Thursday, August 2, 2007

The God Delusion: Improbable Complexity

In his book The God Delusion Richard Dawkins presents what he call "The Ultimate 747 Argument" to explain why he believes that God most certainly does not exist. The argument from improbability and its trademark image of the 747 is usually put forth by creationists or intelligent design proponents to argue for God's existence. Dawkins turns the argument on its head and posits that the argument from improbability actually is a good argument that God does not exist.

The argument from improbability and its image of the Boeing 747 and the scrapyard are credited to Fred Hoyle and simply put "the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance of a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747" (Dawkins 113). The same metaphor could be used to argue against the evolution or higher life forms like the odds or a hurricane putting together a live parakeet, a person, or a Paramecium. But Dawkins looks at this argument and asks 'what is the probability of the existence of God?' by questioning the idea that God is a simple being (if not the simplest of all beings). Many theologians, especially Richard Swinburne, have asserted the belief that God must be simple because He consists of a single substance (Dawkins 147-8). Dawkins argues that God, if He exists, must be more complex than the phenomena he has been posited to explain, namely matter, life, and intelligence.

So how does something's complexity affect the probability of its existence? It is assumed that the more complex a being, the less probable its existence becomes. Simple things are simply more likely to occur than complex things. This assumption is true more often than not. For example, on the atomic scale, hydrogen, the simplest element (just a single proton orbited by one electron) is more likely to be found than oxygen (with its eight protons, eight neutrons, and eight electrons. And oxygen is more likely to be found than uranium (containing 92 protons, 146 neutrons, and 92 electrons). On a larger scale we see the same pattern. Here on earth simple sedimentary or igneous rock is more likely to be found than organic life; and simple organic life is more likely to be found than intelligent beings. It follows quite easily that an immensely complex intelligence capable of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence must be very improbable indeed.

I agree with Dawkins on both points. A being "capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple" (Dawkins 149). And such a complex being must be immensely improbable. However, I don't think that admitting this presents nearly as big of a problem as Dawkins suggests.

Let's start with question of God's complexity. For centuries man has thought of God as the simplest explanation for the things we see. To answer the question 'Where did all the animals and plants come from?' we say: 'God made them' (Gen. 1:20-5). We now know that the diversity of life comes from natural selection acting on mutations to shape organisms more fit to survive and reproduce in a given set or range of conditions. In addition to natural selection other processes such as gene flow, genetic drift, and chance (such as a mass extinction or an unlucky misstep on a high tree branch) have also helped to shape Earth's current diversity of flora and fauna. But this explanation is far from simple. It is actually more complicated than believing that God spoke the animals into existence. And if you look at any other branch of knowledge you will see that the closer we come to the truth of the nature of things the more complex our explanations become.

We used to think that there were only four 'elements' in the world: air, water, fire, and earth. We now know that there are at least 110 different elements, a plethora of energy forms, subatomic particles, gravitons, etc. that make up the physical reality. We used to think that the human body was controlled and influenced by the proportions of four humors: blood, black bile, green bile, and mucus. We now know that the body has those fluid plus hundreds of hormones, proteins, electrical impulses, and ionic concentrations that control our inner workings. As our knowledge of the world increases it appears that our answers are not becoming simpler, but are becoming more complex.

Yes, God is very likely to be highly complex. But if the pattern we see with biology, chemistry, and physics of moving from simple answers to more complex explanations is true for theology as well we should expect to see that God is not simple, but is the most complex being possible. Furthermore, the progressive revelation of the Bible has painted us a picture of a God with increasing complexity, from the simple Yahweh of the Old Testament to the complex intertwining of the Father, Son, and Spirit of the New Testament. God as an immensely complex being makes perfect sense to the Christian believer.

What happens if we acknowledge that God is a very highly complex being and accept the assumption that complex things are less likely to occur than simple things? To put it shortly: nothing. Dawkins, and the creationists and intelligent design believers, make use of the sneaky art of statistics to support their cases. For instance, there are six crucial constants that must be fine-tuned to very exact numbers for matter to exist; and must be further fine-tuned to allow life to exist (this is known as the Anthropic Principle). The odds that those numbers are tuned to created the universe we see is very, very, very small. But the fact is those constants are tuned to create a universe like the one we see. Along the same line of reasoning as Dawkins employs I can argue pretty well that you do not exist.

The odds that the combination of genes from your parents would create your genome are very low (like 1 in 10 million low). Now the odds that the combination of genes from your grandparents would create your parents' genomes are similar to those of the previous calculation. The odds that your parents met and married are probably somewhere around 1 in 10 million. Now repeat the last two odds for the probability that your great-grandparents genomes combined to form your grandparents and the odds that your grandparents met. So what is the probability that you exist? One in 1070. I normally round off at the tenth decimal place so for me the probability that you exist is essentially zero. And if you are one of the few people that round off at the seventy-first decimal place, I can easily make the odds even smaller by calculating the odds your great-great-grandparents met and so forth back to the beginning of time. However, hopefully you are not quite convinced by the overwhelming odds against your own existence. That's because no matter how great the statistical odds are against you existing the fact remains that you do exist. And actually existing trumps probability every time.

