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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Argument from Design

The Argument from Design, or the Teleological Argument, is the Argument that the nature of the universe itself is evidence of God, either because life is too improbable or because inanimate objects seem to act with purpose, or for whatever other reason.

Honestly, this is not a very good argument for the existence of God. It's an inductive argument, which means that, at best, it is only probably true. However, we cannot even easily determine how strong or weak that probability is because the evidence is very much a matter of interpretation. It is based on how things seem to be.

However, this argument has gotten some attention over the past decade or so due to the "conversion" of the now deceased Anthony Flew from atheism to theism (specifically, deism.)

In his 2007 book, There is a God, Flew describes what is possibly the one redeeming aspect of this argument.


video


In other words, even if every particle in the universe had been mingling together for 10 billion years, it would not have been enough time for something like DNA to come about. I suppose it could happen by chance, but not with so little material over so little time.

Many aspects of the Argument from Design are much too subjective to make a good argument, but unlike the Big Bang, the laws of physics, and the exact nature of Earth life, the origin of that life is more demonstrably improbable, if not impossible.

In addition to pure statistics, there are other issues which add to the improbability of life, such as the solubility of amino acids in water and the complexity of even a single-celled organisms DNA, which make it all the more difficult to explain, because even if organic compounds could come together, they would immediately dissolve. Even Richard Dawkins admits that we have no good explanation for the origin of life on Earth.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Sir Francis Drake's Elusive Horse Sighting

Sir Francis Drake and his wondrous pantaloons.
While looking into the history of horses in America, I frequently come across the claim that Sir Francis Drake was able to see large herds of wild horses as he sailed up the coast of California and Oregon in 1579, long before the Spanish reached the territory.

Drake allegedly saw large "bands of wild horses," and wondered how it could be, since the Spaniards found no horses in Mexico or South America.

I can find the quote credited to two sources.

The first, and most common, seems to be Arcano Del Mare, by Robert Dudley, Earl of Northumberland, in 1630.

I have also found it credited to Richard Hakluyt's description of Drake's landing in California.

The problem is that I cannot find a copy of either of these accounts, either a hard copy, or digital. The Library of Congress has a copy of the Arcano Del Mare, but not online.

I was tempted to dismiss this as a non-existent quote, created by some misguided LDS member trying to defend the Church, but I got more curious when I saw this account referenced by a non-LDS source. Archive.org has a document from UCLA which references the event.

If anyone reading this can provide me with a reliable source for this account, I will give them a batch of home-made cookies (from the supermarket of their choice,) and the biggest hug they've ever seen.

Friday, January 27, 2012

DNA and the Book of Mormon

For the sake of diplomacy, I try not to disparage the beliefs of other denominations, but it's always a little confusing to me when fundamental Christians attack the Book of Mormon on the grounds that, so far, no DNA evidence has been traced back to Lehi's party.

The reason it confuses me is that these are the same people who deny genetic evidence of evolution.

As long as the discussion is on the LDS church, genetics is rock hard science which cannot be denied or ignored, but when the topic turns to evolution, genetics suddenly becomes this mystical, devilish pseudo-science which is not to be trusted.

I don't mean to make any generalizations about any particular denomination, but there are simply some individuals who need to make up their minds.

Is genetic science reliable, in which case, evidence against the Book of Mormon is inconclusive, but evolution is true and their belief is deeply mistaken?

Or is genetic science unreliable, in which case evidence against the Book of Mormon is inconclusive and their argument falls apart anyway?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Wade E. Miller's Pre-Columbian Horses

A common criticism against the Book of Mormon is it's mention of horses in a Pre-Cumbian era. Next to Elephants in America, it is one of the strangest anachronisms in the Book of Mormon.

Mainstream scholarly thought is that American Horses died out about 10,000 years ago and remained extinct until they were reintroduced by Spanish conquistadors.

In a presentation called Science and the Book of Mormon, given at the eleventh annual FAIR Conference, 6 August 2009, Wade E. Miller mentions carbon-dating done on horse bones found in America. Many of them date back before the known extinction date for horses in America, but a few have dates ranging from 1400 to only 800 years ago.

