Gen fight at the Baptist corral

A battle has broken out in the genteel world of Baptist theology over the proper understanding of the book of Genesis.

It began with the publication in 2009 of the book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World by William Dembski. Dembski’s name will be a familiar to those who followed the controversy over so-called ‘intelligent design’ (ID) because he was one of their key leaders. He is a clever and well-educated man, a glutton for formal education whose bio says he has a B.A. in psychology, an M.S. in statistics, a Ph.D. in philosophy, a doctorate in mathematics, and a master of divinity degree. Much of his work during the ID debates was aimed at producing mathematical and statistical arguments for god using information and complexity theories. He is also a prolific writer, churning out books and papers at a prodigious rate, which made him a moving target. By the time scientists and mathematicians had analyzed his latest book and pointed out flaws in his arguments, he would have a new book out where he would claim that he had addressed them.

The high point in his career was when he was appointed head of the Michael Polanyi Institute at Baylor University. Baylor is a research university with Baptist roots and the Polanyi institute was a think tank specifically created by president of the university (himself a theologian) in 1999 to promote ID. But the faculty of the university rose up in revolt at what they considered an end-run around faculty governance on academic matters by their president to advance his personal religious agenda, and demanded the closing of the center. Dembski was removed as the head of the center in 2000 and left Baylor in 2005 to his present home as a faculty member at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Given that Dembski craves acceptance by mainstream scientists and academics, going from a research university to a fairly obscure regional seminary must have been a blow.

As one can see from the subtitle, his latest book attempts to address the age-old problem of theodicy but Dembski tries to do it within the framework of an old Earth. Why this is a problem is because orthodox Christianity teaches that sin and suffering were caused by Adam and Eve’s shenanigans with the serpent and the fruit in the Garden of Eden that resulted in their fall from grace and created the original sin that taints all of us even from birth. It is this belief that leads to the doctrine that Jesus had to die as a vicarious sacrifice to absolve the world of its sins. (Ok, I know that none of this makes any sense but it is what Christians are required to believe so bear with me.)

The doctrine of original sin requires original sinners and thus requires Adam and Eve to be real people who were the first humans and consequently a young Earth. Dembski seemed to have been persuaded by scientific evidence that believing in a young Earth was deeply problematic. But since he wanted to retain the idea of salvation through Jesus’s death, he tried to find a way to insert the doctrine of the fall and original sin into an old Earth framework in which evolution had occurred. He also allowed for the possibility that Noah’s flood may have been a local phenomenon, not a global flood, again based on the scientific evidence.

Even these slight concessions to what the rest of us might consider incontrovertible science were too much for his colleagues and ticked off the young Earth biblical literalists. He got some strong criticisms from some of his Baptist colleagues, especially a highly negative review from Tom Nettles, a faculty member of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky who claimed that Dembski was rejecting Biblical literalism and inerrancy because of scientific arguments. The idea that scientific evidence should take precedence over the ‘plain text’ reading of the Bible is a big no-no for these people.

Paige Patterson, president of the seminary where Dembski is a faculty member, is an unabashed young Earther who rejects evolution and thinks Noah’s flood was a global one. He was concerned by the possibility that one of his faculty members was straying from the fold, rejecting orthodoxy and espousing an old Earth heresy. Patterson commissioned David Allen, the dean of his school of theology and Dembski’s immediate superior, to write a lengthy rebuttal to Nettles’ review, in which he argued that Dembski was truly orthodox and that Nettles had misunderstood him.

Patterson also summoned Dembski to a meeting and as a result, a chastened Dembski issued an abject mea culpa, saying that he had not actually thought through some of the things he had written in his book and laid out what he says he actually believes, and outlined what he would have done differently if he were to write the book now. He now says that he does believe that Noah’s flood was a global one and that his assumption of an old Earth was not a belief he was committed to but merely a speculative exercise purely for the purpose of seeing how it could be reconciled with ideas of the fall and original sin. It is a great example of a coerced retraction. His apologia ends:

Yet, in a brief section on Genesis 4–11, I weigh in on the Flood, raising questions about its universality, without adequate study or reflection on my part. Before I write on this topic again, I have much exegetical, historical, and theological work to do. In any case, not only Genesis 6–9 but also Jesus in Matthew 24 and Peter in Second Peter seem clearly to teach that the Flood was universal. As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality.