So Dawkins is right. God is improbably complex, but so are you. And if the high probability against a being of your complexity existing doesn't make you doubt that you exist it shouldn't make you doubt that God exists. In fact, this argument can contend that if God is the most complex being possible (and He might possible be) then there can only be one of them. And you end up with monotheism instead of atheism. So it seems that Dawkins' argument from improbability shows us practically nothing about whether or not God exists and more about why we should be wary of blindly trusting probabilities.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2006.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The God Delusion: Arguments for God’s Existence

In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins sets out to free the world of a dangerous irrational belief that has plagued mankind for thousands of years. That hazardous idea is the belief in "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" (Dawkins 31). Dawkins begins by disassembling some of the most common arguments for the existence of God then presents an argument against the existence of God; he then moves into a naturalistic explanation of the roots of religion and morality, as well as the harms caused by religion; he finishes up by advocating atheism as the correct worldview. I will examine some of the points brought up by Dawkins that I found to be of interest. I will start with his dissection of arguments that support God's existence.

In his third chapter Dawkins expounds on eight different arguments for God's existence. I will touch on three that piqued my interest. The first is the argument from personal experience. Dawkins opens with a story about a young man and his girlfriend who, while camping in Scotland, hear the Devil himself speak to them in their tent. The experience was so unforgettable that it was one of the reasons he decided to become ordained. Years later, Dawkins was recalling the story to two ornithologists who burst out laughing and told Dawkins that what his friend had heard was the shrieks of a bird nicknamed the "Devil Bird" (Dawkins 87). In short, Dawkins writes off all religious experiences as either hallucinations or a byproduct of the brain's 'simulation software.' This simulation software is our brain's internal way of processing information to make it recognizable. The misfiring of this software is often the explanation for illusions like the Necker Cube. To him when a religious personal experience can be explained in physical terms it loses its credibility as a genuine religious experience.

Unfortunately, Dawkins debunking of personal religious experience has an unintended side effect. When his method is applied to any subjective experience the result is a destruction of the validity of that experience. What Dawkins fails to realize is that all human experience, including science, is subjective. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste is just an electrical signal sent to our brains which use its simulation software to make sense of the electrical signal. Imagine what would happen when you turn this logic on some every day subjective experiences. If you tell me you like pistachio ice cream and I rebut that you don't actually like pistachio ice cream; it is simply a matter of the chemical receptors on your tongue sending a certain electrical impulse to your brain that releases some endorphins into your blood; you would laugh at me. But this is what Dawkins is suggesting that we do with religious experiences. I have no doubt that most, if not all of our personal religious experiences have physical explanations. However, I do not think that finding these explanations completely debunks religious experience. If that were the case then we could just as easily debunk the remainder of human experience and we would be left with nearly nothing.

The second of Dawkins' points that drew my interest was that of the argument from scripture (92-7). Dawkins argues that the Bible is full of inaccuracies, lies, and distortions. Most of his attacks come from other sources since he himself is not a Biblical scholar. He mainly contends that the Bible, in particular the New Testament, was written long after the events it records, it contradicts itself, and that major additions and subtractions have since occurred. Dawkins places a burden of proof on the Bible so heavy that I wonder if our modern newspapers could stand up under its weight let alone any ancient document_ Once again we see that if Dawkins' standards are applied to areas outside of religion we find self destructive side effects. Consider this: if you compare the number of copies we have and the time gap between the earliest copies and the events themselves for New Testament and other ancient books you find out that we have over 5,000 copies of the New Testament and a time gap of 50-100 years. The nearest competitor is The Iliad with 643 copies and a gap of 400 years. Livy's History of Rome only has 19 copies with a gap of 1,000 years and Caesar's Gallic Wars has only ten copies with a gap of an entire millennia (McDowell 38). If we apply Dawkins stringent requirements to the Bible we must concede that we know nothing at all about the ancient world before the printing press (and the time after that is somewhat sketchy as well).

Dawkins' final point that I wish to cover here is based on his dismantling of the argument from scripture. He attacks the trilemma put forth by many theologians concerning Jesus as either "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord." Dawkins asserts that "the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken" (92). However, if any thought is given to the problem at hand this fourth option is quickly seen as ludicrous. What we are considering is how Jesus viewed his identity. Realizing that this question is a matter of identity and not of external fact is very important.

If the problem was a matter of an external fact the possibility that Jesus was honestly mistaken is possible. If you ask someone where the nearest Kmart is they might say the one by I-95, not knowing that there is one much closer. Their statement is false, but they are not necessarily crazy or a diabolical liar. However, if someone gives a false statement about their identity there are only three possible reasons. For the moment let's substitute me into the problem and let's have me claiming to be George H. Bush's son (a clear problem of identity). My claim can either be true or false. If it is true then I am his son. If it is false then I must be consciously lying or unconsciously lying. If I am lying consciously then I must be a liar. But if I am unconsciously lying I could be forming my claim on reasonable grounds or unreasonable grounds. If there is evidence that I am George's son then I could be honestly mistaken until I discover later that I am adopted. However, if there is no evidence then I am acting against reason and I am what we often refer to as crazy. You can substitute any other outrageous claim of identity (like claiming to be Napoleon or an alien named Zorak) and you will see even more clearly how ridiculous it is to claim that Jesus was honestly mistaken about who he was.