In the final paragraph, he says,
"Horses weren't here in America after about 10,000 years ago according to Smithsonian archaeologists. As you know horses ... are mentioned as being present among both the Jaredites and Nephites. It might surprise most of you that the history of the horse is mainly here in America. The very first horses come from North America, and their record goes back to about 58 million years ago. Horses were small, forest dwelling animals at the time. It wasn't until much later that horses reached the Old World, being roughly the size of modern forms then. Columbus only reintroduced the horse to America. I've actually done a lot of work with fossil horses from many areas and from different periods of time. A lot of my work has been done on them in Mesoamerica, primarily in Mexico. While the vast majority of dates for these various kinds of horses are well before man was known in the New World, a few of the dates are very surprisingly young. I have Carbon-14 dates on horses that are as recent as 800 years. Other dates are only 1200 years to 1400 years ago. More dates in this range are needed to be able to convince others that horses were indeed here before 1493, when they were reintroduced. Other paleontologists have produced dates on fossil horses that show they lived here long after the 10,000 years before stated. This slide is of a partial horse skeleton that was put together with my colleagues in Mexico. An earlier slide showed the location where it was collected. It was that picture that I said to remember from Durango, Mexico, where a lot of fossils were found within one small area."
I look forward to reading about the details of these and any other results he may have found.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Atheistic Argument From Physical Minds

The atheistic APM was first formulated by atheist philosopher Michael Tooley in an oral debate on the existence of God. It has since been defended by agnostic philosopher Paul Draper in his oral debates. According to this argument, the fact that minds are physically dependent upon the brain is some evidence for atheism.

The argument claims that since all known mental activity has a physical basis (the brain), there are probably no disembodied minds. But God is conceived of as a disembodied mind. Therefore, God probably does not exist.

The problem with this argument is that it takes incredibly specific premises and claims to draw a general conclusion from them. It claims that the idea of a non-physical God makes no sense, therefore there probably is no God.

As a syllogism, it would look like this:

1. All known thought is a physical phenomenon.
2. There probably is no non-physical mind (from 1).
3 God is a non-physical mind.
Therefore:
There probably is no God.

But what about a physical God?

This argument is not a good argument against the existence of God because God's existence is not contingent on whether or not he has a physical body. It simply does not attack a critical issue. A Latter-Day Saint, for example, would respond to this argument by saying, "Sure, but didn't Jesus eat fish after His resurrection?"

"Touch me not... not that you could anyways."

If God has a physical body, then this argument has absolutely no force, and even Christians can't agree on whether or not He has a body.

In other words, this is an argument against the rationality of a Christian God with which many Christians would actually agree, and that is not a good sign for the argument.

But even if God has no physical body, we should hesitate when speculating in this way.

For example, this same kind of reasoning was used by scientists to suggest the existence of Aether. It was thought that all known waves propagated through a physical medium. If space has no physical medium, then light should not be able to travel through space. We should not be able to see stars and planets. Therefore, there must be some sort of medium, aether, through which light waves propagate. We now know this to be false. Light is, in part, a wave that requires no physical medium.

A wave that requires no medium seems as impossible as thought with no body, yet we do see celestial bodies.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Religious Violence

Some people have some strange hobbies. For example, Matthew White at Necrometrics.com apparently spends his time cataloging death tolls and body counts for various events throughout history. 

I've taken some numbers from this site because I was curious if the saying is true that "religion has caused more suffering and death than any other single cause in human history."

The site lists various scholarly estimates for each event. When possible, I've tried to select the most reliable sources, or have used the median, following the rule of thumb that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle, rather than with the outlying estimates. 

Here are the numbers for various religious tragedies throughout history:


Christianity

Holocaust5.6M
Crusades: 3M
Biblical Atrocities1.283M
Spanish Inquisition: 341K (Including those tortured, not killed)
Witch Hunts: 60K (Including Europe)
9/11: 3,037 (Including 19 hijackers)
TOTAL: est. 10.828M


Now here's a few things with a higher death toll:

Atheists

I point this out, not to be controversial, but only to provide an example of human violence which is clearly not religiously motivated. 