In writing The End of Christianity today, I would also underscore three points: (1) As a biblical inerrantist, I accept the full verbal inspiration of the Bible and the conventional authorship of the books of the Bible. Thus, in particular, I accept Mosaic authorship of Genesis (and of the Pentateuch) and reject the Documentary Hypothesis. (2) Even though I introduce in the book a distinction between kairos (God’s time) and chronos (the world’s time), the two are not mutually exclusive. In particular, I accept that the events described in Genesis 1– 11 happened in ordinary space-time, and thus that these chapters are as historical as the rest of the Pentateuch. (3) I believe that Adam and Eve were real people, that as the initial pair of humans they were the progenitors of the whole human race, that they were specially created by God, and thus that they were not the result of an evolutionary process from primate or hominid ancestors.

The statement by Patterson, Allen’s defense of Dembski against Nettles, and Dembski’s apologia can all be seen here.

Nettles, however, is not buying this revisionism. He seems to suspect that Dembski really believes in the heresies he expounded in his book, and wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the Patterson/Allen/Dembski response. Will they fire back? Or will they fire Dembski? The Baptist world waits agog.

In my book God vs. Darwin, I wrote about how the intelligent design people tried to make us think that they accepted all of modern science (including evolution and an old Earth) except for a few biological systems which they said required a designer. They stoutly resisted any attempt to lump them in with religious fundamentalists who took the Bible literally. Many of us had strong suspicions at that time that this seemingly liberal interpretation of the Bible was just a charade in order to disguise their more rigid religious agenda and make ID acceptable to the courts as an alternative to evolution. P. Z. Myers, whose blog first alerted me to this new Dembski story, seems to think that what this recent episode reveals is that Dembski was a common-or-garden creationist all along and that this controversy has forced him to publicly admit it.

I think that what is going on is more interesting. I have not read Dembski’s book and have no plans to do so, because life is too short to read books that use biblical texts to address empirical questions. But reading this back-and-forth over the book suggests to me that while Dembski may or may not have been a true-blue creationist at one time, he now finds the scientific arguments against at least a few of its orthodoxies persuasive. Dembski is a clever man, even arrogantly so, and I suspect that it must galling to him that in order to keep his job, he has to publicly recant under pressure from his religious bosses, people whom he must consider to be his intellectual inferiors. Who would have thought that Dembski, of all people, would experience what it is like to walk in Galileo’s shoes!

I suspect that what has happened is that Dembski has started down that dangerous road in which he starts to value evidence and reason and secretly tries to integrate science with his religious beliefs. Beware, Bill. That way leads to atheism!

Physicists and climate change

In 2007, the American Physical Society issued a short but strong statement stating that the evidence for global warming is incontrovertible. It is no secret that there is a very small but vocal minority within the APS membership that disputes the idea that global warming has a significant human-based cause and who were upset with the APS’s strong stand. Because of the fuss they created, the APS issued a longer clarifying statement in 2010 providing some context and the basis of their reasoning. Both statements can be read here.

A minor kerfuffle has now broken out because a physicist named Hal Lewis has resigned from the American Physical Society in protest at its stance on climate change. (Thanks to Chaz for the link.)

I am not sure why it is significant when a retired 87-year old physicist whose work during his research career had nothing to do with climate change resigns from the APS in protest. He is not a ‘top’ physicist in that although I do not doubt that is competent in his specialized field and known within it, I would guess that most physicists have not heard of him. The claim in some global warming skeptic circles that Lewis’s resignation letter is the equivalent of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door that sparked the Protestant reformation is laughable. I predict that it will not cause even a ripple within the physics community.

Lewis is not like Freeman Dyson, for example, another 87-year old physicist who is also a global warming skeptic. Although he too has no background in climate science, at least Dyson is very well known among physicists and any theoretical physicist in any field around the world would likely know his name and have some awareness of his work.

I agree with Lewis that money is having a negative effect in general in that it may be distorting the direction of research, but there is no evidence to support his charge that it has influenced the APS’s stance on climate change.

The APS has issued a statement in response to the Lewis resignation.

Lynn Anderson sings I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

I always thought that the lyrics must have emerged as the result of a contest to see who could pack the most number of clichés, trite rhymes, corny ideas, and hackneyed metaphors into a single song. “Smile for a while and let’s be jolly, love shouldn’t be so melancholy”? Really?

I was astounded when it became a huge hit, even in Sri Lanka, and won all kinds of awards.

Faith healing and me

In yesterday’s post and earlier I have expressed my fury with parents who let their children suffer and die because they withheld medical care, believing that their faith will heal the child. P. Z. Myers documents some other abuses inflicted by parents on children. Such acts are nothing short of criminal because they sacrifice the health and even the life of a child on the altar of parental superstition. There is no evidence that faith healers can do what they claim to do and plenty of evidence that they are at best misguided and self-delusional or outright frauds preying on the gullible.

Some believers in faith healing have asked me whether my skepticism is because of my lack of experience with it and urge me to check it out. Actually I do have some experience with faith healers. I had polio when I was six years old that resulted in some serious physical handicaps, though it has not prevented me from having a very full life. My parents were Christians and they did everything they could to improve my life, and that included taking me to faith healers.

