Ideas that can serve as the antidote to the poison that infects our society today.

Ideas matter. These kids know it. And they are ready to go impact a world that needs them badly.

In his book, Not The Way It's Supposed To Be, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. offered an insight that I have never forgotten when he defined the Hebrew word shalom. "Peace" has always been my translation of the word. But Plantinga points out that my definition of the word doesn't cut it:
The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight -- a rich state of affairs in which the natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
One only needs to read history to know that the world has long seemed to be coming unglued. I suppose our time is not much different than other times have been in the turbulent past. But when you're living in a time like this, it sure can seem discouraging to be swimming against the tide. Shalom like that seems to be a phantom.

But knowing that there are those who share the passion to strive to restore it as well as humans ever could is encouraging. There are good ideas that long to be brought to fruition. And there are good people who strive to hold and defend those ideas both now and in the future. Though it sometimes seems elusive, there is a hope-filled future for all of those who choose to seek it. And with that future comes a promise -- the promise of a shalom like none of us can even comprehend.