Since the origins Islam and Christianity, each religion has had 80M and 70M martyrs respectively, at the hands of:




  • Atheists: 31,689,000
  • Muslims 9,121,000
  • Ethnoreligionists: 7,469,000
  • Christians: 5,538,000
  • Quasi-religionists 2,712,000
  • Mahayana Buddhists: 1,651,000
  • Hindus: 676,000
  • Zoroastrians: 384,000


  • Smoking

    R. Peto, "Mortality from tobacco in developed countries: indirect estimation from national vital statistics" Lancet, 23 May 1992:




  • 1930-59: 11M
  • 1960s: 9M
  • 1970s: 13M
  • 1980s: 17M
  • 1990s: 21M
  • TOTAL (1930-1999): 71M tobacco-related deaths in developed countries. (US, Europe, USSR, Canada, Japan, Australia, NZ)

  • Capitalism 
    (unbridled corporate exploitation)

    Colonial El Niño Famines (1876-1900): 27M
    Colonial Slave Trade (1700-1850): 17.8M (Only counting the dead among the first generation of slaves brought from Africa. Subsequent generations would contribute additional premature or unnatural deaths.)
    Islamic Slave Trade: 19M
    Soviet Decommunization: 6M
    Kinshasa Congo: 3.8M 
    Amazonian Rubber Companies: 200K
    TOTAL: est. 73.8M


    If the number of people killed by some organization or phenomenon is a measure of its moral worth, than we could come to some strange conclusions about a host of other causes.

    I think, given enough information, an honest individual would come to agree that an organization's negative past is not necessarily a mark against it in the present.

    Monday, January 16, 2012

    John Adams' Hell

    In yet another baffling display of poor scholarship, Richard Dawkins offers the following quote by John Adams, on page 43 of The God Delusion:
    "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it."
    Adams did actually write these words in an April 19, 1817, letter to Thomas Jefferson, but here is the full context:
    "Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion at all!!!' But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell."
    In other words, the history of religion may sometimes disturb us  greatly, but we need it. This world would be hell without it.

    Incidentally, Dawkins uses this misquotation immediately after another false quote, allegedly from Benjamin Franklin. The full context of the Adams quote shows us quite a different view than what Dawkins would have us believe. In addition, Adams had this to say in response to Thomas Paine's criticisms of Christianity in his Deist book The Age of Reason:
    "The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will."
    Gregg L. Frazer, in The Political Theology of the American Founding, notes that, while Adams shared many perspectives with deists, "Adams clearly was not a deist. Deism rejected any and all supernatural activity and intervention by God; consequently, deists did not believe in miracles or God's providence....Adams, however, did believe in miracles, providence, and, to a certain extent, the Bible as revelation." Fraser argues that Adams's "theistic rationalism, like that of the other Founders, was a sort of middle ground between Protestantism and deism."

    Friday, January 13, 2012

    History's False Atheists

    Except for Hemingway, none of these men were atheists...

    Many historical figures are falsely reported as being atheists when they were not. Most of them were actually theists who simply believed in an unconventional conception of God, or they were agnostic.

    This is not to say that they were all theists. Certainly there were atheists in history who were, nevertheless, great men and women.

    Below is a list of people in history who are often described as atheists, even though they were not. Click their names to read about the religious views.

    This list will be added to in the future.

    1. Charles Darwin - Theist/Agnostic
    2. Thomas Jefferson - Theist
    3. Carl Sagan - Agnostic
    4. Albert Einstein - Theist
    5. Benjamin Franklin - Theist
    6. Mark Twain - Theist
    7. Abraham Lincoln - Theist
    8. John Adams - Theist
    9. Thomas Edison - Theist
    10. Nikola Tesla - Theist

    Abraham Lincoln's Religion

    Abraham Lincoln is sometimes claimed to have been an atheist because of the way he spoke about Christianity early in his life. His religious views later in life are a controversial matter, but the common consensus among historians is that he was a man of deep faith.