All of the arguments for the existence of God have holes in them and Dawkins has done some research into finding those holes. However, at times he must work so hard to find the holes that he unwittingly destroys the credibility of all subjective experience, erases most of history, and declares that people that claim to be God, Napoleon, or an alien named Zorak might not be crazy, but have made an honest mistake. No argument is air tight, not even the argument for gravity or existence, but at some point we have to go with what seems the most correct and fits the best with reality. For me it is that God created this universe and came to earth as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to die for my sins. My arguments and reasons for believing this aren't invincible, but they are the best fit I have to the world around me.


Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2006.
McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.1999.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Had I Known How to Save a Life

I don't recall what radio station I was listening to when I first heard this song, but I do remember that I liked it. And as the days passed into weeks I heard it more and more and on what I thought was different stations. For me that's quite unusual. Sometimes I hear a Bon Jovi song on the alternative rock station and later the same song on the classic rock station. But crossovers between the Christian station and any others are pretty rare. So my curiosity was raised by the song performed by The Fray entitled "How to Save a Life" when I heard it played on the pop station and the Christian station. Another puzzling point that struck me was that the lyrics didn't really seem to have many strong Christian connections, other than the mentioning of praying to God. So I asked my friend Trevar to also look at the lyrics and give his interpretation. You can find his comments in his blog Explicating The Fray's "How to Save a Life" However, as I took a closer look at the lyrics my inkling that this was not actually a "Christian" song was greatly reinforced. The following is my interpretation of what this song is about.

Overall, the song tells a tragic story of the loss of a friend to either suicide or drug overdose and the events leading up to his death. Let's start from the beginning and see what the lyrics tell us. The song begins with what is commonly called an intervention. Why the intervention is being called is not made clear, but the awkwardness of the situation is apparent in the first verse:

Step one you say we need to talk
He walks you say sit down it's just a talk
He smiles politely back at you
You stare politely right on through
Some sort of window to your right
As he goes left and you stay right
Between the lines of fear and blame
And you begin to wonder why you came
The first step is getting the friend to sit down and have a serious talk. The gravity of the discourse and the unwillingness of the friend are evident by the narrator's need to assure the friend that what will take place is "just a talk." The friend agrees and proceeds to "smile politely back at" the narrator as the narrator "[stares] politely right on through." Although the two are close friends the pair must strain to be polite to one another. We can assume that the awkwardness of the situation is caused by both of them hearing things that they didn't want to hear as we will see in the second verse.

As the duo strains to be polite to one another we get the first hint that the intervention will end poorly "as he goes left and you stay right." The narrator will not diverge from his path, but neither will the friend and from here their paths diverge forever. As the intervention gets rolling the narrator tells us that he must balance "between the lines of fear and blame" struggling not to blame his friend but fearing that he will not reveal enough to convince his friend to change. By the end of the first verse things do not look good as the narrator "[begins] to wonder why [he] came."

The chorus, repeated after each verse, is a retrospective lament of the narrator's failure to save his friend:

Where did I go wrong, I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life
It serves to reinforce the fact that the friend is ultimately loss in the bitterness we will see develop between the two. But despite the ill will that the two feel when they depart each other's company the narrator tell us that he "would have stayed up with you all night / Had [he] known how to save a life." We learn that the narrator would have stayed up with his friend all night had [he] known how to save a life. Said in another, less lyrical, way, the last two lines could read: "I didn't know how to save your life, but I would have stayed up all night with you if I did."

The second verse takes us back to the intervention:

Let him know that you know best
Cause after all you do know best
Try to slip past his defense
Without granting innocence
Lay down a list of what is wrong
The things you've told him all along
And pray to God he hears you
And pray to God he hears you
And we see the narrator's attempt to "slip past his defense" to convince his friend that the narrator's advice should be taken, because "after all, [the narrator] does know best." Once the narrator has built his credibility he does not grant his friend innocence, but rather holds him accountable for his actions. The narrator then proceeds to "lay down a list of what is wrong," a list of actions and behaviors that aren't acceptable in the narrator's eyes.

During this verse the friend is silent, presumably listening politely as the narrator tries to speak sense into his friend. The verse ends with the narrator praying to God. At first this line seems to indicate that there may be a ray of hope because the narrator "[prays] to God [who] hears [the narrator]," but a closer look reveals that this is not what is being said. The song isn't saying "pray to God; [God] hears [the narrator]," but rather, "pray to God [that the friend] hears [the narrator]" All of the narrator's sources have been tapped. He has built up his credibility, laid out his case, and even appealed to God that his argument will bear good fruit. But the reiteration of the chorus that follows reminds us of the untimely end of the friend.