I recall a faith healer named Brother Mandus coming to Sri Lanka as part of a world-wide crusade and my mother took me to the church where he was preaching and at the appropriate time told me to walk up to the altar with the others who were seeking cures for various ailments. Although I was a child then (around eleven or twelve) and it was a long time ago, I recall going up and praying fervently and remember him placing his hands on my head and praying for me to be healed. It was all very sincere (at least on my mother’s and my part, though I cannot vouch for Mandus) but, of course, nothing happened.

Sometime later, we were in another town away from the capital city and my parents must have heard of another faith healer, a local man this time, and they took me to him. This was a very different experience. This man was not a Christian but more like a witch doctor and it was a private affair just for us. It was night time and I remember lying down on the floor in a candle-lit room that threw long flickering shadows everywhere while this wild looking, long-haired, bare-chested person wearing long chains around his neck chanted and flailed and waved all manner of things around in the air just above me, including swords. It went on for quite a while but again, nothing happened.

This experience was quite spooky and should have terrified me but I was not scared because I must have implicitly trusted my parents, who were also present, that they would never let me be harmed in any way by this wild and crazy guy. I recall only being curious as to what the hell was going on.

What were my parents, pillars of the Christian church, doing dealing with what could be considered black magic? Many Sri Lankans, like people elsewhere (other than religious chauvinists and fanatics), are somewhat eclectic and relaxed in their attitudes towards religion. It is not uncommon to find icons of Jesus and Buddha and the Hindu gods in the same location and people worshipping all of them. While my parents were religious, they were also practical and open-minded people who had their priorities right. For them, having me get better was top of their agenda and they were willing to do whatever it takes. Having me get better would have trumped any allegiance they might have felt towards any religious dogma.

My parents were pragmatists and if they had been Edgardo Mortara’s parents, I think they would have converted to Catholicism in a heartbeat if that was the only way that they could have got their child back from the Pope, arguing that a god who would not excuse an act that arose out of pure parental love was not a god worth worshipping. Fortunately for me, their primary efforts were directed towards making sure that I got the best possible medical treatment. They would never have gambled with that. I suspect that their ventures into trying to find supernatural healing were seen by them as extras, done on the off-chance that it might work. In this, they were totally unlike those religious people who will let their children suffer and even die because they think pleasing their god is more important than anything else.

Believers in faith healing will never be convinced that there is nothing there. They always have the option of blaming any lack of success on people having insufficient faith. They would say that the reason why god did not heal me was likely because of my parents’ lack of sufficient faith in the Christian god, as evidenced by their commitment to getting the best possible medical treatment for me, as well as their willingness to try non-Christian faith options. Or maybe because ‘god could see into my heart’ (a phrase Christians love) and discern that although I thought I was a devout Christian, the seeds of my future atheism had taken root and so I was not to be rewarded. Of course, this whole concept of a god who holds back from healing children just because they or their parents are insufficiently devout is truly horrendous, but religious people never seem to see that aspect of it.

When it comes to faith healers, people like the Pope and all other major religious leaders who do not denounce faith healing as a total fraud are also culpable. By encouraging people to think that god can and will heal those with sufficient faith, they are accomplices to all the faith healers who prey on the gullible.

Because religious leaders are shirking this task, we have to delegate the responsibility of debunking these frauds to comedians like The Chasers.

Why do they hate us?

In an article titled It’s the Occupation, Stupid, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who has been studying terrorism in many countries for a long time, says that the argument that we hear that terrorists hate us for who we are and what we represent, as formulated bt then president George W. Bush that “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other” is simply not true.

New research provides strong evidence that suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance. Although this pattern began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s, a wealth of new data presents a powerful picture.

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation, according to extensive research that we conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, where we examined every one of the over 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to the present day.

Intelligent decisions require putting all the facts before us and considering new approaches. The first step is recognizing that occupations in the Muslim world don’t make Americans any safer — in fact, they are at the heart of the problem.

How religions mainstream insanity

Some time ago, I wrote a post titled Suffer little children about children who are allowed to suffer and even die because of the religious beliefs of their parents. I mentioned the tragic case of a woman Ria Ramkissoon with a child named Javon who in 2006 joined a Christian religious group whose leader, who called herself Queen Antoinette, demanded total obedience from her followers.