    Lincoln grew up in a Baptist family, but while he was still young, he grew frustrated with organized religion when he saw how excessive emotion and bitter quarrels were common in yearly camps and among traveling ministers of various denominations. Growing up, Lincoln did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, the Atonement, the infallibility of the Bible, miracles, or heaven and hell. However, he did believe in a Supreme Being.

    William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, stated that Lincoln admired deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. Also, James Adams labeled Lincoln "a deist."

    Even early on, Lincoln believed in a God, though not the God of Christianity. One aspect of Lincoln's Calvinist background that he wholeheartedly embraced throughout his life was the Doctrine of Necessity, which is more commonly known as Predestination, or Determinism.

    During this time, Lincoln is reported to have said, "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." Quotes like this one have led to the belief among some that he was an atheist, but even early on, that was simply not true.

    While in office, dealing with the Civil War, among other issues, religion began to play a greater role in Lincoln's life and there is evidence that he began to accept Christian doctrine.

    On Thursday, February 20, 1862, at 5:00 P.M. Lincoln's eleven year old son, William Wallace Lincoln (Willie), died in the White House. Historians suggest that this may have been the most difficult personal crisis in his life. After the funeral, Lincoln attempted a return to his routine, but he was unable. One week after the funeral, he isolated himself in his office and wept all day. Lincoln reportedly said, "My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven."

    At the same time, the War was not going well for the Union. Lincoln said, "I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." Later, as he was preparing to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said, "I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Maryland I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves."

    Later, while trying to put into words, from a divine perspective, the necessity of the Civil War, he wrote:
    "The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true -- that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."
    In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg,  Lincoln issued the first Federally mandated Thanksgiving Day to be kept on the last Thursday in November. Reflecting on the successes of the past year, Lincoln said:
    "No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
    In 1864, some former slaves in Maryland presented Lincoln with a gift of a Bible. Lincoln replied:
    "In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it."
    In September 1864, Lincoln, placing the Civil War squarely within a divine province, wrote in a letter to a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers),
    "The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail accurately to perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise...we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay."

    Rev. James Armstrong Reed, in preparing his 1873 lectures on the religion of Lincoln, asked a number of people if there was any evidence of Lincoln being an infidel in his later life. The reply from Phineas Gurley, pastor of the same New York Avenue Presbyterian Church while Lincoln was an attender, to Reed's question was:
    "I do not believe a word of it. It could not have been true of him while here, for I have had frequent and intimate conversations with him on the subject of the Bible and the Christian religion, when he could have had no motive to deceive me, and I considered him sound not only on the truth of the Christian religion but on all its fundamental doctrines and teaching. And more than that: in the latter days of his chastened and weary life, after the death of his son Willie, and his visit to the battle-field of Gettysburg, he said, with tears in his eyes, that he had lost confidence in everything but God, and that he now believed his heart was changed, and that he loved the Saviour, and, if he was not deceived in himself, it was his intention soon to make a profession of religion"

    Regarding his intention to join a church, according to an affidavit signed under oath in Essex County, New Jersey, February 15, 1928, by Mrs. Sidney I. Lauck, then a very old woman, Mrs. Lauck said:
    "After Mr. Lincoln's death, Dr. Gurley told me that Mr. Lincoln had made all the necessary arrangements with him and the Session of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church to be received into the membership of the said church, by confession of his faith in Christ, on the Easter Sunday following the Friday night when Mr. Lincoln was assassinated." 