The final verse brings us to the end of the intervention. It is here that the friend replies to the narrator's accusations and condemnations as the narrator lays out an ultimatum:

As he begins to raise his voice
You lower yours and grant him one last choice
Drive until you lose the road
Or break with the ones you've followed
He will do one of two things
He will admit to everything
Or he'll say he's just not the same
And you'll begin to wonder why you came
As the friend raises his voice in anger, the narrator presents him with a choice. Either the friend will continue down his self destructive path until he loses the road and destroys himself or he can abandon that road and try to break his deadly habits. The narrator knows that he has forced his friend into a corner where he will either "admit to everything" and accept responsibility for his actions "or he'll say he's just not the same" and cut his ties to the narrator as he continues to pursue his vices. The verse does not tell us explicitly which one he will do, but things do not look good as the narrator "[begins] to wonder why [he] came."

The title of this song is misleading in that it does not speak on the subject of "how to save a life" but rather laments "had I known." Had he known how to save a life the intervention would have been the turning point for his friend and not the last warning sign before his senseless suicide or drug overdose. What appears on first listen to be an uplifting song that tells us how to save the lives of our friends turns out to be a dark lament of a failed intervention, a failed friendship, and ultimately a failed life.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Cradle of Christianity

Today I was able to escape from the cutting edge of marine geology long enough to visit a museum exhibit I have been excited to see since I heard of its existence. The exhibition, entitled The Cradle of Christianity, is on display until 15 April 2007, and brings with it items from the Holy Land to illustrate the connection between Judaism and Christianity. I would like to highlight some of the more interesting artifacts I saw there.

The first part of the exhibition attempted to bring into focus the background in which Christ's life, death, and resurrection were played out. Here I saw ossuaries with names common to the time period: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (an ossuary is a decorated box to store the bones of the dead after the flesh has rotted away). It is somewhat hard for us in the modern age to imagine that Jesus was a common name in the Judea in the first century AD. Also on display were dishes and cups that were very common in Jesus' day. Although these were probably not the dishes used at the Last Supper, it is likely that dishes like these were used by Jesus and his disciples.

There was also a grisly reminder of the Roman method of crucifixion: an ankle bone with the nail still embedded. Although we know that crucifixions occurred during the first century, this ankle bone is the only direct evidence of this method of execution. Next to the ankle bone is the only known physical evidence that a certain governor of Judea lived: Pontius Pilate. At some point Pilate had an inscription made dedicating a piece of stonework to the current emperor of Rome: Tiberius. Next to the aforementioned stone is another ossuary which at one time contained the bones of Joseph Caiaphas, the High Priest who was instrumental in getting Christ executed.

On down I was able to enter a darkened room and look at a few fragments of a document. Those pieces were written by scribes in the second century AD and were preserved in caves around the Dead Sea. That's right, on display for the first time anywhere was a fragment of the Temple Scroll; the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Once I left the darkened room I entered a recreation of an early church; which closely resembled the Jewish synagogues of the time.

The last part of the exhibit focused on the pilgrimages early Christians made. It seems that relics were very common back then and trips to familiar places like Golgotha and Gethsemane as well as Jericho and the Sea of Galilee were encouraged.

Although I thought the highlight of the visit for me would be the Temple Scroll; I found when I left that it was not. Yes, the Temple Scroll is an ancient manuscript seen publicly for the first time ever, but the room was so dark it was hard to see the scroll at all. No, what really struck me was the ossuary of Caiaphas. It wasn't behind glass or in a darkened room and when I read the translation I thought to myself, "Who's Joseph Caiaphas?" And then it dawned on me: that's the High Priest who wanted Jesus crucified! It's difficult to explain, but at that moment I felt a renewed sense of awe as I realized all over again that the stories of the Gospels aren't actually stories, but are actual accounts of actual events. There before me was physical evidence that Caiaphas was a real person and was actually the High Priest who put Jesus on trial. It was truly an amazing experience to stand the day after Easter in front of the ossuary of one of the people responsible for Jesus' death, but to know that there is no ossuary labeled "Jesus of Galilee, son of Joseph" because the tomb is, and forever shall be, empty.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

An Evening with Dr. Reynolds

Last night I met with the President of the Mission Board over south Florida for the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Dr. Noel B. Reynolds. I had been looking forward to, as well as dreading, this day for months now since the missionaries first suggested that I visit with him. I knew from the outset that I probably would have little of value to add to the conversation as most of my arguments would not be new to him or carry much, if any, weight. But I was determined not to back down, so I accepted the invitation.

After following the missionaries to his house in Plantation, we began the evening with pleasantries and I introduced myself giving a brief introduction to my own background. In the days leading up to the appointment, I had decided that I would present my case for my disbelief in Mormonism to Dr. Reynolds. I would present him with a simple logical proof and proceed to break down how it could not be true. I kept it in the back of my mind as we started our meeting. This is what I had prepared:

Major Premise – The Bible is useful for teaching correct doctrine.
Minor Premise – The Mormon scriptures are useful for teaching correct doctrine.
Conclusion – Both the Mormon Scriptures and the Bible should teach the same, correct doctrines.
I would then proceed to show that the Bible and the Mormon scriptures do not teach the same doctrines, thus the conclusion is false. Therefore, one or both of the premises must be false. This process seemed to me to be a very good starting place for evaluating the claims of Mormonism. Unfortunately, Dr. Reynolds did not see it that way.