Sometime in 2007, Antoinette was angered when Javon did not say ‘Amen’ after his meals (he was just 16 months old at that time). Antoinette said that Javon was a demon and demanded that food be with held from him until he said ‘Amen’, and the mother complied with the order. The child died of starvation. Queen Antoinette said that God would bring Javon back to life but only if they had enough faith, and she ordered everyone to pray. But of course, god did nothing of the sort and as the body began decomposing, Antoinette ordered his body placed inside a suitcase where it was eventually discovered in 2008 in a storage shed.

The mother and the group’s leaders were arrested and tried and in May of 2010 were found guilty of various charges and sentenced. Ria Ramkissoon received 20 years in jail which was suspended for all except the time already served and five years probation, provided she testified against the cult leaders and undergoes long-term deprogramming and psychiatric counseling in a residential facility. As a result of her testimony, Queen Antoinette was sentenced to 50 years in prison, while her daughter Trevia Williams and aide Marcus Cobbs were sentenced to 50 years incarceration, with all but 15 years suspended.

One curiosity about the case was that the mother was willing to plead guilty only on the condition that she be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea in the event that her son was resurrected from the dead. Julie Drake, division chief in the Felony Family Violence Division of the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office and one of those who prosecuted the case, explained the prosecution’s strategy. It makes for interesting reading.

At Ms. Ramkissoon’s insistence, the court agreed that if Javon is resurrected, she can come back to court and withdraw her guilty plea.

Why did I agree to let Ms. Ramkissoon withdraw her guilty plea if Javon is resurrected? If Ms. Ramkissoon’s religious beliefs are correct, and Javon resurrects, it would be legally appropriate. That said, I do not share Ms. Ramkissoon’s religious beliefs, and I believe the likelihood of Javon’s resurrection in my lifetime is too remote to be a concern. I carefully specified on the record that this condition involved resurrection of Javon’s body — not reincarnation into another body.

Why did Ms. Ramkissoon receive probation? There are a number of reasons why one co-defendant receives a more lenient sentence than the others, several of which applied to Ms. Ramkissoon’s case.

First, it was clear to everyone that the central and most culpable defendant in this case was Queen Antoinette. She was the leader of the cult. She issued the order to withhold food and water from Javon. She warned the others not to feed Javon and removed Javon from Ms. Ramkissoon’s control. Our first priority was to convict Queen Antoinette of child abuse and murder and to secure a substantial prison term in her case. In order to do that, it was necessary to obtain eye-witness testimony, and Ms. Ramkissoon was willing to tell the truth.

Second, and equally important, I believe that justice was best served by placing Ms. Ramkissoon in a residential treatment facility rather than in prison. It was clear to everyone who interviewed Ms. Ramkissoon that she had been indoctrinated through classic “brainwashing” techniques into a cult. She had no malice or ill will toward Javon; quite the contrary, she believed Queen Antoinette was acting in his best interests. Nonetheless, she was extremely distraught when Javon began showing signs of distress. After Javon’s death, Ms. Ramkissoon spent weeks by his decomposing body, praying for his resurrection. This was not an individual who was acting out of a classic criminal intent (e.g. malice, anger, desire for revenge or gain), but rather a mother who has and will suffer anguish over the result of her inaction.

Almost everyone who hears about this case will come to the reasonable conclusion that Ramkissoon is insane for believing that there is any chance that her child will be resurrected. They will agree with Drake that she has been brainwashed by the cult. You might expect that Ramkissoon could have even been found not guilty on the basis of insanity. What other explanation could there be for someone who starves to death the child she loves, purely on the orders of someone else claiming to speak for god? But Drake provides an interesting coda on how religious delusions are treated differently from other delusions in court trials.

It should be noted that the main reason Ms. Ramkissoon was not found “not criminally responsible” is because her delusions were of a religious nature and were shared by other people; therefore they could not be classified as a “mental disorder.” (my italics)

Ramkisson’s beliefs are no different from mainstream Christianity. After all, Christians who go to church on Sunday solemnly say the words of the various creeds that outline their fundamental beliefs, all of which include expectations of their own bodily resurrection from the dead. If we consider Ramkissoon to be brainwashed and insane, why don’t we treat all Christians the same way?

This is the problem with religion in a nutshell. To the extent that anyone believes in the resurrection of the dead, they too have been brainwashed, just like Ramkissoon. But because mainstream religious beliefs, even crazy ones, are stamped with the label ‘religion’ and shared by many other people, they are not considered to be mental disorders.

One of the main effects of religion is to launder insane ideas into mainstream acceptance. But in order to do so, religious people have to create a consciously hypocritical world. They have to say they believe in things that one has to be clearly insane to believe in (like that dead bodies will come back to life) while at the same time find ways to discourage those who might actually consider acting on the basis of those beliefs.

No civilized society would be possible if large numbers of people actually acted on the basis of all their religious doctrines. Fortunately for us, civilized societies base their laws largely on science and secular values.