    Noah Brooks, a newspaperman, and a friend and biographer of Lincoln's, in reply to Reed's inquiry if there was any truth to claims that Lincoln was an infidel, stated:
    "In addition to what has appeared from my pen, I will state that I have had many conversations with Mr. Lincoln, which were more or less of a religious character, and while I never tried to draw anything like a statement of his views from him, yet he freely expressed himself to me as having 'a hope of blessed immortality through Jesus Christ.' His views seemed to settle so naturally around that statement, that I considered no other necessary. His language seemed not that of an inquirer, but of one who had a prior settled belief in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion. Once or twice, speaking to me of the change which had come upon him, he said, while he could not fix any definite time, yet it was after he came here, and I am very positive that in his own mind he identified it with about the time of Willie's death. He said, too, that after he went to the White House he kept up the habit of daily prayer. Sometimes he said it was only ten words, but those ten words he had. There is no possible reason to suppose that Mr. Lincoln would ever deceive me as to his religious sentiments. In many conversations with him, I absorbed the firm conviction that Mr. Lincoln was at heart a Christian man, believed in the Savior, and was seriously considering the step which would formally connect him with the visible church on earth. Certainly, any suggestion as to Mr. Lincoln's skepticism or Infidelity, to me who knew him intimately from 1862 till the time of his death, is a monstrous fiction -- a shocking perversion."

    Of Lincoln's increasing religious views during this time, Lincoln's widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, said,
    "A man, who never took the name of the Maker in vain, who always read his Bible diligently, who never failed to rely on God's promises & looked upon Him for protection, surely such a man as this, could not have been a disbeliever, or any other than what he was, a true Christian gentleman....From the time of the death of our little Edward, I believe my husband's heart was directed towards religion & as time passed on - when Mr. Lincoln became elevated to Office...then indeed to my knowledge - did his great heart go up daily, hourly, in prayer to God - for his sustaining power. When too - the overwhelming sorrow came upon us, our beautiful bright angelic boy, Willie was called away from us, to his Heavenly Home, with God's chastising hand upon us - he turned his heart to Christ —"

    Thursday, January 12, 2012

    Mark Twain and God the Almighty

    Mark Twain is another figure in history who is commonly reported to have been an atheist. He was raised Presbyterian, but, like Charles Darwin, became rather critical of organized religion, and specifically of Christianity, later in life.

    Reports of atheism probably come from his habit of speaking sharply about some aspects of Christianity, including its bloody history. In his final autobiography, published in 2010, one hundred years after his death, he had written,
    "There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled."
    In addition, he once wrote, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so," and "If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian."

    However, despite his critical view of Christianity, he was a theist. Specifically, he was a deist. In the essay Three Statements of the Eighties in the 1880s, Twain stated that he believed in an almighty God, but not in any messages, revelations, holy scriptures such as the Bible, Providence, or retribution in the afterlife.

    He believed in a God, though not the God of Christianity, and not a God which intervened in the lives of men. However, he also wrote that "the goodness, the justice, and the mercy of God are manifested in His works."

    As a side note, Twain was also a Freemason. He belonged to Polar Star Lodge No. 79 A.F.&A.M., based in St. Louis. He was initiated an Entered Apprentice on May 22, 1861, passed to the degree of Fellow Craft on June 12, and raised to the degree of Master Mason on July 10. One of the conditions to be a Freemason is that you must believe in a Supreme Being. There are no requirements as to the nature of that Supreme Being, but the initiate must believe in some conception of God.

    In the 1880's, Twain described his views on several religious topics, saying,
    "I believe in God the Almighty.
      I do not believe He has ever sent a message to man by anybody, or delivered one to him by word of mouth, or made Himself visible to mortal eyes at any time in any place.
      I believe that the Old and New Testaments were imagined and written by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less inspired by Him.
      I think the goodness, the justice, and the mercy of God are manifested in His works: I perceive that they are manifested toward me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one.
      I do not believe in special providences.  I believe that the universe is governed by strict and immutable laws.  If one man's family is swept away by a pestilence and another man's spared it is only the law working: God is not interfering in that small matter, either against the one man or in favor of the other.
      I cannot see how eternal punishment hereafter could accomplish any good end, therefore I am not able to believe in it.  To chasten a man in order to perfect him might be reasonable enough; to annihilate him when he shall have proved himself incapable of reaching perfection might be reasonable enough; but to roast him forever for the mere satisfaction of seeing him roast would not be reasonable... even the atrocious God imagined by the Jews would tire of the spectacle eventually."
    He went on to describe his views on other topics, such as the afterlife, of which he said he was indifferent, and others.