I asked Dr. Reynolds if he believed that the Bible was good for teaching doctrines and he agreed that it was. I inquired, “But what about the parts of the Bible that contradict Mormon doctrine?” He told me that he was not aware that there were any such areas. I replied that Mormons believe that they can become a god if they are good enough, but that the Bible teaches there is but one God and no other. He rebutted with the statement of Jesus’ “Is it not written in your law, I said, ‘Ye are gods’?” (John 10:34). Furthermore, he told me, all of the early church fathers believed in deification, that is, the idea that Jesus died so that we may become gods (for a more in-depth treatment see Mormon Defense of Deification and Orthodox Defense of Deification). I told him that the verse he and Jesus were quoting was in reference to God-appointed judges which were men who would one day die (see Psalm 82). In short, Dr. Reynolds claimed that any discrepancy between Mormon and Biblical teachings could be chalked up to the modification of the Bible through the ages. Therefore, any thing that I could cite as being a critical difference could be dismissed as error in translation or a later change in the text. My Socratic dialectical was useless.

Dr. Reynolds told me that comparing the two scriptures (or other doctrinal differences or the philosophical difficulty of an infinite number of Gods and universes) was not the correct starting place, instead he suggested that the question to start with is this: was Joseph Smith a prophet or not? A fair question I admit, but as I sit here at my computer reflecting I can’t help but think that that was my starting point. My proof is just a simple way of evaluating whether or not Smith was a prophet. If he was a prophet then his book should teach the same thing as the Bible. But Dr. Reynolds did not agree that a logical proof could confirm the veracity of the Mormon scriptures.

Instead of using reason to evaluate Smith’s claim to be a prophet, he suggested that the way to know whether or not the Mormon scriptures are true is to follow a simple formula found in the Book of Mormon:

“Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” Moroni 10:3-5
I had read this Scripture before and as it had been explained to me the manifestation of truth that one feels was in the form of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It wasn’t through reason or tradition, but experience and experience alone that one knows that the Book of Mormon is true. I was about to espouse to Dr. Reynolds the need for other modes of knowing to fully establish a well founded belief from which a solid faith can spring. But before I did I asked him to define what he meant by “God manifesting the truth.” His answer surprised me. He told me that the manifestation of truth was better termed “revelation.” I immediately asked him to define what he meant by revelation and he told me, “It is the still, small voice of God that tells you what to do, or sometimes, what not to do.” Mormons believe that we all receive revelation on a daily basis. We may not all be receptive to the message or heed the instructions, but we all receive them. I have to agree with Dr. Reynolds on this point, I do not deny that God speaks to our hearts through the moral law, but something about this use of “revelation” troubled me. And as I drove back to my house I thought about what he had said.

It seems to me that Dr. Reynolds’ faith is based on what he believes is revelation from God which, though it has its emotional component, is not strictly emotional. It is the revelation that he has received, and continues to receive, that assures him that Joseph Smith is a prophet. The continual revelation is not a part of his faith, but is rather the entire thing. I was shocked when he told me that the Bible and Book of Mormon do not differ in doctrine to any significant degree. I am no great student of the Bible, but I know enough to conclude that the Bible and the Mormon scriptures do not teach the same doctrines. One or both must be incorrect. And in my own sojourning I have found that the Bible is a trustworthy document which I can use to construct doctrine. Dr. Reynolds has the utmost faith in the Mormon scriptures first and makes excuses for the “illusory” inconsistencies between it and the Bible.

Aside from the matter of revelation, I also asked about matters of evidence for the book of Mormon. He cited two examples 1) the use of chiasmus (an ancient literary form only rediscovered decades after Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon), and 2) the discovery of a temple with an inscription of the name of a man who Lehi buried in Arabia on the journey to the New World. I am not going to comment on these two pieces of evidence, because I am not an authority on the subject of ancient literary styles and I know little of the actual facts of Dr. Reynolds’ archaeological evidence. Instead, I will direct you to the following references if you are interested in learning more about these topics: Chiasmus in the Bible, Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, and Archaeological Evidence for the Book of Mormon. I can only conclude that Joseph Smith did receive information from a source that knew about chiasmus and the temple inscription in Arabia. Who or what that source was is indeed the big question.

In conclusion, I wish to say that I do not think that the Bible and the Book of Mormon teach the same doctrines. A polytheistic view is not supported by the Bible, but is necessary for faith in Mormon teachings. Their beliefs detract from the Christian idea of who God is. And to claim that a mere man can become a god equal to Our Father in Heaven is simply blasphemous. We may become more like him, yes, but we shall never be his equal. The truly sad thing is that these people are sincerely striving to be what they think God wants them to be. They are firmly ensconced in the belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet, but Joseph Smith “professing to be wise, […] became [a] fool, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man.” (Romans 1:22-23). Pray that God opens the eyes of the Mormons.

Quotations from the Book of Mormon taken from


Here is some background information on Dr. Reynolds:

For a short bio click here

To read his critique on Greek philosophy in Christianty click here

Thursday, February 8, 2007

No Raccoon Left Behind

TALLAHASSEE, FL- Today Florida governor Charlie Crist unveiled the first phase of his new animal education program: No Raccoon Left Behind.

"There has been a lot of concern about the rising number of vandalism, assault, and rabies incidents involving raccoons in the past few years," Crist said. This new program is intended to curtail the sometimes destructive behavior of the state's most populous nocturnal omnivore.

Incidents of raccoons knocking over trash can, fighting with neighborhood cats, and accosting tourists in the Everglades National Park has prompted lawmakers to take action to make Florida safe for all of its citizens.

Initially, some consideration was given to traditional population control measures such as trapping and the use of poisons. However, opponents of these measures were successful in blocking legislation to authorize local animal control units to eliminate a portion of the raccoons in urban areas. "Violence never solves our problems," said Rep. Thad Altman (R), chairman of the House's Committee on Education Innovation & Career Preparation.

"The senseless killing of these raccoons would prove that we are no better than they are. What we have to do is come up with a fresh, new way to solve an age-old problem," said Altman. "Instead of lowering ourselves to their level, we should strive to bring them to our level through proper education."

"It is no secret that our local raccoon population is poorly educated," said Crist in his announcement today, "current estimates indicate that 94% of our state's raccoons are illiterate."

The first phase of Crist's plan includes using animal control officers and high school volunteers to create a safe learning environment for a pilot group of 200 raccoons in Miami. If successful, Crist plans to open satellite campuses across the state as soon as next year.

This is not the first attempt to assimilate animals into society through education. During the 1960s Florida was the first state to institute education programs for dolphins. Today, half a dozen other states have similar dolphin education programs.

Other states are already taking interest in Florida's new raccoon program. "My administration has always played with the idea of starting raccoon schools," said South Carolina governor, Mark Sanford, "If Florida succeeds you can guarantee South Carolina won't be far behind."

Hopes are high for the new program. "I look forward to the day Florida's children can walk hand in paw with Florida's raccoons," said Thad Altman. "And I'm glad that I'll live to see that day."

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Without Excuse: A Look at Romans 1

The first chapter of Romans seeks to tell us what man can know about God and how he can come to that knowledge. There are two ways in which we can gain knowledge of God and before I go any further I would like to define those two paths. The first is commonly called "general revelation." General revelation can best be described as the gaining of knowledge of God without God's active intervention. Most commonly truths discovered about God through general revelation come from the natural world. Reason is usually the main tool which gives us knowledge via general revelation. The second kind of revelation is "special revelation." This kind of revelation deals with God directly interacting with mankind to give us some knowledge of Himself. The Bible is the best example of special revelation; however, I think that it can also apply to visions, dreams, and other direct experiences with God. Now that we've defined the two main kinds of revelation, let us look at what the apostle Paul has to say about revelation.

It is necessary that we establish who Paul's audience is in Romans. If the name of the book doesn't give it away, verse five gives us a clear idea to whom Paul is addressing this letter. In that verse Paul tells us that his calling is "to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His [God's] name's sake." Paul is writing to the Gentiles. The Gentiles haven't had the benefit of the Hebrew Scriptures to learn about God, but Paul still thinks that "they are without excuse" (v. 20). Paul is convinced that general revelation is enough to make the most important decision that there is to make: whether we are for God or against Him.

But how can Gentiles with no knowledge of Hebrew beliefs come to make the decision to follow or reject the God of the Hebrews? It must all come from general revelation. However, it should be noted that general revelation is rather limited in the amount of knowledge that one can gain about God. Paul only lists two of God's invisible attributes that can be known from general revelation: "His eternal power and divine nature" (v. 20). C.S. Lewis sheds light on the subject of general revelation with his exposition on one of the main truths that we can glean from the world. That truth is that there is a universal moral law (see Mere Christianity for a more in depth explication of how we can come to this knowledge). And if there is a universal moral law there must be a moral law giver. From the moral law we can see the character of God's divine nature.

Paul tells us that God made the moral law evident to mankind. How is it that God "made it evident to them" (v. 19)? I think that God gave us reason to discover the moral law. Reason cannot be explained satisfactorily with naturalistic causes. Reason cannot come from non-reason so reason must also have an author (see Lewis's Miracles for a better argument for this). So now we can make two statements about God: 1) He is moral, and 2) He possesses reason. Is this enough to make a decision about following or rejecting God? I think so. Through general revelation we can come to knowledge of the moral law and we find that we have trespassed against this law and in doing so trespassed against the Lawgiver. Even this incomplete knowledge is enough for Paul to claim that "they knew God" (v. 21). But what did they do with this knowledge? Paul tells us that "they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart[s] w[ere] darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools" (v. 21-22). It appears to me that the folly of the Gentiles was to think that general revelation can tell them what it could not.