    Later, in 1906, only four years before his death, he wrote,
    "Let us now consider the real God, the genuine God, the great God, the sublime and supreme God, the authentic Creator of the real universe, whose remotenesses are visited by comets only comets unto which incredible distant Neptune is merely an out post, a Sandy Hook to homeward-bound specters of the deeps of space that have not glimpsed it before for generations a universe not made with hands and suited to an astronomical nursery, but spread abroad through the illimitable reaches of space by the flat of the real God just mentioned, by comparison with whom the gods whose myriads infest the feeble imaginations of men are as a swarm of gnats scattered and lost in the infinitudes of the empty sky."
    Mark Twain did believe in a God, but it was a God that was cold and distant, and very different from the "feeble imaginations of men." Mark Twain's God was closer to Cthulhu than Christ.

    Those who knew Twain well late in life recount that he dwelt on the subject of the afterlife, his daughter Clara saying: "Sometimes he believed death ended everything, but most of the time he felt sure of a life beyond."

    "Atheism is very stupid." - Carl Sagan


    Carl Sagan was an amazing scientist, and a brilliant individual. Issac Asimov described him as one of only two people he had ever met whose intellect was greater than his own. In addition to the sciences, Sagan wrote frequently on the topic of religion. He once wrote,
    "The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity."
    On another occasion, he wrote,
     "Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws."
    Quotes like these have led some to believe that he was an atheist, but this is not true. He hated the term. Much like Charles Darwin, Sagan recognized that claiming that there is no God is as irrational as claiming there is one. He once said:
    "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid."
    In a March 1996 profile by Jim Dawson in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Sagan talked about his then-new book The Demon Haunted World and was asked about his personal spiritual views:
    “My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it . . . An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic.”

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    Charles Darwin: Not An Atheist


    Charles Darwin is credited with the discovery of the phenomenon of evolution by natural selection. In the 20th century, this concept became a major source of contention between atheists and theists. Due to his contributions to science, especially in areas that seem to contradict Christian doctrine, and because of some of his more famous sayings, he is often painted as an atheist. While it is known that he was not a Christian throughout his life, he was also not an atheist.

    Darwin actually spent a more than half of his life as a Christian. "I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age," Darwin said to some dinner guests in 1881, just under a year before his death. Even in 1859, when his most significant work, On the Origin of Species, was published, he was still a believer in a personal God, although he had doubts about the teleological argument that nature is evidence of God.

    Nevertheless, in his autobiography, in 1876, Darwin wrote that at the time that he wrote Origin of Species, he was still very much a believer because of "the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist."

    In 1879, John Fordyce wrote to Darwin, asking if evolution and theism were compatible. Darwin responded that a man "can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist."

    This was pretty much Darwin's view.
    However, slowly over the years, disbelief became more a part of Darwin's thinking. One of several reasons was the Evidential Problem of Evil. During Darwin's study of biology and nature, Darwin saw a lot of suffering and death. He could not see the work of an omnipotent deity in all the pain and suffering such as the ichneumon wasp paralysing caterpillars as live food for its eggs.

    He stopped going to church around 1849, preferring instead to go on long walks while his family attended Sunday meetings. On 23 April 1851, his daughter Annie died after a painful illness. Darwin would write about his daughter, but no longer believed in an afterlife or salvation.

    Even after this time, Darwin was hesitant to share his religious views because of the harm it may cause to loved ones, but people would often write to him asking for his opinions. He once commented, "Half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions." He once replied, "I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God."

    Darwin was rational to the core. He would not accept Christianity because of insufficient evidence, but he also would not deny the existence of God for the same reason. On Thursday 28 September 1881, Darwin met with Doctor Ludwig Büchner and Edward Aveling for dinner. After eating, Darwin asked why they called themselves Atheists. They said it was because they "did not commit the folly of god-denial, [and] avoided with equal care the folly of god-assertion." Darwin answered, "I am with you in thought, but I should prefer the word Agnostic to the word Atheist." In other words, Darwin agreed that it was folly to assert the existence of God, but he also agreed that it was folly to deny it.