Paul believes that the Gentiles had enough knowledge, via general revelation, to have at least a basic faith in the one, true God. Unfortunately, "they exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God" for idols (v. 23). Furthermore, "they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (v. 25). And what was God's response to their action? "God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity" (v. 24). They made the choice to reject God and so God "gave them over to degrading passions" (v. 26). They knew God's moral law, but rejected it and so God rejected them. They had a chance but, they threw it away. So I close with these questions for my readers: Would these same men have made the same choice if they had had the benefit of special revelation? Is general revelation really enough for us to come to have a faith in God? I welcome your thoughts.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lionfish, Grad Students, and the Tao

Last night, in my class on the ecology of invasive species an interesting question was raised: why should we care about preventing the spread of invasive species? The person who asked this reinforced their question with Darwinian evolutionary theory, i.e. survival of the fittest. Her argument was essentially: If invasive species are more fit than indigenous species then they will naturally take over the native's positions in the ecosystem and it's the native's fault for not being fit enough to deal with the invasion. And since humans are a part of the natural system (even if we pretend like we aren't) our actions (namely introducing invasives) are natural processes, comparable to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and doomsday asteroids. Therefore, invasive species are just following the rules of nature and we should let them run their course.

This opinion did not go over well with the rest of the class. It's apparent that the introduction of invasive species is the second largest threat to biodiversity and species extinction, only habitat loss poses a greater threat (Wilcove et al. 1998). Furthermore, it seems that biodiversity is something that humankind wants to preserve and many are willing to spend large sums to do so (BBC: "Protection for Weirdest Species"). But what I saw when these grad students tried to define why we ought to protect other species from extinction it looked like people grasping for straws while drowning. Inadvertently these students had wondering into the frightening realm of philosophy. To say the least no one who offered an opinion had the tools to make their point sound like anything more than personal preference.

It appeared to me that those students who offered their opinions fell into one of the terrible gaps in naturalism that makes this philosophy so unappealing. [Note: Naturalism in this context refers to the philosophy that all of reality is composed of the physical world that we see and experience. There is absolutely nothing that is outside of Nature. Nature is all there is and all of our explanations must come from natural causes.] Into what gap did my classmates unintentionally fall? They tried to do something that is a normal part of our everyday life, something that most of us do on a regular basis without even thinking about. However, this everyday activity does not have a plausible natural explanation. Here's what they did: they made a value judgment.

We make value judgments every day. We claim that doing 'this' is better than doing 'that.' We advise people that they should do 'A' rather than 'B.' Last night's class was no different. Some people claimed that we ought to let invasive species run their course. Others objected and said that we should curb the effects of these species. Anytime you make a claim that someone 'ought to,' or that you 'should,' or that one course of action is 'better than' another you are a making a value judgment. Very few people argue that we should discount value judgments. The controversy is in how we justify these value judgments. Let's take a quick look at how naturalists and supernaturalists justify making value judgments.

Supernaturalists, as their name suggests, make a claim to a standard that exists outside of nature to justify their value judgments. [Note: Supernaturalists believe that something exists outside of nature and includes many of the world religions including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. Not everything has a natural explanation.] For example, Christianity justifies its claims that some actions are right (and thus better) than others on the nature and character of Yahweh. Buddhists call upon the 'Tao' (a pre-existent standard outside of space and time) to justify their judgments.

Naturalists, on the other hand, often have to rely on other philosophies to justify themselves. Many in my field rely on Darwinism to guide their actions. 'Survival of the fittest' is their battle cry. But this rationale quickly disintegrates when applied to human actions. Imagine if we used 'survival of the fittest' as a business model. We could justify industrial espionage, fraud, and even murder, because "hey, we're just trying to survive." This principle works in the animal world but not in human society. Other naturalists try to use humanism as a justification. They claim that certain actions are good because they bring relief to man's estate or will better ensure the survival of our species. But this just pushes the problem of justification back another step. Why should we strive to bring relief to man's estate or ensure the survival of our species? Just because? No acceptable answer has been presented to this author.

Without inciting some kind of standard outside of Nature there is no viable way to justify value judgments. If your philosophy cannot justify value judgments you have unwittingly given up your ability to make any value judgments at all. The inability for naturalism to justify value judgments should make those who hold to this philosophy reexamine their beliefs.

Literature Cited:

Wilcove, D. S., D. Rothstein, J. Dubow, A. Phillips and E. Losos.1998. "Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States." Bioscience 48(8): 607.

Monday, January 8, 2007

A Deeper Analysis of Mormon Doctrines

In the past few months, I have many good discussions with the Mormon missionaries. I have found opportunities to ask them questions about their beliefs and reply with my own objections. By speaking with them I have been able to gain more understanding about the theology and teachings of the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They claim that the Book of Mormon and the Bible present the same theology, furthermore, that the Book of Mormon illustrates this identical theology more clearly and accurately than the Bible. I don’t agree. I would like to show two areas in which the Book of Mormon is in conflict in its philosophy and theology with the teachings of the Bible. The areas I would like to touch upon are the nature of God and the nature of Jesus Christ.

Mormons claim to be monotheists. Indeed, Christianity also claims that there is but one, true God. However, the God in whom the Mormons believe (usually referred to as Heavenly Father) is a totally separate being from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Heavenly Father is like a human in that he has a spiritual body as well as a physical body. The Book of Mormon’s teaching is clear that God the Father has a physical body. Why is it so important that God have a physical body? A secret teaching, not usually told to immature believers, explains why. It was revealed to Joseph Smith that “as man is, God once was.” In other words, Mormons believe that Heavenly Father was at one time a man created by a previous Heavenly Father who was in turn once a man created by a previous Heavenly Father, and on and on to infinity. This doctrine is of course necessary so that good Mormons can have the hope that they themselves can become a future Heavenly Father on their own world or universe. This secret doctrine destroys their monotheistic guise and reveals Mormonism as a polytheistic religion. Furthermore, it is this belief that God was once man and that man can subsequently become God that is squarely in opposition to the teaching of the Bible.

The Bible does not teach that God has a physical body, in fact, John 4:24 is very clear that “God is a spirit.” It is true that the Bible often refers to God’s face, his feet, his hands, etc. but that is always in a figurative sense. If we took those passages literally we would have say that God also has wings (Ps 91:4) is made of wood (John 15:1), and is hot, combusting gas (Heb. 12:29). The Bible is equally clear that there has been only one God: “Before me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me.” (Is. 43:10). Mormons like to argue that God made us in his image and if he didn’t have a body he couldn’t have given us bodies. However, this interpretation of Genesis 1:27 does not stand up well to critical examination. Indeed God created man, but even this admission informs us that the phrase “in the likeness of” does not mean “exactly like.” Let me explain. Something that is created or made is intrinsically different from its maker. Birds make nests, but birds are not nests. Cats make hairballs, but (despite some debate) cats are not hairballs. Men create pictures, but men are not pictures. A man can even create a picture that is very much like him, but that picture can never be the same thing as the maker. In the same way God has made man, but God is not himself a man, and neither is man God. God is God, the one and only. Man cannot become God, no matter how god-like we become just as no picture of a man can become a man, no matter how lifelike it is.

Now following this train of thought it would seem impossible that God could become a man. A man can be the subject of a picture, but he can’t physically become a picture. So it would seem that God could not become a man. However, the Bible tells us that what is impossible with man is possible with God (Luke 18:27). Mormons believe that Jesus is not God, but is only one in spirit and purpose with Heavenly Father. There is no Trinity and Jesus was just a very spiritually elevated man. However, this is not what the Bible has to say about the matter. In John 1:1 the book’s author tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What does the Word do? Well, “the word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Whether we understand it or not the fact is that the Word, the Logos or God’s mind, became human. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that John calls Jesus the “only begotten from the Father.” Not only does this further set Jesus apart from the rest of mankind but it introduces an important concept. Unlike things which are created, things which are begotten are the same as the begetter. Birds beget birds and cats beget cats. In an analogous way God begets God. It would be difficult to argue that God could beget a man, no more than if a man could beget a picture of his son. It is true that God did miraculously impregnate Mary; however, I do not think that John’s reference to begetting is an allusion to the Virginal Conception.

In addition to the first chapter of John, the rest of the New Testament tells us that Jesus firmly believed that he was God. He claimed to forgive sins (an act only possible by God Himself) and was nearly killed on more than one occasion because of his claims. Both Jesus and the people around him know who he was claiming to be: God in the flesh. Jesus claims to be God can either be true or false. If they are false then he is either a madman or a liar. Neither option would suggest that he was just a Good Prophet like many claim. The only other option is that Jesus was telling the truth about his divinity.

The missionaries I have met with always object when I tell them that Jesus is God. If Jesus is God, and Heavenly Father is God, and if the Spirit is God doesn’t that mean that you believe in three Gods and not one? The simple answer is no. The Trinity is a very complex subject, but one should expect the truth to be complex. C.S Lewis once wrote, “If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anybody can be simple if he has no facts to bother about” (Mere Christianity). The fact is that Jesus claimed to be God and all throughout the Bible allusions are made to the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity. When we look at the Bible we see that there are three distinct personalities claiming to be God. And while they are each making claims to Divinity none make claims to subtract from the others. If we want to make it simpler for ourselves and say that God the Father is the only God and Jesus and the Spirit are very godlike, but didn’t quite make the cut we must call Jesus and the Spirit liars. That is what the facts force us to do.

In conclusion, the Bible is often unclear about certain points of doctrine. But it is clear that Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit are all separate while all being one God. It is clear that God the Father is a spiritual being and that Jesus was fully man and fully God. To believe otherwise is to ignore the facts presented in the Bible. If, as I have shown, the teachings of the Mormons stand in such stark contrast to the teachings of the Bible there can be only two logical courses of action. One is to accept the Bible and reject the Book of Mormon (along with the Mormon’s other Scriptures). The other is to accept the Book of Mormon as truth and reject the Bible as misinformation. The option to accept both as Holy Scripture is simply dead in the water.