    This was pretty much Darwin's view.
    In the 1879 letter to John Fordyce, in which Darwin commented on the compatibility of evolution and theism, he said, "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind." (Emphasis Added)

    Darwin was an agnostic with theistic leanings, though as he aged these leanings became slighter and more infrequent. At the end of his life, he was, first and foremost, agnostic.

    Darwin's Westminster Abbey funeral expressed a public feeling of national pride, and religious writers of all persuasions praised his "noble character and his ardent pursuit of truth". In particular the Unitarians and free religionists, proud of his Dissenting upbringing, supported his naturalistic views. The Unitarian William Carpenter carried a resolution praising Darwin's unravelling of "the immutable laws of the Divine Government", shedding light on "the progress of humanity", and the Unitarian preacher John White Chadwick from New York wrote that "The nation's grandest temple of religion opened its gates and lifted up its everlasting doors and bade the King of Science come in."

    Tuesday, January 10, 2012

    Benjamin Franklin, Lighthouses, and Church


    Benjamin Franklin was possibly the least religious of the Founding Fathers, but he was religious. Many, including Richard Dawkins, try to paint him as an atheist with a famous quote. "Lighthouses are more useful than churches."

    Dawkins is not the only person to use this quotation to justify the view that Benjamin Franklin was an atheist or, at best, a deist. The quote is pretty common in the atheist community. How common, you ask?

    Common enough to be profitable.

    There is a problem with this quote, though. It does not exist. You will not find this quote anywhere in the works or writings of Benjamin Franklin. The quote is most likely a paraphrase of a sentiment he wrote to his wife in a letter on 17 July, 1757 after he narrowly escaped a shipwreck. The quote can be found in a footnote on page 133 of Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin (1818):
    "The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house."
    Taken in context, the quote gives us a very different impression of Benjamin Franklin's view of God. Next are some quotes from Benjamin Franklin which actually do exist. When he stopped attending church, Franklin wrote in his autobiography:
    "...Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that He made the world, and governed it by His providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter."
    In 1790, just about a month before he died, Franklin wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, who had asked him his views on religion:
    "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble..."
    Here we may find the strongest evidence that he was not strictly Christian. Much like Thomas Jefferson, who did consider himself a Christian, Franklin considered the moral system taught by Jesus to be the best the world had to offer, but also recognized that the doctrine had been corrupted over the centuries. In addition, Franklin had no strong opinion regarding the divinity of Christ, but believed in an afterlife in which he would find the truth of the matter.

    Strangely, despite being critical of Christianity's past, he still considered organized religion to be a positive social force.  At one point, he wrote to Thomas Paine, criticizing his manuscript, The Age of Reason:
    "For without the Belief of a Providence that takes Cognizance of, guards and guides and may favour particular Persons, there is no Motive to Worship a Deity, to fear its Displeasure, or to pray for its Protection....think how great a Proportion of Mankind consists of weak and ignorant Men and Women, and of inexperienc'd and inconsiderate Youth of both Sexes, who have need of the Motives of Religion to restrain them from Vice, to support their Virtue, and retain them in the Practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great Point for its Security; And perhaps you are indebted to her originally that is to your Religious Education, for the Habits of Virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it."

    Sunday, January 8, 2012

    Thomas Jefferson's Faith


    I stumbled across the picture above on a social networking site. Some would have people believe that Thomas Jefferson was not a theist. To them, I offer the following quote:

    "In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other..." 
    - Thomas Jefferson, April 21, 1803 letter to Benjamin Rush in Bergh, ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson 10:379 (Emphasis Added)

    Thomas Jefferson did have some very serious and legitimate concerns about mainstream Christianity and most of its organizations, but he did believe in a divine being and the teachings of Christ.

    Friday, January 6, 2012

    10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On


    I was very happy to read a certain article on Cracked.com. One thing that bothers me about the whole Atheist/Theist Conflict is the ridiculous irrationality on both sides. This article points out in simple, accessible language how everyone needs to just settle down and relax.


    Read the Article Here
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